Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Immaculate Conception and Israel as "Womb" of the Second Coming

Dear friends,

Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Advent, happy Hanukkah and happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!  May the light of Hanukkah enlighten us this Advent as we prepare once again to celebrate the great gift of the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh, of a God so great yet so humble that He dared to leave the glory of heaven to dwell in the womb of the Immaculate Ark of the New Covenant, for the sake of our salvation!

Today I would like to propose a brief reflection on the link between Israel and the Immaculate Conception as "womb" of the Messiah.

A Short Story of the Divine Presence among us

The story of salvation and of mankind is the story of a holy God who breaks through the abyss separating heaven and earth so that He may dwell among His people - not only despite our sinfulness, but also precisely in order to overcome it and to impart His holiness onto us. Every given moment of this story is charged with tension, for it always simultaneously points to the past, present and future - through memory, presence and expectation: the memory of God's great salvific actions of the past, the present actualization of these events in the liturgy of the people of God, and the expectation of a future, ultimate, eschatological fulfillment of God's work of salvation at the end of time.

Already in the First and Second Temple periods, the people of Israel had in mind three "comings" of God - in the past, present and future:
  1. The Jews recalled God's revelation at Sinai as the great moment of the past when He revealed Himself to His people and formed His covenant with them, after the people, the priests, and the mountain had been sanctified and consecrated in preparation for this great encounter (Ex 19).
  2. The covenant and divine Presence were actualized and made present for later generations of Israelites in the liturgy of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and more specifically in the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred vessel kept in the Holy of Holies. In this way, God was just as tangibly present among His people for every generation as He had been on Mount Sinai.
  3. At the same time, the divine Presence in the Ark and in the Temple was a foretaste of the future final redemption that would come in the days of the Messiah, who would be born and would come out of the "womb" - so to speak - of God's consecrated people, Israel.
In this way, Israel's role as consecrated dwelling place of God prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah, universal Savior and Word made flesh, Jesus. 

This three-fold pattern continues in the age of the New Covenant and of the Church. Especially now during Advent, we are often reminded of the three "comings" of the Lord Jesus into human history:
  1. Past: Jesus first came into the world through the one who is the personification and perfection of Israel: Mary, Daughter of Zion, Immaculate Ark of the New Covenant, and Queen Mother of Israel. It is no coincidence that the Mother of Christ is crowned with twelve stars in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev 11:19-12:1), representing the twelve tribes of Israel. And so this first "coming" of Christ through the Immaculate Ark of the New Covenant is a fulfillment of the third "coming" of God that was expected and hoped for in the Old Covenant.
  2. Present: Christ remains present among His people in the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, and most especially through His Holy and Real Presence in the Eucharist.  Behold, the Immanuel - God is with us! - who not only gives Himself to us in a one-flesh union as we partake of His Body and Blood, but also remains perpetually present among us in the Church's Tabernacle - the mini-Ark of the Covenant where the divine Shekhinah continues to dwell with us.
  3. Future: Yet the Eucharist is not only a commemoration of the Paschal Mystery and the sign of the Real Presence of the Lord's Shekhinah remaining among us today.  As we proclaim at every Holy Mass, the Eucharist is also the promise and guarantee of Christ's future glorious Second Coming expected at the end of human history when He will bring God's redemption of mankind to completion and fulfillment.
Now what will be the consecrated "womb" that will welcome the Messiah at His Second Coming? The Church? Certainly - in a sense - but not only the Church. For it is not to the Church but rather to Jerusalem and to the Jewish People that Jesus said: "you will not see me again, until you say, `Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'" (Mat 23:39). His return is expected to occur on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Acts 1:11-12; cf. Zech 14:4). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms the key role of the Jewish people in preparing the Lord's return, telling us that "the glorious Messiah's coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by 'all Israel'" - or in other words, until the "'full inclusion' of the Jews in the Messiah's salvation" (CCC 674).

In other words: the people of Israel, in a certain sense, will be the consecrated "womb" of the Lord's Second Coming.

Never mind the fact that they don't appear to be very holy right now (they were not any holier at the time of the first coming!). God is able - indeed, He has promised - to cleanse them and give them a new heart and Spirit after He gathers them from exile in preparation for their final redemption (cf. Ezek 36:24-28).

Opposition to God's Plan

Now, note that at every intervention of God in history - at every one of his comings, the great enemy of God and mankind unleashed his fury in a vain attempt at stopping God's plan of salvation, by "closing the womb", so to speak,  through which God's Presence was to reach His people.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians tried to annihilate Israel, first through slavery and then by trying to kill them in the desert. But God delivered them and brought them to Sinai where He established His covenant with them.

The Babylonians destroyed the Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant, seat of the Divine Presence, was lost. Israel, the "womb" of the Messiah, was taken captive to Babylon in humiliation - temporarily bringing to a halt their role as mediators of God's salvation. Yet God brought them back home, and out of the heart of Israel He raised up the Immaculate Ark of the New Covenant, Mary, out of whose womb came the Word made flesh who tabernacled among us.

Mary too was persecuted - by Herod - and the Holy Family fled to Egypt, the ancient place of oppression of the Israelites. But God protected them and brought them back to Israel. (The hatred of the ancient serpent towards Mary and her child is vividly and graphically depicted in Rev. 12).

Since then, the ancient serpent has relentlessly pursued his attacks not only on the people whom the woman represents - Israel - but also also on "the rest of the woman's offspring" (Rev 12:17), the Church, whether by means of assaults from the outside, or heresies and dissent from within - even causing large numbers of Christians and believers to lose the Real Presence of the Shekhinah in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, the Lord has still preserved His Church until this day.

Now where do you think the devil will particularly focus his energy in order to try to stop the Lord's final coming?

If Israel is to be the "womb" of the final and ultimate coming of the Divine Presence into the world, we can expect that the enemy of God will do his utmost to "close this womb" in a number of ways - not only by means of political and military threats to the very existence of Israel via hostile groups and nations, but also by delegitimizing and undermining the Jewish presence in the Holy Land - or by propagating hostility between Israel and the Church.

All this ties in with not only the work of Catholics for Israel but also with the vocation and mission of the universal Church and of every Christian.

You may think that you live very far from the Middle-East. But - in case you haven't noticed - more and more the Middle-East is coming to you. You only need to go through security at any airport to be reminded of that fact. Whether you like it or not, what is happening in Israel today is increasingly impacting the whole world. Why? Because Jerusalem is still the place out of which originate the "labor pains" of redemption.

"Catholics for Palestine" and "Catholics for Israel" 

Recently, we at Catholics for Israel got into a heated exchange with a Palestinian priest, Fr. Jamal Khader, about the right Catholic approach to take regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fr. Khader is one of the authors of the now infamous "Kairos Palestine" document, an inflammatory declaration signed by some Christians of the Holy Land that attempts to delegitimize the biblical connection between the Jewish people and Land of Israel, squarely blaming Israel for all the problems in the Middle East and completely whitewashing Palestinian / Islamic terrorism in the process (and in fact coming close to condoning it). The document contains numerous exaggerations and factually incorrect statements, and it is considered to be so political and unbalanced that it was pushed to the sidelines of the October Synod in Rome, with most Church leaders declining to publicly endorse it. We published on our website some time ago a critique of the Kairos Document outlining some (but not all) of its problems and weaknesses.

The result of our recent debate with Fr. Khader was disappointing. Although we tried to be as conciliatory as possible, affirming that our support "for Israel" does not exclude the Palestinian people but rather presupposes our love for them and our support for a peaceful and just solution to the conflict, Fr. Khader refused to address the questions and issues we raised. We encourage you to read the (unedited) debate for yourself. Now that the dust has settled, let us try to draw some lessons from the exchange.
  1. The discussion became the occasion for one of our contributors, Yochanan Ben Daniel, to write an excellent article on the tension existing between "Catholics for Palestine" and "Catholics for Israel", highlighting the foundational differences in outlook and worldview between both sides. 
  2. As Yochanan explained, two issues are to be distinguished when discussing the Middle East conflict:
    1. The issue of God's irrevocable promises to the Jewish people, especially pertaining to the Land of Israel, based on God's covenant faithfulness and largely rooted in a prophetic and theological reading of the Scriptures.
    2. The issue of justice for the Palestinians, largely rooted in a socio-political reading of the Bible.
  3. Obviously, the two issues are not mutually exclusive. The Scriptures and Catholic Tradition simultaneously uphold both the prophetic/eschatological dimension of salvation history affirming the fulfillment of God's covenant promises to Israel, and also the grave imperative to extend social justice and righteousness to all people.  One can - no, rather one should be in favor of both. 
  4. The affirmation of God's promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, therefore, should not be used as a pretext for any oppression and/or injustice directed against the Palestinians. Conversely, the legitimate desire to work in favor of the justice and dignity due to the Palestinian people should not be pushed at the expense of God's covenant promises to Israel. 
  5. We as Catholics for Israel embrace both those aspects. Though we affirm God's eternal covenant with the Jewish people, we are also for the Palestinians, hoping and praying for a just solution to the conflict. We have Palesinian friends, and we have no problem in criticizing Israel's actions when situations legitimately call for it.
  6. "Catholics for Palestine," however, tend to promote the cause of Palestinian nationalism in a spirit of animosity against Israel, not only by frequent attempts at rewriting history (one thinks of the latest, ludicrous attempt of the Palestinian Authority to deny the historical Jewish connection to the Western Wall!), but also by espousing supersessionist and neo-marcionist positions which would pretend that God's ancient promises to the Jewish people are no longer valid, therefore delegitimizing and undermining the biblical and theological connection between the Jews and land of Israel.  The result is that "Catholics for Palestine" in fact often appear to be really "Catholics against Israel."
  7. Moreover, one cannot help but wonder whether "Catholics for Palestine" and activists such as the authors of the "Kairos Document" are really acting in the best interests of the Palestinian Christians. First, we recall Jesus' take on political activism: he was rather lukewarm to the idea of revolt against the Romans, and He made it clear that political independance should not be equated with the furthering of God's kingdom (which is not of this world). Furthermore, do Palestinian Christian activists lobbying for the establishment of a Palestinian State fully grasp the implications of their stated goals? A Palestinian State would mean that they would one day wake up as a Christian minority in yet another Muslim-dominated State in the Middle-East. 
Hmmm. Let's recall the present situation of the Christians in some of the predominantly Muslim countries in the neighborhood:

Gaza: terrorist organization Hamas in power; Christians oppressed;
West Bank: Christians formerly over 10%; now 2% and shrinking;
Lebanon: 84% Christians in 1926; down to 40% in 2009; murderous civil war in the 1970s-80s; increasing Hezbollah domination;
Egypt: discrimination, oppression and persecution of Coptic Christians by Muslim majority;
Saudi Arabia: Christians forbidden to practice their faith openly; Bibles forbidden; conversions to Christianity punishable by death;
Iraq: frequent massacres, decimation and exile of Christian population;
Iran: Christians subject to discrimination and persecution; many have emigrated;
Pakistan: "blasphemy laws" - speaking against Islam or its prophet may be punishable by death.

Israel: freedom of religion, growing Christian population.

Given the grim situation of Christians in Muslim countries of the Middle East, and their comparatively good situation in Israel, one is at a loss to understand why some Palestinian Christians would be so adamantly pushing for the establishment of a Palestinian State with a Muslim majority.  I write "some" because it is well known that many Palestinians - Christians and Muslims - secretly prefer to live under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule.

We at Catholics for Israel do not claim to have the solution to the Middle East conflict. We know that dignity is rightly due to the Palestinians, and we pray for peace and justice for them. But we would strongly caution against any movement that claims to be "for" the Palestinians but happens to express itself chiefly in anti-Israel rhetoric, seeking to delegitimize and undermine the connection of the Jewish people to their land. Ultimately we must ask: does such a movement really help the attainment of peace and justice for the Palestinian Christians, or does it merely facilitate the advance of Islam in the Middle East, while at the same time closing the "womb" of the people of the covenant, in labor and expectation of the Messiah's final coming as announced in the Sacred Scriptures?