God’s Christmas Gift

How can God possibly become a real and true human being? We don’t know. God knows, but God isn’t telling. That is probably because I can’t imagine God giving an answer that would be intelligible to humans. All we know is that God became a human being. Impossible, right? Well, if it really happened, then it isn’t really impossible; it just seems that way. And it is indeed impossible for humans. Only God can do this trick.

So what’s the big deal about God becoming a human being? The big deal, which is an infinitely big deal, is that humans can become God. Impossible! Well, yes. For humans it most certainly is impossible, notwithstanding the many people who have thought they could and failed for all their delusions. Once again, only God can do this trick.

Many Christians are astonished at the prospect although this belief goes back to the early Christian centuries and is enshrined in the second Epistle of St. Peter where Peter says that we become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4) It sounds as presumptuous to some as it sounds impossible, and it is presumptuous and impossible if one thinks in terms of humans having divinity within themselves that they can tap into at will. (Hence the many failures.) But note that I said it is only God who can do this trick. And it doesn’t mean we become “god” in some sort of fusion. If we dissolve, there is no relationship between ourselves and God ,which is a prerequisite for participation in God’s nature. Becoming partakers of the divine nature is a gift which God makes possible by entering human nature and becoming a human being. The thing about a gift is that there must be both a giver and a receiver. So the question is: are we willing to receive the gift of God’s nature or not?

The question is pretty abstract in the terms discussed so far, but the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke brings the question down to earth. By setting the story in the context of the Roman Empire’s exertion of power through the census taken by Quirinius, Luke sets the stage for what the world is like, the world that will welcome Jesus and the gift of deification–or not. That the only shelter Joseph could find when Mary delivered her child was a stable, suggests that Jesus was not welcome to this world, a point made also in John’s Gospel. (Jn. 1: 11-12) The ubiquitous manger scenes make this setting very sweet and romantic, but if one were to feel the cold and smell the smells, it wouldn’t be so romantic. The story emphasizes the vulnerability of the child in spite of that child’s being God, capable of sharing his godhead with us. So far, only Mary and Joseph have welcomed the child into world and are taking care of him as well as they can. In contrast to this stark scene, we have the shepherds in the field seeing the Glory of the Lord and hearing the singing of the heavenly hosts. This reminds me of the double level in Revelation which draws the contrast between the human violence on earth and the rejoicing heavenly choruses in Heaven. For all their fear, the shepherds also receive the Christ Child. At this point, the only welcomers comes from the bottom of society, with the shepherds being the dregs. No red carpets from royalty or even a decent shelter offered by somebody of modest means. So if we think we are above the lowest rank of society, how about us? We should worry that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a well-healed person to accept the gift of deification.

During Jesus’ life, we see much welcoming as crowds of people follow Jesus to receive healing and to listen to his words. Many of them are of the lowest classes but there are a few higher-ups who welcome Jesus, at least up to a point, with Simon the Leper being an example. But with the religious and political leadership, not so much. Religious and politicians should ponder this. When the Empire struck back after Jesus cleansed the temple, the welcome of just a few days before evaporated and Jesus died on the cross, alone, or almost alone. Not much of a welcome there.

There is more to welcoming God than welcoming a certain baby born in a stable some two thousand years ago. We can do this sentimentally in prayerful exercises and then get on with life. But if we really welcome God, we welcome everything Jesus said and did throughout his life. Which is to say we welcome the self-giving of God entering humanity, and we don’t try to become “god” on our own terms since welcoming God’s humanity involves welcoming our own. More challenging, we must welcome everybody else, even if they don’t welcome us, since Jesus welcomed them and still does. More challenging still, the gift of God’s nature means serving others, not asking them to serve us. Receiving the gift of God’s divinity gives us the gift of rejoicing with the heavenly hosts who sang to the shepherds, but it also gives us the gift of poverty and the vulnerability of a stable and then the vulnerability of the cross. The gift of participation in the divine nature is free, but it is also just as costly for us as it is for God.

Just a Little Jewish Girl: A Homily for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin

MaryBack when I was a seminarian at Nashotah House, a student from the South transferred there in the middle of the academic year. Not surprisingly, given Nashotah’s Anglo-Catholic tradition, several students ganged up on him and tried to convert him to an ardent devotion to Our Lady. This student’s response was: “I thought Mary was just a little Jewish girl.”

Not surprisingly, this student never got into rosaries or other Marian devotions. For myself, young and zealous over the Anglo-Catholic way but cautious about going as overboard as some of my classmates did, I was bemused by the remark and it has stuck with me. As I think about it now, I am convinced that this student’s remark, surely meant to be dismissive, was spot on. Mary was a Jewish girl, and if we want a sound Mariology, we are wise not to forget it. In fact, when we look at the Gospels, we see a Jewish girl who said very little, although she pondered much in her heart.

Some of the overblown piety directed at Mary has been enough to make one forget she had ever been a human being, let alone a humble girl from a humble Galilean village. The Gospel canticle known as Magnificat, which was read for today’s Gospel, has this little Jewish girl flinging the mighty from their seats and scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts. Maybe this little Jewish girl took some Judo lessons and got herself a black belt. Then the paintings of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven and her coronation there make her look something like a goddess. Many devotions to Mary suggest that she is the vehicle of salvation and either her son is just an afterthought, or he just as stern and unapproachable as his heavenly father. This little Jewish girl sure rose up in the world.

However, if God was going to send His Son, born of a woman, at the “fullness of time,” (Gal. 4: 4) a woman would gave to give birth to him. If Jesus was going to be born a Jew, then his mother would have to be a little Jewish girl and not a goddess organizing the heavenly realms. Jesus would not have been fully human otherwise. As a baby and little boy, he needed to be cared for by his mother and adoptive father. Nothing unusual there. What was unusual, to the point of being earthshaking, as the Magnificat proclaims, was that God had entered human nature so that this human mother was not only the mother of a human boy but the Mother of God! So it is that in the Magnificat, it isn’t Mary who is throwing the bad guys around; it is God raising up a little Jewish girl and, with her, the whole human race, little old me and little old you included.

In this festival, we do not celebrate a goddess; we celebrate a little Jewish girl who said “Yes” to God’s Desire, just as every human is called to do. It is saying “Yes” to God’s desire that scatters the imagination of our hearts and raises us up to the level of this little Jewish girl.

The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh

creche1When St. John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he is sharing a mystery so deep that we don’t know what to say. The mystery only deepens when we recall that the Word was with God “in the beginning” and without the Word, nothing was made. What is more, the Word was God. Which is to say, the Word is God for all time.

So why would the Word enter into the Creation that the Word shaped? Isn’t that a case of ultimate downward mobility? Later in his Gospel, John says that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son who died on the cross. Suddenly, the Word who in the beginning was with God and was God is much more concrete and understandable. Except why would God and the Word love us so much that they would do that? Looking around at ourselves, there seems to be no accounting for taste.

What is so amazing is that God, who we might think is the ultimate in invulnerability, chooses to be vulnerable. God’s vulnerability is attested by the prophets who spoke of God’s distress over human waywardness and infidelity. But even then, “the boots tramped in battle” in Isaiah didn’t trample the Word who was with God and was God. But once the Word was born in the flesh of a human mother and laid in a manger, the Word had become just as vulnerable to trampling boots and automatic rifles as the children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut and the children slaughtered in Bethlehem by order of King Herod.

Here is where the mystery deepens so profoundly as to escape comprehension. It goes against what we think are our deepest instincts. We do everything to make ourselves less vulnerable from putting on plated armor, to hardening our feelings to buying weapons to defend us for the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet. If the Word without whom nothing was made that was made is willing to be so defenseless, than perhaps it isn’t really our deepest instinct to defend ourselves so aggressively after all.

Perhaps if we, like Mary, would treasure these things and ponder them deeply in our hearts, we will find within ourselves a Love created by God that loves so abundantly that it melts all our defenses and we no longer worry about accounting for God’s taste in so loving the world.