The Meeting of Heaven and Earth: On Particularity and Familiar Things

It is one of the joys of earthly life to take comfort in familiarity – the particular feel of a favourite chair, well worn by years of use; certain scents or sounds that evoke happy memory; the re-reading of books that have nurtured our imaginations in the past and continue to feed them in the present – and the joy we take in such things reflects the more general delight we take in the concrete and particular. The experience of fully encountering this moment – this place and these things at this time – communicates to us not only a feeling of assurance but also a sense of the sacred (and perhaps the former because of the latter). What degree of continuity will there be though, if any, between these experiences and life in Heaven; and what are we to make of the tension between our love of the concrete and our being called to renounce attachment to things in general – can that tension find a resolution?

The first thing to note is that, due to the Incarnation, Christianity is necessarily committed to the material – it is a deeply sacramental religion, with the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures in Our Lord providing the foundation for a system of mediated grace that flows from the Church (itself a thoroughly material entity) via the sacraments which it has received the authority to provide. Whilst the deeply physical nature of the means by which we receive grace to aid us on our way to God is denied vociferously by a great many Protestant churches (as well as the need for there to be any mediation at all) this remains a basic fact of historic, orthodox Christianity – a fact that is of great importance for understanding how God intends to bring us into relationship with Him, and which bears continual witness to the nature of the Incarnation itself.

This being the case then, our love of material things cannot be wholly wrong, even if it may need some qualification – matter, already in some sense hallowed by virtue of it being created by God and said by Him to be good, has received further consecration due to God having united to Himself our human nature, entered into our material world, and further blessed it by setting apart certain elements of that world (bread, wine, water, oil) for the effective communication of His own divine life. Such qualification that may be required is where the question of attachment comes in – if matter is something good, and even blessed, it is not our enjoyment of it that may lead us astray, but our being attached to it to the extent that we need it to be happy. If we take pleasure in sitting in an old armchair, this is a fine thing in and of itself, but if we begin to seek out such a feeling, then we have become, in a small but significant way, addicted to it – it is not the chair, nor the feeling of comfort that it gives us that is the problem, but the placing of our happiness in the re-creation of that feeling.

The attachment we feel towards such experiences and things (whether they be good, like the reading of a favourite book in a beloved armchair, or sinful, like drinking ourselves into a stupor) is due to our concupiscence – the preferring of lower goods (or even the perversion of good things) in contrast to the things reason tells us make for our highest good. Basically, we give too much of our affection and desire towards the things God has made, instead of He who made them; and this is due to a prior flaw in human nature, which is born of Original Sin. So, the problem is not our delight in the things of this world (the concrete is, as we have seen, not only good but is further blessed by virtue of the Incarnation) but our forgetfulness of where these particular goods receive their goodness from. Enjoying creation is a good and holy thing; preferring it to the Creator is not.

With respect to familiarity then, and our taking comfort in it, there should not be a problem in our doing so as long as we enjoy such things with a spirit of gratitude – if each time we nestle down in that favourite armchair of ours (sorry for repeating this example, but I really do love a good, well-worn armchair; the enjoyment of a bacon sandwich would work equally well) we recognise that these things, indeed anything is a gift of God, and thus our enjoyment becomes properly expressed within the context of thanks that He has provided us with them. This then ties into the question of what continuity there might be between these concrete experiences, mediated by our senses, and the heavenly life; as if our enjoyment of earthly things is properly ordered only when it is rightly aligned to their Provider, then any continuity between them and life in Heaven must be on that basis too.

Saint Augustine, in the concluding chapters of his De Civitate Dei, considers what life in Heaven might be like, and thereby the related question of what our resurrected life might be like – for another corroboration of the goodness of materiality is that we, along with the rest of the creation, will be reinstated and transfigured; Heaven will not be a place of ghosts, but of substance. What that substance will be, and the way in which our substantial but spiritualised bodies will interact with that new world, is what Saint Augustine goes on to consider (in Chapter 29 of Book XII), and in doing so (particularly in the second part of the excerpt below) he provides some illumination on this question of continuity:

If the eyes of the spiritual body have no more power than the eyes which we now possess, manifestly God cannot be seen with them. They must be of a very different power if they can look upon that incorporeal nature which is not contained in any place, but is all in every place. For though we say that God is in heaven and on earth, as He Himself says by the prophet, “I fill heaven and earth,” we do not mean that there is one part of God in heaven and another part on earth; but He is all in heaven and all on earth, not at alternate intervals of time, but both at once, as no bodily nature can be. The eye, then, must have a vastly superior power – the power not of keen sight, such as is ascribed to serpents or eagles, for however keenly these animals see, they can discern nothing but bodily substances – but the power of seeing things incorporeal…

…Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual, and shall see Him, not as we now understand the invisible things of God, by the things which are made, and see Him darkly, as in a mirror, and in part, and rather by faith than by bodily vision of material appearances, but by means of the bodies we shall wear and which we shall see wherever we turn our eyes. As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, though we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things.

The City of God (2000), pp.861-863, Modern Library.

                Saint Augustine goes on to elaborate as to how this transparency of the material to the Spirit underpinning and vitalising it will lead to an increased intimacy between all created things – because God will be vividly apparent to us in and through the new heavens and new earth, each part of this realm will be for us something upon which our gaze may (as George Herbert writes in his poem The Elixir) ‘through it pass, and then the heav’n espy’; also communication between persons will be clear and immediate, unencumbered by the self-possession of sin, and enabled by the prior communion with God which all shall enjoy. Furthermore, in Chapter 30 of the same book, Augustine goes on to describe something of the freedom we will have in this communion, with its concomitant lack of attachment to things for their own sake:

What power of movement such bodies shall possess, I have not the audacity rashly to define, as I have not the ability to conceive. Nevertheless I will say that in any case, both in motion and at rest, they shall be, as in their appearance, seemly; for into that state nothing which is unseemly shall be admitted. One thing is certain, the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body. True honour shall be there, for it shall be denied to none who is worthy, nor yielded to any unworthy; neither shall any unworthy person so much as sue for it, for none but the worthy shall be there. True peace shall be there, where no one shall suffer opposition either from himself or from any other. God Himself, who is the Author of virtue, shall there be its reward; for, as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.

ibid, pp.864-865.

                Whereas in this life we experience God only partially, and do so through the things He has made, in Heaven we shall ‘see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual’ – everything will be a window onto Him, and thus we shall enjoy all the things of the new heaven and earth precisely because they show us the divine life, not because of the things themselves. Furthermore, concupiscence will no longer be an issue, for ‘the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body’ and so nothing will stand in the way of that perfect alignment with the life of God that is our true destiny.

Therefore, if what Saint Augustine writes is correct, our enjoyment of the concrete and particular will not only find continuity with the heavenly life, but will thereby find its perfection – if the goodness of such earthly experiences can be located in our recognition that they come from God and to some extent bring us closer to Him, then how much more will the goodness of those very same things be realised in a context where they show us their dependence upon Him completely. In Heaven then, just as our sensory experience will be taken to a level beyond what it is now, so that we will be able to thereby know spiritual truth as well, so will the mediatory role of the rest of creation find its perfection.

This then would provide a definite point of continuity for us, linking the partially revelatory joys of familiar things and experiences to the unmitigated glorification all creation will provide in Heaven. However, although the prominence that is accorded to Saint Augustine is well-deserved, and his arguments here cogent, his is still but an opinion (albeit a very learned one), and the true nature of Heaven must by the nature of the case remain mysterious to us – how much stock can we actually put in what he says? It seems to me that, although it is true that we know vastly less of Heaven than we ever can hope to know in this life, that the arguments put forward by Augustine are based on sound dogmatic principles (i.e.; the goodness of creation, the resurrection of the body) and also that the central point of his conclusion cannot really be disputed.

The key to all he says is this – that whatever we encounter in Heaven will be in some way, though in truth we know not how, continuous with this life, but that the root of this continuity is God. If anything of this life survives into the next, it will be because it spoke to us of God; if any experience or mode of being finds some analogy in Heaven, it will be because it showed us Him – what makes Heaven the blessed place that it will be is God alone, because ‘as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.’ All things in Heaven will be there to glorify Him who is our greatest, and, in the end, our only good. That many things in this life already do speak to us of Him in part should give us some confidence that they will therefore also play a part in the hereafter; but whatever the reality is, we will find that it fulfils and far exceeds all that has thus far given us joy.

George Herbert: ‘The Pulley’ and Our Rest in God

One of the principal reasons for God taking human nature upon Himself in the Incarnation is that we have trouble turning from the many earthly pleasures provided for us in this life to the One who made them. Central to what we celebrate at Christmas then, is that God did not leave us to sift through the range of hints in nature and the various theories of men in order to know Him, but came down to us in our creatureliness and showed to us the truth about His character and will; in the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, born in and amongst the lowliest of society and visited first by humble shepherds, we are shown that here is what God is really like.

And yet, despite this blessing, most of us, at various points in our lives, still find it hard to turn to God. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, though we have known the ways of the Lord, we still do not strive to enter His rest (c.f.; Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13), preferring to direct our hearts and minds to the things of the world, which deep down we know (and are constantly reminded by experience) can never satisfy us as God can. In his poem The Pulley, George Herbert inverts the classical story of Pandora’s Box (in which the box was originally a glass) and imagines God pouring a ‘glasse of blessings’ onto mankind, as opposed to the multitude of ills that Zeus (via Pandora) released into the world.

In doing so, he draws acute attention both to the range of blessings we do commonly enjoy (and routinely forget) as well as the perennial madness of our forgetting of our Maker who pours those very blessings upon us. The pulley of the title is never itself mentioned, but is instead embedded in the theme of the poem as a whole – as the old pulley system used a filled bucket to weigh it down on one side, simultaneously raising the empty bucket on the other, in Herbert’s poem we are weighed down by the many blessings God gives us, and this weight lifts up the empty bucket of our restlessness (as we are never fully satisfied by worldly things and cannot find rest in them) propelling us upwards to the God we have so long ignored:

 

When God at first made man,

Having a glasse of blessings standing by;

Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:

Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,

            Contract into a span.

 

            So strength first made a way;

Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:

When almost all was out, God made a stay,

Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,

            Rest in the bottome lay.

 

            For if I should (said he)

Bestow this jewell also on my creature,

He would adore my gifts in stead of me,

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:

            So both should losers be.

 

            Yet let him keep the rest,

But keep them with repining restlesnesse:

Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,

If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse

            May tosse him to my breast.

 

That the gift of rest is one God holds back from us (the word ‘rest’ having a double meaning here, also meaning ‘the remainder of’ – i.e.; the last blessing God could have given us, and which, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, He one day will) is a fact that we can well recognise from experience, and if we are honest, know to be for our benefit. It is all too easy to ‘rest in Nature, not the God of Nature’ and adore the gifts of God instead of the Giver. Therefore, whilst it may be irksome to us at the time, it is a thing known deep within us that this must be so – that we must be harried and have our rest diminished, and also that we may be left restless after we have sated ourselves on the things of the world, for this restlessness is needed to shake our greedy and prideful souls awake. When Herbert writes ‘if goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse may tosse him to my breast’, he is echoing something we know all too well.

Another thing must be noted, which intensifies the overarching theme of the poem – namely that it is only in God we can find rest for our souls – and testifies to George Herbert’s skill as a poet. In the final stanza, the word ‘rest’ is itself enshrined in the final word of the poem (‘breast’), so that the key word is echoed in the final line, and subtly recalls us to the fact that it is only in the breast or heart of God that we can find peace. Moreover, and it is surely not too daring an assumption to make given Herbert’s life and work, because of the Incarnation we can know that heart with even greater confidence and in even greater depth than before the first Christmas occurred, as ‘the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known’ (John 1:18).

Saint John Chrysostom: Behold A New And Wondrous Mystery!

Like many others, I will be away from my computer on Christmas Day, so I am posting this homily from Saint John Chrysostom on the eve of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord instead. Apart from the issue of timing, it is perhaps good to read Saint John’s stirring words before the feast itself anyway, as their inspiring and evocative tone fosters a deep sense of wonder appropriate for a preparation to celebrate Christmas, setting the scene and priming our imagination for the solemn reality and awesome mystery of the Nativity itself. Throughout his homily (a heavily abridged version of which I present here), the Holy Hierarch continually impresses upon us just what a marvellous event the Incarnation is.

Moreover, the excerpts below contain some very moving reflections on the person of Our Blessed Mother, which compound the sense of mystery implicit in God’s making ready the one who would then bear Him in her womb, and also heighten our appreciation of the great reverence due to the Blessed Virgin, who alone was worthy to undertake such a task, and whose will was surrendered so completely to God’s that she was able to accept what Gabriel had to ask of her. Towards the end, Saint John then runs off a litany of the many differences that the Incarnation has made, and returns to the theme with which he began – the unsurpassable glory and mystery of God’s uniting our human nature to His.

The urgent, almost excitable manner in which Saint John delivers his words here are highly infectious, and the great eloquence with which he relates the mysteries that we contemplate at Christmas confirm the wisdom of the handle given him by his peers – John the ‘golden tongued’. All that remains now is for me to get out of the way and let Saint Chrysostom speak again, with words that have lost none of their significance or power, and to wish anybody reading this a very merry Christmas for tomorrow (and for the next few days, as I probably won’t be posting anything else until next week)! May you all have a blessed day as we remember and reflect upon the awesome fact that to us has been born a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassibility, remaining unchanged…

…What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here is overcome, the boundaries of the established order set aside, where God so wills. For not according to nature has this thing come to pass. Nature here rested, while the Will of God laboured. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption…

…And he was born from a Virgin, who knew not His purpose; neither had she laboured with Him to bring it to pass, nor contributed to that which He had done, but was the simple instrument of His Hidden Power. That alone she knew which she has learned by her question to Gabriel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? Then said he; do you wish to hear his words? The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.

And in what manner was the Almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker…

…Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Come, and we shall commemorate the solemn festival. It is a strange manner of celebrating a festival; but truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He has come on earth, while being Whole in heaven; and while complete in heaven, He is without diminution on earth. Though He was God, He became Man; not denying Himself to be God. Though being the impassible Word, He became flesh; that He might dwell amongst us, He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), pp.110-115, Longmans.

Saint Robert Southwell: The Burning Babe

As this is the last Sunday of Advent, I thought I would share a poem that looks forward to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Day. The poem in question is the The Burning Babe by Saint Robert Southwell; a piece that is shot through with a deep sense of urgency and wonder, piling on a series of startling images that take what we know about the Nativity of Christ and re-present them in order to allow us to see just how radical an event the Incarnation really is. The method employed by Southwell is partly rooted in scriptural typology, in the sense that he makes Christological connections to reference points from the Old Testament (principally the episode of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3), but he does so in a way that draws imaginative parallels instead of connecting Christ to the older narratives in terms of prophecy.

Just as Moses, when confronted with the presence of God in the Burning Bush, was afraid of what he had encountered, falling to the ground because of the holiness that was before him, here Saint Robert Southwell imagines himself in a bitterly cold winter’s night suddenly coming across an intense heat and light. Just like Moses, he lifts up a ‘fearful eye’ to see from whence the heat and light came, but finds there instead a lonely child. Moreover, the great burning heat that emanates from the babe is revealed to be fuelled and stoked not by any earthly means, but by justice and mercy, whilst the fire itself is Love. The Babe goes on to explain that ‘the metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls’ – that whilst the intensity of the heat and light of the encounter is borne of a great tenderness, it is no less holy, no less a challenge to us:

 

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,

Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,

A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;

Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!

My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;

The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,

For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.

With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,

And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

 

By describing the Nativity of Our Lord in terms of the great and terrible holiness of the Burning Bush, and employing the language often found in the Prophets of divine furnaces honing the souls of men, Southwell reminds us that, whilst Christmas should indeed be a comfort to us (the fire, he writes, ‘made my heart to glow’) we do not therein encounter something insipid or saccharine, and are not merely told that we are ‘alright as we are’ and left to dwell in self-satisfied ease. Christ comes in weakness and humility, as a wailing child, born into poverty and peril; but His coming in this way, shows us what God (who will one day judge us all) is like and what He truly values – that ‘his mercy is on those who fear him’ and that the proud are therefore scattered ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ whilst He has ‘exalted those of low degree’ (Luke 1:50-52).

This revelation of God’s true nature and what He deems important should be deeply challenging to us all, given how deeply we cling to the stories we tell ourselves of our innate goodness and prestige, how much we deserve from God and neighbour and the excuses we so creatively conjure up to mask the reality of our connivance, jealousies, malicious speech, and the acts of dishonesty or meanness committed when we think noone is looking. The subtlety of our sins, and the degree to which we have become used to them, does not do anything to erase them, and so Christmas, if we take seriously what it means, must remain a great interruption for us – a shock to wake us from our indolence and complacency.

Saint Robert, in another poem of his (New Heaven, New War – memorably set to music by Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols), wrote of Our Lord that ‘His battering shots are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes’. This captures well the central import of the poem above and thus of Christmas in general – namely that, though it be by meekness and not by force, God wishes to conquer the sin in us and make clean our souls, putting a right spirit within us; to thereby make right His creation through us and finally to make us His. He knows that the things we so often put first are wants of a secondary nature and that the desires of our hearts can only find true fulfilment in Him, and so He means to bring us to Himself in and through the furnace of divine Love – a love that was first revealed in the clamours of the Child at Bethlehem.

Saint Claude de la Colombiere: The Son of God Searches For Us

Following on from the theme of yesterday’s post – the attempt to place oneself in and imaginatively engage with the events of the Nativity of Our Lord – I would like to share today an extract from a homily given by Saint Claude de la Colombiere (1641 – 1682), in which he urges us to reflect on what it means for Our Lord to be the Shepherd to the scattered flock of mankind. Saint Claude was born into a fairly well-off family in Saint-Symphorien-d’Ozon, within the urban area of Lyons. After an early inner struggle, he asked to be received into the Society of Jesus (having attended a Jesuit secondary school) and entered their novitiate at Avignon. Whilst there he learned much about the various political and religious conflicts of the time (e.g.; Louis XIV’s attack on the papal states and the growth of Jansenism) – such edification would serve him well later in life.

In 1674, he made his solemn profession as a Jesuit, and from this time developed a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Shortly afterwards, when he was appointed spiritual director to the nuns of the Monastery of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial, he came into contact with Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, and was thus able to empathise with her position, befriending her and aiding her in understanding the visions that she had received. As well as his talents as a confessor and spiritual director though, his preaching had become well regarded, for its clarity and beauty. It was on this basis that he was sent to England in 1676 to be official preacher to the household of Mary of Modena, Duchess of York and wife of James II, the last Catholic King of England.

Unfortunately, the English climate and the zeal with which he threw himself into his work contributed to ill-health, and this was exacerbated by his being thrown into jail after being implicated in the ‘Popish Plot’ fabricated by Titus Oates in 1678. As he was a subject of the French King and a member of the English royal court, he was expelled back to France instead of being executed, but by this point his health had been wrecked, and he died soon after returning to his home country, back at Paray-le-Monial, at the suggestion of Saint Margaret Mary, with whom he had continued to correspond. In the light of Saint Claude’s extraordinary efforts to return souls back to the sheepfold of Christ, the following passage thus takes on an extra poignancy.

In this extract from a homily preached to the Duchess of York and the royal household, Saint Claude counsels them/us to imagine with what eagerness God looks for His lost sheep, with what persistence He continues to hound us after we repeatedly turn away from Him, and the great tenderness and love that we see in His search for us. At this time of Advent, Saint Claude’s meditation is most apposite – for this is the time we reflect upon how God came down to us in the humility of the Incarnation, and attempt to imagine the great Love which motivates such an act of meekness and mercy. The God of the Cross and of the Manger is the One with which we have to do, and He will never stop His search for us, never stop humbling Himself in order to bring us home:

Imagine to yourself the sadness of the poor shepherd whose sheep has strayed. The only thing to be heard in the fields round about is the call of this unfortunate lad who, having abandoned the better part of the flock, runs about in woods and hills, passes by thicket and bush, mourning and calling out as hard as he can, unable to make up his mind to go back until he has found his sheep again and led it back to the fold.

Here is what the Son of God did when men had gone astray through their disobedience from their Creator’s way of behaving. He came down to earth and did not stint either care or labour to restore us again to the state from which we had fallen. It is what he still does daily for those who separate themselves from him by sin. He tracks them down, so to speak, never ceasing to call them back until he has restored them to the way of salvation. And indeed, if he did not wear himself out in this way, you well know what would become of us after the first mortal sin: it would be impossible for us to come back again after it. It is he who has to make all the advances, who must show us his grace, who must follow after us, who must invite us to take pity on ourselves, without which we would never dream of asking his mercy…

The zeal with which God pursues us is undoubtedly the result of a very great mercy. But the sweetness by which this zeal is accompanied shows an even more wonderful goodness. Notwithstanding the immense desire he has to cause us to return, he never uses force; he only makes use of gentleness for this purpose. In all the Gospel I see no sinner who was invited to repent except by endearments and kindness.

Courtesy of Daily Gospel

Joseph Brodsky: A Nativity Poem

Joseph Brodsky (1940 – 1996) was born into a Jewish family in Leningrad, but later settled in the United States after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 (prior to this, his work had been confiscated on many an occasion, he was interrogated, arrested, institutionalised and regularly accused of being ‘anti-Soviet’). His poetry, implicitly and explicitly, often referred to or employed religious themes, although his actual religious affiliation or identity remains uncertain. What we can be reasonably sure of is that Brodsky identified very strongly with Christian morality and its particular view of human existence – our place in the universe and the way in which we relate to God. Thus, when he uses specifically Christian imagery in his poetry, it is not just as a vehicle for exploring some vague existential questioning – the images and language are taken seriously for what they are.

This is not to say that he was by any means clear with respect to what he believed about God, only that he strongly identified with Western ethics, thought and culture, and recognised the central imaginative role Christianity has played in shaping those things. It seems strange to me personally how one can keep the two apart, but he, as many poets before and after him have done, seemed to be able to recognise the power of certain symbols and motifs, particularly in terms of how they provide us with an effective means of speaking about ultimate reality, without actually committing himself to the metaphysics or system of beliefs that is built into that kind of language. At any rate, the important thing to note is that he took Christian narrative and language seriously, and did not just use them as convenient metaphors due to the lack of any available secular grammar to say what he wanted to say.

In essence, one could say that Brodsky was, whilst perhaps not a man committed to any particular religion, someone deeply captivated by the ‘religious sense’ and that he found in Christianity a range of imaginative resources that resonated with what he felt about the world more than any other religion. It was (amongst other things) the recurrence of religious language in his poetry that led him to be accused of ‘anti-Soviet’ thinking, and so it is hard to find any sympathy with those who view him as an entirely secular thinker and/or poet (one can even read testimony to his being committed to more than just Christian language and imagery here). Most pertinent for this post though is the fact that from 1961 until his death, he regularly wrote poems about Christmas – the Nativity was something that seemed to have a great hold on him.

One of those poems, simply titled Nativity Poem (the version I have copied here is one translated by Seamus Heaney) is a wonderful exercise in imaginative engagement with the Mystery of Christmas. Comparable to the way in which the Ignatian school of spirituality recommends that we try and imagine ourselves actually being an actor in one of the episodes from the Gospels (e.g.; either as a bystander, or as one being addressed by Our Lord), Brodsky here asks us to imagine (and he uses that word a total of seven times throughout the poem, giving it a real sense of thrust and urgency) the night of the Birth of Christ, drawing our attention to small details in background and foreground. He calls us to consider things like farming tools in the corner of the manger, the cold of the night and ‘the blankness of hunger’, giving a vivid sense of the Nativity as present reality.

Another insightful touch is Brodsky’s comparison of the Three Magi as ‘three beams’ following the Star and closing in on the Infant Christ, like three rays of light narrowing as they hone back in to their source – the wisdom of the world returning to the fount from which all wisdom comes, and a precursor of the Gentiles flocking to the Lord of all Nations. Most perceptive (and touching) of all though are the closing lines of the poem, where Brodsky draws a parallel between the homelessness of the Holy Family and the homelessness of the Son of God, who divested Himself of the honour and power that is natural to Him as God, and limited Himself in the weak vessel of our humanity. Lowly and poor is how He comes to us, stripped not just of earthly privileges, but of those which are due to Him as the very source of Life:

 

Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:

Imagine crockery, try to make use of its glaze

To feel cold cracks in the floor, the blankness of

hunger.

Imagine the desert – but the desert is everywhere.

 

Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,

The fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools

and stuff;

And imagine, as you towel your face in enveloping

folds,

Mary, Joseph, and the Infant in swaddling clothes.

 

Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession

As they make for the cave, or, rather, three beams

closing in

And in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink

of a cowbell;

(No thronging of Heaven as yet, no peal of the bell

 

That will ring in the end for the Infant once he has

earned it).

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness,

and stranded

Immensely in distance, recognising Himself in

the Son

Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a

homeless one.

The Root of Jesse and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

In his exposition of the first verse of the eleventh chapter of the book of Isaiah, (a short homily which is featured in the Roman Breviary as one of the lessons for the Second Sunday of Advent) Saint Jerome details in what way Isaiah’s prophecy – that ‘there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ – should be related to what has been revealed in the New Covenant. In his exegesis, Jerome draws attention to what the Church has traditionally believed to be the identity of the ‘shoot’ or ‘rod’ that emanates forth from the ‘root’ of David’s father. Clearly this prophecy is related overall to Our Lord, as the heir of the House of David, but some of the finer details of Isaiah’s text can also be related to Our Lady:

‘A Rod shall rise out of Jesse. Up to the beginning of the vision, which Isaias the son of Amos saw, and which was of the burden of Babylon, all this prophecy relates to Christ; the which we propose to explain, part by part, so that the subject treated of, and the discussions upon them, may not confuse the mind of the reader. The Jews interpret the Shoot and the Flower of Jesse as the Lord Himself; namely, that by the Rod is signified His Royal Power, and by the Flower His Beauty.

We however believe that the Holy Virgin Mary is the Rod from the Root of Jesse, to which no encroaching plant hath cleaved, and of whom we earlier read: Behold a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son. And the Flower is the Lord Our Saviour, Who says in the Canticle of Canticles: I am the Flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys.

Upon this Flower then which of a sudden will rise up from the stock and the root of Jesse, through the Virgin Mary, the Spirit of the Lord will rest: because in Him it hath pleased all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell corporeally: and not in part, as in others who were sanctified; but as the Nazarenes read in their Gospel, written in the Hebrew tongue: The whole fountain of the Holy Spirit shall come down upon Him. Now the Lord is a spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), p.37, Longmans.

            Saint Jerome makes clear, by his use of the phrase ‘we however believe’ that what he is describing is something commonly known and held to within the Church – by contrasting it to what is believed by the Jews, the ‘we’ must be the common belief of all Christians. Here then we have testimony to the belief that Isaiah prophesied not only the coming of Our Lord, the heir to the House of David, but also that the Shoot which comes forth from the Root of Jesse, which in turn produces the Flower, Jesus, is in fact the Blessed Virgin Mary. Aside from the way in which Jerome presents this as a widely held tradition within the Church, it is also sound exegesis in and of itself – for it is indeed Our Blessed Mother from whom Our Lord comes into the world; who else but her could be the shoot that produces the flower of our salvation?

This interpretation sheds some important light on what is believed about the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, as it draws our attention to the deeply organic connection between Mary and Jesus. It is from her that He receives His sacred humanity, including His human soul, and it is at the heart of the dogma in question that, because the whole Christ was and is without sin, the one from whom He received that humanity must also have been without the stain of Original Sin. In terms of Isaiah’s prophecy, if the shoot/rod were in any way marked by the weakness of our inherited nature, it would inevitably lead to what emanates from that shoot being tainted as well. We can see the truth of this in the way in which Saint Jerome, after having established the belief that Our Lady is the Shoot, immediately goes on to exalt the Flower which springs forth from her.

Many years later, in a much longer homily given during Advent, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux discusses the six ‘circumstances’ of the Coming of Our Lord – His Person, whence He comes from, whither He goes to, the cause of His Coming, the time of it, and the way by which He came. After covering each of these in turn, Saint Bernard then gives some extra attention to the final circumstance – the way in which Our Lord came to us – and in doing so arrives at the same question Saint Jerome had tackled centuries earlier. He gives the same answer (namely that it is the Blessed Virgin who is the Rod of Jesse) but provides a much more exhaustive illustration of why this is the case, supplementing it with some of the exalted language for which the Mellifluous Doctor is known:

‘Behold He cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. In place of mountains and hills understand patriarchs and prophets, and as He came leaping and skipping, read in the book of the generation of Jesus: Abraham begot Isaac: and Isaac begot Jacob and so on. From these mountains came forth, as you will find, the Root of Jesse, whence, according to the prophet, there came forth a Rod, and thence a flower shall rise up, upon which the sevenfold Spirit of the Lord shall rest (Is. xi. 1). And revealing this more plainly in another place, the same prophet says: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Mt. i. 23). For He whom he first refers to as a flower, the same he here calls Emmanuel; and that which he before calls a rod, (virga) he here speaks of as the Virgin.

From this I believe it to be evident who is the Rod coming forth from the Root of Jesse, and Who is the Flower upon which the Holy Spirit rests: that the Mother of God is this Rod, and her Son Jesus the Flower. A Flower accordingly is the Son of the Virgin; a flower white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands (Cant. v. 10); a flower upon which the angels desire to look (I Pet. i. 12); a Flower whose fragrance restores the dead to life; and as He Himself has said, a Flower of the field, and not of the garden. For the field flowers without human help, it is by no man sown, unbroken to the spade, nor made rich with soil. So truly has flowered the Womb of the Virgin; so has the inviolate, the unstained, the pure flesh and blood of Mary, as a field, brought forth this flower of eternal beauty; Whose perfection shall see no corruption, Whose glory shall be forever unfading…

…You have already comprehended, if I am not mistaken, that the Royal Virgin is Herself the Way through which the Saviour comes, coming forth from her womb as a bride-groom coming forth out of his bridechamber. Holding fast then to this way, let us strive, Beloved, to ascend through Her to Him, Who through Her has come down to us; to reach by Her aid to His divine forgiveness, Who came by way of Her to take away our woe. Through thee have we access to Thy Son, O Blessed Discoverer of Grace, Mother of Life, Mother of Salvation! May he through Thee forgive us, Who by Thee was given unto us. May thy blameless integrity plead with Him, that He look not upon our corruption; and let thy humility that so pleases God, obtain the pardon of our pride…

Our Lady, Our Mediatrix, present us to Thy Son. Speak for us to Thy Son. Grant, O Most Blessed, through the graces thou hast earned, through the privileges thou hast merited, through the mercy thou hast received, that He Who deigned by means of Thee, to become a Sharer of our infirmity and sorrow, may through thy intercession make us sharers of His Glory and of His Joy, Jesus Christ Thy Son Our Lord, Who is above all God the Blessed for ever and ever. Amen.

ibid, pp.26-27.

            Again, despite the exalted ways in which Saint Bernard speaks of the Blessed Virgin, it is always with references to Our Lord Jesus – she is so highly thought of and praised precisely because it is through her that He comes to us. She is spoken of as ‘Mediatrix’ and ‘Mother of Salvation’ because, properly understood, this is exactly what she is – she is the Shoot from which springs the Flower; it is through her that the fullness of grace poured out by God to effect the Incarnation is channelled. She is immaculate in her humanity, because she is the very way by which Our Lord takes humanity unto Himself. One can argue that God does not need the cooperation of human beings to effect what he wills, but it is plain from salvation history that it is His pleasure to do just that, and Our Lady is the pre-eminent example of such.

Finally, with respect to the issue of the exalted language with which Saint Bernard praises Our Blessed Mother – whilst he speaks of her in much more lofty terms, the point he is making is essentially the same one we find in Saint Jerome, who as we saw, was tapping into a well-established tradition himself. Thus, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, whilst not formally promulgated until 1854, can be seen as the merely formal statement of a belief about Our Lady’s role in the work of salvation that is deeply patristic at root.

When Pope Pius IX defined the dogma, he was also appealing to a rich and venerable history of popular devotion to Mary over the ages, as well as any theological discussions that had taken place through the years. It is strange then that so many non-Catholic Christians should take offence at a teaching that represents so well the fertile interplay between faith and worship, which has such deep roots in antiquity, and which exists solely to make clearer what is most central to the Christian Faith – namely, the Incarnation. Mariology is always a corollary or refinement of Christology, and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is the perfect example of this; no wonder then that Saint Bernard also said that we should not imagine we obscure the glory of the Son by praising His Mother, but rather the more she is honoured, the greater is His glory.