Reflections on Advent – Faith

Faith is probably one of the most used words in Christianity and also concurrently the least understood. It is also a word that is used in a completely different context and meaning within the secular world, and sometimes this different meaning bleeds into the Christian meaning. Faith, within the catholic faith, is much more than just belief in something that cannot be proven by science or our senses. Faith itself actually has two meanings within Catholicism; the body of faith (what we believe) and the act or virtue of faith (loosely, how we believe).

Faith begins with the fact that we all die, and that suffering is a part of our existence as human beings. Thomas Merton wrote that “we are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves. And we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” The answer to understanding the purpose of death and suffering within life is faith, and specifically the catholic faith as a whole.

We have faith in a God who has not abandoned us in our sinful ways but has revealed Himself as the Creator of the Universe and who, out of love, gave His only Son for our sake. We have faith in the Gospel, the good news of humankind, that God came down from Heaven and died on a cross for our salvation– in order to break the bondage of darkness and death over our houses. We have faith in the Church, founded by Jesus, as a real presence of the Body of Christ here on earth. Deep down we are all afraid of suffering, being alone, not being understood, not being loved. And because we are afraid we sin and we disconnect ourselves from God who, through faith, can bring light to where there is darkness in our lives.

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The object of faith is that which God has revealed through Divine Revelation. Together this is collected in what the Holy Church calls the Deposit of Faith. We have faith that this knowledge is sacred and has been entrusted carefully to the Church in order to bring souls to God. Through the creeds, through our works and through the liturgy we proclaim and manifest that Deposit of Faith and partake in the salvation of the world. We do not “just believe”, we believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth…

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “faith is a personal act– the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals Himself” (CCC 166). This simple definition is why we light the Second Advent Candle for faith. Mary’s response upon being visited by the angel is an act of faith that is clear and obvious which is why the story is relevant almost two thousand years later, and certainly relevant during the Advent season of preparation. Mary as a virgin is biologically incapable of giving birth to a human being. Today we often like to look back at ancients as dull beings looking to the sky for the answers to everything, but rest assured they understood the basic mechanics of how each of them came into the world– it took a woman and a man having sex with one another. And Mary simply did not meet that criteria. Let alone the fact that the angel was telling her she would birth the Son of Man! It simply was not possible for any of it to happen.

But she does not argue. She does not ask questions or ask for time to deliberate. Her answer is clear and unequivocal, “be it unto me according to thy word.” Amazing. What faith, what response to the initiative of God. Faith was not a feeling for Mary, it was not something that depended on whether or not she woke up feeling pious that particular morning of the Visitation. Faith was much more than that to Mary and indeed to all faithful Christians.

There is an old Chinese story about Fact, Faith and Feeling that is entirely descriptive of my point here. While Fact, Faith and Feeling are walking together along the top of a narrow wall, Faith can ensure him and feeling stay steady as long as he keeps his eyes on Fact, but if Faith looks away from Fact and turns to Feeling, Faith and Feeling fall off of the wall (Fact never falls). It is a fact for Mary that all things are possible with God and therefore she has faith that what the angel is telling her will come true. That is Faith keeping an eye on Fact and leaving Feeling in the backseat– the only way they all stay on the wall.

This reflection is dedicated to the amazingly beautiful collections by Alex Markovichat at Glitchy Preacher. What an amazing window into a world almost utterly unknown to the rest of us, head over to Glitchy Preacher to learn more about Russia and marvel the amazing collection of artwork they have curated. If you enjoy what’s there, give them a follow (good things happen to bloggers when they get follows).

Almighty Father,
give us the joy of your love
to prepare the way for Christ our Lord.
Help us to serve you and one another.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen

Advent Week 2 – Faith

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 (KJV)

We light the second Advent Candle for Faith. Faith that all things are possible with God, faith that He has a divine plan for each and every one of us that sees salvation for every man willing, and faith that we who repent and seek the Kingdom of Heaven will one day live everlasting with God, our Father.

While are first movements toward the birth of Christ come in the fuel of hope, the rhythm and cycle that we move into becomes our faith. Faith is much more than the belief in something that cannot be proven. Faith is about knowing by means which otherwise give us little indication of how the world works. I know my mother and father love me, I have faith that they love me, I cannot see this love, I cannot feel this love, I cannot even measure this love, but I am aware of it being present and its impact in my relationship with my parents. Faith and love share a unique relationship (more on that in a future Advent post).

Mary had faith in spades. When she was visited by an angel from the Lord she did not refute what was being told of her, no matter how wild it seemed from a logical perspective. Mary was a virgin and yet Mary was to have a child. And an elder of the area, a previously married man, is to take Mary and they are to have a son together that will be named Jesus. And not just that but her cousin, who is barren, will also have a child. She doesn’t question, she doesn’t waver– no doubt there are parts of her that want to– she simply says, “be it unto me according to thy word.” That is faith.

Sailors have faith. They depart safe harbours which are close to their family and friends and head out on small islands into wild seas. They have faith that their ships will keep the deadly water out. Faith that their captain can keep them away from trouble no matter what the weather throws at them. And faith that with each passing day they get closer and closer to being back in a safe harbour, with family and friends. Mary’s journey with Joseph feels a lot like a sailor departing on a long sail without little knowledge of where they are going and what they are doing while out there. But they have faith, and put that faith into the hands of their captain. To stress the analogy, Mary’s captain is God Himself. That is faith.

Almighty and merciful God,
let neither our daily work nor the cares of this life
prevent us from hastening to meet your Son.
Enlighten us with your wisdom
and lead us into his company.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mary, Ark of the Covenant

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The Gospel according to Saint Luke tells us more about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, than any other book of the New Testament. The majority of this is a stringing of scripture from Israel into the infancy story of Christ in the first few chapters of the Gospel. The narrative itself is a delightfully layered perspective that hinges itself upon the founding of the nations of Israel with David’s efforts to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem which is capture in 2 Samuel.

There are subtle but significant links between Mary’s Visitation with Elizabeth and David’s efforts to move the Ark of the Covenant. For example, Luke writes that Mary “arose and went” to the Judean hill country to visit her family (1:39) which echos exactly what Samuel writes about how David “arose and went” into the exactly same region centuries before to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6:2). When Elizabeth sees Mary as she arrives she is struck with the same awe and fear that David felt upon seeing the Ark of the Covenant for the first time. The joy is echoed further when Elizabeth’s baby dances inside her similar to how David danced around the Ark (2 Sam 6:16) when she is in the presence of Mary carrying Jesus. And lastly, Luke tells us how Mary stayed for “three months” (1:40 56) with Zechariah’s family recollecting how the Ark of the Covenant was temporarily housed in the “house of Obed-edom” for a waiting period of “three months” (2 Sam 6:11). All together these themes form the basis of Mary being a sacred vessel which is housing God Himself, which is exactly the storyline present in David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and uniting the tribes of Israel.

There is another link that Luke draws from the Book of Chronicles that alludes to his own Greek upbringing. When Elizabeth bursts into a joyful cry at the presence of Mary and her Child, Luke uses the Greek term for “exclaimed,” which on its own seems entirely innocuous. Except that in the Greek manuscripts of Old Testament writings, the Greek term is only used five times and is never used again in any New Testament writing. And the only five times it is found in the OT are about stories concerning the Ark of the Covenant. Luke is drawing a direct parallel between Mary, the Mother of God, and the Ark of the Covenant using a convenient literary device that would have almost certainly been obvious to his intended audience.

Luke provides us with a vision of Mary with clarity unprecedented within the entire New Testament. By linking Mary early in his Gospel with the Ark of the Covenant, Luke does not shy away from the gravity of importance imparted upon the story he about to tell. Again, as a literary genius, and man with a critical scientific eye, Luke systematically builds a case for Jesus as the Messiah and he begins his opening remarks with a powerful reach into the Holy Scriptures of Israel to establish the foundation and makes obvious that Mary is in fact the New Ark of the New Covenant.

The Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

This is the foundational line from the Gospels that articulate in a sort of mystic way the Incarnation of Jesus as both God and child. There is a story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew (and virtually no mention of the story in the Gospel of Mark) but I think that this line from John is perfect. It is simple and yet terribly complex; which is a spot on summation of a foundational event in Christianity. Indeed, what separates Christianity from every world religion is found within the Incarnation; a God who comes down and becomes fully human while remaining fully God.

In the original Greek versions of the Gospel, John writes ‘the Word’ as Logos, which is a very important idea worth exploring some more as we speak of the Incarnation. The Logos was almost purely a Greek concept that was imported into various sects within worlds that were influenced by the Greeks (at that time the Greeks were like the United States when it came to culture and arts). It can literally be translated into English as the Word, which works well because such a label is illusive and broad, just the same as that of the Logos. The early catholic church was without question influenced by Greek culture and society. One of its biggest salesmen was Paul who was a hellenistic Jew that spoke and wrote in Greek. And rounding the early first century within the early church we see leaders like Justin Martyr and Cyril of Alexandria link the Logos to that of the Greek understanding of the concept; a seed-bearing Logos that would spread ideas of itself around humanity and then having that Logo dwell in humanity in the form of Jesus the man and Christ the Lord. Cyril of Alexandria himself would go further and add that the coming of Jesus through the Incarnation occurred in order that the Logos may be united to defiled human flesh thus making all humanity capable of sharing in His divinity. It is also interesting to note how early church fathers placed a clear distinction on Jesus as the Messiah (a purely Jewish concept) and Jesus as the Christ (a more hellenized concept). Despite the word itself being purely of Greek origins, it is likely that many gentile Greeks who would have been preached to about Jesus Christ would have assumed it was a familia nom as opposed to a title that bequeathed universal glory. But it was an intentional development by the church fathers which was undoubtably influenced by the Holy Spirit.

Saint Augustine writes that, “He whom the world could not contain was contained in a mother’s womb,” when remarking about the Incarnation. C.S. Lewis writes in a Grief Observed that “…the Incarnation leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” I am rather fond of this aspect of the Incarnation. It is indeed a concept that could not have been reasonably conceived by humans. It is impossible that anyone would have proposed and organized an entire religion around the idea of a God who becomes the nasty and brutishness of their creation. It separates Christians from every other religion in the world. Jesus had spit like we have spit. The coming of the Word in the form of flesh gives us a focal point in the material world in which all of humanity (and creation for that matter) is limited to. It is as if God is one cloth hanging against a separate cloth and creation is another hanging against it. They are separated at first, but are now united by the needle and thread that is Jesus Christ, made of the same substance of the Father and of the Father in every way, the Word becomes flesh and becomes the mediated between God and man forever. An entire focal point for all of creation. He breathed as we breathe (and probably had bad breath from time to time). He bled like we bleed. And yet He was totally God. There were no changes made to the Word when it became flesh, it remained fully and completely the Word, in addition to being full and completely human. And we know that He was different because although He spit as we spit, His spit made the blind see. And although He breathed as we breathe, His breath brought dead men back to life. And although He bled as we bleed, His blood paid the ransom for all of humanity as a result of the Adam’s Fall. He was both fully human and fully man.

And what better sacrament to we have in the catholic church than that of the Holy Eucharist to articulate this concept for us. Every day the Incarnation is not just replayed or reenacted at the hands of the Priest, it literally happens again and again. Since it was instituted by the Word made flesh. The bread and wine brought to the altar become the body and blood of Jesus in the same was as the body and blood brought into Mary bore a child that was the power and glory of God. And just the same as the body of Christ tastes and feels like bread even after the miracle of transubstantiation takes place on the altar, the body of the Son of God was like that of a human. If I can digress a bit here, and be permitted to indulge in a silly analogy in order to better illustrate my point. Suppose one of the children who came rushing to Jesus licked His face or hand, indeed His face would have tasted salty as ours and His hands probably clammy and perhaps a little dirty as our at times do as well. The same is true of the bread and wine after it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. And yet the saltiness, clamminess and dirtiness of the flesh of Jesus certainly does not diminish His glory and the fact that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

In fact we can venture to say with certainty that there is no Eucharist without the Incarnation and vice versa. Not just for the obvious fact that the Incarnation was how the man of Jesus was conceived into this world, but because you cannot have the body and blood of Christ without the flesh and veins of a human being. For reasons we will never be able to comprehend (but in faith we hope some day will be revealed to us), we require the body and blood of Christ as Christians for spiritual and temporal nourishment as part of the physical Body of Christ here on earth. In order for this life giving substance to exist and to be present here, God needed to take the form of man and literally create the body and blood of Christ in order that it may be shared from generation to generation to nourish the entire Body of Christ while we labour and wait for His Second Coming. The Logos became flesh and blood so that we may share and nourish on it indefinitely until He returns in glory. What an amazing cyclical existence and surely one that contributes to the entire concept of Christianity and a truth “hanging together” as C.S. Lewis once remarked.

Much can be said about the Incarnation of our Lord. It is after all the defining characteristic of the whole of the Christian faith. Along with the Holy Eucharist, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ, we can look upon the Incarnation as linked faithfully to the Eucharist. Together they represent the two stable and everlasting bookends that is the Christian faith.