10 January 2010

A Little Catch-Up

The following are a few reflections offered in lieu of the normal journal entries I've been writing, since our last couple of weeks have been mostly classes in Bethlehem.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 27 December 2009
(Feast of the Holy Family)

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously."
And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
Luke 2:41-51

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled. . . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth, in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
Luke 12: 49-53

Meditating on the feast of the Holy Family, the above sayings from Luke’s Gospel may help to provide some depth to the somewhat two-dimensional portrait of the holy household that is often served up this time of year. The traditional images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph wrapped in a mutually benevolent gaze surely reveal something true about this unique home in Nazareth, but as we absorb the Gospels in the liturgy, we discover that such portraits leave out almost as much as they include. Within weeks of the child’s birth, the family is forced to flee to Egypt to avoid his murder at the hands of Herod’s soldiers. Though they eventually are able to return home and live normally, Jesus’ enigmatic sayings about his family even from a young age indicate that all is not as we might expect. What do we make of the confusion his relatives experience during his public ministry? St. Mark goes so far as to note their judgment that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). St. John records a gruff exchange between Jesus and his mother at Cana, when he addresses her as “woman”—the very name he will use for her again as she stands at the foot of his Cross. Jesus declares “blessed” not the womb that bore him but those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And all along, Mary pondered Simeon’s mysterious words that this child that had brought her such joy would also lead to the piercing of her own heart (Luke 2:35).

Much ink has been spilled over how these sayings and stories aren’t as harsh as they sound, and I won’t attempt to rehearse them here. Yet there is some value in reflecting upon them as they stand, in all the bald force with which they first strike us. There is a sense in which these happenings are part of a long arc in which Christ seems to distance himself from his biological roots in favor of total faithfulness to the Father and his saving plan. That this is a painful process should not surprise us, but that it needs to happen at all is startling; is not the Holy Family the origin and sustenance of God’s new presence in the world? What need might there be to draw back from the homely supports to which he was entrusted as an infant?

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar offered an answer to this question, one that “suspends its judgment” on the Holy Family until the celebration of a subsequent feast, the Solemnity of the Mother of God on the first of the year. I’ll get into his answer more directly on the entry for that day (one week from now), but it’s worth spending a little time in contemplation of Son, Mother, and foster father. Von Balthasar sums up the more troubling side of the Holy Family as an alliance with Jesus’ mission:

The Virgin, harboring a mystery under her heart, remains in profound solitude, in a silence that almost causes the perplexed Joseph to despair. Incarnation of God means condescension, abesement, and, because we are sinners, humiliation. And he already draws his Mother into these humiliations. Where did she get this child? People must have talked at the time, and they probably never stopped. It must have been a sorry state of affairs if Joseph could find no better way out that to divorce his bride quietly. God’s humanism at once begins drastically. Those whose lives God enters, those who enter into his, are not protected. They have to go along into a suspicion and ambiguity they cannot talk their way out of. And the ambiguity will only get worse, until, at the Cross, the Mother will get to see what her ‘Yes’ has caused, and will have to hear the vitriolic ridicule to which the Son is forced to listen.

In other words, Jesus is drawing his family (and Mary above all) into the very same darkness and abandonment that he voiced on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I was struck by this during a recent talk on Christian-Muslim relations. The cultural situation here is far different from that of the United States; whereas we are accustomed to the thought of someone converting from one religion to another, here such things are simply not done. One’s faith community is everything—religious, yes, but also familial, social, and protective. To declare belief in a religion other than the one into which one is born is not simply to reject the religion, but to reject one’s community, one’s family, and all the support and guidance it provides. Hence, conversion means death—in the sense that a Christian who becomes a Muslim or vice versa ceases to exist in the hearts of their loved ones and the community. They are no longer welcome in the home. Their name is not even to be spoken.

Not surprisingly, this means very few people choose to change their beliefs from those of their upbringing. To us in the West, this seems highly coercive—even cruel. Nevertheless, the same pressures exist in our own land, though they are more subtle. The dramatic intensification of these pressures in the Middle Eastern culture highlight the real heroism it requires to “leave everything” and “follow the Lamb wherever he goes”, even in our own cultural milieu. The confusion and difficulty Mary and Joseph experienced inspire and encourage us to surrender to Christ the tensions in our own families, tensions that arise on account of our own faith and that of our loved ones. The Holy Family gives us reason to believe that the difficulties we experience are, in some mysterious way, meant to contribute to the mission of us all to pursue God’s purposes in the world. And so we must hear Jesus words anew:

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).

Friday, 1 Jan 2010
(Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God)

Looking back to the feast of the Holy Family, and the periodically troubling relationship between Jesus and his parents, we can continue following the thread we picked up there to its final destination. Hans Urs von Balthasar focused intently upon this theme of the Gospels, and because all of Jesus’ family but Mary have disappeared at the end of his life, it is natural that Balthasar’s attention alights almost exclusively on this woman who figured so significantly at the Gospel’s beginning. Clearly, her significance does not fade. We pondered with her the mysterious prophecy of Simeon; we puzzled over Jesus’ almost casual dismissal of his parents’ concern over his disappearance for three days in Jerusalem. We accompanied her on the walk home after Jesus’ bewildering refusal to receive her and his other relatives during his public ministry. What are we to make of these?

“The sword gnaws at her soul; she feels as if bereft of her inmost self, as if the point of her life has been driven away. Her faith, which at the beginning received so many sensible confirmations, is plunged into a dark night. It is as if the Son, who sends her no news about what he is doing, has run away from her, yet she cannot simply let him go away: she has to accompany him, full of dread, in her night of faith. . .”

We have made a strange discovery: the source of Mary’s torment, first enunciated by Simeon, has paradoxically been revealed as the very son she had carried so joyfully to the Temple! Jesus himself is the first to turn a sword against her heart.

Christ gave himself up for the Church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5.26-7). The Church in its purest kernel and most exalted radiance was present at the Annunciation, but it is a beginning as much as it is a culmination—the beginning of the lifelong process by which the singular graces of her mission might be brought to bear fruit a hundred-fold. And so, as Balthasar concludes, our bewilderment at her apparent mistreatment by her Son subsides into a calm and trusting confidence that the Lord knows what he is about:

“How else would she have become ready to stand by the Cross, where not only her Son’s earthly failure, but also his abandonment by the God who sends him, is revealed? She must finally say Yes to this, too, because she consented a priori to her child’s whole destiny. . . Only thus does she become inwardly ready to take on ecclesial motherhood toward all of Jesus’ new brothers and sisters."


Fr. Mitchel Zimmerman said...

sounds like you are experiencing much interior fruit from your pilgrimage - God speed! Thanks for sharing this.

flatlander said...

Glad you managed to read the whole thing...
you DID read the whole thing, didn't you? Didn't you?
Keeping the diocese (and your ministry) in prayer as we move through the Galilee.