Friday, December 26, 2008

Reflection on the Gospel of Christmas Day: John 1:1-18

It is not so hard to believe that God became man. That is, once understood that God took on human nature and did not change His divine nature to do so, the philosophical objections to the Incarnation subside. No, rather the most difficult thing to believe about Christmas, I think, is that "from his fullness we have even recieved grace on top of grace" (ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πληρώματος αὐτοῦ ἡμεῖς πάντες ἐλάβομεν, καὶ χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος)... "χάρις" the greek word for "grace"... but I think perhaps in he west we have gotten too used to the idea of being able to merit grace. Though it is true that we can cooperate with grace, I would not deny that, it is often the case that we subtly think that we can merit grace, that grace is based on what we have done or not done. At least it seems that is how we want to present ourselves to God as "wholely and immaculate" and worthy of His favor. But the word "χάρις" denotes not only a gift, not only a favor, but a free one at that. That is, it means that the gift was wholely unmerited.

It was not to the religious elite that the child at Bethlehem was revealed as being messiah and son of God, but rather to poor and lowly shepherds and to the impure goyim in the persons of the Magi. At the well of Sichar, it was not someone of virtue that Jesus revealed his deep thirst to satiate our thirst, but rather to a five time adulteress.

So the question for us this Christmas season is not whether we bought the right gift, or whether we are singing the right carols, or to whose house we should go to for Christmas dinner or for other parties during the holdays, but whether we have truly accepted in faith that God's love is un-merited, whether we have presented to Jesus the gift of our stone cold hearts sure that he will not spurn to enter in them since he did not disdain to be born in a cold stone grotto in Bethlehem or to be placed in a stone cold tomb after his passion, choosing these places to be the sites where He manifests His glory. Have we turned over to Him our pretenses, our reservations of how we want to prove ourselves worthy of His love so that we can still think that it is somehow due to our own abilities and capacities that we are called into communion with Him (that ever so subtle idolatry that really looks for nothing other than an exultation of one's self)? Have we given to God that darkest deepest corner of our hearts, the very places we have considered unclean because there our human thirst has led us to seek our fulfillment in sin? Have we said to God, "I trust that you came to redeem me... not because I am worthy, but because You are a giver of all that is good... and I trust that you do not look to only cover up my woundedness and sin but to heal it completely"? Have we accepted God's gift? Have we recognized it as that which fills the very hunger and thirst of our souls? Have we placed our trust in it so that we surrender in loving trust to the will of God to fill us? Trusting, have we turned our selves completely over to God so that He can continue to fill us and transform us? Encountering so great a love, have we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the joy of our salvation and so adopted a cheerfullness that endures despite the changes in our mood precisely because we are firmly rooted in God's gracious... and I do emphasize "gracious"... gift?

This is the mystery of Christmas... saying "yes" in such a profound and intimate faith in God that one, overwhelmed by God's love, like Mary, conceives Jesus in faith and brings Jesus to term and bears Him in the world, becoming a fountain of love and salvation for others... but only because one has said "yes" completely to Him and drunk of that fountain of salvation and, not being able to contain it, burst forth with streams of living water for others.

Merry Christmas, and may you accept the "gracious gift upon gracious gift" that is the Love of God, pour out for you in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Reflection for Vespers of Monday of the First Week of Advent

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Phil 3:20-21)
In this passage from his Letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul tells us that Christ will conform our lowly bodies to His glorious body at the second coming. This is a great source of hope for us because it reminds us of our bodily resurrection from the dead and that it will be Christ who will bring about the glorification of our lowly bodies in conformity with His glorified and risen humanity.

However, Christ also comes to us everyday. St. Bernard in this Wednesday’s office of readings tells us that, besides a second coming of Christ at the end of the world, there is a third coming of Christ, a kind of everyday coming, if you will, of our savior in our lives. Citing the gospel of John, Bernard reminds us of the words of Christ who said “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him.” Christ then comes to us everyday. In the light of this third coming, St.Paul’s words take on new meaning. Christ’s everyday coming is also redemptive and, if properly received, conforms us to Him. What a greater source of hope this is for us religious to know that our spiritual growth is not completely up to us. If, in hearing the call of Advent repentance, we see that our efforts alone have failed to produce fruit in our spiritual life, we can take comfort in the fact that it is the Lord who, having called us, will carrying out his plan for our perfection even today.

Elsewhere in his letter, St. Paul tells us the part we are to play in being conformed to Christ. He exhorts the Philippians to have the same humble attitude as Christ, and not to boast in the flesh, that is, in things such as heritage or the practice of religious rites. Speaking of his own journey in Christ, he tells us that all the things he used to boast about he has come to consider trash after meeting Christ. It is almost as though Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus showed him that the unmerited gift of Christ’s love to all people is the only thing he could use to judge himself and others. As he came to understand that Christ’s love was equally given to all, the righteous and the unrighteous on the basis of faith, Paul began to understand that he could not see himself as better than others simply because he was faithful to the religious practices of the law or because he was a Jew and a part of the chosen people. In fact, because of the greatness of Christ’s love, he could not hold himself as better than others for any reason whatsoever. In this way, Paul learned to die to himself and to all that he used to hold dear so as to become a new creation in Christ. This is the way we can have an active role in being conformed to Christ. By placing our faith in God’s unfathomable love, we too begin the process of realizing that the things we used to boast about, the things we used to think give us worth over and above others, are indeed rubbish. Placing our faith in the immensity of God’s love, the competition to receive more than the others gradually ceases because there is enough of God’s love for all of us. Likewise, the competition to be considered better than the others begins to fade away, because in receiving God’s love, we recognize that it is a gift not based on our merits or on how good we are but on God’s generosity. Only in knowing Christ and his gift of love, as Saint Paul sought to, and in dying to ourselves, can we then live in unity and peace. Only in receiving Christ’s charity in an intimate relationship with Him, can we become charitable to others. By placing our faith in Christ’s great love, we are humbled by His generosity, we begin to hope for all things from Him, and we yearn to put the very same love He showed us into practice. This, in short, is how we cooperate with Christ in his work of conforming us to Him.