On this Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend, I wish you all a greater commitment to social justice, and both the COURAGE and the PATIENCE needed to accomplish justice. Courage is necessary, of course, to address the difficult and painful issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance and the narrow nationalism that wants to isolate ourselves and exclude others. Patience is needed to resist the temptation to short-circuit the long and painful work of Justice and instead turn to violence in order to speed it up. So we all need both Courage to address issues, and Patience to hang in there and not given to violence.
Recently, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had an interview with the New Archbishop of Newark, NJ, Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Since the interview occurred shortly before Christmas, Kristof asked Cardinal Tobin about Catholic belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. Cardinal Tobin’s answer, as reported in the New York Times, was concise: “The most mind-boggling miracle is the incarnation. We believe that the Creator of the Universe became one of us. If you accept that, then there are a lot of other things that don’t seem to be quite as unbelievable. It is not a magic show. All of the miracles were pointing toward who God is, and who this carpenter from Nazareth really was.” (12/24/17)
Well, that is a good answer. But it is brief. I would like, over the next several weeks, to try to unpack this mystery of the Incarnation (and Virgin Birth) a little. As a mystery it will not be fully explained, but hopefully we can come to better, fuller, more mature, and deeper understanding of this mystery so central to our faith.
But first we need to lay some groundwork. To begin, we need to ask what kind of knowledge we are looking for. After all, the Virgin Birth (VB) is a mystery. A mystery, by definition, is unknown. If we knew it, it wouldn’t be a mystery!
Well, religious mysteries are not like murder mysteries. Murder mysteries need to be solved. Who did the dastardly deed? Once you (or Miss Marple, or Perry Mason, or Hercule Poirot) solves the mystery, reveal the identity of the murder, it is over. It is no longer a mystery. We say it has been “solved.” But the mysteries of faith are not like that. We do not solve them. Rather, they help make sense out of, and give purpose to, our lives. The mystery solves (or heals) us. The mystery helps us make sense out of the puzzle that is our life.
So the “solution” of the religious mystery is not a once-and-for-all answer, but rather a deeper insight into our relationship with God, with other people, or with our self. And that is an ongoing kind of process, or better a dance, that we engage in all of our life, going deeper and deeper, hopefully, into the mystery that more and more explains us.
The great Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, once stated that “The incomprehensibility of God is the blessedness of man.” I liked that saying so much that forty years ago I put that on the holy card of my ordination. What Rahner is saying is that with our infinite openness as human persons, with an infinite capacity to receive truth, beauty and love, the worst thing that could happen to us is that we become filled up, fully satiated. That would be the death of us as persons. But God can never be exhausted, never be totally comprehended, never fully boxed in and wrapped up, totally understood and explained. Instead, for all eternity, we will go deeper and deeper into the mystery of God and there will ALWAYS be more. We will never have God totally figured out, and so will always be excited to learn new things, to be grabbed by new expressions of beauty, to be ever deeper and more fully in love.
So the knowledge we are looking for is not simply an intellectual answer, but rather a deeper appreciation of Truth, the Truth that comprehends us.
Next time: facts and truths.