Remembering Who We Are – Mark Mallet

ON THE VIGIL OF THE SOLEMNITY 
OF THE HOLY MOTHER OF GOD

Mark Mallet

EVERY year, we see and hear again the familiar motto, “Keep Christ in Christmas!” as a counter to the political correctness that has neutered Christmas store displays, school plays, and public speeches. But one could be forgiven for wondering if the Church herself has not lost her focus and “raison d’être”? After all, what does keeping Christ in Christmas mean? Making sure we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”? Putting up a manger as well as a tree? Going to midnight Mass? The words of Blessed Cardinal Newman have been lingering in my mind for several weeks:

Satan may adopt the more alarming weapons of deceit—he may hide himself—he may attempt to seduce us in little things, and so to move the Church, not all at once, but by little and little from her true position. I do believe he has done much in this way in the course of the last few centuries… It is his policy to split us up and divide us, to dislodge us gradually from our rock of strength. —Blessed John Henry Newman, Sermon IV: The Persecution of Antichrist

As I ponder the Synod on the Family that concluded this Fall, we spoke of the “pastoral care” of the family in unorthodox situations. Important questions. But when did we speak about the “salvation” of the family?

Vatican officials suddenly became emboldened and courageous this year, but not so much in becoming “fools for Christ”, but “fools for climate change.”

As the “Year of Mercy” began in Vatican Square on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, it was not images of the Divine Mercy, the Sacred Heart, or the Blessed Mother that were beamed onto St. Peter’s facade, but wild animals replete with grunts and growls.

This was followed by a Vatican Commission on “Relations with the Jews”, which concluded that the Church no longer “conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews” —a contradiction to 2000 years of biblical approach finding its roots in St. Paul. [1]

And as Catholic churches suddenly filled to the brim on Christmas Eve with “parishioners” filing up for their yearly Communion (or bi-yearly, if Easter is included), one must ask the question: do we remember why we are even here? Why does the Church exist?

WHY DO WE EXIST?

Pope Paul VI answered the question succinctly:

[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection. —Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 14; vatican.va

There is something frequently missing from our dialogue these days. And that is the name of Jesus. The year has been filled with debates on pastoral care, global warming, the Pope’s appointees, the Pope’s interviews, the cultural wars, politics, and on and on… but where does the salvation of souls enter in and the mission of the Redeemer? While many were dismayed that Pope Francis would dare say that some are “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently”,[2] the past year has often proven those words to be more true than not. When I speak to crowds of people, I often remind them that if our morning unfolds without any one of us giving thought to the salvation of others, whether through our witness, sacrifices, and prayers, then our priorities are off—our hearts are no longer beating in unison with the Savior’s heart. After all, we heard the Angel Gabriel announce to Mary that she was to name Him Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” [3] His mission is ours.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. (John 12:26)

That’s the meaning of Christmas. The purpose of the Church. The motivation of this website: to release the world from the grip of sin that has the power to eternally separate us from our Creator.[4]

MISSION OF MERCY

It is also true that we must avoid a common twofold fundamentalist response: either a limited concern for the “soul” and “salvation” of the other while neglecting their needs and wounds; or, on the other hand, to relegate faith to the private sphere. As Pope Benedict asked:

How could the idea have developed that Jesus’s message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others? —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Spe Salvi (Saved In Hope), n. 16

In this regard, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium continues to provide a lucid and challenging blueprint for evangelization in 2016. In a world where near out-of-control advancements in technology are creating an unparalleled anthropological earthquake, it is imperative that we remind ourselves over and over again of why we are here, who we are, and who we shall become.

Francis has hewn a path understood by few in the Church and misunderstood by many: it is the path for maximum attraction to the Gospel, a path that Jesus Himself trod at a time when “the people were in darkness.”[5] And what is this path? Mercy. It scandalized the “religious” 2000 years ago, and it scandalizes the religious again today. [6] Why? Because while not neglecting the reality of sin, Mercy does not make sin its initial focus. Rather, it makes the manifestation of “love of the other” the first initiative. St. Thomas Aquinas explained that “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love.” [7]

In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. —St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 30, a. 4; cf. Evangelii Gaudium, n. 37

Francis has explained in paragraphs 34-39 of Evangelii Gaudium [8]precisely what he is up to: a re-ordering of the priorities of contemporary evangelization that while not neglecting the moral truths, re-places them in their proper “hierarchy.”

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 36; vatican.va

In a word, the Church needs to urgently recover the essence of the Gospel:

The essence of Christianity is not an idea but a Person. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, spontaneous speech to the clergy of Rome; Zenit, May 20th, 2005

KNOWING

Yet, how can we be witnesses of mercy if we have not encountered He who is Mercy? How can we speak of One whom we do not know? Brothers and sisters, if the essence of Christianity is not an idea, a list of rules, or even a certain way of life, but a Person, then being a Christian is to know this Person: Jesus Christ. And to know Him is not to know about Him, but to know Him in the way a husband knows a wife. In fact, the biblical term for “know” in the Old Testament means to “have intercourse with”. Thus, for Noah to “know” his wife was to make love to her.

“For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)

This is a simple, accessible, but profound analogy of the spiritual intimacy that God desires to have with each of us.

Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us… God thirsts that we may thirst for him. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2560

When we enter into the “thirst” of God and begin to thirst for Him, to “seek, knock, and ask” for Him, then Jesus says:

‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. (John 7:38-39)

With the supernatural help and grace of the Holy Spirit, all other questions, problems, and challenges can be faced in a new and uncreated light, which is Wisdom itself. Thus,

It is necessary to enter into real friendship with Jesus in a personal relationship with him and not to know who Jesus is only from others or from books, but to live an ever deeper personal relationship with Jesus, where we can begin to understand what he is asking of us… Knowing God is not enough. For a true encounter with him one must also love him. Knowledge must become love. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Meeting with the youth of Rome, April 6th, 2006; vatican.va

However, if Jesus remains distant; if God remains a theological concept; if Mass becomes a mere ritual, prayer a litany of words, and Christmas, Easter, and the like mere nostalgia… then Christianity will lose its power in those places, and even disappear. This is precisely what is happening in vast portions of the world at the present moment. It is not a crisis in morality so much as a crisis of the heart. We, the Church, have forgotten who we are. We have lost our first love,[9] who is Jesus, and once foundations are lost, the whole edifice begins to collapse. Indeed, “unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build”. [10]

For the power of the Holy Spirit flows through a personal relationship as much as sap flows only through those branches connected to the vine. The Church’s mission is accomplished ultimately not through edicts and ideas but through a transformed people, through a holy people, through a docile and humble people. Rarely is she transformed through theologians, scholars, and canon lawyers—unless their duties are undertaken upon their knees. The idea of a personal relationship with Our Savior is not an innovation of the Southern Baptist Convention or Billy Graham. It lies at the very roots of Christianity when Mary took Jesus into her arms; when Jesus Himself took children into His arms; when Our Lord gathered Twelve companions; when St. John lay his head on the Savior’s breast; when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped His body in linen; when Thomas placed his fingers into the wounds of Christ; when St. Paul expended his every word for love of His God. A personal and profound relationship marks the lives of every Saint, of the mystical writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and others that describe the nuptial love and blessings of union with God. Yes, the very heart of the Church’s liturgical and private prayer comes down to this: a personal relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Man, himself created in the “image of God” [is] called to a personal relationship with God… prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father… Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 299, 2565

What could possibly be more intimate than receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus physically within us at the Holy Eucharist? Ah, how profound a mystery! But how many souls are not even aware of it!

As the New Year begins, the words from today’s Mass on this Solemnity of the Mother of God take us back to the heart of the Gospel:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons,  God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,  crying out, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son,  and if a son then also an heir, through God. (Gal 4:4-7)

There you have the essence of Christian conversion—one who realizes that he or she is not orphaned, but now has a Father, a Brother, a Wonderful Counsellor—and yes, a Mother. A Holy Family. So how do we come to this place of literally crying out “Abba, Father!”? It is not automatic. It is a decision of the will, a choice to enter into a real and living relationship with God. I decided to court my wife, to betroth her, and to give myself totally to her in order for our marriage to bear fruit. And the fruit today is eight children, and now a grandchild on the way (yes, you heard me right!).

The Lord did not save us to only save us, but to make us His very friends.

I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)

On this Solemnity of the Mother of God, ask her—she who formed the first personal relationship with Jesus—how to love Him as she did. And then invite Jesus into your heart in your own words… I suppose the way you would invite anyone out of the cold into your home. Yes, we can keep Jesus on the outskirts of our lives in a cold stable—in sterile religious exercise or intellectual vanity—or we can make room for Him in the Inn of our hearts. Therein lies the whole heart of the Gospel—and who we are, and are to become.

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards! —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 3; vatican.va

RELATED READING

Knowing Jesus

The Center of Truth

The Popes on a Personal Relationship With Jesus

Understanding Francis

Misunderstanding Francis

The Scandal of Mercy

 

 

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