Strange Notions (the place to be online for Catholic-Atheist dialogue) is running a super series on how Catholics approach Sacred Scripture. I’ve written on this briefly before, but if you want more detail but not a whole book, Mark Shea is your man. Continue reading
December means one thing for many of us: Christmas. Every year we celebrate the birth of Our Lord, who was very God made flesh in the womb of Mary. This month is also the month of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, another miracle of life! So we’d love to know: how does the Sacred Heart help you treasure life and understand the horror of abortion? Does the Sacred Heart have a special role to play in the Pro-Life movement?
Go to Catholic Cravings for more posts! (Previously this was hosted on a separate blog, but this month it’s moving to CC.)
I apologise, this post is MAMMOTH. For your convenience, I’ll put a summary here at the top, and if your interest is piqued, feel free to continue.
1. By some miracle of nature, a mother and child are bonded very, very closely.
2. Thus, Jesus and Mary share a unique, intimate bond.
3. God’s presence in the Old Testament is dangerous for those who sin (ie, everyone)
4. Jesus’ presence in the New Testament is not dangerous.
5. There is a hierarchy of being, with physical stuff the “lowest” level.
6. Paradoxically, the fact that Jesus took on this “lowest” level of being is the very thing that makes it greater than God’s Old Testament presence, since it is of like nature to us, and therefore not life-threatening to us limited human beings.
7. Jesus’ own nature, however, had to be perfect, ie, sinless, lest he obliterate Himself.
8. The intimate union of Jesus and Mary made it necessary that Mary share in this sinlessness.
9. Hence, the Immaculate Conception!
10. Hence, abortion, as a rejection of motherhood, is a tacit rejection of the true motherhood of Mary.
The bond between a mother and her child is extremely close, both emotionally and physically. Physically, although they are separate organisms, the unborn child is united to his mother through the placenta, through which he receives his oxygen and nutrients, as his blood passes through it, from his mother’s blood. What is interesting though, is that it seems that there is often a cross-over of cells. Women have been found to have male cells in their blood and their brains, with one means of their arriving there being through pregnancy.
What implications does this have for thinking about Our Blessed Mother? Namely, that is it highly likely that at least one of the two situations occurred: that some of Our Lord’s cells persisted in His Mother’s body, or that some of her cells persisted in His. This renders them permanently inseparable.
Ok, now maybe this doesn’t really sound like a big deal. But, consider this:
God’s Presence in the Old Testament:
Time and time again we see in the Old Testament that unworthily entering God’s presence, violating His holiness, or coming into direct contact with His holiness in some way, without being in the appropriate state or given permission, all result in the same concrete consequence, or that consequence is threatened: death.
Some examples to illustrate:
-  And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, `Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death
-  When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any one else comes near, he shall be put to death.
-  Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take heed to yourself; never see my face again; for in the day you see my face you shall die.”
-  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God.
-  And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.
-  but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden,
-  but they shall not go in to look upon the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.
 Now Nadab and Abi’hu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them.
 And fire came forth from the presence of the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
The point? God’s holy presence is life-giving for those who enter it worthily (ie, for those who are clean), and life-endangering for those who enter who are unclean. (I have some more detail on this in an essay I wrote on Leviticus.) Even more, no matter how clean one is, even Moses couldn’t see God face to face without dying. There is something overpoweringly awesome about God’s holiness that is too much for us to bear.
The role of sin in all this:
Sin is the thing that makes a man unclean. There are various other things in the Old Law that we would no longer consider sins but that God ordered for a variety of reasons, and so to disobey His orders in those things rendered them also sins. This was why, in the sacrificial liturgy of the temple, sacrifices of repentance and forgiveness were carried out first, before one could enter God’s presence to eat the holy sacrificial meal with God, so that one would be forgiven of their sin and made clean, and therefore able to safely enter God’s holy presence.
What does this have to do with Mary?
Well, let’s think about this “dangerous” aspect of God for a bit. As we know, God the Son became man, and dwelt among us. Clearly, Jesus walked around among people, and since He spent a lot of time among sinners, and in fact, everyone is a sinner, surely people should have been dropping like flies? And yet instead, we see Jesus touching people, people coming into physical contact with the Lord, and being healed, physically and spiritually. What’s up with that?
Be warned, I’ve never actually heard a clear-cut answer on this, but here’s my theory. Hopefully I avoid heresy. If you find any, please do let me know. 🙂
A Hierarchy of Being:
We tend to think of physical stuff being more really real than the spiritual realm. Many philosophers have actually thought otherwise. Plato, for example, thought that the world of the Forms or Ideas, in which all physical things were participating, was what was really real and true.
Whenever I’ve heard this in the past, I’ve not really understood why they would think this. How on earth could one come to the conclusion that the stuff we can’t see is even more real than the tangible world we live in, can see, touch, taste, smell and hear? But recently I’ve begun to get glimpses of how one might think this. I don’t know if I can really articulate it. I guess it mainly stems from observing the sacraments in actions, and trying to fathom the amazing spiritual riches of grace bestowed on us in them, through what seem to be, by comparison, these seemingly simple, and almost fragile actions, words and substances.
E.g. I recently attended my first ordination, as one of the Franciscan friars at my parish was ordained deacon. There were many beautiful prayers and rituals surrounding the ordination itself, with the actual ordination a simple, silent moment in which the Bishop laid his hands on the friar’s head. Before that moment, he was an ordinary person. After that moment, his soul had taken on a different character, invested with the first level of Holy Orders, able to participate in Christ’s ministry in a special way. Incredible!
I also just finished reading The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone, a truly phenomenal book about the life of Michelangelo. What was interesting was looking at the corruption present in the Church of the time so clearly on display, and the extent of it, and wondering how it was possible that the sanctity of the Church survived at all. Where were the successors of the Apostles? It is truly a miracle that this tenuous Apostolic Succession was maintained through Michelangelo’s time, indeed through the whole of the Church’s 2000 years, to survive to today, still bringing us perfectly valid sacraments.
Or as a final example, think about the Eucharist. The priest says some words, and Calvary comes to our altars. There are no words for how incredible this fact is. And yet all that’s involved are some simple words, and humble bread and wine. WHAT EVEN?!
Thus, I think I understand a little better that spiritual realities are where it’s really at, that they’re so much more intensely real than the physical, which is mere shadows by contrast. I leave you with St Paul:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
(1 Cor. 13:12)
So, to summarise: there is a hierarchy of being, with God as existence itself, followed by the spiritual realm, and finally the physical being the “lowest” form of being.
Back to Jesus. Actually, back to the Old Testament. God’s presence in the temple, of what sort was it? I think I would propose that it was primarily a localised and intense spiritual one, physically manifested in various ways. So physical things happened around His presence, but were not inherently united to it, in the same way as in the Incarnation. Otherwise, the Incarnation would not have been so completely unique and unthinkable, that God could be in physical form. The times God appears in the Old Testament, whether in a cloud, or a gentle breeze, or in thunder, lightning and earthquakes, these I think are meant to announce, herald or indicate His holy presence, but do not in themselves constitute His presence, in the same that encountering the person of Christ is an encounter with God.
Perhaps you have spotted the same problem that I just noticed… if that’s so, then according to the hierarchy of being I just mentioned, wouldn’t that mean that the Old Testament appearances of God were “more real”, or greater, than Jesus’ coming? Hmmm. I think perhaps in some ways this could be true. By this I mean that God became man so that He could save us, and so that we could approach Him safely. Since it is not possible to see God “Face to face” in the Old Testament, but it is possible with Christ, it is paradoxically true that in humbling Himself to take on our poor flesh, which is “lower” than the spiritual manifestation, it is precisely in that humble state that we are able to encounter Him fully. It is God stooping down to our level, making Himself available to us, according the limits of our human nature.
We’re getting there! Well done if you’re still with me.
So, to return to the question posed above: how can people be touching Jesus, or even near Him, and live to tell the tale? The answer, I think, is that He has taken on human flesh, which is what we are also made of, “hiding” or veiling in a certain sense His Divinity, so that we can be near Him safely.
Now, what of His own humanity? Obviously this would have to be pretty special, if a Divine Person is to be united to it. Keep in mind the role of sin I mentioned above. It is one thing for a fallen, sinful person to touch Jesus, but quite another for the very human nature that God the Son will be united to to be sinful. Thus, rightly, the Church has always understood Jesus to be sinless, and, overall, Perfect Man. [Thought experiment: If Jesus had ever sinned, would He have self-destructed?? Hence the impossibility!]
FINALLY, we get back to Mary. Recall my first brief comments on motherhood, the inseparability, the profound unity, of a mother and child. Apply this to Jesus and His Mother. If such a unity is inherent to motherhood, and if Jesus’ own human nature had to be sinless, surely we must thereby conclude that hers also must be sinless? And thus we arrive at the Immaculate Conception, that great feast day we celebrate on Monday.
The Ark of the New Covenant:
I think this makes even more sense if we consider Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. Shameless Popery has a super article on that here. If people could die just from touching the Ark of the Covenant, which was merely the vessel for God’s presence, then how much more should the New Covenant Ark, who is a person, be unable to defile herself by sin?
The Sacred Heart and Abortion:
Since this is the actual topic of this month’s link-up, I should stop digressing and talk about this a bit. Notice how I worked my way from motherhood in general, to understanding the relationship between Christ and His Mother? I think this points to an important truth: it is only by having an authentic understanding of motherhood that we are able to understand the mysteries of Christ and Mary. If we imagine the little Sacred Heart of Our Lord, beating away inside His Mother, being nourished by her, and possibly taking on part of her, as she possibly took on part of Him (possibly even in her own Immaculate Heart (see the article linked at the beginning)), this beautiful thought can only come about if we understand and treasure the gift of motherhood, the gift of all children. Abortion is a symptom of a flawed understanding of motherhood, and while we hold onto that flawed idea, we cannot grasp the importance of Mary.
It’s a tenuous Sacred Heart link, but no matter! Let me know your thoughts, if you made it this far. 😉
And don’t forget to check out other people’s (surely better, and more on-topic) posts on the Sacred Heart!
I’m currently reading Scott Hahn’s Consuming the Word, and I came across a rather wonderfully succinct account of typology. It’s a bit of an elusive concept to pin down well, so good on him. Also I never knew why things were called types, but it makes so much sense! Here ‘tis:
“In the Old Testament Scriptures the entire New Testament was foreshadowed. In the New Testament dispensation, all the Old Testament Scriptures were fulfilled. As Saint Augustine put it: ”The New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.”
The manner of fulfilment follows a discernible pattern. God has a characteristic way of dealing with humanity, and humanity has a fairly predictable way of responding to God. The pattern is, roughly, this: creation, fall and redemption.
- God created Adam and Eve; they sinned; yet God let them live and even promised them a redeemer.
- God spared humanity and let it fill the earth. Yet humanity sinned again. So god punished the entire race, sparing the righteous Noah and his family.
- God called forth a people in Abraham. Yet the allowed themselves to become enslaved in Egypt. He redeemed them through the ministry of Moses.
- God gave His tribes a kingdom. Their kings neglected true worship and social justice, meriting invasion and exile. God anointed foreigners to bring a humbled people back to the land.
For God’s chosen people, the wages of sin had precedents in Eden, in Egypt, in Babylon. The early Christians, like the prophets before them, discerned these patterns in the history of salvation. God’s touches were like a recognizable watermark or trademark. The ancients called these foreshadowings “types”- in Greek, typoi– after the uniform mark left on an emperor’s coin or on a wax seal. On a coin or a seal, a type symbolises a ruler’s authority. In the Scriptures, a type is itself a historical reality, but it is also representative of something greater. Moses prefigured Christ, though Moses was himself a man. The manna prefigured the Eucharist, though the manna itself was a miracle. In the New Testament, fulfilment was far greater than the sum of Old Testament types. Fulfilment was the abiding presence of God Himself: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14). In the Church, the study and prayerful consideration of biblical types is called typology.
Human authors use words to symbolise realities. In salvation history, God uses temporal realities- even kings and kingdoms, laws and wards- to symbolise far greater realities, truths that are spiritual and eternal.”
For more on how Catholics read the Word of God, see the post “On the literal interpretation of Scripture”.