As I quiet myself this morning with but a few days left in this advent season I am grateful for Ralph Wood’s meditation on Chesterton and Mary. He has reminded me that we cannot think on the Christ child without also thinking of Mary, the humble and obedient mother of our Lord and the theotokos, bearing very God of God in human form.
Growing up in a church culture rooted in the Protestant fears of Mariolatry, Mary is not someone I hear mentioned all that often. And yet consider this powerful thought from Chesterton, recounting an experience in his childhood parish in England in which baby Jesus was removed from a statue thought to give improper attention to Mary.
“One would think that this [act] was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother.”
The position afforded to this girl from a small town in the backwaters of the Middle East as the conduit through which world history would reach its climax thus far is one of those bizarre beliefs that helps my faith continue in a world where it is so easy to give it up. God’s veneration of women, declared equally good with their male counterparts and worthy of bearing God Himself, must be in the forefront of our minds as we seek to answer those ignorant of the glories of Christianity. I will never forget how confounded I was early in my high school years when I stranger at a coffee shop told me she didn’t believe in Christianity because “it was sexist.” Obviously you don’t know much about what is truly in the Scriptures I’m sure I so ignominiously replied. Please tell me what other world religion lists a pagan prostitute in the genealogy of its God.
May those of us charged with leading the bride of Christ, the Church, realize the great power that Mary the mother of our Lord as the literal embodiment of the divine nature as 2 Peter 1:4 bids of us. May we understand that we cannot speak of our Lord, or His Church, without reflecting on his mother, “chosen to humble the proud.”
I’m in a guys small group at KU with InterVarsity and we are going through Proverbs. At our first meeting last week we all were struck by the power of the writer’s personification of wisdom. (Was Proverbs written by Solomon? Maybe. Probably not. This could be a post in itself, but for now all I will say is that we need to get over this idea though that psudeopigrapha somehow lessons the authoritative nature of the scripture in question. It was a common ancient practice and there is nothing deceitful about the writer calling himself ‘Solomon’ when in fact it may not have been. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of psuedopigrapha.)
Elizabeth Huwiler, professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NIB) says that “perhaps the most striking theological aspect to the book is the personification of Wisdom in feminine form.” We all felt the same in our initial read-through of Proverbs one. It is hard to ignore the seductive imagery of Wisdom “cry[ing] out in the streets” (1:20, NRSV) of her “pour[ing] out my thoughts to you; mak[ing] my words known to you” (1:23). What else dos a young man want but to have a young woman crying out to him in the streets and then pouring herself out to him? There is all kinds of sexual tension going on here.
In a helpful excursus on the “person of Wisdom” Huwiler does not shy away from the obvious sexual, erotic nature of this feminine personification of Wisdom: “the presentation of Wisdom as a woman would have appealed to the audience of Proverbs. If the sages sought to describe wisdom as desirable and yet elusive to an audience of young men [which would have been the intended audience for the book, see 1:4], then allusions to a woman would have been apt. The listeners are urged to seek Wisdom, find her, and make her their own as if she were a wife.”
This erotic element of wisdom is particularly striking in the context that I am reading Proverbs – all male, single, college-age. As the lone married (almost) not 20-something, I was struck by how effective this literary device is and gained a new appreciation for the genius of this writer. But now here is the question, is this just a literary device or does it signal something else going on? Some scholars think that personified Wisdom is an Israelite goddess “or at least Israelite flirtation with goddess worship” like the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, Ma’at, the Canaanite goddesses Astarte and Asherah,, and the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Other’s see the personification as a hypostasis – a bringing to life – of one of God’s attributes. This is a kind of middle way between outright goddess worship and the notion that Wisdom is just a clever literary device like the Psalmist makes use of when he speaks of “righteousness and truth kissing each other in Psalm 85:10.” That is clearly meant as nothing more than a literary anthropomorphism. So shouldn’t Wisdom be seen as a similar device?
Not so fast. The history of the concept of Jewish Wisdom is a complex and fascinating one and contains much more significance than it may appear at first. This notion of Jewish Wisdom sheds light on Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, and what it might mean for God Himself to somehow be embodied and personified. We will dive into that in the next part.
Let us therefore purify our heart, our conscience, and our spirit many days ahead of time, and thus cleansed and spotless let us prepare to receive the immaculate Lord who is coming. As he was born of the Immaculate Virgin, so too may his servants be immaculate to celebrate his birth! Indeed, anyone who is dirty and tainted on that day neither is concerned with the Nativity of Christ nor desires him.
Such a man may well participate bodily in the feast of the Lord, but spiritually he quite distant from the Savoir; nor is it possible for an impure man and a holy man, an avaricious man and a merciful man, a corrupt man and a pure man to be together without the one offending the other, proving himself all the more unworthy the less he is aware of his unworthiness.
Indeed, he causes insult though wishing to be courteous, like the man in the Gospel invited to the feast of the saints who dared to attend the wedding without a wedding garment (see Mt 22:1-14): while all the other guests radiated with justice, faith, and chastity, he alone — with an unclean conscience — was spurned by all the others for the repugnance he caused; and the more the sanctity of the holy guests shone, the more the insolence of this sins was revealed.
Advent is the season for the church to contemplate and celebrate the long anticipated arrival of Jesus 2000 years ago. It also serves as a time for the church to celebrate the hopeful return of Christ, where we believe his presence will be manifested and his kingdom consummated here on earth.
We look back in celebration; we look forward in hope.
The content of our lives is filled in this space. We wait. How we wait is important, to be sure. When we grow bored of waiting, we often turn to superficial pleasures that minimize our horizons. Ultimately, our humanity is diminished.
Jesus provided us an alternate, more fully human way of living life in the between.
Advent and Christmas are propitious times to set your sights on Jesus’ life and to live as he did. Here are some fitting words provided by St. Hilary (and myself) to keep in mind as you follow Jesus on the way, as you wait for his return: gladness, hope, peace, poverty in spirit, purity of heart, everlasting treasure.
Hilary of Poitiers, Discourses, I, 1ff.
‘We await the Savior.’ In truth, the righteous man’s waiting is gladness, for he awaits the blessed hope and advent of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
‘What then am I awaiting,’ says the righteous man, ‘if not the Lord?’ . . . Poor in spirit, be happy you have stored up your treasures in heaven in accordance with the advice of the heavenly Counselor, for fear that your heart, like your treasure, would come to know corruption if left on earth! Indeed, the Lord says, ‘For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be’ (Matt 6:21).
May your hearts therefore follow their treasure! Set your thoughts on heavenly things, and may your expectation hold fast to God, so that you may say as the Apostle says, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Phil 3:20).
I apologize for getting our Advent reading up late. I’ve had a busy morning. You may find it below.
Be watchful as next week I am aiming to post a concise explanation about the Liturgical (Church) Calendar – its seasons and their meaning – and why it’s important for shaping and nurturing faith in a secular age.
Also forthcoming will be a series of posts looking intimately at Martin Luther’s acclaimed 7 Marks of the Church and why they are necessary concepts to keep in mind, especially for pastors and church leaders in the American evangelical scene.
Is there a particular idea or book you’d like us to explore? Please don’t be shy about offering recommendations.
Lastly, we at The Theologian’s Library cannot say often enough how much we desire to be a helpful resource for the local church and the leaders who’ve dedicated their lives to serving it. We know we are just getting started, and of course there is much work and content development left to be done, but we want this little space to be conduit for finding helpful resources that explore the deep, penetrating truths that have sustained the life of the Church for 2000 years. Perhaps most importantly, we desire this space to be a community of people whose affection for the Church and her theology leads them to better serve her people, thus preparing them to joyfully inhabit the kingdom of God.
Yours in Christ our King,
Caesarius of Arles, Sermons, 187, 3.5
If the king of this world or a family father invited you to this birthday celebration, what garment would you wear other than the newest, most elegant, and most handsome one, so that neither its old age, nor little worth, nor any other unfavorable quality might be offensive in the eyes of your host?
With equal care, then, as best you can and with the help of Christ, make sure you prepare your soul, adorned with many ornaments of virtue, the jewels of simplicity, the flowers of temperance, and sure conscience, the beauty of chastity, the radiance of almsgiving, and the splendor of charity, for the solemn celebration of the Eternal King: the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior.
Indeed, if Christ the Lord sees how well you have prepared yourself to celebrate his birth, he will deign not only to visit your soul, but also to rest and abide there forever, as it is written: ‘I will live with them and move among them’ (2 Cor 6:16); and ‘behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] i will enter his house and dine with them, and he with me.’ (Rev 3:20)
This is the moment: behold, the Master of all virtues, the Father’s Minister for the distribution of all good things, the divine and heavenly Word, has appeared to all men, to all the peoples of the earth prepared and ready to receive the knowledge of the Father, through a man who is in no way different from our own nature in the essence of his body, and who has done and suffered what they prophets foretold.
They had predicted that a God-Man, a worker of marvelous deeds, would come to the earth and become the Teacher of the Father’s religion for all peoples; they had preannounced the wonder of this birth, the novelty of his teachings, the marvelousness of his works, and then the Death he would undergo, his Resurrection, and his divine return to the heavens.
It is clear that all of this can be attributed to no one other than our Savior, the God-Word who was with God in the beginning and who, by his ultimate Incarnation, is also called the Son of Man.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) known as the “angelic doctor” is the unofficial, official philosopher/theologian of the Catholic Church. I say unofficial/official because the Catholic Church does not, and should not, have just one theologian that speaks for it, but Thomas does have a privileged place among Catholic teaching and doctrine.
From Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1870) which touted Thomas as the philosopher par excellence that could help restore the loss of depth among Catholic philosophy to St. Thomas Aquinas high schools littered throughout the country, Thomas is likely the most widely esteemed thinker in the Catholic tradition.
Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhard Hütter, editors of the fantastic volume Reason and the Reason’s of Faith (2005) say in their introduction that they were surprised at how universally and frequently Thomas was drawn on in the collection from writers of all different kinds of Christian traditions, far more than any other thinker. Thomas thought holds an embarrassment of riches for the Church that we must have at least a rudimentary grasp of of to be intellectually responsible leaders in the Church.
I have been diving back into Thomas’ world and his writings during some time off during this Thanksgiving season and want to highlight five themes that ground Thomas’ thought that seem to me absolutely crucial to guiding reflection on God and the world around us. Thomas’ metaphysical first principles provides the Christian thinker with a set of basic principles through which questions of reality can be filtered — a bastion of hope in a world looking for stability. In what follows I have borrowed heavily from the venerable Thomistic scholar, the late W. Norris Clarke, longtime professor at Fordham. Clarke leaned heavily on the “existential” interpretation of Thomas’ thought introduced to America through the writings of the French philosopher/theologian Etienne Gilson and furthered by Catholic thinkers like Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Before we dive in, three definitions are vital to understanding Thomas’ technical language.
A Thomistic Glossary to Get Going
esse– The best translation of this Latin term is probably existence. Esse is the act by which things exist. God is pure esse, pure existence, anything that exists participates in esse. All created things have a natural inclination to God because our existence is sustained only by a continual outflow of esse, God Himself. This word is the heart and soul of Thomistic metaphysics and fully explicated in the little volume De Ente et Essentia. Being with a capital B often stands in for this crucially important Latin term. Think Heidegger.
essence- The essence of a thing is that which makes a thing to be what it is. The essence of the human person is humanity, everything that makes a human a human, for instance. Any created being analyzed metaphysically is a composite of esse and essence. Analyzed in more natural scientific terms, all beings are composed of form (the essence of a thing) and matter.
being- being with a lower case b is all that exists that consists of a composite of essence and esse. A being is a human person, a rock, a puppy, an angel, an electron…
Three Themes of Thomastic Metaphysics that should Guide our Thinking Today
1.The connaturality of the human spirit and being. “By nature all people desire to know,” Aristotle says in the first line of the Metaphysics.The human mind is made to know being, being is intelligible, and the human spirit is made to seek being, being is good. That being is intelligible is the first principle of the intellectual life and that good is to be done an evil avoided is the first principle of the moral life. As Christians, this principle is grounded in the fact that creation was spoken into being by the Logos, the incarnate Word of God, the essence of intelligibility and goodness.
2. An understanding of the structure of being of composed of essence and the act of existence (esse). This existential structure of every created thing is what gives us community with every other being in the universe. The essence of a thing is what limits its receptivity of the act of existence, the greater the amount of participation in esse, the more perfect the being because existence is the perfection of God. “Existence itself is participation in God’s own essential perfection.” Human beings thus have an essence that allow for greater participation in esse than does, say, a fly, and thus the human being is closer to God’s perfection than a fly. It is only in the human person that Being is able to truly manifest itself as Being, because it is only the human person that is capable of being overawed by the sheer grace of existence. The human person is truly a Da-Sein, the only creature where Being is self-manifested.
3.being (lower-case) is by its very nature dynamic. (The same is true of upper case Being, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) Created things are self-revealing by nature because being overflows into action. What would a being be that didn’t have the capacity to act or be acted upon? It wouldn’t be an intelligible object, it would be literally nothing, no-thing. The rock has the potential to be picked up and thrown, the puppy’s being overflows into running and playing, the human person types metaphysical blog entries and drinks coffee in the cold. This principle grounds a realist epistemology. We can know things outside of our minds as they are in the world because they are by nature self-revealing by their actions. Creation, being, reveals its essence continually through action and thus throws itself into a web of relations creating a universum, a being-together. The modern notion of inert substance found in Descartes, Locke, and Hume, as static, simply an extended thing or an unknowable pincushion revealed only by its “accidents” should be rejected. Being is fundamentally self-revealing and relational.
These three themes are but a fly by of Aquinas but if you don’t grasp them, you won’t understand Thomas. He is a difficult thinker and getting into the language and the terminology is difficult. But he is worth spending a day, a month, a year, a lifetime to understand. He brings God and creation into a whole new level of understanding, wonder, and worship.