Saturday, December 25, 2010

Approaching Amazement at Christmas

Before beginning, consider Benedict's 11/22/2010 Christmas remarks to the Roman Curia concerning the epistemology of John Henry Newman: "I would like to emphasize just the first conversion: to faith in the living God. Until that moment, Newman thought like the average men of his time and indeed like the average men of today, who do not simply exclude the existence of God, but consider it as something uncertain, something with no essential role to play in their lives. What appeared genuinely real to him, as to the men of his and our day, is the empirical, matter that can be grasped. This is the “reality” according to which one finds one’s bearings. The “real” is what can be grasped, it is the things that can be calculated and taken in one’s hand. In his conversion, Newman recognized that it is exactly the other way round: that God and the soul, man’s spiritual identity, constitute what is genuinely real, what counts. These are much more real than objects that can be grasped. This conversion was a Copernican revolution. What had previously seemed unreal and secondary was now revealed to be the genuinely decisive element. Where such a conversion takes place, it is not just a person’s theory that changes: the fundamental shape of life changes. We are all in constant need of such conversion: then we are on the right path."

With the Incarnation, the regnant and exclusive epistemology of sense experience and abstract knowing is shattered. There is something else going on than adding the divine to the human. It is not that God is infinitely greater than man. He is Other. He is in the world, but He is not part of the world. It’s not that God is Spirit that is different. Spirit is also part of the world. Rather, as everything is in itself, He is for other. When He became flesh, His flesh was in the world, but what He took from the Virgin became for other and therefore could not be perceived in its for-otherness. It could be sensed as in the world, but it could not be recognized as His because He is not for himself, and the world without Him is for itself. Therefore, He is not in the world as world is in itself. And so, the flesh that He assimilated from the Virgin went through a profound change. It entered another dimension of being and therefore another way of knowing. It continued to be flesh, but not existing in itself. It is flesh for others.

Consider here the remarks of the BXVI on the reality of the Word of God: Furthermore, the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life” (Keynote Address: Synod on the Word of God, October 6, 2008).

Now consider the remarks of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete on Stephen Dawking and the remarks Christ makes about Himself. And in that light, consider the meaning of Christmas.

“During these days, I have been reading The Grand Design (Bantam Books, NY) by the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking (written with a physicist and author named Leonard Mlodinow, who, among other things, wrote for the TV series “Star Trek, the Next Generation”!). I love physics, especially theoretical physics, “from the microcosm to the macrocosm” (to borrow a phrase of Pope Paul VI). My heart and mind completely resonate with the quest to learn the “mysteries of the universe” and the possible single mystery, the theory of everything.

Suppose, I thought, that Hawking came into town to present his new book to the public. I imagined myself being there in the packed auditorium, seeing him wheeled in to center stage, hearing the endless applause of his admirers, then the spotlight in the darkness as he said, “I would like you to see a DVD that I prepared about my book. After it is over, I will say a few words and try to answer your questions.”

At the end of the DVD, the spotlight on Hawking sitting center stage would come back on. I imagined the murmur of the crowd commenting on the majesty of the presentation and then silence as all eyes are fixed on Hawking, waiting for him to speak.
Finally, he speaks: “I have this to announce to you tonight. Everything you have seen in the DVD, all the mysteries of the universe, every single reality that exists or can be imagined, everything known, proposed, or totally unknown–all of it is about me. I am the reason for the existence of everything. I am the reason for the Big Bang and for the future of the universe, the multiverse, the parallel universes… everything is about me and for me.”

I ask myself, “Have I heard him correctly? Is he serious? Is he insane?” I imagine that everyone there would be asking themselves and each other these questions. One thing is clear: I can’t imagine anyone there saying, “Wait a minute. Let us not dismiss what he says because it doesn’t fit the way we think about what is true or false. If he is not joking, if he has not gone crazy, then what he is saying has a hidden meaning that we should investigate.” In this case, Hawking’s announcement would be more fascinating and mysterious than the mysteries of the universe presented in the book and DVD. This is how a proclamation can be called a mystery: the mystery of Stephen Hawking himself.

Now, consider the following incident in the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus went to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”

The fulfillment of a prophecy from Scripture probably does not have the impact it had on those at the Synagogue in Nazareth. In presenting Himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy, Jesus was identifying Himself as the presence of the Kingdom of God, that is, as the presence of the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creating the universe. The shock to those present must have been like the shock of that audience that I imagined listening to Hawking’s claim. I wonder how I would have reacted if I had been there when Jesus proclaimed Himself as the presence of the Kingdom of God. Would I have rejected the proclamation because it challenged my way of looking at reality or would I have been like the imagined observer willing to at least ask for evidence of His claim, accepting His proclamation as a mystery to be pursued?” (Traces, No. 10, 2010).

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