CNA - Saint of the Day

Thursday, December 25, 2014

My First Christmas Homily

“Once upon a time there was a man who looked upon Christmas as a lot of humbug. He wasn’t a Scrooge. He was a kind and decent person, generous to his family, upright in all his dealings with others. But he didn’t believe all that stuff about Incarnation which churches proclaim at Christmas. And he was too honest to pretend that he did. “I am truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, who was a faithful churchgoer. “But I simply cannot understand this claim that God becomes man. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
On Christmas Eve his wife and children went to church for midnight Mass. He declined to accompany them. “I’d feel like a hypocrite,” he explained. “I’d rather stay at home. But I’ll wait up for you.”
Shortly after his family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window and watched the flurries getting heavier and heavier. “If we must have a Christmas,” he thought, “I suppose it’s nice to have a white one.” He went back to his chair by the fireside and began to read his newspaper. A few minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. It was quickly followed by another, then another.
He thought that someone must be throwing snowballs at his livingroom window. When he went to the front door to investigate, he found a somewhat dazed flock of birds huddled together in his yard. They had been caught in the snow flurry and in a desperate search for shelter had tried to fly through his window towards the light, heat and shelter. “I can’t let these poor creatures lie there and freeze,” he thought. “But how can I help them?” I know, I’ll get them into the barn where it’s dry and warm.
He put on his coat and boots and tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the door wide and turned on a light. But the birds didn’t come in. “Food will lure them in,” he thought. So he hurried back to the house for bread crumbs, which he sprinkled on the snow to make a trail into the barn. To his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around and waving his arms. They scattered in every direction - except into the warm lighted barn.
“They find me a strange and terrifying creature,” he said to himself, “and I can’t seem to think of any way to let them know they can trust me. If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety. . . .”
Just at that moment the church bells began to ring. He stood silent for a while, listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. Then he sank to his knees in the snow. “Now I do understand,” he whispered. “Now God, I see why You had to do it.”

We gather here at Mass this morning because we too have some understanding of what the Christmas message is really about. We recall that, from the beginning God, who is total goodness, longed to create us on whom he could pour out and share his greatness, his beauty, his happiness, his blessedness and glory. In doing so, he fashioned us in his image and likeness. But He did not stop there; for in the fulness of time God himself became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man. The God in whose image and likeness we are made is now made in the image and likeness of his beloved people - a solidarity in the flesh and an incredible mystery. After all that is what mystery means - the inability to express and explain what we are encountering. Yet without words we are brought to that place deep within where reason and rationality can’t make their home. When we gaze on the crib, and focus in particular on the child lying in the manger words fail and only mystery remains … we are drawn in and a connection is made at the very depth of our being. There lies the babe in silence ... warm and content but as yet he makes no demands, as yet he issues no challenge. The crib is the place, as Psalm 85 reminds us, where “Love and faithfulness meet; justice and peace embrace. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. God the Father has indeed given us what is good in fact he has given up his divine privileges; he has taken on the humble position of a servant and is born as one of us.

But what does this event mean to the world 2000 years on? What does this event teach the modern world that is weary and worn from natural disasters, diseases and war? Firstly, it serves to remind us that our world, when left to its own devices, quickly becomes so dark and so hopeless, that God himself is compelled to enter it and remain within it in order to transform it with his light and his peace. Secondly it serves to remind us that there is another way; and that is to imitate the example of Christ who chose to be in the world and for the world but not of the world. Thirdly, it serves to remind us that it was for us and for our salvation that he came down from heaven - we are His chosen people amongst whom he is pleased to dwell - that we are called to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood a people set apart to be an example of love and honesty, of justice and peace; a remedy, if you will, for the worlds troubles and a sign of contradiction to its demands. Simply put, we are called to follow and imitate Him who is the way, the truth and the life. Yet, today the Word is silent and His silence in the crib, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us, is a sign “that he is waiting - waiting for us to move out toward Him - waiting for a new, a willing and a generous yes.” His birth in Bethlehem was not and is not enough … he awaits your yes, so that he can be born within you and as a result through your eyes, your hands and your feet can bring blessings to the world. In this way, as Pope Francis recently related, the presence of Christ within each one of us will give our life a new dynamism … a necessary dynamism.

When the Christian life is lived with conviction, it is automatically dynamic ... never dormant … never self seeking and never introspective. Neither is it static, or repetitive to the point of staleness. Although the Christian message never changes, it is always new. The Christian life is dynamic - positive in attitude, joyful in disposition, full of energy and always interested in seeking new ways of communicating the joy of the Gospel. Yet, even the most dynamic Christian life cannot live for long without being nourished and without taking care of itself. In fact, the Christian cannot live without having a vital, personal, authentic and strong relation with Christ. Any seriously minded Christian that does not nourish themselves frequently with that food will become a shoot that dries up and little by little dies and eventually falls away. Daily prayer, participation in the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation, daily contact with the Word of God and a spirituality that translates into lived charity are the vital nourishment for each one of us. May it be clear to us all this Christmas season that without Him, as St John reminds us, we can do nothing (Cf. John 15:8). With him everything is possible. My dear friends, let us not wait until January 1st to make the usual fragile resolutions - but today, as we stand and pray in front of the crib and ponder the mystery of God among us let us repeat the selfless ‘Yes’ of Mary, welcome him in and allow him to transform our very being.

Blessed indeed be the Lord, the God of Israel!
He has visited his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up for us a mighty saviour just as he promised
The loving-kindness of the heart of our God now visits us in the flesh like the dawn from on high.
This little child, will give light to those in darkness, to those who dwell in the shadow of death,
And, if we let him, he will surely guide us all into the way of peace.


MĂșlier, ecce fĂ­lius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Augustine - The Mystery of God

Augustine was born in 354 at Tagaste in Africa, a region heavily latinized in both culture and language. He was brought up in the Christian faith, but without receiving baptism. An ambitious schoolchild of brilliant talent and violent passions, he early lost both his faith and innocence. He studied rhetoric in Carthage and it was during this time that he read the Hortensius by Cicero that altered his affections and awoke within him “an incredibly burning desire for an immortality of wisdom”[1]. His realisation that one cannot effectively find truth without Jesus led him away from this work to an inelegant Bible which disappointed him because there “he discovered neither the loftiness of philosophy nor the splendour of the search for the truth”[2]. His desire to live a life in God brought him into contact with the Manicheans, a group who presented themselves as Christians, promoted a rational religion and gave the prospect of a career. They proved incapable of dispelling his doubts and so he distanced himself from them and moved, first to Rome, and then on to Milan where he acquired the habit of listening to St. Ambrose initially in order to enrich his rhetoric. Through the Prelates “allegorical interpretation of Scripture and use of Neo-Platonic philosophy”[3], however, he was finally able to solve the seemingly insurmountable intellectual difficulties of his earlier biblical encounters. "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee!"[4] sums up his discovery. The God he found was a personal God, “a God who made himself "tangible", one of us, … a God to whom he could pray, for whom and with whom he could live”[5]. This left him, however, with the problem of how he would relate the Greek conception of an immutable God with the Hebrew conception of a passionate God who interacts with and responds to human beings.
His association with those who promoted acquisitive fantasies left Augustine in a position where he could not understand how God could be spirit. "Nearly nine years passed in which I wallowed in the slime of that deep pit and the darkness of falsehood, striving often to rise, but being all the more heavily dashed down."[6] After hearing Ambrose, Augustine came to realize that the Christian faith did not hold, as Manicheans had supposed, that God was bounded by human form and was therefore embarrassed that he had held such easily confuted arguments for so many years. But, "what was the nature of a spiritual substance I had not the faintest or dimmest suspicion."[7] Although he now did not think of God in a human body, he "could not avoid a concept of something corporeal in space, either infused into the world, or infinitely diffused beyond it."[8] However, though his earlier Platonist readings he was able to ascend "from bodies to the soul . . . on to the reasoning faculty . . . And thus, with the flash of a trembling glance . . . saw Thy invisible things."[9] According to Whitney J. Oates, "The Platonic tradition unquestionably prepared the way for him to accept and realize the meaning of Christianity’s doctrine of God as Spirit."[10] Ambrose's sermons, with their emphasis on the Pauline distinction of letter and spirit as a means of interpreting the chasm between the Old and New Testament[11], also helped Augustine to realize that true understanding of God’s justice, as requiring punishment and reward, begins within the individual and that the key to personal order is an attitude of subjection to God. The questions that beleaguered him did indeed speak to the heart of his religious experience of the divine, and when he had removed those obstacles he found a way to a God who was not a phantasma but a real and true God. A triptych of consecutive and concentric revelations provided Augustine with a realization that whatever God does is directed toward the ultimate goodness of the created order but always with justice toward each of His creatures. The justice of God he now conceived as “a function of the law of love”[12] ; and this was an adequate apologetic for Judaism. His insights into the spiritual nature of God provided refutation for the pagans, and the new understanding of the goodness of God and God's creation was the decisive argument against the Manichees.
Augustine was a passionate seeker of truth and devoted almost thirty years to his composition De Trinitatae in which he asserts that humankind is made in the image of the triune God, and that an image of the Trinity, albeit “utterly imperfect and inadequate”[13], exists in man’s nature. In order to demonstrate this Augustine provided several illustrations of the Trinity in the human experience. There exists the “mind, and the knowledge wherewith the mind knows itself, and the love wherewith it loves both itself and its own knowledge; and these three are shown to be mutually equal, and of one essence.”[14] We can realize, consequently, that as we have three parts, God also has three parts. He does not attempt to hide the failures of these illustrations and regards them simply as “footprints of the Trinity in creation”[15] and an inadequate image. He recognises the errors within them concerning the nature of God, and states that although they are “very far removed from [God].” (197), his point, in using them, has been to discover three things which ‘are exhibited separately, whose operation is inseparable.’ (198). Through this treatise Augustine also emphasised the consubstantiality of the divine persons, asserting the procession of the Spirit from the Father. He maintains, continually, that Sonship as a relationship is second and subordinate to Fatherhood. Whilst a Divine Father and a Divine Son must necessarily be of the very same nature and grade of being, the latter issues from the former. Augustine designates the Father the principium of the Son, and the Father and Son the principium of the Holy Spirit. “The Father is the beginning of the whole divinity, or if it is better so expressed, deity.”[16] The term “beginning” is used only in relation to the person, not to the essence since there is no “beginning,” or source, when the essence itself is spoken of. The “subordination”, therefore, is not the Arian subordination, as to essence, but the trinitarian subordination, as to person and relation.
Augustine insists, through reflecting a Neoplatonic unified “hierarchy of being”[17] and avoiding Plotinus’ notion of emanation, that creation is the free act of God where God chooses to create the world ex nihilo. God was the Supreme Being on whom all other beings, including time itself, were totally dependent and therefore “deserving of the love and attention of the created”[18]. For Augustine, the ethical task of loving each thing appropriately was paramount. This means loving God, the very being of all that is, above all things. In loving God, all beings prove that they are good because they tend back toward their creator who had made them from nothing. Humans, however, possess free will, and can only tend back to God by an act of the will. Man's refusal to turn to God is evil, so although the whole of creation is good, evil comes into the world through man's rejection of the good that is, God.  "For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil - not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.”[19] God allows evil to exist since it doesn't conflict with His goodness and it gives need for the existence of virtues such as courage, mercy, forgiveness and patience which are not theoretical virtues, but elements of character. When viewed as a whole, therefore, that which appears to be evil eventually contributes to the greater good.
St Augustine understood that not everyone was aware that they were capax Dei. In response, he proposed the way of interiority - the turning from the outer world to the inner self.[20] "Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward person dwells truth."[21] It is here that an essential distinction is made between cogitare, and scire as he points out that one can know about oneself, but it is through understanding the mystery of oneself that one can come to understand the mystery of God. “We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us:”[22] Therefore, as humans are mysteries to themselves, God is to be understood as wholly mysterious. The restless pursuit of God involves pursuing a goal that continually recedes from the seeker. If God is forever incomprehensible, does the mystery of human life remain unsolved? Our inability to reduce the comprehensibility of God should not disturb us for “God manifests himself in just the measure of which he knows the one who is receiving him is capable.”[23] As St. Augustine says, God will fill his capacity to the uttermost limit. Anyone who is so filled cannot desire further fulfilment. If God was to give himself to a person more fully than one could stand the extra happiness would be overstraining. If God were to explain more fully than one could understand, mind and heart would be darkened. All hear or see the same thing, but each sees or hears it according to the measure of one’s ability to comprehend it. And so, even though the Spirit of God is always manifested in the life of those who share in him, he remains invisible to all, because the mystery is forever transcendent.[24] We comfort ourselves with the ever new and never changing truth that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever: the mystery is always new therefore the mind in understanding it, will never be deprived it of its freshness.

[1] Augustine Confessions 3:7:12
[2] Benedict XVI The Fathers p177
[3] Ibid p179
[5] Benedict XVI The Fathers p198
[6] Whitney J. Oates Augustine, Confessions book 3, section 11 Verse 40, in The Basic Writings of St. Augustine
[7] Confessions. 6, 3, 76
[8] Ibid. 7, 1, 91.
[9] Ibid. 7, 17, 105.
[10] Oates’s Introduction, xvi-xvii.
[11] Confessions. 6,4,6
[15] Mariasusai Dhavamony - A Trinitarian Theology of God’s Kingdom p91
[16] Confessions. 4, 20, 29
[17] Henry Chadwick – Augustine, A very short introduction p58
[18] Werner J. Jeanrond - A Theology of Love p52
[19] Augustine, City of God. 12, 6
[20] Augustine, Confessions 10,6
[22] Garry Wills – Saint Augustine Introduction p xii
[23] Five Centuries of St Maximus the Confessor
[24] ibid

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