We are dull, we are profane. We are holiness-blind; we see in secular gray.
I hear that Congress, soft of hand and brain, will consider removing the immemorial exemption of women from conscription into combat. Since we are utterly dysfunctional at everything having to do with men, women, marriage, family-making, and the raising and teaching of boys and girls these days, I suppose I should have foreseen this latest madness.
I am not going to get into the physics of it, what makes a sixteen-year-old boy far too much for his mother to handle — the same mother who is now supposed to charge a hill with eighty pounds on her back and meet some grown man coming at her with full force and killing in his heart. Instead I want to suggest one cause among the many, one small inroad of insanity, that has helped to reduce us to this state of physiophobia, fear and loathing of what is real. It is that we dull the real from the pulpit.
Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit, and our Lord dwells among us. She has hastened to the hill country to be with her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is with child, though she was thought to be barren and too old to conceive. When Elizabeth greets her, Mary bursts forth with the canticle we call the Magnificat. It has the structure and the locutions of a Semitic poem, which Luke translates into his native Greek. It ends with these earthy words: "He has come to the help of his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke unto our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever." (Lk. 1:54-55; Greek spermati) The Latin Vulgate agrees with the Greek: "Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula." Luther's German agrees: "Wie er geredet hat unsern Vaetern, Abraham und seinem Samen ewiglich." Without question, Mary used the Hebrew zera', seed, or its daughter-word in Aramaic.
My concordance lists 220 instances of "seed" in the King James translation, 219 of which translate this same noun, zera' (the odd one refers to a kernel separated from its protective shell). Sometimes the seed is borne by the tree or the grass, after their kinds (Gen. 1:11), which man learns to plant in the earth. Sometimes it is quite physically what the man sows from his own body into the woman's body. (Lev. 15:16) And sometimes it names the fruit of the sowing, as God promises in his covenant with Abraham, to be "a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee." (Gen. 17:7)
But that, of course, is not what we hear from our lectionary. We hear of Abraham and his "descendants." The prim move toward abstraction is like the New American Bible's reduction of the mighty words of John. The apostle says that they who believe in the name of Jesus are born "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God." (1:13) In the modern dispensation, however, we can't have all that blood and flesh, no indeed. Instead we hear of those "who were born not by natural generation nor by a man's decision but of God."
With no assistance from the remains of a culture, and little from the quotidian words of our Church, we must try to imagine what it was like really to believe in the sacred goodness of flesh and blood…
Let us be frank here. When we say that a man sows his seed, we are not speaking figuratively. We are speaking the plain truth. That is what it is. When we say that the woman with child bears a new life within her, we are speaking the plain truth. That new life begins when the seed and the egg are united. That is the human germination, the sprouting. It is active and self-unfolding. If the sprout is healthy, all it needs is what any sprout needs: protection and nourishment and time.
Look at the woman. Each of the salient features that distinguishes her from her husband declares her to be the bearer, the shelter, and the nourisher of new life, and as such to be protected: her breasts, her hips, her smaller stature, her slighter bones, her smooth chin, her childlike voice. Does any sane and decent man roll a nursery out into battle? Not even if it were of the slightest military advantage to do so — and it is, as the beleaguered Israelis quickly learned, a very great disadvantage. Why do good men fight if not ultimately to protect their families — the women and children? Why fight at all, if you are sending new life out to die? That woman may well be carrying helpless life within her at this very moment. Is that not a thing to stop the mouth with wonder?
But women of our time are taught to be at war against their own bodies. So men are taught to reduce their bodies to performance machines (tools) or pleasure machines (other tools). The ancient Hebrews did not look upon the body that way, because no healthy society has ever looked upon the body that way. The boy who has become a man bears seed within him. That is what it is, and we who believe in God must believe that if anything in physical reality is holy, it surely is the human body, which in the union of man and woman brings into being new persons made in the image of God. Where then should the seed of this new life be sown? Not in a sewer, not in the fire, not on cold plastic. The answer comes not from what this or that person happens to find exciting or convenient, but from the seed's nature, from what it really is.
We are dull, we are profane. We are holiness-blind; we see in secular gray. With no assistance from the remains of a culture, and little from the quotidian words of our Church, we must try to imagine what it was like really to believe in the sacred goodness of flesh and blood, of seed and soil, and to cry out with Adam the first human words recorded in Scripture: "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!"
Anthony Esolen. "Our Fear of the Real." The Catholic Thing (November 20, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2021 The Catholic Thing
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