Sunday, December 28, 2014

"O Come, O Come Emmanuel:" Self-surrender as the path to universal holiness, Part I

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“Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:7

Like everyone else, the commercialism of Christmas can be overwhelming to the point where I feel like I’m in the middle of Whoville’s mad “buy, buy, buy!” mentality from The Grinch who Stole Christmas.  It’s hard to imagine that Christmas Day used to be a day of solemn prayer, contemplation, and shockingly . . . worship.  Christmas Day began the 12 Days of Christmas during which merriment, feasting, and dancing occurred, culminating in the 12th day, Epiphany.  Sometimes, that reality feels very far away.  We allow ourselves to be consumed by cleaning, decorating, purchasing and wrapping gifts, entertaining, and mostly, rushing through it all.  As culpable of this rush as anyone else, I find myself at odd moments during Advent masses (or even just listening to carols in the car), surprised and overwhelmed by the beauty and awe of Advent as anticipation for the birth of Christ.

As cradle Catholics, many of us grow up casually referring to the Holy Family, and somehow along the way forget that our own families are called to holiness as well.  At Vatican II, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (Light of Nations) emphasized that all Christians – not just members of the religious or clergy – are called to be saints.

For those of us whose vocation is marriage, we are called to live out this holiness through our own families, which are themselves understood to be little “domestic” churches.  And yet our families are often the source of stress and argument, and regrettably, they commonly bear the brunt of our worst behavior.  We’ve all heard the maxim, “You always hurt the ones you love,” but I don’t think we spend enough time considering that the ones we love are the ones who deserve the best from us and not the worst.  We need to look to the Holy Family, not as an unreachable, mystical symbol, but rather as a tangible, physical reality which once existed and towards which we should never stop aspiring.  This time of year, we most often visualize the Holy Family in the context of the Nativity, and I find I use that depicted moment of wonder and awe to center myself in meditation on the type of holiness that we are called to during Advent.

Most Catholics know the Nativity as the third Joyful mystery of the rosary, but I want to speak for a moment about that word, mystery.  We are blessed to inherit a rich history of revelation, including an abundant multitude of mysteries that we are still contemplating more than 2,000 years later.  The Incarnation is arguably the greatest of these mysteries, rivaled only by the Paschal Mystery.  And Christmas is the Incarnation, this profound mystery in which God becomes human, without limiting or detracting from His divine nature as God.  The familiar nativity stable scene of Our Lady, St. Joseph, and the Christ child, complete with angels, shepherds, and wise men is deceptively simple and humble when you consider the awesome reality of God choosing to enter the world through the consent of a human woman.  

Since I was a little girl, one of my favorite Christmas carols has always been “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  As I grew up, I learned that we have this revealed name of God, Emmanuel, as just one of many names for Christ.  In contrast to Yahweh, whose divine name means being and existence itself, but is unpronounceable and ultimately unknown, Christ reveals Himself to us constantly, through many names.  He is Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, Emmanuel and the Rod of Jesse, the Lamb of God and the Bread of Life, the Bridegroom and the King of Kings, the Way, the Truth, and the Life . . . the Logos, or the Word of God.  And the meanings of these names are fascinating, from the “Messiah” as the “anointed” to Christos, meaning “God saves.”  But, above all, my favorite name for Christ is still Emmanuel, meaning, “God is with us.”

"Nativity with the Torch," Le Nain brothers

Because this is what our faith is all about.  This is what differentiates us from every other religion.  We have a God who loved us enough to become human—to live, love, teach, suffer, die, and ultimately unmake death for us.  We have a God who remains with us, physically and literally, in the awesome mysteries of the seven sacraments, but most profoundly in the Holy Eucharist.  For the first time in salvation history, God enters the world, not as a military leader or an omnipotent vengeful deity, but in the most vulnerable form possible—that of a human infant.  And more—He chooses to enter the world through the free consent of a human woman, who has no agenda or delusions of power, but who says “yes” rather because everything that she is and has ever been is a fiat, or total, unreserved “yes” to the Trinity. 

In Philippians 2:7, we read, “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”  The Greek word for this “humbling” is kenosis, which translates as “self-emptying.”  Now, we must not understand this “self-emptying” as a kind of mindless numbing, or worse, some Buddhist form of detachment.  Rather, we understand this to be a complete and utter surrender of one’s will to the Father, until one becomes a perfect and pure vessel for the Father’s will. 

We understand Christ to have taken on everything it means to be human—including a human body, mind, will, suffering, and death—in sheer and perfect obedience to the Father.  And more—Christ’s motivation for all of this is nothing but absolute, utter, and unfathomable love for the Father and for His lost and wandering children. And I think this is the core of what it all comes down to for us at Christmas, and of what we are called to during Advent—nothing less than this self-emptying in which we surrender everything that we are to Christ in love, and through this surrender, finally find ourselves.

And so, as we celebrate these days of Christmas, I wish nothing less than this for all Catholics, and all men and women of the world, that we may join together in prayer and allow Christmas to not just be a time of hope, generosity, and love in which we anticipate the birth of the Son of God and the renewal of the world, but that it may also be a time of self-giving in the sense of kenosis, a time of emptying ourselves until nothing but Emmanuel remains:  God with us now and for all ages.

O Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

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