Our Lady vs. the Gnostics and Pelagians

The Angel Gabriel from heaven came. He came to Our Lady on March 25. But we couldn’t have Annunciation Day on Palm Sunday. Or during Holy Week, or the Easter Octave. So this year, Mary will give birth on December 25, after only 8 ½ months.

At the Annunciation, the holy Incarnation occurred. Actually, calling the mystery the “holy” Incarnation is redundant, since “Incarnation” means God becoming man, and God is Holiness Itself, of course.

After she conceived the Lord in her womb, the Blessed Mother traveled to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin, and she sang her canticle, the Magnificat. Mary called herself a lowly servant upon whom the Lord had looked with favor, showing the strength of His arm and scattering the proud in their conceit.

Pride gets in the way of our friendship with God. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has identified two forms of pride that lead to heresy. And he asks us to examine our consciences for these dangers.

Gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics called themselves Christians. But they didn’t really believe in the Incarnation or the Church. Instead, they held to what they regarded as their own privileged knowledge of God.

gaudete et exsultateI think this heresy does indeed continue to lurk all over the place. Many people put their own ideas ahead of the teachings of Scripture and the Church.

For instance, statements like: “God is greater than any religion, since religion is something that human beings do.” Okay, true enough. But how about this: “God is greater than that idea—the idea that God is greater than any human religion.” After all, God is in fact so awesomely great and transcendent that He became a man and practiced religion Himself. The religion of Jesus is the true religion, because it is not just a human religion, but is also the work of God.

Pelagianism. The ancient Pelagians thought that they could perfect themselves through their own efforts. They called themselves Christians because they regarded Jesus as their great example. But the Pelagians refused to confront the fundamental fact about human salvation. They refused to acknowledge: without Christ’s grace; without God giving His justice and goodness to us, even though we did not deserve it–we would have no hope. The Pelagians would not acknowledge the utter neediness of the human situation. Therefore they could not really rejoice in the gift that God has given us by sending His Son.

Again I think our Holy Father is absolutely right that this heresy lurks everywhere today: wherever human egos put themselves in the place of God, Who lovingly places on our shoulders not a burden of servitude, but the sweet and gentle yoke of His Son Jesus.

Let’s contemplate Our Lady singing her Magnificat. The angel had demanded that she have faith beyond the limits of human conception. Her prospects for a comfortable life had gotten thrown out the window. The entire course of history would turn on the life of the fruit of her womb. And she would have to go along for the ride, without having any idea ahead of time how it would all unfold.

Yet she sang with solemn, exuberant joy—not about herself, but about the good, merciful Lord. God had drawn her closer to Himself than any human being ever; He had made her the queen of His saints. And she had the rough-and-ready humility to take a mother’s delight in it.

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The Magnificat, Love, and Colds

 

Magnificat

The last few days before Christmas, at Holy Mass we read familiar passages from the beginning of St. Luke’s gospel. Not only the familiar account of the Annunciation. We also read our Lady’s familiar hymn of Thanksgiving for it, namely the Magnificat.

Familiar because it was the responsorial psalm this past Sunday. And we read it at Mass every year on May 31, the Feast of the… Visitation. And we pray the Magnificat every day at… Evening Prayer (aka Vespers).

Did the Blessed Mother experience morning sickness or other complications during the first trimester, or at any other point during her pregnancy? Probably not, since she hastened to the Judean hill country. On the other hand, we know from long-standing Catholic tradition that St. Joseph insisted on Mary riding on an animal on their trip to Bethlehem. So our Lady didn’t have some kind of Super-Woman pregnancy, either. She had to endure all the usual discomfort and fatigue.

Yet she sang her Magnificat, glorifying the Lord for making her a mother. The Mother of God, and the Mother of Sorrows. She glorified the God of Abraham for making her the mother of the Redeemer who would suffer for all–thereby giving her a share in the same dark night of faith that Abraham had to endure. She praised God for giving her a life not of “freedom” or ease or comfort, but of pure daily obedience to Him.

lippi abraham knife strozzi chapel

Amazing faithfulness. Of course! She’s the immaculate one. Can we even begin to relate?

Yes, in fact. I think we can. Mothers can. And fathers can, too. And spiritual fathers.

“Independence” is not what it’s cracked-up to be. The idea that preserving my autonomy and my personal space and my liberty to do whatever I want—the idea that such “freedom” will make me happy? No. Same thing goes for ease and comfort. Ease and comfort get boring.

Nothing really makes life full and happy, except having duties of love to fulfill. We social animals were made to take on duties of love, and to fulfill them.

Now, the people we have the duty to love selflessly—our flesh and blood; spouse; brothers and sisters in church; neighbors—these people we have the duty to love selflessly: they can be pains in the butt. They keep us up at night. They give us colds. (You don’t think we celibate priests wind up getting all your colds? We’re the last ones to drink from the chalices at every Mass, when we rinse them and consume all the remaining drops and fragments.)

Pains in the butt, these people we have a duty to love. But we praise God. We proclaim the greatness of the Lord. For giving us people we love as our own, who give us colds. He made a promise of mercy to Abraham, to give him a son to worry about. And Abraham rejoiced with inexpressible joy. Our Lady rejoiced with inexpressible joy to have a son, Whom she would have to follow to the cross. And we rejoice, too, that God has given us people that we have a duty to love.

Magnificat on Visitation Day

Our Lady visited her cousin. Upon arrival, the Blessed Virgin sang a canticle and proclaimed the great truth of religion. Our souls were made to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to rejoice in Him, our Creator and Savior.

VisitationAlmighty God looked with favor on us–when He made us out of nothing, and when He redeemed us from sin. We can aspire to no nobler place than to serve Him, because He is the great God of all.

Of course we qualify as “lowly”—compared to Him. But to serve Him means blessedness and honor, compared to serving anyone or anything else. By claiming us as His servants, God has taught us to think more of ourselves, to esteem ourselves more highly, than we ever could have, if He had left us to our own little devices.

Has He not shown the strength of His arm? Not only did He array the stars in their constellations, and make all the trees, and blue whales, and chipmunks, and vast fields and flowers, and everything else—not only did He do all these grand things, He also came to help of His servant Israel.

He formed our holy people, the nation marching to heaven—He formed us by promising a good future to Abraham. And then He backed-up all His promises, sending prophets and then His Christ, who dwelt in Mary’s womb when she visited her cousin Elizabeth.

The mercy of God resounds like an organ chord that extends to infinity, filling all time and space. Our souls were made not to test Him, or to rebel, or quibble—but simply to rejoice that He, Who is good and kind and loving, is our Lord.

Blessed Mother’s “Rights”

If you heard the gospel reading at Mass yesterday, it sounded an awful lot like Sunday. So we have waited two days to hear what happened next. What happened after St. Elizabeth praised our Lady’s humble faith, after Elizabeth invented the Hail Mary, after St. John the fetus leapt in the womb when Christ the embryo entered the house.

MagnificatWell, Blessed Mother finally had an opportunity to speak. So she sang of the Lord’s promises to Abraham, who had been willing to sacrifice his son. She sang of justice, arriving as mercy.

First Christmas after ordination, I gave a pro-life homily on Christmas Eve, in upper-middle-class suburban Washington. Not everyone liked it. But I still think: We face a decisive either/or here, precisely at Christmas.

Our contemporary standards would lead us to ask: What about our Lady’s autonomy? Did she get a fair deal? She woke up one day, basically minding her own business. Next thing you know, she’s eating for two. But her Magnificat reveals that the idea of “autonomy” never so much as entered her beautiful mind.

Christmas teaches us that there actually is no such thing as autonomy–not really; not in the final analysis. No one ever came into this world on his or her own steam. So, to unite Himself with us, God Himself made Himself as vulnerable as you or me or Barack Obama or Alexander the Great were during our sojourns in the womb. That is: utterly dependent. And very demanding: Doesn’t seem like our Lady had to spend the first trimester vomiting. But plenty of expectant mothers do. And why? Because babies in the womb unwittingly make unreasonable and excessive demands.

But the Divine Mercy, originally revealed in a pregnancy, transcends any and all “rights” to self-determination that any of us could claim. Did Mary have a right to the carefree existence she had before the angel came? Her Magnificat bulldozes over such a question. Bulldozes over it with a song about God.

God is in charge, and He has made us dependent on each other, and on Him. Our Lady sings: God has mercy on those who fear Him, on the lowly and the hungry, on the people who wouldn’t know what to do with a team of lawyers, even if they could afford one.

Magnificat: True or False?

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!’…Yes, but I have seen the rich sit secure on their thrones and send the hungry away empty.

–Annie Dillard (stating the obvious with great eloquence, as she often does)

The beautiful, hard world. The dark world, that nonetheless holds surprising little flashes of light. The unfair world, full of people who simply cannot give up believing in fairness.

VisitationIn his encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the mystery of evil, the mysterium iniquitatis, head on.

Iniquitatis because we see the innocent, the powerless, the poor suffering. Mysterium because somehow we know it’s wrong; we don’t accept it; we pray and hope and struggle for something better. Evil may be a ‘given’ in this vale of tears, but that doesn’t mean that we regard it as normal. It’s a daggone mystery. Good makes sense to us; evil doesn’t.

Pope Benedict framed the business as follows. One of our most profound problems is: the contemporary mindset regards religion as something purely subjective, emotional, individual. Therefore, ‘salvation’ = my own personal bliss.

But many people of conscience reject religion, if this is what religion is. They cry, “What about the groaning injustice I see in the world, right in front of my eyes? What God is going to give me bliss if He can’t even see to it that the hungry get fed and the innocent don’t get killed?”

Pope Benedict: the Catholic faith recognizes that our longing for justice among men springs from the religious center of the human being. According to the Catholic faith, our hope for salvation does not confine itself to ‘my personal bliss.’ Rather, our hope includes–it must include–justice for the world, the whole world. Everybody in the world.

God does not stand by, an impotent spectator, while the mighty sit on thrones and crush the lowly. God Himself has been crushed by injustice. Then He rose again as the King of all history. On Easter Sunday morning, He showed His power to put things to rights.

The Lord refrains for now from confronting the world with His righteousness, solely so that we have time to repent. He patiently waits for us to stop committing the injustices that make the world an unjust place. He gives us time to love our neighbor. So that when He comes in a supernova of love, we will not be burned to smithereens, but rather caught up in His glory. We share in that glory now by our humble love.

Our Lady’s Magnificat

mary-mMary said:
The Lord has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent empty away.
(Luke 1:51-53)

Annie Dillard: “Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, ‘All your actions show your wisdom and love.’ Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, ‘that’s a lie!’ – just to put things on a solid footing.

Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard
“‘He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!’ . . . (Yes, but) I have seen the rich sit secure on their thrones and send the hungry away empty.

“If God’s escape clause is that he gives only spiritual things, then we might hope that the poor and suffering are rich in spiritual gifts, as some certainly are, but as some of the comfortable are too. In a soup kitchen, I see suffering. Deus otiosus: do-nothing God, who, if he has power, abuses it” (For the Time Being, pp. 85-86).

Are our Lady’s words in the Magnificat true?

Let’s give Annie Dillard her due: She is a smart, earnest, good essayist. She is a better person than I am. Her question is an honest one.

Can the words of the gospel be true if the poor and innocent still groan under injustice and cruelty, if bad things happen to good people, if the evil prosper? The Magnificat is about the triumph of justice and goodness, about the almighty power of God, Who loves the weak. Mary sings: With the coming of Christ, the weak and downtrodden have triumphed. Is it true?

51767896Last year at the beginning of Advent, our Holy Father wrote us a letter on Christian hope.

One of the Pope’s chief concerns in the letter is the “privatization” of Christian hope for salvation. Each of us hopes to get to heaven, certainly. But a Christian hopes for more than just his own individual bliss. A Christian hopes for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Pope Benedict identifies the fundamental problem: The modern idea that religion is subjective. If religion is not about objective realities, but just about my own “relationship with God” or “experience” of God, then all I can hope for is my own personal peace.

Religion is not fundamentally subjective. Religion puts us in touch with the most objective reality of them all: the all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God.

Christ has revealed this: Justice will be done. Truth will win. All that is hidden will be revealed.

We fear the Final Judgment, because we know we will have to rely on God’s mercy. At the same time, we hope for the Second Coming. The Magnificat WILL be completely fulfilled. In the meantime, our best bet is to try to do our little part to make the world better, and to bear the injustices of the world with patient perseverance.

Here is how the Pope puts it:

Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing. (Spe Salvi, 43)