Tag Archives: Incarnation

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed”
Matthew 13:31-32 in a couplet
Monday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time
©️2021 by Gloria M. Chang

He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”

Matthew 13:31-32

The word “universe” in this couplet stands for “flesh” (Hebrew basar and Greek sarx), as used in the Genesis Flood account and in John’s Prologue. All “flesh” is destroyed in the flood and saved in the ark in the recreation of the world after the Fall (Genesis 6:13; 17; 19). With the coming of Christ, a new “beginning,” the Word became “flesh,” divinizing humanity and the cosmos (John 1:14). The Holy Spirit conceived the Word as a microscopic seed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and continues to nurture and expand the Mystical Body of Christ throughout the world.

From Melchizedek to Adam

Replica of the Temple menorah, made by the Temple Institute, Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem.

The Lord has sworn and will not waver:
“You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.”

Psalm 110:4

The dreamlike quality of the mysterious Melchizedek defies logical analysis and reasoning. Efforts to pin down his identity from ancient times to the present have failed. The Spirit of Scripture seems unvexed by analytical demands for clarity, for the historicity of the King of Salem adds nothing to the portrait of Christ, the eternal high priest. In fact, the very silence of Scripture on Melchizedek’s origins becomes the springboard for “arguing” to the eternal priesthood of the Son of God.1

Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.

Hebrews 7:3

Melchizedek is considered a “type” of Christ, as Adam and David are types of Christ. The entire edifice of the book of Hebrews rests on typology, a kind of overarching analogy that sees earthly realities as coming from and returning to a perfect, eternal model in heaven.2 Unlike a step-by-step rational argument, a typological “argument” is more like facial recognition. 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour 

William Blake

Instant recognition of “a Heaven in a Wild Flower” is poetic, holistic, and intuitive rather than logical and rational. The author of Hebrews similarly expects his listeners to recognize Melchizedek in Christ and Christ in Melchizedek.

The psalm that invokes Melchizedek out of the dreamlike past was inspired by the Spirit. For David had no precedent for saying, “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand’” (Psalm 110:1). We do not know how David understood “my lord,” but Jesus interpreted the psalm as pointing to himself, the Son of God (Mark 12:35-37; Matthew 22:41-46).

David linked his kingship to a priesthood prior to the Mosaic law and the covenant of circumcision, for Abram met Melchizedek before he received his new name. The mysterious “king of righteousness” appeared and disappeared without a trace, blessing Abram during a sacred feast of bread and wine.

Abraham never forgot his encounter with Melchizedek for the story passed down from generation to generation. Hymns may have been composed in honor of this Canaanite priest-king who is “without beginning of days or end of life.” Melchizedek points to an eternal sonship beyond time and history.

Priesthood and sonship are thus inseparable and return to God the Father as origin. Apart from creation, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pre-exist with an incomprehensible glory without reference to creatures. Priesthood appears with the Incarnation. 

When we speak of Christ’s priesthood, what else do we mean than the incarnation?

St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop (c. 467-532)3

The Incarnation and priesthood
begin in the beginning 
before the beginning
in the mind of God.

According to the blueprint of typology, Adam was made in the image of Christ, the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). The perfect Adam preceded the Adam of Eden in the divine mind, but descended from him in the Incarnation.

Return to the beginning
of the heavens and the earth,
When the Father gave his temple
and creation new birth.
King Adam, priest and son of
the garden sanctuary,
Protected paradise and
with all creatures made merry.

Primordial priesthood began with the first-created person, Adam. Selfless generosity characterized every action of Adam, the son of God in the Son of God.

Priesthood and sonship are thus synonymous with self-gift, for the Son is an eternal gift from the Father in the Spirit. The cosmic human person is a temple modeled on the Trinity. 

Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection restored the original priesthood of Adam and humanity. The Levitical priesthood, instituted on account of Egyptian idolatry and sin, was superseded by our priest of paradise: 

holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.

Hebrews 7:28

The veil protecting the tree of life in the garden of Eden, symbolized by the branches and blossoms of the menorah in Solomon’s temple (Exodus 25:31-40), was removed by the eternal high priest who granted access to the divine presence (shekinah) in the Holy of Holies.  

The Holy of Holies is the human heart.

But this is the covenant I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds and I will write them upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Hebrews 8:10

-GMC

Related post: Melchizedek’s Feast

1 See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote to Hebrews 7:3.

2 See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote to Hebrews 8:2.

3 From a letter by Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop. See Liturgy of the Hours, Second Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday, Office of Readings.

God from God, Light from Light

Christ in Glory (mandorla)

Monday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 1:1-6; Psalm 97

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

From words to the Word, and from prophets to the very Son of God, the anonymous author of Hebrews sweeps us into the “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” that the Nicene Creed epitomized in the maturing Christian consciousness of the fourth century. 

Christ is the radiance, brightness, or refulgence (apaugasma, ἀπαύγασμα) of the Father’s glory. The Father is identified in this passage as simply “God” (theos, θεός). “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene (John 20:17). God is not a vague, impersonal being, but a Father from whom the Son is eternally begotten, and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds. 

The Father never speaks alone, but always through the Son and in the Spirit. The indivisible Trinity was present in the theophany of the burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:1-22).  “Before Abraham came to be, I AM,” Jesus told the Jews, identifying himself with God (John 8:58). The Son speaks and acts only in union with the Father (John 5:19; 12:49).

In the third century, Origen reflected at length on the first sentence of Hebrews in his work, In Principiis (On the First Principles) during heated controversies concerning the humanity and divinity of Christ, and the Trinity of persons. The inadequacy of words challenged the Fathers as they sought to grasp realities exceeding the concepts received from pagan philosophy.

Hebrews declares that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις), which has been variously translated as being, nature, essence, substance, or person. Greek philosophy had no conception of person, and thus the original word in this context vaguely denotes the transcendent being or nature of God. 

Concepts evolve as understanding grows. Neither the Old Testament nor Greek philosophy ever conceived God as simultaneously One and Three. Thus no word or thought existed to express the revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit given by Christ. The meaning of “person” is far from clear, writes Origen in his perplexity:

“But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.”1

In a work battling the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen’s contemporary, writes: “For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.”2

The wrestlings of Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus would have been novel to the author of Hebrews, but the same could be said of David’s Psalms and most of the Old Testament when they were first interpreted in the light of Christ.3

The Son is truly God from God, according to Hebrews, but the text does not go so far as to disentangle the theological distinctions between the nature (being) and persons of the Trinity. In fact, the statements of Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus actually conflate nature and person. For if the Son is the imprint of the “Father’s person,” the absolute distinction of Father and Son seems to be compromised. However, the effort of these Fathers to go beyond the limitations of words to the heart of who God is, represents a step forward in Christian reflection. Another way to express their thought is that the Son is the image of God the Father who is personal. 

Material experience causes the human mind to reify or delineate realities that are uncircumscribed. Thus changing “person” to “personal,” or noun to adjective, softens the hard lines drawn by the mind between nouns. However, these grammatical subtleties only suggest and point to what is beyond linguistic expression.

The concept of perichoresis or circumincession (mutual indwelling) was developed over time to overcome the barriers and borders set up by the intellect between the three divine persons and the two natures of Christ. Concepts divide the indivisible reality, but in truth, One (divine nature) and Three (persons) interpenetrate without division. The divine and human natures of Christ also interpenetrate without mixture or confusion. Thus, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus said, offering no explanation of how he and the Father are both one and distinct (John 14:9). Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit guided the Church to deepen her contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity who is “divided indivisibly.”

When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews 1:3b-4

In Hebrew cosmology, myriads upon myriads of angels served as mediators between humanity and a distant God. Thus it became necessary to demonstrate the absolute superiority of the Son over the angels, the “mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15; 12:24).

For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”? Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”? And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”

Hebrews 1:5-6

Angelic worship of a human being was unthinkable until Mary said, “Yes!” to the invitation of the angel Gabriel.

The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
Let all his angels worship him.

Responsorial Psalm from 97:6 and 7c

-GMC

1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.

2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.

3 See the post, Who is the “Son of David”?

Our Eternal Origin

Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Cefalù, Sicily, 12th century. Licensed by Claire Stracke under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Thursday After Epiphany

1 John 4:19—5:4; Luke 4:14-22a

“…whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.”

1 John 5:4

The origin of the Son and all persons begotten by the Father in the Son transcends the world, time, history, politics, sociology, psychology, beginnings and ends.

“I AM WHO I AM.”

Exodus 3:14

Beyond the vicissitudes of this passing world, the Being beyond beings is, was, and will be, forever and ever.

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

Psalm 2:7; Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5

The whispering Spirit of the unseen Father unveiled the eternal Sonship of Christ in a Psalm of David about a millennium before his birth from the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

“I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Our Lady of Lourdes to St. Bernadette Soubirous, March 25, 1858

From the bosom of the Father, the Virgin Mother of God breathed her name to her children, revealing herself as immaculately conceived from all eternity in the mind of God. 

Jesus Christ and Mother Mary have two birthdays like all human beings: an earthly, historical birthday in spacetime, and an eternal, timeless origin in the mind of the Father, Source of all persons.

As St. Paul writes, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “chose us in him, before the foundation of the world…” (Ephesians 1:4).

Action follows being and identity. Thus the beloved disciple John found the commandment of love “not burdensome” (1 John 5:3), perhaps not even a “commandment” as such, but the very essence and action flowing from divinized humanity. As the light and heat of fire is natural to fire and of its essence, love is of the essence of the Body of Christ.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him. 

1 John 5:1

Believing and loving go hand in hand, as intellect and will, head and heart, light and heat are one and inseparable. 

After decades of prayer and reflection, Jesus’ prayer to the Father for the baffled disciples at the Last Supper finally sank in:

Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.

John 17:3-5

Loving faith and faithful love is “the victory that conquers the world” (1 John 5:4) because it originates in the ever bubbling Spirit of Love, Son of Love, and Father of Love from all eternity.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus declared to the astonished people of his hometown Nazareth (Luke 4:18). The Spirit of the Father divinized our human nature in the Person of the Son of God, enabling us to love as he loves.

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes:

The Father says of Christ, who was God, begotten of him before the ages, that he has been “begotten today,” for the Father is to accept us in Christ as his adopted children. The whole of our nature is present in Christ, in so far as he is man. So the Father can be said to give the Spirit again to the Son, though the Son possesses the Spirit as his own, in order that we may receive the Spirit in Christ… He receives it to renew our nature in its entirety and to make it whole again, for in becoming man he took our entire nature to himself.

From the Liturgy of the Hours, Thursday after Epiphany, Office of Readings, From a commentary on the Gospel of John by Saint Cyril of Alexandria, bishop

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. 

-GMC

His Kindness Has Appeared

These are days to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation. A decisive revelation of God, the Letter to the Hebrews says:

“At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is.(Hebrews 1, 1-2)”

What does Jesus Christ reveal about God? He is the Word of God who reveals God to us, St. Bernard says, and in him “the kindness and love of God has been revealed and  we receive abundant consolation in this pilgrimage, this exile, this distress.”

Before he appeared as human, God’s kindness lay concealed, Bernard says. “Of course it was already in existence, because the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, but how could we know it was so great? It was promised but not yet experienced: hence many did not believe in it. At various times and in various different ways, God spoke through the prophets, saying I know the plans I have in mind for you: plans for peace, not disaster…”

“What greater proof could he have given of his mercy than by taking upon himself what needed mercy most? Where is there such perfect loving-kindness as in the fact that for our sake the Word of God became perishable like the grass? Lord, what is man, that you make much of him or pay him any heed?”

“See how much God cares for us. See what God thinks of us, what he feels about us. Don’t look at your own sufferings; look at God’s sufferings. Learn from what he was made for you, how much he makes of you; let his kindness be seen in his humanity.”

“ The lesser he has made himself in his humanity, the greater has he shown himself in kindness. The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love. The kindness and humanity of God our Saviour appeared says St Paul. The humanity of God shows the greatness of his kindness, and he who added humanity to the name of God gave great proof of this kindness.”

The Scandal of the Incarnation

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Isaiah 45:6b-8, 18, 21c-25; Luke 7:18b-23 (Matthew 11:2-6)

At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits; he also granted sight to many who were blind. And Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Luke 7:21-23

Jesus sent the disciples of John the Baptist back with a report of signs and wonders lifted from the pages of Isaiah happening in their own day and age (Isaiah 26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1). Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God equal to the Father eventually became a “stumbling block,” offense, and scandal to many. The signs and wonders were an aid for those who could not accept the mystery of God becoming a man: “If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize [and understand] that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38).1

For a man to claim to be God amounted to blasphemy. Who but the invisible, untouchable, formless God can say, “I am the Lord, there is no other. I form the light, and create the darkness, I make weal and create woe; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7)? The God of the burning bush, Mount Sinai, and the Temple in Jerusalem can say, “To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear, saying, ‘Only in the Lord are just deeds and power’” (Isaiah 45:23-24). But Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary? 

-GMC

1 St. Cyril of Alexandria writes in his Commentary on Luke, Homily 37:

“And blessed is he who is not offended in me!” The Jews were indeed offended, either as not knowing the depth of the mystery or because they did not seek to know the mystery. Every part of the inspired Scripture announced beforehand that the Word of God would humble himself to emptiness and be seen on earth… Although they plainly saw him clothed with unspeakable dignity and surpassing glory, by means of the wondrous deeds he performed, they threw stones at him and said, “Why do you, being a man, make yourself God?” In answer to these things Christ rebuked the immeasurable infirmity of their intellect and said, “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not; but if I do, then though you believe not me, believe my works.” Blessed is he who does not stumble against Christ, that is, he who believes him.

From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 121.

Priests and a Priestly People

Are priests a class apart, separate from the rest of humanity? The Letter to the Hebrews, our weekday reading at Mass, offers an extended reflection on the priesthood of Jesus in the light of Jewish tradition of priesthood as it was found in the temple of Jerusalem. It throws light on the meaning of priesthood today.

Jesus is our new high priest, but he did not separate himself from the rest of humanity. He became fully human to bring humanity to God in sacrifice and praise. Here’s how St.Fulgensius of Ruspe explains it:

“When we speak of Christ’s priesthood, what else do we mean than the incarnation? Through this mystery, the Son of God, though himself ever remaining God, became a priest. To him along with the Father, we offer our sacrifice. Yet, through him the sacrifice we now offer is holy, living and pleasing to God. Indeed, if Christ had not sacrificed himself for us, we could not offer any sacrifice. For it is in him that our human nature becomes a redemptive offering.

When we offer our prayers through him, our priest, we confess that Christ truly possesses the flesh of our race. Clearly the Apostle refers to this when he says: Every high priest is taken from among us. He is appointed to act on our behalf in our relationship to God; he is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God.”

A priest embraces the mystery of the Incarnation, the saint says. Like Jesus, priests should embrace humanity in its weakness. Following him, they must embrace their own times and place and not isolate themselves from the world they live in.  Otherwise, how can they bring it to God?

All who are baptized share in the priesthood of Christ. Every Sunday, we gather as a priestly people. The priestly call belongs to us all. “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” we say at Mass. We’re all called to a priestly role.

The Long Christmas Season

1 Jn 5:5-13
Lk 5:12-16

The Christmas season closes with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus on Sunday. The season’s already ended for most people, however. The decorations are away. Valentine’s Day is coming up.

But it takes time to celebrate mysteries of God; more than a day or an hour or two. It takes time for the mysteries of God to sink in. And so we prepare for the celebration through the days of Advent. Then on Christmas Day the poor shepherds come from the dark hills to see the Child announced by the angels. A Savior is born for us, a Child is given to us. Yet, as the ancient carol says, “We scarce can take it in.”

The Feast of the Epiphany is a further reminder that the Child is the savior of all nations. He came, not just for one people, but for all. The Magi represent people far away and they bring him their greetings and gifts. Then, they leave to bring back the good news of his birth. That colorful story isn’t over; it’s still unfolding.

The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus may seem like a poor way to end the Christmas season, so far removed from the days and events of Jesus’ birth as it is. But baptism is about birth too, a birth that conquers death.

Jesus Christ “came through water and Blood,” St. John says in his First Letter today. His Spirit is given to us. It’s not enough to just look upon the mystery of the Incarnation. We’re meant to share his life, and baptism is a sign of our union with him.

We need time to understand all this, however. So the Christmas season is a long season. And we’ll celebrate again next year.

The Word Made Flesh

Because the Word was made flesh, St. Athanasius writes:
“He had then to take a body like ours. This explains the fact of Mary’s presence: she is to provide him with a body of his own, to be offered for our sake. Scripture records her giving birth, and says: She wrapped him in swaddling clothes. Her breasts, which fed him, were called blessed. Sacrifice was offered because the child was her firstborn. Gabriel used careful and prudent language when he announced his birth. He did not speak of “what will be born in you” to avoid the impression that a body would be introduced into her womb from outside; he spoke of “what will be born from you,” so that we might know by faith that her child originated within her and from her.
  By taking our nature and offering it in sacrifice, the Word was to destroy it completely and then invest it with his own nature, and so prompt the Apostle to say: This corruptible body must put on incorruption; this mortal body must put on immortality.
  This was not done in outward show only, as some have imagined. This is not so. Our Saviour truly became human, and from this has followed the salvation of humanity as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the human being, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.
  What was born of Mary was therefore human by nature, in accordance with the inspired Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was a true body: It was a true body because it was the same as ours. Mary, you see, is our sister, for we are all born from Adam.
  The words of St John, the Word was made flesh, bear the same meaning, as we may see from a similar turn of phrase in St Paul: Christ was made a curse for our sake. Our  body has acquired something great through its communion and union with the Word. From being mortal it has been made immortal; though it was a living body it has become a spiritual one; though it was made from the earth it has passed through the gates of heaven.
  Even when the Word takes a body from Mary, the Trinity remains a Trinity, with neither increase nor decrease. It is for ever perfect. In the Trinity we acknowledge one Godhead, and thus one God, the Father of the Word, is proclaimed in the Church.

Good Night, Irene

Irene got our attention this weekend on the east coast of USA, from Miami to Washington to New York City and to Boston. The hurricane took over television, governments, businesses, transit systems, entertainments as nothing else has done since the terror attack on the World Trade Center ten years ago. For a couple of days, Irene turned our regular human preoccupations upside down.

Mayor Bloomberg and other government officials kept referring to “Mother Nature”   when they spoke of her. Respect her, they said, and for the most part we listened, though typically some of “Mother Nature’s” children ignored her threats.

Jim Keane, SJ, has a piece in the America Blog entitled “The Mountains Melt Like Wax,”where he asks what our expanding knowledge of creation means for our faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and our understanding of our place as humans in this world. We’re not only learning more about weather systems like Irene, but we’re  also finding out much more about a “Mother Nature” who’s more complex, more powerful, older and more mysterious than we ever thought. She demands respect.

“If our notion of time keeps expanding, and our notion of space does the same, that particular moment of the Incarnation can seem more and more vanishingly discrete.” Sharing this mystery we humans have to wonder about our place in an expanding picture of the universe.

Keane points to Christian thinkers like  Roger Haight, SJ, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, William Lynch, SJ, Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and David Toolan, SJ. who faced this question.

I would add Thomas Berry, CP.

We like to see ourselves and our human world as the center of everything, and then Irene comes along. Jim Keane put it this way: “In other words, recognizing the immensity of space and the eternity of time might prove a valuable wakeup call for all of us:  it’s not just about you, pal.”

Besides expanding knowledge of our universe, how about Irene? Is she part of a wakeup call? If so, it’s not wise to sing “Good night, Irene.”