Sunday, January 1, 2012


It's much, much funnier coming straight from Mr. Colbert, so be sure to watch the clip.
Happy New Year, everybody!

   The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God   

In the very first hours of this New Year,
it seems only appropriate to invoke the wisdom
of one of America’s most well-respected thinkers: Stephen Colbert.

For those of you who don’t stay up that late,
Mr. Colbert hosts a satirical news program
on the Comedy Central TV network.
In the midst of his many antics,
he makes no secret of the fact that he’s a practicing Roman Catholic.
In fact, given his Catholic faith,
he claims that viewers look up to him as the “Pope of Basic Cable.”

So it should come as no surprise
that Colbert has had some rather humorous commentary
on the new English translation of the Mass.
On his show just about a month ago,
he had this to say about the changes he’d seen in church on Sunday:
Get a load of these so-called improvements.
The new Nicene Creed,
the seventeen-hundred-year-old profession
of what all Catholics must believe,
has been tweaked. 
It no longer describes Jesus
as the—understandable—“one in being with the Father,”
but as, “consubstantial with the Father.” 
Really?  Consubstantial?  What the [heck] does that mean?
We’re trying to get into heaven here, not take the SATs. 
And for the record: Consubstantial is now Istanbul.
If there’s one word that sticks in the craw of American Catholics—
even those who have otherwise been quite accepting
of the changes in the Mass—
it seems to be that one.
I’ve watched many of you make funny faces
during the Profession of Faith,
and not a few of you have asked me the very same question
raised on The Colbert Report: What the heck does that mean?

While the word “consubstantial” is not found in the Bible,
the belief which underlies it most certainly is.
And while it may seem new to us, it’s anything but:
the word has been used by Christians since the year 325
when the original text of the Nicene Creed was adopted.
The big question at the time was,
Who is Jesus, really?  How is he related to the Father?
What does it mean to call Jesus the Son of God?
This may seem like a very theoretical question—
something best left to be hashed out by the experts.
But believers at large began to take sides,
and the debate moved into the streets—
where it went from being just heated to genuinely violent.
With not only of the unity of the Church
but the stability of the empire at stake,
the emperor Constantine stepped in
and called together all the bishops of the realm to settle the matter.
Even after the final decision of the Council of Nicea,
the battles—fought with both words and weapons—
raged on for decades.

You see, some had been teaching that Jesus the Son
was only similar to the Father—
and, therefore, not exactly equal to God.
Just this past Friday, a well-intentioned young man—
taking note of my age, I can only presume—
asked, “So…are you a full-fledged priest?”
As if I could somehow be one by halves!
But neither can Jesus be God by halves.
If Jesus isn’t really and truly and fully divine,
well—there are a number of serious consequences.
Not only would it make this and every Mass
a complete waste of time,
but if Jesus is not God, and only God can save me,
then I am not saved—I remain stuck in my sin:
destined for death, destined for hell.
It’s hard to think of a much bigger deal than that!

So the Fathers of the Church saw the need to be very precise
in speaking about the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Unlike human fathers and sons,
we’re not dealing with two separate beings
who share a common gene pool, or are very much likeminded,
or are even united by strong bonds of love.
The Father and the Son—and the Holy Spirit, too—
share the same substance.
They are more than “similar,” more than “practically alike.”
They have a common essence—
that deepest, truest part of something which makes it what it is.
God the Father is eternal, all-holy, and almighty…and so is the Son.
The Greek word for this idea is homoousios.
(And you thought “consubstantial” was bad!)
The Latin text of the Creed states that Jesus is consubstantiálem Patri.
To profess that Christ is consubstantial with the Father—
that the Son is of the same substance as the Father—
is to say that he, too, is God—
not merely God-like,
and not a second God, but one and the same.
The Father and the Son are not simply “one in being,” but one Being.

As Stephen Colbert went on to point out,
[W]ith these weird new changes [at Mass],
now when I’m sitting in the pew,
I have to stop and actually think about what I’m saying
instead of mindlessly reciting words
while playing [games] on my iPhone.
Belief in one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—
in three persons in one divine Being—
is the central, foundational mystery of the Christian faith.

Continuing in this holy season of Christmas,
today we celebrate the motherhood of Mary.
Saint Paul reminds us that
when the fullness of time had come,
God sent his Son, born of a woman,…
so that we might receive adoption as sons.
And thus we realize that one newly translated word in the Creed
does not only make us more attentive at Mass,
nor just encourage us to get better educated about our Catholic faith.
What we say about Jesus affects what we believe about Jesus,
and what we believe about Jesus
affects what we believe about ourselves.
Note that we do not simply refer to Mary
as the “mother of Jesus”—the mother of a man.
According to ancient tradition,
we call her—and rightly so—the Mother of God.
Likewise, affirming that the child
who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary
is indeed true God from true God
means that we, too, can rightly call God, “Abba, Father!”
What Jesus is by nature, we have become by adoption:
children of God and heirs of his kingdom.
From all eternity, the Only Begotten Son
has been consubstantial with God the Father;
but from the moment he was conceived in Mary’s womb,
that divine Son has also been consubstantial with us.

So…is “consubstantial” a technical term?  You betcha.
A tongue twister?  Without a doubt.
Tricky both to spell and to understand?  Absolutely.
Consubstantial is clearly an unusual word—
one we don’t use for anything else.
But as it attempts to describe Someone
who is not like anyone or anything else,
it provides us with a small (if imperfect) window
into the very nature of God
and the promise of salvation held out to us
in that infant found lying in a manger
who is Son of God and Son of Mary.

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