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Of Nativity Sets, Mary Worship, and Missions

15 Dec

Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.
~ William Wordsworth, “The Virgin

During Advent, every Christian is a Mary-worshiper.

processionMary1024Naah, just joshing you. Not even Catholics worship Mary, despite appearances to the contrary. We pay her tribute and honor her – even reverence (dulia) her in a singular, intense manner (hyperdulia). But worship (latria)? That’s reserved for the Persons of the Trinity alone.

Our hyperdulia can get pretty darn close to latria I suppose – Rosaries and icons and processions and statues, et cetera  – and it’s understandable that outsiders might get confused.

Let’s set the record straight then. Mary is not God – she was a human being. Immaculately Conceived, to be sure, but a human being in need of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as much as anybody else.

That being said, the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431) did bestow on her the title Theotokos – mother of God. It was a way of combating Christological heresy, but also a way of putting into words what the whole Church had long embraced and celebrated. As the mother of the incarnate God, Mary shares His flesh – in fact, it could be rightly said that He shares hers. She played a unique role in salvation history, she continues to play a role in the life of the Church today, and we are devoted to her as any child ought to be devoted to his earthly mother.

Can that devotion go off the rails? Perhaps. Chesterton admitted as much when he wrote this of Mary:

If Catholics had been left to their private judgment, to their personal religious experience, to their sense of the essential spirit of Christ and Christianity, to any of the liberal or latitudinarian tests of truth, they would long ago have exalted our Lady to a height of superhuman supremacy and splendour that might really have imperilled the pure monotheism in the core of the creed. Over whole tracts of popular opinion she might have been a goddess more universal than Isis.

Still, it’s a truism that virtually all Christians, Catholic and otherwise, honor Mary in their homes this time of year, even going so far as setting up a statue of her in their homes – sometimes more than one!

You know what I mean. It’s only brought out this time of year, and it’s usually in the context of a larger Nativity set (or several). Elaborate crèches feature Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the center surrounded by shepherds and sheep, magi and their servants, an angel, and a host of farm animals that would be the envy of any homesteader.

Simpler Nativity sets might include just the Holy Family and a single shepherd with sheep, along with a single representative Wise Man – or maybe just the Holy Family and a crib. And the simplest? The Occam’s Razor of Christmas decoration? Mary and her baby. That’s the essence of Christmas.

Jesus, the Son of God, is always the central character in these miniature figurine dramas, as He should be. But consider that rarely is the baby Jesus depicted without His mother – unless you count all those gaudy images of the Infant of Prague, with the frills and the trappings and the lace. Even then, Mary’s presence is felt, because who else but a mother would dress up an infant boy like that?

Oh, but it’s all just Nativity sets, right? Practically toys, or possibly family heirlooms that have been passed down over a couple generations or more. They’re just illustrations of a Bible story in which God the Father is the primary actor. No special credit is meant to be given to Mary just because her image is on display.

holy-family-set-standardYet, skittishness about excessive Marian devotions and fears of Mariolatry are part of the air non-Catholics breathe, so you’d think there’d be at least some hesitation about Nativity scenes – but there’s none. Come November every year, graven images of Mary are on display everywhere, and nobody gives it a second thought.

Why?

Sentimentality plays a part, I suppose. St. Francis set up the first life-size crèche in 1223, and we’ve been oohing and aahing ever since. But even for Christians quite conscientious about such matters, it’s a natural, healthy instinct to honor the Holy Family with a Nativity scene. To be able to see and touch Jesus, Mary, and Joseph isn’t just for kids. It’s also a tangible expression of a theological truth that is itself about tangible expression: The Incarnation. Given that the Nativity is all about making the spiritual and unseen into something – Someone – very physical and see-able, it seems only fitting, even to the most rigorous fundamentalist, that the Holy Family and the Christmas story be depicted in a manner accessible to all our senses.

But perhaps there’s another element as well, one that is a bit more subtle and less readily acknowledged by our Protestant kin.

It’s this: Mary is the first Christian – the first to literally accept Jesus as her Saviour. That makes her a template and model for all Christians, and it’s good to have images to remind us of her –and not just at Christmas, but year round.

I pondered all this the other day when leading devotionals for my clinical group. I teach nursing at an Evangelical college that was founded primarily to prepare young people for the mission field. Almost all my students are Protestants; few of them have much familiarity with things Catholic. So I teach them.

It was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I talked a little about Mary and her special place in our common Christian heritage. There are two Gospels to choose from that day, both from Luke. For my students, I read aloud the Nativity story itself, including Gabriel’s declaration that Mary would play a singular role in God’s wild rescue plan for the world.

Instead of freaking out, Mary asks an honest question: How can that happen? – that is, how is it possible for her to get pregnant at all, let alone get pregnant with the God-man Himself?

As if to reassure the young girl that “nothing will be impossible for God,” Gabriel relates that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a son despite her advanced years. Mary’s “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” was not just acquiescence to the Lord’s weird scheme, but also a signal of active engagement. She was to be no mere vessel or medium, but a determined player as well.

Same with us.

So what?, my students might ask. What makes her any different than any other Christian responding to truth and God’s call? From their perspective, Mary is simply one in a series of biblical characters that became instruments in the hands of a God determined to save His fallen creatures.

That brings us to that second Gospel choice for last Thursday’s Feast: The Visitation. Mary, filled with Jesus at the Annunciation, turns around and brings Him to her cousin – the first mission trip! Elizabeth confirms Mary’s mission, and John has what may be truly said to have experienced a Christian ‘con-version’ (from the Latin for ‘turn about’) in the womb:

For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.

It makes sense that the first Christian would be the first missionary, and Mary fits the bill in every respect. Compare, for example, what we see of Mary in Luke’s Gospel with the qualities expected of missionary candidates by Wycliffe Bible Translators:Vladimirskaya

  • Am I flexible in working with others in the body of Christ? (Mary rushes to assist her cousin in need [Lk 1.39-40])
  • Can others see Christ at work in my life? (Elizabeth testifies to Mary’s divine maternity [Lk 1.42-43])
  • Do I have healthy, growing family relationships? (Mary’s care for her cousin [Lk 1.39-43])
  • Am I ready to trust God to provide for me financially? (“He has filled the hungry with good things” [Lk 1.53])
  • Am I living within my means? (“For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” [Lk 1.48])
  • Am I living, and committed to continue in living, a lifestyle that is set apart in service to God? (“Let it be to me according to your word [Lk 1.38])
  • Am I ready to explore how God can use my specific interests, experiences, and job skills in Bible translation?

This last is especially applicable to Mary, and it connotes another point of contact for Christians of varying traditions. For, although Wycliffe is referring to translation of the written Word into various languages, Mary devoted her entire personhood – body, soul, and spirit – to ‘translating’ the Word (logos) of God into human flesh.

And that’s what all Christians are called to do: Take the Jesus we receive – in church, in Scripture, in Sacrament, however that happens – and translate Him for those around us – incarnate Him again and again through our own words and actions and lives.

This is why we like to have Mary around throughout the year: To jog memories of our mission and jolt us into action. This Christmas, as you put away your Nativity set, maybe keep out the mother and Child a little longer than the rest. See if their visible presence doesn’t help you remember what we’re all called to be: Pregnant couriers of Christ, just like Mary.

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A version of this story appeared on Oblation, a blog of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.

God Only Knows

15 Sep

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.
~ G.K. Chesterton

Sheryl Crow must be a pretty big star. I know this because it’s apparently significant that she’s gone all country now—significant enough to warrant an interview in the Wall Street Journal.

Crow’s country conversion also included a move to the country—to rural Tennessee where she’s hunkering down with her kids on a big farm. But Sheryl’s celebrity and music and domestic arrangements are not what caught my attention. It was her religion. Here it is:

Since I was 21, I’ve always had a strong relationship and an everyday, ongoing dialogue with a higher power. He or She seems to be most evident in nature, which I guess is why I’m so environmentally driven to preserve what we have around here.

It’s a religion, alright, and Crow “considers herself a Christian,” but really it’s her own personal credo—a DIY version of religion that most people call their “spirituality” these days.

Baloney. There’s a lot of nonsense going around about the divorce between rigid, stale religion (which some people still feel the need to cling to), and effervescent, lively spirituality (which everybody can possess apart from religious belief), but it’s all bunk. Any spiritual insight or practice that isn’t merely a fleeting whim morphs into a religion almost immediately. A religion is a rule, a pattern, and if you repeat a spiritual innovation, even just once, *BAM*, you’ve got yourself a religion. All you need is tax exempt status, and you’re in business!

Sheryl-Crow-Beach-Her-Kids-PicturesNo offense to Sheryl Crow, by the way. It sounds like she’s been through some rough patches, including cancer and divorce, and I respect that she’s trying to do right by her two boys—reconciling a hectic superstar performer’s career with motherhood can’t be easy. I’m sure her spirituality—her religion—has been a comfort to her, and it helps her find her way.

But an “everyday relationship” with a He or She? I’m guessing Sheryl hedged on the gender to avoid giving offense, and she’s free to believe as she sees fit, of course. But, if a hedge, is it really a good idea to shape belief in deference to the sensitivities of others? And if it wasn’t a hedge, is that really how she addresses her Higher Power? Wouldn’t “He and She” be preferable? Or just “She,” if it’s simply a nod to feminist sensibilities?

If I were on the prowl for a fresh take on Christianity, I’d keep my antennae up for ideas that work the negative side of the God equation—a.k.a., apophatic theology, an import from the East that zeroes in on what we know we don’t know. To wit: No definitive revelation about whether God is He or She? Then, skip the question altogether, and use “It.” After all, Obi-Wan Kenobi never used a personal pronoun in reference to The Force. It wasn’t a person; it was a thing. You don’t dialogue with a thing, and there’s no reason to ascribe personhood (and gender[s]) to a thing if you don’t have to.

In any case, I’m not in the market for a new religion. I like Catholicism, one of the old ones. I’m lousy at it, but I believe what the Church teaches. It somehow helps make sense of a crazy world, and I even retain some hope that God won’t give up on me despite my daily moral blunders, volitional gaffes, and outright scaly sins.Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580

Plus, orthodox Christianity includes plenty of apophatic elements, in addition to paradox and mystery. It’s an adventure; it’s dangerous; it’s truly the Wild West of religions. And the best part is that, at its core, Christianity is a Person—a definite “He” who breathed the same air as we.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you (I John 1:1-3).

Jesus practiced a trade, made friends and enemies, ate, drank, suffered, died. And yet He lives still, inviting our relationship and dialogue. It’s a maddening Faith, calling us to sanctity in the midst of our frailty. Outrageous, keeping us always a bit off balance, but earthy and real. I’ll take that over a DIY’er religion any day.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Madness of Faith

11 Jul

All of us who do not regularly experience hallucinations or delusions reside on what may be called a ‘cliff of sanity.’ Some of us, for reasons still unclear, are closer to the edge of the cliff than others.

~ Dr. Samuel T. Wilkinson, Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

Mary Poppins (1964) is by far my favorite Disney movie, and one of my favorite scenes is the rooftop rendezvous of chimney sweeps wBerthen they sing “Step in Time.” Remember that? They’re racing around, jumping off and on chimneys, rolling and kicking and dancing up a storm.

At one point, the sweeps dance along the ledges of the buildings. They pretend to be balancing with some difficulty, holding their arms out and teetering like drunks, but then the music starts and they start leaping and twirling again in perfect coordination.

Yes, I know it was filmed on a Hollywood set, and, yes, I know they weren’t in any real danger. Nonetheless, their exuberant defiance of death strikes me as an apt image of the Christian life. The Gospel requires a kind of foolhardy abandon if we embrace it fully, and like the dancing chimney sweeps, we often enough come perilously close to the edge—right where Christ can do something with us. In other words, there’s got to be a bit of madness in every Christian.

Consider the Gerasene demoniac. He was a raving looney, running about, whacking himself with stones, busting up the chains that restrained him, and crying out night and day. The guy was plagued by so many devils that he called himself “Legion.”

And that’s me! That’s you, too, I’d imagine. We love Jesus, we’ve given our lives to Him, we struggle to pray and be virtuous and become saints. But we fail and fail and fail again. We, too, are harassed by numerous weaknesses, temptations, and faults, and, like Legion, we beat ourselves up about it, bemoaning our lot, and wailing to all who’ll listen. And why not? We’re schizo, affirming a Gospel that we can never live up to.

Then, Jesus comes, restores order, and tosses out the demons—and not just tossed out, but tossed into a bunch of pigs that run over their own cliff and drown. The next scene is telling, because when the gawkers observed the demoniac sitting at Jesus’ feet, “clothed and in xp-heals-the-gerasene-demoniac-alexander-master-kinoiniklijke-bibliotheek-the-hague-1430his right mind” according to Luke, they were “seized with fear.” Fear? Of what? Of Jesus tossing out their demons too? In any case, they feared Him enough to “beg him to leave their district.”

Perhaps the crowd had their own madness in preferring to hold onto old ways and familiar devils, and maybe we do, too. M. Scott Peck alludes to this human tendency in The Road Less Traveled when he writes, “Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.” Many times, we avoid mental and spiritual health because it’s just easier to stay put. Why approach a precipice, with all its attendant unknowns, when it’s so much more convenient to keep ambling along well away from danger?

But He won’t leave us alone. He draws us to the edges of our lives and confronts our neuroses and petty sins—in ways that can seem downright cruel at times. Peck picks up on this idea in a section he calls “The Healthiness of Depression”:

As likely as not the patient will report, ‘I have no idea why I’m depressed’ or will ascribe the depression to irrelevant factors. Since patients are not yet consciously willing or ready to recognize that the ‘old self’ and ‘the way things used to be’ are outdated, they are not aware that their depression is signaling that major change is required for successful and evolutionary adaptation.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?” we shout out with Legion. “I beg you, do not torment me!” Spiritual dryness and doubt, difficulties, disease, and disasters, even nervous breakdowns and mental illness—torments all. They’re not imposed by Jesus, but they are used by Him to get our attention and bring us to that place of vulnerability where we’re compelled to change.wire

He’s going to put us there teetering on the ledge whether we want it or not, so let’s race out to meet Him rather than shrinking away—to be acrobats after holiness rather than plodders, casting aside everything that holds us back. Nik Wallenda, the aerialist who recently walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope, has said, “I have never in my life walked with a harness. The weight of the tether makes it feel like I’m dragging an anchor behind me.”

Legion, the madman, cast off his chains and ran to Jesus to be healed. So should we, come what may.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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