11 Thu Feb 2010
Alive and Beautiful
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One of the Dominican friars was being interviewed by a student newspaper in Edinburgh, and he was asked, â€˜How would you like to be remembered?â€™ And he answered, quite simply, â€˜I donâ€™t want to be remembered. I want to be resurrected.â€™ The remembering of our dead is the best a world that does not know Christ can muster. The pagans set up memorials, because the only thing you can leave the world is the memory of you before you depart to join the world of wraiths and shadows. Even today, people will say things like, â€˜Our dead loved ones will live on in our memories.â€™ If thatâ€™s true, then they are the most pitiable â€“ because the half-life they endure is dependent on our vague and muddled remembering.
Christ is no shadow, no wraith or ghost. He says to his disciples, â€˜Handle me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.â€™ That is why we do not have relics of Christ himself, but only of things which came into contact with him: his burial cloths, the nails, the crown of thorns and the other implements of his passion and death. But the same is true of Our Lady. The early Christians, who avidly collected the bones and blood of the martyrs â€“ the way we moderns might seek out a piece of the Berlin wall on eBay â€“ the same early Christians never claimed to have a relic of the body of Mary. Instead they said that Our Lady was no longer on the earth, certainly not in her spirit, but not in her body either. Collecting the relics of saints and martyrs makes a lot of sense, far more sense indeed, than collecting pieces of the Berlin wall or signatures of so-called celebrities. The real celebrities, that is, those who ought to be celebrated, are the saints of Christ.
And when we celebrate Our Lady, we do not celebrate a memory. Mary is not a shadow. She is complete; she is alive and not dead, by the power of the Resurrection of her Son. She is risen too.
In his Gospel, Luke presents Mary as a box. To be precise, he portrays Mary as the ark of the covenant, as that box-like container which held the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone â€“ famously depicted in the first Indiana Jones film.
The ark held three things (Hebrews 9.4), which are all symbols of Jesus. First, the Ten Commandments, on 2 stone tablets, the foundation of Godâ€™s covenant with his people. But Jesus however is the mediator of the new and eternal covenant (Hebrews 9.15). Second, it held manna, the bread from heaven with which God fed his people in the desert. But Jesus is the true and living bread from heaven (John 6.48-50). Third, it contained Aaronâ€™s staff which budded and flowered, a symbol of Aaron being chosen as priest. But Jesus is the great High Priest, the Shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11.1). Just as the contents of the ark prefigure Jesus, so the ark itself prefigures Mary. The ark contained the old covenant, but in her womb Mary carried the New Covenant.
Just as the ark was overshadowed by the divine glory (Exodus 40.34), so Mary is overshadowed by the â€˜power of the Most Highâ€™ (Luke 1.35). King David leapt and danced before the ark when it came to him (2 Samuel 6.12-6), and likewise John the Baptist leaps in his mother Elizabethâ€™s womb at the sound of Maryâ€™s greeting (Luke 1.44). The old ark stayed for three months at the house of Obed-Edom, causing an increased fertility in that family (2 Samuel 6.11). Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1.56), and Maryâ€™s pregnancy is the reason for Elizabeth herself having conceived. Faced with the ark, David said, â€˜Who am I that the ark of the Lord should come to me?â€™ (2 Samuel 6.9). Likewise Elizabeth tells Mary, â€˜Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?â€™ (Luke 1.43). And finally, to cap it all, the first reading shows the ark in heaven, juxtaposed with the woman clothed with the sun, the woman who gives birth to the Word of God. Mary then is truly the new ark, the ark of the new and eternal covenant.
What happened to the original ark is a mystery. The psalms and Jeremiah know it is lost, and prophesies that it will be superseded with the coming of the Messiah (Jeremiah 3.16). A later legend has Jeremiah hiding the ark at Mount Nebo (2 Maccabees 2.4-8). Its loss is a great blow to the people of Israel, for the ark was the guarantee of the special presence of God with his people. Where the ark was, God was present there in a special way.
In Jesus, God is present in a truly special way. Because Jesus is God-made-man, and so in Mary, the ark of the new covenant, God is fully present in space and time. Mary is the guarantee of the truth that God has become a human being, that God is present to his people â€“ and this time forever. Since the covenant of our salvation is eternal, it is fitting that the ark of this new covenant should not be lost as the old one was. The book of Revelation shows Mary associated with celestial powers: clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with twelve stars. They represent an abiding testimony to heavenly realities; placed in the sky they act as witnesses forever to Godâ€™s eternal faithfulness. Just as they never pass away, Our Lady also now endures forever. Mary is adorned with them because she, as the new ark, is removed from the caprices and changeability of the earth, and placed as a celestial witness of the fulfilment of Godâ€™s faithfulness to his covenant.
It is interesting that St Bernadette, who saw Our Lady, always described her as a young girl, alive and beautiful.
Mary, through Christ the first fruits, has been glorified, made fully alive through the power of his resurrection. We, the other children of the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.17), who belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 15.23), await his coming again in glory. He has not allowed this ark to be lost or destroyed, because the covenant of this second ark lasts forever. God has prepared a place of rest for the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.6). And more than that, as both Johnâ€™s gospel and the book of Revelation make clear, we Christians are given Mary as our mother â€“ a living, bodily mother, and not a ghost or a spirit, not a memory but a resurrected woman. If, in the bible, God â€“ through his angels and saints â€“ praises Mary, how can we do any less, especially when He has given her to us, that we might hope still more? Hope with sure conviction, that we too will share in Christâ€™s resurrection.
19 Fri Mar 2010
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In our consumerist age, a child can be seen as something we select, and the conception of a child can be something we purchase. One company that sells conception, so to speak, is called â€˜Man Not Includedâ€™. Now how exactly is a man not included? The products that are sold have been bought from male donors. Some man is necessary for the childâ€™s conception. The implication then is that the man is not included in the upbringing of the child. This does reinforce the generalisation that the mother-child bond is unique and possesses a degree of exclusivity. The man, the husband and father, remains the perpetual outsider, and he can only reproach his wife for paying attention to the child at his expense, and he can only accuse the child â€˜of always taking your motherâ€™s sideâ€™.
It seems that St Josephâ€™s position was similar. And to compound it, he was not responsible for Jesusâ€™s conception. Joseph truly is a â€˜man not includedâ€™. This particular mother-child bond is especially strong, and there is a deep understanding between them. Joseph is not only an outsider, but on a much lower rung. Living with two people without original sin, if anything went wrong, the presumption surely must be that it was Josephâ€™s fault! This downgrading of St Joseph has affected Christian art. Maryâ€™s perpetual virginity seems to require a similar sacrifice on Josephâ€™s part, and he is portrayed as an elderly widower, one whose virile powers have more or less fizzled out, a more credible partner for the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. But Joseph is more likely to have been a young man, and he is not one forced into continent chastity, but someone who is also invited by God to share in the great mystery of the Incarnation. Joseph truly is, as the Liturgy hails him, Maryâ€™s â€˜spouse most chasteâ€™.
Because Joseph is not responsible for Jesusâ€™s conception, there is a problem with what to call him. We could call him Jesusâ€™s â€˜foster fatherâ€™, but every good father nurtures and nourishes his children. We might call him Jesusâ€™s â€˜adoptive fatherâ€™, but Jesus is Josephâ€™s child, and you do not adopt your own children. He may be called Jesusâ€™s â€˜putative fatherâ€™, but then he is what people suppose him to be, the father of Jesus. And then there is the modern term â€˜non-biological fatherâ€™, and although this comes close in terms of accuracy, the essence of fatherhood is surely more than just mere biology.
Although Joseph seems alienated from his family, and his fatherhood difficult to describe, the scriptural portrait of St Joseph is quite different. Joseph is â€˜a just manâ€™ who fears God, and is prompt and obedient in fulfilling what God asks of him. Joseph does everything well, and cares for and protects â€˜the child and his motherâ€™. It is Joseph who has to give Jesus his name, and it is through Joseph that Jesus inherits his lineage from David and membership of that clan. In his teachings and parables, there are hints of Jesusâ€™s experience of Josephâ€™s fatherhood. When Jesus asks, â€˜What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?â€™ (Luke 11.11-2), he surely has the kindness of his human father in mind as he tries to illustrate the goodness of his heavenly Father. Jesus notes the closeness of the father-son bond, for only the demands of the Kingdom could come in between and turn â€˜father against son, and son against fatherâ€™ (Luke 12.53). And above all, the name Jesus has for designating his heavenly Father, â€˜Abbaâ€™, is the very name he would have used in addressing Joseph. And yet, the Abba, his heavenly Father, is the oneâ€”as Scripture saysâ€”â€˜from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its nameâ€™ (Ephesians 3.15). So Josephâ€™s fatherhood is a finite, human reflection of Godâ€™s eternal fatherhood, and yet for the child Jesus, the human fatherhood he comes to know and cherish becomes an appropriate and fitting analogy for the heavenly Fatherâ€™s love for the eternal Son. For this to be true, Joseph must have been a very good father, indeed the best of fathers.
With such a father, it is not surprising that Jesus follows in Josephâ€™s footsteps. He is called a carpenter (Mark 6.3), the son of a carpenter (Matthew 13.55). Like the good son of a good father, he follows in his fatherâ€™s trade. This is true also of Jesusâ€™s heavenly Father. He says, â€˜My Father is working still, and I am workingâ€™ (John 5.17). The trade Jesus receives is given to him by the Father: â€˜for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent meâ€™ (John 5.36). So in working as a carpenter, Jesus shows that Joseph is his human father. And by preaching the Kingdom and working signs, Jesus shows that he has indeed been sent by the Father in heaven.
In todayâ€™s gospel, when Mary and Joseph find Jesus, Mary throws a veil over Jesusâ€™s parentage. She says, â€˜Your father and I have been looking for youâ€™ (Luke 2.48). It is not for anyone else but Jesus to reveal his heavenly paternity, and so Mary calls Joseph his father. And here, Jesus gives the first hint that he will reveal the heavenly Father. â€˜Did you not know that I must be busy with the things of my Father?â€™ (Luke 2.49). His heavenly Fatherâ€™s trade will occupy him eventually, but for now he will learn Josephâ€™s trade and be obedient to his parents.
There is, on the whole, a bad deal for fatherhood. It is seen as an optional extra, or as an ideal that fails so abysmally in reality. Fatherhood is an instantiation of the so-called â€˜oppressive patriarchal systemâ€™. But what is wrong with patriarchs? One can love patriarchs just as much as matriarchs. There is nothing intrinsically evil about fatherhood. But many people have a bad experience of fathers, experiences of absence, betrayal, neglect and abuse, here where they should have found security, love and gentleness. It is here that St Joseph still has a role to play. Through his intercession and protection, those who are still hurting can find the hope of healing and peace. Through the good fatherhood of Joseph, we can come to understand the Fatherhood of God, when we, made sons and daughters in the image of Christ, can come in the Spirit to repose in the bosom of the Father, and there at last find perfect wholeness, perfect bliss.