Archive for incarnation

Easter is about the General Dance

Posted in Easter, Prayer, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

582749main_sunrise_from_iss-4x3_946-710Thomas Merton concluded his beautiful book New Seeds of Contemplation with a chapter titled “The General Dance.” It is a powerful reflection on the reason for the Incarnation, the meaning of humanity in creation, and the time that is inaugurated by the Resurrection — if only we can open our eyes to see it.

To talk about sin in the way St. Bonaventure does is to talk about humanity’s bent-overness, that we can not look up and out, but only down and at ourselves. In a sense, this is what Merton and others mean in terms of when we cannot see, when we cannot look beyond ourselves to see the world as it really is.

Easter is a time to see and a time to join the general dance of creation. To remember not only that which has been fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection, but to recall also what St. Francis said in recalling that in the Incarnation we have the promise that salvation is at hand. For, as Merton writes, “The Lord made the world and made humanity in order the He Himself might descend into the world, that He Himself might become human. When He regarded the world He was about to make He say His wisdom, as a man-child, ‘playing in the world, playing before Him at all times.’ And He reflected, ‘My delights are to be with the children of humanity.'”

God has entered our world as one of us, drawn close to us out of a self-emptying desire and love, assumed all of our reality, and consecrates it completely in the Resurrection, where now creation and divinity exist eternally as one. Merton continues: “For in becoming human, God became not only Jesus Christ but also potentially every man and woman that ever existed. In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'”

Merton ends his book with the following reflection, a reflection that seems to me to speak to the heart of what we are celebrating with acclaims of “Alleluia” today, a celebration beckoning us to join in and dance.

What is serious to men and women is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear HIs call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.

We do not have to go very far to catch the echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are along on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a the wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair.

But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our good, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

Do we hear the divine music playing on the cosmic dance floor of life? Are we willing to look up, to see around us, to recognize the glorification that all of creation has experienced? Can we join the general dance?

 Photo: NASA

O Come Emmanuel: Everyday Incarnation

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 23, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

incarnationO Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

There is only one Incarnation, but there are infinite signs of emmanuel.

I am struck today by the text from Isaiah that is the source for this antiphon: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The name of the coming Lord was foretold, but it wasn’t a proper name so much as a description of what God was about to do and what God has intended from all eternity.

The pregnant young woman, Mary of Nazareth, was a sign that fits the description of Isaiah, but she hasn’t been nor remains the only sign of emmanuel, God-with-us. If we are able to open the eyes of our hearts to see the presence of God around us, we know too can see signs of a divine love so powerful that it could not be contained simply to Godself, but must overflow into creation and in the ultimate expression of love in God’s becoming one with us.

Some years ago I wrote an article titled, “A Newborn and St. Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life as Incarnational Encounters.” In it I talked about how the experience of meeting and holding my godson, the firstborn of my two best friends from college, had been for me an experience of the Incarnation, of emmanuel. I saw reflected in the preciousness of this new life the reality of a mystery beyond words, a mystery that lies deep within each of us in the very contingent existence we experience. We didn’t have to be. Nothing did. Yet, God loved each of us and all of creation into existence.

In addition to experiencing the Incarnation in meeting this newborn child, I also recalled how St. Bonaventure in his treatise The Tree of Life offers a mystical reflection that would later serve as the foundation for and become popularized by Ignatian imaginative prayer and reflection. Bonaventure invites his readers to enter into the Gospel and imagine themselves there at the crib, alongside Christ, at the cross, and to experience what is being experienced in particular moments of God’s history with us as one like us.

Bonaventure’s reflections on the nativity are particularly striking for their vividness and beauty. His is a guided meditation: “Do not now turn away from the brilliance of that star in the east which guides you. Become a companion of the holy kings… adore, confess and praise this humble God lying in a manger.” He then invites us to “embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.” To kiss the newborn baby’s feet like parents admiring the new life they’ve co-created is something that has always stayed with me. It is real and lovely and far-less-abstract than talking about “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas.”

This sort of reflection helps me to think about the everyday experiences –- like new parents with their child or the love between partners or the beauty of creation –- that helps reveal and remind us of emmanuel. Christmas then is not simply a once-a-year time for presence and songs and “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas,” but is the starkest reminder of how Christ is already in Christmas and the day after Christmas and the day after that!

How better could we celebrate what we believe about the Incarnation than shifting our awareness to the presence of God-with-us still? May this Christmas be the beginning of putting “Christ” back in the “everyday!” And may we all bear witness to the infinite signs of presence and coming of Emmanuel.

Photo: Stock

O Root of Jesse: The God Who Comes From Within

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

community-helping-handsO Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

There is a line that is often attributed to St. Augustine and that others, like St. Bonaventure, later appropriated and paraphrased. It reflects the intimacy and immanence of God: “God is closer to you than you are to yourself.” This year, while reflecting on today’s O Antiphon, O Root of Jesse, I thought of this line because of the way in which the coming of God as emmanuel is anticipated here as coming from within. It is not an utterly transcendent God that comes from outside, as if beaming down from outer space, but a God who comes from within the family of the People of Israel, from within the limitations of human form, from within the time and space of our existence in creation.

This is partly what is conveyed in the reference to the messiah’s coming from the lineage of King David’s father, Jesse. Jesus arrives as a member of that family tree (hence the importance of the ‘boring’ genealogies in Matthew and Luke) and it should indeed give us pause about how we view our families and the importance of that connection with our past, present, and future lineage. Like all of humanity, God enters our world as part of a particular line of human persons with their own diverse histories, blessings, and sinful pasts. God knows a thing or two about what it’s like to be part of a family.

Yet, it is not just those who follow in the line of David that can appreciate that Jesus was born in that line, for the broader human family is what we celebrate on Christmas. Because God enters the world as one like us, it was necessary for there to be a particular family line into which Christ would be born, but it is the fact that God becomes human and, therefore, part of the human family that is so much more significant than any particular clan to which the infant Jesus would be associated.

In light of this familial dimension to the Incarnation and the coming of Christ, I wonder how we might understand the last line of the antiphon: “let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Superficially, it almost appears as though we are praying that God doesn’t get stuck in traffic or become distracted by something else or disinterested for some reason. Yet, there is a profound implication that this line bears when we put the whole familial observation in perspective.

Christ continues to come into our world today in many and varied ways, albeit not in quite the same way as that day in Bethlehem. The way that Christ comes into our world to aid us, however, is through the other members of the body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila so brilliantly said:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

God is only ever prevented from coming to the aid of humankind by the inaction or disinterest of other human persons. This antiphon reminds us of our familial bond to God in Christ through the Incarnation, but it should also remind us of our role in salvation history to care for one another as Jesus cared for those he encountered during his earthly lifetime.

When we pray for the Root of Jesse to come, we are praying that the Spirit of God take root in our heart so that we can be instruments of God’s peace in this world, allowing God to indeed come to the aid of our brothers and sisters. But it only happens through us. It only happens from the God who comes from within: within human history and within our hearts.

Photo: Stock

Karl Rahner on the Importance of Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 27, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

In a guest editorial in the German weekly paper, Die Ziet (December 21, 1962), the renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner offered some reflections on the meaning and importance of Christmas. His thoughts were given within the context of an already banal experience of the holiday, during which people take a few days (if that) to mark an obligatory “festive” period, which ultimately seemed to subordinate the Solemnity to something less than the most significant event in salvation history.

It is important to remember that Rahner had a consistent view of the Paschal Mystery that began with the Incarnation and continued through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection — a contiguous, but not discrete, series of salvific moments that together represent the Christian mysteries. It is only viewed in whole that we can call, as the first disciples did in the earliest kerygma, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.

That we continue to celebrate the Christmas season, at least until the Baptism of the Lord, you might find it helpful to consider Rahner’s insights. Rahner begins his reflections by setting up the following scene:

It is not particularly enjoyable to prepare a commentary or to write an editorial about Christmas. The listener or reader may feel the same way. Isn’t it always the same old thing — a little “festive mood,” some pious and altruistic phrases, a few expensive gifts (along with the work of expressing one’s gratitude afterwards)? And then everything continues as before. Those who are Christians are under a particular obligation not to be deluded by the wonder of Christmas. After all, Christians should not be a people who cover up the miserable truth about human existence; most certainly not…

After Christmas — and this should be mentioned during Christmas — everything continues as before. We continue the same as before. We reach heavenly nights by doing so: all the way to the moon and farther still. And finally we reach death….

Should one stubbornly withdraw during these days or should one steel oneself to go along with Christmas because it is the best thing to do and proper behavior means not showing how one really feels? Well, aside from these two options, one could do something else, namely ask oneself what Christmas actually means from a Christian perspective.

I think what Rahner gets at in the beginning of his reflection helps explain the desire so many well-meaning Christians have to diminish Christmas to a less feast of the faith. Sure, they too lament over the “commercialization” and “secularization” of Christmas as it has been ostensibly taken over by a culture not intent to focus on the Incarnation, but instead make a profit.

But, I think it is in part for this very reason that some Christians are happy to believe Christmas is therefore different from or lesser than other Christians celebrations. Why? Christmas has been commercially hijacked, but Holy Week — so far, at least — has not. Therefore, there must be something mundane or pedestrian about the Solemnity of the Incarnation that makes it co-optable over and against “the truly important feasts.”

Yet, this is not the case at all. Rahner makes the point that we can “act dead” with regard to the truly overwhelming nature of what we celebrate at Christmas. People are willing to consider Christmas superficially, even with religious and well-meaning intention. But, what we celebrate on the 25 of December and the days that follow each Church year is so infinitely profound that we oftentimes willingly ignore its profundity.

Yet the mystery still permeates our existence and repeatedly forces us to look at it: in the joy that is no longer aware of its cause; in fear, which dissolves our ability to comprehend our existence; in the love that knows itself as unconditional and everlasting; in the question that frightens us with its unconditional nature and boundless vastness.

Rahner is not disparaging toward those who do not pause to reflect on the absolute significance of this feast, but instead considers their disposition like those he comes to call “anonymous Christians” who unthematically experience the salvation and mystery of God that Christians categorically articulate.

Some may have the courage of an explicit faith in the truth of Christmas, while others accept it only quietly in the unfathomable depth of their own existence, filled by a blessed hope without words. When the former accept the latter as “anonymous” Christians, then all can celebrate Christmas together. The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth. What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.

It is very tempting for believers, like many unbelievers, to go through the motions of the Christmas season, observing one — maybe  two — days of festive celebration and banal gift exchange in place of the solemnity of our salvation that we celebrate in faith.

Yet, Rahner holds tightly to the belief that even those who do not recognize the centrality of the Incarnation, viewing it perhaps as the necessary effect of Holy Week instead of the absolute expression of God’s love for creation, somehow mark its deeper meaning within in inexpressible words and unthinkable profundity.

May we take the remaining days of the Christmas Season to reflect on the significance of what God has done for us and continues to do for us.

Merry Christmas (still)!

Photo: File

Christmas is Not a Holiday…It’s a Game-Changer!

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 25, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

It seems to me that, despite the FoxNews and other cries of a “War against Christmas,” there really is no such thing. Instead, there has been what I think is a much more insidious problem with Christmas that has creeped up over the course of decades and centuries, exacerbated by the increased commercialism and individualism of our (particularly) North American culture. Christmas has become just one more holiday alongside the rest and that to me is the greatest problem. Unlike Independence Day (of whichever country you choose), Memorial Day, St. Patrick’s Day, the Annunciation, Presidents’ Day, and the like, Christmas is not a day for remembering what has only happened in the past. It is not a time for us to pause and, in passing perhaps, reflect on something that took place two thousand years ago and bears little to no impact on us today. On the contrary, Christmas marks the most important moment in Salvation History — the Incarnation, the coming of the Lord, the birth of a child who reveals to us the unseen God, makes visible the invisible and shows us that God’s Reign unfolds in the making of the impossible possible!

Today my reflection begins with what God has done for us in coming to be born as one like us. Do we really pause to consider the significance of that? Francis of Assisi understood this very well. It is the reason why he saw Christmas as the most important feast of the entire Church calendar. He didn’t dismiss the importance and solemnity of Holy Week or other times throughout the year, but realized that if God had not become incarnate, had not entered our world as one like us, then the rest of it would never have happened nor mattered.

What captivated Francis so much was the staggering reality that God is perfectly humble. His reflections on Christmas, the Eucharist and the Cross all focus on this humility of the Creator that would stoop so low to us as to enter our world as a helpless, entirely needy infant; Appear in the simple and most common elements of bread and wine; and suffer and die an innocent death on the Cross for us. At times Francis was remembered to be overwhelmed at the humility and poverty of a God who would do — and continues to do — these things.

That’s what is so amazing about Christmas. Unlike so many other days alongside which this day gets placed, Christmas is a celebration of what God has done and, perhaps more importantly if overlooked, a celebration of what God continues to do for us!

This morning’s readings reveal a glimpse into the overwhelming significance of what God has done for us. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that before the birth of Jesus Christ, God was known in “partial and varied ways.” It was through Creation, Scripture and prayer that the Hebrew people knew the Lord, followed the covenant and came to understand the loving relationship of the Creator in their lives. But, the reading tells us, now we know God in the most perfect, complete way. Just as we can come to know another person only through a real, human relationship with him or her, so too we came to know God through a human relationship.

I like to say that before that first Christmas morning, humanity used to know God like one knows somebody online. You can learn a lot about somebody, even communicate with that person on Facebook, Twitter, through blogs and the like, but you cannot know them, just know about them. This is a contemporary way of looking at the what the Letter to the Hebrews is saying.

But, with God’s entrance into the world as one like us, the game has totally changed. Jesus Christ is the game-changer par excellence! The way that humanity related to God previously had become outdated and finally recognized as imperfect, because, whereas once we were able to know about God, now we can personally know God.

Following the online analogy, what we celebrate today is much more akin to God deciding to finally meet us at a cosmic Starbucks for coffee, or to a favorite restaurant for dinner, or go for a lovely walk in the park with us. No longer did we have to rely on the “varied and partial” ways of coming to know about God, but we forever benefit from the most significant game change in all of human history. It is something that continues to alter our world, move the hearts of saints and sinners alike, shift the relationship between God and humanity forever. This is what we celebrate today.

Happy Solemnity of the Incarnation!
Merry Christmas!

Photo: File

O Come Emmanuel: God Like Us

Posted in O Antiphons with tags , , , , , , on December 23, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

Three years ago I wrote an article titled, “A Newborn and St. Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life as Incarnational Encounters,” which was published in the journal Spiritual Life. This morning, while reflecting on today’s antiphon — O Emmanuel, O God-with-us — I kept returning to many of the same thoughts I had in that essay.

This first part of the article is a reflection on the experience of the Incarnation that we can have in the very ordinary experiences of our lives. For example, I felt the power of God-with-us (Emmanuel) in the meeting of best friends’ newborn son. I believe that there are ways in which we can experience and be inspired by a sort of Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, in our everyday lives.

After explaining the manifold ways Christ comes to us as a newly born presence in our lives, what I call moments of incarnational encounter, I explained that St. Francis has a particular ability to recognize these moments of Christ’s breaking into the world again and again in his own life. Then I shared some reflections on a masterwork of St. Bonaventure, The Tree of Life. St. Bonaventure presents us with the invitation to use our imaginations to enter into prayerful relationship with God (nearly four-hundred-years before Ignatius Loyola was born, one should note).

Bonaventure draws the reader into the place of Mary and to imagine the experience of the annunciation and conception. Speaking directly to the reader, Bonaventure says:

Oh, if you could feel in some way the quality and intensity of that fire sent from heaven, the refreshing coolness that accompanied it, the consolation it imparted; if you could realize the great exaltation of the Virgin mother, the ennobling of the human race, the condescension of the divine majesty; if you could go with your Lady into the mountainous region; if you could see the sweet embrace of the Virgin and the woman who had been sterile and hear the greeting in which the tiny servant recognized his Lord, the herald his Judge and the voice his Word, then I am sure… with the tiny prophet you would exalt, rejoice and adore the marvelous virginal conception!

Bonaventure leaves the realm of narrative description and takes on the task of spiritual guide. As if directing a play or writing a script, the reader is made to play a role in the unfolding of the story and encounter the Incarnate Christ; first as Mary did, next as her cousin Elizabeth did, followed by the infant John the Baptist and finally as ourselves present to the mystery and sharing in the joy of those who were present to the newly conceived infant Jesus.

At the end of this section, Bonaventure closes his reflection on the conception and birth of the Word-Made-Flesh with an invitation to enter into an intimate relationship with the newborn Christ. Like parents in awe of their newborn, gently caring for their child, Bonaventure leads us into the stable to meet the Incarnate Christ. In what remains one of the most moving lines in all of Bonaventure’s writings, displaying a real sense of Christ as a newborn baby, he says,

“Now, then, my soul, embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.”

The tone is strikingly different from most reflections on the Birth of the Lord. Bonaventure guides our meditative prayer toward a very real experience of an intimate connection with the newborn Christ.

As Christmas approaches, what is it that you imagine when you think of God-with-us?

This reflection was originally published on on 23 December 2010 and reprinted for 23 December 2011.

O Key of David: From Death to Life

Posted in O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 20, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

The notion of a release from captivity and freedom for those in need of being set free continues to come through the O Antiphons, as it does throughout the Book of the prophet Isaiah. We reflected the other day, during the O Adonai antiphon, on the need we might have to be set free from ourselves in the limitations and divisions in which we find ourselves, in which, at times, we place ourselves. Today’s antiphon evokes for me a more external question of captivity, the need so many in our world have for release from powers outside their control.

It is interesting that the thing from which the people need release in this antiphon is death. It is both an existential part of who we are as human, limited and finite, but it is also something over which we have no individual or personal power or control. Like the return of the Lord, “we know neither the day nor the hour” that we will leave this world for the next. It can be scary and debilitating, but the Christian tradition offers us a different look at what it means to talk about death and what our relationship to that reality should be.

The holidays are a difficult time for people to think about death (then again, anytime is a difficult time to think about death), but it can also be a time, particularly at Christmas when we celebrate the Key of David‘s entrance into our world and lives to lead us all from captivity to freedom, from death to life.

So often many Christians like to associate the Lord’s freeing humanity from the captivity of death with the Passion and Resurrection. Surely this is understandable and is indeed a central tenet of our faith. However, it is Christmas that brings me most often face-to-face with the reality of our freedom brought by Christ in terms of life and death. I come to this realization by following in the footprints of St. Francis who has shown me by his own life, writings and the early stories by his brothers about him, that Christmas holds pride of place because the Incarnation itself provides the very condition for the possibility of Resurrection. As I reflected here a few months ago (“Francis and the Incarnation: Remember the Importance of Christmas“), the early Franciscan collection of recollections titled The Assisi Compilation portrays Francis’s own focus on the importance of the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas.

For blessed Francis held the Nativity of the Lord in greater reverence than any other of the Lord’s solemnities. For although the Lord may have accomplished our salvation in his other solemnities [i.e., Holy Week and Easter], nevertheless, once He was born to us, as blessed Francis would say, it was certain that we would be saved. On that day he wanted every Christian to rejoice in the Lord and, for love of Him who gave Himself to us, wished everyone to be cheerfully generous not only to the poor but also to the animals and birds (AC 14, emphasis added).

The “Key of David” is Christ the Lord who comes to unlock life eternal and help lead us onward on the path God destined us from all eternity: returning all creation back to God.

Photo: Stock

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