"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Gospel according to a Bird of Paradise

This post is a follow-up to "Prolegomena to the gospel", and presupposes familiarity with it.

A few months ago, a good friend let my family borrow a copy of the BBC video series Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough. Many of the scenes are stunningly beautiful, and the camera work is quite incredible. We all enjoyed it. We found ourselves laughing out loud during various parts, especially the courtship rituals. Here's a clip showing the courtship displays of some birds of paradise in New Guinea:

(Other clips of courtship rituals by different species of birds of paradise can be seen here and here.)

I laughed too, but I found myself wondering exactly why I was laughing. Humor is like time, in that respect; we all know it when we experience it, but trying to explain it is not easy. Part of my laughter was nervous, slightly embarrassed laughter, because there is way too much there that I, as a male, can identify with in my own antics as a youth. We [men] laughed at George Costanza for the same reason. But even so, that just pushes back the question, why do such displays make us laugh, even at ourselves? Why, for example, do we laugh at Mr. Bean? We laugh, it seems, because of the dissonance between the nature of his actions and the ordinary or expected type of behavior in accord with our intrinsic human dignity. In every scene his behavior unintentionally falls short of the decorum befitting human dignity, and it is this dissonance that we experience as humor. That's why the behavior is more humorous when the dissonance is increased, for example, by making an inebriated man (who is unaware of his inebriation) turn out to be the pilot of a 747. Even very young children are capable of discerning this dissonance, as this example shows. But when the departure from human dignity becomes malicious or harmful or perverse or weighty or evil, the dissonance is no longer humorous, but sorrowful or even repulsive.

I realized that I was laughing at the routines of these male "birds of paradise" because I was experiencing the dissonance between their natural dignity and the self-deprecation inherent in the ostentation of their courtship ritual. But it is precisely this dissonance that gets the female's attention; "Look at what he is willing to do for me", if we can be allowed to anthropomorphize a bit. And yet at the same time, it is odd to find behavioral dissonance among animals, which supposedly simply are what they are. It seemed to be an ontological clue left in the fabric of creation. But a clue of what?

Three other bits of evidence helped me arrive at an answer. A few years ago I was talking with a priest about certain claims in anti-Catholic literature. One of those claims was that early pagan religions typically possessed a female deity of some sort: e.g. Isis, Aphrodite, or Artemis, or some other such goddess. The charge against the Catholic Church was that the Church's veneration of Mary was simply a case of syncretism wherein pagan practices had worked their way into the Church. The tone of the priest's reply reminded me of how Christ's must have been when He chided the two disciples on the road to Emmaus for their foolishness and lack of faith. The priest replied, "Didn't you consider the possibility that these pagan practices were prefigurations of the Christian teaching concerning Mary?" He said something quite similar about the universal pagan practice of offering sacrifices, how it prefigured its culmination in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, in which the Holy Eucharist is a participation. God had been providentially preparing all these peoples for the gospel, he claimed.

This is an example of the Duhem-Quine thesis that an argument can be treated as a support for its conclusion or as a refutation of at least one of its premises, depending on which is more evidently true to the reasoner. The implicit premise that this priest rejected in the anti-Catholic arguments was that whatever was pagan was both evil and untouched by the divine providence that had prepared the world to receive Christ in the "fullness of time". (Gal 4:4) These similarities between pagan beliefs and the Catholic faith, he argued, are not evidence against the Church's fidelity to the gospel, but are rather evidence of the providence of God in preparing the pagans for the gospel.

The second important piece of evidence that helped me arrive at the deeper meaning of the courtship rituals of the birds of paradise is found in the prefiguration of Christ throughout the Old Testament. Long before the incarnation, God was already revealing Christ, even in His statements in Genesis 3 regarding the punishments of Adam and Eve, and His killing of an animal in order to clothe them. From that time on, He was calling a people to Himself, gathering them together into one. Noah was a type of Christ, and the ark a type of Christ's cross. Of course the sacrifice of Isaac was a prefiguration of Christ. Jacob too, who labored for 14 years for Rachel, though they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her, was a type of Christ. (Gen 29:20) Moses was a type of Christ, as was Joshua, and King David. The theme of gathering a people together for God is found throughout the Bible.

"Gather My godly ones to Me, Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice." (Psalm 50:5)

"Save us, O LORD our God, And gather us from among the nations, To give thanks to Your holy name And glory in Your praise." (Psalm 106:47)

"The LORD builds up Jerusalem; He gathers the outcasts of Israel." (Psalm 147:2)

"And He will lift up a standard for the nations And assemble the banished ones of Israel, And will gather the dispersed of Judah From the four corners of the earth." (Isaiah 11:12)

"The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, "Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered." (Isaiah 56:8)

Through the Old Testament God was gathering a people to Himself, through these types of Christ. In each case God made a covenant with them, to make them into a holy people called out from the world to be His very own. He promised to make Abraham's descendants into a great nation. At Sinai He promised to make the Hebrews into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

This theme of gathering a people into a unity continues in the New Testament. Jesus desires to "gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad." (John 11:52)

Jesus says, "and he who does not gather with Me scatters." (Matthew 12:30)

And elsewhere He says, "Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling." (Matthew 23:37)

Notice that Jesus refers to the behavior of a bird as a depiction of His own heart.

The Catechism tells us:

"The gathering together of the People of God began at the moment when sin destroyed the communion of men with God, and that of men among themselves. The gathering together of the Church is, as it were, God's reaction to the chaos provoked by sin. … The remote preparation for this gathering together of the People of God begins when he calls Abraham and promises that he will become the father of a great people. Its immediate preparation begins with Israel's election as the People of God. By this election, Israel is to be the sign of the future gathering of All nations." (CCC 761-762)
After His death and resurrection, Christ commissioned the Apostles to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, and baptize them into His Body, the Church. The Church is the people whom God calls and gathers together into one people, from every part of the earth. Gathering His people from all the earth, making them into one people by baptizing them into His Mystical Body, is the making of His Bride, as I explained here. The whole of the Old Testament is in this way a preparation for the making of a Bride, and it prefigures the gospel. This becomes especially clear to us when we look at it with hindsight.

The third bit of evidence came from meditating on the first part of Pope Benedict's encyclical Deus Caritas Est. There Pope Benedict talks about eros and agape. Eros is that form of love that desires the beloved as a good for oneself. Agape, on the other hand, is that form of love that desires the good for the beloved, even to the point of sacrificing oneself. But these two aspects of love, argues Pope Benedict, cannot be entirely separated. He writes:

"Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to "be there for" the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)." (DCE, 7)

Fundamentally, "love" is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love." (DCE, 8)
What becomes fascinating here is that Pope Benedict goes on to say that in its perfected form, eros is also found in the love of God for us. We tend to think of God's love as being in no way desiderative, but only and entirely benevolent. But Pope Benedict teaches that God's love is both eros and agape.

"God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape." (DCE, 9)

"The philosophical dimension to be noted in this biblical vision, and its importance from the standpoint of the history of religions, lies in the fact that on the one hand we find ourselves before a strictly metaphysical image of God: God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape." (DCE, 10)
Christ, the Logos of God, is a Lover with all the passion of a true love. This is signified in the Song of Songs, which has long been understood by the Church as referring to the love between Christ and His Bride, the Church. This is a love that passionately seeks union with the beloved. Pope Benedict says:

"Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration. But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one. As Saint Paul says: "He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1 Cor 6:17)." (DCE, 10)
When we put all the pieces of evidence together, we see that not just the whole of redemptive history, but the whole of history, is a love story, the most intensely passionate love story ever, for this Lover goes through a preparation, patience, humiliation, suffering, and rejection far greater than mankind has ever known or will know. All other love stories are only a shadow of a shadow compared to this love story. The whole of history prior to the incarnation is a preparation for the entrance of the Lover. Every act of Christ has been the act of a Lover, loving both His Father and His Bride. Pope Leo XIII wrote, "Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of His Son." (Arcanum, 19)

If we read the Gospels and only see Jesus going through a series of events to fulfill prophecy and the requirements of the law, we are not seeing what is going on underneath, in the heart of Christ. Christ is a mad boundless lover, to use Maritain's phrase. From His birth to His passion and death, the whole of His life is like the ritual of those male birds of paradise, going through these amazing dance/displays seeking to woo a bride for eternity. His life on earth was a life-long dance, a courtship ritual made not for birds, but for all mankind. It was the most perfect embodied demonstration of love, ever. And it was all perfectly planned from the beginning, to demonstrate His love for us and draw us to Himself forever. People who love do 'crazy' things for those they love. And the life of Christ, taking on human flesh and giving Himself over to suffer and die on a cross, is the 'craziest', the most unsurpassable demonstration of a lover's love for his beloved, ever, for all time. "I give myself to you, to the point of death at your hand, in order that I might show you how much I want you to be with me forever."

When we meditate on Christ's life in this way, the eros jumps out at us; we see the Lover in Him. We can see this in little things that He said. For example, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me." This statement makes sense to someone who has loved deeply, or been deeply in love. What energizes the lover is blessing the beloved. He will go without food for forty days, if necessary, for the sake of love for His Father and His people. Or consider this example. Jesus said to His Apostles: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. (St. Luke 22:15) When Jesus speaks to us, He is reserving 99% of His heart from us, because if He were to disclose the magnitude of His love for us, it would be like a consuming blazing fire, and we would be frightened to death, even though there would be nothing to fear. But little snatches of blazing love slip out here and there. "Peter, do you love Me?" (St. John 21) and "Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him" (St. Mark 10:21). You can hear it the solitary word He says to the Magdalene: "Mary" (St. John 20:16), and in the tender words He says to the woman caught in adultery. "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." (St. John 8:11) You see it when he weeps with the women at Lazarus' tomb (St. John 11:35), and when He weeps over Jerusalem (St. Luke 19:41). Mostly you can hear it coming from His lips in that moment of greatest agony and yet simultaneously greatest glory, as He is giving up His life for His beloved, on the cross, when He says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (St. Luke 23:34)

The dissonance in the courtship display of the male bird of paradise is a prefiguration, designed into its very nature, of the greatest dissonance ever, when the Second Person of the Trinity humbled Himself and became man to win for Himself an eternal bride. It is the gospel prefigured in a bird of paradise. The dissonance between who Christ is, and what He did, is so prodigious that the proper response is amazement, gratitude, worship, absolute unqualified love and unending joy. The greatest dissonance ever which is the life of Christ is an infinite expansion of that small sort of dissonance that makes us laugh; this is what we call joy. It is God-sized laughter. As Chesterton says at the end of Orthodoxy:

There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
St. John tells us that we love because He first loved us. The more we perceive His love for us, the more we fall in love with Him. And the ones who love Him the most are closest to His throne, like St. Therese; they are truly Christ's lovers. They do not merely love Him; they are madly in love with Him. They are truly intimate with Him, in perfect purity. They are totally smitten; and yet they are the most rational. The 'craziest' are the most rational, because they are seeing most clearly and accurately and fully the blazing furnace of passion which is Love Himself, whose demonstration of His mad boundless love for us is "foolishness to the Greeks". May the Lord give us eyes to see His love for us, that we may become His mad boundless lovers, and in union with that Love, may we be one with each other, as He is one with the Father.


Kim said...

This post made me cry. Thank you, Bryan. Beautiful. Praise His Name!

Principium Unitatis said...

Thank you Kim. I'm glad that it blessed you. (Writing it was emotional for me too.)

In Christ's peace,

- Bryan