The Catholic Church throughout the world has many things: buildings of great value and of little; universities and hospitals; money and objects of art. She is the envy of many governments and countries when it comes to her organization, discipline and diplomacy. Despite a justifiably damaged reputation in some matters, she still enjoys considerable moral authority and is the recipient of the loyalty of hundreds of millions of people across the face of the earth.
Yet, for all that and more, the Catholic Church is and has nothing but by the will and providence of Almighty God. Human beings can find elsewhere most of the things the Church enjoys because of the merely human side of her institutions. What they cannot find elsewhere is the fullness of truth and grace revealed and given to her by Jesus Christ. And that fullness of truth and grace comes down to one inescapable origin: the Blessed Trinity, Its Life and Love, Its plan of creation and redemption and the execution of these at the will of the Father by the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, the Catholic Church exists for the sole purpose of placing before all men and women of every era the reality, the primacy and the supremacy of God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus: God as the Origin of all and as the Destiny of all. And for anyone who has truly chosen to believe in Jesus as Jesus wants to be believed, and not as anyone might want to imagine Him, the primacy of God means nothing less than that I live and die for Him. It means that however I employ my mind in matters of this world, I ultimately seek the eternal truth of God and accept or reject any other so-called truths at odds with it. It means that however and whomsoever I love in this world, my heart ultimately seeks the eternal love of God and that I accept, reject or submit to His love all other loves or so-called loves which would deprive me of that. And it means that however I live my life in this body, and whatever choices I make or circumstances I am subjected to, I seek ultimately to live in the flesh only with the eternal life of God and reject any other so-called life-style or life-choices which would cut me off from that.
So it is that no true preacher, however clever or engaging, however erudite or eloquent, however renowned or admired, can have anything else to talk about than God. No believer, if sincere and genuine in their belief, wants to hear from the preacher anything but that which speaks of God. The primacy of God applies both to what the preacher must preach and to what the believer must believe. For without God, our preaching is vacuous and our believing is mere curiosity. Without God, the Church is a self-referential and self-centred multinational. Without God, the world itself and all its self-proclaimed grandeur is a mirage.
That is why I have preached to you during these past three weeks of your relationship with the Father, your relationship with the Son and your relationship with the Holy Spirit. For Advent is about the coming of God, not Santa Claus. It is about directing our lives towards God, not the North Pole or any other totem. It is about cleansing our hearts and consciences from what is offensive to God, not what we don’t want our Christmas dinner guests to see.
And the importance of what I am saying comes to a head in the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin of Nazareth. For in that encounter, the Trinity itself asserts Its primacy before the most innocent and pure of human hearts, the greatest of all believers. Gabriel communicates to Mary the truth about the love and the life of God, about the plan of redemption and about her own person as filled with grace, as the one whom the Lord is with more than any other. By her acceptance of all this, Mary becomes in her person and in her body the place in which the divine and the human once more unite; in Mary, the dawn of reconciliation between human freedom and divine grace approaches; in Mary’s womb, the order of creation and the order of redemption touch once more like the fingers of Adam and of God in Michelangelo’s fresco of the creation; in Mary, the created and the uncreated embrace. Mary is the masterpiece of the Trinity, though not like Michelangelo’s fresco, which was a work separate from the artist, but rather by taking up residence in Her in the way proper to each divine Person: the Father speaks the Son to the mind of the Mother, the Spirit conceives the Son into the womb of the Mother, the Son takes flesh from the Mother.
In other words, it is Mary who teaches us how to relate to the Trinity. She teaches us first that we must seek to keep our hearts clean, otherwise we will not recognize the visitation of God’s messenger to us. We keep our hearts clean by not sinning or by confessing our sins. She teaches us reverence for the messenger of God and for his message. We, too, can be disturbed by what the Father tells us about ourselves in love, as was she; we can be afraid of what He asks of us or unsure how we are to do it, as was she; but as we keep listening with clean hearts, we begin to realize that the Father never asks us to do what we cannot do and sends us the Spirit to make us able to do it, as He did to Mary; as we keep listening, the Father will make clear to us that we can trust and hope in the saving future which awaits us if we obey Him, as he did to Mary; and when we respond positively to His plan, we will find that the Son Himself has become ever more present within us, as He was incarnate in Mary, since the ultimate goal of the Father and the Spirit is to make us bearers of Christ for others.
So, let there indeed be Catholic cathedrals and universities and museums and hospitals and schools. Let there be wise and judicious organization and activity by the Church in the world. Let Catholics flourish as labourers and merchants, politicians and academics, judges and heads of state. But let no-one be under any illusion as to why the Church and her members engage in all these things and how we find the wherewithal to do so: it is by a Marian faith and obedience to the will and work of the Trinity itself within us. Nothing less, nothing more. For anything else, no matter how seemingly attractive, pragmatic, realistic or common sense it may be, is neither worthy of God nor worthy of the believer who truly puts the primacy of God above and before all else.
In the order of nature, human beings are considered to be among the primates. In the order of grace, let us also be primates: God first and God last, and let everything and everyone else stand or fall accordingly.