Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas: Metaphors Need Not Apply

I would like to suggest a movie to watch as Christmas day approaches. About a couple years ago I had the opportunity to rent The Nativity. My sole expectation of this movie was to provide a few nice personal spiritual reflections for myself. What I actually received that night was an incredible grace from God that brought me to me knees crying. Before I continue, I would like to preface that The Nativity is clearly not a big budget film so don’t expect anything visually grandiose. This is no Passion of the Christ. The angel Gabriel looked as if he had just come from Saturday Night Fever while apparently not having enough time to grab a quick twenty-first century haircut before delivering a rather important message to Mary. Furthermore, the portrayal of Mary is less than satisfying at times. However, all-in-all this was a great film that I recommend to everyone.

While everything up to the last thirty minutes of the movie was great, I had not shed a tear. It was the last ten minutes of this movie that lead me to my knees. When I saw the birth of our Lord my eyes immediately began to glaze over. I was initially speechless and motionless. Then, IT happened. Like water I somehow found myself taking the path of least resistance to my knees. Something had "unlocked" deep in my soul; a wall had been broken, a dam had been shattered and years of built up tears hemorrhaged from my eyes. I hid my face in the cushions of my couch for I had never felt this vulnerable in front of "no one." Thoughts began surfacing as fast as my tears were running down my face. "What have I done to you? Why have I confined you to abstraction for so many years? Please forgive me! I have wasted so much time pursuing you exclusively as a thought! You were child! You were really a child? This is unbelievable! You were actually a baby? I don't understand!" Thoughts like these continued for what felt like hours. I would have been fully content with this intimate encounter with the humanity of Christ, but our Lord wanted me to go deeper. I was still thinking objectively. I believe Christ wanted to meet me in the inner most sanctum of my heart. He did so and with aggression.

As I mentioned above, thoughts kept pouring through my mind as all this was happening. At one point in time (the analytical side of me) I tried processing my emotions. I was moved to my knees with a deluge of tears and I wanted to know why. I tried rationalizing my emotions. As I tried to activate my mind so as to grasp the origin of this emotional state my mind felt as if it was trapped under a freight train. Moving my mind was like trying to bench press a thousand pounds; the effort was futile leading only to exhaustion. I'm reminded of what Chesterton once said about the logician: "The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” My head was on the verge of splitting so I submitted to the ecstatic power of God.

I had been holding on too tightly to my mind which was preventing me to go to my heart. As soon as I cut that last intellectually dependent thread I fell rapidly to the inner most dwelling place of my heart. I honestly do not know how it happened but it happened. As if the tears could not flow more quickly from my face, when I reached my own heart my entire body collapsed into futility. This is when my own most intimate and deepest longing was revealed to me! I had realized that the yearning in my heart was not to be forgiven, nor to be called a son, nor to be justified, nor to have a free ticket to heaven. My longest desire was to be touched by God! However, any kind of metaphoric touching would not do. I need God to physically touch me. Then it came to me. Before our Lord incarnation, such desires could only be met through metaphor. It was only at the incarnation that my deepest desires could finally be met. This is when I cried to the point of convulsion. Someday, Jesus will reach out his hand toward each and every one of us and physically touch us!

The reason I say all this is to express the beautiful reality that our longing to be embraced by another can be genuinely and physically met by God. No other religion adequately fulfills the natural and human desires of a human being as does Christianity! As we approach Christmas, may our prayers be filled with thanksgiving for we are incredibly grateful for a loving God who wants to fulfill our most human desires (and super-human desires). Have a blessed Christmas. Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Attitudes of Understanding and Doing

As the Nativity of our Lord quickly approaches, we are confronted with a deeply personal question. Have we taken seriously this season of Advent? Have we heeded the Church’s wisdom as she calls us to find a desert so that we may prepare our hearts for the Lord? The desert in this context is referring to repentance, fasting, and introspection. So then, what has our attitude been during this season? If it has been one defined by a constant conversion of the heart then we have run the race well thus far and we only need to finish strong. However, many of us (including myself) may not have responded to this call of preparation as seriously as we would like to have responded. For students, finals can dominate our attention to the point that we feel “forced” to exclude all things not school related. The corporate world is reacting to another business cycle come to an end with an economic future that appears unpredictable and unstable. The pressures from work to capitalize on the remaining days of the 08’ year may be “forcing” many of us to exclude other more “optional” activities so to meet particular seemingly impossible deadlines. Amidst this chaos the Church is reminding us of our true identity: We are not defined by our successes but rather by our sanctity!

We can do next to nothing with our own lives if we do not know who we are. During this season of Advent, what has been our attitude toward understanding more deeply who we are? As Catholics we know we are human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Through our Baptism we know we are also disciples of Jesus Christ with a particular vocation as man or woman. These truths are all very good but have we taken seriously the call to understand who we are as the unique and unrepeatable child of God that each of us is? Have we strived to listen to the voice of the Lord during Mass, or have we become too comfortable with the liturgy to the point of deactivating our minds altogether? Have we listened intently to the Lord only to quickly succumb to the noise of the world thus preventing any real possibility of deep internalization of His voice? It is Christ and only Christ who reveals man as male and female fully to himself or herself! If this is true as we claim it to be, what better way to understand who we are than by reading the life of Jesus Christ. It is never too late to pick up Holy Scripture and begin reading one of the Gospels with the intention to understanding who Jesus is so that we may understand ourselves better! We all desire to give ourselves to another. Jesus provides us the way to do just that. By revealing Himself to us, he reveals our self to our very selves thus opening up new horizons of self-giving love!

This leads us to our attitude of doing. A couple weeks ago I heard a young child ask his mother, “How do we get to heaven?” The response was a startling, “If we live good lives, we go to heaven.” A sinking feeling overwhelmed me when I heard this response. All I could think of was that this child may one day become another disaffected Catholic simply out of misinformation. How many of us believe that as long as we live decent lives, we are doing well with God. Such an assumption makes a mockery of the cross as it reduces such a horrific reality to an illustration of God’s love. I want nothing to do with a God who must send His son to undergo unbearable pain exclusively for “illustrative purposes.” We must be careful not to hold to the forms of our religion while denying the power of it.

We rejoice in our anticipatory hope of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ! We rejoice because we know that while this mystery of the incarnation communicates to us a reality of what it means to be authentically human, it also provides for us a real transformative power, enabling us to live lives as we were meant to live! Brothers and sisters, we can do NOTHING good without God. Living lives through self-righteousness will only lead to disenchantment and despair. The Christian norm is not one defined by success but rather through the forgiveness of sins. To this end, we are being called to open our hearts to the Lord so that He may heal our rebellious and self-seeking hearts. Responding to Israel’s anxiety as Pharaoh’s army was bearing down on them, Moses says, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Ex. 14.14). Be still this advent season and allow God to fight for you! However, God waits, like our Immaculate Mother, for own personal fiat to God: our yes to God. May we open our hearts to the Lord with integrity and with a singular vision so that we may be reconciled to God and to others. There is no better way to prepare in this fashion than through taking at least one hour a week before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration. It is here that we can truly be still before the Lord, allowing Him to fight for us!

Finally, in typical paradoxical fashion, Christ desires us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mat. 5.48). This is where the power of religion must be embraced alongside its forms otherwise such a command will only lead to despair. We cannot achieve such a high standard, but in Christ—and only in Christ—all things are possible (cf. Mat. 19.26)! We are not called to be still for the sake of being still, but rather for the sake of perfection. It is God who works with us for our salvation if only we open our hearts to Him (cf. Rom. 8.28; Eph. 2.10). Such a truth will never lead us to despair but rather hope toward a continued and deepened conversion. We must always remember that while we strive for perfection/excellence, the norm for the Christian is the forgiven sinner.

May we strive with repentant and open hearts to the Lord this Advent Season. May we fall prostrate before our Lord in silence before the Blessed Sacrament so that He may fight for us. May we read the Gospel so that Christ may reveal ourselves to ourselves. May we deepen our conversion this season in renunciation of those things that keep us from Christ. When Christmas comes, I pray that God will look to each of us and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Mat. 25.21). May God be Praised!