Born in the Fullness of Time

MarySome people question the need to set aside a day to honor Mary, often out of fear that such a remembrance detracts from her son. The ready answer is that it is not possible to focus on Mary without focusing on her son. The title “Mother of God,” exalted as it sounds, does precisely that. Being a mother immediately puts her in relationship with her son and her son in relationship with her. Since Mary was a human mother, Jesus, born of Mary’s womb, was fully a human being. Since Christianity recognizes Jesus to be fully God as well, it follows that being the mother of the human child Jesus entails being the Mother of God.

Jesus, then, was and remains a human being and he is also the one who, as both God and a human being, brought about our salvation. Paul states the matter concretely and succinctly: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 4-5) Paul stresses Jesus’ humanity on three counts: 1) That Jesus came in “the fullness of time,” that is, Jesus was born at a particular time in history, 2) Jesus was born of a particular woman. 3) Jesus was born “under the law.” Being a human being necessarily entails being a part of human culture. The Jewish Law was the backbone of the culture Jesus was born into. Like any other human, Jesus was formed by the Jewish Law and it was out of this formation that he redefined the law in his teachings, especially in Matthew’s Gospel.

Sometimes we are tempted to some envious grumbling when somebody else is elevated above other humans as Mary is elevated by the numerous Marian devotions that have developed over the Christian centuries. But if we are going to honor the son of Mary, we must honor his Mother. Jesus could not have come into the world in any other way than through a particular woman, and Mary was that woman.

As it happens, Mary isn’t really raised above the rest of us human beings. Paul goes on to say that God sent his Son in the fulness of time “in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 5) In the topsy-turvy world that has received God’s incarnate presence, Jesus’ mother was adopted as a daughter of God so that she could be his mother, and this so that the rest of us, too, can be adopted as God’s children. The truth of Jesus’ humanity that is verified by his particular human mother encourages us to accept the truth of our own humanity rather than try to rise above it on our own. When we honor Mary and honor her humanity, her son raises us also to her exalted level. Renouncing envy in favor of admiration leads us to become what we admire. Becoming like Mary means we become like Christ who received his formation both by his heavenly Abba and his earthly mother.

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Church as Family

HolyFamilybyGutierrezAnother set of images of the Church is drawn from family. As with other images, only more so here, there are strengths and weaknesses. Most important, they bring to remembrance our families of origin. If our family experiences are, on balance, good, then the images reinforce that, but if the experiences are seriously bad, then the images become stumbling blocks. These can be at least as hard to overcome as the stumbling blocks parents and/or siblings have put before us, especially in our earliest years. If the latter is the case, we need to remember that healing was a major ministry on the part of Jesus and healing familial brokenness continues to be part of that.

The Fatherhood of God is an important familial image in Christian spirituality as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us every time we say it. But it is important to remember that God is addressed as “Father” (better yet: Papa) by Jesus before God is addressed that way by us. Jesus is alerting us to the paternal care given all of us by God, but God’s paternity comes to us through Jesus. At the Annunciation, the Heavenly Father, who already has begotten the Son from all Eternity, begets the human child in Mary’s womb. As a conscious human, Jesus experienced the love of his Heavenly Father most strongly when he was baptized in the Jordan by John. The voice from Heaven said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This pre-emptive love of the child is fatherhood at its best. It is like the happy parent who is overjoyed with the birth of a child simply because the child is. It is this pre-emptive Love that is the Foundation of the Church, the rock on which the Church is built.

The image of Mother, Jesus’ earthly mother, has often been used as an image for the Church. As a particular flesh-and-blood mother she is Mother Church without being an abstraction. That she would nourish the baby Jesus from her own body makes her a perfect image of nurturing. When confronted with the mysteries surrounding Jesus’ birth, she pondered them in her heart. Little else is told us about her from Scripture but she stood by Jesus at the cross, making her the archetype of many more grieving mothers whose sons have been treated the way her son was. The nurturing we receive from our mothers has a lot to do with having a basic sense of security that helps us resist rivalrous mimetic desire as we grow up. Failures in early nurturing create basic insecurities that are difficult to overcome. The Church as a whole is called to delight in every child and to nurture every child during maturation.

Important as these paternal and maternal relationships are, they belong to Jesus first and to the rest of us secondarily. That is to say, Jesus relates to us as our brother and we are all Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Considering the history of sibling rivalry in scripture, this is of immense significance. Jesus is the keeper of his brother that Abel never had and he is Cain’s keeper as well. In her book Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke discusses the tension and fundamental choice a child is faced with when a sibling is born: whether to compete or to welcome the sibling as “more of me” rather than less. There is no competing with Jesus over mama or papa so we might as well be civil brothers and sisters with him and with each other in the bargain.

There is a curious story in the Gospels that hint of possible tensions even in the Holy Family. Jesus is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside wanting to speak to him. Jesus points to the people who are listening to him and says that they are his mother and brothers and sisters. This indicates that even during his lifetime, Jesus is building a kinship network based not on bloodlines but on obedience to God’s Desire. There are people from broken families who find family through the Church. (Here I mean Church in the broadest sense! Where this nurturing takes place, there is Church, when it doesn’t, there is no church.) Building deep kinship ties through Jesus happens when we allow Jesus to bring us into the arms of his Mother and the Presence of the Heavenly Father who is so well-pleased with us that our hearts melt and we really want to be pleasing to our brothers and sisters.

Unwrapping the Future

crecheThe yearly cycle of celebrations and commemorations adds solidarity to our experience of time. Christmas, a holiday especially laden with traditions, is a particularly strong anchor, assuring us that everything is as it should be for all eternity. Amen.

One of the traditions of Christmas, however, is the giving of charity. That is a very good thing, considering the needs for generosity, and it helps that once a year, people have a custom of dwelling on such matters. But the need for such charitable giving suggests that not everything is as it should be. If huge efforts by charitable organizations have to be made to assure that no child is deprived of a Christmas, then obviously there are serious social problems that need to be addressed. That is, this cozy traditional holiday poses a challenge for the future.

Manger scenes with the new-born Jesus lying in the straw tug the hearts of many and have been a focus of devotion since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the custom in the twelfth century.  But the whole point of this nativity story is that Jesus was born in the stable because nobody had room for his mother, father, and himself. This is not business as usual. It raises the question: do we really have room for Jesus in our lives? Do we really have room for all the children being born and for their families?

The angel announced to the shepherds proclaimed that this newborn child was the savior, the Lord who was going to usher in a new era of peace. That may sound innocent when we hear this read in church today, but at the time, the Caesar thought he was the savior and he didn’t have room for somebody else to do his job! Of course, he was a savior and keeper of the peace his way, with military and cultural might. The story of the shepherds, then, challenges us to consider who really is our savior and the model of peace for us. Do we keep peace the imperial way though violence to keep everybody in line? We don’t have to have imperial armies to take this approach. All it takes is a drive to control people, by force if necessary. Or do we follow peace Jesus’ way, through vulnerability as a newborn child all the way to the cross and then the Resurrection where Jesus creates peace through forgiveness.

A major cog in the engine of Caesar’s peace in Jesus’ neck of the woods was King Herod. Killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem may not look like a peaceful action, but Herod was keeping the peace, imperial style. Most of us may think Herod a bit extreme, but if we are willing to sacrifice anybody who seems to threaten our control of life, especially the young, we are going the way of Herod, the way of Caesar. Jesus, although he had the power to send legions of angels against Herod, remained vulnerable, dependent on human protection until the time came to suffer the fate the boys of Bethlehem suffered.

All of this may be a downer for a joyful holiday, but the good news is that Christmas is a yearly wakeup call for renewal of life, a renewal fueled by the divine energy of a human child born over two thousand years ago. Everything that was wrong with the world at the time is wrong with the world now and a lot more. We can keep on going in circles if we want, but we have the chance to step off the not-so-merry-go-round and embrace the Christ Child. We will find that the Christ Child has a gift for us. If we dare to open it up, it is a gift for an open future that we can have if we really want it.

See also, Celebrating the Prince of Peace and The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh

Mary’s Blessedness, Everybody’s Blessedness

MaryMary has been both deified and vilified. It seems the main reason she has been vilified is precisely because she has been deified. The dogma of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, traditionally celebrated by Roman Catholics on this day, tends to suggest deification and thus provoke a corresponding denigration. Why should this particular Jewish girl be raised to such heights? Sound theology has always been clear that Mary was a human being and not a deity. Any glorification of her is a glorification of her divine son who gave his mother whatever glory that she has. Like the rest of the world, Christianity has had its superstars who are put on a pedestal and everybody on a pedestal draws detraction as a matter of course.

Mary’s real glory is that she was a human being every much as the rest of us. That is, she was and is a Jewish girl. Mary is, of course, inseparable from the Incarnation of the Word in her womb. Although Mary’s son was (and is) divine, Jesus was (and is) fully human, like you and me. In his excellent book Sheer Grace, Drasko Dizdar says that Mary, far from being a deity or demigod, “is the utterly and simply human subversion of this deification of human “archetypes” into the divine feminine.’” This is what the famous words of Mary in the Magnificat are all about when she says God “has cast down the mighty from their seats and has lifted up the lowly.” If such words simply mean other people become just as mighty as the ones who were cast down, then the words change nothing for humanity. The ones who are raised up are lowly and continue to be raised up only by remaining lowly. The proud are scattered in the “imagination of their hearts.” The rich are sent away empty because their hearts are too full of their desires to have room for God. What is so subversive about Mary, then, is her humanity. While other humans try to make themselves more than human by being movers and shakers, Mary is blessedly content to be human. As Dizdar says, Mary is a whole human being “as God has always intended the human creature to be as creature.”

Throughout, the Magnificat is a song of praise of God, not of Mary herself. All generations call her blessed because of what God has done. Mary only did what every human being should do, rarely as it actually happens: She said “Yes;” she didn’t say “Maybe,” or “No.” Saying “Yes” is what is so extraordinary about Mary. If this simple response makes her so singular among human beings, it only shows how the rest of us fail to be human beings. Far from isolating herself, Mary proclaims her solidarity with all God’s people, the promise made to all Abraham’s children.

Does all this relegate the belief in the Assumption of Mary to mere mythology that must be discarded in our modern age? Not at all, if we open our hearts to the Love God shows to the created world in its sheer materiality. Dizdar says that God’s love “is so concrete (‘body’) and complete (‘and’ soul’) that it draws into itself (‘assumes’) our happily (‘blessed’), sovereignly free (‘virgin’) and simple, created humanity “(‘Mary’), into the very life of God (‘heaven’).”  If we glorify Mary for an allegedly singular grace or denigrate her for allegedly getting “special treatment,” we only show how readily we project our rivalrous desires on Mary and God. Far from being a special grace, the Assumption is God’s invitation to all of us to enter the depths of our created humanity that God loves unconditionally.