Angels and the City

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According to Scripture, our first explicit encounter with the angels was after the expulsion from Paradise. We faced the Cherubim with their burning swords standing at its gate. We were no longer welcome. Between us and Paradise these august spirits flourished the “word of God … living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hb. 4,12) This should give us pause to reflect upon Paradise and the angels, and our relationship to both.

The Garden of Eden was planted by God “in the east.” (Gn. 2,8) It was to be the place for man to “grow and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” (1,28) The symbolic “east” suggests that we were created close to our origin, God – theologically put, in the state of grace. Through the ensuing trial of our love, God planned to accept us into the fullness of his glory that we might “dwell with him.” But this abode would have to be freely chosen by submitting to God’s will regarding the mysterious Tree of Knowledge. It would not be forced upon us. We know only too well the outcome of this trial, but let us consider the Garden for a moment. We were driven from it, but – and this is the good part – the rest of sacred history is, to a large extent, the account of how God has managed to reconfigure our relationship to him, and to this his dwelling-place.

The river of grace that flowed “out of Eden to water the Garden” (Gn. 2,10) divided into four rivers. (It bears reminding that here, early in Genesis–as will also be the case late in the New Testament, in the Apocalypse–that we are in the presence of events and realities so primordial, or in the Apocalypse, so eschatological, that only symbolic and “mythical” language can venture near them. But unlike most myths and symbols of the pagan world, what are referenced here are concrete times and places, and truths as solid as those of history. They are just too distant and unfamiliar to be described in literal terms.)

Thus, God’s first home for us was to be a Garden bounded by four symbolic rivers. We still live by preference in four-sided houses and rooms; we still speak of the four directions, the four elements, the four moral virtues, the four temperaments, and so on. God’s grace had originally constituted us in a state of perfect order and harmony, symbolized by this Garden of four rivers, supernaturally surrounding and sustaining our natural, quaternal structure.

After having proven our love and obedience by following the divine ordinance regarding the Tree of Knowledge, we would eventually have been admitted to the inner sanctuary of his glory. We would have joined the highest angels in a life of praise inconceivable to our minds today. But that plan was frustrated, and by the willful interference of our own disobedience. We foolishly chose to “understand” evil by doing it. But doing evil brings darkness, not light. Only a saint can understand sin. As Fulton Sheen once said, there is only one thing on earth you don’t learn more about through experience, and that is sin.

The infinite God, however, is not easily frustrated. After our fall from grace, he immediately opened the stores of a divine “reserve plan.” Thus began the much longer, but to all appearances, much more glorious design of our Redemption and Sanctification. The promise regarding Mary has already been mentioned. We shall now pick up the story where it foreshadows the rebuilding of a created sanctuary where God’s majesty can once again dwell. This would be our only hope to finally get past those sharp, Cherubic swords. The sanctuary will evolve through history in stages of progressive blueprints, from the Ark of Noah to the Ark of the Covenant, from the Tabernacle in the desert to the Temple in the city, from what will come to be known as the Church, and then on to its consummate configuration in the New Jerusalem.

When we fell, and the Cherubim stood suddenly and sternly at the gates of our lost home, that home itself seemed to withdraw into the sky. Some mystics claimed to have sighted it on a high mountain. Dante put it in the Southern Hemisphere, still imagined as a highland of sun and treasure to the medieval mind. It may be more theologically coherent if we simply picture it as withdrawing into the choirs of the angels, out of reach of all our towers of Babel. (Gn. 11) The Earth is too fragile for glory quite yet. After all, we were left “to till the ground from which we were taken” (Gn. 3,23), that is, the state of material nature, and a wounded nature at that.

High in the choirs of angels, the former Garden of Paradise is being refashioned, so to speak, into the future Holy City, the New Jerusalem. One day it will descend upon the earth as the final dwelling place of God with his creation. Much of the language used is of course figurative. The “descent” of the City may simply refer to the progressive sanctification and transformation of the world as we know it. Cosmic annihilation does not figure in God’s plans. The cosmos will be changed, but certainly not destroyed. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now.” (Rm. 8, 19-22)

We read about that final consummation at the very end of the last book of the Bible: “Behold, I make all things new.” (Apoc. 21, 5); and “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” (23,3) That celestial metropolis, full of angelic occupants, is glimpsed at times by the prophets of the Old Covenant under other figures, such as the “Chariot of God.” (cf. Ezekiel 1) But long before it begins its symbolic descent, “coming down out of heaven from God” (Apoc. 21,2), we, in the meantime, are being primed for our new habitat. By following instructions on building small dwellings on earth – as if in miniature imitation of that celestial abode – we begin to relearn what it means to dwell with God.

With the building of Noah’s ark (Gn. 6), a dimly perceived historical fact rises before our eyes, still nestled in the symbolic ambience of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Here is the first post-paradisiacal dwelling place for God’s children. But it is still, like the primordial chaos (Gn. 1,1-2), “moving over the face of the waters.” Only with Abraham (Gn. 12ff.) does the promise of solid land give assurance that the divine dwelling will indeed gain new foothold in creation.

Later on, God will say to Moses: “Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in your midst.” (Ex. 25,8) And on Mount Sinai, Moses is shown the archetypal dwelling in heaven that is to be the model for the tabernacle on earth. “And you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it which has been shown you on the mountain.” (26,30) Accordingly, instead of the four rivers, we have the four sides of the tabernacle; later with Solomon, the four-sided Temple of Sion will become the great Old Testament mock-up of God’s future dwelling among men. The whole of the Old Testament Covenant revolves around this divine architecture and the exercize of the cult God ordains to be performed within it.

Through its infidelity to the Law and its whoring after false gods, the Chosen People will largely be unable to recognize Christ as Emmanuel, God-with-us. They will collaborate in destroying him and his body as thoroughly as the Roman Emperor was to destroy the actual Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70. But before Our Lord entered the Passion and submitted to this death, he had taken his Apostles into the four-walled room of the Cenacle and instituted the Sacrifice of the New Covenant in his Blood. That first Christian assembly became the model for all the churches to come, and the true successor of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Here, through the Eucharist, God was to be present in an altogether new way. By now entering the temple of the human body–with its four humors, four temperaments, four members and a soul destined to perfection in the four moral virtues–the final preparation for God’s definitive dwelling among men was underway. His mysteriously glorified body was to be made even more mysteriously present in the new “showbread” (Ex. 25,30) of the Christian liturgy.

The Church and its greatest treasure, the Holy Eucharist, continues and perfects the work of the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Sion. All these were new terrestrial dwelling places for the God who had been banished from his own creation by sin. But the Holy Eucharist, which is Christ himself, is the definitive building block for his final and Apocalyptical dwelling in the coming new creation.

Cherubim stood with their “flaming swords which turned every way” at the gates of Paradise. Cherubim were also carved at the two sides of the Mercy-Seat in the Temple, there where God spoke to man. (Ex. 25, 18-21) The Mass too begins with the sword of the word, in which God speaks to man in the Liturgy of the Word. But now, with Christ we can pass right through the sword’s edge of those words into the intimacy of the sanctuary. We can turn with confidence to the angels in the Preface (“with angels and archangels”)–although, significantly, only lower angels, below the Cherubim, are mentioned–as we pass on to the Consecration.

Likewise, before the Church receives the full perfection of the New Jerusalem, she too will have to turn to the angels in the mysteries of the Apocalypse. And that means experiencing Our Lord’s promise that “he will send out the angels, and gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mk. 13,26) And as for the purification, he insists that it is the angels who will perform these last works of his Church’s cleansing and “gather out of his Kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.” (Mt. 13,41)

The entire book of the Apocalypse can be seen as a working out of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection on the global level. The whole Church suffers the full fury of hell, apparently dies, and then, suddenly, rises from the dead just as dramatically as did Jesus on Easter Morning. But this time it is his whole Mystical Body that rises:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men’. . . And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Apoc. 21, 1-3,5)

We have already seen how angel, man, and material creation each have their part to play in the new order of creation. The very measures of the Heavenly City’s walls are, in the words of Scripture, “a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s.” (Apoc. 21,17) If it’s the same measure, either humans will have become more angelic, or angels more human (or both). At the very least, man and angel will have united in their common praise of Christ, and the voices of the material creation will likewise be ingathered into the fullness of that praise.

From my forthcoming book, The Other World We Live In, Angelico Press, 2021. Printed with permission.

So Much We Don’t See

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Before talking about angels, we should be reminded that a consideration of invisible realities need hardly be arcane, or the subject-matter as “supernatural” as one might suspect. Reflect, for a moment, on a few dimensions of the world we take to be quite real, but cannot pick up with our senses:

1) spatially: there is far more world, more cosmos, out there than your eyes can even approximately capture–immeasurably more. This is true whether we limit ourselves to the expanse of the Earth or include the more than one trillion galaxies currently spotted in our universe. That vast context, though unseen, both contains and conditions what you do see and experience. And these veiled immensities you accept without ever viewing them, and you are right in doing so.

2) chronologically: there are thousands of years of past time–and if we think geologically, millions–which you cannot now experience, or even remember, and yet which have profoundly influenced your world, and all that is in it. Beyond this, of course, lies our unpredictable future, even more out of view. All this you also accept as real (or soon to be so), although it’s never been a part of your sensory experience.

3) scientifically: we accept as a matter of fact that there are quadrillions of atoms buzzing within us and around us, but we can’t see a single one of them. Even light we actually never see in its own right; we see things in light, but the light itself (along with all other forms of electromagnetic radiation) never slips as such into our field of vision. We also promptly answer our cell phones, firmly convinced of the existence of highways of invisible radiation passing between them and our interlocutors.

But nothing drives this home more dramatically than the fact that for decades astrophysicists have been cautioning us that the vaunted conquests of modern science have only shown us about 5% of all the material reality that exists; the other 95%–so-called “dark matter and energy”–still remains largely unidentified. Nonetheless, this invisible world has an enormous impact–as to gravity and acceleration, I am told–on the modest 5% that we do (more or less) understand.

Thus, on a material basis alone, any scientifically enlightened view of reality must concede that beyond the tiny slice of cosmos we are able to perceive, there is incalculably more that is unseen. And despite its invisibility–whether intrinsic or due to circumstance–we tranquilly and confidently affirm its existence.

Now add to all this a fourth, and even more emphatically undisputed fact:

4) Virtually all of known historical cultures and religions have accepted the existence of one sort or another of subtle material or completely immaterial beings, usually of a personal nature. Among countless others, we read of hierarchies of Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, Nordic, Indian, Chinese, Andean or Meso-American gods, along with sprites, genies, fairies, elemental spirits, kamis and an almost limitless variety of minor deities. Only a small number of traditional skeptics of the past, and (of course) a large number of today’s confessional materialists have ever disputed this. These latter have become quite vocal in the last couple of centuries.

The irony is that contemporary nay-sayers inevitably call on modern science to underwrite this twilight of the gods. But despite their appeals, recent physics is often more skeptical about the solidity of the matter these doubters confide in, than about the reality of the spirits they impugn. And even more telling is the fact that science and faith, contrary to expectations, find themselves joining hands and agreeing on one incontrovertible fact: the totality of all that exists contains far more than what we can see and touch with our senses, explain with our reason, or even detect with our most sophisticated instruments. Far from coddling us in our doubts about spirits, today’s science gives us even less warrant than in centuries past for excluding the angels from our conspectus of reality.

From my forthcoming book, The Other World We Live In, Angelico Press, 2021. Printed with permission.

Melchizedek and the Magi

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Two seemingly peripheral figures in the pages of Scripture look somewhat enigmatic when viewed alone. But they begin to glow with meaning when considered together. In contrast to the two towering protagonists – Abraham and Christ – who stand at the center of the main Old and New Testament stories, these two ostensibly minor figures are totally subsidiary; members, one might say, of the supporting cast. Still, for a few moments, their episodes in the overall narrative almost steal the show.

No one is more decisive for the whole Old Testament story than the patriarch of patriarchs, Abraham. Three world religions are often termed “Abrahamic” because of the founding importance they give to this man and his deeds. Genesis 12-25 tells of grand occurrences in his life, such as his journey to Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees, his battles with formidable foes, the great Promise he receives, the miraculous pregnancy of his aged wife and the mysterious Sacrifice he was summoned to make but prevented from performing – all of these stand in high profile as we meditate upon the man Christians have come to call the “Father of our Faith.”

From Abraham’s loins will come the Chosen People, and for Christians finally the Church. Understanding him to be the great father, the point of departure of the story of salvation, would seem to be compromised by placing anyone else over and above him. However, this does seem to happen in a couple of verses (18-20) in chapter 14:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abraham] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by God most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

No more mention is made of this mysterious figure in the Old Testament. Or almost none. There is an exception in one striking poetic reference in Psalm 110. It is brief, but it blows open the implications of this king/priest who intrudes almost illogically into the Abrahamic narrative:

“…From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'”

Christian theologians have struggled to understand this “order,” this sacerdotal lineage, prior to and thus superior to the Levitical line which still lay in the loins of Abraham. What seemed most logical was to identify Melchizedek as a figure of Christ. That might have been enough. However, the Letter to the Hebrews only adds to the mystery in its chapters 5-7. Anyone who takes the New Testament seriously has to give due attention to what is written there. For example:

“…He [Melchisedek] is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days, nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever. See how great he is!…” (Hb. 7, 3-4)

Some Hebrew traditions identified him with Shem, son of Noah, whose descendents would indeed include Christ himself. Sounds promising, but unfortunately we know Shem’s geneology all too well, whereas Melchizedek is supposedly without one. Again, some early Christian theologians assumed he was a pre-Incarnational epiphany of Christ himself. But if there is a “pre-Incarnational” Christ at work in the ancient world, this will inevitably open up a number of questions regarding non-Christian religions, most notably the most developed and primordial religions of the East.

From other quarters, esoteric speculations have identified Melchizedek with everyone from Hermes Trismegistus to Enoch and even Zoroaster. Documents are too scarce to confirm or give the lie to any of these identifications. But their variety does give witness to what everyone senses: whoever Melchizedek was, he was extraordinarily important.

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The Biblical dramas – from both Old and New Testaments – do not unfold in Europe. From the beginning to the end they occur in the East, or in what is certainly to the east of the region that will one day be known as Europe. Even Eden was “in the east” (Gn. 2,8), and after the Fall, the cherubim were placed “at the east of the garden of Eden…to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3,24) Of course, St. Paul will venture across the Aegean and finally to Rome, but by then the Gospel drama will have achieved its climax. Paul was just a courrier of the resultant message. Otherwise, the furthest westward reaches take us only to Egypt – both with the Hebrews themselves before the Occupation and the Holy Family before Nazareth. But few will call ancient Egypt a part of the “West,” however defined.

When surveying the great surges of philosophy and religion that emerged from Greece and Palestine, we don’t always take into consideration the degree of commerce and contact between the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian, Indian and even Chinese worlds beyond. The singularity – indeed, the “exceptionalism” – of both Greek science and art, on the one hand, and Jewish and Christian religion and morals, on the other, can still maintain their profile within the context of a robust east-west cultural osmosis. But the significance of the East has recently moved into new prominence due to modern contact with India and China, and with still evolving research into the common legacies and interactive influences between them and the West.

We are told that Melchizedek was the “king of Salem,” that is “king of peace,” which could mean a particular place or quite possibly a supernatural function. Whether or not Melchisedek actually hailed from east of Canaan, he certainly comes from the fountainhead of all religion, “without father or mother or genealogy,” and in that sense from a symbolic East. When we turn, however, to the Magi in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we stand clearly before representatives of the geographical Orient.

Countries as diverse as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and even India have claimed them as their own. As always happens with world-changing but mysterious events, traditions and legends have grown apace, with the number of the Magi varying from three to a dozen or more; some will locate the current resting place of their relics near Tehran, others in Cologne. They’ve been given names and grown into integral figures of the Christmas manger scene. Consensus tends to identify them as Zoroastrians from Persia, or, perhaps more likely, as Chaldean astrologers from Abraham’s original home. Back then, astronomy and astrology were so interlocked that any separation of the movements and the meaning of the stars was unthinkable. The behavior of some of those stars indicated to them that a king was to be born in the west.

These Oriental outsiders were allowed to see and venerate the Messiah before a single Pharisee, Sadducee, Scribe or Priest of the Chosen People could even get close.  And the visit of these men from the East would unwittingly cause the Holy Family to move to the west, to Egypt (thanks to Herod). Decades later, St. Paul would also go west, but the Apostle St. Thomas would go east, all the way to India. With him, followed by subsequent waves of Syrian missionaries, Christianity would bring its graces and grow in Asia long before ever becoming a “European” religion.

Later Portuguese missionaries would change that, of course, and the crucial contributions of St. Paul and then of Greek philosophy and Roman law would enter instrumentally into the formulations and organization of Christian faith throughout the world. But in the East this would only come after more than a millenium of Asian Christianity had told its story to eternity. The now often forgotten Christianity of the East and its legacy is at least as important as the one we Westerners identify as our own. Both Melchizedek and the Magi may have a lot to teach us if we have the good fortune of meeting them in the afterlife. *

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The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age, by Philip Jenkins (HarperOne, 2008) is a good guide to what we have forgotten.

On the Meticulous Ritual of New Year

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Even in my adopted country of Brazil, where a massively endemic unpunctuality rules the land, nearly every soul will be awake, seconds before midnight on Dec. 31, glaring at a clock and scrupulously chanting the countdown to the new civil year. Beginnings of church services, school classes and appointments of all sorts are missed by margins of an hour or more, but the beginning of the new secular year is hit with bull’s-eye precision. The difference between 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 00:00:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 is greeted as a magical and rapturous transfiguration, whereas the difference between Advent and Christmas has all but vanished; and the line between Lent and Easter has faded away as well. The amoeba-like spread of Carnival festivities bears some relationship to Lent, it is true, but Ash Wednesday usually slips (along with the rest of the liturgical year) into the long shadow of Fat Tuesday.

The reason for this is simple. When religion declines, religiosity remains – it just shifts its abode; when transcendence is no longer believed in, the immanent world becomes the shaky support for cult and adoration. Thus we lavish with worshipful devotion and obsessively punctual observance the bland instant in which a 2019 becomes a 2020. It doesn’t even fall on the solstice!

And the ritual is coveted, almost addictively, because we are missing a defining time-marker still inherent in our culture: the cut-off nature of the date of December 25, when the Christ Child is laid in the manger for the first time since last year’s Christmas (instead of being seen in the shopping centers since October), with a neat and dramatic sundering of Christmastide from Advent, and cheerful Christmas songs replacing the longing, wistful Advent tunes sung before the Coming; or, three months later, the chill down one’s spine as a church is totally darkened and the lumen Christi, in the form of one sole candle, enters the sanctuary, followed by dozens of flames in its train. That explosion of light, like a sudden sunrise, begins the Easter vigil. All these soul-filling moments are gone, and accordingly, we lust after secular surrogates.

When holy days become holidays, otherwise uplifting days become “days off,” and our orphaned religious instincts look elsewhere for their rules and rubrics. Religious hymns no longer sung?  How about a national anthem at a sports match, with hands on heart and tears in the eyes (in Brazil, they are actually called national hymns). Tithes all gone?  Let’s declare our income tax before the mystical date of April 30. Forgotten how to pray?  Try intoning one of the politically correct buzzwords of our day and watch the heads bow in reverence. Or maybe blaspheme a bit (after all, it’s just prayer in drag; how many times do you hear “Oh my God!” during the week?).

Now I am not discouraging New Year’s festivities – once-a-year punctuality is better than never (speaking here especially to Brazilians), and the solar (or lunar) year’s inauguration is a hoary tradition that deserves respect. So let us lift a glass indeed. But as we countdown the last gasps of our civil year, let us briefly recall that one day – soon – we will be countdowning our own last gasps, and all those neglected holy days of the year will prove to have been far better training for that final transition than the confetti and champagne of January 1. This New Year could possibly be our Last Year, and our connection with lasting things be far more vital than our distracting innovations. Even though we propose to hail the new and to salute the promises of the future, we are still haunted by the perennial and ancient. “Auld Lang Syne,” after all, simply means “long, long ago.”

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Feast of the Restless Family

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Each time we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, I am reminded of my trip to Egypt, several years ago, and the visits I paid to a few of the multiple Coptic Christian sites dedicated to that Family. The Flight to Egypt (only mentioned by St. Matthew) does receive abundant attention from Christian art, and counts as one of Mary’s Sorrows in the Catholic tradition. It is otherwise somewhat overlooked in the Western church – at least if one is to judge from the prominence it predictably achieved in Egypt. No less than 14 Egyptian sites commemorate that momentous visit with chapels or churches. These mark the resting spots or temporary abodes of the Holy Family as they followed that other Joseph who had also entered Egypt against his will, one and a half millennia before. In due course, they would also follow Moses out of it, although this time they would be carrying the Holy Land with them, in the Child Jesus, rather than looking for it on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.

The sweet peace of the manger scene can lull us into a deceptive comfort. We all love to “be home for Christmas,” but the occasion of our holiday is the commemoration of a homelessness of the most cruel variety. The dirty stall and smelly animals we festoon with colored lights in our domestic manger scenes served as a brief and temporary shelter for these three fugitives. We easily forget the turmoil that followed upon the unexpected pregnancy, and the massacre of innocents brought on by three Eastern star-gazers only asking directions to Bethlehem. The Family’s years in Egypt – the Copts count seven – like the four centuries of the long sojourn of their ancestors, must have been more formative than we tend to imagine.

Jesus would have started to talk in the land of the Nile, and some of the first sights caught by his boyish eyes would be pyramids and pharaonic temples. When safety permits, today’s tourists love to tour Egypt’s exotic monuments and marvel at this culture that has sired a whole science (egyptology). But for Mary and Joseph it must have been more foreboding than fascinating. What thoughts must have gone through the mind of the boy Jesus as his young memory was stocked with these images of the mysterious land of the pharoahs. But somehow it all makes sense. As the Jews became a people in Egypt, and the Old Testament became a book in Babylonia, here too it seems that God often does his “best work'” when his chosen ones are in exile.

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Et Verbum infans factum est (and the Word was made an infant)

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When you look into the eyes of an infant, you see someone who sees something you are no longer able to see. The orbs are clear, free of self-reflection, looking outward at the world as it really is, unclouded by disguise and interpretation (even when they are looking at you – a slightly unsettling thought). Recent studies in child psychology have confirmed what the world’s traditions have always taught, namely, that children know things that get forgotten in the throes of misguided education and the tumult of adolescence.

By the time we are adults, we dismiss those sweet little gazes as childish naivete that will soon have to measure up to the ‘real’ world. But we are wrong. True, Christ does not admonish us to remain children, but he does insist we become like children; and it is that childlike innocence that is held up as a spiritual goal. Still – and this we too often forget – becoming childlike also means knowing certain things only children know. (Take another look at the baby’s face before continuing to read.)

The Incarnation of God is not the work of one more in a series of avatars. Those ‘descended manifestations’ do, in Hinduism, what angels and prophets do in the Bible: they ‘come down’ (the root meaning of avatar), teach or reveal for a while, and then return to whence they came, like the angels; or they speak forth the deep things of God, like the prophets. If an angel takes on the form of a human being, it is only a temporary vehicle, soon to be cast off once the mission is accomplished. They are not God, and do not become man. Prophets are men already, and never become God. In fact, the impossibility of this last is perhaps their most frequent prophetic injunction.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is certainly the most momentous claim ever made about the fabled Logos. For those who believe it – and nothing is more germane to bare Christian faith – it is a fact so objective, so metaphysical and so severe, it could only become  a scandal (a tripping stone) on which all the world would lose its footing. It bespeaks a God who is not, as most atheists and too many believers hold, just the biggest being in the universe, but rather Transcendent Being Itself. And it bespeaks a human nature that carries an abyss within itself that only such a Being could fill.

You cannot explain the beauty of music by mathematics alone, nor can you account for the look on that baby’s face (take another look) by survival of the fittest alone. Man is a mystery, and his soul is open – both intellectually and volitionally – to the infinite. Into that parabolic opening of the human mystery the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took its own nature, producing the event in time that marked the year zero, and made the “God Who Is” into the Man of Sorrows.  God became man in a full human nature. And since that nature does not exist, as does God’s, in the ever-present moment, it is spread over time and unfolded in space. And like all things in time and space, it begins small, as a child.

In the decades and centuries following Christ’s Ascension, the colossal events of Holy Week and Easter lost some of the edge of their first shock, and the early Christians began to put that Paschal Mystery into context. They pondered the backstory of the early years of the man who died and rose from the dead. Mary was queried more than anyone, and further witnesses of the birth, infancy and youth of Jesus offered their recollections as well. Much of this found its way into the Gospels.

Slowly the story of Christ’s Nativity came into full focus, as it became clear that the fullness of the Godhead already resided in the tiny child lying in the manger. Surrounded by shepherds, overlooked by angels, soon to be hounded by a murderous monarch and visited by mysterious magi from the East, the story of Christmas became the beloved domestic tale we all know so well. It inspired even its secular counterparts in the yuletide midwinter traditions of the north, with all the magical trees of life and festooned colored lights we see each December. But nothing prepared the world’s religious imagination for this last divine wonder: that out of the sweet face of a tiny infant, the God who created the cosmos and hurled the world into a new context by his death and resurrection, would gaze at us, and love us, and lose nothing either of his infinite power as God or of his disarming delicacy as a Child.

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The Silent Night of Fecundity

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Easter is dramatic, and the narrative from Palm Sunday to the Ascension is laden with more twists and turns and ups and downs than anything Aeschylus or even Shakespeare could think up. And there is noise—from the cheers of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to the jeers of his crucifixion; even the earth quaked at the Resurrection.  On Pentecost, too, “a sound came from heaven,” and soon multiple tongues were filling the air with proclamations of the message that would change the world for ever.  When we come to Christmas, however, there is silence.

Long before the unsettling drama and glory of Easter and the vocal responsibilities of Pentecost, we find a hushed atmosphere around the manger of Bethlehem. And yet something equally moving is before us.  When a child is born, we are urged to be still; the child cannot talk, and adults find themselves to be tongue-tied, or reduced to imitating high-pitch baby blather. And so it is with Christmas. For the mystery of the night Christ was born is a night of the Father, as much as Easter was a morning of the Son and Pentecost a day of the Spirit.

The Father is God in his most recondite and ineffable recesses. He is the mystery before whom we ultimately fall silent. But also in the face of every newborn child we see a mystery that makes us gaze and wonder. At Christmas, God ordained to show his very own power and glory in the face of the Christ-Child. And what is the mystery in this face? What is this secret of the Father?

It is, I submit, fecundity. Whenever we wander close to the matrix of a new human life, we are in the presence of a power far beyond us. Our words falter, and in desperation, even turn vulgar (don’t our worst profanities all have to do with procreation?). This is why we have always instinctively felt that sex ought not to be discussed in the open, not because it is bad, but because it is too good and too near to God’s own trinitarian mystery to be entrusted to our careless words.

The eternal Birth of the Son in the Spirit is the very mystery of the Trinity. The Son’s temporal birth in Bethlehem marks the beginning of the mystery of  Redemption, and that mystery is extended through history only when we allow him to be born also in us. Christmas is all about birth, buds of life and babies. It reminds us that God is alive and that love of life is the beginning of love of God. And only silence has space enough to accommodate the immensity of the miracle.

One day this boy will begin to speak, but the greater part of his time on Earth will be passed in silence, beginning in Nazareth and even during his years of preaching. The sermons of Jesus were not frequent. It’s true that a good number of his words were remembered by the apostles and evangelists and passed on to us in the Gospels; but they were just sparks from the Fire that he was, a divine Fire that only shown for a spell on Earth because it shines forever in eternity. And its supreme mystery is this silent fecundity, like the burning bush in the desert of Sinai, that burned but was never consumed. More important than the words Christ spoke was the Word that he was. Everything worth saying is said in the Being of him who is Truth itself.

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