December 7, 2003
Was the Word made words or
was the Word made flesh?
There is the old story about people who would prefer to watch an eclipse of the moon on television rather than step outside the house and see what the eclipse really looks like. Pictures and theories about reality are more acceptable than reality itself, because pictures and theories are our creation and reality is Gods. Its no wonder, then, that religions we make up are more comfortable for us than what God has revealed to us about himself.
In Advent we come face to face with what God has done, with the sending of his only-begotten Son, born of the Virgin Mary, to be our Savior. The eternal Word was made flesh. He was truly born, truly suffered under Pontius Pilate, truly died and truly rose from the dead. He left behind no writings, no written words. He left instead a community which lives from his risen life and which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, was able to recognize its Lord in certain inspired writings and to judge that he is not truly portrayed in other writings. The Church, Christs mystical body, is the context for interpreting and judging every text written about Jesus. The Church tells us what is holy Scripture and what is not. How else would we know?
The Church through the ages bumps into a lot of words about Jesus that are untrue at best and demonic nonsense at worst. Floating around during this Advent season is nonsense about Jesus from the left (The DaVinci Code, a novel with historical pretensions) and from the right (the Left Behind series of novels with doctrinal pretensions). Both these collections of words are evidence of what happens when stories about Jesus stem from imaginative re-interpretation of some document, historical or fictitious, rather than from the authentic witness to Christ given by the Church that Christ himself founded to speak the truth about him until he returns in glory. In the faith of the Church, we put on the mind of Christ. Through Christs body, the Church, we are joined truly to him in his risen flesh, received in the Holy Eucharist. Unless someone lives Christs life authentically in the Church, the Lord becomes one more character in a novel, one more cultural token to be exploited for any purpose we choose.
Currently exploiting our gullibility for conspiracy theories is The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. This is now a best-selling novel which, because it is engagingly written, is being treated as plausible. Unlike holy Scripture and the doctrines of the Church, The DaVinci Code has the advantage of explaining Jesus in terms that seem sensible to many by playing on ever-popular biases against the Catholic Church and advancing an esoteric form of feminism. For the price of one book, you get two theories that pander to prejudices today.
What does the novel say? It portrays Jesus as a wealthy teacher with political aspirations who is married to Mary Magdalene; he is a family man around Nazareth, one of the boys but a particularly enlightened one, a university professor before his time. Mary Magdalene is pregnant with his child when Jesus dies, and the secret of this bloodline is the preposterous story line of the book. For this weird idea, the apostles and martyrs gave their lives? Of course not. How, then, did the martyrs and we come to hold that in faith we encounter not an idea but Jesus himself, Son of God, messiah and risen Lord? From the crafty Catholic Church, of course, which, even though the Church celebrates the feast of St. Mary Magdalene yearly, hid the secret knowledge (gnosticism) about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in order to oppress women.
The second century gnostic writings Brown uses to give a façade of scholarship to his fiction were all written years after the four Gospels that the Church eventually came to judge canonical. The historical writings he uses are all spurious. The legend that Mary Magdalene journeyed to southern France with Lazarus after Christs resurrection has long been part of local lore in Marseilles, but this legend has nothing to do with the history of the early Merovingian kings of France, as the novel would have it. It is worth noting that when ABC recently presented an hour long special on The DaVinci Code, with a panel mostly antagonistic to the apostolic faith of the Church, the host had to conclude at the end of the program that there was no proof of any kind for the theories that the book espouses. A novel, of course, doesnt need to rely on proof, unless it makes historical claims.
Prophetic claims are made by the Left Behind novels, which depend on a misinterpretation of Christian eschatology, our belief that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 675). Using the words of canonical Scripture, authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins contort the Advent theme of the Day of the Lord into a theory that the Rapture and the Second Coming are two events separated by a time of tribulations and followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ as king of the whole world. This belief is called premillennial dispensationalism. It was put together in the mid-1800s by an ex-Anglican minister, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882); in this modern form, it was unknown to any Christian believer during the first 1,800 years of Christianity but is professed in some forms of Protestantism today.
The persuasive force of the Left Behind novels comes less from their doctrinal underpinnings about what Christ did and intended than from the fear that one might be left behind at the Rapture, when those who have accepted Christ as Savior will be spirited away by him before the time of tribulations begins in this world. The stories are poignant. Who wants to be left behind? There is a whole federal education program designed to be sure that no child will be left behind! Catholics, who are trapped in what the novels call Babylonian mysticism, are prime candidates for being left behind, unless they manage to disentangle themselves from the Church. Once again, the only good Catholic is an ex-Catholic. Since American culture is relentlessly future-oriented, odd religious ideas about the end time have flourished here for two centuries. Those interested in a careful biblical critique of the Rapture theories can consult Carl E. Olson, Will Catholics Be Left Behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Todays Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius, 2003).
If The DaVinci Code is a work of bizarre religious imaginings about the past and the Left Behind novels are works of sincere but erroneous religious delusions about the future, why be concerned about them in the present? Because they betray in words the one who is truthfully described as the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14: 6), the one we call Our Lord. Christianity is not a parlor game. The faith makes truth claims about who Christ is and what is to be our destiny in him. Both the Left Behind books and Dan Browns novel, though coming from different perspectives, share a common fallacy. They approach the Christian faith as though its contents were to be found in words and documents alone rather than in the witness and the collective memory of the community Christ himself left behind, his Church. We find salvation through self-surrender in faith to Christ present in the Church, not from personal ideas. Once the anchor of the Churchs authentic witness and teaching is abandoned, gnostic and dispensationalist and other false theories inevitably appear.
The feast of Christmas is a powerful antidote to the gnostic fabrications of Dan Brown and the dispensationalist delusions of the Left Behind books. The child born at Bethlehem is the divine Son of the all-holy God. Born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus comes to us truly and fully in a human nature like ours in all things but sin. As the Gospels and St. Paul and the Fathers of the Church have taught, the real flesh of Jesus Christ, not some esoteric secret wisdom, is the means of our salvation. Gnostics were antagonistic to the flesh; and dispensationalists believe that Christians are a heavenly people of God, as opposed to Jews who are only Gods earthly people. Interestingly, much of the antagonism toward the Church today stems from opposition to her teachings about sexuality, marriage and celibacy and the nature of ordained priesthood, all beliefs that take flesh seriously.
The eternal Son of God became one of us so that we might begin to share, through grace, the gift of his divine life. He whose divinity was made present in his human nature has made it possible for us to become more fully human by receiving a share in his risen life. This life will flower, after we have passed through death, into the life of Gods kingdom when Christ returns in glory and raises us in the flesh from the dead. When we kneel in wonder at the Christmas crib at the end of this month, we can know with the certainty of the Churchs faith that, in this new born child, God gives us truth and life for now and for the age to come. In the tiny Jesus, we worship him whom the angels ceaselessly hymn and glorify together with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Christmas trope from the Byzantine liturgy). May you have a blessed and joyful Advent.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago
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