Monday, December 24, 2007

A Very Human Holy Family

I ran across the picture above in a magazine in my dentist’s office recently, and I was intrigued. The artist, Gari Melchers (1860-1932), lived for many years in a house just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia. My husband and I lived in Fredericksburg for the first year after we were married, and we have visited the house – Belmont – and his studio. I must not have seen this particular painting, because if I had I don’t think I would have been able to forget it.

My tastes generally run more to more formal Medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Nativity of our Lord, but I was very moved by this intimate portrait of Mary and Joseph watching over the newborn infant Jesus, minus the usual entourage of animals, angels, shepherds and Magi, as they contemplate the enormity of what God has done – and the task He has entrusted to them.

There is a lamp at Joseph’s feet, yet the glow cast throughout the room comes not from it but from the cradle holding the newborn infant who is the very Light of the World.

Mary looks spent, as would any woman who has just given birth. She leans her head against her husband’s cloak as she gazes with him at the child of whom the Angel Gabriel said, some nine months earlier,

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)

Of course, there is yet another profound dimension to the story of which I am only just beginning to scratch the surface now that I am a Catholic: Mary’s fiat (her declaration in response to Gabriel’s announcement):

And Mary said, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (vs.38)

A little over a year ago I read a booklet of excerpts from the writings of John Henry Newman entitled, Mary as the New Eve (Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3). It helped me to understand what lies behind the Catholic dogmas, doctrines and practice concerning Mary that protestants, especially evangelicals – including myself at the time – find so problematic. I learned that this idea – that Mary, because of her “yes” became the means of undoing Eve’s “no” – was not a new one. It was the subject of some of the writings of the Church Fathers, including St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 120-165), St. Irenaeus (120-200), Tertullian (160-240), and, later, Jerome (331-420). In other words Mary, like Eve, was a responsible moral agent, complete with the same free will that Eve perverted to her own ends. But Mary not only said yes, she did so with great joy and humility, and so, in the words of St. Irenaeus, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary.” That is, she was not merely the vessel of the Incarnation, she actually cooperated in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

I recommend this synopsis of Newman’s writing on the subject of Mary. His writing is very dense at times, and tackling a whole book like Apologia pro vita sua can be daunting. I find his writing easier to take in small doses like this. It is well worth the effort. If you are already Catholic, it will help you to be, in the words of 1 Peter (3:15), “prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” If you are protestant you may find here – as I did – clarification of some of your assumptions about the Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary.

And let’s not forget Joseph. What a stand-up guy. When faced with the news that his prospective wife is expecting a child, his response reveals a man focused on her best interests: “…Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.” (Matt. 1:19) In other words, although the marriage was null and void according to the law, Joseph wanted to protect Mary from public scandal. Then when an angel explains to the real story to him in a dream, he doesn’t hesitate to follow the angel’s command and take Mary as his wife. He is the one to whom God reveals the name by which the child will be known – Jesus.

This is the first but not the last time that Joseph’s obedience to God’s direction proves crucial. It is Joseph whom God warns in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape Herod’s search-and-destroy mission. Once again, he obeys, and his obedience saves Jesus’ life.

He is never front-and-center in the story of Jesus’ life as recorded in scripture, but his role is crucial. Imagine for a moment what the Nativity story would be without Joseph. Had he not been willing to follow God's instructions in the first instance, Mary might have been exposed to public shame and even the penalty of stoning under the law. Had he not obeyed God and taken his family to Egypt, Jesus might have ended up as one of Herod's victims. Certainly God would have found a way to work out his plan of salvation, but the point is that Joseph's obedience, like Mary's, was crucial to the success of this particular plan.

The Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square in Rome this year is set in Joseph's carpentry shop in Nazareth, rather than the traditional stable in Bethlehem. It has incited some controversy, but one reason that the Holy Father did it this way was to remind us of the critical role of Jesus' earthly father and, by extension, of all earthly fathers, in protecting and guiding their families.

This picture reminds us that Jesus' Incarnation did not take place in a vacuum. He was bortn into a family, to a man and woman who, fortunately for us, were willing to obey God even when they did not fully understand His purposes. It must have seemed overwhelming at times, raising such a child, and the Mary and Joseph pictured here do seem overwhelmed - as are most parents of newborns. Yet they are also peaceful, and they will remain faithful - to each other, to Jesus, and to the task God has assigned them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

St. Nicholas of Myra

My thanks to Taylor Marshall for this recent post about St. Nicholas, which includes a link to an account of his life from the St. Nicholas Center. The artwork alone is worth a visit. His feast day, Dec. 6, has already past, but he certainly remains a prominent figure during these seasons of Advent and Christmas.

One of the great joys of entering the Catholic Church has been the opportunity to learn about her saints. I knew about St. Nicholas even before I considered becoming Catholic, thanks to my sister-in-law, who gave me a booklet on the subject for Christmas one year. Since then I have brought it out every Advent season and placed it in a prominent place in my living room through Christmas.

This is a great story about a man who lived a life of truly heroic virtue. It will inspire both children and adults during this season as we await the coming of Christ.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Children: Presents or Polluters?

I ran across an article recently that appeared on the Adelaide (Australia) Adverstiser website on Dec. 10, concerning a proposal by a supposed "medical expert" to impose a hefty tax on parents for each baby they add to their family after the first two. The proposal was presented as a means of fighting climate change (that is, global warming) through "population control." Anyone who has followed the radical neo-Marxist faction of the environmental movement or the population control movement for any length of time will not be surprised to see further evidence of the link between the two, but it is not every day we see it on such public display, for all the world to see.

The proposal was made in a letter to the editor of the Dec. 10 Medical Journal of Australia by Barry Walters, a physician and associate professor of obstetric medicine at the University of Western Australia and the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth.

Dr. Walters states that every new baby in Australia is "a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society." He suggests that the "environmentally responsible" thing to do, then, is to charge parents for having more children than "experts" like Walters think they should have. He cites a limit of two children per couple suggested by Sustainable Population Australia, an organization described on its website as "dedicated to preserving species' habitats globally and in Australia from the degradation caused by human population growth."

In addition to an initial upfront tax of $5000 AU (approximately $4,390 USD) for each "excess" child born, parents would be assessed an annual tax of up to $800 AD ($700 USD). This would cover the expense of planting enough trees to offset the carbon emissions supposedly created by each human being over his lifetime.

The original article that prompted his comments was published in the Aug. 6, 2007 issue of the Journal and entitled, "Personal Carbon Trading: a Potential 'Stealth Intervention' for Obesity Reduction?" The author is Garry Egger, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of health sciences at Southern Cross University in Lismore, New South Wales and founder of the Gutbusters program, which fights male obesity. Dr. Egger suggests that a potential side effect of so-called "personal carbon offsets" can as a means of "reducing obesity by increasing personal energy use."

Under such a "personal carbon trading" scheme, each person would be allocated a given number of "tradeable energy units" per year. Those who end up with an excess of units could trade them in; those who go over their limit would pay a premium for their profligacy. Egger, whose expertise is obesity and weight control, suggests that, in addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, such a system would also encourage lifestyles that contribute to lowered obesity rates.

The good Dr. Egger sees growth of any sort – in the economy or the population – as the engine driving climate change and therefore an evil to be opposed at all costs. Government policies that discourage consumption of modern conveniences, like the internal combustion engine, for instance, in favor of, say, bicycles, are to be encouraged. Certainly he is correct in a sense. Government policies that make it prohibitively expensive to purchase or maintain an automobile will force citizens to get more exercise. Whether it will actually improve the overall quality of life is doubtful. In any case, few people would choose to live under such a regime. Of course, it is a scheme only a U.N. technocrat could love, and it is impractical in the extreme. Not to mention that it is based on still-unproven theories about global climate change – 1) whether it is unprecedented, and 2) whether it is man-made.

But this is beside the point. The truly insidious aspect of such a proposal is not it's unworkability but rather the notion that we are morally obligated to control the number of consumers, not just the level of consumption. By Walters' and Egger's reasoning, human beings don't just contribute to the problem, we are the problem. Population control, therefore, is seen as an unalloyed good, to be accomplished by whatever means possible.

Egger's article mentions that population control is essential to the success of such a scheme. But in his follow-up letter Walters gives us an undisguised look into the kind of thinking that leads even obstetrics professors to view children not as a gift from God but as a threat to our quality of life. In addition to his baby tax scheme, Walters suggests awarding "carbon credits" to Australians who provide or use such "greenhouse-friendly services" as "contraceptives, intrauterine devices, diaphragms, condoms and sterilisation procedures."

He doesn't mention abortion, of course, but can anyone be in any doubt that it would be ruled out under such a Utopian project? After all, abortion is aimed at the same result - the elimination of "excess" children. Moreover, even if his proposal were limited to the use of contraceptives, oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices are morally problematic precisely because they often work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg. That is, they induce abortion. Not to mention that all forms of artificial contraception are morally problematic (to say the least) for Catholics and for a growing number of pro-life protestants. (But that's a discussion for another day.)

Mr. Walters suggests that doctors have a duty, "as citizens of this world" to advocate for such programs. And he even goes so far as to say that "we deserve no more population concessions than those in India and China." Whew! It isn't often that even the most hardened zero population growth advocate holds up India or China as a standard for family planning programs, given the results of such programs there. India, where the traditional preference for boys has led to the widespread practice of aborting girls. China's one-child-per-family policy and the resulting government-enforced abortions are well known by now. Normal male/female population ratios have become so distorted by such policies that young men in both countries outnumber their female contemporaries to such an extent that they are hard-pressed to find women to marry.

Dr. Eggers, for his part, doesn't back down one inch from Dr. Walters' challenge. In fact, in his reply to Walters' letter he wonders where all of the population control advocates have gone who made such a splash in the 1970s. He suggests they have been drowned out either by politicians and economists who support growth (imagine that) or perhaps "the great religions, intent on outnumbering each other."

As I said before, there is nothing new under the sun here. Religious faith is often held up by self-described "progressives" as a foe of scientific progress, and family planning has long been advocated as a key to the prosperity of developing countries. (In this connection, see Dawn Eden's recent posts ("Ad nauseum" - parts 1 & 2) about marketing materials distributed by Planned Parenthood affiliates across the globe.) Still, it isn't often that we get to see such undisguised mutual cheerleading between Utopian environmentalists and population control advocates.

Perhaps the best comment on the proposal came from Angela Conway of the Australian Family Association: "Self-important professors with silly ideas should have to pay carbon tax for all the hot air they create." Well said.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Anti-Christ Christmas Movie

The December 7 release of “The Golden Compass,” a movie version of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, appears to be stimulating sales of the books. The publisher, Random House, reports a 500 percent increase in sales in the past three months, and The Golden Compass has made the USA Today Top 50 Bestseller list.

This is not good news for Christians, especially for parents who care about their children’s faith formation. Pullman is a clever writer (I hesitate to use the word “good” in connection with him), but his books have hitherto not attracted nearly the popularity of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter books, in part because they are, as the trilogy’s title suggests, dark. His explicit purpose in writing these books was to undermine the Christian faith of children and to promote atheism, and he has said so. “I am of the devil’s party and know it,” he has openly averred.

Defenders of the film point out that the more objectionable themes of the book have been downplayed in the movie version. Nichole Kidman, who plays one of the main characters, has responded to criticism of the film, saying that, as a Catholic, she would never have accepted the role if the film contained an anti-Christian message.

That may be, say Pete Vere and Sandra Miesel, the authors of the forthcoming publication, Pied Piper of Atheism (Ignatius), a critique of the Pullman books, in an interview on Nov. 14 with the Zenit News Agency. However, they warn in the interview, the movie’s popularity will likely increase curiosity about the books. As we see, this occurred already before the movie’s release. Indeed, while meaning no offense to Mrs. Urban, I am more inclined to trust the theological judgement of experienced Catholic thinkers like Mr. Vere and Ms. Miesel.

I have been warning the parents in my acquaintance about the Pullman books for years, and I don’t think I exaggerate the danger. Pullman has been very open about his disdain for the beliefs of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein and about his desire to undermine faith in God and the Church, particularly the Catholic Church. In light of this, it seems to me that the most appropriate course of action for Christian parents and their children is to shun the movie and pray for the salvation of Philip Pullman’s soul.

For an excellent analysis of the anti-Christian nature of Philip Pullman’s fiction, see “Paradise Denied: Philip Pullman & the Uses & Abuses of Enchantment,” by Leonie Caldecott, in the October, 2003 issue of Touchstone magazine.