So Advent begins again: the first great penitential season of the year. In the better monasteries it’s still a season of fasting. I am not sure we do much to avert to its penitential mood any more in the average parish beyond the purple vestments for Mass.
After the excesses of Black Friday and with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come rattling his chains on every shopping street, some kind of fast is appropriate. It might even be self-interested if my desire this Christmas is to understand more fully the truth expressed by St Augustine, that “God was made man that man might be made God.”
How will I grow in the essential faith that my only lasting joy and happiness, my final end, is to participate in the life of the Divinity? What should I do as I wait for Christ to return? I should live as someone whose worth and dignity derives from being “made partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
We need to be careful that we follow through this logic and do not speak of this dignity of human nature in the same self-referenced, closed, humanistic dignity of secular Enlightenment. A human dignity predicated on how man feels about man’s greatness and potential is not the same thing as a Christian dignity in which man’s dignity is predicated on this potential for likeness to Christ through the grace of the Incarnation.
Any limiting belief which says that there is some way of being human which contradicts or supersedes the humanity revealed in Jesus is by definition an offence against man’s innate dignity and therefore cannot be affirmed as a good or merciful thing.
This needs to be borne in mind when reading things like the recent tweet purported to come from the Catholic bishops of England and Wales exhorting us to celebrate the Transgender Day of Remembrance, by affirming the dignity of all those who struggle with transgender issues. No one could take exception to the letter of this sentiment, but it contains a potential ambiguity by association with a campaign which would assert that there is a specific dignity which derives from a transgender identity and the fact of being persecuted for it. This is dignity as a function of thought – which is why thought is increasingly policed in a secular society.
In fact, because of Christ’s Incarnation, it is not possible for a Christian to affirm some dignity of human nature independent of the physical body and how one treats it. This is why there can be no compromise on sexual ethics or the right to life because of some “new” insight into human nature. The way I live in my body is the concrete expression of my dignity in so far as it points to that end of redemption in Christ’s body.
St Augustine explains that it is by taking on a human body in the Incarnation that Christ reveals to men that they are united to him by virtue of their bodies “and should not praise the bodiless author of sin”. That they are without a body is actually “what makes the demons no longer safe to vaunt themselves over man”, he says. In the rite of exorcism, the demon is told to “be afraid of the image of God in man”, as the Sign of the Cross is traced on the body.
We prepare to celebrate again the mystery of God made flesh. In doing so we are asserting the truth about human dignity but also the way it preserves and fosters all true human dignity and flourishing.