While getting ready for Mass one Sunday, one of my fellow parishioners commented that he felt so far from the Kingdom of God sometimes. Specifically, he said that when listening to the stories of the saints, his only thought is, “That could never be me!” His comment was not simply a statement of humility but rather one of despair.
You should have known me when. . .
The stories of the saints are supposed to inspire us but if we think the saints were born perfect, sainthood does seem unattainable. Only Saint Mary, the Mother of God, was born without sin. The rest of the Saints had the same human weaknesses and failings that all of us pilgrims on Earth are experiencing now. Saint Peter denied Christ three times. Saint Augustine was raised by a Christian mother but became pagan before turning his life back over to Christ. Each declared Saint of God was a flawed sinner. In fact, some of their flaws were far greater than ours. Yet, God can meet anyone anywhere in their lives and lead them to heaven, including you and me!
Not perfect, just holy.
There is a big difference between being perfect and being holy. I work every day on holiness, not perfection. There has been only one perfect man in the history of humankind and you all know what we did to him. I have no interest in being perfect. Being holy on the other hand is something I strive for everyday. The saints were certainly not perfect. But, each of them was holy even though they were sinful. In the midst of the holy season of Christmas, let’s strive to be holy, not perfect!
At Christmas we celebrate the fact of the Word becoming Flesh. But what does this mean for us today? Fundamentally what it means is that our faith is about things which are very real and tangible. As human beings we are persons with bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence it is never enough for our faith to be only about thoughts or philosophies, concepts or historical facts. While all these things our true, their truth in us ultimately must touch the physical part of who we are. Our Faith has to become flesh, it has to reach and influence our very behavior. If this is not the case the Holy Spirit speaking through John has something to call us: Liar!
God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can actually be seen, heard and touched. But the challenge of the Christmas season is for us to allow the same thing to happen to our faith. The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of a book or the recesses of our intellect. They have to become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and Catechism and become flesh in the very way we live our lives, the decisions we make, the very way we use our body, mind, intellect and will.
Consider a passage from the liturgy of the Christmas Octave from the First Letter of John. I would like to produce an excerpt and then make a few comments.
The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:3ff)
1. Faith is incarnational – Note first of all what a practical man John is. Faith is not an abstraction, it is not merely about theories and words on a page. I tcannotbe reduced to slogans or even to merely pious sayings. It is about a transformed life, it is about the actual love of God and his Commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about the actual love of of my neighbor. True faith is incarnational, that is to say, it takes on flesh in my very “body.”
As stated already, we human beings are not pure spirit, we are not intellect and will only, we are also flesh and blood. And what we are cannot remain merely immaterial. What we most are must be reflected in our bodies, what we actually, physically do as well.
Too many people often repeat the phrase, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional absence is understandable but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Actually showing up physically and actually doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must include a physical, flesh and blood dimension.
2. A sure sign – John says that The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith, it is the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love, it is the fruit of it.
Note this too, in the Scriptures, to “know” is always more than a mere intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Scriptures means, “deep intimate personal experience of the thing or person known.” It is one thing to know about God, it is another thing to “know the Lord.”
So, what John is saying here is that to be sure we authentically have deep intimate personal experience of God is to observe the fact that this changes the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord will change our actual behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with the Lord. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.
For a human being faith cannot be a mere abstraction, it has to become flesh and blood if it is authentic. John later uses the image of walking in this passage: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:6) Now walking is a very physical thing. It is also a very symbolic thing. The very place we take our body is both physical and indicative of what we value, what we think.
3. Liar? – John goes on to say Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. John uses strong language here. Either we believe and keep the commandments or we fail to keep the commandments and thus lie about really knowing the Lord.
But don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully! John seems so “all or nothing.” But his math is clear. To know the Lord fully, is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). To know him imperfectly is still to experience sin. Hence, the more we know him (remember the definition of know above!) the less we sin. If we still sin it is a sign that we do not know him enough.
It is not really John who speaks too absolutely. It is really we who do so. We say, “I have faith, I am a believer, I love the Lord, I know the the Lord!” We speak so absolutely. Perhaps we could better say, I am growing in faith, I am striving to be a better believer, I’m learning to love and know the Lord better and better. Otherwise we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.
Many Protestants have a bad habit of reducing faith to an event such as answering an altar call, or accepting the Lord as “personal Lord and savior.” But we Catholics do it too. Many think all they have to do is be baptized but they never attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics but they dissent from important Church teachings. Faithis about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we actually make. Without this harmony between faith and our actual walk we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. Bottom line: Come to know the Lord more an more perfectly and, if this knowing is real knowing, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our calimto have faithwill be said in truth, not as a lie.
4. Uh Oh! Is this salvation by works? Of course not. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving and real faith it is the result of it. The keeping of the commandments is the necessary evidence of saving faith but it does not cause us to be saved, it only indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.
But here too certain Protestants have a nasty habit of dividing faith and works. The cry went up in the 16th Century by the Protestants that we are saved by faith “alone.” Careful. Faith is never alone. It always brings effects with it.
Our big brains can get in the way here and we think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can divide it in reality. This is arrogant and silly. Consider for a moment a candle flame. Now the flame has two qualities: heat and light. In our mind we can separate the two but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame and the light of the flame. They are so together as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a candleflame are distinguishable theoretically but they are always together in reality. This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically but the works of true faith and faith are always together in reality. We are not saved by works but as John here teaches to know the Lord is always accompanied by the evidence of keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.
Faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. So too our own faith must become flesh in us, really, physically in our actual behavior in our very body-person.
Here is a largely unknown Christmas Carol to Americans, unless you are familiar with Renaissance music. It is by an anonymous composer of the 16th Century and is an early Spanish Carol. The gist of the Carol is that the Word (Jesus) has shown his love for us by becoming flesh. Mary who has real faith would do anything for Jesus but has nowhere even to lay him down. The song then rebukes this rich world for its lack of faith manifested in love and cries out in effect, “Will you not at least offer some swaddling clothes to the one you have forced to be born in a smelly stable!” And thus the world’s true faith must be manifest by its acts of love. Here is an incarnational Christmas Carol. I provide the text and translation. Enjoy.
Verbum caro factum est (The Word was made flesh)
Porque todos hos salveis. (for the salvation of you all
Y la Virgen le dezia: (And the Virgin said unto him)
‘Vida de la vida mia, (‘Life of my life,)
Hijo mio, ¿que os haria, (what would I [not] do for you, my Son?)
Que no tengo en que os echeis?’ (Yet I have nothing on which to lay you down.)’
O riquezas terrenales, (O wordly riches)!
¿No dareis unos pañales (will you not give some swaddling clothes)
A Jesu que entre animales (to Jesus, who is born among the animals),
Es nasçido segun veis? (as you can see?)
There is an old saying that the Lord didn’t just come to get us out of trouble, he came to get into trouble with us. More of that, in a moment.
A uniquely human glory and gift – This Christmas we celebrate that God is not content for us to experience his love for us as some sort of abstraction or intangible idea. He wants to touch us, and have us touch and experience his love. As human beings we are not pure spirit. Our glory is to combine in our person what is spiritual and what is material or physical. At Christmas the Lord gives us an incredible gift, a gift that not even the angels have. To be able to touch our God is a special gift and glory to the human person. There is a beautiful Christmas carol (Ere the Bleak Mid Winter) written by Christina Rossetti that captures this special glory and gift that is ours because of the Incarnation. Speaking of the newborn Christ the song says:
Angels and Archangels may have gathered there.
Cherubim and Seraphim Thronged the air.
But only his mother in her maiden bliss;
Could worship the beloved with a kiss.
Today, we can touch our God. Today God’s own hand is stretched out to us. Remarkably it is the hand of an infant. And just like every infant does, he squeezes the finger of his mother, and ours too. Yet, do not be mistaken, this little hand made and fashioned us. From this little hand the universe tumbled forth and this little hand and steers the stars in their courses. This hand touches us today and we touch our God. Even the angels cannot do this.
A magnificent mystery is before us. The infinite is an infant. He who looks down upon all creation now looks up from a cradle. He who spoke worlds into existence, now sounds forth with the cry of an infant. Another old Latin hymn captures mystery and the warmth of the moment: Alpha et O, matris in gremio (Alpha and omega is sitting in mommy’s lap). And from his mother’s lap he beckons us to approach and touch him. This day, we touch our God, and God touches us.
We desperately need this touch, this contact with our God, this hand is stretched out to heal and save. We had grown old in our sins, and this infant child draws us back to the joy and innocence of our youth. This outstretched hand of our God will heal the sick and the leprous, raise up the paralyzed and the dead. This hand will drive out demons and rebuke the storm tossed waves. This hand will be nailed to a cross to save us.
He still touches us in the Sacraments – This hand it still stretched out to you and me right now in the sacraments to cleanse us in Baptism, anoint us in Confirmation, feed us in Holy Communion, absolve us in Confession, heal us in the Anointing of the Sick, join some of us in Holy Matrimony and some of us in ordained ministry. Every sacrament has a physical component. In some particular way the Lord touches us to bring us healing and blessing. It is not a different hand, it is the same hand of the Lord that touched everyone of us beginning at Bethlehem.
Invitation – There are some present in every Catholic Church this Christmas feast who are far from this touch of Christ, far from the sacraments. In the name of Jesus Christ I beg you to let Christ touch you, let his outstretched hands feed you with his Body and Blood every week, let him lay hands on you to absolve you in Confession. Don’t block your blessings, don’t stay far off. Let the Lord touch you, not just spiritually, but physically too in the sacraments. The touch and presence of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas is not just spiritual, it is physical, it is tangible, it is real. Jesus is here right now. And he is here waiting for you every Sunday. He HAS to touch us, because if he does not, we won’t get well, and we won’t have the strength to make it home. You see, we’re in trouble. And we need a savior, a savior who knows our trouble and can draw us out of the mighty waters with strong hand and outstretched arm. Let the Lord touch you.
But as I mentioned at the beginning the beginning, the Lord didn’t just come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us.
Today the Lord meets us where we are. And some us are in trouble right now. All of us have known trouble. And the Lord loves us enough to get down into the trouble with us. You see, he is not born in a palace, or even a comfortable place. He is not born into privilege, He is born in poverty. He is, at least for now, homeless, born in a smelly cave intended for animals, unfit for human habitation. Soon enough he and his family will have to flee for their lives and live as refugees in a strange and foreign land. Later he will endure trials and temptations in the desert, exhausting journeys as he preaches and teaches, inept disciples, fickle crowds, mounting persecution and hatred, crucifixion and horrifying death.
Yes, the Lord knows our trouble, first hand. He doesn’t just “understand” them in some theoretical way. In physically joining our family in the incarnation, he personally experienced our pain, our trouble. St Ephrem the Syrian says,
Whom have we, Lord, like you
The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.
Blessed is your honor!
The heavenly beings were amazed to see how small you became,
And earthly ones to see how exalted
So, the Lord got into trouble with us. But still, there is that outstretched arm of the Lord who touches us physically at his birth. It is an infant’s arm, an infant’s hand. But do not be deceived, it is a strong hand and outstretched arm. It is God’s own arm, God’s own hand, God’s strength. He is the same God who said,
Hear me O House of Jacob, O house of Israel,
My burden, since your birth,
Whom I have carried from your infancy.
Even to your old age I am the same,
Even when your hair is gray, I will bear you;
I will carry you to safety. (Isaiah 46:3-4)
The Lord has come down into this trouble of ours to lead us out. And he is willing to get into trouble to do it. And today we celebrate that our Lord has joined us, and reaches out to touch us, to heal us and to lead us out. That arm, that hand, that touch, there’s just something about it.
I am mindful of an old song that tells us how important it for us to let God touch us, to let God embrace us. You see, it’s possible that our troubles will overwhelm us. But today there is hope, for God is here to save us. The song says,
I almost let go.
I felt like I just couldn’t take life anymore.
My problems had me bound
Depression weighed me down.
But God held me close, so I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me, so I wouldn’t let go.
I almost gave up.
I was right at the edge of a breakthrough but couldn’t see it
The devil really had me;
but Jesus came and grabbed me,
And He held me close,
So I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me,
so I wouldn’t let go.
See, I’m alive today because God kept me, because Jesus came and touched me, and he held me close, so I wouldn’t let go. You see there’s just something about that little hand, that little arm that reaches out to you and me today. There’s just something about the touch of Jesus physically coming among us in the incarnation. At Christmas our Lord touches us, and holds us close.
For years, I have been a Scrooge! Let me distinguish that from a “Grinch.” The latter wishes to steel Christmas. I don’t wish diminish the joy of people who seem to love the season. For years, I just haven’t happened to be one of those people. Thus, I am a “Scrooge” not a “Grinch”
More specifically, I grimace at the first decorations that appear in the mall. I wince at the thought of shopping and I really find decorating an unwelcome chore. When asked, “What do you want for Christmas?” my response is often less-than-charitable. And, as a matter of further disclosure, I was born on December 25th. That alone is enough reason to be a Scrooge. (More on the pains of being a Christmas baby later)
Now, of course as a Christian, I joyfully celebrate the “Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord”. The theological significance of the day is not lost on me but, I just don’t like the secularism that intrudes on the season. And I recently realized that I have allowed my disdain for the secularism of Christmas to diminish the spiritual joy the season should bring.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
Like Ebenizer Scrooge, God sent me a “Ghost of Christmas Present.” However, she isn’t ghost but rather one of the English teachers at my school. This young colleague discovered my lack of enthusiam about Christmas and set herself on a mission to get me to better like the season. She is the type of young teacher that has an abundance of innocent idealism, much of which I have abandoned years ago. And, through the grace of God, some of her idealism penetrated the hardened heart that I have unfortunately developed over the years about Christmas.
She admitted flat out, “Curtis, I am going to get you to like Christmas!” to which I replied, “Don’t try!” Now, that sounded like a pretty clear order to me. It was clear to her too but, she thankfully chose to be insubordinate.
First, when my school had a door decorating competition, I hung a “bah humbug” sign on my office door. Against my wishes, she took upon herself to decorate my door as pictured. Then, she insisted that I wear red and green one day (I didn’t do that one!). She even tried saying “Merry Christmas” in the most annoying way every time she passed me in the hallway. Of course, I replied each time with a hearty, “Bah Humbug!”
Finally she sent me an email that contained the following:
“At this time of year, people come together, even though you are the scrooge of the season, it is a time when you can really hope and pray for a light in the darkness, its a time where anything is possible….Mary gave birth as a virgin in a barn for goodness sake.
It is a time when people think about each other, families re-unite, make great journeys to see each other, good friends, old friends and distant friends take the time to send a card that has been selected just for them, with really personalized contents.
Of course it would be nice to do that all year round, but lets face it, it isn’t possible really!….Its also a time when you can talk about Christ, where Jesus can penetrate, all-be-it subtly, every mall, home and even every public school. You can spread the Gospel just by humming a carol.
This is your time to go out and really minister to those who usually would not otherwise be open to listening.”
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Brothers and sisters, this came from a young teacher. This is someone I am supposed to be guiding and mentoring. But sometimes, the Holy Spirit allows the master to become the student. And the real miracle, she restored some of the idealism that I abandoned long ago.
Normally, if a teacher is insubordinate, I would write them up. So, for the record, a hard copy of this blog entry will go into her file.
Thank you Ms. Waterhouse, English Teacher and Friend, Saint Frances Academy!