'You're Only Human' by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the might from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.” Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Clichés can be useful. Their original meanings, however, are often long forgotten. When we feel a little depressed, we say we have “the blues.” The phrase softly suggests that the depression felt is not clinical, perhaps just a passing condition that good company or a well-placed joke would cure. Never mind that the cliché is said to have grown out of the drug culture when opium users felt “the blues” until their next fix. Some clichés have even more sinister beginnings. “Hocus-pocus,” for example, originated as a Reformation insult to the words of the institution of the blessed Eucharist at Mass: “Hoc est Corpus meum,” “This is my Body.” The real presence was thus dismissed in a phrase rooted in blasphemy to popularize an anti-Catholic attitude: “I don’t believe in that hocus-pocus.”
A far more common cliché, “You’re only human,” may harbor unintended meanings as well. Of course the phrase is usually used in charity, to console someone who feels regret about an error, or even a sin. The phrase is similar to Alexander Pope’s observation, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” Maybe. Catholics however, ought to be attentive to certain distinctions regarding God and man and not allow such clichés to distort our thinking. The first obvious deficiency in the phrase is that it certainly cannot be used in reference to Christ, who, born of Mary, is the Son of God with two natures: human and divine. Clearly He is not “only human.” Yet in Christ, God and man have been reconciled and the human nature of Christ cannot be disparaged.
For a different reason, it also would be unsettling to apply the cliché to Mary. Contrary to certain strains of anti-Catholic misunderstandings, Catholics do not revere Mary as a “goddess” or consider her equal with her divine Son. Mary is honored precisely because she is the mother of God (Theotokos), the mother of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, though, most of us would probably have an aversion to the suggestion that Mary is “only human.” Mary without sin distinguishes Mary from us. Mary made sinless mistakes and had uncertain knowledge (e.g., when the angel Gabriel revealed to her that she would bear a son, she asked, “How can this be since I do not know man?”) What resonates with us is not the reduction of Mary’s humanity, but the exaltation of it. With St. Elizabeth we rejoice in Mary’s humanity: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
The early Church Father St. Irenaeus taught: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” The vision of God brings life to man and gives glory to God. The vision of God is heaven is man’s destiny. On this feast of the Assumption, the Church infallibly asserts that Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. In her humanity, untouched by sin, both original sin and personal sin, Mary is revealed to be “fully alive” and gives glory to God. Mary in her assumption is the crown jewel of our dignity as human beings redeemed in Christ. The poet William Wordsworth was theologically precise in his poem about Mary: “Woman! Above all women glorified, Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” (from “The Virgin”)
Unlike Mary, we carry in our souls, the effects of original sin as well as our personal sins. Our Catholic minds also should be jostled a bit when our own humanity is disparaged with the phrase, “You’re only human.” It may be accurately translated: “What can we expect of you, what with your human nature wounded by sin?” But if the intention is to console in charity, such a theologically precise statement fails miserable. (Maybe the imprecision of clichés is the reason good English teachers take points off for them.)
Wounded by sin our human nature may be, but we who have been baptized into the mystical body of Christ now have a nature redeemed. Our humanity has not only been restored by Christ, but also has been elevated by the Incarnation to a nature greater than that of the angels. The dogma of Mary’s assumption into heaven reveals our own ultimate destiny when purified of all sin: resurrection of the body on the last day. We are not “only human.” Through Mary’s intercession and example, we can discover the dignity of our humanity. We are the sons in the Son and in our humanity give glory to God.
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