The Feast of the Deus Absconditus

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1645 (Source)

It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.

Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.

God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.

Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,

a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.

Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.

How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.

God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.

Nativity, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).

Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.

But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.

The Presentation in the Temple, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.

There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.

This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.

Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

A Prayer to the Incarnate Word

The infant High Priest (Source)

O Wisdom, be enthroned in my heart,
O Adonai, inflame my heart,
O Root of Jesse, bloom in my heart,
O Key of David, unlock my heart,
O Dayspring, shine in my heart,
O King of Nations, reign in my heart,
O Emmanuel, abide in my heart,
Now and forevermore.

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

Amen.

The Christmas Tree, Icon of Wisdom

An icon of the Tree of Life. (Source)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.

One of the better meditations on the meaning of the Christmas tree. (Source)

Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.

First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.

The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.

Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.

What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?

For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:

The Ven. Seraphina (Source)

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

-Ven. Seraphina di Dio

Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:

St. John of Karpathos (Source)

Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and ex­treme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

-St. John of Karpathos

One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,

St. Paul of the Cross, arguably the greatest Catholic mystic of the 18th century. (Source)

“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”

-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153

When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.

So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?

The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.

We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*

In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.

I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.

These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.

An icon of Holy Wisdom (Source)

It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.

*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.