Monday, December 19, 2011

11-12-18: 4th Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16 / Psalm 89 / Romans 16:25-27 / Luke 1:26-38

It’s called the Virginal Conception by Catholics and the Virgin Birth by Protestants. It’s what we celebrate at Christmas, and it lies at the core of the gospel message: that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, or as the new translation of the Creed would have it – consubstantial with the Father. Not a few people have complained about using consubstantial in place of the former translation: “one in being with the Father.” Consubstantial is the Latin term which attempts to translate the Greek “homoousion.” Maybe we should have went back to that, you think? This was the term by which the Council Fathers of Nicea (325AD) defined the nature of that baby born to Mary. It’s the stuff that doctoral students in theology spend a lot of time trying to figure out. Truth be told, its meaning, layered in Greek philosophical concepts, is lost on most of us, including myself, who know little of Greek philosophy.

Maybe though this controversy we now experience over translated words can help us appreciate the essence of the problem regarding the identity of that baby born to Mary. I don’t know if it borders on the heretical, but let me say outright that I don’t believe that Mary or the apostles would have known what you were talking about if you could go back in time and pray the Nicene Creed with them – even if you could translate it into Aramaic. It is no accident that the Creeds were written in Greek, centuries after the fact. The Creeds represent a development, an evolution if you will, in the way believers came to identify that baby born to Mary. Some say that’s a virtual proof the whole thing’s a sham; but I would think the opposite. It would be a sham, in fact, to think that Mary or the twelve apostles could have thought of Jesus outside the perimeters of their Jewish faith. They were good Jews. They prayed the Shema everyday: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” They did not have the Greek categories, later employed, to understand how that basic statement of faith could include Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul, born and raised in the Greek-speaking world, would be the first bridge between those two cultures and would begin to form the understanding of Jesus in non-Jewish ways.

This incapacity to think of Jesus outside their own Jewish box (so to speak) adds more, not less, to how a first-century Jew came to perceive Jesus with awe. Jesus simply did not fit into their categories. What attracted them to him must have been so powerful on an emotional level that categories didn’t matter. Experience rendered creed irrelevant. How else can we explain the courage of a fifteen year old girl, pregnant, unmarried, sent to the hills to visit a distant relative (no doubt so the townspeople wouldn’t talk) to accept her role in this unfolding drama. And though, by marriage, Joseph would protect her and the baby from some ugly repercussions, there would always be those who mumbled behind her back, insinuating some unpleasant things about Mary and her son. The gospels themselves hint at such things whenever they refer to Jesus as “Son of Mary” (an odd designation for a Jewish man, to say the least). How else to explain why some left everything to follow him at his simple invitation. How else to explain why some would die rather than renounce knowing him. How else to explain why the acceptable Jewish term, Messiah, was simply not enough to capture his essence. What they experienced as unique, we have defined as divine. But what does that really mean – how does even that term define the depths of identity.

St. Augustine perhaps said it best in his argument against the Manichees: “Do you think you know what God is? Do you think you know what God is like? He is nothing you imagine, nothing your thought embraces. O God, You who are above every name, above all thought, beyond every idea and every value...”

Or, as Martha Graham once said after a reporter asked her what a dance meant: “Mean?” Graham said. “What did it mean? Darling, if I could tell you, I wouldn’t have danced it.”

In the end experience, not words, makes all the difference.

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