17 August 2013

Giving birth to God?

In certain segments of the Catholic world, Sr. Ilia Delia, O.S.F. is being criticized for, among other things, these words: "This is nothing more and nothing less than the most awesome vocation, and that is to give birth to God."

N.B.: Before I continue, let me say - though it really shouldn't be necessary - that I am in full support of the delicate work of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, Bishop Leonard Blair, and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki as they carry out the task entrusted to them with the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This work is vital to the mission and unity of the Church.

Let me also say that I do not know Sr. Ilia, nor have I read the full texts of anything she has said at the meetings of the L.C.W.R., either this year or in years past.  I have, however, read two of her books, Franciscan Prayer and The Humility of God: A Franciscan Perspective and a couple of her articles published in The Cord, though it has been some years ago.  I have not read any of her more specialized works.

Now, to the question at hand: What does it mean "to give birth to God"?

We know that Jesus never said anything without purpose and that, as Saint Bonaventure is continually reminding us, everything Jesus said and did he said and did to teach us.  So it is that we must carefully consider his words and actions, seeking to take from them whatever lesson he wishes to impart.

A similar incident is recorded by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The Lord is speaking to the people when the Blessed Virgin Mary and his brethren draw near to speak with him (cf. Matthew 12:46; Mark 3:32; and Luke 8:19).

When this related to him, Jesus says to the crowd, "Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Matthew 12:50; cf. Mark 3:34-35 and Luke 8:21).

If Jesus says that some from whom he has not received human flesh - that is, Mary, the Mother of God - are his mothers, we have to take him seriously and seek to discern what it is that he means by the use of this word.  If a woman is a mother because she gives birth to a child and Jesus refers to those who do the will of the Father as his mothers, then speaking of "giving birth to God" should not seem so unusual, properly understood.

I do not know the context in which Sr. Ilia made the above statement, nor does it seem the various bloggers do, either.  What I do know, however, is that Saint Francis of Assisi made a brief and insightful comment on these words of the Savior.

After writing first of those who do penance and follow the Father's will, in The First Version of the Letter to the Faithful, the Poverello continued:
They are children of the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:45) whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 12:50).
 We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined to our Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are brothers to Him when we do the will of the Father who is in heaven (Mt 12:50). [We are] mothers, when we carry Him in our heart and body (cf. I Cor 6:20) through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and [when] we give birth to Him through [His] holy manner of working, which should shine before others as an example (cf. Mt 5:16) (7-10. In Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, Regis Armstrong, et al, ed. [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982], 63, emphasis mine).
In The Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful, he altered his words slightly:
We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are brothers when we do the will of His Father Who is in heaven (cf. Mt 12:50). [We are] mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body (cf. I Cor 6:20) through love with a pure and sincere conscience, we give birth to Him through [His] holy manner of working, which should shine before others as an example (cf. Mt 5:16) (51-53, in Ibid., 70, emphasis mine).
In Saint Francis' view, then, we give birth to Jesus by imitating him. When others see the example of one who loves the Lord Jesus Christ, who leads a life of penance, who follows the Father's will, then the example of their life can give birth to Christ in another person's life so that they, too, can come to know, love, and serve the Lord.

Saint Francis so conformed himself to Christ the Lord that he received the sacred stigmata, the very wounds of the Crucified, in his own body; it was said while he lived that Francis truly became another Christ.  Because he imitated Christ so perfectly, he made Christ known wherever he went, in such a way that could not be doubted.

In this way, he gave birth to Christ in the lives of others and this is, certainly, the highest vocation that we have; whenever we help others to encounter Christ by the witness of our lives, we, too, give birth to him.  This is, of course, not meant literally, but metaphorically; it really is that simple. If Sr. Ilia is foolish and wrong for speaking about giving birth to Christ, then so is Saint Francis of Assisi, who gladly made himself the fool of God.

I hope that this post will not be twisted in an attempt to claim that I support the LCWR in its seeming efforts to resist the work of the Archbishop and Bishop Delegates; it is certainly not that.  What needs to be criticized can be criticized, but charitably.

Mocking a phrase found in the tradition of the Church because one does not personally like it or understand it is not helpful.

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