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The recklessness of God

John Saward's new reflections on the Christmas mystery glow with awe, tenderness and devotion. They add up to a veritable Summa of 2,000 years of Christian thought on the birth of the Saviour, says Aidan Nichols OP.

Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery by John Saward, Ignatius Press.

Whatever, else we might wish to say about John Saward's latest book
lyrically written, precisely footnoted it is certainly Catholic theology. Today, much that passes for Catholic theology is excessively indebted to sociology, cultural studies and submetaphysical philosophising of various descriptions. Here instead is a book based on Scripture, the Fathers, the Liturgy (or rather Liturgies in the plural - old and new, Eastern and Western) and the classic theological thinking of. St Thomas. To these I should add a reference to the tradition of the spiritual masters and to the philosopher Dante called "master of those who know", Aristotle. All these are well represented here.

As the sub-title makes clear, the book is a theology of Christmas. I found reading it, or, more strictly, re-reading it since I had a glimpse of it in proof, an excellent spiritual exercise for the Advent season. It offers rigorous thinking, about what actually happened in the Incarnation, when the divine assumed the human, and about our share in it. But it does so in a prose which glows with awe, tenderness, devotion.

After a substantial introduction to the Christmas mystery in the opening chapter, we are treated to an extremely well thought out reflection on what is going on in the mysteries of the life of Christ of which, from Annunciation to Epiphany and Purification, Christmas is the first. The author shows how these mysteries are actions at once divine and human whose "virtue", or native power, abides forever, thanks to the eternal origin and risen life of the One who is their subject, Jesus Christ.

That power endures so as to shape Christian lives through liturgical celebration, and, in the wise economy of God, by other touches of grace. The latter may be occasional, when some need or opportunity in our lives presents itself. Or they may be an attraction (and a task) that lasts a whole life long.

This is an excellent way to think not only about the principal events of the Gospels and the main feasts of the Church's year but also the missions of the saints and the work of God in my own life or that of my neighbour.

Five further chapters, all substantial, consider particular facets of the Christmas mystery: the two births (eternal and temporal) of Christ; his Mother; the purpose of his birth in time; the significance of the when and where of it; and its manifestation to others.

In this book John Saward has brought into what is a veritable Summa of thought about Christianity many of the themes that have inspired him in his earlier work. These range from the place of "holy folly" in a Christianity whose revelation
issues from the reckless divine love shown in Crib and Cross, to the Byzantine Church's rich body of reflection on the Mother of God and the place of the icon.

Again, the book draws on ideas he earlier proposed when thinking about
"Redeemer in the womb" and Jesus's consequent relation to Mary, and the doctrine of spiritual childhood, the "Way of the Lamb", found not only in St Thérèse of Lisieux (if most famously there) but also in GK Chesterton and others. Its concern to make all the dogmatic links possible tween the Incarnation and the Atonement, reminds one of its author's earlier love of Hans Urs von Balthasar (still present here, but not so notably as before). Above all, I surmise, it is John Saward's work on the seventeenth century Churchman Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle and the spirituality of the "
French school" which issued from him that inspired this new book. I say that because of its striking emphasis on how, through relevant dispositions and virtues, we are called to share the totality of Christ's "states" or conditions, so as make our own the transforming grace he offers. So this is a Summa of Sawardine theology and not just of the mystery of Christmas.

If I had one criticism it would be of the author's harshness towards twentieth century biblical criticism. True from the standpoint of the Church's faith, such harshness is often justified. Often but not always. A Dominican reviewer could hardly not think in this connection of the great and holy founder of The Jerusalem Biblical School, Pière Lagrange.

By contrast, since the 1960s, the technical brilliance of much Catholic biblical scholarship cannot substitute its lack of any distinctive Catholicity. But it is encouraging that, here and there, especially in the United States, the attempt is once again being made to put together historical research into the New Testament texts and the witness of the Fathers to their undying meaning.

Cradle of Redeeming Love can find nothing worth citing on its sublime subject from any twentieth century critic is sad, and a little surprising. But it does make the point that the gulf which has opened between biblical scholarship and recognisably Catholic theology has increased, is (in most places) increasing and needs to be diminished. A false disdain for the simplicity and directness of divine action is one of the idols this book would bring down from its throne.

This article first appeared in the 20th December 2002 issue of The Catholic Herald and is reproduced with permission.

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This Version: 18th March 2003

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