Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Salvation Begins at Home: The Holy Family and the Analogia Entis (Part 1)

When Mr. Carpenter invited me to write an article for his magazine, he felt it necessary to remind me that I should write simply; as though for USA Today--not the New York Times (much less the New Yorker)! I have not forgotten the warning. But in my taste for mischief I did let slip some Latin into the title. Mea culpa!

Speaking of mischief, I wonder how many Catholics have had the all-important discussion of whether the child Jesus ever got himself into trouble. Anyone who can remember being a child, I imagine, knows how easy it is to upset "Mom and Dad" without actually sinning. After all, such was the case in Luke's account of young Jesus losing himself among the crowds in the Temple, only to be found impressing the local clergy with his "understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:47). Perhaps it would be mischievous to ask why the only Scriptural account of Jesus' adolescence shows him involved in, shall we say, holy mischief. Maybe the evangelist felt that, amid all of the testimonies he had collected, prudence and edification demanded that only one should be published.

Yet neither Luke's goal nor my own is to sentimentalize the Holy Family, or to make its important moments into fodder for cheeky humor. Rather, I only point out the delight of the Feast of the Holy Family: it reminds us that our God, and First and the Last, Coeternal with the Father, saw fit to have a "Mom and Dad". So far as our human history is concerned, salvation begins at home--Jesus' home, this household of three, this little seed, out of which sprouts the universal Church and the redemption of the world.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me answer a question: "What is the analogia entis?" In English it is translates as the "analogy of being," which is scarcely more intelligible than the original. But the idea is not hard. In a nutshell, it means that every thing is related to every other thing, and everything together is related to God. Just like you can go to family reunions and guess which relatives belong to the same family tree by their looks, so also we can see how every creature is related as one Family, called Creation, and how this Creation is the child of one Parent, God.

Or consider another image: an object dropped into a still puddle makes ripples that move outward. The shape of the object has an effect on the pattern of the ripples. Perhaps if we knew enough about the ripples, we could guess some things about the shape of the object that made them, even without seeing the object itself. We also see how the ripples are related to each other.

This idea has been around long before Christianity; the Greek philosophers tried to understand God based on what they saw in nature; and the Jews came to understand God through his own revelation in the prophets and patriarchs. That is why Paul can say to the Greeks in Areopagus that God made the nations "that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him" (Acts 17:27); and why the Letter to the Hebrews says, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets," (Hebrews 1:1).

But after the Incarnation--that is, after the first Christmas--everything changed. Now, suddenly, the source of the waves was present for all to see. "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30); for "in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world" (Acts 1:2); says Christ himself, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

This brings us back to the Holy Family. Now, we would expect that a very large object (say, God incarnate) thrown into the ocean of human history would make some very large waves. Enter Jesus, and the ripples begin even before his birth. The annunciation to Mary by an angel, her union with Joseph, the leaping of the infant John the Baptist in Elizabeth's womb are all the beginnings of Christ's promise to "draw all things to myself" (John 12:32). And while Jesus Christ himself is entirely God without any additions or accessories, still, those waves travel and bring to us (who live on the proverbial shore) ever deeper knowledge of himself, the inner life of the Trinity, and the saving work of God. So it is with the Holy Family. Christ is too big, in a sense, to contain himself and leave the world untouched by his presence. Rather, his truth unfolds in all directions like in a shock wave, beginning with the Holy Family, extending to the Twelve Apostles, encompassing the Universal Church, and extending finally to the whole world.

In my next article, I will show more specifically how the Holy Family is a beautiful and persuasive image extending in all directions--how it is a symbol of the Trinity, a the archetype of the Church, and a model for every family (literally, "bringing the message home").

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