December 7, 2011 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 31 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God!
St. Mark opens his Gospel, the first of the four to have been composed, with these words. In one sense they are simple. So simple in fact that we, disciples of Christ who live as members of His Body, the Church, can easily hear them and let them pass through our minds with little or no thought. Yet these words are extraordinary! What Mark says is revolutionary, or, to use the words of Pope Benedict, they are an announcement of an evolutionary leap for all humankind.
My friend Cardinal Baum likes to say that the Gospel is the good news and the only good news that is always new and always good. Mark makes an announcement of truth: he is giving us the first written account of the Good News that has changed the world. He is giving us the Good News that the man known as Jesus, born of Mary, who lived in first century Palestine is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God. But even more this historical Jesus whose life ended on this earth with His crucifixion is the same Jesus who was raised from the dead three days later. The reason this truly happened is that the Jesus who is the anointed one is literally God’s own Son. He and He alone can atone for sin and can break the bonds of death. He and He alone has redeemed all humankind and is the Savior of the world. No mere man could have done this. Only God, who sent His Son to be one like us so that He can take His human oneness with us and make it the vehicle for granting us a share in the divine life that is the life of Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
This holy season of Advent allows us to reflect on this great mystery and affirm the great reality of who we are thanks to what God has wrought in creating us and in redeeming us. This season invites us to recognize that we have a value and a dignity that is ours as a gift from God. That gift belongs to us because we are human, the apogee of God’s creative love, created by Him to have friendship with Him, a friendship that reflects the fact that we are created in God’s own image.
Dignity is the word that best describes what has been given to us. It has a noble parentage whose source reflects the ideals of Roman life and culture. But dignity in the Roman tradition and dignity within the context of Christian faith have different sources and different ends. The Roman ideal of dignitas expresses the ideal of a man who lives according to the laws and customs of Rome. Such a person has been taught to conduct his life according to the Roman ideals and virtues that make a truly good citizen of the Republic. A sense of self and the practice of self discipline, a life that is integral and always upright. A man whose public demeanor through the years has shown a consistency in his public life and a devotion to duty that helps to secure the civil society and maintain the ideals of a Roman way of life.
The dignity that is ours from God is a gift. It is ours because we are created in God’s own image. We do not receive it from anyone and certainly not from the state or any civil or political entity. The word that is usually used is that this dignity inheres in us from the fact that we are human beings. Therefore no matter what the conditions into which we are born, wealth or poverty, no matter what national or ethnic background we may have, no matter whether we are physically and mentally proficient or have limitations of one sort or another, we are all radically equal and all deserving of having our dignity respected because we are human beings.
That is why we uphold human rights for every person regardless of the accidents of birth or nationality or circumstance. That is why we oppose the arbitrary actions of those who want to deprive certain persons or groups of the dignity that is theirs because they are human. We can think of the horror of the Shoah which tried to justify the annihilation of Jews simply because they were Jews. We can think of medical experimentations on persons who were considered “inferior” because they had some physical or mental or psychological handicap. The list goes on and on. But the point is always the same and always important: every human being is a creature of God and by that fact is created in God’s image and has inherent dignity which comes to us as a gift from God and must be respected in every human being by every other human being.
But there is another dignity that follows from this and it mirrors in some ways certain aspects of ancient Roman dignitas. For dignity is not just a gift God has given us as creatures in His image and likeness. Dignity is also an achievement! We all build lives making choices and staking out the priorities that give us our own personal identity. We know from our own lives and from the history of humanity that there have been many who achieved much and there are perhaps more who have squandered their gifts and their capacities and thus marred the very dignity that is theirs as human beings. We are capable of virtue or vice, good or bad, right or wrong, truth or falsehood, beauty or ugliness.
Jesus Christ came into the world to make it possible for us to choose the former characteristics of human life and reject all the negative ones that destroy dignity as a given and as an achievement. Pope St. Leo the Great in the fifth century borrowed the Roman ideal of dignitas and applied it directly to the baptized disciples of Christ. His words, “Christian, recognize your dignity,” capture the meaning of our value as created in God’s image and the extraordinary “evolutionary leap” Jesus makes possible for us because He is, as Mark calls him, Jesus Christ, the Son of God!
In this Advent season, we prepare for the coming of Christ by acknowledging the dignity he has given us and by committing ourselves to living out that dignity in our daily lives of work and prayer, of choices that reflect who we are and of conduct that builds communities of life and love in our families, our parishes, our communities, our nation and our world.
May we always rejoice that we have heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and been transformed by Jesus Christ the Son of God. May we make our lives lives of dignity, given because we are images of God; and lives that achieve dignity because we are disciples of Christ whose birth in a Bethlehem stable changed the world and made possible for us to live in dignity, share in dignity and help others achieve their dignity. All of us share the dignity of being sons and daughters of God and we the great gift and dignity of being brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.