Friday, December 25, 2020

Divine Adoption Sunday

The Nativity, fresco in the lower church of St Francis in Assisi by Giotto, 1310s
Note: The following article appeared in the Christmas 2016 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 52-56. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

During the Last Gospel in the traditional Latin Mass, the Church recalls several of the great mysteries of our Faith. Two of these especially concern our salvation: that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1, 14), and that this Incarnate Word, the Son of God, conferred upon mankind the “power to become the sons of God” (ibid. 12). The Christmas season obviously celebrates the first of these mysteries, but what may be less apparent is that it also celebrates the second. For in addition to the Incarnation, Christmastide does not fail, through one of its Sundays, to exult in that divine adoption thanks to which, as one Collect so eloquently puts it, “we are called—and are—God’s sons.” [1]

Doctor of Divine Adoption
To understand the significance of the doctrine of divine adoption, one can hardly do better than turn to the works of the Irish-born Blessed Columba Marmion (1858-1923). An abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium and a Thomist theologian, Marmion has been endorsed by almost all of the Popes since Benedict XV (d. 1922). It is also speculated that if Marmion is canonized a saint (and let us hope that he will), he will be declared “Doctor of Divine Adoption.” 
For one of the keystones of Marmion’s clear and accessible spirituality is the New Testament teaching that we who have been baptized in Christ have been made adopted sons of God. [2]  Marmion explores this dogma of our Faith in his Christ the Life of the Soul, the opening chapter which is entitled “The Divine Plan of Our Adoptive Predestination in Jesus Christ.” [3]  Out of sheer generosity and love, God the Father has willed for all eternity to extend to us His Paternity, to recognize us as His sons so that we can be filled with holiness and share in His eternal happiness. Marmion stresses that although it is in accordance with our nature to call God our Creator, it is not natural for a creature to call his Creator “Father.” That privilege is the result of sheer grace, a purely supernatural act. “By nature God has only one Son,” Marmion observes; “by love He wills to have an innumerable multitude” (emphasis added). [4]
Blessed Columba Marmion, OSB, ca. 1918
God accomplishes His will in this matter through supernatural adoption. On the natural level, adoption entails admitting a stranger into the family, giving him the family name, and entitling him to the family inheritance. All that is really required is that the adopted person be of the same species as the adopting family. For supernatural adoption to occur, God therefore willed that His Son fully assume our human nature through the Incarnation: “It is through the Incarnate Word that God will restore all things.” [5]  Marmion goes so far as to define as the “central point of the Divine Plan” (emphasis added) the fact that “it is from Jesus Christ, it is through Jesus Christ that we receive the Divine adoption.” [6]
Simply put, God’s taking on our nature enables us to participate in His divinity and thus be recognized as His adopted sons. And the more we resemble Christ Jesus, the “first-born of many brethren” (Rom. 8, 29), the more the Eternal Father will recognize us as His own. “Is not the whole substance of sanctity to be pleasing to God?” Marmion asks. And God will be pleased with us if He “recognizes in us the feature of His Son” that come to us through conformity to Him in faith, hope, and love. [7] Divine adoption is thus also a key part of God’s ultimate response to sin, for in making us resemble His Son, divine adoption overcomes our previous status bequeathed to us from the Fall as enemies of God or “children of wrath” (Eph. 2, 3). [8]
In his book on the liturgical year, Christ in His Mysteries, Marmion finds the Octave of Christmas an especially auspicious time to contemplate the mystery of our supernatural adoption (even though he does not use this exact phrase in this section). Marmion dwells on a Vespers antiphon from the evening of January 1: “O wondrous exchange: The Creator of mankind, taking an ensouled body, deigns to be born of a Virgin: and becoming man without human seed, hath bestowed on us His divinity.” As Marmion explains, the first action of this exchange is the Eternal Word asking us (in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary) for a share in our human nature, and the second action is bringing us, in return, a share in His divine nature, making us His adopted brethren. [9]  Our lives as Christians can be summed up as joyfully fulfilling our duties as supernaturally recognized sons of God and brothers of the God-man until we are called home to our eternal inheritance.
Side Note: You may have noticed the “exclusivist” language of son and brother rather than that of the more generic children or siblings. [10]  There is a reason why the Scriptures employ this language, and it is not because the Holy Bible is a “product of its age” written by benighted male chauvinists—although the reason is deeply ingrained in human culture. As we see most clearly in a traditional society like that in biblical times, only sonship captures the link between being a child and being a legitimate heir to a father. A daughter may be the apple of her father’s eye, but when she weds she becomes heir to another man’s fortune. [11]
Of course, the biblical use of this cultural phenomenon to explain our salvation does not mean that Christian women do not receive divine adoption. On the contrary, as Saint Peter points out, wives may be naturally subject to their husbands in the economy of the household, but supernaturally they are coheirs of Christ’s grace (1 Pet. 3, 7). Put differently, female believers have been written into the New Covenant with the full rights and privileges of legitimate sons and on an equal footing with their male counterparts. Just as Christian men are called to see their souls as brides of Christ the Divine Bridegroom (a common theme in the writings of the Church Fathers and medieval doctors), so too are Christian women called to see their destinies as that of male heirs. Christianity abounds in spiritual mysteries that push both sexes outside their comfort zones! 
Divine Adoption in the Liturgical Year 
How does the Church celebrate the mystery of supernatural adoption during her annual sanctification of time? Understandably, the doctrine is much on her mind on the premier day that she reserves for baptism, that sacrament of initiation whereby sinful creatures are transformed into members of the divine family. During the Easter Vigil liturgy, divine adoption is invoked in four separate prayers, including the blessing of the baptismal font. And on the day before, divine adoption is mentioned in the Good Friday Collect for Catechumens. 
Then, as Paschaltide comes to a close with Pentecost and its octave, the Church again remembers the privilege of being divinely adopted. During the Preface to the Holy Spirit, she recalls the outpouring of the Holy Ghost onto the “sons of adoption” as Jesus had promised, a recollection that also sets the stage for the doctrine’s reemergence in the coming weeks. The Epistle for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost is Romans 8, 18-23, which includes the verse: “[we] who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost the Epistle reading is Romans 8, 12-17, with its culminating passage:
For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father). For the Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God; and if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ.
The Epistle from the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost is also recapitulated in the Sanctoral Cycle for the feast of Saints Marcellinus, Peter, and Erasmus on June 2 and for the feast of St. Andrew Avellino on November 10. Further, the July 20 Collect for Saint Jerome Emiliani, a patron saint of orphans, includes the line about the spirit of adoption quoted in the introduction to this essay. And the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on August 6 has a beautiful Collect in which the Father’s voice from the cloud on Mount Tabor is interpreted as a foreshadowing of “the perfect adoption of sons”; the Collect then pleads for our status as “coheirs with Him who is the King of glory.”
Finally, two feasts that were not on the General Calendar but were celebrated in some locales and by certain religious orders also include a liturgical proclamation of the doctrine of divine adoption: the feast of the Most Holy Redeemer on October 23, with its Epistle, Ephesians 1, 3-9, and the feast of St Leonard of Port Maurice on November 26, with its Epistle, Ephesians 1, 3-14. The first chapter of Ephesians opens with Saint Paul praising the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto Himself: according to the purpose of His will: Unto the praise of the glory of His grace, in which He hath graced us in His beloved son (1, 5-9).
Divine Adoption and Christmas
But the first time in the Church year that the Eucharistic liturgy announces our status as adopted sons of God is the Sunday after Christmas. It is on that Sunday and that Sunday alone that we hear in the Mass the following passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
Brethren, as long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all: but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father: So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world. But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, that He might redeem them who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying: “Abba,” Father. Therefore now he is not a servant, but a son: and if a son, an heir also through God (4, 1-7).
This brief passage contains nearly all of the essential elements of the doctrine of divine adoption: the tragedy of creaturely servility to the world and the Father’s early response; the Incarnation of the Son as the Father’s ultimate response; redemption, divine adoption, and inheritance as the result of this response.
José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, El bautismo de Jesús, 1895
The Epistle, in other words, discloses not only the meaning of Christmas (the Incarnation) but its purpose (our supernatural adoption). Commenting on this passage, Dom Guéranger offers the colorful image of the Holy Infant turning heavenward and saying “My Father!” and then turning to us and saying “My brethren!” Guéranger continues:
This is the mystery of adoption, revealed to us by the great event we are solemnizing. All things are changed, both in heaven and on earth: God has not only one Son, He has many sons; henceforth we stand before this our God, not merely creatures drawn out of nothing by His power but children that He fondly loves. [12]
At the same time (as one might expect for a Mass within the Octave of Christmas), the remaining propers continue our devotion to the Infant Jesus. The Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Preface celebrate different aspects of the Nativity while the Communion Verse makes a passing reference to the Flight from Egypt. These propers balance the Epistle’s emphasis on divine adoption without detracting from it.
Similarly, the Gospel reading for this Sunday is Luke 2, 33-44, which recounts part of the story of the Presentation in the Temple. Significantly, the Presentation is never mentioned; instead the reading is framed by the wonder that Mary and Joseph experience at the things that are said of Jesus (2, 33) and by the grace of God that was in Jesus (2, 44). The result is a focus on the marvelous identity of the God-Man rather than the specific mystery of the Presentation, which is implicitly celebrated instead on the feast of the Purification (February 2). The Gospel does, however, mention how a “sword” shall pierce the heart of Mary (2, 35). This sorrowful note in the midst of jubilance is not meant to make us morose but to supplement the teaching of the Epistle by identifying the price of our adoption. For “the mystery of man’s adoption by God,” Guéranger explains, “is to cost this Child of hers His life!” [13]
The Mass for the Sunday after Christmas, then, meditates in a special way on the wonderful mystery of divine adoption as the fruit of Christ’s birth.
The Novus Ordo
In 1969, the traditional Mass for the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas was replaced by the feast of the Holy Family, which hitherto had been celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany. The Galatians passage, in turn, was moved to the newly created Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on January 1, although without its first three verses.
It is commendable that the theme of our divine adoption was retained within the octave of Christmas, and the Galatians reading on our adoption may even be said to provide a link between Our Lady’s motherhood of Jesus and her spiritual motherhood of us the faithful, for Mary is our Mother as well as Jesus’ thanks to our divine adoption. [14]
That said, the Galatians passage included in the new feast on January 1 is abridged in such a way that the focus is clearly on Mary and not on our adoption: Paul’s opening explanation of the significance of our adopted status in verses one through three has been removed. The theme of adoption is further diluted by the fact that none of the other propers of the feast touch upon the subject, being overshadowed instead by the official occasion of honoring the Mother of God. [15]
And there are other considerations regarding these changes to Christmastide. First, the new Solemnity of the Motherhood of God lacks the rich mixture that was in the traditional observance of January 1 (especially prior to 1960), which nicely balanced the themes of the Christmas Octave, the Circumcision, and devotion to Our Lady; the new feast of the Motherhood of God lacks this balance. [16] Second, with the new Solemnity on January 1 came the suppression of the Feast of the Motherhood of God on October 11, which was instituted to commemorate the Council of Ephesus’ definition of Mary as Theotokos or Mother of God. By eliminating the October 11 feast, we lose a liturgical commemoration of an important chapter in Church history.
Third, celebrating the feast of the Holy Family within the octave of Christmas does not enrich the liturgical year by adding another distinctive celebration to our constellation of annual sacred merriment but subtracts from it by creating a vacuum in the calendar on the Sunday after Epiphany that is filled by an intentionally unremarkable Sunday in Ordinary Time and a significantly truncated Christmas season.
Fourth, the transfer of the feast of the Holy Family also diminishes the calendar by obscuring the dominical character of the only Sunday that occurs within the Octave Christmas (except when Christmas itself falls on a Sunday). Dom Guéranger has observed that in addition to its teaching on divine adoption, the Mass for the Sunday after Christmas has a special character: since it is the only day within the Christmas Octave that is not a Saint’s feast, attention is implicitly drawn to its “Sundayness.” According to ancient tradition our Lord was born on a Sunday, and so on those years when December 25 does not fall on a Sunday, it is left to the Sunday after Christmas to honor the connection between the Lord’s Day and His Nativity. [17]  In the new calendar, however, the dominical nature of the Sunday after Christmas is now missing entirely.
It can therefore be reasonably concluded that the new revised General Calendar does not give the same prominence to the doctrine of divine adoption that it enjoys on the traditional Sunday after Christmas and that the distinctive timbre of this Sunday in the 1962 Missal, which allowed this doctrine to be highlighted, is absent from the celebration of Christmas in the Novus Ordo.
Each year in the traditional calendar the Church, still surrounded by choirs of Angels rejoicing over a most wondrous exchange, proclaims from her sanctuaries a humble Epistle reading. Saint Paul’s explanation to the Galatians about the divine adoption of believers reminds us that Jesus’ birth has not only saved us from sin but elevated us to a previously unimaginable status of divine intimacy. We need not change the official title of the “Sunday within the Octave of Christmas” in order to cherish its inaugural role in celebrating the link between the sonship of Our Lord and our own, but it might not be a bad idea to nickname this day “Divine Adoption Sunday”[18]  and to celebrate with gratitude the Lord’s birthday by which we are born into a new inheritance. 
[1] The Collect for St. Jerome Emiliani, July 20. 
[2] The biblical evidence for this doctrine, as we will see in the following section on the Church calendar, is strong. 
[3] Christ the Life of the Soul, trans. a Nun of Tyburn Convent (Angelico Press, 2012), 21-41. 
[4] Ibid., 24. 
[5] Ibid, 33. 
[6] Ibid, 35. 
[7] Ibid., 41. 
[8] Ibid, 33. 
[9] Christ in His Mysteries, trans. Alan Bancroft (Zaccheus Press, 2008), 134-141. 
[10] The Douay Rheims is not incorrect to translate on occasion filii Dei with the expression “children of God,” for the former can refer to both males and females. However, it is important to note the word filius primarily means “son” and, we contend, is meant to have the connotations of sonship that go with it.
[11] Even in our own day and age, when primogeniture is a fading memory and legal documents can just as easily bequeath legacies to daughters as they can to sons, there remains a cultural resonance whereby the son is seen as the heir to the father’s identity. Hence the patrilinear custom of surnames: a daughter may lose the surname of her birth when she marries, but a son carries his father’s surname to his grave. 
[12] Abbot Guéranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, vol. 2, trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd (St. Bonaventure Publications, 2000), 342-343. 
[13] Ibid., 344. 
[14] See Pope St. Pius X, Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum, 10, issued 2 February 1904. 
[15] For example, although the Vatican’s 2015 Homiletic Directory states that a theme of this solemnity is that Mary is also the Mother of the Church, it does not mention divine adoption as a part of the feast. See ibid., 123.
[16] The diminution of the Circumcision is particularly lamentable, since it is the first time that Our Lord’s blood was shed for humanity. The Gospel for the new feast includes the account of the Circumcision but almost as an afterthought. In the 1962 Missal, by contrast, the Circumcision (along with the Holy Name of Jesus) are the only themes of the Gospel. 
[17] Ibid., 340-341. 
[18] Given the liturgy’s power to shape our imagination, it is not surprising that several Sundays and holy days have taken on nicknames different from their official designation. The traditional Sunday after Easter, for instance, is officially called Dominica in albis (The Sunday for Taking Off the White Garments), but it is better known by its unofficial name of “Low Sunday.”

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