John the Baptist, Joseph & the Blessed Virgin Pave the Way for Image Perfection
BY Romanus Cessario
December 8-14, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/8/96 at 1:00 PM
In his recent apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Holy Father points out the theological significance of the year 2000: “[T]he 2,000 years which have passed since the Birth of Christ (prescinding from the question of its precise chronology) represents an extraordinarily great Jubilee” (15). Pope John Paul had already designated the time leading to the great jubilee as “a new Advent.” His recent exhortation expresses a new urgency, as he motivates us to prepare actively for the “new evangelization.” Advent of the year 1996-1997 is a particular time of grace for us and for the Church. It is a special season to proclaim again a “baptism of repentance” and to announce the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3, 3). For in order to prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ, we must seek the renewal of life that the incarnation of God eternal introduces into the world. This is the work of image-perfection.
There are three biblical figures who especially help us to achieve this Advent preparation. We have already listened to the first, who is John the Baptist (see Register, Dec. 1-7, p. 5). John helps see how image-perfection works: St. Luke makes it abundantly clear that John's vocation begins at a certain moment in time, in the same way that the Evangelists establish the birth of Christ at a fixed point within our human history. Thus, the reference point for the upcoming great jubilee. John the Baptist announces the great reversal that God initiates in human history. The Baptist heralds change! John's own birth reveals that all things are possible for God, whereas his death at the hands of Herod prefigures the price of our redemption, the slaying of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1, 29).
The second figure who accompanies us during the Advent season is Joseph, the guardian of the mystery of God. Joseph of Nazareth teaches us about virtuous submission. By his obedience of faith, Joseph welcomed the revelation of God. We know from the Scriptures that nothing in Joseph's cultural experience prepared him for the virginal conception of Jesus. Still, he submits to the plan of divine Providence that always moves gently but effectively. So Joseph is given the privilege of naming the boy-Jesus; and thus exercises a true fatherly authority within the Holy Family. St. Joseph represents the man of faith, one who is a faithful steward of the Providence of God. His witness reminds us that, on this earth, Christian life always unfolds within the darkness of faith. Only the eyes of faith enable us to see our God made flesh in the baby that Joseph protected in a manger. With St. Joseph, “the overseer of the Lord's birth” (Origen, Hom XIII in Lucam, 7), we love the infant Christ, and so are drawn to the love of the God that we cannot see.
During Advent the Church dresses her ministers in purple vestments. Purple is a symbol of penance, but the color also suggests sobriety. Yes, abstinence from food and drink, but above all, sobriety of thought. Advent is a time to guard our thoughts.
From the countless distractions that destroy our recollection, we turn to Joseph the silent. From immoderate thoughts of all kinds, we turn to Joseph, the chaste spouse of Mary. From anxious thoughts, whether about the future or about yesterday, we turn to Joseph the industrious. He teaches us to work steadily, and with full reliance on God's gracious Providence. These are important graces of the Advent season: recollection, chaste love, industriousness. As gifts from God, they dispose us to enter into the mystery of our redemption.
Because the Eternal Word took flesh in her womb, the Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of sin from the first moment of her conception. This grace belongs only to Mary; as for us, we have only that assurance of which St. Paul speaks: “that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion” (Phil 1, 8). But this assurance grounds a strong hope. Further, this hope has a name, Mary: “… et Spes nostra,salve.” It is a great consolation for us to know that God eternal, whom we are now preparing to meet, will appear as a little Child, one who must be cared for by a mother. But it is still more of a consolation to know that the immaculate Mother of Christ is also our mother. During Advent, we always celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Church recognizes the psychological need that we all experience for repeated assurance that our sins will not spell grief for us. Through her grace, Mary personally provides this assurance for all those who draw near to her as a spiritual mother.
There is a fourth figure: a hidden saint during Advent, St. Ambrose, who was a very busy pastor, and so, unlike his greatest convert and pupil, he did not have the time to write long treatises. But he does give us two important teachings that complement our discussion of why God became man. The first is on Christ:
“We find everything in Christ. Christ is everything for us. If you want to heal a wound, Christ is the medicine; if you are burnt up with fever, he is refreshment; if you are overwhelmed by iniquity, he is justice; if you are in need of help, he is your strength; if you fear death, he is life; if you yearn for heaven, he is the way; if you flee the darkness, he is the light; if you want nourishment, he is the bread. Taste and see, then, that the Lord is good: happy the person who trusts in him” (De virginit. 96).
The second is on Mary: For he did have time to instruct the Church on the importance of virginity, which placed him in the center of a counter-cultural debate: “May she be for you, 0 virgins, the perfect image of virginity. The life of Mary, where, as in a mirror, shine both the image of chastity and the ideal of virtue. It is there that you should seek your model” (De virgin. II, 6). It is there that we see the fruit of image-restoration and image-perfection in a way that manifests God's most gracious providence.
Father Cessario is a professor of moral theology at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Mass.
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