The Revealing

We are celebrating these days the Christian feast of the Epiphany. I heard someone, I think it was George Hooke on Ireland’s Newstalk radio show, describe it yesterday as about ‘three fellas on camels following a star’. Crude, but broadly accurate. The Gospel indeed tells a story about three wise men who followed a star and came to the place where Jesus, as a tiny infant, slept in a cave. Who knows where this myth/story was originally crafted? Who knows who originally told the story around a campfire or at a table? Who knows what unknown scribe first copied it out on papyrus? Who knows what tiny echo of a primitive Gospel tradition lies behind it? So many known unknowns!

What is important, though, is the message that we, some two thousand years hence, can discern in this story. This message is available to us because, as Christians, we live within a tradition that allows us to glimpse the intention of the original storytellers.

The Epiphany message opens up for us the cosmic dimensions of the story of Jesus, what we frequently call, the Incarnation. God has become manifest as intentionally present within the history of the world, of the cosmos, of the Universe (even the multiverse). This is not a ‘fact’ of history. It is what emerges in the mystery of the world’s coming to be. But although a mystery, the story is underlining for us that it is a ‘knowable’. Why? Because there are people who witness to it, not as a brute fact of history, but as mystery that which makes history possible in the first place. First the shepherds, then the wise men of the East, and now the two thousand year old history of Christian belief.

But this this mystery is finding it increasingly difficult to speak its name. The closed world of contemporary secularism will have nothing to do with it. Why? Because it is clearly preposterous. This argument is not new. St. Paul encountered it in the Agora of ancient Greece when he preached a sermon in Athens. The hellenised elites of his day mostly refused to hear him. Witnessing to the mystery was, as we say in contemporary parlance, a ‘tough ask’.

T. S. Eliot in his beautiful poem about the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi, offers a reflection on this contemporary reality. He was writing as a committed Anglican Christian in the full daylight of contemporary secular liberalism. In the poem he speaks of the ‘folly’ of following the Star of Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, in his monumental classic, The Star of Redemption (1921), invites us to penetrate the intense life-affirming truth that is offered by the Jewish and Christian understanding of the divine mystery. Rosenzweig essentially challenges us to see creation, revelation and redemption as the ultimate categories for thinking about the cosmos.

So, the feast of the Epiphany with its outwardly simple story, is, in fact, a profound statement about ultimate reality. Reality. as we encounter it in our histories and experience, is open to rational scientific investigation, but it is also universally open to the mystical vision of stargazers, shepherds, wise men, street crazies, poets, artists, philosophers, believers and saints. It remains closed to ideologies based on the human will-to-power.

The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.

Thinking about Marriage

The heady days preceding Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum seem very distant. Now the focus, from a Catholic perspective, is the Synod on the Family, currently taking place in Rome.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, referred to Ireland’s experience of the same-sex marriage debate in his three-minute intervention at the Synod which is reported in part in the Irish media and elsewhere. His main point concerns the issue of language. The success of the same-sex marriage campaign, he suggests, was because its advocates framed their case in language that was once that of the Church, the language of love, mercy, compassion and inclusion. By contrast, those who took up a contrary position came across as heartless and lacking empathy.

Another dimension highlighted by him and other Synod contributors focused on the contemporary experience of individualism. We no longer think conceptually in terms of moral principles. We think mainly in terms of the individual case, of the hard ones. We are moved by individual testimony rather than by abstract philosophical arguments. The strengthening case for euthanasia in Western countries derives its strength in great measure from the power of the individual stories of men and women confronting the reality of catastrophic illness. By contrast, abstract arguments based on moral and philosophical positions appear weak and lacking in humanity.

Complexity is a shared feature of most contemporary moral issues, whether it be issues to do with human sexuality, family life, end of life challenges, responding to the migrant crisis or, as in the case of the Synod, the family. It is interesting that the Synod participants, for the most part, are not only aware of this dimension of complexity but openly acknowledge it. How do you square the contemporary realities of diverse families with the moral perspectives of the Gospel, let alone those of the Church. Resolving this issue lies at the heart of the Synod’s dilemmas and debates. Traditionalists fear moral relativism. Synod progressives fear pastoral irrelevance.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s newsletter, The Pilot, in its current issue contains an article by writer Kathy Finley in which she reviews three books on marriage from an American perspective. One of them, Marriage Markets, despite the fact that it is from a non-faith perspective, she commends. In her article she suggests that in considering contemporary marriage and family we ignore the dimension of its complexity at our peril.

The authors of the book, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, argue that contemporary family life is impacted significantly by the social reality of inequality. In the 1950s through to the 1970s when jobs for men were plentiful and salaries adequate a stable family was supported strongly by social and economic realities. With the increase in our times of social inequality due to the loss of traditional jobs in manufacture, the decline in the earning power of the middle-classes, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich, marriage and family life are both under severe threat. Marriage breakdown has increased. Family life is experiencing greater stress.

The writers observe:

At the bottom, men and women have lost ground in society. Their interests are largely unrepresented in the political system, and they enjoy less support than they once did from community and extended families.

The ultimate losers are the children involved in marriages that can’t make it because of economic challenges. This is clearly a dimension of the complexity shaping contemporary family life. And not just in the United States, but right throughout the Western world.

Kathy Finley, the reviewer, concludes:

One of the effects of a book like Marriage Markets is to challenge us to think differently about what is right before us, so that we remember to bring a sociological and economic lens to issues that have a faith and moral dimension to them and which aren’t all that simple, after all.

There is another, more in-depth from an economic analytical perspective, review in the Wall Street Journal. It can be found here.