Sunday, December 20, 2009

C: Advent IV

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-49

When I traveled to England in 2005, I needed to live for three weeks out of one carry-on size suitcase. So I bought some of those special plastic bags that allow you to put articles of clothing in them and then squeeze all the air out and compress the contents so they take up a lot less space in your suitcase than they normally would. The same sort of thing happens when you download software over the internet—it comes in a “compressed” format, and before you can install the new program onto your computer, you have to “unzip” it, and let its contents expand into a usable form, just like you have to unzip the special plastic bag and fluff up the sweater before you can put it on.

We actually see the same thing in nature, only in a much more complex and wonderful form. Imagine a simple acorn. It’s a small thing, kind of a nuisance, actually, if you’re trying to maintain landscaping in the vicinity of an oak tree. Yet, within each acorn is the genetic blueprint and the initial raw material for every detail of a great oak tree. An acorn is, in effect, a “compressed” oak tree that is waiting to be “unzipped” and “installed.”

These images provide a sort of interpretive lens through which to view a very special meeting, a meeting between two pregnant women, Mary the expectant mother of Jesus and Elizabeth the expectant mother of John the Baptist. Mary, who has just learned of her pregnancy, makes a rather arduous journey to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who is nearly into her third trimester. As Luke’s gospel tells the story, when Mary came into Elizabeth’s presence, the fetal John the Baptist did a little dance inside his mother’s belly. It was a moment of great symbolic spiritual importance.

Pregnancy, of course, is an experience that focuses the attention of everyone concerned on how a complex and unknown future is “compressed,” miniaturized, in a developing pre-born infant, which is the palpable (if not yet visible!) sign, a sort of model, of a life that will soon be “unzipped.” A parent looks at that first ultrasound image and sees a toddler taking her first step, a kindergartener on the first day of school, a Little League ball player, a teenager with his first car, high school and college graduations, and a bride walking down the aisle—all of that compressed into the growing fetus, the way an oak tree is compressed into an acorn.

The visit of Mary to Elizabeth, then, is that much and so much more. It is that much written in block capital letters and blazing with neon. The visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth is not just about the two mothers and their unborn sons. It’s about the future of the human race, the fate of the entire world. We will sing an ancient hymn after Holy Communion that speaks of God being moved by “sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe…” The whole initiative that God takes, and which we celebrate during this holy season, is about rescuing us from that curse, delivering us from the certain doom that is ours if no action is taken. And “jumping John the Baptist” is a sign—to his mother, to Mary, and to us—a sign that recognizes and celebrates God’s gracious action on our behalf.

Now I’m going to ask you to take this mental picture of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth—this meeting that means so much more than what it literally is—take your mental image of the meeting and lay it to one side for a moment, and turn your attention with me to the epistle reading from Hebrews, and then we’ll come back and tie the two together. The author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 40 these words: “a body you have prepared for me.” A body you have prepared for me. He was using that quotation to help support the intricate argument he was making about the high priestly ministry of Christ, pleading on our behalf—your behalf and mine—pleading our case before the Father as both priest and victim. But when we set this quotation from Hebrews side by side with the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, we’re able to see something quite wonderful going on here. The body of Christ is being formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All that we understand by that expression “body of Christ” is compressed in the womb of a Jewish teenager from an obscure village in Galilee.

So let’s unzip the file, shall we? What do we see?

First, we see the physical Body of Christ being formed. It is a body that will be the vehicle through which many, many people are blessed, but, more than anything else, it is a body that will be offered in sacrifice. One of the gifts that the Wise Men brought to the infant Jesus was myrrh. Myrrh is a fragrant spice, and its principal use in the ancient world was to anoint dead bodies prior to burial. So, virtually from the very moment of his birth, the body of Christ was marked for sacrifice. The physical “body of Christ” fulfills its purpose in nothing other than being offered as a ransom for many. In an oblique way, the calendar of the season confronts us with just that reality. Three days after Christmas is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children of Bethlehem who were put to the sword by King Herod in a vain attempt to exterminate the one he perceived as a threat to his kingdom. In the midst of our Christmas rejoicing, blood is shed, and we know that the body of the One whose birth we celebrate will have the blood drained from it on our behalf.

The second thing we see when we unzip the file of Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth is the mystical Body of Christ being formed—a body to manifest and display the Incarnation until the “day of the Lord,” until the end of history. That body is, of course, the Church. In the Christian spiritual tradition, Our Lady is said to be the “prototype” of the Church, since the “body of Christ” was, quite literally, formed in her. I love what this says! It’s a wonderful reminder that the church is not a voluntary association of individuals who happen to believe the same things. Rather, it’s organic; it’s a family. Nor is the church purely optional, like we can have our own relationship with God and go to church to strengthen that relationship. No, the Church is that relationship! Our catechism defines the Church as the Body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members. There is no connection to the head except through the body.

Finally, when we unzip the compressed image of Our Lady’s visit to her cousin, we see that the eucharistic Body of Christ is being formed in her—a body which displays the sacrificial offering of the physical body and feeds the mystical body until the end of time. If Mary is the prototype of the Church, then she is also the prototype of the Eucharist. Christ is the sacrament of God; he shows us the Father, he is the visible face of an invisible God. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of Christ, extending the Incarnation, so to speak, across space and time so that those of us who are not first century Palestinian Jews can also hear his voice and feel his healing touch. And that makes the Eucharist—the liturgy we are presently celebrating and the meal we are about to share—that makes the Eucharist the sacrament of the Church. It is in the Eucharist that the Church is most clearly and explicitly herself. We offer this Mass in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the one at whose presence John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb. With Mary, our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our savior. The Lord has done great things for us, and holy is his Name. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

C: Advent II

Luke 3:1-6

Philippians 1:3-11

Baruch 5:1-9

My oldest daughter majored in Psychology when she was in college. Ever since she graduated, I’ve sometimes wondered whether she’s trying to diagnose me with some sort of disorder or another, but I’m probably just being paranoid. Anyway, I learned from her during her college years that one of the curious details of being a psychology major is that, at some point along the way, you are given the opportunity to spend quality time with furry rodents with long tales—lab rats. No doubt, some college students think that rats are cute, and others think them repulsive, but they had both better keep their feelings to themselves, because part of that exercise is to learn the discipline of scientific research, and part of that discipline is that the researcher does not get personally involved with his or her subjects. The idea is to create certain conditions, and then stand back and watch how the rats respond. You set up the maze or other test of intelligence and observe how they try to solve it, or what combination of genetics or environment motivate them to try harder or be more successful. But you don’t intervene on their behalf, or point them the other way when they make a wrong turn.

Have you ever felt like you are a lab rat and God is a researcher? Have you ever felt like you’re constantly being tested, but you don’t really know what the purpose of the test is, or what is the desired level of performance, and it sure would be nice to get a helping hand once in a while from someone who can see the whole maze? When we put ourselves and God in the positions of lab rat and researcher, we are engaging in a kind of theology called Deism. It was very popular about 200 years ago. The most frequent illustration of Deism casts God as a watchmaker, who assembles the intricate mechanism known as creation, establishes the laws by which it will operate, then stands aside and lets it run. If a spring breaks, that’s too bad. It the works get gummed up, that’s too bad. The deist God is an absentee landlord, and does not intervene, or get involved, or, for that matter, even care, once the mechanism is up and running.

The problem with Deism, aside from the fact that it has all the emotional appeal of a canker sore, is that it is entirely speculative, entirely rational, and takes no account whatever of how the God in question has chosen to reveal himself to us. It reflects, not so much an inadequate understanding, but no understanding at all, of the witness of scripture or the tradition of the Church’s teaching. In such a universe, you and I are the most hapless of creatures. We are lab rats in a maze, left entirely to our own devices to find our way out. No kind-hearted researcher is going to lift us out of our predicament and show us how to reach the hunk of cheese at the end of the line. As human beings, we are left to be our own saviors, to confect our own deliverance from the fear and alienation that so often feel as though they’re going to swallow us whole.

If you have been attentive to the scripture readings over the last several Sundays, you have noticed a consistent theme, a repeated emphasis on last things, on the end of history as we know it, when the trumpet of the Lord sounds and time is no more, when wrongs are put right, lives judged, perfect justice dispensed, and the total sovereignty and majesty of God completely unchallenged. Listen to the words of Baruch, a prophet to the Greek-speaking Jewish communities scattered throughout the Mediterranean world before the time of Christ, as he writes about a time when God’s people will be re-gathered in the holy city of Jerusalem:

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height and look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east, at the word of the holy one, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

Does this God sound like a dispassionate watchmaker? Does this God sound like a laboratory researcher? Now listen to St Paul, who writes constantly about the Christian hope as flowing from an expectation of God’s continuing involvement in the actual lived experiences of men and women and children, as he raises the subject once again, this time in his letter to the Philippians: is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul was convinced that this “day of Christ” would indeed come, and he wanted his spiritual children in Philippi to be ready for it, to be “pure and blameless” when the Lord of history re-enters history, not as an obscure infant redeemer this time, but as a just and righteous judge. And then there’s the bracing, attention-getting testimony of John the Baptist. And when we hear John the Baptist mentioned in the liturgy, we think, “Aha! It’s beginning to feel a lot like Advent!” and the adrenaline starts to rush, because if Advent is here, then Christmas can’t be far behind. And, of course, it isn't. The whole ministry of John the Baptist is to be a sign, to point away from himself, and direct our attention to Jesus. And as the Church has received John’s ministry for liturgical purposes, he draws our attention to the feast we are preparing to celebrate in two-and-a-half weeks, the feast of the most astonishing intervention in human history that could ever be conceived, the feast of the Word made Flesh, the feast of Emmanuel, the feast of God not only one with us, but one of us. Nothing could be further from the detached God of Deism than a God who is so passionate about his creation that he becomes intimately involved with—in effect, joins it.

John the Baptist and the other prophets of the Advent proclaim the good news that the One who is running the experiment is not an objective researcher, but a loving Father. We are not lab rats, but children, and the mess we’re in was never intended to be a maze in the first place. The burden of being our own savior, of confecting our own salvation, of devising our own escape from the vise grip of sin and alienation and death, of finding the path to forgiveness and reconciliation and life—that load is taken off our shoulders; it doesn’t belong to us. The One showing us the route to the end of the maze is One who loved us enough to enter the maze solely because he loved us, and who solved it on our behalf. That’s something no laboratory researcher would ever do!


Come, Lord Jesus.