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The Immaculate Conception: Mary as the New Temple

immaculate_conception1

Today, December 8, marks the great Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And it’s certainly a doctrine misunderstood by many. The Immaculate Conception is not the Virginal Conception of Jesus. Nor does it have anything to do with this, sports fans.

Here’s the actual definition, from Blessed Pope Pius IX, the beloved “Pio Nono”:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX solemnly defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 1854.

the basis for the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the New Testament is well-known, but today I’d like to share about one of the ways the doctrine is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In his masterful devotional series, In Conversation with God, Francis Fernandez writes about Mary as the new Temple in which God dwells:

In the litany of Loreto we call upon Mary, House of Gold, the abode of greatest conceivable splendor. When a family turns a house into a home by taking up residence there, the place reflects the individual qualities of the people. They accentuate the beauty of the dwelling place. Just like the Holy Spirit dwelling in Our Lady, the home and its inhabitants make up a particular unity, in much the same way as the body and its garments do. The foremost Tabernacle in the Old Testament, later to be the Temple, is the House of God, where the meeting of Yahweh and his people takes place. When Solomon makes the decision to build the Temple, the Prophets specify that the best available materials are to be used – abundant cedar wood on the inside and clad with gold on the outside. The most highly skilled craftsmen are to work on its construction.

Before God made known his coming into the world in the fullness of time, He prepared Mary as the suitable creature within whom He would dwell for nine months, from the moment of his Incarnation until his birth in Bethlehem. Evidence of God’s power and love show forth in his creation. Mary is the House of Gold, the new Temple of God, and is adorned with so great a beauty that no greater perfection is possible. The grace of her Immaculate Conception, including all the graces and gifts God ever bestowed on her soul, are directed towards the fulfillment of her divine Maternity.

God’s gift of supernatural life to her exceeds that of all the Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors and Virgins combined. It reaches far beyond the experience of anyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, until the end of time. God dwells in Our Lady more than in all the angels and saints, since the foundation of the world, taken together. Truly God has prepared a human vessel in keeping with the dignity of his eternal Son. When we say that Mary has an almost infinite dignity, we mean that among all God’s creatures she is the one who enjoys the most intimate relationship with the Blessed Trinity. Her absolute honor is the highest possible and her majesty is in every way unique. She is the firstborn and most highly favored daughter of the Father, as she has often been called throughout the history of the Church, and as has been reiterated by the Second Vatican Council, Our Lady’s blood relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, leads her to a singular relationship with him.

Mary indeed became the new Temple and Tabernacle of God.

Quick Q and A on the Trinity

TrinityQ. This past Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Why is this doctrine so important?

A. There are many reasons, but most prominent among them is this: it’s who God is. God is a Trinity of Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is actually God’s “name”. In the Scriptures, one’s name defines a person’s identity.

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges his followers to “(g)o therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:19-20, emphasis mine).

Notice Jesus says, “name”, not “names”. There are not three Gods here; there is one God, but three divine Persons within the Godhead. Their essence – what they are, essentially, is divine. Divinity is what they are “made of”, so to speak. In the case of Jesus, of course, who was the divine Logos from all eternity, he “wedded” a human nature to his preexisting divine nature at the moment of the Incarnation.

Q. So many still find the Trinity difficult to understand or believe in.

A. I’ve got two pieces of news for you, which may be surprising: first, one must believe in the Trinity to hold the Catholic faith. It is a truth revealed by God. On a somewhat practical level, if you have the question of God wrong, you’ll never get anything else right about the faith. To use a management term, it’s a “top-down” process.

Secondly, don’t worry if you don’t completely understand the Trinity, because no one does. That’s right – no saint or theologian – not even the great St Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” – has ever claimed that they fully understood the Trinity. In fact, if they had claimed that they did, they would have been guilty of heresy. Why?

If you could completely understand the Trinity, that would mean that you were greater than God, which is obviously not the case. Your finite, created mind, however intelligent it may be, cannot comprehend God in his infinity. However, that does not mean that we can’t know anything about the Trinity.

One can know something is true without being able to perfectly understand or explain it: for example, I know electricity works: I flip the switch, and the room lights up. Can I explain it? No. I don’t know how the energy moves throughout the circuitry, etc. I just know the truth of electricity, that it works. In the same way, we can be certain about whatever God chooses to reveal about himself, even if we can’t fully comprehend it – and what he has revealed is that he is a Trinity of persons.

Pentecost Primer

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Q. This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Could you explain its background?

A. When Pentecost arrives each year in the liturgical calendar, most Christians immediately think of the dramatic gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church, Peter’s impassioned preaching, and the mass conversion occasioned by this event, as recorded in Acts 2.

Many people are surprised to learn that the feast of Pentecost did not originate at this time. It has its roots in the Old Testament period. It’s actually one of the great Jewish festivals in the liturgical cycles of Israel’s worship. It was during this feast that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to believers in Jesus the Messiah.

Q. Was the festival of Pentecost known by another name during the Old Covenant period? What was its original purpose?

A. This feast was also called the feast of Weeks. It arrived seven weeks after the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread came to an end. The name “Pentecost” is a Greek word that refers to the fifty-day period (Lev 23:15-22; Deut 16:9-12).

What the festival of Weeks/Pentecost celebrated was the great wheat and barley harvest that took place in the summertime (Lev 23:10-15). The Hebrews has different names for the months of the year at that time, but this took place roughly at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Q. How can we relate the Old Covenant feast of Pentecost to that of the New?

A. There is much that could be said here, but let me focus on just a few points. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as a new and greater Moses. Just as Moses dispenses the Spirit on his elders (Num 11:11-29), Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to his Apostles (Jn 20:19-23, which is the Gospel reading for today).

Weeks/Pentecost was also linked in the Jewish tradition with the covenant made to Noah, which sheds light on how the Holy Spirit was gifted to humanity as a whole (Acts 2:5-11). Pentecost also, of course, is a celebration of the “first fruits” of the grain harvest, given by God. Jesus often spoke in agricultural parables of the world as a “field of souls”. Those early believers in Christ were indeed part of the “first fruits” of people harvested from the world, to belong to God for all eternity.

“Hail, Full of Grace”: On the Solemnity of the Annunciation

Annunciation di Corciano

Today’s Gospel on this Solemnity of the Annunciation is the famous account of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel from Luke 1:26-38. It includes some indirect proof for two major Marian dogmas of the Church – the Immaculate Conception (which was recently celebrated on Dec. 8), and the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. It also gives us part of the biblical roots of the “Hail Mary”.

When the archangel Gabriel greets Mary, it marks the only recorded incident in scripture that an angel greets someone by their title, not their name. “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). This, of course, is the first line of the “Hail Mary”, with the second line, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”, from Luke 1:42. So much for the ridiculous argument that the prayer is “unbiblical”.

But what of those dogmas? Speaking of the phrase, “Full of Grace”, in the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, it is an interesting term: kecharitomene. It means, literally, “one who has been made full of God’s grace” (biblical translations that render this term “highly favored one”, or something to that effect, don’t cut it) . It’s a past perfect term, meaning that, at some point in the past, Mary was made perfectly full of God’s grace. This condition extends out into the future, into eternity. This is exactly what the Immaculate Conception is all about – that, from the first moment of her existence, Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin. If one is perfectly full of the grace of God, there is no room for sin.

With respect to the perpetual virginity, Gabriel explains to Mary that she will bear the Messiah, and at this point he has said nothing about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yet, Mary says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). A very strange question for a young woman to ask, who, as we have already been told, was engaged to be married. Unless, that is, she had already intended to remain a virgin, consecrating herself wholly to God.

This post was originally published as “Mary of the Annunciation”

Quick Q and A on the Feast of St Joseph

JMJQ. March 19 is always the Solemnity of St Joseph, so why is it being celebrated today, March 20?

A. Because March 19 fell on a Sunday this year, this feast day was superseded by the Third Sunday of Lent. The Solemnity of Saint Joseph was thus moved to the following day this year.

Q. When did this feast originate in the Church?

A. Saint Joseph’s feast can trace its beginnings to the 15th century. It became a feast of the Universal Church (which is another way of referring to the Catholic Church as a whole) in 1621.

Q. Is it true that Saint Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church?

A. Yes. In 1847, Pope Saint Pius IX named Saint Joseph patron over the whole Church. He is also the primary patron saint of Canada and many other countries. Pope John XXIII, in the 20th century, included Saint Joseph’s name in Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon). Greater and greater honor has been shown to Saint Joseph over time, as, over the course of centuries, the Church has come to a deeper understanding of the role and importance of Saint Joseph in God’s plan of salvation, and in God’s family.

This is true in a double sense: the Greek word that explains God’s fatherly plan for salvation history is “oikonomia” – literally, “the law of the household”. Saint Joseph had charge of God’s “family” on earth in quite a literal sense – the Holy Family of Nazareth. Joseph was the foster father of the God-Man, Jesus Christ and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And Joseph is also the protector, by his prayers in heaven, of God’s other “family” on earth, the Church, which is also referred to in the New Testament as “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Saint Joseph’s intercession is powerful indeed – we should learn to take more advantage of his help in our daily lives.

With the exception of Our Lady, there is no greater saint in Heaven than Saint Joseph. In her autobiography, Saint Teresa of Avila wrote: “To other saints, Our Lord seems to have given power to help us in some special necessity, but to this glorious saint (I know by my experience), he has given the power to help us in all things. Our Lord would have us understand that, as he was subject to Joseph on earth – Saint Joseph, bearing the title of his father and being his guardian, could command him – so now Our Lord in heaven grants all his petitions.”

Saint Joseph, pray for us!

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

guadalupe

Matthew Leonard, Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology:

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the native people of Mexico City suffered conquest first by the Aztecs and then by the Spanish conquistadores. It was the custom of the Aztecs to harvest the conquered people as victims for human sacrifice, offered to the snake god Quetzalcoatl (Qweztzel-coh-AH-tul). Think Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto”, though it was about Mayans. Same basic, brutal principle.

By the Aztecs’ own account, this cost a quarter of a million human lives per year. In the dedication of just one temple, a celebration lasting four days, they slaughtered more than eighty thousand men and women. As you can imagine, these native peoples lived a life of natural and supernatural terror. Yet the fear of their idols kept them trapped in idolatry, and they resisted conversion to the Christian faith. The best efforts of brilliant missionaries proved basically ineffective.

Then, in 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico City to a peasant man named Juan Diego.

Read the rest here.

In Assisi in 2005, my wife and I met an American priest named Padre Sisco. He gave me his contact information, which I, of course, misplaced. This guy was unbelievable – on the off chance any readers out there know him, I’d love to get in touch. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on homilies preached in Mexico following the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the miraculous image she left behind.

That would make for some pretty incredible reading – over eight million Mexicans, by some accounts, converted to the faith in just a few years as news of these events spread. As Leonard notes, Mexico had been stubbornly infertile mission territory prior to 1531.

I’ve always found it fascinating that, while the Church on the Continent in the 16th century was being fractured by Luther’s revolt and the events that followed, the most effective evangelistic movement in the history of the world was taking place at the exact same time in the Americas.

A Fiery Sword and Tongues of Fire: Pentecost

Pentecost“‘And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:3-4). They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire; of fire which consumes the thorns of sins, but gives lustre to the soul. This is now coming upon you also, and that to strip away and consume your sins which are like thorns, and to brighten yet more that precious possession of your souls, and to give you grace; for He gave it then to the Apostles. And He sat upon them in the form of fiery tongues, that they might crown themselves with new and spiritual diadems by fiery tongues upon their heads. A fiery sword barred of old the gates of Paradise; a fiery tongue which brought salvation restored the gift” (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 17.15).

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

H/T to Father Z for the quote.

Sunday Scriptures: The Epiphany of the Lord

Epiphany

Q. This Sunday, January 3, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord (although in many regions it is still celebrated on its traditional date of January 6). What does the Feast of the Epiphany really about?

A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in paragraph 528:

“The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs,” and acquires Israelitica dignitas (are made “worthy of the heritage of Israel”).

Q. Why is Psalm 72 used as the Responsorial Psalm today?

A. Consider these passages from Psalm 72, which were really written about the “Son of David”, King Solomon, but can certainly be applied to King Jesus, the Son of David:

8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
9 May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!
11 May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

12 For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their souls;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live,
may gold of Sheba be given to him!
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all the day!
16 May there be abundance of grain in the land;
on the tops of the mountains may it wave;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may men blossom forth from the cities
like the grass of the field!
17 May his name endure for ever,
his fame continue as long as the sun!
May men bless themselves by him,
all nations call him blessed!

The similarities are obvious: just as “kings” render Solomon precious gifts, including “gold”, the magi bring Jesus gifts. Just as these Kings discovered Solomon enthroned along with the Queen Mother (the Gebirah), Bathsheba, the Magi discover Jesus enthroned with the Queen Mother of his Kingdom, Mary.

Note: Incidentally, the reason Canada is called “The Dominion of Canada” is because of verse 8: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” May that be the case indeed!

Q and A on the Epiphany

Q. Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. Can you explain the meaning of this feast?

A. The word Epiphany means “manifestation (of God)”. In Matthew’s Gospel, there is a great concern to reveal, or “manifest” Jesus as the divine yet human “Son of David”, the true heir to David’s throne (Matthew 1:1). It’s interesting to note that the term “Kingdom of God”, so crucial in Jesus’ teaching, does actually have Old Testament roots. However, the key to understanding the phrase is this: the only time it was ever used there was in reference to David’s Kingdom.

This is intentional on Jesus’ part; in fact, as he assembles his New Covenant Kingdom, Jesus incorporates many of the features of the Old Covenant Kingdom of God, David’s Kingdom. For example, Peter as Pope holds the equivalent of the OT office of “Prime Minister” (see Isaiah 22), one of a cabinet of twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of Israel in David’s Kingdom.

Who was the original “Son of David”? Solomon. Solomon, like Jesus, was known as an exorcist, although Jesus’ powers are orders of magnitude greater in this regard. Solomon also was known for his exceptional wisdom, and once again Jesus bests him in this arena, too (think of, for example, Jesus’ brilliant answer to the question about paying taxes to Caesar).

Q. Who was the Queen in Solomon’s Kingdom, and is there a corresponding office in Jesus’ Kingdom?

A. Solomon, of course, had many wives and concubines, which was utterly displeasing to God. However, this was a common practice for kings in antiquity, as marrying foreign wives was a way to consolidate power by means of political alliances. But these wives ultimately turned Solomon’s heart away from the Lord, contributing to his downfall.

This gave rise to a very practical question: with so many wives, who would be the queen? It’s not as if there would be a mud-wrestling match of sorts between them all to determine which woman would gain the throne next to that of the king. The answer to the dilemma was very simple: the queen would be the queen mother, known in Solomon’s Kingdom as the Gebirah. In Solomon’s case, the Queen Mother was Bathsheba, and the Old Testament shows how people would approach her in order to receive an appointment with, or gain favours from, the king.

The New Covenant example is obvious: Matthew takes great pains to show how Mary is the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of the new Son of David, Jesus. In Chapter 2:1-12, international figures pay royal tribute to the new king, seated with his mother. Solomon and Bathsheba are “types” prefiguring Jesus and Mary.

Psalm 72 (of Solomon, no less), is about kings from distant lands who pay tribute to the Davidic King:

1 (A Psalm of Solomon.) Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son! 2 May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice! 3 Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor! 5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! 6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! 7 In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! 8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! 9 May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! 12 For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. 13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. 15 Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! 16 May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field! 17 May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May men bless themselves by him, all nations call him blessed! 18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. 19 Blessed be his glorious name for ever; may his glory fill the whole earth! Amen and Amen! 20 The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.

Of special note are these verses: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (vv. 10-11), and “Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him!” (v. 15a). This episode from Solomon’s reign, is, in a sense, being recapitulated in Jesus’ life. The message is clear: Jesus is the King; he can be found close to his Mother, our Queen, who gains access for us to the royal “Throne Room”, where we pay Jesus the tribute of our lives, make our requests known to him, and receive his favor.

Queen Mother

“And a great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).

Today’s feast of the Queenship of Mary celebrates the coronation of Mary as Queen of the universe. This is another Marian teaching of the Church that non-Catholics have trouble with, because it’s scriptural roots aren’t as obvious as they often are for other doctrines. A proper understanding of typology, however, makes the Queenship of Mary stand out in sharp relief as one reads the sacred page.

What is typology? As one writer put it, “God writes the world the way humans write with words.” Human writers can use literary devices like foreshadowing to tip the reader off to what’s coming in the future. When God acts in the history of salvation, he works in a similar fashion. He uses not words, but events, places, and people during Old Covenant times to foreshadow even greater realities – events, places, and people – of the New Covenant.

One of those realities is the position of Queen. In the Old Covenant Kingdom of David, the Queen was not the wife of the King, but his mother – the Queen Mother. This position began under King Solomon, the son of David. Solomon had, of course, many wives, so rather than have them slug it out in some sort of mud wrestling match for the title, the crown went to Bathsheba, the king’s mother, who sat at his right hand.

In a similar way, the one the New Testament hails as “the Son of David” rules a Kingdom. Jesus calls it “the Kingdom of God – exactly what David’s kingdom was called in the OT. That kingdom has a Prime Minister, which we saw in this past Sunday’s readings is Peter, who holds the “keys of the kingdom”, like Eliakim did in Isaiah 22.

This Kingdom also has a Queen – a Queen Mother, Mary. This is why foreign dignitaries pay homage to Jesus as to a king, alongside his mother after his birth (Matthew 2:11), just as other rulers would have done in earlier times for Solomon in the presence of his mother.