A Marvelous Exchange

O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

We pray these words each year on the eve of January 1 in the Liturgy of the Hours. In the wake of so many gift exchanges, we reflect on the one exchange that truly matters. The Son of God, who is eternally divine, willingly empties himself of his divine privileges (Phil 2:6-11). He assumes human nature, born of the Virgin Mary in the flesh.

The result is a one-flesh union that weds humanity and divinity together in the person of Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God, who is himself God (John 1:18). He has truly taken up human flesh. He dwelt among us; he abides with us still.

The theological term for this mystery is “the Hypostatic Union” – which means that Jesus is truly human and truly divine, with both natures united in the one person, who is the eternal Word of God. Mary gives birth to that one eternal person, which is why the early Church (at the Council of Ephesus in 431) insisted that it is right to call her theotokos – “God-bearer” – or as we typically say in English, “Mother of God.” She gave birth to a person, not a nature.

More importantly, humanity and divinity are truly wedded together. This is the first taste of the eternal marriage feast between Jesus and his bride, the Church. A week ago, on Christmas Eve, the Liturgy of the Hours pondered the same mystery:

When the sun rises in the morning sky, you will see the King of kings coming forth from the Father like a radiant bridegroom from the bridal chamber.

The Father sends his own Son among us like a bridegroom, traveling to wed his bride and bring her into his Kingdom. This process begins with the Incarnation – the Word becoming flesh. In his person, humanity and divinity enter a one-flesh union that makes it possible for us to receive grace upon grace from divine fullness. The process continues with him freely and totally giving himself on the Cross, truly dying, and truly rising. Then, in the Ascension, he exalts human flesh in the presence of his Father. All is prepared for the feast – and we are invited to share in it!

We now live in this in-between time of “already but not yet.” Humanity has already been wedded to divinity in the person of Jesus. Human flesh is already exalted at the right hand of the Father. All of humanity is invited to share in this marriage covenant. The only question is what we desire and whether we will give our consent.

Recall the story of the merciful father in Luke 15 (known more popularly as the story of the “prodigal son”). The larger context of the story is the eternal feast, to which we are all invited. The older son is still preferring his own not-so-marvelous means of exchanging: If I do this, then you have to do that. He would rather be an employee than a son. He is enraged with envy as he watches his younger brother freely receive far more than he ever dared to dream or desire.

His father speaks tenderly to him, “My son, you are here with me always – all that I have is yours!” (Luke 15:31).

Here we encounter the profound truth of the “marvelous exchange” that Jesus brings. All that is his is ours. That means that we, too, are beloved children of God. It means that we, too, get to share fully in the eternal marriage feast – not because we have been diligent in our duty, but because God delights in us as his children and desires to celebrate with us forever.

A wise priest recently heard my Confession and reminded me of my own favorite story of Luke 15. I spend so much of my time laboring – chasing the illusion of getting “caught up.” I allow myself to succumb to the unrealistic expectations of others – and to my own even more demanding expectations. That puts me in the role of the elder son, toiling away in isolation, and envying those who seem to have enough time to feast. Eventually that joyless labor exhausts me, and then I shift roles to the younger son, seizing joyless pleasure for myself with entitled anger. When I get stuck in that elder son / younger son cycle, my life truly becomes miserable.

And the Father’s gentle invitation is still always there: My son… All that is mine is yours…

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom” (n. 526). Will I claim that identity as a beloved child of God? Will I surrender all of myself to him so that I can receive from his fullness?

It is a special invitation to a marvelous exchange. I am invited to give God my humanity: ALL of myself, just as I am. My tendency is to focus on the more presentable pieces of myself – which are not nearly as amazing as I like to think they are. Those are usually my “elder son” pieces, but God desires my “younger son” pieces as well. And he desires the pieces of me that are buried yet more deeply – some of which are still a mystery even to me. But he knows them all, because he sees me in my wholeness. He desires ALL the pieces – so that he can divinize all of them as he restores me and exchanges my shame for his Glory.

In the 300’s, Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.” The Father invites me to give all the shattered pieces to him so that he can pour divine fullness into all of me. It is an invitation to vulnerable receptivity in an intimacy that exceeds that of the one-flesh union of earthly marriage – which is the best sign and symbol for what is to happen. But earthly marriage will fade away in the Kingdom (Matthew 22:30), giving way to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. Even now we are invited to surrender ourselves with the vulnerable receptivity and humble dependence of little children.

When we do so, we receive the power to become sons and daughters of God. We receive grace upon grace from his divine fullness. We begin sharing in the feast.

Abiding in the Still Point

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:13).

What was it like for those shepherds to hear the song of the heavenly angels in Bethlehem at midnight on that first Christmas?

There are joyful moments or peaceful moments in which time almost loses its relevance. There are moments of stillness, moments of rest, moments in which we feel held by the embrace of eternity.

And then time presses on. The moment passes. The great poet T.S. Eliot reflects on those moments in which “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” It was almost within our reach! We can try to go back to it, try to recreate the moment, but it will never be the same.

I love reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Every Good Friday I recite aloud his Four Quartets. Almost every December, I re-read his play Murder in the Cathedral, which tells the tale of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. At many moments in both works, Eliot ponders these mysteries of time, eternity, human freedom, and redemption.

In both works, Eliot ponders “the still point.”

In Burnt Nornton (the first of his Four Quartets) he speaks of a moment in which all is “reconciled among the stars.” I have little doubt that he is speaking of the Incarnation, and of that Christmas mystery in which the stars themselves paid homage to the newborn King of the Universe.

Eliot puts it this way:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point; there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Likewise in Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot offers the image of time as a turning wheel. The wheel ever turns. Some of us want to take control of it, but we cannot. In the play, Becket faces four tempters. To the first he flatly says, “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns.”

Are we then helpless victims, whipped around by the wheel of time? Do we just passively accept things as they come? No, freedom is neither seizing control nor passively abdicating. It is something else:

You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
You know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.

These are actually the words of the fourth tempter to Thomas Becket – quoting Becket’s own words and mocking him. He has easily dismissed the other temptations, but this one sickens him – to do the right deed (martyrdom) but for the wrong reason. Finally, he finds freedom in total surrender, abiding in the still point:

I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end.
Now my good Angel, whom God appoints
To be my guardian, hover over the swords’ points.

Becket discovers the very freedom of Mary’s fiat – “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” In one sense, Mary is incredibly active, asking the angel how this can be and pondering these Christmas mysteries in her heart. In another sense, she is totally passive – totally receptive of God’s Word, so much so that he becomes flesh in her. She adds nothing, subtracts nothing, and alters nothing. Eliot appeals to Mary’s fiat in Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets. It is “the hardly, barely prayable prayer of the one Annunciation.”

I loved merry-go-rounds as a child. I loved having a strong uncle whip us around as fast as he could – even though I knew I would start feeling sick. I curiously moved to the middle of the merry-go round – a much different experience. At the outside, I had to clutch at the rails with all my six-year-old strength. At the center, I could stand unaided – though I still might grow dizzy. Were I somehow smaller, I could truly stand at the still point, noticing the movement without being swept away by it.

It is humility that makes us small enough to stand at the still point. Humility is neither an achievement nor a product of old age. There can be young saints and old fools. T.S. Eliot reminds us:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The Father knowns our fear, and he knows our frenzy. We get all spun up, and resist receptivity and rest. We get stuck in the past, trying to recapture a moment that is gone, and missing the moment of the present. Yet always the invitation is there – the invitation of the angel Gabriel at Nazareth, the invitation of the angel to the Shepherds at Bethlehem, and the invitation of our own guardian angel right here and now.

May we echo Mary’s fiat, again and again. We will likely drift from the still point. Then we will feel whipped around by truly challenging times. We may try to take control, pushing Jesus from the center.

The stillness of Christmas night is an invitation into the stillness of God’s eternity. Granted, we are not fully ready for it. The very time that imprisons us is the time in which we will be redeemed. But when we notice we are drifting, we can surrender again and again, until at last we find our true home in the still point of God’s eternal rest.

Merry Christmas!

Joyful Repentance

Gaudete! Rejoice!

The 3rd Sunday of Advent is that day when priests around the world boldly don pink vestments and try to convince people they’re actually wearing “rose.” Let the pink jokes commence.

More importantly, let the joyful repentance commence. This Sunday is a reminder to us that repentance and joy are meant to go together!

Advent is a penitential season, meaning it is a time for repentance and eager preparation. We are preparing for Christmas, yes, but above all else we long intensely for the coming of Jesus in glory.

When Jesus comes again in full justice, all that is hidden will be made manifest. Each individual and every collective group will have their stories told in full truth, with all the nations assembled to hear it. No longer will the wicked succeed in deluding themselves and others, shading the truth and cloaking their misdeeds in shadow. Jesus will reveal and unveil; Jesus will judge; Jesus will vindicate.

Hence the penitential nature of Advent. Apart from repentance and mercy, who can possibly stand in the face of his full truth-telling? We began Advent crying out in our longing amidst the darkness, humbly recognizing that we cannot escape the fallenness of this world without a Savior.

But we so easily forget that Jesus’ main motive in coming again is to invite us into the eternal wedding feast! He desires to share his JOY with us. Just read the Gospels. Notice how many stories take place within the context of a meal, or how many of the parables describe feasting at table. One of the chief accusations against Jesus is that he welcomes sinners and dines with them (Luke 15:2).

Jesus proceeds to tell three stories: about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. The final story (which we tend to call “the prodigal son”) is addressed directly to the Pharisees and scribes, who are much more like the joyless older son! Both sons have become miserable in their sins. The father’s only interest is to invite them into a feast! He will gladly relinquish any claim of condemnation against them – if that is their desire. The story ends unconcluded. We don’t get to hear whether or not the older son repents and decides to enter the feast. The bigger question is what each of us will decide.

The 3rd Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete being Latin for “Rejoice!” In places where the Mass is said in Latin, the opening antiphon begins with the chanting of that word Gaudete, quoting the words of Paul in Philippians 4:4-5:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.

Rejoice always – even when the powers of darkness seem to be prevailing. Rejoice always, even when you feel HopeSick. Rejoice always, even when you find yourself mired in sin and powerless to change.

The Lord is near. He is eager to be present to us. Jesus speaks his “I do” to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross. He promises to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Our infidelity doesn’t alter his unconditional commitment to be good to us.

Not only does he still love us, but he still invites us to feast with him in joy! We have a hard time wrapping our minds around that invitation.

Repentance is NOT a matter of feeling bad about ourselves.  That is shame. Feeling shame following sin goes back to our first parents in Eden. It is perhaps normal to feel shame in our shattered state, but more often than not our shame hinders true repentance. Adam hid from God as from a tyrant. Even in that moment, God promised salvation through “the woman” and her offspring, who will crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15).

We cannot crush the head of the serpent ourselves; we don’t have to. Jesus has already won that victory. He is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He gladly washes us of our sins in the blood he poured out for us. More importantly, he invites us into the wedding feast of the lamb! He desires a one-flesh union with us in the eternal marriage feast!

We feel badly, of course, about what we have done – especially when we see and name the ways in which our sins have harmed others and harmed us. Like the prophets, we weep over the ruins of Jerusalem – caused in part by the harm others have done to us, caused in part by the harm in which we have willingly colluded.

Jesus, in the line of the prophets, also wept over Jerusalem. He weeps over their sins, yes. Even more, he weeps over the harm their sins have done. But if we read the text, his greatest grief (like the father in Luke 15) is that they do not desire to receive the love and delight that is freely being offered!

Tearful repentance and joy are meant to go together. Just as the Paschal Triduum is one integral celebration, so also our weeping over the ruin caused by sin is meant to be, simultaneously, a joyful entry into the Kingdom as beloved sons and daughters who truly belong there.

In Catholic and Anglican Tradition, there are Seven Penitential Psalms. Depending on your Bible’s Psalm numbering, those are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 141. They express anguished sorrow over the harm of sin, but they are ultimately songs of joyful repentance.  Psalm 6 begins with tear-filled lament but boldly proclaims that God has heard the cry of my weeping (verse 9). There will be swift vindication against my foes. Psalm 51 begins with David’s tearful repentance from his grave sins. It concludes with tender confidence that David will joyfully sing of God’s justice (verse 16) and proclaim his praises (verse 17), and that God will rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Psalm 130 cries out from the depths, but proclaims the abundant redemption freely offered by God.

This is the Christian paradox. Sorrow and joy are not opposites. In fact, the path of Beatitude invites us to discover joy amidst our grieving.

Repentance is not a matter of beating ourselves up until God and others feel sorry for us. Rather, repentance invites us to open ourselves to both experiences: intense sorrow and intense joy. Truthfully facing what we have done and truthfully acknowledging our ruined human condition – that takes courage and many tears. Most of us spend most of our life (like the Pharisees and scribes) hardening our hearts against the full human experience, preferring the shallowness of legal observance and give-so-I-can-get transactions. When we open ourselves up to true repentance, and to the full depths of grief, we discover the great surprise of joy.