Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Fourth Joyful Mystery

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (2:22-40)
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

Ever since that very first Passover, in which God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, by killing the first-born sons of Egypt, but ransoming the first-born sons of the Israelites by the blood of the lamb, God demanded that every first-born child be consecrated to Him. In a manner, He chose the priestly tribe of the Levites in lieu of the first-born sons; nevertheless, each family had to buy back (redeem) their sons from God (Numbers 18:15-16), and to make a sacrifice of ritual purification through the offering of a lamb and a turtledove (or, if the family was poor, two turtledoves, as Luke records, again showing us the absolute condescension of the Most High God to be not only a Child, but a poor Child; cf. Leviticus 12:1-4).

It is this ritual which is being performed in the story of the Presentation, as Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the Temple to consecrate Him to the Lord. And while St. Luke tells us that the sacrifice was made, he's mum about the redemption fee: Jesus was not any Son, but the Son of God, and Mary knew this. It was not for her to buy Him back, but to offer Him freely to God--an act that would be ongoing in her until that final act of offering Him at the Cross. He who was not redeemed would be the Redemption of the world!

Once again we see the utter obedience of the Holy Family: first, in Mary's assent to the Angel, and later in Joseph's assent to God in taking Mary as his wife. Now we see their obedience in offering Jesus to the Lord, and in making a sacrifice for a purification that wasn't needed by Mary except "to fulfil all righteousness", just as Jesus' baptism wasn't needed by Him for His own salvation, but only as His demonstration, first, of total humble obedience to the Father, and second, His absolute identification with sinners. So Mary, utterly pure in her conception, and suffering no loss to her virginity in birth, needed no purification physically-speaking, but nevertheless she was obedient to the command of the Law, and submitted to it in humility.

It was this humble submission to the Laws of God that made possible Mary's next mediatorial act, as she presented the Christ to Simeon, who had waited long years to see Him. What a joy that must have been to the old man, who never doubted God's promise that he would see the Salvation of Israel and the Light to the Gentiles! And as Simeon's words reveal, this Presentation included with it the promise of the Cross, as Christ would "be a sign to be opposed". As Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes,
Simeon...said that the Babe would disclose the true inner dispositions of men. He would test the thoughts of all who were to encounter Him. Pilate would temporize and then weaken; Herod would mock; Judas would lean to a kind of greedy social security; Nicodemus would sneak in darkness to find the Light; tax collectors would become honest; prostitutes, pure; rich young men would reject His poverty; prodigals would return home; Peter would repent; an Apostle would hang himself. From that day to this, He continues to be a sign to be contradicted. It was fitting, therefore, that He should die on a piece of wood in which one bar contradicted the other. The vertical bar of God's will is negated by the horizontal bar of the contradicting human will. As the Circumcision pointed to the shedding of blood, so the Purification foretold His Crucifixion (Life of Christ, p.38) .
And just as Jesus would be a sign that was contradicted, Simeon warned Mary that her involvement in Redemption, her role in mediating Christ to the world, would involve her own suffering, just as it did Christ's: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Lk 2:35). In fact, the sword in Mary's heart and the spear in Jesus' heart seem to be inseparable, together for the same purpose: the revealing of men's hearts. For while the NRSV (used above) makes Simeon's words to Mary seem like an afterthought, the original Greek places "and a sword will pierce your own soul too" immediately before the statement that "the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed". Perhaps there is some indication in the Greek which this layman doesn't know about that causes most translations to bracket the words about Mary's suffering as separate from or incidental to Simeon's prophecy, and someone more versed in Greek could point it out to me in the comments. But it would seem that Mary's suffering is intimately united to Christ's, and thus bound up in a subordinate and secondary way to our Salvation, though nevertheless as a vital component. Archbishop Sheen again writes,
She was told that He would be rejected by the world, and with His Crucifixion there would be her transfixion. As the Child willed the Cross for Himself, so He willed the Sword of Sorrow for her. If He chose to be a Man of Sorrows, He also chose her to be a Mother of Sorrows! God does not always spare the good from grief. The Father spared not the Son, and the Son spared not the mother. With His Passion, there must also be her compassion. An unsuffering Christ Who did not freely pay the debt of human guilt would be reduced to the level of an ethical guide; and a mother who did not share in His sufferings would be unworthy of her great role (ibid.).
Let us take recourse to our Mother of Sorrows, confident that she will lead us deeper into the mystery of love and forgiveness found in the Heart of our Suffering Saviour. May we strive to be obedient to God's laws as the grace of Christ empowers us, and may we, as Simeon, wait with patient faith for His final victory and our final Salvation! Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Third Joyful Mystery

The Nativity of Jesus

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (2:1-21)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

I will admit to a great sacrilege here. Christmas is not my favourite time of year. In fact, ever since the allure of getting an annual Lego set wore off, Christmas just wasn't the same. (Actually, if I recall correctly, receiving the annual Lego set ended before the allure wore off. I guess my parents figured I'd outgrown Legos before I had...Anyway...) Now, there are a lot of reasons why people tend to disdain Christmas: it's too commercial; they had a traumatic experience one Christmas; or various other reasons. I can honestly say that those aren't my reasons for never really appreciating Christmas. It might be too commercial for some people, but that's honestly a matter of choice. It doesn't have to be for you, if you choose not to let it. I've also never experienced some sort of Christmas-related trauma, thankfully. No, my reasons for never appreciating Christmas are ostensibly more "spiritual".

You see, Christmas is about Jesus coming to earth, as a baby. As a devout Christian, I'm interested in how Jesus saves me, what He did to redeem Mankind. And growing up, I was always taught (rightly) that Jesus saved us by His death on the Cross. Well, that was some thirty-three years after He was born as a baby in Bethlehem. So while obviously Jesus' birth was a necessary way to begin God's life as a human being, I was always too impatient to move on to the really important holiday: Easter.

It honestly wasn't until I became interested in Catholicism, and began attending Mass, that Christmas began to actually mean something more to me than a necessary prerequisite. Now, I know I'm likely going to take flak for that statement, from Protestants who love Christmas and perhaps realised what I'm going to say in this meditation without having to become a Catholic. I'm not saying that my newer appreciation for Christmas is a proof for Catholicism or a fault for Protestantism. I'm simply saying, "This is how it was for me."

You see, Jesus' saving act wasn't limited to Calvary. Revelation 13:8 points out that He is the Lamb "slain from the foundation of the world." So His redemptive act began in intention, if not in fact, from all eternity (It's not as if, after all, the Cross was "plan B" for a situation that caught the omniscient God off-guard). But in a very real way, Christ's saving action began tangibly at the moment of His conception (which is why the Rosary starts with the Annunciation--because it traces the Gospel of Christ's salvation through its mysteries). In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that Christ's becoming Man was enough of an act to effect our Salvation, and he claims that His death was simply the way He showed us how ugly sin is. While I'm not entirely sure that I agree with St. Thomas' assessment on that matter, it is food for thought. And the thought is this: everything, and I mean everything, that Jesus did here on earth, brought us redemption. Everything He did was salvific, not simply His death on the Cross. In fact, it is all of a piece. It is all interconnected. Or as Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote, "It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth" (Life of Christ, p. 14). It is this realisation that made me appreciate the Christmas story.

We see Christ's redemptive act in the Nativity in His very and utter reversal of that Original Sin which separated men from God--that sin of pride which said, "I want to be my own God and rule my own life!" Christ, then, overturned completely that attitude, as His arrival as the New Man. Where men wanted to be gods, God deigned to become a Man. Where men were filled with pride at their own self-importance, God caused Himself to become unimportant by worldly standards: He became not just a Man, but a Baby. Where men wanted to become the masters of their own destinies, the Christ-child caused Himself to become wholly dependent upon His mother and foster-father. Unable to eat, He had to be fed; unable to walk, He had to be carried; unable to take care of Himself, He had to be mothered. He, the great and omnipotent God who created Heaven and Earth, had now entered it, and became utterly dependent.

But it was not even as a rich King's son that He was born. He so disregarded His divine dignity as to be born into poverty, and laid in a barn's feeding-trough because no one in Bethlehem could find it in their hearts or in their homes to put up a pregnant woman for the night. Christ, the King and creator of the world, could find no welcome in it--as He Himself said, "no place to lay His head" (Matt 8:20). Fulton Sheen again writes, "When finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last words in time, the saddest line of all will be: 'There was no room in the inn'" (ibid., p. 21).

The One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (cf. Ps 50:10) made His bed among them. From this descent into poverty, a renewed emphasis on the poor is proclaimed--that which the Church calls "the preferential option for the poor," or as Jesus Himself would proclaim, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). It is thus fitting that poor shepherds nearby would be the first to hear the good news from the angels, directing them to the stable. It was these shepherds, who themselves likely were tending and raising the lambs for the following Passover, who were the first to adore "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," and they who were the first to go and "praise God for all they had seen and heard" (Lk 2:20). Thus again, the shadow of the Cross hung over the stable, to borrow Fulton Sheen's phrase.

Jesus' plan of salvation, achieved ultimately in the Cross, and perpetuated and applied through our participation in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist also finds foreshadowing in the Nativity, as the Living Bread Who came down from Heaven was born in Bethlehem, the "House of Bread", and laid in a manger, literally, an "eating place".
In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity was born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts, was born among beasts. He, Who would call Himself the "living Bread descended from Heaven," was laid in a manger, literally, a place to eat. Centuries before, the Jews had worshipped the golden calf, and the Greeks, the ass. Men bowed down before them as before God. The ox and the ass were now present to make their innocent reparation, bowing down before their God (Life of Christ, p.22).
I had said at the beginning that I never was thrilled with Christmas. Part of the reason was always that I felt people took it too lightly--a Baby in a manger was not an image that called people to repentance. He was too small, too cute. And yet, it was this humilation, this littleness, that makes us able to love God. Another word from Archbishop Sheen will say what I mean more eloquently,
No man can love anything unless he can get his arms around it, and the cosmos is too big and too bulky. But once God became a Babe and was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, men could say, "This is Emmanuel, this is God with us" (ibid., p.26).
Thus the Christ-child, just by being a child, already begins to reconcile us to God.

The encounter with the shepherds is now Mary's second act of mediation--the second time in which she brings Jesus to us. In a sense, it is the ultimate time, for she has borne Him into the world. But in a specific manner, she then presents Jesus to the shepherds, who relate all that they had been told by the angels. Again we see her quiet humility, as she directs the shepherds to the Child, and not to herself. And we see her modelling the contemplative spirit which should govern all of us her children, as we seek to know Jesus more, for "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Lk 2:19). It is not the only time that Luke mentions her reflecting and treasuring the mysteries of her Son, and just as it must have been a regular part of her life, as she saw Jesus grow "in wisdom, stature, and in favour with God and men" (Lk 2:52), so she becomes our model and our teacher through the Rosary, as we meditate on these same mysteries.

We also should realise that Mary was more than simply a "necessary vessel" through which Jesus could become a Man and be born, for this most obviously was not the extent of Mary's role--to give birth to the Messiah and then recede into oblivion. No, for it was Mary who mothered Jesus, who clothed Him and fed Him and changed Him and protected Him as He grew. She was just as much a mother as any mother ever has been--and every mother will tell you that their job involves far, far more than giving birth! Moreover, Mary was the mother to whom Jesus had to be obedient, and whom He had to honour. Without Mary, and Joseph, Jesus could not have fulfilled the Law to honour one's mother and father. Mary's role is always secondary to Christ's, but it is not, by that reason, expendable. Not in the least.

Within eight days of His birth, Mary again acts as mediatrix, as she brings Jesus to be circumcised. And again, the shadow of the Cross falls across the Baby, as He begins already to shed His blood for the salvation of sinners, and in so doing, receives the name above all names: Jesus--the Saviour. He does not receive the Name at the Cross, or upon His resurrection, but here, at His circumcision, when first His blood is shed. All of Christ's life was lived in order to redeem a fallen humanity. As Fulton Sheen again comments,
In the Circumcision of the Divine Child there was a dim suggestion and hint of Calvary, in the precocious surrendering of blood. The shadow of the Cross was already hanging over a Child eight days old....But whenever there was an indication of Calvary, there was also some sign of glory; and it was at this moment when He was anticipating Calvary by shedding His blood that the name of Jesus was bestowed on Him (Life of Christ, p.33).
As we treasure all these things in our hearts with Mary, our Mother, let us not be in a hurry to rush past the Nativity to the Cross, but in patience and meditative wonder, see God's plan of salvation unfold step by step. For as all parents can attest, He'll grow up before you know it, and you don't want to miss a second of what He has done for us! Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Second Joyful Mystery

The Visitation

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (1:39-56)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

On its surface, the story of the Visitation seems like a quaint meeting of two pregnant cousins in a beautiful display of family love and blessing--but even the surface of the story holds deep insights. And yet, there's even more to it than meets the eye!

Very shortly after the Annunciation of Gabriel, Mary makes her way from Nazareth down to Judea--rather a bit of a trek, and Luke doesn't bother to tell us who she went with. However, if we assume that the Church's traditional date of March 25 for the Annunciation is correct, then it's very possible she made the trip on the way to Jerusalem for the Passover or Pentecost. As such, she'd have no want of companions for her journey.

I remember reading some scholarly biblical notes that pointed out an apparent discrepancy between John's discussion of John the Baptist's claim to not know Jesus, and Luke's claim that they were relatives, and how there seems to be a disconnect in the traditions. But if we read Luke's account, it seems like, while Elizabeth and Mary were related, they weren't all that close. After all, you'd think someone other than an Angel would break the news to you that your elderly cousin is miraculously pregnant--and that they would have done so before six months had gone by! Since that wasn't the case with Mary, it seems that they weren't all that close, and so it's not overly expected that John the Baptist would have grown up together with Jesus. Whatever the case, it's incidental to our reflection.

For now, let's explore the mystery of the story itself:
Mary journeys to her cousin, Elizabeth, and in so doing, performs her first act of mediation. That is, as she carries Jesus in her womb, she very literally brings Him to her relative. That this isn't some simplistic way of looking at things, Luke tells us very plainly--that when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant in her womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit! That is, the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon mother and child when Mary brought Jesus to them! This act itself fulfilled the word of Gabriel to Zacharias that John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15)! This bestowal of the Holy Spirit, then, was a foreshadowing of Mary's role as advocate, bringing us to her Son, Jesus.

This bestowal of the Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to bless Mary, giving us the words to the second part of the Hail Mary prayer: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:42). Elizabeth continues and concludes with the reason that Mary is blessed: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" (Luke 1:45). Mary is our model of faith and obedience to the will of God! And she is the sign to us that when we are obedient as well, we will be blessed by God. This verse points us to another truth. I often hear some Protestants try to minimise Mary's importance by citing Jesus' words in Luke 11:27-28:
While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!"
Jesus is not here diminishing Mary's blessedness, but affirming it! The echo to Elizabeth's blessing is clear. The real reason that Mary was blessed wasn't because she bore and nursed Jesus, but because she was obedient to God, in faith, which preceeded and caused Jesus' birth. It is Mary's perfect faith that makes her "most blessed among all women" as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it.

Now, I said before, and I'm sticking to it, that I don't want this to be an apologetic series of posts--at least, not in my usual more polemical fashion, so that's all I'll say on that subject. Moving on, then, we see Mary's response to Elizabeth's blessing: The Magnificat. Elizabeth has just called Mary the most blessed of all the women of the world, and instead of getting a swelled head about this, or in any way thinking of herself as someone important, Mary sings out a beautiful hymn of praise, blessing, and faith to God! This again points us to a principle truth regarding Our Lady: any time we praise or bless or honour her, she takes our praise, perfects it by adding it to her own, and gives it wholly and completely to God.

St. Louis de Montfort has this to say:
Lastly, you never think of Mary without Mary thinking of God for you. You never praise or honour Mary without Mary joining you in praising and honouring God. Mary is entirely relative to God. Indeed I would say that she was relative only to God, because she exists uniquely in reference to him.

She is an echo of God, speaking and repeating only God. If you say "Mary" she says "God". When St. Elizabeth praised Mary calling her blessed because she had believed, Mary, the faithful echo of God, responded with her canticle, "My soul glorifies the Lord." What Mary did on that day, she does every day. When we praise her, when we love and honour her, when we present anything to her, then God is praised, honoured and loved and receives our gift through Mary and in Mary. (True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, 6.225)
We don't need to fear a true and proper devotion to our Blessed Mother, thinking that it will somehow keep us from God! On the contrary, she herself leads us to God. She herself brings Jesus to us, and us to Jesus. She helps us to have her own perfect faith--that faith that made her blessed, and with which we are ourselves blessed with a more intimate relationship with her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ!

But as I said, this mystery itself is simply what lies on top of the Visitation. And truthfully, it would be enough to stop here and digest that. However, in the last meditation, I said that the "notion of Mary as the New Ark will frequently come up in our meditations, and I will delve into more detail in the next Mystery, that of the Visitation." Since this is our meditation on the Visitation, I cannot move on until I discuss the fact that in Luke's narrative, he subtly reveals to us that Mary is, indeed, the New Ark of the Covenant.

Luke reveals this to us mainly by way of paralleling his Visitation narrative with the 2 Samuel 6 narrative of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, specifically using the same Greek phrases that appear in the Septuagint OT that his readers would have been familiar with. In fact, the parallels are often so striking, that I sometimes wonder if Luke's detailing this account was done for the sole purpose of showing us the Mary/Ark parallel.

Let's look at the parallels in detail (I am indebted to Scott Hahn's book, Hail, Holy Queen, for first revealing these insights to me):

  • Luke begins his narrative by telling us that, shortly after the Annunciation, "Mary set out and went" to see Elizabeth. In 2 Samuel 6:1-2, we read of how David gathered the chosen men of Israel and they "set out and went" to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem.

  • When Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth, the babe in Elizabeth's womb "leaped for joy" (Luke 1:44, cf. v.41). In 2 Samuel, we see "King David leaping and dancing before the Lord" (vv. 14-16), using a very similar phrase in the Greek to that which Luke employs of John the Baptist.

  • Moreover, in telling Mary about John's leaping, Elizabeth "exclaimed with a loud cry" (v. 42), echoing the "shouting" of David and the people before the Ark (2 Sam 6:15). This is even more striking when we consider that the phrase Luke uses for "exclaimed" is found nowhere else in the New Testament, and in the Septuagint Old Testament, the phrase is used only five times--and each time it is used in reference to the Ark of the Covenant and the people's joy at having God's presence among them!

  • In this loud voice, Elizabeth asks, "And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?" (v. 43), a question that David asks almost verbatim in 2 Samuel 6:9, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?" It is almost the exact same question, replacing "ark" with "mother".

  • Finally, we see Mary staying with Elizabeth--Mary, whose greeting brought the blessing of the Holy Spirit--and after three months, she returns to her home (v. 56). When terror strikes King David at the death of Uzzah, he leaves the Ark of the Covenant at the home of Obed-Edom (in what would be "a Judean town in the hill country," cf. Luke 1:39). Three months later, David hears that the household of Obed-Edom has been blessed by the Ark's presence there, and so he brings it the rest of the way to Jerusalem.

  • Now, obviously, the stories do not parallel each other one hundred percent. They were, after all, two entirely different events. But the parallels that are there are so thickly woven into the fabric of Luke's brief narrative that they are inescapable. And they serve to show what we said in our last meditation, and will say again before we've finished our Rosary together: that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant, bearing in her womb Jesus, who brings us salvation through the New Covenant in His Blood.

    Let us then honour Mary with the words of Elizabeth in the Hail Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus!" knowing that, every time we do so, she transforms our humble prayer into a glorious Magnificat to the glory of the Triune God! Let us also rejoice with a loud voice that, through her obedience, God has come to dwell in the presence of His people in the person of Christ! And let us bring our blessing in Christ's name to all the people we meet today. Amen.

    (Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    The First Joyful Mystery

    The Annunciation

    Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
    Blessed art thou amongst women,
    And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
    Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
    Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
    A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (1:26-38)
    In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
    The Gospel of the Lord.
    Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

    The Dominicans have a motto, which runs, "Contemplare et contemplata allis tradere," that is: "To contemplate and then pass on the fruits of this contemplation." The other Dominican motto, simply "Veritas," lets us know what we are to contemplate, and what we are to pass on. It is this motto that prompts me to write this series on the Rosary--not primarily for an apologetic purpose, but for the sake of passing on the fruits of my own contemplation of the Mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary.

    When the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary, his announcement brings the message that Something in the world is changing. God's way of dealing, of interacting, with humanity, is radically changing. What the prophets had foretold is now coming to pass--in this very moment, this small space!

    The angel comes to Mary, bowing before her with the greeting, "Hail, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you!" Mary is troubled at this greeting, wondering what it could mean--and indeed, we too must pause and consider the angel's greeting, and what it means: for it is a mystery within a mystery.

    Throughout history, artists have often painted this scene, and in so doing, many, such as Fra Angelico, present a startling arrangement: Gabriel is bowing to Mary! While St. Luke does not record Gabriel's posture before Mary, and while no angel has ever bowed in the presence of a mere human before or since, this artistic depiction nevertheless expresses several profound and related truths: The first is the uniqueness of the greeting and what it signifies--that Mary is unique among all of God's creatures. She is "Full of Grace". Second, the depiction of the kneeling angel is completely parallel to truth gleaned directly from Luke's Gospel: that is that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant. The third is that, while all apparitions of angels to people are extraordinary and unique circumstances, this one far surpasses them all, as it announces the New and Definitive Covenant in which God will save His people, in Jesus Christ.

    First, then, Gabriel's depiction as kneeling before Mary at the Annunciation visually and poetically echoes the truth that no angel has ever, before or since, addressed a human being in such a way. St. Thomas Aquinas writes,
    With respect to the first, it should be known that in ancient times it was an especially great event when an angel appeared to men, so that men might show them reverence, for they deserve the greatest praise. It was written in praise of Abraham that he received angels hospitably and that he showed them reverence. But it was never heard that an angel showed reverence to a man until he saluted the Blessed Virgin, saying reverently, Hail. (Follow the link for the rest of his discourse.)
    The uniqueness of Gabriel's greeting, his Ave, is followed by the "name" by which he addresses Mary: for while the Church has added the word "Mary" to the Hail Mary, Gabriel simply says, "Hail, Full of Grace." Before he ever calls her by her given name, the angel has, in effect, renamed her.

    Biblically speaking, names are very important. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we see how a person's name reflects their character--and more, when God chooses to rename a person, that new name represents something specific to that person's vocation and destiny. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Jacob. His name literally means "Deceiver" or "Supplanter", and he lived up to it throughout his life--from swindling his brother out of his birthright to actually dressing up as his brother to deceive his father. But then, after having to pay severely for his deceptions in order to make peace with his brother and come home, he meets "the Angel of the Lord" on the way, with whom he wrestles. At the end of the struggle, the Angel blesses him with a new name, "Israel": "Prince of God". This new name becomes his new call, and henceforward the call of all his descendants in the nation of Israel--to reign with God, in covenant with Him.

    Right off the bat, it is not as Mary that Gabriel addresses Our Lady, but as "Full of Grace". God is giving her, as it were, a new name, and revealing to her exactly why it is that she is unique, and what her calling and destiny are. In the original Greek in which St. Luke wrote, the word used by Gabriel is "kecharitomene", which is a rather tricky term to translate. Jerome put it as gratia plena in his Vulgate, which the Douay-Rheims translates "Full of Grace", and which is the most popular version of it in the minds of Catholics, due to the Hail Mary's use of it. Other translations, such as the NRSV quoted above, put it as "favoured" or "highly favoured". There really is no one word or two words that can adequately sum up this single Greek word, so let's pause briefly to dive into it:

    The root word is Charitoo, a verb meaning "to bestow grace". What is grace? It has been defined as "God's unmerited favour", and this is certainly true. There is nothing we can do to deserve grace, or as St. Paul says, "otherwise grace is no more grace" (Romans 11:6). However, simply defining grace as "God's favour" seems to be an inadequate definition, when examined according to its use in Scripture. One brief example will show my meaning. Christ tells St. Paul (in 2 Corinthians 12:9), "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." Grace, in this Hebraistic parallelism, is equated with the power of God. It goes beyond simply "favour", though it certainly includes that. Rather, it is the very power, the very life of God, which energises us and makes us holy. The grace of God, then, is the antithesis of sin.

    The particular construction of this word gives more depth to its meaning. The second thing to note is that it is in the passive voice. That is, Mary isn't the one bestowing grace. She is the one receiving the grace bestowed. God is giving His power, His life, His grace, to Mary. Finally, the verb "charitoo" is in the perfect past tense. That is, the action of bestowing Grace was completed once and for all at a definite time in the past, and its effects continue into the present and onward, never needing to be repeated. Thus, when Gabriel says to Mary, "Hail, Full-of-Grace", he is saying to her, "Rejoice, you who have once and for all received the fullness of the life and power of God in a remarkable way!" If as we said, Grace is the antithesis for sin, in the Angel's greeting, and renaming, of Mary, we have a basis for the ancient Church teaching of Mary's sinlessness--which, as we'll reflect on further in the next mystery, does not therefore negate Mary's need for a Saviour, but rather shows how extraordinary and unique her salvation really was.

    This belief in Mary being preserved from the stain of original sin (which the Church has dogmatically declared to have taken place at her conception, which is the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception), as I said above in the discussion of Names, shows us Mary's calling and her destiny: She is the Ark of the New Covenant.

    This notion of Mary as the New Ark will frequently come up in our meditations, and I will delve into more detail in the next Mystery, that of the Visitation. For now, I would just point out a few of the typological similarities:
    • The Ark of the Covenant was the most holy item of the Jewish liturgical structure.
    • The Ark of the Covenant held within it the Ten Commandments, the Manna, and Aaron's priestly rod which budded.
    • The Ark of the Covenant was so holy that absolutely no one was able to touch it.
    • The Ark of the Covenant was where God would meet with Moses, in the form of a Cloud (the Shekinah) hovering over the Ark between the two statues of kneeling angels.

    There is more that could be said about the Ark of the Covenant, but we will wait on that for later meditations. Let us reflect on these, especially in the context of the Annunciation, and Mary's fulfilment of the Ark typology.

    • Just as the Ark was the most holy of all of the Jewish temple furnishings, so is Mary, who as we discussed is "Full of Grace" and thus preserved from sin, the most holy of all God's creatures.
    • Just as the Ark held the Law, the Manna, and the sign of Aaron's priesthood within it, Mary held in her womb Jesus, the Son of God, and the fulfilment of each of these types. He is the Divine Lawgiver, as well as God's Logos, the Word of God in the Flesh. He is the Bread of Life, who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist so that all who eat of Him shall not die, but have everlasting life. And He is our Great High Priest, who has made atonement for our sins, and reunited us to the Father.
    • Just as the Ark could be touched by no man, so Mary, Ever-Virgin, was never intimately known. We see a hint of this even here in the Annunciation, that she knew that she was consecrated to Virginity even before the Annunciation of Gabriel, in her question to him, "How can this be, for I am a virgin?" It is not enough to say that this sets up simply the Virgin Birth of Christ, since it seems clear from her need to ask the question, even though she was already engaged to be married (v. 26). Had she intended to enter normal married relations with Joseph, her question would be absurd. That she asked how she could bear a child at all indicates that she expected to remain always a virgin.
    • The final way in which Mary fulfils the type of the Ark of the Covenant at the same time explains the mysterious reason why artists throughout history have depicted Gabriel kneeling or bowing in her presence. This image echoes the two cherubim kneeling on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, between which God's manifest Glory would hover. This is further borne out in Gabriel's answer to Mary's question of how this could be, when he describes to her that the Holy Spirit will "overshadow" her in the power of God Most High. This term reminds us of the Cloud of Glory overshadowing the Ark, as well as the Holy Spirit's hovering over the waters of creation.

    Mary then is the Ark of the New Covenant, which points us directly to the final truth of the Annunciation: that the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary is utterly and absolutely unique, as it heralds the beginning of the New Covenant which God had promised! We spoke briefly above about Jacob's name changing to Israel reflected his calling, as well as those of his descendants--to be princes with God. This Covenant with the people of Israel, however, was continually broken through their sinfulness. Because of this, God spoke these words to the prophet Jeremiah:
    The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:27-34)
    This New Covenant is fulfilled and inaugurated through Jesus Christ, but before the New Covenant can take effect, the Ark of the Covenant must be restored.

    What happened to the original Ark of the Covenant? Because of the sinfulness of the Israelites, the Northern Tribes were taken into exile by Assyria in 722 BC. Just a little more well behaved than their northern neighbours, the Southern nation of Judah was deported to Babylon in 586 BC, just as Jeremiah had predicted. Before this happened, though, Jeremiah took the Ark and hid it. This is recounted in 2 Maccabees:
    One finds in the records that the prophet Jeremiah ordered those who were being deported to take some of the fire, as has been mentioned, and that the prophet, after giving them the law, instructed those who were being deported not to forget the commandments of the Lord, or to be led astray in their thoughts on seeing the gold and silver statues and their adornment. And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts. It was also in the same document that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: "The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated." (2 Maccabees 2:1-8)
    As Jeremiah prophesied above, it would be in the New Covenant that God would show His Mercy, and here, he says that when this is done, so too will the Ark return, and God's glory and "the cloud" will appear. Thus we see the fulfilment of these things in Mary as the New Ark, over whom the glory of the Lord hovered, and she conceived of the New Covenant when she conceived Christ and bore Him in her womb: Christ--the Saviour who has brought the Mercy of God to all who will believe!

    But note here the risk of God--the divine, omniscient risk-taker! He has chosen the lowly of this world, as Mary herself will express in the next meditation, in order to bring about His great Purpose! That is, God made Himself dependent on Mary's "Yes." Mary's Fiat in response to the Angel's message reveals yet another type which she fulfils, which will again be discussed at greater length as we progress: Mary is the New Eve. While Eve was tempted by a spirit and disobeyed God, Mary was asked by a spirit, and through her obedience, brought forth Christ to save the world. As the early Church Father, St. Irenaeus puts it,
    [When Christ] became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in Himself the long history of man, summing up and giving us salvation in order that we might receive again in Jesus Christ what we had lost in Adam--that is, the image and likeness of God....
    The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. The knot which the virgin Eve tied by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary opened by her belief....
    If the former disobeyed God, the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. And thus as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin. (from Quasten's Patrology, vol. 1, p. 296; Irenaeus' Against Heresies, 3.22.3 and 5.19.1, as quoted in Scott Hahn's Hail, Holy Queen, p. 42)
    Thus, let us emulate the humility and the obedience of the New Eve, who has undone the curse of the First Eve, as Christ has undone the disobedience of the First Adam! Let us with reverence venerate the New Ark just as the ancient Israelites venerated the Old Ark, and recognise Mary as the sure path to meeting with Jesus, whom we honour and worship and adore above all else, forever and ever! Amen.

    (Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

    Friday, November 02, 2007

    Co-Authoring (c)Catholics

    It seems that recently there have been some concerns as to the purpose of this site. Gregory, my close friend and co-author of this site, has already explained in one of the comment sections that the site was originally intended as a Catholic Apologetics site, and that I was considering at one point converting to Catholicism. Both intentions are true.

    Since the inception of this site, however, two intentions have changed for me. Most notably, I have decided not to become Catholic. And secondarily, I have refused apologetics along a purely Catholic line, and moved toward a more oecumenical (catholic, wholistic, organic, etc.) defense of the faith.

    That being said, I'd like to conclude this short interruption on the site by saying that as a 'protestant' (however you want to view that label), I am not out to defend my own understandings, the understandings of any particular church affiliation or tradition, or any opinion of such-and-such an author. I am interested in defending what is biblically true, as God Himself gives me wisdom to do so.

    So while Gregory will write from a position of Catholicism, and defend our common faith from the vantage of a convinced Catholic Christian, I will defend our common faith from the vantage of a convinced (small-'c') catholic Christian. Gregory desires to foster an understanding of an historical entity, and its beliefs as they have survived through history; I desire to nurse an understanding of an historic people and their convergent focus on Christ through history. You will see as this blog progresses and picks up speed over the next while that though we have our differences, we are Christians all the same. And it is that common faith that links us as brothers and sisters in Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 818; Apology of the Augsburg Confession VII & VIII: The Church, 10; Galatians 3:27-28).

    Gregory and I will most certainly disagree at times, and will debate heartily. Both of us are capable learners, writers, and academics. However, the point of our debates with each other -- as it should be for anyone else who comes to this board to debate us or each other, for that matter -- is not to screed, and debunk each other; we simply wish to strive with each other, even against each other, for the purpose of sharpening our understanding of the One who saved us: Jesus Christ, Our Lord. If apologetics between believers can't be done to that end, then we may as well tape our fingers together and shut our mouths from now on. There's no sense in defending for the purpose of offending, and any offense incurred because of a defense should be treated as the 8th commandment enjoins us: not as a false witness; the implication, of course being, that we should consider the other in the best possible light.