After my recent interview with Dr. David Lang on the subject of “Why Matter Matters,” the importance of matter in the divine plan has been in my thoughts. Dr. Lang’s book, and the subject of our interview, is a collection of anti-gnostic considerations on the matter for the sacraments, especially wheat bread, grape wine, and the male and female bodies that are requisite, the first for Orders, and both for Matrimony.
The particular material elements that God chose in giving us the “matter” for the various sacraments have an admirable aptness to them. The natural qualities of each make it suited and proportioned to the effects of sacrament of which it is the matter. For instance, water’s ability to cleanse filth when used for washing and to impart life when used as drink make it particularly appropriate as a sign for what the sacrament of Baptism actually effects, namely, the cleansing of original sin and the imparting of the supernatural life of grace — which itself is frequently compared to water in the Bible. But in Dr. Lang’s book (purchase on IndieBoud.org or alibris.com), we get thirteen pages explaining just how appropriate water is, and the information is marvelous. What the book says of the fittingness of wheat bread, grape wine, and olive oil is more wondrous still — and much more interesting than you might think.
These thoughts dovetailed with another subject that has been on my mind during Advent, namely, the long and detailed divine preparations that went into the temporal birth of our Emmanuel, preparations which effected that sacred Matrix out of which arose the Man-God. That word, matrix, I use in its first sense as given in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” Because we treat here of an eternal Person, we are neither considering the “origin” nor, still less, the “development” of that Person Himself. (The Eternal Word has an “origin” in the Father, but did not “develop.”) We are considering, rather, the “origin” and “development” of the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord.
In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Saint Paul says that it was given to him, “the least of the saints,” to make clear “the mystery which from ages hath been hidden in God the Creator of all” (Eph. 3:9). According to the renowned scholar of Saint Paul’s theology, Père Ferdinand Prat, S.J., this Mystery is the plan to save all men without distinction of race by identifying them all with His well-beloved Son in the unity of the Mystical Body, which is the Catholic Church. To effect this plan — “for us men and for our salvation” — the eternal Wisdom became man.
This “mystery,” this divine plan for the salvation of man, would be called by Aristotelian philosophers the “final cause” of the Incarnation. The final cause of any thing, which is the same as its purpose, is the first in intention and the last in execution. Thus, our Emmanuel comes to effect this mystery in the fullness of time: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). This language in Galatians mirrors a passage in Ephesians that touches upon “the mystery.” Saint Paul tells us that God wills, “In the dispensation of the fulness of times, to re-establish [ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι, “restore,” or better, “recapitulate”] all things in Christ, that are in heaven and on earth, in him” (Eph. 1:10). This reestablishing or recapitulation is called in Greek, the anakephalaiosis, and it is the basis of the beautiful soteriology of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (see here for a breif explanation of his thinking).
But if the Incarnation was “the last in execution,” what were the first and intermediate things in the execution of God’s plan? To answer that fully would require a summary of all of salvation history from Adam and Eve to the moment before Gabriel greets Mary with that utterly singular salutation, Chaire, kecharitōmenē (Ave, gratia plena, Hail full of grace). During that long history of four or five thousand years, we see the divine preparations being made in a series of covenants God establishes with man, in each of which He taught, governed, and sanctified His people through His chosen patriarchs, prophets, judges, kings, priests, laws, and ordinances. The Old Testament was never meant to stand alone, for it cannot. All the while, it was pointing towards Christ, towards that Mystery hidden in God from all eternity. The Old Law is, therefore a preparation for the New. The Old Testament, moreover, provides us with the context of Our Lord’s coming. If that context has no importance, then let’s all become Marcionites and throw out the Hebrew Scriptures altogether; they are, after all, so terribly violent!
Some have seen in the first two chapters of Saint Luke’s Gospel as many as “over seventy” references to the Old Testament (including types and allusions, as well as direct citations). One scholar cites thirty direct references from the Old Testament in Luke’s twenty-four chapters. That same scholar (a Protestant) finds some twenty-three Old-Testament allusions in Our Lady’s Magnificat alone! It is no wonder that Saint Luke’s symbol as an evangelist is the ox, which symbology Saint Jerome attributes to Luke’s beginning his Gospel with the story of Zecharias the priest (oxen being among the sacrificial animals used in the Temple).
The two genealogies that the Gospels narrate, one from Saint Matthew and the other from Saint Luke, trace Our Lord’s ancestry, the first from Abraham and the second from Adam. Saint Matthew was a Jew writing primarily for Jews, and he therefore portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. Saint Luke was a gentile writing primarily for gentiles, and he wants to show Christ as related to all men through Noe and Adam. As we trace both genealogies, we find the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Juda, and David. If we know enough of the Old Testament history, we will know that to each was promised that the Messias would come from his loins.
We find in Our Lord’s genealogy both saints and scoundrels. Abraham was just. King David fell, but did penance and died well. What of Solomon? He apparently ended his days a pagan. Saint Luke goes out of his way to name two women in Our Lord’s genealogy. One of them, Ruth (the great-grandmother of King David), was not a Jew but a Moabitess, which means that she was descended from that incestuous union of Lot with one of his daughters. The Moabites and Ammonites (the latter nation descended from a similar union with Lot’s other daughter) eventually became enemies of the Israelites, and were, by name, never to be allowed into the Temple.
Why do I mention this gross thing? To emphasize the fact that both saints and scoundrels were in Jesus’ ancestry. But all of them, the good, the bad, and the mediocre, seem to have some importance in salvation history. Much importance is given the more prominent ancestors.
Noe prophesies, concerning his sons, “Blessed be the Lord God of Sem… May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Sem” (Gen. 9:26-27). The Hebrews came from Sem, and the European races from Japheth. That prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus being a Semite and His Mystical Body spreading to Europe, whose Japhethites (like many now reading this!) yet dwell in Sem’s tents, that is, in the Church.
Abraham was promised that “In thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Great promises were made to Him and to his seed, the exact nature of which Saint Paul would later inerrantly explain: “To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed. He saith not, And to his seeds, as of many: but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. … And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:16, 29). Isaac, not Ismael, was the son of promise given Abraham in his old age, and Jacob, not Esau, was the son of promise given to Isaac.
Some may object that Saint John the Baptist himself derogated from the importance of being biologically related to Abraham when he chastised that “brood of vipers” in the desert thus: “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:8). But this does nothing to detract from the Abrahamic lineage. The Baptist wanted his listeners to “do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39) — to quote Our Lord’s address to another crowd of vipers — and thus show themselves to be Abraham’s true sons. God incorporated the gentiles (“stones”) into Jesus Christ’s Mystical Body by Faith and baptism, so that they might both have the Faith of Abraham (John 8:56), and do his works (John 8:35).
The person, blood, and title of King David is of such importance to God that His angelic emissary, Saint Gabriel, informs Our Lady concerning her Son that, “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever” (Luke 1:32). Jesus is called “Son of David” many times in the Gospels by those who believe in Him, and even His enemies acknowledge that the Messias is David’s son (Matt. 22:42).
But what of the very earliest prophecy of the Savior, that one made just after the Original Sin? We call it the Protoevangelium, “the first good news,” and it comes to us from the hand of Moses: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel” (Gen. 3:15). Leaving off whether the passage should be translated he, she, or it “shall crush” (for which arguments, see here), there is the nagging question of “her seed.” Women do not have “seed”; their gametic contribution is an “egg.” And why, in the very patriarchal book of Genesis, is all this emphasis put on the female line? Why not say that Adam’s offspring will conquer the serpent? Jesus, having no biological father, is the only man in history who could ever be called “her seed” because Our Lord is the seed of the Woman of Genesis, who is at the same time the Second Eve. Indeed, “the Lord has created a new thing upon the earth: A woman shall compass a man” (Jer. 31:22; see here for commentary).
Let us pay careful attention to the etymology of the word “matrix”: “The many figurative and technical senses are from the notion of ‘that which encloses or gives origin to’ something. The word comes from the Latin, māter, mother.” What’s more, the earlier meaning of matrix — its literal but now archaic meaning — is “womb,” which brings to mind that womb spoken of by the Angel Gabriel: “Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:35); and that womb spoken of by Elizabeth, who cried out with a loud voice, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42).
Two things ought to come to mind, among others, while considering these references to Mary’s womb: First, Saint Elizabeth, prophesying under divine inspiration (as the Bible makes quite explicit), spoke in one and the same sentence of the blessedness of Jesus and the blessedness of Mary. This does not, of course, give equal dignity to the Man-God and the Mother of God, but it does join them in the divine plan, and gives the Mother a lofty dignity befitting so high a calling. Second, if we take what that same evangelist records from Our Lord’s utterances and apply it to Mary bearing Jesus as the “fruit of [her] womb,” we might begin to appreciate the worth of this Woman: “For every tree is known by its fruit” (Luke 6:44).
Like matrix, the word matter is also derived from the word for mother. Mary, so blessed by God that she was uniquely hailed as kecharitōmenē (filled with divine grace, as nobody else in Holy Scripture is called!), provided the matter for the Logos to become enfleshed.
Mary is the Matter who matters above all mere creatures. She is the Matrix out of which arose the Man-God. She is the fullness of time. She is the immediate preparation for the Emmanuel. Only one whose mind is poisoned by heretical and vile notions of “forensic justification” (à la Luther) can call himself a Christian and at the same time not see in this peerless Virgin a vessel election, of holiness and of grace worthy to be honored as the Catholic Church honors Her.
Hail, Kecharitomene, unreaped land of heavenly grain.
Hail, Kecharitomene, virgin mother, true and unfailing vine.
Hail, Kecharitomene, faultless one carrying the immutable divinity.
Hail, Kecharitomene, spacious room for the uncontainable nature.
Hail, Kecharitomene, new bride of a widowed world and incorrupt offspring.
Hail, Kecharitomene, weaving as creature a crown not made by hands.
Hail, Kecharitomene, habitation of holy fire.
Hail, Kecharitomene, return of the fugitive world.
Hail, Kecharitomene, lavish nourisher for the hungry creation.
Hail, Kecharitomene, interminable grace of the holy virgin.
Hail, Kecharitomene, lampstand adorned with all virtue and with inextinguishable light brighter than even the sun.
Hail, Kecharitomene, challenger of spirits.
Hail, Kecharitomene, wise bearer of spiritual glory.
Hail, Kecharitomene, golden urn, containing heavenly manna.
Hail, Kecharitomene, dispensing sweet drink ever flowing to fill those who are thirsty.
Hail, Kecharitomene, spiritual sea who holds Christ, the heavenly pearl.
Hail, Kecharitomene, splendor of heaven, having the one uncontained by the heavens in herself, God confined and unconfined.
Hail, Kecharitomene, pillar of cloud containing God, and guiding Israel in the wilderness.