By Bishop William Joensen
I am pleased to join you as bishop and pastor of the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, as a brother in Christ, and a witness to the dignity of every human life. While we would obviously prefer to be together in person sharing a meal and feasting on the musical fare our fine musicians serve us tonight, we are grateful that we can draw together virtually and deepen our unity as Iowans for Life.
We know that it is a scientific fact that when we look to the skies and behold the heavenly lights, we may be seeing stars that have long since been extinguished. But to us, they “live,” exist, even if only in a sort of cosmic memory. In the Scriptures, when the word of the Lord comes to Abram and tells him to “look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can,” it is not an exercise in imagination or futility (see Gen. 15:5). Abram’s faith lifts our sights to the stars, whose light does not primarily reflect what is past, but points to the future: to the furthest generation of descendants who will keep God’s promise alive, and in the process, reveal and fulfill God’s glory. We cannot count all the stars in the sky, for which perhaps some first light has yet to be received. We cannot ultimately eclipse the glory of God, who continues to bring forth children in fact and in faith, and to transform them by Spirit ever more into the image of his Son.
What is God’s glory?
Oh, in every generation there are those who try to conceal or suppress God’s glory by either stealing the spotlight for themselves, or by trying to extinguish the light reflected off of every human face who bears God’s image and likeness. Glory is the burning reality of God’s holy presence, radiating God’s simple, infinite perfection. For human beings, even hiddenness, littleness, the disarming vulnerability of the royal child is the shekinah, the sacred cloud that at first conceals, but then wonderfully reveals the glorious artistry of a God who won’t sit back and watch us like some cosmic babysitter who gets distracted and then decides to let the angels run the show. There are good angels, and there are fallen angels. The latter enlist those who seek to squelch glory in the person of their sisters and brothers, and in the process cut themselves off from all light and hope.
“Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” sing the angels at Bethlehem. Christianity, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us, has always understood that the speech of angels is song, in which all the glory of the great joy they proclaim becomes tangibly present” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 73). How angels sing without vocal cords is among the minor mysteries connected with Christmas. But surely, to be turned toward God, delighting in what God wills with the fullness of one’s being, imaging God as he ordains without hesitation, fear, or duplicity, is a sort of metaphysical music—to God’s ears, and to whomever is joined with us in like chorus or ensemble. The angels can do no less. William Blake suggests, “It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God only” (internet source).
The new ark of a covenant
We humans, except for Mary, the blessed woman who trusts God with all her being, and for those who know keep company with her in heaven, still have a ways to go along the path of holiness, beatitude. Mary is not a marsupial creature like a kangaroo or bandicoot, who carries offspring and nurtures them external to her own body-being. Mary enfleshes Jesus within, and becomes the new ark of a covenant in which God’s glory enfolds her. Later, after his birth, through his death and resurrection, until her own assumption, she will later take every audible note, every gesture, every encounter with her Son, to heart. We, too, must be entirely transformed by the Lord who is Spirit, replenished with grace, from within, until all is completed in Christ, the ruler and king long prophesied, who will then hand over all things to his heavenly Father.
Peace on earth is possible only because God has visited his people in the person of his Son, the royal child. Jesus did not refuse childhood; in embracing infancy he accepted our infirmity, our disability, our ambivalence in tendering kindness and respect to one another. The deterioration of cultures and cities results when the truth of human dignity splendidly revealed by God—inscribed in the most genuine human, Jesus Christ—is not at the center of civic order. Isn’t that what the Summer of 2020 has reminded us all too vividly, as we witnessed the asphyxiation of George Floyd and other acts of lethal force fomented and intensified by racial differences?
As we try to get our bearings and seek out renewed reservoirs of peace, we hearken back to the Hebrew Bible, to 2 Samuel 7, when King David, having come into his own, aimed to build God a dwelling worthy of his Name, when the prophet Nathan received the message meant for David and for us, who feel ourselves afflicted and troubled by pandemic, by social unrest, by natural calamity seemingly connected with our disregard for our neighbor and creation? “The Lord also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. . . I will raise up an heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.” And Isaiah amplifies our expectations in chapter 11 as the prophet speaks of the shoot that shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. This child shall not judge by appearances, or rely on hearsay. “He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. . . . Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.”
The ‘Magna Carta’ of our salvation
Here is the magna carta of our salvation, the encoding of the promise from which issues the Royal Child about whom we sing tonight. God approaches us in our own personal history; God cannot resist intimacy with us in his longing for perfect presence. The Father unveils his mercy in the Royal Child Jesus foretold and made real in Mary, the blessed woman who readily believes, boldly hopes, and ceaselessly sings her hymn that magnifies God’s greatness and favor to her—to us.
Before he became Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio invoked some rather bracing imagery to describe the process of transformation we must still undergo as individual persons and as a people: “We rejoice in letting God’s scalpel fashion us a face, even if it effaces certain grins we were fond of”! (In Him Alone is Our Hope, p. 67). And is his most recent message to the world as pope, Fratelli Tutti/ “Fraternity and Social Friendship,” Francis challenges what he calls a “throwaway culture,” a “throwaway world”:
“Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. Ultimately, ‘persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’—like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’—like the elderly” (FT n. 18).
The ‘hidden exiles’
Further, he mentions “some of those ‘hidden exiles’ who are treated as foreign bodies in society. Many persons with disabilities ‘feel that they exist without belonging and without participating’. . . . Our concern should be not only to care for them but to ensure their ‘active participation in the . . . community. That is a demanding and even tiring process, yet one that will gradually contribute to the formation of consciences capable of acknowledging each individual as a unique and unrepeatable person.” He concludes, “I think, too, of ‘the elderly who, also due to their disability, are sometimes considered a burden’. Yet each of them is able to offer ‘a unique contribution to the common good through their remarkable life stories” (FT n. 98).
I may share the Holy Father’s Catholic Christian faith, but I have referred earlier to the play of nature and grace. Here I would like to emphasize that as humans endowed with senses and reason, intellect and will, we cannot claim we do not have access to the perception of human dignity inhering in every member of the “Royal Family” who shares the same humanity that Jesus adopted. There is an intuition available to everyone who is inclined to the truth, to goodness and beauty radiating from every human person. The renowned French Geneticist Jerȏme Lejeune, who discovered the Trisomy 21 genotype that is causally responsible for Down’s Syndrome, was a man who believed there was no inherent tension between faith and science. On the one hand, he observed, “Faith tells us to respect the image of God; hope helps us to defend it; charity judges all” (Life is a Blessing, p. 111). Yet with biblically poetic flair, he also contends: “Modern genetics can be summed up in an elementary creed as follows: in the beginning is a message, and the message is in life and the message is life. A veritable paraphrase of the first sentence of a very old book that you know well, this creed is still the creed of even the most materialist geneticist” (LB 44).
He further affirms the accessibility to natural human reason regarding the goods and values that should inform our choices involving the generation of life, our way of loving one another as male and female, and our defense of life at every stage of development:
“To dissociate the child from love is, for our species, a methodological error: contraception, which is to make love without making a child; artificial/in vitro fertilization, which is to make a child without making love; abortion, which is unmake the child; and pornography, which is to unmake love: all these to varying degrees, are incompatible with natural law” (LB p. 31).
Faith and reason are natural partners
Faith and science, reason and the heart: these are not strange bedfellows but natural partners, immanent co-principles our creator God has instilled in us. We need not speak abstractly, but relate the compelling account of Sally Read, a nurse and one-time non-believer who writes to her eventual daughter in the context of reflecting on the annunciation of the archangel Gabriel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She speaks in the first person to her daughter as she recalls that early in her pregnancy, she was burdened by anxiety to the point of being unable to swallow food, and so she took the drug prescribed by her doctor that might help. “It would have no negative consequences on any pregnancy, she reassured me, when I told her that we were trying to have a baby.” She did the math, and realized that she ingested the pill in her earliest days after conception. She looked up the drug online, and read that the pill could cause a harelip in children whose mothers took it in the first trimester of pregnancy. She called a friend in dry-mouthed panic, who suggested she have an abortion. “Why don’t you begin again with a clean slate?” Sally Read observes that she was not against abortion then, and would have certainly defined her daughter as a little “cluster of cells” at that point. But in spite of this easy solution, nothing within her could consent to it. She had the insight that no pregnancy was perfect—that nothing was perfect. As she fitfully tossed and turned, a word came to her: “Trust.”
“As an atheist, it was a word I was totally unfamiliar with. . . I felt a certain lightness. I could not bear this alone and had no control. . . It was a fleeting sensation, but it was a foretaste of the trust I would later put in God.”
The calm did not last, and she sought another physician friend who reassured her that one pill was unlikely to do damage, and that many women did things in pregnancy they regretted.” “ ‘Welcome,’ my Jewish doctor friend told me, ‘to the guilt of motherhood. It begins now, and it never ends.’” Hardly good news, but Read found in her words the beginning of her own personal fiat that was an atheistic echo of Mary’s: she acknowledged her powerlessness; she accepted chaos and imperfection with its inherent call to suffering: a letting go and step out into darkness. Yet it was also the moment when she began to fall in love with her nascent daughter, to know her and to lose her heart completely. “You see how important flesh can be?” (Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World, pp. 87-90).
For all human persons, for all Americans, for all Iowans, these are uncertain times, filled with chaos and imperfection, darkness and the call to deeper trust in the transitional process of executive administrations that is far from seamless or secure. The presumptive president-elect portends changes in policies dealing with immigration and DACA, access to affordable health care, international and race relations, and renewable energy. Some of these changes may sit well with many of us. But as Iowans for Life, we are profoundly disturbed with the preliminary indications regarding the defense of human life—particularly that of the unborn. The eroding of conscience protections, the reinstitution of Title X and United Nations Population Fund funding for Planned Parenthood and similar organizations, the retreat from the Mexico City Policy, the overturning of the longstanding Hyde amendment, the restoration of the HHS mandate, and the promise to seek to codify Roe v. Wade in federal law: all raise a spectre and send a shiver down the spine of every apostle of life, every witness to the truth of the dignity of all members of our race.
Such policies strike us as inherently, structurally racist in themselves, as abortion has massively disproportionate effects upon women of color in the U.S., both African American and Hispanic. These policies would substantially reduce births to women of color to a much greater extent than births to European-American women. Who are the enlightened ones? Who are the true champions of diversity? Certain not politicians or their supporters who seek to enact such regressive changes.
God’s enduring promises
Fortitude, political advocacy, prayer-fueled faith in God’s enduring promises made to Abram, to David, to the people of Israel and to us, their descendants, AND great patience are called for; the Spirit of God will supply all these needed qualities in abundance. With holy boldness, we will not be daunted, as tonight we dare to sing of a Royal Child who is both Savior and King. There is a holy compact between the act of listening to music, and the cause of life in our chapter of salvation history. Balthasar observes: “You cannot interrupt music in order to catch and hoard it. Let it flow and flee, otherwise you cannot grasp it. You cannot condense it into one beautiful chord and thus possess it once and for all. Patience is the first virtue of the one who wants to perceive. And the second is renunciation. For look: you cannot grasp the melody’s flight until its last note has sounded. . . Only what has set in the ear can rise in the heart” (Heart of the World, p. 24).
Patience both embraces and endures longing as it awaits the vindication of the Royal Child who shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. We press on until the last note of God’s saving plan is sung. God’s justice AND mercy are magnified in the hearts of women, men, and children whose image the Spirit continues to shape and raise in relief. We wonder. . . and we wait for what God’s enduring love will do next. As we listen tonight we long to hear you yourself declare, God, even by a baby’s cry, “I am here,” in the midst of an otherwise silent night.
[Many thanks to Bishop William Joensen for his keynote address at Iowans for LIFE’s Royal Child virtual Christmas Gala. You can support IFL’s pro-life educational outreach here. Thank-you.]