Friday, December 28, 2012

Mary: Mother of God

Fundamentalists are sometimes horrified when the Virgin Mary is referred to as the Mother of God. However, their reaction often rests upon a misapprehension of not only what this particular title of Mary signifies but also who Jesus was, and what their own theological forebears, the Protestant Reformers, had to say regarding this doctrine.

A woman is a man’s mother either if she carried him in her womb or if she was the woman contributing half of his genetic matter or both. Mary was the mother of Jesus in both of these senses; because she not only carried Jesus in her womb but also supplied all of the genetic matter for his human body, since it was through her—not Joseph—that Jesus "was descended from David according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:3).

Since Mary is Jesus’ mother, it must be concluded that she is also the Mother of God: If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and if Jesus is God, then Mary is the Mother of God. There is no way out of this logical syllogism, the valid form of which has been recognized by classical logicians since before the time of Christ.

Although Mary is the Mother of God, she is not his mother in the sense that she is older than God or the source of her Son’s divinity, for she is neither. Rather, we say that she is the Mother of God in the sense that she carried in her womb a divine person—Jesus Christ, God "in the flesh" (2 John 7, cf. John 1:14)—and in the sense that she contributed the genetic matter to the human form God took in Jesus Christ.

To avoid this conclusion, Fundamentalists often assert that Mary did not carry God in her womb, but only carried Christ’s human nature. This assertion reinvents a heresy from the fifth century known as Nestorianism, which runs aground on the fact that a mother does not merely carry the human nature of her child in her womb. Rather, she carries the person of her child. Women do not give birth to human natures; they give birth to persons. Mary thus carried and gave birth to the person of Jesus Christ, and the person she gave birth to was God.

The Nestorian claim that Mary did not give birth to the unified person of Jesus Christ attempts to separate Christ’s human nature from his divine nature, creating two separate and distinctpersons—one divine and one human—united in a loose affiliation. It is therefore a Christological heresy, which even the Protestant Reformers recognized. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted on Mary’s divine maternity. In fact, it even appears that Nestorius himself may not have believed the heresy named after him. Further, the "Nestorian" church has now signed a joint declaration on Christology with the Catholic Church and recognizes Mary’s divine maternity, just as other Christians do.

Since denying that Mary is God’s mother implies doubt about Jesus’ divinity, it is clear why Christians (until recent times) have been unanimous in proclaiming Mary as Mother of God.


Friday, December 21, 2012

December 25

This coming Tuesday we will be celebrating Christmas, the Incarnation, His coming in the flesh and anticipating His return at the end of time.  We celebrate His birth on December 25, but why the 25th of December?  Is it because Jesus was truly born on that day of the year?

From the very first years of Christianity there’s been disagreement as to when exactly our Lord was born.  Historical documents and even Catholic tradition disagree with each other as well.  I personally believe the Church chose this date and did so for a reason.

Many individuals, even certain groups of Christians accuse the Catholic Church of setting the date in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 to accommodate the pagans of the day.  While its true that many festivals were being celebrated at, or near, Dec 25 doesn’t necessarily mean that the Church chose that date to counteract those pagan festivals or even worse to introduce pagan ideas into the Catholic religion.  It does make one wonder, doesn’t it?   

We know that December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers.  The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier December 21.

Of the three possibilities, what influenced the Church in choosing December 25 in helping newly converted Christians to remain in the Catholic Church?  In my opinion, I believe it would be all three festivals.

Isn’t Jesus Christ the utmost Ruler of the world surpassing the ‘unconquered sun’?  He is indeed the unconquered Son.  And the same applies to the “Sun of Righteousness”, isn’t Jesus the True Righteous One?  We see definite parallels here and it would therefore make sense to set the celebration of our Lord and Righteous one on that same day.

Even more striking is when we look at the celebration of the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year.  Pagans celebrated this day to commemorate the lengthening of the days identifying it as the beginning of a new year.  What many haven’t noticed though is that the shortest day of the year is indeed on December 21 but the days don’t begin to lengthen for another 4 days.  The start of the lengthening of days is what I believe is the most compelling reason in choosing December 25 as the day to celebrate the Incarnation because Jesus is indeed the light of the world (John 9:5).  Therefore celebrating His birth on the day of the year when the daylight hours begin lengthening seems to be a perfect choice.
Ultimately, we don’t know exactly what day of the year our Lord was born.  And His Church doesn’t need to be historically accurate in choosing a date to celebrate His birth so long as we don’t forget what we are celebrating when that day of the year arrives.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Immaculate Conception

The Marian doctrines are, for Fundamentalists, among the most bothersome of the Catholic Church’s teachings. In this tract we’ll examine briefly a Marian doctrine that Fundamentalist writers frequently object to—the Immaculate Conception.
It’s important to understand what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is and what it is not. Some people think the term refers to Christ’s conception in Mary’s womb without the intervention of a human father; but that is the Virgin Birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means Mary was conceived "by the power of the Holy Spirit," in the way Jesus was, but that, too, is incorrect. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain—that’s what "immaculate" means: without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.

When discussing the Immaculate Conception, an implicit reference may be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.

The traditional translation, "full of grace," is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of "highly favored daughter." Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for "daughter"). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind.Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning "to fill or endow with grace." Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.

Fundamentalists’ Objections
Fundamentalists’ chief reason for objecting to the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s consequent sinlessness is that we are told that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Besides, they say, Mary said her "spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47), and only a sinner needs a Savior.

Let’s take the second citation first. Mary, too, required a Savior. Like all other descendants of Adam, she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way—by anticipation.

Consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been "saved" from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that she was "redeemed in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son" (CCC 492). She has more reason to call God her Savior than we do, because he saved her in an even more glorious manner!

But what about Romans 3:23, "all have sinned"? Have all people committed actual sins? Consider a child below the age of reason. By definition he can’t sin, since sinning requires the ability to reason and the ability to intend to sin. This is indicated by Paul later in the letter to the Romans when he speaks of the time when Jacob and Esau were unborn babies as a time when they "had done nothing either good or bad" (Rom. 9:11).

We also know of another very prominent exception to the rule: Jesus (Heb. 4:15). So if Paul’s statement in Romans 3 includes an exception for the New Adam (Jesus), one may argue that an exception for the New Eve (Mary) can also be made.

Paul’s comment seems to have one of two meanings. It might be that it refers not to absolutely everyone, but just to the mass of mankind (which means young children and other special cases, like Jesus and Mary, would be excluded without having to be singled out). If not that, then it would mean that everyone, without exception, is subject to original sin, which is true for a young child, for the unborn, even for Mary—but she, though due to be subject to it, was preserved by God from it and its stain.

The objection is also raised that if Mary were without sin, she would be equal to God. In the beginning, God created Adam, Eve, and the angels without sin, but none were equal to God. Most of the angels never sinned, and all souls in heaven are without sin. This does not detract from the glory of God, but manifests it by the work he has done in sanctifying his creation. Sinning does not make one human. On the contrary, it is when man is without sin that he is most fully what God intends him to be.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was officially defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. When Fundamentalists claim that the doctrine was "invented" at this time, they misunderstand both the history of dogmas and what prompts the Church to issue, from time to time, definitive pronouncements regarding faith or morals. They are under the impression that no doctrine is believed until the pope or an ecumenical council issues a formal statement about it.

Actually, doctrines are defined formally only when there is a controversy that needs to be cleared up or when the magisterium (the Church in its office as teacher; cf. Matt. 28:18–20; 1 Tim. 3:15, 4:11) thinks the faithful can be helped by particular emphasis being drawn to some already-existing belief. The definition of the Immaculate Conception was prompted by the latter motive; it did not come about because there were widespread doubts about the doctrine. In fact, the Vatican was deluged with requests from people desiring the doctrine to be officially proclaimed. Pope Pius IX, who was highly devoted to the Blessed Virgin, hoped the definition would inspire others in their devotion to her.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent Readings

During this Advent season I would like to point out a few things that I believe many churchgoers don’t notice.  There are four Sundays during the Advent season and then comes Christmas.  The Church has chosen readings pertaining to themes for every Sunday Mass to help us prepare for December 25th. 

In the first Gospel reading of the Advent season are words spoken to the Apostles by Jesus.  He said that people will die of fright, they’ll be dismayed and perplexed by the signs in the sea and the sky (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36).  It is a message of what is to come, that the grandeur and awe-inspiring signs prior to the coming of our Savior will be frightening and perplexing.

In the second Sunday of Advent (Dec. 9, today), we see that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6) in the Gospel reading.  We know that not all flesh has yet seen the salvation of God, ie Jesus.  Therefore, we are not talking about preparing for the reminiscing of His first coming, Christmas but of Jesus’ Second Coming when He comes after the signs in the sky and the sea that will perplex and frighten.  At that time we know that everyone will know the truth of who He is and every knee shall bow (Phil 2:10).

The third Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally Gaudette Sunday, the Gospel reading is one of encouragement.  This sentiment is most clearly seen in the second reading when Paul exclaims: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: rejoice!  In fact, just as we feel a sentiment of fulfillment when we give of our time, effort, and belongings this is how Jesus would have us rejoicing, by sharing with others of our good fortunes, to treat others fairly and so on.  As Paul said, “Our kindness should be known to all.  The Lord is near.

The fourth Sunday of Advent, next week, we have the reading of the Visitation when the expecting Mary goes to visit her cousin in the hills of Judea.  Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Indeed, blessed are we all who believe that what was spoken by the Lord about His Coming will be fulfilled!

The rationale for this explanation was to show you that the Church chooses readings for a particular reason trying to make a point and to prepare us for a special day or season, Christmas in this case.  You’ll find the Church does the same thing in choosing the different readings for any given Sunday as well so that a particular Sunday will have a general theme to it.  I’ll leave it up to you to discern them for yourselves.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Miracles in the Early Church part 2

How are you to decide who is teaching the truth when competing versions are being circulated?  Who can decide whether a prophet is true or false?  Well, the answer to that question is pretty straightforward:  It’s those who are placed in the ordinary capacity as God’s teachers.


To understand how this came to be, we need to look back at John 21:15-17


Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?" "Yes, Lord," he answered, "you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."

A second time Jesus said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord," he answered, "you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."

A third time Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" and so he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!" Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.”


“Feed my sheep.”  These words are full of profound meaning.  It has been too little commented upon, but when Jesus made the simple statement “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), He made one of His most startling claims to divinity.  Every Jew in Palestine would have been familiar with this ancient prophetic statement.


I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will find them a place to rest. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken.  "I will look for those that are lost, bring back those that wander off, bandage those that are hurt, and heal those that are sick… I will judge each of my sheep and separate the good from the bad.”  (Eze 34:15, 16, 22-24)


It was in this context that we find Jesus, the humble carpenter, saying :


I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep.  When the hired man, who is not a shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees a wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away; so the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them.  The hired man runs away because he is only a hired man and does not care about the sheep.  I am the good shepherd …And I am willing to die for them… they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock with one shepherd.”  (John 10:14-16)


But what happens to the flock once the shepherd returns to the Father? The answer, according to the testimony of the early Church, lies in these words, spoken by the Good Shepherd to Simon Peter, representative of a simple band of Galilean fishermen:    Feed my sheep.”


Jesus gave Peter, and by extension the other Apostles, the commission of feeding the sheep, to be their shepherd, and they in turn chose other men to continue this vocation (2 Tim 2:2).  But what of those who taught falsehoods?  Simon Magus is believed to be the founder of the ancient heresy called Gnosticism, Christianity’s oldest and most obstinate rival.  A former disciple of Philip the evangelist, Simon apostatized to become the first person in recorded history to teach falsehood in the holy name of Jesus. 


But how would ordinary believers have reacted to a second set of “Christian” apostles preaching on their streets?  Would it have been obvious that there was a wolf under the sheepskin?  Not necessarily because even though Jesus had said that we would know them by their fruits, by their miracles, we know that some produced counterfeit fruits.  Historical records tell us that Simon Magus had many “miracles” to his credit and a large number of converts as well.  The Apostle Paul seems to be addressing this very dilemma when he wrote: “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:15)


The predicament was very real, if the prospective shepherds all look like angels how are those seeking Truth to choose between them?  How on earth does a common Roman laymen in AD 50 – only just hearing of Jesus for the first time – supposed to know which are His true disciples and which the false?  Do not underestimate this problem, we may casually imagine that these early believers had only to pull out their pocket New Testament to send these dangerous pretenders packing, tails between their legs.  This was completely impossible; the Church had been preaching the gospel for at least 10 years before a single line of the New Testament was written.  She had been doing these things for over fifty years before the final line was completed.  And even then some may have been introduced to Matthew’s Gospel and perhaps one or two letters from Paul – but even these would have been circulating as loose individual works; over 300 years would pass before they ever came to be bound together in one authoritative canon that today we call the Bible.


The solution is quite simple.  When confronted with two conflicting stories, all one needed to do was find the “…man [that] was with Jesus of Nazareth” (Mat 26:71).  He had simply to ask to traditional question:  Which men had been with Jesus?  That fact alone, once truly established, banished all doubt. 


Jesus Christ appointed twelve apostles to teach His doctrines and exercise His authority after He ascended into heaven (Matt 28:16-20).  He gave them specific authority to speak and teach what He taught (Mat 18:15-17, Eph 2:19-20, 1 Thess 4:2, 2 Pet 3:2), and He warned all of His followers of the consequences of private teaching outside of the Church (Matt 18:16-17, 1 Cor 5:5, 1 Tim 2:20, 2 Pet 1:20-21).  Most importantly, however, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles in truth (John 14:16-17), which would distinguish them from the false prophets who would later introduce false doctrines and heresies (2 Pet 2:1).  This is the reason why St Paul described the Church as the ‘pillar and foundation of truth’ (1 Tim 3:15), and not the bible which can be twisted by the untaught and unstable (2 Pet 3:16).  The only way that any group can claim to have the truth is if they teach what the Apostles taught, either written or oral (2 Thess 2:15).


Jesus established His Church in an hierarchical structure.  If Jesus’ words were not meant eternally and were to be understood simply in His time, then the authority of the Apostles which Christ gave to them would have died with the last Apostle.  This would leave the Church without leadership and in total confusion when serious doctrinal questions and problems occurred (no point in relying on Scripture since many of the heretics used Scripture to defend their positions.)  The other option, the much more likely and divinely consistent one, is that the Apostles would choose successors, passing on to them what they learned from the Lord, and in turn giving them not only the authority to teach but also the divine promise to correctly interpret God’s written and inspired word when speaking for the whole Church as a group in communion with the one directly appointed to lead Jesus’ Church, Peter and then his successors which we call ‘Pope’.


So why so few miracles through today’s teachers of the faith?  Because so long as one can find who are the rightful successors of the Apostles there is no need of miracles to determine what is the Truth.  The Truth is readily found in the rightful successors because Jesus promised them that they would be lead into ALL truth (John 16:13)