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Caring Intervention

In Christianity on November 30, 2015 at 2:21 pm

In the post that began this series, I said that for faith to be real, each of us must be grasped by a compelling story. My story comes in three parts:

1. Creating Love
2. Caring Intervention
3. Constant Presence

The previous post talked about God’s creating love. This post describes what “caring intervention” looks like: it looks like—and is—Christ’s Incarnation.

Clear Love
God’s creating love required explanation. Christ’s Incarnation requires very little: God became man.

God entered the world He created. If that is not a compelling story, I don’t know what is. But 2,000 years after the event, we sit in church and we say (or sing) words like these so casually: “God became man.” “God’s only begotten Son.” “The Son of God.” An hour later we turn to a friend and say just as mindlessly, “Watchin’ the game tonight?” That’s about how compelling the story of God’s caring intervention seems for too many of us.

Christ’s Incarnation and the events of His earthly life took place two millennia ago. By comparison, World War II happened only 70 years ago. Yet despite the recency of World War II, for anyone born since 1945 the war is simply history. We know the key dates and facts (or should). We may have some sense of how it affected the 20th-21st centuries.

Otherwise World War II is an abstract thing. The war is something we only know about. But as one definition of abstract says, we know about it “apart from concrete realities.” At most, we have a father’s or grandfather’s uniform, some photos, or his medals. But all of that is carefully preserved in a box that has little to do with our daily lives.

Concrete Love
I’m convinced too often the Incarnation is just such an abstraction. We know a few dates and facts. We may truly understand—please God!—how it affects us today. But it stands apart from the concrete realities of our lives. Our knowledge of the Incarnation sits in a box called “going to church on Sunday,” along with other details we don’t think we really think much about on a daily basis.

Yet it was not so for the woman at the well: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done!” (John 4:29). It was not so for the man born blind: “One thing I know is that I was blind and now I see” (John 9:25). The Incarnation, for us, should be as miraculous as Christ’s knowledge seemed to the woman.  It should be as miraculous for us as the blind man’s his healing.

As Robert Cardinal Sarah writes in God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith, “Christianity is Someone bursting into my life.” Christ’s Incarnation should be more startling than a Martian landing on earth.

The illustration is silly. Its point is not. Are we actually startled—even dismayed, or perhaps troubled, or thrilled—by the fact that God became man? Or is it just an abstraction? Did God really became man or is this just a dramatic way of describing His empathy for us? God becoming man would be quite a miracle, after all.

Caring Intervention
The Triune God entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ. That was a caring intervention! It confirms in the most powerful possible way, the first part of my compelling story: God’s creating love. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). And “in this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might have life through Him (1 John 4:9).

This love, demonstrated through the concrete reality of God’s caring intervention, affects every moment of our lives. Our response to that love and intervention will determine our circumstances in eternity.

This is why, in the liturgy, Catholic Christians repeat the words of the Nicene Creed—and we bow as we say them, in awe at God’s loving condescension:

For us men and for our salvation He [Jesus Christ] came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.¹

God’s caring intervention is among the reasons The Virgin Mary is held in such esteem by Catholic Christians. Her flesh robed the Incarnate Christ!² She is part of the compelling story of the intervention.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us.” There is that word again: abstraction; without concrete reality. In the words of poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Mary is “her who gave God’s infinity . . . infancy.”³

The Continuing Story
So what is my story, so far? God’s creating love. What is not God need not exist. Yet by His desire, we do.

As a result of God’s caring intervention, described in this present post—God became man; one of us. God could have remained aloof, outside His creation, but he didn’t. He intervened in the most personal way possible to set right what we put wrong.

How does this story end? I invite you to read on, click here, because Christ is still with us and will be until the end of the age, “the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20). He is with us, not abstractly, apart from concrete realities, but constantly present in The Eucharist—the source and summit of the Christian life.

 

¹ Nicene Creed:
http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/index.cfm

² Even if we ignore her saying “Yes” to God (Luke 1:26-38), or her responsibility, with St. Joseph, to parent the Son of God, or her constancy of faith in suffering at her Son’s brutal crucifixion (John 19:25), Christ was given His flesh by Mary. The flesh He bears, even now, in Heaven—with His nail scarred hands and feet, and wounded side—was Mary’s. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, called Mary “the ‘holy earth’ from which Christ was formed as man” (Magnificat, August 5, 2016).

³ G.K. Chesterton was quoted in Magnificat, January 2015 issue (published in Yonkers, NY).  His quotation is from explanatory text before the liturgy for The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, which is celebrated each January 1 as a reminder of Mary’s role.

Gerard Manley Hopkin’s thought is only a  brief excerpt from his lovely and much longer poem, “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe.” Fr. Hopkins’ thought appears in the following context—which further emphasizes that one of the roles of Our Lord’s Mother is to prevent Christ’s Incarnation from ever seeming abstract to us:

. . . Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race . . .

To say more about The Blessed Virgin Mary is beyond the scope of this post, but it is a topic that, through misunderstandings, has needlessly divided Christians for far too long.

Creating Love

In Christianity on November 20, 2015 at 6:41 pm

The two posts prior to this one (Evangelical Catholicism and Fear and the Good News) talk about having a compelling story. So it would be fair for you to ask, what’s my story?

In the broadest sense, all of Christianity Richly is my story. But what would I say to to someone I just met, sitting beside me on an airplane? Or to a family member in just a short conversation? Or to you?

The short version of my story comes in three parts:

Does God Need Us?
The first part of my story is the reality of God’s creating love. What does that mean? It means that your existence and mine aren’t at all necessary. We aren’t needed by God. But to be wanted is much better than to be needed. 

The poem, “The Creation,” by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1928) asserts God is lonely, and therefore He made the world. The poem recounts God creating light, then the physical features of our world, and finally plants and animals—but, so says the poem, God was still lonely:

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”

Nonsense! In his book, The Order of Things, Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. explains:

Within the inner life of the Godhead there is a diversity of Persons such that God is in fact lacking no perfection, such as friendship … [this] means that what is not God … is not the product of necessity … what is not God need not exist. God would be perfect and complete even if there were nothing besides God.¹

Does God Love Us?
Did you notice, “What is not God need not exist”? Just in case you or I miss Fr. Schall’s point, that’s us. God was not moved by some sort of loneliness to sit down (in Johnson’s poetic language) beside a river and think, “I’ll make me a man!” Instead:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in [God’s] own blessed life. [italics mine] For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man . . . In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (From Paragraph 1 of the Prologue to The Catechism of the Catholic Church)

God created freely. He created joyfully, for Genesis 1 repeatedly says that God viewed what He created as good. He even created us in His own image. And He blessed the first man and woman with everything needed for their welfare and creative activity (Genesis 1:27-31). This is evidence that God’s intent toward us is loving; that He desires our good; that He wants to draw close to us!

As Fr. Schall writes:

If God freely causes what is not Himself to exist, [then] we can, on the basis of His own merciful purpose in creation, anticipate or expect that His loyalty or fidelity will be freely given to what He causes to be.

How Do We Know?
As noted above, we get our first sense of God’s love from creation: we were created in His image, given everything needed for human welfare and creative activity. Evidence of God’s creating love starts here.

As magnificent as our world is, however, God went beyond creation. His communication is also evidence of His love. Before the first man and woman damaged their relationship with God, He apparently walked with them daily in friendship and complete communion (Genesis 3:8-9). Yet even after they chose their way over God’s, he continued to communicate through Moses and the prophets. And He continues to communicate today, as Fr. Allan White, O.P., explains:

Revelation is . . . a conversation of God with humanity, a conversation in which God takes the initiative. It is an impulse of His love . . . an expression of God’s continuous offer of friendship to humanity.²

God loves us and He tells us—as the simple children’s hymn says: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

God’s Highest Expression of Love
Like our first parents, each of us has failed individually and collectively—sinned—in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do. So God went beyond creation, and beyond communication. God’s ultimate expression of love for us is in His Son, Jesus Christ.

“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is the strongest possible evidence of continuing love from the One who created us, not because we were needed but because we were wanted. He entered our circumstances, becoming man.

By doing so, He went beyond the evidence of His that might be deduced from creation. He went beyond His ongoing communication of friendship through revelation. Jesus Christ is the highest expression of God’s love for us, in absolutely concrete form. He is God walking with us, not distant from us.

We might mistake the meaning of creation. We could misunderstand the intent of revelation. We cannot miss the meaning of God’s caring intervention in Christ:

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, He spoke to us through a Son (Hebrews 1:1-2a).

What is Our Response?
Knowing these things, of course, the question becomes, “What is our response to God’s offer of friendship?” Listen to Pope Francis talking about God’s creating and redeeming love:

“It would do us good today to ask ourselves: Do I believe the Lord has saved me freely? Do I believe that I do not deserve my salvation and that, if I merit anything, it is [only] through Jesus Christ and what he has done for me?”

Pope Francis continues: “The gift of God’s son, his death and resurrection, is a mystery that is and always has been difficult for human beings to understand. One must obey the commandments and do what Jesus said to do, but this obedience is is [our] response to God’s salvation, not a condition for it.”³

God’s humbling Himself in Jesus Christ, to walk with us in our circumstances and actually die for us, is faithful love. That is costly love. That is God’s creating love.

What is our response? Need to know more before answering? Click this link, for part two of my story—which can be yours, too!

 

¹ The Order of Things, by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., pp. 54-55.

² Allan White, O.P., “The Renewed Understanding of the Liturgy of the Word,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, Alcuin Reed, editor (London and New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), p. 179.

³ Cindy Wooden, The Catholic News Service, in The Catholic Miscellany, October 22, 2015.

 

Fear and The Good News

In Christianity on November 19, 2015 at 6:00 pm

In trying to explain anything that is life changing—for example, the compelling story mentioned in the last post—many of us fear that what we say is just too strange, too inexplicable to repeat in public.

The Samaritan Woman’s Story
Yet fear didn’t stop the Samaritan woman Christ met at the well or the man he cured of blindness. “The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?’ … Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I have done.'”¹

The Blind Man’s Story
Nor did fear—even fear of telling a story that seemed too simple to believe—stop the blind man. “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” He was then pressed for details about what Christ did and how he did it. The formerly blind man replied, “I told you already and you did not listen … This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, but he opened my eyes.”² The blind man’s life was changed. He had evidence. There was a lot he could not explain, but he was enthusiastically recounting what he could; what he did know.

Your Story?
What is there in your Christian life that you know, that has changed your life and faith so significantly that you can say, “This I know. And what I know makes a difference. Here’s why.” We so easily repeat the things we were taught as cultural Christians, the things we are supposed to believe. But why do we believe them? What about the gospel story is so personally engaging it has stopped us in our tracks? What makes a real difference in the way we describe our relationship to God?

Messengers, Not Minstrels
When we have an answer to those questions—what has made a real difference in our lives? What has stopped us in our tracks?—then we are prepared to be evangelicals in the best sense of the word.

Like the blind man and the woman at the well, you will be eager to share the news that affected your life. Don’t stop short of that. Phillips Brooks, a 19th century Episcopal minister, said we will no longer be content as minstrels who entertain; who tell a pleasant tale. We will feel like the messenger, who rushes breathlessly into a room to deliver information of vital importance.³

My Story
For me, the message, the overwhelming experience, was to encounter Christ in the Church—not just in the Bible, as important as that is, or in my “quiet time.” Lifelong questions were answered; language was provided to describe my faith more precisely; Bible verses not explained in my prior Christian experience became clear; seemingly isolated ideas now fit into a coherent whole.

That is Christianity Richly. As the woman at the well said, “Come see.” The next four posts describe my story, the good news of of God’s creating love, Christ’s Incarnation, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Don’t stop here. Read on. “Come see.”

 

¹  John 4:28, John 4:39

²  John 9:25, John 9: 27, 30

³  The Joy of Preaching, by Phillips Brooks

Evangelical Catholicism

In Christianity on November 19, 2015 at 5:46 pm

The months leading up to any presidential election frequently include references to  “evangelicals.” Politically, the term means little more than a block of socially and fiscally conservative voters, whose political platform is imagined to stem from their Christian convictions.

However, the term evangelical is based on a Greek root-word meaning “good news,” and has come to mean the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ—which is decidedly more than a political platform. So, although the term evangelical is typically associated with protestantism, one can be an Evangelical Catholic. Indeed, the Church’s last three decades strongly suggest that one should be.¹

What Evangelicals Do
If we are evangelicals of any kind, this begs for some attention to the practical consequences of being evangelicals. Evangelization has acquired negative connotations in some modern circles, yet that need not be so. Evangelization comes down to good news, telling a story—a good story!  During the first dot-com boom, it was not unusual to be handed a business card with the title “Evangelist” or “Product Evangelist.” But effective evangelism requires the story to be so compelling you cannot not tell it.

Any narrative that compelling is easy to remember and to talk about with others. So what is Christianity’s compelling story? What is our good news?

What Our Story is About
At its heart, the story is about the Cross of Christ. French poet Paul Claudel expresses it this way: “Who knows, definitively, whether [the effect of Christ’s death on the Cross, applied to us] is not a bridge cut in advance to the exact measurement of that fissure we shall have to cross, just broad enough to pass from one bank to another,” from death to life; from time into eternity?²

Hasn’t each of us, at some point during our life, thought about our own death? About what comes after death? About whether there might be an antidote to death—a bridge to ongoing life?

Who Needs to Hear That Story?
If Christianity’s compelling story provides an answer to those questions, who needs to hear that story? Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, identifies three groups:

  1. Those who don’t know Who Christ was or how he relates to us
  2. Those who are already part of Christian communities, whose faith will be increased by hearing our story
  3. Those who have been baptized and call themselves Christian, but have lost a living sense of the faith, “or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, or live a life far removed from Christ and His Gospel”³

Each of these three groups needs to hear the story. God’s grace must first open our ears and prepare our hearts: for by grace are we saved (convinced of the truth of the good news, converted, born again) through faith—Ephesians 2:8.  But faith requires content. We believe in something or someone.

How we tell the story of what or in Whom we believe in depends, first, on our own personal encounter with Christ by God’s grace. Then, as evangelical Catholics, we take time to reflect on our personal story, so we can share the good news with others.

How I Tell My Story
My story? I increasingly believe that, if we grasp the significance of three things, then we come face-to-face with a story so compelling, we will be eager to tell it. These three things are not to the exclusion of the rest of the gospel story. They are doors into that story:

The next several posts tell this story. It is a story you can re-tell, first to yourself and then to others, if the content of the story grasps you as powerfully as it does me. And this story’s power, its truth, and its implications for us, are most assuredly Christianity Richly.

 

¹ See Fr. Jay Scott Newman (St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Greenville, SC) on Evangelical Catholicism, here. Fr. Newman also refers to George Weigel’s very helpful and timely book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, here.

² Paul Claudel, A Poet Before the Cross (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1958), p. 50. Although copies are becoming hard to find, they occasionally become available by searching AbeBooks.com.

³ Redemptoris Missio: On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate