Monday of the First Week of Advent, Year C: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 8:5-11.
Today we peek into the cosmic story of Christ. The word “cosmic” is important to Catholicism and is worth unpacking a bit. At its most basic, the cosmos is the physical universe in which we live. Since we believe that the cosmos was created by God and we have an important role in His creation, the cosmos is always intertwined with God’s will for Christians. Note that this is very different than the direction modern scientists called cosmologists take when looking at the universe. They study the component parts of the universe (planets, stars, gases, forces, etc.) and sometimes arrive at grand theories about what it all means. Stephen Hawking is a good example, with published books entitled A Brief History of Time, The Grand Design, and the un-humble The Theory of Everything. No doubt Mr. Hawking is an incredible scientist, but scientists deal in what can be measured and what can be conjectured through logic. Theirs is a world limited by the measurable world and the confines of the human brain; revelation from God plays no part.
As Catholics, we can support, enjoy, and learn from science, but we must always prioritize our faith in God, God’s revelation to humanity through the prophets, and the life and teachings of His Son Jesus Christ over science. Not “maybe there are good points on both sides.” Science and faith do not need to be opposed – there are many writings today showing how complementary they are – but it takes an acceptance of faith and religion to arrive at this perspective. We cannot move forward as Christians if we secretly think that people who believe in the spiritual world or God’s intense plan for humanity are gullible or misguided. I say this because I feel that we underestimate the lengths to which secular science, movies, news, etc. have enculturated us to look askance at religion and its claims. My two children, who have attended Catholic school through high school, get a troubled look of disbelief every time I bring up God’s role in what is happening in our lives. It’s not new to this generation – there have been “cafeteria Catholics” for as long as there have been Catholics, deciding which parts of the Creed or the tenets of faith they choose to believe. But in centuries past, the existence of the spiritual world was not in doubt. Ancient and medieval peoples accepted that there was more to life than just what they could see and measure – they used religion, myth, legend, and more to try to talk about the spiritual side of life. Today, however, we have inherited centuries of accelerating scientism and secularism since the Enlightenment, and the bedrock of belief in the spiritual side of life, much less God, has been eroded to a thin plane, often ignored.
So, back to the cosmos: it’s more than quarks and black holes. In fact, saying that the cosmos is made of quarks and quantum fields is like saying the experience of a luxury hotel boils down to cotton fibers in the towels and scent combinations in the shower gel. In other words, we’ve focused so much on the details of what the physical elements of the cosmos are made of that we’ve forgotten what the forest looks like while gazing at the microscopic organisms in the soil. The Catholic understanding of the cosmos is a much more expansive perspective, one that acknowledges the handiwork of the Creator in his creation. Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary defines “Cosmic Christ” as “The second person of the Trinity, made man, seen as the origin or beginning and end or purpose of creation.” The opening of the Gospel of St. John explores this mystery of the cosmos, that the logos, issued forth by God, in fact part of God, took a human form. We simply cannot understand the cosmos without this mystery: God decided to manifest in measurable, human space in the form of Jesus Christ, forming a connection and bridge between the invisible spiritual kingdom where He reigns outside of time and this palpable existence we have inside of time. Consider our Nicene Creed: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” We don’t know why God chose to enact His plan of salvation in this way, but we praise Him for it! Thus, I return to my opening sentence: today we peek into the cosmic story of Christ. He is our Way to salvation, a part of a grand story God has laid before us, a story of a physical universe wrapped up in the mystical, spiritual reality of God.
Today’s first vision from Isaiah paints the picture of God’s salvation for all humanity, not just Jews. The imagery is worldly: “The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.” The highest mountain is an image we see in many cultures – it represents wisdom (where the gurus live) and the closest we can get to God. What is interesting about God’s revelation to Isaiah is that it’s not just humanity straining to get to heaven here. It’s the “mountain of the Lord’s house,” meaning that God is participating with humans in drawing them to Himself. Our religion has a participatory God. And we are drawn to this loving God: “All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.’” I love this revelation because it must have surprised the Jews in many ways. Their nation was established by God’s favor in overcoming their enemies on the battlefield. There had been an exclusivity to their nation and to God’s favor that set them apart. But here we have Isaiah being shown that all those non-Jewish nations will come streaming to the Jewish people’s God. What’s more, they will want to climb it, learn His wisdom, and act as He commands. This is a picture of all humanity being converted to God!
So the first reading gives us the broad strokes of a cosmic story, where images and metaphors serve to instruct us that God’s plan is grand, it involves all of the cosmos, and it is a type of fulfillment. The gospel reading delves into a specific movement to that mountain by a single Roman centurion – a conversion to God from outside the Jewish fold that fulfills Isaiah’s vision and shows everyone that the cosmic wheels are turning around this man Jesus Christ. My wife and I hold this scene close to our hearts as these are the words we echo right before receiving the Eucharist at Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” The deep humility and faith of these words are striking and provide a fitting mantra for Christians who come into the real presence of their Lord and Savior. But today I am hearing with equal gravity the second part of the centurion’s speech. He professes an unshakable belief in the authority and power of Christ here on earth. “For I too am a man subject to authority,” he says, and he lives in a military world where orders are given and then followed to a T. The difference is that centurions are taught that Caesar is a god and to obey him absolutely, and yet here he replaces the earthly power structure with something greater that has come to earth, someone who has power over life and death. This is a radical conversion, one that has made a new man of the centurion, although that spiritual movement to God’s mountain leaves him free to continue to live his life as a Roman soldier.
I love also Jesus’s reaction: “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed.” Oh, to be the source of amazement for our Lord! And before responding to the centurion He marks the importance of this moment, foretold by Isaiah, by validating the centurion’s words for his followers: “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” The exclusive Jewish faith has become an inclusive faith through Christ. A universal faith that draws people to it through the person of Jesus Christ.
This moment holds great significance for us in Advent. Can we see ourselves as part of the great movement of humanity towards God’s mountain? Can we lose our sense of self importance along the way, immolating it as we reflect on the authority and power of our God to keep His Word? Advent is a celebration of people on the move to God, waiting for Him to consummate their love for Him. Can we keep our eyes on this great cosmic story?