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Archive for December, 2014

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

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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

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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

 

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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)

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Rudolph memeImage courtesy of memegenerator.net

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I’ve said it for other serial posts, and I’ll say it here as well: Please read part one if you have not done so already; you may find that this post doesn’t make much sense otherwise.

But if you are determined not to do so, know that in order to encourage a better appreciation of the Advent season, we are looking at the ways in which God prepared the world for the coming of Christ.  We have looked at two already.

3. The Covenant With Noah

Noah

The results of the Fall run deep, and the evil of humankind goes from bad to worse, ultimately bringing about cataclysmic destruction.  But out of this God brings new life.  He makes a covenant with all of creation and all humankind, providing assurance of His mercy and His power to bring life out of death itself.  We can see this promise in the cycles of nature, among other things.

4. The Call of Abraham

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 035.jpgGod personally enters history by calling Abram (whom He will rename Abraham) out of the land of his fathers to become the forbear of the Chosen People.  The sign of this new covenant God makes is circumcision, which He asks of Abraham and all of his male progeny.

Remember the proto-evangelion?  This is a sign that its fulfillment is getting close.  With Abraham, we have the birth of a people distinguished by a mark or wound in their flesh.  From this people will come the wounded one who will “strike at the head of the serpent.”

5. The Exodus of Israel

Exodus2Several centuries later, God intervenes with signs and miracles in the sight of the nations in order to form His people, Abraham’s progeny…Israel.  He delivers them from Egypt by making a way through the Red Sea, leads them out into the dessert, and makes them into a nation of people whose lives will be shaped and guided by His Law.  In this way, they are to become a magnet for the nations.

6. The Davidic Dynasty

King DavidTime passes, and then God takes it up a notch.  He gives Israel a king in the person of David, a former shepherd boy.  He makes a covenant with David, promising that his kingdom will last forever.  As long as the Davidic dynasty endures, God will relate to the king as a son, and the king will shepherd the people in His name.

I mentioned that Israel was meant to become a magnet for the nations.  This becomes even clearer with the institution of David’s line; we can see this, for example, when the Queen of Sheba travels to Jerusalem from a great distance to the south in order to hear the wisdom of King Solomon (David’s son).

And we’ll leave it at that for now.

Images from Wikipedia

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AdventCandlesI want to remind people that we are technically not in the Christmas season just yet, in spite of what retailers and radio stations would have us believe.  Don’t get me wrong — I love this time of year, and rejoice with any Christmas-lover that it is time to sing “Fa-la-la-la-la” again.  But, technicality of technicalities, it is in fact Advent.

Is Advent counter-cultural?  Yes, but for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.  Advent is a season of waiting, a season of expectation.  We commemorate the expectation of the birth of Christ, and we anticipate His Second Coming at the end of time.

But it doesn’t matter all that much what we are waiting for, because any emphasis on waiting itself implicitly flies in the face of our instant-gratification, “now-now-now” society.

Imagine a world in which everything we want is immediate, though.  This would mean no more surprises, no more joy of anticipation, no more sense of adventure, no more wonder…

Needless to say, I don’t mind being a “sign of contradiction” here…though, of course, I’m not sure how well I succeed in it.  I am as prone to impatience as anyone else.   Nevertheless, as a Catholic, I am very grateful for this special annual opportunity to observe the expectation of the one thing most worth waiting for.

That said, I thought it might help to enhance our appreciation of Advent — or, if you do not observe Advent yourself, to better understand what it means to those who do — by offering a short outline of the ways in which we hold that God prepared a waiting world for the coming of Christ throughout the millennia.  I’ll list just two of them here, and we’ll pick up with #3 tomorrow or Wednesday.  Bear with me — you may find that you didn’t expect all of the preparatory milestones I list.

1. Creation

CreationYes, the creation of the universe is itself the first step.  All things were created through and for Christ, the Eternal Word.  Everything that happened before the first human beings appeared — from the Big Bang through the dinosaurs, ice age, etc. — was a preparation for humankind, for the world was made for man; man, in turn, was made for God.

2. God’s Solicitude About Man

 

Adam_&_Eve_02God makes human beings in His own image and establishes them as the monarchs and priests of His creation.  Our first parents disobey God and go astray…but God does not abandon them.

There are two things of note in the Biblical account of the Fall.  First, God clothes Adam and Eve with animal skins (tradition sees in this the first animal sacrifice, as an animal obviously had to be killed in order for the skins to be obtained).  Mankind’s survival throughout the ages owes itself to the mercy and providence of God, which I think is aptly expressed in this primordial gesture.

Secondly, we have the proto-evangelion, the first promise of redemption:

[Addressing the serpent] I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.

Genesis 3:15

Here we have the prophecy of a mother giving birth to a son who will save the human race, defeating the serpent (“He will strike at your head…”), though it will cost him something to do so (“…while you strike at his heel”).  This promise lies near the root of humankind’s deepest (if forgotten) memory.

And I think that’s a good place to stop for now.

Images from Wikipedia

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