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Thorin Oakenshield

Please click here for parts one through four.

10. The Virgin Mary

Virgin's_first_seven_steps

(Mosaic, “The Virgin’s first seven steps”)

Less than two decades (perhaps even less than one) after the Holy Land becomes Roman territory, Israel’s most precious jewel yet is born: The Blesséd Virgin Mary.  By a special grace from God, Mary is conceived in her mother’s womb without Original Sin and perfectly preserved from all personal sin throughout her life (see post on the Immaculate Conception).  She is totally dedicated to God in all her being — heart, soul, and body.

She lives a simple, hidden life, and yet we cannot grasp just how much of a novelty is her presence in the world.  She is the first sinless human being to exist since Adam and Eve before the Fall.  Once again, remember the proto-evangelion, the prophecy of the woman and her offspring?

Well, this is the woman.

11. The Star of the Magi

Star of BethlehemWe all know the story — a group of wise men who study the heavens are led, from the east, by the light of a new star to the humble birthplace of Jesus Christ.

In the magi, representatives of the neighbouring pagan religions [at least one of whom probably inherited the spiritual tradition of Zoroaster, whom we referenced in step #7], the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. (. . .) [T]hey seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.

(CCC 528 – bracketed comment mine)

Remember, the coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the Noahic Covenant with all the nations (cf. #3) as well as the Old Covenant.  But the magi do not find this fulfillment in a vacuum.  Rather, they find their King only among His People, the Jews.  Not only that, they find Him under the custodianship of Joseph, a descendant of King David (lineages in ancient Israel were always traced through the father, even if the child was adopted).  And to narrow it down even further, they find Him in the arms of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

And finally…

12. John the Baptist

San_Juan_Bautista_por_Joan_de_JoanesTrue, St. John the Baptist comes onto the scene well after the birth of Christ.  But at this point, Christ has not yet publicly revealed Himself.  It was for Jesus’ public ministry that John paved the way, and for that reason he is one of the Church’s favorite figures during the Advent season.

John, the son of a Levite High Priest, comes to Israel after undertaking a long period of fasting, penance, prayer, and mortification in the dessert, preaching the urgent need for repentance and the immanence of the Kingdom of God.  He is the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament tradition and the forerunner of the Messiah.  He preaches and administers a baptism of repentance and exhorts the people to be ready to meet their Savior…

Baptism of Christ…until at last he comes face-to-face with Him in the Jordan.

Thank you for taking this Advent journey with me.  Happy waiting!

Images from Wikipedia

For parts one through three, click here

8. The Prophets

IsaiahThis milestone doesn’t so much follow the previous one as run alongside it. Whereas #7 dealt with the axial age among the gentiles, #8 deals with the corresponding situation among the Chosen People.

What we might call the “Age of the Prophets” begins just as the Davidic Dynasty (cf. #6) begins to decline.  The kings of Israel depart from the way of the Lord, and the people soon follow.  Idols are worshiped.  The poor and needy are abused and neglected.  God is honored by lips, but spurned by hearts.

As punishment, God hands Israel over to foreign conquerors.  The armies of Babylon and Assyria sweep into the land; Jerusalem is laid waste; the Temple Solomon had built, which was to be the privileged place of God’s presence on earth, is desecrated and destroyed; the line of David is all but wiped out; and God’s people are led into exile.

Of course, the prophets warn the Israelites of the calamity that will come upon them if they do not turn back to the Lord…but they are ignored and mocked.  By the time the people realize they should have listened, it is too late.  But in Israel’s exile, the prophets mourn with them.  They assure the exiles that though God punishes them, He still loves them and grieves over their fall.  What is more, they assure them that He will one day bring them back to their land and restore Israel.

Equally “fleshed out” during this period of salvation history are God’s sovereignty and justice, His untiring fidelity to His people (even when they are unfaithful), His absolute mastery over history (even when it seems like His plans are being foiled), the unfathomable greatness of His tender love and mercy, and His closeness to the poor, humble, and contrite of heart.

Even when the exiles are finally led back to Israel a generation or so later, God continues to send prophets to give them hope.  They foretell a time soon to come, when God will write His law onto the hearts of His people.  They speak of “a radical redemption of the People of God, purification from all their infidelities, a salvation which will include all the nations” (CCC 64).  They even foretell the restoration of the line of David:

(…) a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.

(Isaiah 11:1)

And here we have clear expectation of the Messiah – “the anointed one” — at whose hands this salvation will take place.

9. The Roman Empire

Pax RomanaLate in the first century B.C., Rome takes control of most of the known world.  Through its ingenuity in law, architecture, and government, it brings about a period of relative peace known as the “Pax Romana” and connects the various regions of the world in ways heretofore unknown, making travel — both by land and by sea — relatively safe and easy.

According to the prophets of Israel, the word of God will be carried to all nations once the Messiah has come.  With Rome’s aforementioned achievement, the stage is set for this to happen.

Three more milestones to go, and we should be able to take care of them all in the next post.

Images from Wikipedia

For parts one and two, click here

“Beware the frozen heart.”  That’s the warning of the singing icemen in the opening scene of “Frozen.”  We take that as the theme of this third installment of our analysis.

frozen_trollWe turn to the unlikely “love experts” in the iceman Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) social circle: The Trolls.

We meet them at the very beginning, when Anna (at this point a young child) is taken to them for healing after Elsa, with her magical powers, accidentally paralyzes her.  And then we cross paths with them yet again after Elsa (Idina Menzel) accidentally freezes Anna’s (Kristen Bell) heart when the latter tries to get her to return to Arendelle.

Grandpa Troll (Ciarán Hinds) declares that a frozen heart can only be cured by an act of true love.  And if it doesn’t happen soon, Anna will be frozen forever.

anna saves elsaUnexpectedly, it is Anna who saves Elsa by an act of true love.  Prince Hans approaches Elsa on the ice, sword in hand, ready to execute her for the murder of her sister — a verdict that he himself has passed falsely.

Fortunately for her, Anna is on the scene.  She jumps in the way just as the clock runs out; she freezes into an ice statue, blocking Hans’ blow.

Elsa weeps for her sister’s apparent demise; but right on the tail of her tears comes a miracle: Anna “thaws out” and reawakens, her frozen heart fully cured.

The act of true love that saves Anna ends up being her own.

frozen-happy-endingOf course, she saves Elsa as well — and not just from Hans’ blow.  She shows her that true love is, in fact, the elusive key to keeping her powers in check — a key Elsa has longed for her whole life, but has never been able to find.

So now we must explore the $1,000,000 question: What is this “true love” of which Grandpa Troll speaks?

As mentioned in the prelude to this series of posts, love is to will the good of the other as other — to give of oneself for the life, for the happiness, for the good of a brother, a sister, a friend, or anyone.

For human beings made in the image of the Triune God, for whom it is not good to be alone (Gen. 2: 18), love also entails a certain vulnerability to the other.  In other words, the belovéd open themselves up to one another, in some sense becoming part of one another (in the natural sphere this reaches its height in true romantic love, but all forms of love are characterized by this to varying degrees and in different ways).

St. Thomas AquinasOne of history’s greatest commentators on the virtue of love (if not the greatest) was St. Thomas Aquinas.  Writing in the 13th century, he identified four particular effects of love, one of which is relevant to our analysis — namely, the effect of melting

…which is opposed to freezing.  For things that are frozen are … hard to pierce.  (. . .) Consequently the freezing or hardening of the heart is a disposition incompatible with love: while melting denotes a softening of the heart, whereby the heart shows itself to be ready for the entrance of the beloved.

(Summa Theologiae I-II, 28, 5, quoted in Peter Kreeft’s “Summa of the Summa”; bold added)

HansBetrayelAnna makes a shrewd observation at the end of the film when addressing Hans: “The only one around here with a frozen heart is you.”

Indeed, the physical aspects of frozenness (terrible as they are) pale in comparison to the sickness of a truly frozen heart — a heart focused on its own interests and ambitions, closed to the needs and desires of others.  Anna submits herself to the former (at least in a sense — she could have focused on seeking help for herself instead of putting her energy into saving Elsa) in response to the promptings of her “melting heart,” and through this submission even her apparent death by frozenness brings about salvation.

I have a little bit more to say, and then I’m done.  Thanks for reading.

Image of St. Thomas Aquinas from Wikipedia; movie stills obtained through a Google image search

For parts one and two, click here.  We are taking a “tour” of the milestones — some more official than others — by which God prepared the world for the first coming of Christ, so as to better appreciate the “waiting spirituality” of Advent.

7. The “Axial Age”

Antiokhos_IVWe step for a moment outside the history of divine revelation (though without  any chronological deviation, since the period in question begins over 200 years after King David’s reign) to take a look at how God was secretly preparing the gentile world for the coming of Christ.

“Axial age” is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe the period between 800 and 200 B.C, during which we see unprecedented and momentous developments in human thought and religion.

In Greece, we find the the philosophies of Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others.  In Persia, we have Zarathustra and the new monotheistic (or at least monotheistic-leaning) religion of Zoroastrianism.  In India, we have the founders of Jainism as well as Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism.  And then in China, we have Confucius and Lao-Tzu.

Let’s consider the overall historical picture we are getting here.  Throughout the known world, there is a shift in emphasis from mere exterior ritual to actual interior righteousness, from superstition to conscience and right thinking, from the fatalism of many a pagan worldview to the fostering of a virtuous and well-ordered life and society.  We find a surge in passion for learning the meaning of life and for the pursuit of true wisdom.

And this is all happening in places with no discernible contact with one another, either prior to or during this 6oo-year time frame.

Axial_AgeThe Greek philosophers almost deserve their own spot on this list, given their mighty influence on the development of Western thought and culture.  Arguably, their great genius was the love of reason.  From Socrates, Plato, and many others, we learn that truth and wisdom are not esoteric realms of experience accessible only to a tribal shaman or to a few enlightened sages.  Rather, truth is knowable, and can be found by anyone who seeks it; there are even categories we can use to discuss and explore it.

IsaiahAnd then there are the Prophets of Israel, whom Jaspers includes in his analysis of the Axial age.  But they belong in a class of their own, so we’ll talk about them next time.  Thanks for reading.

Images from Wikipedia

 

Immaculate ConceptionToday we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

There, I said it.  Feel free to respond with a “So what” or “What does that mean?”

So what do we mean when we say “Immaculate Conception?”  By this, we are referring to the fact that the Virgin Mary was, by a unique grace, preserved from all sin — both Original and personal  — from the moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb.  She was perfect, as far as this is possible fora human being.

Some Christians are scandalized by this notion, arguing that:

  1. it is un-Biblical; and
  2. if it were true, it would suggest that Mary did not need a savior, which in turn dilutes the significance of Jesus Christ.

These concerns are understandable.  But in the last analysis, they are unfounded.  I’ll address them in the preceding order.

For Biblical support of the Immaculate Conception, we need look no further than the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel:

…the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

(Luke 1: 26-28 – bold added)

“Favored one” is not a bad translation of the Greek, but the traditionally recognized phrase “full of grace” is probably more accurate.  The salutation in Greek is “Chaire, Kecharitomene,” a salutation that appears nowhere else in ancient literature.  In all likelihood, this is why…

[Mary] was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

(Luke 1: 29 – bold added)

Some would argue that Gabriel is simply calling Mary blessed because of Who she will carry inside her womb.  This argument, however, will not survive an accurate understanding of the language.  Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle; it refers to a current and continual condition stemming from a past action (as opposed to the future conception of the Son of God); it implies a fullness of divine grace freely bestowed by God.

Panachranta

And that brings us to the second objection cited above.  The how of the Immaculate Conception is actually very simple: God, with foreknowledge of the merits of Christ, applied these merits to Mary in a special way at the very moment of her conception.  Given her unique role in salvation history and the closeness to the Lord she was to experience — a closeness totally unequaled in any creature, even the greatest of the angels — this was more than fitting.

Medieval commentators liked to offer the following analogy: Imagine a large, deep pit hidden in a dense wood — a pit that is very easy to fall into unawares and virtually impossible get out of.

One could be rescued after the fact, having fallen into the pit and lingered there until someone came along and extended him a rope; alternatively, someone could step in beforehand and prevent the approaching party from the quite literal pitfall in the first place.

Like everyone else, Mary’s salvation was in Christ alone; but unlike the rest of us, she never got to the pit.

In conclusion, here is a quote from the third century (one of a not insignificant number from the early Church) that should build some confidence in this belovéd doctrine:

He [Jesus] was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle [Mary] was exempt from putridity and corruption.

(Orations Inillud, Dominus pascit me, quoted by Taylor Marshall on a New Saint Thomas Institute video)

Images from Wikipedia

Rudolph memeImage courtesy of memegenerator.net

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