Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2013

A very sound painting by Francisco Rizi

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-end

A scientist decided to have an argument with God. Not, perhaps, the wisest thing to do.

“Look”, said the scientist. “We know how life was created. We’ve worked it all out. All you need is some earth with the right kind of clay in it, water, free radical molecules, and ultraviolet light. Mix it all together and you get life. In fact, I can do it right now, I’ll show you!”

“Alright”, said God. “Go on then.”

So the scientist bent down and started gathering together a pile of earth. “No, no, no”, said God. “That’s cheating. Get your own earth.”

That little story illustrates the difference between making something and creating. We can all make things. It involves assembling different parts into something new, or changing one kind of stuff into another. So for example you can take dried fruit, flour, butter, sugar, eggs and brandy and make a Christmas cake. But you can’t create one, in the sense that the Christian tradition understands creation. That is, you can’t create a Christmas cake out of nothing. In fact none of us can create anything at all. We cannot call anything into being where nothing exists. We can only change what already exists.

The fact of existence is something that we accept, because it is there. There is earth and life, there are people and Christmas cakes. But we cannot explain existence. There is no process by which nothing can become something. So the fact that there is something rather than nothing confronts us with a mystery. And the Jewish and Christian traditions refer to that mystery by the word “God”.

That is what the creation stories of Genesis do, those grand dramas of epic myth at the beginning of the Bible. They point us to the mystery called “God”. God, they say, is that which is beyond and beneath all things, giving existence where otherwise nothing would have existed at all.

This truth of creation undergirds the whole Christian understanding of human history and salvation. It undergirds the whole story of God coming in to the world to save us, taking on our human nature in Jesus. The Gospel writers knew this, of course. And we can see it in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, because the story of the birth of the Messiah is a creation story.

This is perhaps more obvious in the original language, Greek. The Greek word for “birth” is “genesis”. So today’s Gospel reading opens with the words, “The genesis of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”. That immediately points us to which other part of the Bible we should have in our minds when we read the first chapter of Matthew: the Book of Genesis. In fact Matthew’s gospel begins with the words, “The Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ” – referring to the genealogy of Jesus that then follows.

And Matthew tells us that Mary is with child “from the Holy Spirit”. This too recalls Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

That “wind from God” is the Spirit of God, bringing into being what was not. And it is just the same with Mary. Mary is the virginal depth, the new formless void, over which the Holy Spirit hovers to bring into being something new.

The meaning is clear: in the birth of Jesus, something new is being brought into existence in the way that only God can bring something new into existence. The birth of Jesus is an act of creation: new creation, in fact. St Paul calls Jesus the “new Adam”. “Adam”, in the Hebrew creation story, means “humanity”, and stands for the whole human race. In Jesus, humanity is created anew. In his conception we are present at a new beginning.

This is why the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus matters. It is not a puzzle about biology, but an affirmation that something new was happening. The birth of Jesus does not continue the same old humanity which has been around since Eden: divided, fallen, sinful, seeking God but unable to rise to him. The birth of Jesus begins a new humanity, and comes about in a new way. It is not the “same old same old”. So the birth of Jesus happens in a way that only God can bring about, because it is an act of creation. This does not make Jesus less human, but rather more so. The new humanity, begun again in Jesus, is humanity without the fall, humanity as it always was meant to be.

But Jesus, of course, according to Christian teaching, is both human and Divine. His human nature was created at his conception in the womb of Mary. But from that moment the Divine nature of the Eternal Son, who had existed with the Father before creation began, was indissolubly united with that humanity. From the moment that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, the Divine was united with the human; humanity was deified. Human nature, joined with God, in one person.

We might ask, that is all wonderful for Jesus, but how does it save us? Well the good news of our salvation is that what Jesus is by nature we can become by grace. Jesus is the pattern and beginning of the new humanity, the new “Adam”, in which we all come to share by grace as the Holy Spirit renews our nature in the image of Christ. As our old human nature dies, the new human nature of Christ comes alive in us more and more.

That death and rebirth is signified in the sacraments of the Church, in Baptism and the Eucharist. At the font we declare that we have died with Christ and been buried with him, so that we also might rise with him to new and eternal life. The prayer of blessing over the waters of the font speaks of the Holy Spirit hovering over the deep at creation, as we come to the font to share in the new creation in Christ.

And the Eucharist of course is the sacrament of the Body of Christ: or, to paraphrase, the sacrament of the new human nature in Christ. Through the Eucharist we become what we receive: the Body of Christ, the new humanity, joined with the Divine nature. The Eucharistic prayer expresses the understanding of the Church about the nature of this change when it says:

Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit, and according to your holy will, these gifts of bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That is a creation prayer. The Creator Spirit is invoked that something might come to “be”.

The transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the transformation of human communities into the new humanity in Christ, are acts of new creation. And they flow from the one definitive act of new creation, which was the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary.

The great good news of this Advent season, the good news that Mary bore, is that the creator and the redeemer are one. The power which called the universe into existence out of nothing at all, is the same power which is redeeming us in Christ.

Therefore we can be absolutely sure and certain of that good news. Our redemption is sure and unshakeable. In Christ we are being made new. In Christ we are being united with the Divine nature. And no power in all creation can prevent that, for it is the creator himself who is bringing it about.

No power, that is, except our own freedom, for we cannot be saved against our will. So Advent is a time for us to choose, once again, to receive God’s grace, as did Mary. To co-operate with his loving purpose to save us in Christ and unite us to his Divine nature. For this, Jesus was born, and for this we look forward in hope and rejoice.

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