Tag Archives: Incarnation

The Feast of the Holy Mother

*Welcome, Mary, sister in faith;
the Lord has surely chosen you.
The life leaps within me
to herald the fruit of your womb
which is Jesus!
Who am I
that the mother of my Lord
should come to me?
Pray with me now,
and always.
Amen.

*Weep, Mary, a mother’s tears.
Your son must die,
thrust high in agony.
Alone in suffering
separated from His Father’s smile
by sin we laid upon Him.
Blessed in He
who comes in the name of the Lord.
Now, Mary, be mother to John
and all who will lean, like him,
close to the heart of Christ,
and watch with Him in the hour of death.
Amen.

*You, Mary, who knew His grace,
now you’re with the Lord.
Blessed is any who walks with God,
then is not here, but taken–to Jesus!
Hold us, Mary, at peace with God;
join with the prayers of the penitent,
now and at the gate to life.
Amen.

I found this prayer, this little liturgy, in the Celtic Book of Daily Prayer.  It seemed appropriate, because today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of Our Lord. Mary has always held a special place for members of the Dominican Order, dating back to very early in the Order’s history. So, I thought I’d make a few observations about Mary.

First, Mary seems to offer a special place of devotion for those who’ve had their hearts broken.  One can’t look at the Pieta without immediately recognizing Mary’s special understanding of heartache and sorrow. The Holy Mother also  speaks gently to those who understand the risk of faith.

When Mary answered “Yes” to God’s call, she laid aside her plans for her life and undertook the risk of an unwed pregnancy.  In first century Palestine, that kind of thing could get you in trouble; it could get you killed. Mary (who would have been known as Miriam) thus teaches us about allowing God to interrupt your plans, and willingly accepting the cost of becoming God’s instrument. She showed us how to trust God and how to live without fear.

For many of us, Mary serves as the gateway to, and the icon of, the Incarnation.  If God’s decision to walk among us as a man was indeed the pivotal point of human history, it was Mary who cleared that path.  She offers us the key to Jesus’ full humanity.  Her tears on Golgotha demonstrate that this was no metaphor and no mere spiritual apparition.  Hanging on that Cross was Mary’s little boy whom she had raised from His birth in a stable.

The Holy Mother also teaches us a good deal about the faithful response to mystery.  When Gabriel told her of God’s plans, she didn’t ask a lot of questions.  She didn’t need to understand what happened at Cana; she simply witnessed it.  I’m fairly confident Mary didn’t understand the need for the crucifixion or how the Resurrection changed the world. I doubt she had a firm grasp of the Pentecost.  And yet, there she stood: a witness (martyr in the Greek) staring across the precipice of the greatest mysteries of our faith.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to Mary as the Theotokos (the God-bearer).  Mary teaches us all about the importance of bringing Christ into the world, of being pregnant with the message of the Kingdom.  I pray we all can bring God into a world which needs Him now as much as it ever has. I know she will join in that prayer.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Deeds of Power

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  Mark 6:1-13.

Mark’s Gospel for the Sunday Lectionary offers us several insights into Jesus.  You may remember a couple of weeks back, as the disciples were caught in a terrible storm, they wondered,  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:41.  Last week, in Chapter 5, we heard a partial answer to that question, in the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak.  I think today’s reading may also help us unlock the answer to that question.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, to his hometown.  Teaching at the synagogue, he astonishes the crowd there.  They marvel at his wisdom, his teaching, and at his “deeds of power.”  Like many of us, however, a profound distrust soon overcomes their sense of awe.  They wonder, “How can this be so?  We know Jesus, and we know his family.  He’s just a simple carpenter.”

Often, I think, we lose the irony of Mark’s next phrase.  “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  Most of us would probably find such a miraculous hearing sufficient, if not extraordinary.

Mark does seem to link, however, the occurrence of the miraculous with the community’s ability to trust God, with the community’s faith.  That’s an interesting reversal of the way we often think of miracles.  We sometimes think, “Lord, if you will only (insert something miraculous here), then I’ll be able to believe.”  Mark, however, suggests that miracles are a consequence of faith, rather than a cause of it.  (The theological footing here may not be completely sturdy, in that it suggests that God’s power hinges on us and our belief.  I have serious questions about that view, but Mark seems to suggest it strongly. I’m inclined to suggest an alternate hypothesis:  Our trust in God opens our eyes to the everyday miracles that surround us.)

In the next passage, Jesus continues his ministry, and actively begins the process of the disciples’ formation.  He sends the disciples out in pairs, giving them authority over “unclean spirits.”  He sends them out with only a staff, and no provisions for the journey.  Jesus sent them out to proclaim his message of repentance, and they cured many and cast out demons.  I think this notion of “travelling light” will also help us answer the question “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Like their Rabbi, the disciples would not travel with either pomp or plenty.  They travelled, as Jesus did, sharing in the people’s need and vulnerability.  The twelve would learn to abandon the illusion of self-sufficiency.  The disciples would have to learn to trust God’s people, to trust each other, and most importantly, to trust God.  They would learn to be the instruments of grace and faith, and learn to be the music those instruments played.  Through the Incarnation of this Jesus, they would learn what the Kingdom looked like, and learn that God wanted to bridge His separation from mankind.

Throughout their time with Christ, they would begin to understand the answer:  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  I hope we begin to understand, too.  Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

So That She May Be Made Well, and Live

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.  Mark 5:21-43.

In today’s Gospel, Mark offers two portrayals of Jesus as a healer.  The first concerns the story of a man named Jairus whose daughter is dying.  Mark describes Jairus as a leader of the synogogue, which also reveals that some Jewish authorities looked up to and relied on Jesus.  While Jesus is on the way to help Jairus’ little girl, something remarkable happens.

Mark breaks into the story of Jairus and his daughter with an interlude, a story about a woman with a blood disorder.  This woman approaches Jesus, a woman who who had “suffered” and “endured” a lot.  Her disease had isolated her, hurt her, and left her penniless.  And yet, she believes that merely touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak will make her well.  She is cured, and moreover, Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well.

By the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the mourner’s announce that He has come to late and the child has already died.  Jesus counsels Jairus, “Do not fear, but trust.”  Jesus tells them that the child is not dead, but merely sleeping.  Jesus takes the little girl by her hand and tells her to get up, and she rises and begins to walk.

At the time of these events, Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old.  The woman had suffered from her hemoraging for twelve years.  These two are linked together, as the life flows out of them.  We might certainly read these stories in the light of the people of Israel (the twelve tribes).  One is a daughter of a man of honor and prestige, the other an “unclean” woman lost in her desperation.  Both the woman with the blood disorder and the little girl who had died are impure; by touching them, Jesus will share in this impurity.  And yet, through the touch of this unique Rabbi, both will find new life.

I think we miss the point of this narrative if we merely read it as a story about how Jesus was really good at conquering disease and even death.  I don’t think the message of the Incarnation was to simply to show us that God could work miracles.  Rather, God became man to show us how deeply he loved us and how he wanted to heal the wounds that separated us from Him.

Both Jairus and the woman with the blood disorder ask “to be made well” (sozo in the Greek).  This implies not just a curing them from their physical ailments, but also making them whole, restoring them, saving them.  Both Jairus’ daughter and the hemoraging woman were made well.  But Jesus offered them more than simply restoration of their health; He offered them life.

I don’t think these two stories are simply about Jesus’ remarkable power, or even about miracles.  Jesus didn’t come to show us how powerful He was; He came to show us how much God loved us.  He came to teach us about the extraordinary power of faith, and about the limitless compassion of the Living God.  And if we will reach out to touch His Son, we also will be made well, and live.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Spirit of Truth

Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But, now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Today is the Feast of the Pentecost, which serves as the terminus of the cycle which marks and celebrates the life of Christ.  Easter has come and gone; Jesus has ascended to the Father. These events have filled the disciples’ hearts with sorrow.  Their Rabbi, their friend, is returning home and leaving them.

In other sense, however, we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the Church.    The Church must now learn to listen for the voice of God within the community of believers inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus describes the Spirit as the Advocate (in Greek, parakletos).  The word parakletos connotes an advocate in a legal proceeding, who comes to the aid of a witness or a cause.  Just so, the Spirit will come to assist the disciples as they bear witness to the message of Jesus.  The term parakletos also connotes a comforter, an assistant and a companion.

Jesus has assured us of the presence of the Advocate, of the immediacy of the Spirit.  He promises that the Spirit will lead us into the truth. The Spirit will direct us through and to faith, a radical trust in the life and message of Jesus. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to this process as theosis, a journey through which our lives become more and more deeply entwined with the life of the Father and the Son.  Remembering the image of Jesus as the vine, through the Spirit the life of the Father and the Son is grafted onto our lives, our history.

The reading today points also to the unity and interdependence of the Trinity.  Jesus teaches that “all that the Father has is mine” and that the Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to us.  Jesus teaches that no member of the Trinity acts independently; similarly we need to learn to live interdependently. Pentecost involves learning to trust God as a companion, and learning to trust each other.

Henri Nouwen once wrote that “education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God.”  Pentecost involves listening for the Trinitarian voice within the Church and in the world.  That voice will remain near us and within us.  Jesus promised us that the Spirit of Truth would offer us that sense of comfort, that sense of confidence, that sense of peace.

Pax Spiritus,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A New Song

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm
has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory;
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

 Sing to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of song.

 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it,
the lands and those who dwell therein.

 Let the rivers clap their hands,
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.

 In righteousness shall he judge the world
and the peoples with equity.  Psalm 98.

The Psalm from today’s Lectionary offers us the perfect message as we near the end of the Easter season.  The Psalmist calls for every person, every nation, and all of creation to rise up in a joyful song of being known and loved by the God of Israel. We need “a new song” because God has done something new, something out of our experience.  Even the rivers will clap their hands as God’s judgment will set creation right.

The Sabbath, the day of rest, offers both Jews and Christians the principle occasion for giving praise to God.  Praise is a funny thing; it is not particularly useful and does not accomplish any particular thing.  Praise, therefore, is not a means to an end.  Rather, praise is the end.  We join together to acknowledge God and give Him thanks for no particular reason other than He is God.  And somehow, in that simple act of gratitude, the Psalmist tells us we will find our joy.

One of the reoccurring ideas in this psalm is the Lord’s “victory”, also sometimes translated as “salvation”.  In the original Hebrew, the word is Y’shua or yeshua.  That word is the basis for the name of the old Testament hero Joshua, and is anglicized as “Jesus.”  Viewed through a Christian lens, this psalm speaks of the victory God has won, offering us a wonderful Easter message.

Walter Brueggeman has observed, “In this literature the community of faith has heard and continues to hear the sovereign speech of God, who meets the community in its depths of need and in its heights of celebration. The Psalms draw our entire life under the rule of God, where everything may be submitted to the God of the gospel.”

In the life of Christ, God sang a love song to all of creation, a song through which all creation was made new.  This psalm invites us to share in that song, replying to God’s song with great gladness.  My prayer for all of us is that we join in that new song, in that love song, with happy voices and glad hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Remade in the Likeness of the Son

We were made “in the likeness of God.”  But in course of time that image has become obscured, like a  face on a very old portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to  renew it is for the subject to come back to the studio and sit  for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came–to make  it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were  made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his  Son.

To bring about this re-creation, Christ still  comes to men and lives among them. In a special way he comes  to his Church, his “body”, to show us what the “image  of God” is really like.

What a responsibility the Church has, to be  Christ’s “body,” showing him to those who are unwilling  or unable to see him in providence, or in creation! Through the  Word of God lived out in the Body of Christ they can come to  the Father, and themselves be made again “in the likeness  of God.”

Last week we celebrated the feast day of St. Athanasius, who lived from around 296 A.D. until 373.  He was the 20th bishop of Alexandria, which was a center of the Christian faith at that time.  He fought against the Arian heresy, which suggested that God the Father created the Son (and thus called into question the co-equality of the Trinity) .

Athanasius defended traditional trinitarian doctrine even when it required him to stand against other powerful bishops and two emperors.  For a good while, he lived in exile, fleeing to seek shelter for a time with the Desert Fathers.  His steadfast devotion to the Trinity despite political and religious opposition led to his nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum (Athanasius Against the World).  The Roman Catholic Church considers him one of the four great Doctors of the Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church regards him as one of the Great Doctors also.

In the quotations above, St. Athanasius reminds us that although we were created in God’s image, that likeness had become marred over time.  (I find this formulation much more sound, and more palatable than Calvin’s notion that we had fallen into “total depravity”.)  He then suggests that the Incarnation of Jesus became necessary because we had strayed so far from God’s original likeness.  God sent his Son, he argues, to restore creation to His original intent.

But Athanasius argues the Incarnation didn’t end two thousand years ago, in fact he teaches that it hasn’t ended yet.  He says, “To bring about this re-creation, Christ still  comes to men and lives among them.”  In prayer, in the eucharist, and in our love for each other, we still encounter the Living Christ.  C.S. Lewis echoed this view when he wrote, “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.”  Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God calls his creation back to Himself.  I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when He talked about His sheep, who know His voice.

Athanasius then recognizes the wonderful and terrible burden on the Church.  As the mystical body of Christ, the Church must make the Incarnate Christ visible to a troubled world.  The Church must reveal Jesus and the Father to those who are “unwilling or unable” to recognize them otherwise.  By drawing everyone to the Father and the Son (through the power of the Spirit), the Church participates in the re-creation of the world.  Heaven help us if we’re not doing that.  Heaven help us indeed.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis