Run to Jesus! An Advent Reflection

adventThe Lord’s coming is near. And though we have all been well taught that the word “Advent” means “coming,” there is the danger that we think that we are only passively waiting for Him to come. It is not just that the Lord is coming to us; we are also journeying to Him. In fact, as the Advent prayers in the Roman Missal instruct, we ought to run, not walk, and hasten to greet Him as He draws near.

This notion of running to meet God is set forth as a consistent theme in the prayers of the Roman Missal. Consider the following prayers and how the theme of our hastening to go out to meet God, even as He is coming to us, is set forth:

  1. Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom (First Sunday of Advent).
  2. Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company (Second Sunday of Advent).
  3. Stir up your mighty power, O Lord, and come to our help with a mighty strength, so that what our sins impede, the grace of your mercy may hasten (Thursday of the First Week of Advent).
  4. Grant that your people, we pray, almighty God, may be ever watchful for the coming of your Only Begotten Son, that, as the author of our salvation himself has taught us, we may hasten, alert with lighted lamps, to meet him when he comes (Friday of the Second Week of Advent).
  5. May the reception of your sacrament strengthen us O Lord, so that we may go out to meet our savior, with worthy deeds when he comes, and merit the rewards of the blessed (Post-communion, Dec 22).

So, more than merely waiting passively, we should be running and hastening to meet the Lord.

The image of the prodigal son comes to mind. In this parable, the father sees his son and runs toward him. But at the same time, the son is hastening toward his father with contrition and hope. In the same way, we look for the Lord’s coming during Advent. But the Lord also looks for us to come to Him by faith. Like the prodigal son, we should consider our need for salvation. With contrition (have you been to confession recently?) we should hasten to meet our Lord, who by faith we know is coming to us.

Thus, we are not counseled to wait for the Lord in a passive sense, as though we were sitting around waiting for a bus to arrive. Rather, we are counseled to wait for the Lord in an active sense, in much the same way that a waiter in a restaurant waits on tables. Alert and aware, the waiter carefully observes the needs of the patrons in his care and serves them. Good waiters strive to avoid distraction and to do their job of serving well with an alert swiftness.

Notice, too, how the prayers above indicate what it means to run to the Lord. We should not run aimlessly or in circles. Rather, running to the Lord means

  1. being engaged in righteous deeds (holiness) by God’s grace,
  2. not being hindered by worldly preoccupations and distractions,
  3. learning heavenly wisdom,
  4. receiving the Lord’s mercy unto the forgiveness of our sins,
  5. being alert and ready for the Lord’s coming, with the lamp of our soul trimmed (humble and purged of sin) and burning (alive with fiery love), and
  6. being strengthened by the Eucharist, which is our food for the journey.

St. Paul also speaks of running:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:24-27).

Are you running to meet the Lord or are you just waiting passively? Advent involves looking and waiting, but it also means running to meet the Lord, who is coming to us. Run, don’t walk, to the nearing Jesus!

The name of the piece in the clip below is Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (Lord, make haste to help me). It was composed by Antonio Vivaldi and its series of eighth notes create the image of energetic, joyful running. Vivaldi loved to run a melody up and down the musical scale. In this piece he created a sense of running up and down the hills as we hasten to the Lord. (The video below goes on to include the Gloria Patri.) Just try not to tap your toe during the first and third movements of the Vespers of Vivaldi in G Major!

Preparing our Hearts for Mystery in Advent

As we look toward Christmas and ponder the incarnation, we ought to remember that so profound was truth of the incarnation that the early Church fell to her knees at these words: “and He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, from the virgin Mary, and became man.” This act of falling to one’s knees at these words is still practiced in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite; in the ordinary form, we are asked to bow.

These gestures acknowledge the profound mystery of the truth of the Incarnation. How does the infinite enter the finite? How does He, whom the very heavens cannot contain, enter the womb of Mary. How can He, who holds all creation together in Himself, be held in Mary’s arms?

In modern times we tend to trivialize God. In this age of empiricism and science we want to fit Him into our categories. But God is not just one more thing in the universe (even if very big or powerful) — He is existence itself. Our feeble words betray more than bespeak Him. We know Him as unknown. Our words about Him, even if true, say more about what He is not than what He is.

To some degree the ancients grasped this better than we; they remained astounded at things like the Incarnation. We avoid the tension of this deep mystery by sentimentalizing it. We speak of “the baby Jesus” and sing sentimental songs. This is not wrong, but one wonders if we do this to avoid the astounding mystery and the tension that such mysteries and imponderables summon.

In a passage we read this week in the Office of Readings, St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote of this mystery:

The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin …. He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? (Sermon, Oratio, 49)

We must all fall silent during Advent to ponder such things. There is a place for sentimentality, but wonder and awe — even shock — should also bring us to our knees. The cooing and crying of the little Infant is the same voice, the same Word that summoned creation into existence. It is an ineffable mystery, an unfathomable truth. And this Eternal Word made Flesh brings gifts to us at Christmas’ approach. An old song by St. Ambrose says,

O equal to thy Father, Thou,
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate
.

Hush, fall silent before the mystery; less analysis and more wonder and awe.

Five Brief Advent Meditations

The following are five Advent reflections that I prepared for catechumens and candidates in our RCIA program. (They are also available in PDF form here: The Season of Advent.)

Advent is witnessed by creation

Late autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors, then fade and fall. Shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. Vacations and the warmth of summer are distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and then pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has its delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the childlike excitement a winter storm can arouse. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, longing, and expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreaths and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our ongoing commitment to come out of the darkness into God’s own marvelous light (cf 1 Peter 2:9). There is a gospel song that says, “Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.”

Longing for salvation

Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a yearning for this Messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so a cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil … We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people (Is 64:1-7).

During Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come, yet we know that sin and injustice still have terrible effects on our lives and our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to set us free every day. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us; now we long for Him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of His glory.

Waiting for His sudden and second coming

Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. In the Nicene Creed, we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This truth flows directly from Scripture, which clearly teaches two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second, we cannot know the day or the hour that He will return. In fact, though some signs will precede His coming, the emphasis of Scripture is on the suddenness of the event.

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27).
  2. … with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth … (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. … in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet … (1 Cor 15:52)
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44)
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security” … (1 Th. 5:3)

Because this is the case, we must live in constant readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect on the necessity of our readiness. An old gospel song says, “Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?” Similarly, there is another gospel song that counsels, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!”

The fire next time

Some of the images of the last day, ones of judgment and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider, for example, this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here is reminiscent of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation. Notice the complete message of this passage and others like it: The heavens and the earth as we know them will pass away, but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heaven and a new earth,” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness.

An African-American spiritual summarizes the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter with these classic lines: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” Here, too, our first reaction might be fear, but in the tradition of the spirituals, the fire referenced was a fire of justice and truth, which destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses it this way: “God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days, Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Alleluia!” For the slaves, the day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, vindication, and deliverance. So it will be for us, too, if we are ready. W

What does it mean to be ready? It means to be living faithfully, holding on to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. It means to be living a holy life, a life of repentance. If we do this, not only do we have nothing to fear about the last day, we can eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)

Remember, repent, rehearse

All of these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent, and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come. He has called us to the obedience of faith and promised that He will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. We rehearse for His second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom He finds watchful and ready. In a sense, every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every Mass the following prayer is said: Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.

This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for His glorious return. Only He can deliver us, free us from our sin, and remove our anxiety about that day. Only He can give us joy and make us holy. We need only yield to His saving work.

This brings us back to where we started: yearning for our savior. To yearn for Him is to know how much we need Him, to seek His face and call upon His name constantly. Cry out with the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

No One Goes Away from Jesus Unchanged

blog1223The video below is a 2008 Coca-Cola commercial that takes up the theme of the star of Christmas.

Let us review the impact that the star of Christmas had on the wise men, the Magi.

  1. The star moved them to seek meaning outside themselves; it made them look out and up.
  2. The star called them beyond what was familiar in their own country and world and expanded their horizons toward Christ and His Kingdom.
  3. The star summoned them to seek Christ, and when they found Him, to worship Him.
  4. The star drew them to be generous to a poor family in Bethlehem; they made sacrifices as they lay costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before the Lord.
  5. The star roused them to conversion; they “returned to their country by another route,” following the straight and narrow path rather than the wide and destructive one.

Yes, no one encounters Jesus Christ and goes away unchanged. A blind man went away able to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. The hungry went away satisfied, the ignorant instructed, the guilty forgiven, sinners converted.

The call of the nations to change and to new life began with a star. The light of the star opens the way to the Light of World, Jesus. The star of my life is Jesus.

In the commercial below we see Santa (a name that means “Holy One”) sending forth a star, one that touches people and radiates a light that transforms them.

  1. A woman sees the light of that star and is able to forgive her husband and be reconciled with him.
  2. A young soccer player sees the light of that star, surrenders his pride, and steps aside to let another share in and get a shot at glory.
  3. A young girl sees the light of that star and, giving up some of her own beauty, seeks to beautify a public park for others.
  4. A museum guard sees the light of that star and shows mercy to the guard dog with him (this was a silly one).
  5. A father sees the light of that star and allows his son a moment of growth.

Yes, there is something about that star that changes everyone who looks at it. They become more forgiving, more gracious, more aware of others, more connected to others, more loving. The light of the star, and the light of the world, is Jesus. His light is meant to have that same effect—and more besides.

In the background of the commercial an old Elvis song plays: “Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you. Shall I stay? Would it be a sin if I can’t help falling in love with you?”

Of course the love that is symbolized by the star is not the romantic love of the song but the brotherly and agape love that Christ gives. Like the Magi who found Christ by the star, no one sees the star of Jesus and encounters Him and then goes away unchanged. Indeed, if we authentically encounter Christ, we are equipped to love, just as the people in this commercial are. We are equipped to forgive, to bring healing, to help others find strength and glory in the truth, and to come to full maturity in Christ. A person who knows Jesus and has encountered Him cannot help loving others, not in some merely sentimental way, but with a strong and vigorous love rooted in the truth. This is the same love that Jesus has for us all.

At the end of the commercial is an exhortation in Spanish that translates as follows: “Give the world the best of you.” The best of me is Jesus.

Why Was Jesus Born When and Where He Was?

1222-blogIn preparation for the coming of Christmas, we have been discussing some of St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings. In today’s last installment we’ll be looking at his commentary on the time and place of Jesus’ birth.

We live in a culture today that tends toward a kind of temporal pride. We think that we have come of age, that we are smarter and wiser than our forebears. Scientific, technical, and medical knowledge are more highly developed to be sure, but there is more to life than what falls into those realms.

The religious version of temporal pride is expressed in this utterance: “If Jesus lived in our times He would …” The sentence is then completed with any view we like or consider to be “enlightened” and “modern.” But Jesus did not choose to live in our time, and there may well be very good reasons for that. As God, He could have chosen any age—and He did not choose ours.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century, pondered the reasons for the time and place of Jesus’ birth in his Summa Theologica. In it he addressed some of the questions and objections raised during his era.

The time of the Lord’s birth – St. Thomas discussed this in his Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 35, Article 8. He used as his starting point, St. Paul’s attestation to the fittingness of the time of Christ’s birth: When the fullness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). Here, the “fullness of time” is understood to mean “at the designated or determined time.” St. Thomas wrote,

Whereas [other men] are born subject to the restrictions of time, Christ, as Lord and Maker of all time, chose a time in which to be born, just as He chose a mother and a birthplace. And since “what is of God is well ordered” and becomingly arranged, it follows that Christ was born at a most fitting time.

St. Thomas responded as follows to objections raised in his day regarding the time of Christ’s birth:

Some objected that because Christ came to grant liberty to His people, it was not fitting that He came at a time when the Jewish people were subjected to Roman occupation and the Herodian dynasty (Herod was not a true Jew). St. Thomas answered that because Christ came in order to bring us back from a state of bondage to a state of liberty, it was fitting that He be born into bondage with us and then lead us out. We can grasp this logic in a wider sense when we consider that He assumed our mortal nature in order to give us an immortal nature; He died in order to restore us to life. St. Thomas, referencing Bede, wrote that Christ submitted Himself to bondage for the sake of our liberty. He also added that Christ wished to be born during the reign of a foreigner so that the prophecy of Jacob might be fulfilled (Genesis 49:10): The scepter shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till He come that is to be sent. The bondage was not to be ended before Christ’s coming, but after it and through it.

Others objected that the time of year, near the winter solstice, was not fitting for Christ’s birth. They argued that it was not fitting for Christ, the Light of the World, to be born during the darkest time of the year. But Thomas replied that Christ wished to be born at a time when the light of day begins to increase in length so as to show that He came to draw man back to the light, according to Luke 1:79: To enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

The place of Christ’s birth (Bethlehem) – St. Thomas discussed this in the Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 35, Article 7.

Christ willed to be born in Bethlehem for two reasons. First, because “He was made … of the seed of David according to the flesh,” as it is written (Romans 1:3); … Therefore He willed to be born at Bethlehem, where David was born, in order that by the very birthplace the promise made to David might be shown to be fulfilled. The Evangelist points this out by saying: “Because He was of the house and of the family of David.” Secondly, because, as Gregory says (Hom. viii in Evang.): “Bethlehem is interpreted ‘the house of bread.’ It is Christ Himself who said, ‘I am the living Bread which came down from heaven.’”

St. Thomas responded to some objections to Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth.

  1. Some argued that Christ should have been born in Jerusalem, because it is written (Isaiah 2:3): “The law shall come forth from Sion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” And because Christ is the very Word of God, made flesh, He should have come into the world at Jerusalem. But St. Thomas answered that Christ, as the Son of David, fittingly echoed David’s priestly/kingly role. King David was born in Bethlehem and finished his ministry as priest/king in Jerusalem, so it was fitting that Christ as King be born in Bethlehem and, as true High Priest, die in Jerusalem.
  2. Others argued that Bethlehem was too poor and unseemly a place for the Christ to be born. Thomas responded, [The Lord] put to silence the vain boasting of men who take pride in being born in great cities, where also they desire especially to receive honor. Christ, on the contrary, willed to be born in a mean city, and to suffer reproach in a great city. Thomas added, [And] that we might acknowledge the work of God in the transformation of the whole earth, He chose a poor mother and a birthplace poorer still. He cited Scripture: “But the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
  3. Still others argued that because Scripture (Matthew 2:23; Isaiah 11:1) said “He shall be called a Nazarene,” Christ should have been born in Nazareth. Thomas easily dispatched this objection by observing that one is not always born where one is raised. He also added (referencing Bede), He wished to be born at Bethlehem away from home…in order that He who found no room at the inn might prepare many mansions for us in His Father’s house.

With St. Thomas to guide and teach us, we have pondered over the past few days some aspects of the incarnation and birth of our Lord. May you who have read and I who have presented be enriched by the teachings of the Lord through the great St. Thomas Aquinas.

Below is a link to an organ prelude on the hymn “Bethlehem of Noblest Cities,” also known as “Earth Hath Many a Noble City.” It is accompanied by beautiful art related to Bethlehem. Here are the words to the hymn:

Earth hath many a noble city;
Bethlehem, thou dost all excel:
out of thee the Lord from heaven
came to rule his Israel.

Fairer than the sun at morning
was the star that told his birth,
to the world its God announcing
seen in fleshly form on earth.

Eastern sages at his cradle
make oblations rich and rare;
see them give, in deep devotion,
gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
incense doth their God disclose,
gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
myrrh his sepulcher foreshows.

Jesus, whom the Gentiles worshiped
at thy glad epiphany,
unto thee, with God the Father
and the Spirit, glory be.

Would Jesus Have Come If Adam Had Not Sinned? Why Did He Wait So Long Before Coming?

summaContinuing our series of questions related to the Incarnation, we next ponder whether Jesus would have come at all had we not sinned in the Garden. We also wonder why He waited thousands of years before coming to our rescue.

Regarding the question of whether Christ would have come if Adam had not sinned, St. Thomas Aquinas (in his Summa Theologica) first states that there are different opinions on the matter. He also notes that God’s power is not limited and therefore God could have become incarnate even if sin had not existed. However, St. Thomas believes that if man had not sinned then the Son would not have become incarnate. As I often do, I’ve presented St. Thomas’ words in bold italics, while my commentary appears in red.

For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been (Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 1, Article 1).

While theological speculation may have its place, it is most certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin. And while the Incarnation offers more than is required to remedy sin (e.g., an increase in human dignity (since God joined our family), God’s visitation, the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise), Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive. In remedying our sin, God shows the greatness of His mercy, because He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place than before. The least born in to the Kingdom of God is greater that the exemplar of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist. Had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, He could have done so in other ways. Hence, St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.

If the Incarnation is a remedy for sin, why did God wait so long to apply it? St. Thomas provides an answer that is sensible and addresses aspects of the question we might not have considered. His answer is found in the Summa Theologica (part III, question 1, article 5). First he addresses why the Incarnation did not happen before sin:

Since the work of Incarnation is principally ordained to the restoration of the human race by blotting out sin, it is manifest that it was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Hence our Lord Himself says (Matthew 9:12-13): “They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill … For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.”

Next, St. Thomas addresses why the Incarnation did not happen quickly, soon after Original Sin, rather than thousands of years later. He sets forth four reasons:

I. Nor was it fitting that God should become incarnate immediately after sin. First, on account of the manner of man’s sin, which had come of pride; hence man was to be liberated in such a manner that he might be humbled, and see how he stood in need of a deliverer. … For first of all God left man under the natural law, with the freedom of his will, in order that he might know his natural strength; and when he failed in it, he received the law; whereupon, by the fault, not of the law, but of his nature, the disease gained strength; so that having recognized his infirmity he might cry out for a physician, and beseech the aid of grace.

Quick solutions to problems do not always permit proper healing to take place. Most parents know that if they solve every problem a child has, important lessons may be lost. It is often beneficial to live with our questions for a while so that the answers are more appreciated and more effective.

Indeed, it took us humans quite a while to really acknowledge the seriousness of our sin and pride. Shortly after Eden, the tower of Babel indicated that human pride was still a grave problem. Even when given the Law, a good thing, the flesh corrupted it, turning perfunctory observance of it into an occasion for pride. The prophets then had to keep summoning Israel and Judah back to the Lord and away from prideful self-reliance. The Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity only further illustrated the depths of our sin, so that this cry went up: “O Lord, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1).

We had to be led gradually to recognize our profound need for a savior. Otherwise, even if the remedy were offered, too few might reach for it.

II. Secondly, on account of the order of furtherance in good, whereby we proceed from imperfection to perfection. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 15:46-47): “Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual … The first man was of the earth, earthy; the second man from heaven, heavenly.”

There is a kind of theology of grace implicit in this answer. Grace builds on our nature. And it is our nature, physically and spiritually, to grow gradually. While sudden conversions and growth spurts have their place, the best and most typical growth is that which occurs steadily and in stages.

Thirdly, on account of the dignity of the incarnate Word, for on the words (Galatians 4:4), “But when the fullness of the time was come,” a gloss says: “The greater the judge who was coming, the more numerous was the band of heralds who ought to have preceded him.”

Here is underscored the dignity of the Son of God, that many should precede Him, announcing Him. But there was also a need for us to be prepared to meet Him, so that we would not miss Him or refuse Him when He came. As Malachi says, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:5-6). Those who were prepared were able to abide the day of the Lord’s coming and heed His call.

Fourthly, lest the fervor of faith should cool by the length of time, for the charity of many will grow cold at the end of the world. Hence (Luke 18:8) it is written: “But yet the Son of Man, when He cometh, shall He find think you, faith on earth?”

This is an interesting aspect of the question that many might not consider; we typically ponder more what is good for us than what is good for succeeding generations. But it is sadly true that fervor, both collective and individual, can fade as a wait becomes lengthy. And thus, St. Thomas suggests that God appointed a time for the Incarnation within human history such that the greatest possible number of people could be saved.

Four Arguments for the Fittingness of the Incarnation According to St. Thomas Aquinas

alpha_and_omegaAs we approach the Christmas feasts, it is good for us to ponder aspects of the Incarnation. In this article, I would like to consider what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches about the fittingness of the Incarnation. God was not radically “required” to do everything as He did. We do well to ponder why the manner of the Lord’s incarnation is “fitting,” why it makes sense.

St. Thomas, referencing St. John Damascene, gives four reasons for the fittingness of the incarnation of Christ:

But, as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 1), by the mystery of Incarnation are made known at once the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God—“His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate …” (Summa Theologica III, 1.1)

Here are each of Thomas’ (Damascene’s) reasons, along with some less-worthy commentary from me.

I. His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork – To despise means to look away or disregard something. God did not do this with Adam and Eve or with us, their descendants, who have ratified their sinful choice. He continues to love us and call us.

Consider that even at the moment of the Original Sin, God first rebuked the devil and announced a solution that from woman would come forth a son destined to crush the power of the evil one. This protoevangelium (first good news) signals that God has not given up; He already has plans to save us. And though God would go on to announce the painful consequences of Adam’s sin, it is only after He announces that His mercies are not exhausted and His goodness is not altered.

Thus, God does not despise (look away from) His creation. Even His punishments are meant to heal us and to prepare us for the offer of something far greater: no mere earthly paradise, but Heaven itself. At the Incarnation, therefore, God’s goodness and fidelity to His promise is evident. Jesus, our promised Savior, is the hand extended to us in God’s goodness.

II. His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death – God, in making us free, “must” respect our free choices, not cancel them. If He canceled them, we would not have true freedom.

And thus God does not merely undo our choices or cancel their consequences; He builds on them. This is His justice at work.

We got into this mess through a man, a woman, and a tree. God will use these very elements to free us. The new Adam is Christ; the new Eve is Mary; the tree is the cross. And just as the first Adam and Eve were free but sinless, so Christ and Mary are sinless. While the first Adam and Eve said no in disobedience, Christ and Mary say yes in obedience.

God Himself, in Christ, joins our family and cancels the sin of Adam in a way that respects our first choice, but shows a different result. He takes the very suffering and death we chose and makes that the way back. Now, the cross of Christ and our own share in that cross become the way back, the way to heavenly glory.

In His justice, God does not cancel our choices (and thereby our freedom). He does not “snatch us forcibly from death.” Rather, in His justice, He honors our freedom by taking our choices and their consequences (suffering and death) and making them the very way back to Him and to glory. He justly respects our choices, but offers us another way.

III. His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt – A mere man, say a prophet or a holy man, could not atone for our sins. Our debt is simply too high (see Matt. 18:24ff). A mere man alone does not have the power to save. And God alone, would have nothing to do with our case. But as the God-man, Jesus has both the power to save us and the brotherhood to speak and act for us. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. This shows both God’s justice and His wisdom, for He is not overcome by the conundrum of human impossibility and divine recusal. In the Incarnation, both truths are fittingly regarded and yet overcome.

IV. His power or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate – How can the infinite enter the finite? How can the eternal enter time? How can God, whom the very heavens could never contain, dwell in Mary’s womb and rest in her arms? Alpha et O matris in gremio! (Alpha and Omega sit in mother’s lap!) And here, God shows His mighty power to astonish us with His paradoxical wisdom and ways.

St. Thomas quotes St Augustine: The Christian doctrine nowhere holds that God was so joined to human flesh as either to desert or lose … the care of governing the universe … God is great not in mass, but in might. Hence the greatness of His might feels no straits in narrow surroundings (Ibid, ad 4).

God’s power is paradoxically demonstrated in the fact that He can make himself small but suffer no loss in ability or supreme power.

As the great feast of the Birth of the Lord approaches, I wish a merry and fitting Christmas to you all.

A Humorous Call to Confession

blog-1215Sometimes our pets teach us a lot about ourselves. The video below shows various dogs resisting the taking of a bath. Some hide; some go limp and become passive; others get feisty.

I see here a similarity with Catholics when they hear that it is time for Confession. Advent is an important time to go to Confession because we are preparing for the birth of our Savior. He is called Jesus (a name that means “God saves”) because He will save us from our sins. It would be a rather perfunctory and hollow Christmas without a preceding Confession, would it not?

And yet some Catholics, much like the dogs in this video, scamper away to hide. Others just look nervous and resist. Still others get hostile and say, “No way!”

This is just a fun way to say, “It’s time for Confession, time to wash our sins away!”

Enjoy this video. Dogs are so much fun, aren’t they?