The Da Vinci Code opportunity

George Weigel

I was on the road a lot during Lent. And from sea to shining sea, nary an airport bookstore was without a Da Vinci Code display, in anticipation of the May release of Ron Howard’s film. One tries to ignore the hype — “the greatest cover-up in history!” — but there’s something depressing going on here. Why do intelligent people think that The Da Vinci Code has some basis in historical fact? Why do Catholics imagine that a novel which suggests (and not so subtly) that the entire structure of faith is a lie is, well, no big deal?

The good news, though, is that the film’s release is a great opportunity for bishops, priests, and deacons to dedicate Eastertide 2006 to preaching the truth of Christian history.

One of the reasons why so many Catholics have been vulnerable to the novel’s preposterous claims is that most Catholics are woefully ignorant of the Church’s history. How, for example, did the original Christian confession about Jesus of Nazareth — “Jesus is Lord” — came to doctrinal articulation in the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in Being with the Father”? If you don’t know, at least in broad strokes, how the Creed of the Council of Nicaea came to express the New Testament faith of the Church, you’re going to be vulnerable to Dan Brown’s risible suggestion that it was all imperial politics in the age of Constantine. So I can well imagine a month’s worth of sermons on the development of Christology, the Church’s theology of Jesus as Son of God.

Then there’s the question of the integrity of the New Testament itself. The historical-critical method of Biblical analysis has immeasurably increased our knowledge of the Bible. Yet, filtered through inadequate homiletics and catechetics, historical-critical readings of the New Testament have also created suspicion about the historical reliability of the Gospels in many minds. “That’s just a story,” is a phrase too often encountered in casual discussions about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ. Yet I think it’s safe to assume that the Second Vatican Council didn’t reclaim the Bible for the people of the Church so that the people of the Church could learn to be suspicious about the Bible.

I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican exegete N.T. Wright as an antidote to this suspiciousness, and let me do so again: if there is one book to give a friend troubled by The Da Vinci Code and its portrait of the life of Jesus, it’s Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press), in which impeccable, contemporary scholarship is deployed to defend the historicity of the Gospels, including the historicity of the resurrection. Based on a set of lectures Dr. Wright gave for evangelical leaders in the late 1990s, The Challenge of Jesus is accessible to any intelligent reader, and provides a far more fascinating account of the complexities of Jewish life and messianic expectation at the time of Jesus than anything to be found in Dan Brown’s fevered imagination.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Web site, www.Jesusdecoded.com, that’s full of resources for those who want to turn the Da Vinci Code fuss into an evangelical and catechetical opportunity.  In addition to a devastating critique of Brown’s understanding of Leonardo da Vinci by Elizabeth Lev, the Web site includes a very useful “When they say…you say…” essay by Catholic author and blogger Amy Welborn, “What Do You Say to a Da Vinci Code Believer?” Ms. Welborn is always interesting and always feisty: for example, “There is enough truth in The Da Vinci Code to be seriously misleading. Yes, the sources, like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Templar Revelation, exist. But they don’t reflect serious historical scholarship. You’re not going to find a university history department on the planet that uses the works that provide the meat of The Da Vinci Code theories as part of the syllabus.” Indeed.

Got lemons? Make lemonade. The Da Vinci Code is an opportunity waiting to be seized.

COMING UP: Mother Mary: Modeling joy even in suffering

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Where would we be without our mothers? We wouldn’t be! Father Gregory Cleveland, OMV, shares a beautiful quote from Cardinal Mindszenty on the importance of motherhood: “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. . . . Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature: God joins force with mothers in performing this act of creation (Beholding Beauty, Pauline Books & Media, 2020, 106).  

The same principle applies in the spiritual life. Mary cooperated with God in such a unique way that without her we simply wouldn’t be the spiritual sons and daughters of the Father that he wants us to be. The Creator came into the world through her, enabling all of us to be reborn. On the Cross, Jesus gave everything to us, including his mother: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). She cares for us as her son’s own beloved disciple, extending to us her motherly love, and showing us the true model of Christian love. As we show our appreciation to our own mothers this Mother’s Day, Mary models for us the joys of motherhood that endure even the most difficult moments.  

Father Cleveland, the director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, helps us to reflect on Mary’s essential role as mother and model in his book Beholding Beauty: Mary and the Song of Songs. The book uses passages from the Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs, as a springboard to come to know Mary as in her deep love for God. The biblical book speaks of the love of Solomon and his beloved, referring allegorically to God’s love for his people. Rather than offering a Bible study, Cleveland connects the Song to the New Testament, offering a portrait of Mary as God’s beloved and how we can come closer to Jesus through her, imitating her spousal love of God. Each chapter offers practical examples and questions for reflection, making the book ideal for daily meditation.  

The book explains the unique privileges of Mary, while using them to invite us to share in them as well: “No human being ever received God’s love and grace as fully as did Mary, to the point of God becoming man in her. She conceived Christ in her heart and then in the womb. Mary, as spouse of the Holy Spirit, shows us our capacity to receive God and be entirely possessed by him. In receiving Christ, she was also empowered to completely give herself to him, spirit, soul, and body, in love as his mother. She became his partner in the work of salvation and was exalted to reign with him as Queen of heaven and earth” (2). Mary models the life of the disciple in giving oneself completely to God so that he becomes fully present in our lives and through us to others.  

Mary’s vocation of motherhood leads directly to her queenship in drawing others closer to her Son. Her motherhood is founded in her fiat, her “yes” to the will of God at the Annunciation. In her role as Queen Mother, she asks us to imitate her obedience when she says at the Wedding of Cana, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Fathe Cleveland explains the need for a daily obedience that will inconvenience us and even interrupt our lives: “Mary invites us to do whatever Jesus tells us. When we come to serve the Lord, we first listen to what Jesus is asking of us. . . . As servants of Christ and others, we are willing to be available and inconvenienced in offering people our practical and substantial help. We allow ourselves to be interrupted by people crossing our paths and overturning our plans with their claims and petitions” (153). Mothers know better than anyone else that love requires this willingness to stop everything to attend to others’ needs.  

Even after much sacrifice, however, we know that so often things do not turn out as we expect. Mary models the necessity of suffering in giving our lives to Christ and sacrificially loving others: “Just as Christ gave the blood of his heart to the last drop, so Mary completely gave of her heart, broken in compassion. Mary’s yes to God, her vocation to motherhood, her purpose in life, all seemed to be extinguished. She would naturally have cause for the deepest possible despair, and yet she was given supernatural hope. She abandoned herself to the Father’s will and trusted his plan. Her fiat was then realized in a completely new way and offered with Christ in those ignoble circumstances. We too are called to co-offer Christ’s sacrifice” (138). Mary’s suffering shows the full extent of her motherhood — not just bringing life forth but offering it to God. Giving birth is painful and the bringing forth of spiritual life, likewise, requires sacrifice. The Song of Songs shows how greatly God desires us and calls us to put him first, sacrificing other things to focus on him above all else. God asks us to trust in him even when things do not make sense or when we’ve been hurt by those we love.  

Overall, Beholding Beauty invites us to focus on the eternal a wedding feast of the lamb, to which God is calling us, a perfect union that Mary already models for us. Father Cleveland explains how Mary’s relationship with God serves as both a model and invitation for us: “Our encounter with Mary will always lead us to Jesus. She is one with Jesus in the desires of his heart. Her only desire is that we share the same life of heavenly beatitude that she enjoys. Mary is the queenly maiden of the Song of Songs .  . . We entrust our lives to her as our exceedingly beautiful queen, knowing that she will guide us to Christ our King” (229). In giving herself completely to God and loving him completely, Mary could serve as God’s mother and our spiritual mother as well. 

This Mother’s Day, let’s be grateful for our earthly mothers and also for our heavenly mother who teaches us how to love God and our family more fully.  


Featured image: The Annunciation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660