January 5, 2013

Epiphany: The Journey of Theology to Pay Homage

Should one appear to have understood the Sacred Scriptures or any passage from them, yet in this contemplation nothing builds up the double movement of charity to God and neighbor, one has not yet understood.  (St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.36)

In his book to help teachers teach the Gospel of Christ, St. Augustine introduces a powerful rule into the work of Christian theology that needs to be rediscovered: theology must build up the life of the Church; a life characterized above all by love; love of God and love of neighbor.  Pope Benedict speaks of faith as performative, as involving an ongoing life changing encounter with Christ.   It is in the Christmas Mystery of Epiphany that this encounter was first made public, first offered to the world.  Theology as a scientific pursuit of saving truth can build up the life of the Church when it begins and ends with the wonder and worship revealed in Epiphany.

Scientific theology rooted in the wonder and worship of Christ affords theologians greater freedom to love.  We more readily let go of our harsh judgments toward our neighbor and toward God when we humble ourselves before the mystery of love revealed in Christ -- it is by this love and for this love that He is our Savior.  In this sense, mystical theology, that loving knowledge of God's presence in Christ, is more fundamental to the theological task than any of the important skills that sound scholarship requires.  Thus, the real task of those who want to understand what we believe as Christians is to strive to bring to bear that contemplation which welcomes love in the highest realms of human consciousness, even those scientific realms where the reason for our hope can be most fully communicated with one another.

To come to know this love is not the product of sentimental well wishing or the result of a calculated resolution to act differently – although this love is so amazing it constantly produces many good wishes and many more wonderful resolutions as it invades the soul.  This invasion of love we are referring to as contemplation is in the form of a gift rather than an achievement.   It is a love that is first received, welcomed, and surrendered to.   It is the ancient love at the origins of all that is and it is the ever new love to which all that is is ordered.   Those who know this love, not only with the mind, but even more with the heart, participate in the very life of God… this mysterious participation (the ancient Christians called it theosis) is why even their scientific theology always surpasses the theological efforts of those who have spent years in study but failed to make themselves or their students vulnerable to the mystery they strive to grasp.

Theology which seeks love, which allows itself to be vulnerable to love, begins in epiphany, in the manifestation of a mystery which transforms the whole world.  No other religion has anything like Christian theology in this respect.  Theology is the effort of the wise magi who follow the signs, the humble shepherds who heed the voice of heaven, the prophet who submerges the Word in the waters of this world, and the Mother whose compassion at Cana moved her Son to manifest the Father's glory.   They all beheld with wonder the mystery of surpassing love and in wonder allowed their lives to be taken by it.  This remains the task of theology today.

Theologians, like shepherds, kings, prophets, and the Mother of the Redeemer, must welcome the invasion of God into humanity manifest in Christ Jesus who, risen from the dead, is at work in the world today.  In this contemplation, they must not be afraid to allow divine humility to unmask human pride anew and to astonish us again with what could never have been anticipated: reason to hope.  This means that those who seek to understand their faith and strive to pass it on to others must not be afraid to take up their own spiritual pilgrimage to the Christ Child to pay homage with what gifts and poverty they might bring.

To pay homage is not only a physical journey but even more a journey of the mind which implicates the heart.   This effort of human reason is rooted in beholding the mystery of One who is so totally other, so totally unfamiliar to us and at the same time so close to us as to be the inexhaustible source of meaning in both the intimacy of our personal lives and in our relationships with one another as a society.  This meaning into which love leads human thought, this reason for hope when love and life seem hopeless, this divine harmony which takes up all human disharmony in the new exquisite canticle, this mediation is so noble, so beautiful, so captivating - it is worth laying down one's life for.  This is Christian theology - a journey of love that begins and ends in both wonder and worship.