Witness We Must

 

The high priest questioned them,
“We gave you strict orders, did we not,
to stop teaching in that name?
Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching
and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
But Peter and the apostles said in reply,
“We must obey God rather than men.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at His right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

                                               Acts 5:27-32

The  Church of the first century was almost invariably law abiding, beginning with Jesus’ teaching that taxes should be paid to Caesar and compassing Paul’s reiterated advice that Roman authorities, especially the Emperor, were to be respected and obeyed as ministers of divine providence,  understood as having been sent to punish evil and to reward good (I Peter 2:13-17, Titus 3:1).   We have the evidence of Pliny, governor of Bithynia, that Christians had ceased their meetings on the Emperor Trajan’s command, and we have the testimony of Saint Clement embedded in his prayer for the Roman state, in which he prayed for the emperor, probably Hadrian: “Thou, Master, hast given the power of sovereignty to them through Thy excellent and inexpressible might, that we may know the glory and honor given to them by Thee and in nothing resisting Thy will” (41).   In the age of revolution in which we live, an era in which Jesus the revolutionary has been a popular figure, historians have often faulted the Church for its complaisance with authority, but the evidence is unambiguous.  

           As far as our sources go, the martyrs and those who described their sacrifices usually left  unvisited the question of the motives of the persecutors.  When they might justly have loudly proclaimed their persecutors to be judicial murderers and themselves victims of an unjust tyranny, such evidence as exists suggests that they saw their deaths as the will of Divine Providence.  There is no account that they railed against their persecutors. 

But in the text superscript from Acts we see the apostles rejecting the command of the high priest that they cease teaching in Jesus’ name.  To this order the apostolic reply was, “We must obey God rather than men.”   The apostles had been commissioned by Christ Himself to be His witnesses, a commission they would fulfill with their lives (Acts 1:8, Luke 24:48-49).   Paul spoke for them when he wrote to the Corinthians “For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation is    laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16)    There would be other situations, when for example civil authority commanded evil, commands Christians would not obey, but the most obvious and common situation that would evoke disobedience would be the situation in which civil authority would say with the high priest, “Stop peaching in that name” To which the answer would be, “We are His witnesses,” and we are under obligation to teach in His name.   Christians would pay taxes; they would after a time serve in the army.   But witness they must.   From the person who refuses to bake a cake for an event celebrating what she knows to be sin to the bishops and faithful of the underground Church in China Christians are still bearing witness to what Scripture calls “the world.”

  Much has been written about the reasons that lay behind the persistent if sporadic persecution of Christians by the Roman state, which seemed to work against the civic interest, for Christians were pacific, tax-paying folk who cared for their own.  Except when forbidden to witness, or when their witness was used as an excuse for persecution, Christians were complaisant citizens.  Whether it was their mere existence that provoked their pagan neighbors to a call for their extirpation or whether it was the awareness of the Roman state that Christians’ beliefs relativized the authority of the state, Christians could not be left in peace.   To ordinary Romans Christians seemed to be stubborn enemies of the presuppositions on which civic life was based.  The attitude of Americans toward communists in the 1950s might be a near analogy.  And surely the nascent bureaucracy of the empire understood at some level that the appeal of Christians to a  transcendent order that as it empowered them lay beyond the reach of policies and legions, that this appeal  undermined the very foundations of Romanitas.  

Inevitably, Christians won this war of wills, not through violence, not through disobedience, but through steadfast adherence to the truth implied in the apostles’’ refusal to obey the high priest because they were obliged to witness to the resurrection and power of Christ.  Whether this war can be won in the twenty-first century is the question that is now before the Church.  It was possible to defeat a persecuting empire with fidelity and suffering. Whether Christianity can survive a culture of comfort in which the state is in loco parentis, dulling the sharp edges of that reality that teaches the lessons of life, and undergirded by  the bright darkness of technological transcendence over nature, would seem on present evidence a near thing.  There is no example of the survival of a vigorous Christianity in a socialist state, whether that socialism be democratic or authoritarian.    

Now it is precisely the ability to witness that is under attack.  At present nobody objects to your going to church on Sunday, but a football coach may not pray at the fifty yard line after the game because his doing so is a public witness.  The interests of irreligion have won in the battle for public schools   The name of Jesus may not be mentioned or the Bible read in government schools operated, with some regional differences, on the presuppositions of Marxism and the positive value of carnality for seven-year-olds.   To ask His blessing on the place and project of learning would be a witness.   But in one important respect the ability and power to witness cannot be forbidden: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Nobody can prevent that witness.

Set My People Free

 

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

                                               John 20:21

       The first Sunday after Easter, the eighth day that completes the octave of the feast, has come to be known as Mercy Sunday, the day on which the Church hears the command of Christ that His apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, should have the power to forgive or retain sins.     After the great sacrament of baptism, the ability to absolve (or not) is the greatest power the Church possesses, a power rooted in the declarative power of Christ’s promise to Peter (Petros) that he would be the rock (petra) on which the Church would be built (Matthew 16: 18-19).   It cannot be overlooked that Christ’s promise to Peter follows upon Peter’s God-inspired witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Just as Peter’s witness is not a thing of flesh and blood but a gift of God to Peter, Christ’s gift to Peter was not made in any recognition of Peter’s excellence     Immediately after receiving the gift of the keys, Peter, displaying the obtuseness characteristic of all the apostles before Pentecost, denies that Jesus must suffer, causing Jesus to call the prince of the apostles Satan.        

       Christ followed the famous ‘rock’ passage with the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail, would not stand,  against the apostolic power of the Kingdom of God, a promise fulfilled in one way when Christ descended to the place that embodied the lost past, to set free the prisoners in chains of all times and ages (I Peter 3:19-20) and in another way when it  became clear that Satan’s usurped reign on earth could not withstand the power of Christ’s mercy and grace, His will that the apostolic mission should set His people free from the chains of sin.   This power to restore sinners to a right relation with God, setting them free from a sinful past, restoring their baptismal innocence, is a divine power more important than any power, economic or military or demonic that the world, the flesh, and even Satan can command, for none of these can change the past and secure a promised future of blessedness forever.   This is the power symbolized by the gift of the keys to Peter, exercised by men called by God, and commissioned by the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who through  the exercise of their ministry have the ability to open and to close the door to salvation, to set free from the bondage of sin and to withhold forgiveness from to those who come to confession seeming neither to have any degree of love for God and so to hate their sins or those who do not even fear  hell—if such exist.  Jesus resurrected in glory first visited His apostles to give this command; He breathed on them and said , “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

         The practice of the merciful power of the keys, of the ability to know the forgiveness of sins at the hands of another person, a priest who presumes to act on Christ’s behalf, known and valued, indeed cherished, by many, has fallen out of use among others.    Superficial objections that all share can be dismissed shortly.   It is not only humbling but, truth told, embarrassing to recite one’s sins to another person, even when one has confidence that this is the path to setting oneself right with God.  The sins that burn for absolution are not climate change denial and abstract racism but the sins of greed, lust, cowardice.   It would be bizarre to fear embarrassment before another person, divinely empowered or not, but to believe that one could stand tall before the judge eternal with a soul bespattered by those same embarrassing sins.   

   But it may at least be suggested that there is another reason why the confession that belongs especially to this season of mercy seems a bridge too far and that is the pervasive denial, as it were in principle, that reality is always mediated.  Members of the Old Church, Easterners, some Anglicans and Lutherans live in a mediated world in which Christ is the one essential but not the only mediator, for there is the Blessed Virgin (Pray for us now and at the hour of our death) the Saints, the angels (through whom creation is governed, our guardian angel) and the whole body of the praying and sacrificing faithful on earth, each and all of which may play a part in our salvation.    None of these is of the slightest efficacy without the cross and resurrection of Christ, but the power of His merciful heart beats through each of these mediators and we are bound to each by the love of Christ they reflect.  

     This is not the spiritual world most Christians of the Anglo-sphere inhabit, where it would be the proud assertion that believers need no one standing between them and Christ.    Another track might be to be grateful to anyone who, commissioned by Christ Himself could be found to undertake that dangerous position.   A priest who undertakes to fulfill that role has zero salvific power.   He can, having been chosen and sent, defeat evil, enter and ransack the kingdom cringing behind the gates of hell, by judging sinners worthy of absolution or complete forgiveness, assigning a penance, and pronouncing sins forgiven, their guilt done away, with the authority of Christ himself.   

     Such forgiveness has a price, and the price is two-fold.   The first is that mother of every virtue, humility.  There is nothing as deceptive as the picture of oneself as basically a good person whose failures are to be explained by circumstance or environment.  The second is the hard-won ability, perhaps always imperfect, to know one’s self, to be able to understand which false virtues are screeds for real sins; which spiritual difficulties are dispositions, natural or acquired that must be borne, and which moral anxieties, however worrisome, are  failures of faith, when sorrow may be no more than disappointment that one has betrayed one’s presumed good character, which sins are rebellions against the divine will, which failures are misunderstood occasions for gratitude.  

     One way to understand the rancor that taints  post-modernity is to consider that much of this belligerence and hard-heartedness is the consequence of sin unacknowledged and unforgiven and the subsequent effort to see and defend oneself as good enough without God.   This latter is the sin of pride through which Lucifer fell, and this conviction that one needs no forgiveness is the foundation of our unwillingness to forgive others.    This closed-heartedness, while it leads those thus afflicted to eternal loss,  infects public discourse and education.  The beginning of a cure is the knowledge that we are not, none of us, good enough for God, that we each and all need the forgiveness Christ offered in John 20:21.   

Now Judge Eternal

 

This man God raised on the third day and granted that He be made manifest,
not to all the people, but to us
the witness chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people 
and testify that He is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead

                            Acts 10:42-43

       The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-time event that altered the horizons of human possibility forever.  God’s witness that Jesus was alive in glory after being put to death was an event that occurred over many days.  The first witnesses were women, some of whose names Luke carefully remembered, Mary Magdalene, Jo-Anna, and Mary the mother of James (24:1–10); He then appeared to Peter, to James, and once to over five hundred people (I Corinthians 15:6).    His standing again, for that is the meaning of the Greek, being present once again to his disciples after being crucified under Pontius Pilate was not a sign given with great power as at Pentecost, seen by all Jerusalem, nor was it a wonder done before the crowd in the marketplace or the forum.  God’s purpose in raising Jesus from death was not to convert the unbelieving but to confirm His disciples.  His appearance before the world in glory, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess His lordship (Philippians 2:10–11), an event reserved for His appearing at the fulfillment of the ages, would have violated the divinely appointed limitation:  He would not use the obvious and the incontrovertible to elicit faith.   So His appearance was not to all the people but to the witnesses He had chosen beforehand.  To them it gave great assurance, validating everything He had taught, while it convinced the doubtful (John 20:24-29).   

       The forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension to the right hand of the Father saw the completion of His work.  During those days He appeared to  the twelve to command them to forgive sins (John 20:19-24).  He explained the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus to His disciples:  “O foolish men,  slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25).    And afterward they knew Him in the breaking of bread;   they recognized him, He ate and drank with them, first having blessed bread and broken it in anticipation of the sacrament of His body and blood (Luke 24: 31-35).  He spoke to the Twelve of the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).  His resurrection was the sign that in Him that last enemy death had been defeated.   In His appearing to His chosen witnesses He  gave His disciples a foretaste of the world to come, for He appeared bearing the sign of God’s glory.  John wrote: “We beheld His glory, the glory belonging to the only Son of the Father” (John 1:14 ), a glory predicting for the faithful their future life with Him in glory.  

       But none of these good things was the one thing that the apostles remembered as the result of Jesus’ resurrection.  What the appearance of the living Lord to His followers but not to the world did was to set the apostolic ministry on the road with this message:  “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one ordained by God to be the judge of the living and the dead.”   And the Gospel of John assures us that it is  not the Father but the Risen Christ, He who knows intimately the human nature He has taken to Himself who will be our judge:  “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgement to the Son” (5:22).   That this is the divine witness given in Jesus’ resurrection  from death is reiterated later in Acts:  Paul ends his apology to the council of the Areopagus with these words:  “In the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent:   Because He hath appointed a day, in that He hath raised Him from the dead” (17:30–31). 

       The resurrection is God’s promise that Christ will judge the living and the dead, which is to say that, among other great realities established by Jesus’ vindication, life has moral meaning assigned it by God who created it, that in the end goodness will be established and rewarded and evil done away and punished.   This truth, that God will judge in the end, is a theme reiterated in the Psalms, whose authors do not envision a world uncorrected.   It was prophesied by Christ himself: “When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.  Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another. . . .  Then He will say to those on His left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire, . . . but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31–32. 46).    

       This Easter the world will celebrate the resurrection as the sign of Christ’s triumph over death, and rightly so.  Not so much attention will be paid the truth that the apostles considered of first importance:  Jesus’ vindication by the Father makes Him the King Eternal to whom it belongs to judge the world and its people, the living and the dead.   Judgement is not a popular topic in a world in flight from God; being judgmental, which is often simply calling evil by its proper name, is now a secular sin, but that does not change the good news that God’s “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). 

           Every Christian should anticipate his or her judgement with profound and holy fear.   But also with confidence.  The world we see in which evil seems omnipresent if not triumphant , and every soul who has ever lived and acted for good or evil in it, all will be judged so that goodness will be established.   This is a cause for Easter joy.  We would not be happy in a world in which water ran uphill, in which we were constantly vexed with having to pry our chairs off the ceiling.  These laws of nature are dim reflections of  the divinely appointed order of the world called divine justice, seemingly trivial in the light of the great truth that no good will go unrewarded, no evil unpunished.  Because Christ resurrected is the judge eternal we  need not concern ourselves more than prudence demands that evil seems so persistent, with defeating evil in the world.  We know because we are Christians that the theory of German philosophers and progressive politicians that human nature is inevitably improving is a lie.   One of the great marks of human equality is the fact that we all, each of us,  have an opportunity to do good or evil.  The Lord himself (Matthew 25), Saint Paul (II Thessalonians 2:3–10), and the Apocalypse of the prophet John tell us that the world and its inhabitants will become worse at the end, when God will at last set all  things right. And remember; that judgment means vindication for those who love His coming (II Timothy 4:8).   To them He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matthew 25:21).  And says the Apostle James: “Behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (5:9).  

Not the Righteous

 

Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with  
sinners and tax collectors and said to His disciples, 
“Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said to them, 
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. 
I do not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

                            Mark 2:16-17

To be called by Jesus is to know oneself as a sinner.  The standard He sets is high:  “Be perfect as Our Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:45).  In the light of this high expectation every person who will enter Christ’s kingdom of the new heart knows himself to be a sinner.”  Saint Paul writes, “ For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  And  Saint John the Evangelist: “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us;  If we confess our sins He is faithful and true to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8–9).     

       The first proposition of Christian theology is the assertion that nature and man, being the creatures of a good God, are themselves good.  “Behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The second is the assertion that man and nature are fallen from that state of original righteousness in which they were created.  So the first work of the apostolic mission and therefore of the Church is to convince the world and every person in it that we are sinners, coming into this world separated  from God by  our rebellion and neglect of our duties to the Divine Majesty.  The word righteous in the superscript describes a person who believes that without God he is good, or as good as he should be, when in fact he is a sinner, and the  worse for not  recognizing the fact,   The first word in the Gospel story, spoken by John the Baptist, is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”    The burden of the first chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is found in two revelations.  The Gospel is the power of God to reveal the righteousness of God, with this followed immediately by the revelation that the wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness and the wickedness of men.   

       The foundation of the Kingdom is the realization of the righteousness and glory of God and of our sinfulness.   If we do not see ourselves as sinners we cannot hear the invitation of Jesus to enter His kingdom.   Our sinfulness is twofold.  First, there is the burden of original sin which teaches us that by our very condition as recent representatives of a rebellious race we too are with our first parents afflicted with the results of disobedience:  rebellion ending in disease, disorder, and death. Chesterton once observed that of all the Christian doctrines, the doctrine of original sin is most obviously true, for which see the front page of any newspaper, with its predictable tale of political incompetence, cupidity, greed, and the ravages of lust upon respectability.    

       This great doctrine of original sin has been in retreat in our culture since, taking  the eyes of our hearts off the righteousness of God, we took up various forms, hard and soft,  of the secular utopianism that characterizes the modern world.  We hear daily that the imperfections of the human condition, poverty and disease and ignorance are due not to the malevolence of weak and fallen wills but to the material environment.  Criminals are exonerated from responsibility by the fact of their imperfect childhoods and faulty education.  Given such presuppositions, the healing of the heart lies not in repentance but with the counselor or psychiatrist, and while such engagements may be beneficial, until human souls can see ourselves for what we are in the light of the Divine goodness and majesty, the rebellious will cannot be healed.   Thousands are exonerated from a duty to obey the laws of the United States by the poor conditions, poverty and unemployment, rampant in their biographies. Education has failed because it lacks the resources, a claim made in the face of the fact that the United States spends more per student on education than any other country in the world.   And through it all, increasingly, there is no cause for repentance because persons are not thought to be active in the formation of their own characters.

        This is a moral world that fosters grievance—someone must be responsible for the evil I see and experience—and moral incompetence.  The Christian doctrine that formed the soul of the pre-Enlightenment world does not require anyone to claim responsibility for original sin; it does require admitting that we are justly afflicted by and with it.   And this means looking at the world with a forgiving eye; for those around us share the weakness and ignorance and rebelliousness that is rooted in our common fallen nature.

       The other kind of sin belongs to us alone; the actual sins we commit, encouraged by the weakness inherent in original sin but consummated by our consent.   Satan encourages but he cannot cause wickedness in us.   “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted, for God cannot be tempted with evil and He himself tempts no one’”(James 1:31).  Our sins are caused by our cooperation, sometimes by a casual neglect of our duty to God, sometimes by enthusiastic participation in evil.   And the acknowledgement of this fact is the sticking point for modernity.   Utopians may tell us that many things are wrong with the world.  While capitalist greed and cultural selfishness may, sometimes justly, be abundantly denounced, repentance is personal, depending upon the awakening of conscience by the Church’s call to repentance.  

       This failure is in significant part the result of the abandonment by the Church of its mission to the world in the attempt not to be seen as judgmental or unkind.   The Church offers comfort to those who, touched by the Holy Spirit, remaining faithful to Christ, confess their sins and their sinfulness, but, seemingly,  it has largely abandoned its prior duty:  the call to repentance  of everyman in  the face of the glory, magnificence, and righteousness of God.  Those who neglect God because  they see themselves as, well, perhaps not righteous but surely good enough, are not only making a theoretical mistake, they are risking what Jesus called the eternal fire and the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50).  They will not be called into His Kingdom by Christ because they  believe the lie that they are not sinners.  Along the way they will make life hell on earth because, believing in their own goodness, they will assume that those who differ from them are not, like themselves, weak and sometimes silly sinners,  but will assumes that such contrary opinions are the result of an evil will, a will that can never be accommodated but must be defeated.  

       Lay persons are not commissioned to call the world to repentance,  but can play a part by resolutely refusing to cooperate with evil or to make terms with the world.  A Christian who will not bend to the ways of the world is an ever-effectual witness.  And we can enjoy the peace of not believing a lie, for the lie that we  are good enough is at the heart of the discomfort and irascibility that is part of the curse of secular modernity.

Fasting, Feasting, and Festivity

Presented at Text & Talk with Dr Patrick – Saturday, 18 December 2021

Fasting is about disciplining our appetites, and especially about offering such discipline as a sacrifice to God, an action that at the same time purifies the heart and expresses our sorrow for our sins.   It is not directly about repentance from sin but about foregoing some good or some good pleasure.  It makes us ready to know God more deeply. Moses fasted for forty days in the presence of God when he wrote down the Ten Commandments.   And again Moses lay prostrate in prayer for the Lord’s mercy after his people worshiped the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9:18); he neither ate bread nor drank water. 

        The vow Paul took in Acts 18:18 was a Nazarite vow; cutting off his hair, was a sign of pious humility.  It probably required that he abstain from wine.  Paul was always in a fight, sometimes doing the thing he really did not want to do, in which battle the best defense was the discipline of his ‘bodily’ desires, inclinations to lust and gluttony.  “Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like I am beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”  We are not told that Paul observed or recommended certain fast days, but in Acts 13:2 fasting is associated with worship, presumably the Eucharist.   But not long after Paul’s death in 60 AD the Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, recommended:  8.1. “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays” (8.1).  There is some thought that the hypocrites were the Pharisaic party, but in any event the advice of the authors has been carried out for 2000 years and the Friday fast is  still required in the Roman Church, while I think it is true that the Orthodox still fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.   Often fasting consists of giving up something that is good in itself, a favorite food, as a small sacrificial recognition of the times we may have given our senses too free rein.   

       Saint Thomas says fasting has a threefold purpose:  killing lust, setting the mind on heavenly things, and encouraging sorrow for sins.  Fasting survives in the Latin Church in the rule that every Friday is a fast day. The Friday fast is done in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.  As such, all Fridays of the year have been historically kept as a day of strict fasting and abstinence from meat.   Even the most nugatory of fasts is capable of giving great spiritual power. 

       All this is papist practice, but while Protestants generally had no schedule of appointed fasts, the practice was not foreign to the American religious psyche.  Lincoln could decree in 1863 that the last Thursday in September would be “a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting for all the people of the nation. And I do earnestly recommend to all the people, and especially to all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and to all heads of families, to observe and keep that day according to their several creeds and modes of worship in all humility and with all religious solemnity, to the end that the united prayer of the nation may ascend to the Throne of Grace and bring down plentiful blessings upon our country.” There is still a national day of prayer, but humiliation and fasting is not mentioned.     But Lent, I think, has bled over into Protestant Churches in what seems a beneficent way.    

       Feasting is endemic to Sacred Scripture, in both present and future aspects..  Prophesying the coming reign of peace Isaiah wrote, “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet for all the peoples, a feast of choice meat of finely aged wine. On this mountain He will swallow up the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations.  He will swallow up death forever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces (25:6). And Matthew: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and  sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (8: 11). Eating has been at the heart of Christianity since Jesus took bread and distributed it, and in the beginning the Eucharist was celebrated as part of the Christian love feast, a grand church supper that had to be abandoned because it was abused (Jude 12; I Corinthians 11:20-22).

       One may well wonder how the calendar of feasts was constructed.  Start with the fact that Easter, 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, was a known date, and Pentecost was fifty days later.   One can imagine that after the resurrection of Jesus research into his origins intensified.  The Church settled on March 25 as the Annunciation, so the birth of Jesus was nine months later, on  December 25th.  Or perhaps December 25th was chosen because it was the winter solstice, and Christmas effectively replaced the Saturnalia, the Roman feast of celebration and gift-giving that commemorated the Solstice.  Certainly the Lupercalia, a vulgar Roman feast that took place in early February was supplanted by the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.   All of these represent what is called “sacred times,” whose religious purpose is to keep the faithful mindful throughout the year of the cardinal mysteries and of the heroes of the Christian faith.  The old Church has a calendar full of days on which the canonical saints, those believed to be in the presence of God, are to be remembered and their intercession sought.  To follow them carefully would be an education in itself.   Some are popular, some obscure, such as Saint Just de Bretenieres, whose feast day is September 20th, was beheaded in Korea in 1866.  Under torture he kept repeating, “I came to Korea to save your souls; I will happily die for God.”   Or Saint Casimir of Poland, remembered on March 4th, who was a heroic peace-maker.  Each saint, as being in God’s presence, intercedes for those who ask his aid.    

       In the old Church the communion of saints means that the barrier between those who died in grace and those living  is very thin or non-existent.    It is probably impossible to explain just why one would believe that, say, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, would add his intercession to my prayers.  Perhaps one could think of Saint Cyril as a senior and conclusively successful member of the family.  I think it would be right to say that in Protestant Christianity that wall is thicker, so that the saints, being perhaps in principle unknown and unknowable and in any event accessible have no purpose other than, perhaps, as examples.  After 1520 the calendar of fasts and feasts pretty much disappeared from northern European Christianity, although Easter and Christmas survived in even the lowest of low Church Anglicanism.  The United States had no Church Year save that found in the Book of Common Prayer.  So Virginia celebrated Christmas.  According to a 1631 account by John Taylor, the festival of Christmas Day began with church attendance. Following that, “some went to cards, some sang Carrols, many merry songs, some to waste the long night would tell Winter-tales …. Then came maids with Wassell, jolly Wassell, cakes, white loafe and cheese, mince pies & other meat. These being gone, the jolly youths and plain dealing Plow swaines being weary of cards fell to dancing to show me some Gambols, some ventured the breaking of their shins to make me sport – some the scalding of their lippes to catch at apples tied at the end of a stick having a lighted candle”      

       All this Puritans disapproved.  Christmas was made illegal in England in 1662, Massachusetts having done so in 1659.  There was no Biblical warrant for a Christmas celebration, and, as Virginia demonstrated, the behavior it elicited was not always pious.  The Massachusetts holiday was Thanksgiving.   Although a plausible case can be made that Thanksgiving was first celebrated in Virginia, the national narrative attributes the origins of the Thanksgiving feast to the Puritans.   It remains one of two national feast days.  The other being the glorious fourth, the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.  Christmas cannot be  separated from Christianity and has become mildly controversial.  It was not always so.  From the 1870s, when New York merchants took up Christmas as a sales event, to the 1950s, Christmas was like Thanksgiving a national holiday, with the lighting of the White House Christmas tree a national event.  

       It is such events that make a nation, or in an analogous and deeper way, the Church.  They represent the rhythm of life.   There ought to be times of national happiness, and Christmas is such, a gift from the Church to the culture, encouraging generosity and gentling our ways here at the winter solstice. 

He Will Return

 

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, 
and on earth nations will be in dismay, 
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright 
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, 
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man 
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen, 
stand erect and raise your heads 
because your redemption is at hand.

                            Luke 21:25-28


 

According to the progressive account the world we know will get better and better, climate controlled by man, the goods of the earth equitably distributed.  Iphones and electric vehicles will have been perfected,  there will be a world government.  Heaven will have arrived on earth; Christ’s prayer that the Kingdom would come will have been realized.   But human nature will be unchanged.  The selfishness, greed, and lust that characterizes human behavior, always frustrating our desire to do good and be good, although perhaps contained with pharmaceuticals will still be rampant.  

            But what if the history of the world is not a tale of technical progress and political pacification; what if this giant whirling cosmos is no larger than  a grain of sand in the hand of God omnipotent who made it and who will in due time call it home?     What if the quality of life that matters is the quality of our relation to Him and to our neighbor, not the sum of our achievements and possessions?     What if it is not the outside of man and of history that matters but the inside, the will and the heart?  What if the real you is not the self who moves easily through the world but that self who is with you when you lay your head on the pillow in the quiet of night? 

       That is always the question: are we things of stuff, bound in a cycle of endless birth that ends in death, or are we sons of Our Father in heaven,  making our way through time, enjoying a created order that is a sacrament of something better that is coming?     And when we look at the world through which we move, can we believe that the promise of the rose and the sunrise, the promise of every heart’s hope,  is a political settlement or a government program or the advance of science?  For in this world the highest thing we know is persons.  And if it were not revealed by God it might still be urged on the basis of insight that the end of life and history must be a person, for there is nothing in creation greater than a person.    And the Church teaches as truth revealed in Scripture and Tradition that the person who is coming, in whom all things are redeemed, is not a political person or a poet but Jesus, a divine human person who was once among us but who now reigns in heaven, 

“the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, in whom all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. . . .  All things were created through Him and for Him.  He is before all things and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-20).

His second coming—for He has been among us once—is promised in the words of the New Testament, better New Covenant.  In John:  

“When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself” (14:3) .    Luke: “At that time you will see the Son of Man coming in  clouds with power and great glory” (21:27) .  

Paul in Thessalonians: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first” (4:16).  

And from John’s prophecy:  “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with men’” (21:1, 3).   

And again John says, “When he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).

       Of course the thought that this person who is the meaning of life and history will appear in clouds of glory from the sky is considered by a materialist, secularist culture to be an impossible fancy, having no claim to reality.  This will be said because they believe there is nothing in the world but its outside in all its obviousness.   They forget that this cosmos that seems so solid is a thought in the mind of God and a creature of His will, so that at any moment He may choose to perfect it by bringing this fallen world order to an end at Christ’s return, renewing it and remaking it under the power of His eternal purpose into the new creation he willed in the beginning.   “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the  Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27).    It will always be difficult for secularists to believe that Jesus will appear in the clouds with glory because they forget that the sky is His, it was made through Him.

       The world has been taught by secularist  modernity that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (II Peter 3:4) that progress will continue, there will be peace and finally world government   The text superscript tells us that Christ’s return will be accompanied by disturbances in the sky and sea, by great fear among those who do not believe.  This truth, that after a time of crisis, nature released from its sin-afflicted pattern to be remade anew, Christ will return.  This is a time for Christians to stand tall, for Christ’s return  is our redemption.  Meanwhile, the fact of Jesus’ return may give us occasion to reflect upon the false finality proposed by the secular lie that this world is all there is, that what you see is what you get, that there is no meaning beyond the progress proposed by the secularist project.  “Come, Lord Jesus”  is the prayer of the Church (Revelation 22:20).

Blood Offered

 

“Brothers:
Every priest stands daily at His ministry,
offering frequently those same sacrifices
that can never take away sins.
But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,
and took His seat forever at the right hand of God.”

Hebrews 10: 11-12

 

Three documents in the New Testament take us to the heart of the Christianity of Jerusalem as it was in the first years:  the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter of the Apostle James, and the Book of Hebrews.  Evidently Hebrews was written while priests still made sacrifices in the Temple, that is before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, and the superscript tells the reader that the sacrificial routine of the Temple has been perfected by the one sacrifice for sins offered by Christ.  

It is the heart of the Christan religion, of the gospel preached, that the forgiveness of the sins that alienate us from God are forgiven through the sacrifice of the Son of God, Son of David, Jesus Christ.   His sacrifice is the founding fact of Christianity, its bloody center, the fact that we are made holy through a death, an essential aspect that moderns either find distasteful  because they do understand it or fail to understand because they find it distasteful.  The religion centered on the death of the Son of God is not for Deists and Unitarians and those who are religious  but not Christian.   But the Jews, because sacrifice was central to the worship of the Temple, where daily at dawn and mid-afternoon a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people, and the Romans, whose civic life was arranged around the state sacrifices and individual sacrifices to the gods, knew that God was pleased by the offering of that which was most precious, life itself, and “the life of all flesh is the blood, And I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls” (Leviticus 17:11).  Human sacrifice was no longer part of Hellenistic religious ritual  in the days of Tiberius but was willfully forgotten, while the Jews remembered that the animal sacrifice offered by Abraham was made in place of the death of Isaac, just as the Passover Lamb was offered as a substitute for the first-born of Israel.  That the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel would be accomplished by sacrifice, as had the covenant at Sinai and the covenant with Noah, was the inevitable shape of the divine will and providence.  “Under the law, almost everything is purified by blood, and without blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).    

Because Christian faith was rooted in the shedding of Christ’s blood, the central ritual of the Church always was sacrificial.   On the night in which He was betrayed He had taken bread, blessed and broke it, gave it to His disciples with the words,“This is my body,” and then taking the cup, He gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in remembrance of me.”   On the next day, when Jesus hung on the cross, His head, hands, and side bleeding so as to make the very earth holy, He offered not only Himself but the entirety, the summary, of humankind that would be saved through Him.  As it was with Abraham, God provided the sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-14).  “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, cannot do.  Sending His own son, in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).         

Christian profession rejoices in Christ’s resurrection but our salvation begins in death.  “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  Every baptism is a death, a death of the old man, of the old Adam, and the birth of the new creature who walks in the Holy Spirit.  “We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be  enslaved to sin.  For he who has died is freed from sin.  But if we have died with Christ we believe that we shall also live with Him” (Romans 6:7-8). For Paul the Flesh is a reality and a metaphor, using the body and the flesh as  synecdoches, with the body representing  that part of human nature that resists the will of God, including the sinful will and intellect as well as the sinful flesh, for in humankind as we find ourselves after the fall, every faculty and aspect of mankind is distorted by sin.  It is that, the old man, who is crucified in Christ and whose healing is begun in baptism.  This healing is purchased by a death.

There are mysteries here. Paul wrote that in the Eucharist the Christians of Corinth, when they fulfilled Christ’s command to “Do this in remembrance,” ”+displayed the death of the Lord, that same death accomplished on Golgotha when Pilate was procurator (10:26).   How that death can be represented throughout long ages, so that Christians shared in the body and blood of Jesus, His very person, not ideally, not merely in imagination, but substantially, is the work of a long conversation.   Often the term transubstantiation is used to describe the way through which the Eucharist, the offering of bread and wine, become Christ’s body and blood.  But the reality is deeper, more profound than the word.  

A second mystery arises from Saint Paul’s claim in Colossians that His labors filled up the sufferings of Christ (1:24).  We know that nothing can add to the salvific value of the death of Christ.   But it must be that Christ’s death is made present and effective through the prayers and works of His Church on earth.  Participation is not a quantity.   Our good works are His in us.  And  there is the further mystery of the suffering of Christ, of the suffering of one who cannot suffer.   The Lamb on the throne in the prophet John’s vision stands as though having been slain, His wounds still visible (Revelation 5:6).

Heart Trouble

 

“Hear me, all of you and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.

“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”

Mark 7:14-15

 

With these words Jesus challenged the Pharisees claim that holiness consisted in strict obedience to the propositions of the Law, 613 in all according to later tradition, that included not only the Great Commandments:  You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, but also minute rules about  the washing of hands and the company one kept.    Our Lord’s point in this exchange was simply that it was damaging to the soul to insist on the small things that affected the outside, our behavior in the world, while ignoring what was going on within.    And what was going on within Jesus described graphically, from evil  thoughts and unchastity to blasphemy and folly, in short the catalog of human failure when the human heart is unhealed.   This will create a situation in which law will  be used to blot out charity and duty, as, for example, when one refuses to support aged parents on the grounds that the money is already corban or promised to the Temple treasury, a practice not uncommon among the Pharisees, who used the law to avoid true righteousness.    

When the human heart, which is born in slavery that is original  sin, is unhealed, unrighteousness will reign; human cleverness will think of a way to seem righteous while in fact assiduously achieving the projects of a fallen will.   Throughout the long years catalogued in Hebrew Scripture, Israel had been moving ever closer to the moral fulfillment anticipated in this text, the day when God would give not only commandments but a new heart.    The Pharisaic movement was the project of the best and the brightest, and it was woefully incomplete at its heart.   The prophets had always known that God would not accept the sacrifices of any save those of humble and broken heart, who, following the great example of Job, would finally cease arguing their own righteousness and accept the truth that God was the potter, they the clay.  It was not news in Israel that God would put down the mighty and lift up the lowly and meek.  But the entire Pharisaic tradition was devoted to what Newman called making a fair outside, which made Jesus say that the Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs, clean and bright on the outside, while within there were dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27).  

There is something here about the order of men’s loves and the order that is in their lives.   If one wishes to have a clean outside, this project, the project of having a clean outside cannot be pursued directly with authenticity.  But if one puts first things first; namely love of God and neighbor, the world of smaller things may very well order itself aright.     In the long run one cannot have good manners without good morals. While always recognizing that the claims of God are not to be met on utilitarian grounds; we cannot with success teach Christianity to have a safe society, there is a reason why convents usually have a lovely and evident order, and it is not because religious women are better at house cleaning.

Given that Jesus was right and just in his condemnation of Pharisaic morality, given that His catalogue of the contents of the un-graced human heart is correct, the only cure for humanity is not the cure proposed by the philosophers, which, although it had a certain truth lacked power to make holy, pleasing to God, and pure in conscience.   The only cure that would suffice would be the gift of a new heart.  This was the promise of the great prophets; that God would establish His reign by giving a new covenant, “not like the covenant he made with their fathers when he brought them out of Egypt,” but one under which he promises those He calls into His kingdom new hearts.  It is Jeremah who promises in God’s name:  I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts (31:31-34).    Christ’s death on the cross was the blood of the new covenant that purchased the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 26:27).  His resurrection foretells the life of Glory.  His promise was that He would send His Spirit, so that He would be in us and we in Him (John 14:11, 20).   The analysis Jesus gave the Pharisees, His awareness that the human heart left to itself is desperately wicked, is background for the miracle effected at baptism and in the sacraments through which those whom He calls  are made holy so that our will may be His will; as Dante wrote, in His will is our peace, and our joy and above all the possibility of being pleasing to our Creator, who is also our Father.  

Modernity, the harsh period through which we live, makes two mistakes.    It often assumes that as we are found in the world we are good, a theory urged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the end of the eighteenth century and since taken into the cloying moral environmentalism which assumes that were it not for poverty and poor education every person would be good.   This popular theory is self-evidently false and to its falsity every newspaper witnesses daily as it catalogs our follies.  CEO runs off with secretary; banker absconds with funds; woman beaten, child abandoned, etc., etc.   In fact we are not good as we come into the world; we are liable to the catalog of sins with which Jesus confronted the Pharisees, but we can be made good by the grace of God the Holy Spirit, so that Jesus’ catalog  of what lives in the human heart is not the final report.  

And then modernity, while proclaiming the essential sinlessness of the human race, simultaneously denies the possibility of holiness because it denies the very possibility of the restraint that lifts the human person into the company of the saints.  The line from the country music song, “If it feels so good it can’t be wrong,”  does not, as a moral theory, do much to elevate the human soul above the terrain we as animals share with our cats and dogs, but it is the thesis of a good deal of the moral chaos Jesus described in the superscript above.                 

The Prophetic Voice

“We aspire to please Him, for we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” —  II Corinthians 5: 8-10

 

In this text Paul, a Jew of Tarsus, is telling the whole Mediterranean world, in a voice that resonates even unto our present, that every person will face the judgment of God, answering for what he has done in the years given him by a gracious Creator.  Shocking to say, but when the curtain goes down on our lives, the only thing that will have mattered will be the approval of an audience of one, resplendent in His glory, magnificent in His justice, mighty in His mercy.   Therefore, says Saint Paul, let us please not ourselves, for our own hearts can deceive us, but let us please Him.  For we all must appear before the judgment seat of God.  It is easy, knowing ourselves as we do,  to look forward to judgment with fear, but it is important to remember that God’s judgment on those who love him, who are in Christ, will be “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the place prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”   (Matthew 35:34).   Paul’s point is not that God condemns his people but the hard fact that whether we have done good or evil matters to the only Judge.  

This is Holy Paul, in the superscript above. striking the prophetic note that belongs to the apostolic mission, writing in a few words, without apology, without consideration for the opinion of ‘the world,’ the truth that the meaning of our lives is compassed in choices and graces accepted or rejected as these will be judged by  God.  It is a message that the world whether in the age of  Tiberius or  in  post modernity does not welcome.  But the apostles were not sent to engage in dialectic, but like their predecessors Jeremiah and Ezekiel to announce the Word of the Lord as heralds, not as salesmen. Jesus told His disciples to offer a choice, to offer peace to any house they might enter but should anyone refuse to hear the apostolic message of those sent by Jesus they were not to argue but to shake off the dust from their feet and be on their way (Matthew 10:13-15). In the day of judgment, says the Lord, the fate of the house or town that will not receive the apostolic message will be worse that the destruction visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah. 

The Gospel is not in the first instance an instrument of judgment but of grace, addressed to a world that through complicity in the  Garden with the Serpent’s project has already fallen under God’s judgment: “He came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it,” and yet the apostolic writings are replete with notes of exclusivity, offered on a tone that seems confident or even preemptory, defining the narrow way apart from which we cannot enter into life. Jesus begins His ministry with the command: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve” (Mathew 4:10). And again He says that He is the only way: “No man comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36).  These are choices of the heart. 

Hard words to the unbelieving ears of those who think their first duty is to please themselves.  But Paul and others entrusted with the apostolic warrant to teach Christ’s truth, like the  Church in our day, must say such things, words outrageous to the unbelieving heart, because they are called by God and filled with the same Spirit that inspired the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, enabling them to teach truth without reference to the human sensibilities and if, as at the Areopagus, Paul occasionally appeals to the insight of  poetry, this is only to set as it were in a golden frame the truth that God has not come to argue but tell us how it lies with each of us: “Now He commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world” (Acts 17:21-32).   

Often those who would convince this modern age of the truth of Christ struggle for an effective apology, arguing truly that rebellion against God leads to an unhappy life, while loving obedience leads to peace. There is truth in this, and there are many good and worthy reasons why Christianity should be believed.  It is good for the civil order.  It mitigates cruelty with gentleness.   It teaches truth-telling and blesses our work. But the one eternal and summary reason for belief is none of these but that it is the will of our wise Creator for mankind.   The warrant of the apostles is simply “God says.”  The prophets, and their successors the apostolic mission, in their task of divine proclamation, are not sent to argue but to announce the truth. “Go and proclaim:  Thus says the Lord.”   Apostles, like prophets, are not recruited but called. In the prophet  Jeremiah the Word of the Lord burns intensely that he cannot but prophesy (20:9-18), and Paul says, “A necessity is laid upon me: for woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16).  This is the witness which Jesus commanded the apostles to make before the world.  This witness is the first step in the conversion of souls.  The second is the opening of hearts to the Gospel by the Holy Spirit.  And these two, taken together, without argument have and will convert those whom God has called into His Church. 

The bold witness of heaven-sent prophets and apostles is essential if we are to play our part in the unfolding story of our lives well, for, among other reasons, our lives do not have their meaning written on them with the clarity we might expect if we lived in an unfallen world. The script we are given as we come onto the stage that is our time and place is incomplete and we are liable to an inherited weakness of sight. God has left compelling clues in the natural world which are calculated to open our eyes to the reality of the supernatural.. One of these clues is the creation itself, which, viewed with wonder attests the power and glory of God (Romans 1:19-23).  The other is the voice of conscience, which, while it may not tell us what is right moment by moment, inexorably tells us that something is right, and that we must find and follow it (Romans 2:15-16).  Following these good clues, enlightened if it may be by grace of the Holy Spirit, we may find that our meaning is in the one who made the wonder of the world and stamped upon our hearts the longing for what is good and right. But always we will require the prophetic voice to tell us with bold words God’s will for our lives as we seek to please Him, to assure us on one hand that despite the vicissitudes of this world we are made for an eternity of blessedness, and to warn us on the other that failure to please God has its consequences of eternal loss.  

“They were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29), who like the Pharisees, argued endlessly about the right application of the Law while in heart they were far from the Kingdom.   And in these last days, days that began with Christ’s resurrection and will end when He returns, it falls to the Church in the persons of the apostolic ministry to be the prophetic voice, speaking in the name of Jesus,  addressed to us and our world, not fearing the anger and ridicule of a world that .is ever failing.   We have always known what the response of that world would be:  “You will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9).  Yet nothing can still the apostolic voice, which will speak with a prophetic voice from the power of the Holy Tradition even when to human eyes the Church is in ruins.  The rulers of this age may like those rushing forward to stone Stephen stop their ears (Acts 7:57), but the apostolic voice, speaking words of comfort and warning, will always be heard by those who listen, teaching those things which Christ has commanded.  And He assures us, “Behold, I am with you even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  The apostles, like the prophets who were rejected and killed for delivering God’s message, would die and are still dying for the sake of the Gospel message. “Rejoice and be glad, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).   

Bishops’ Dilemma

  This note is about what might seem to be a Catholic problem.  In fact it is everyman’s problem, for it involves deep questions about the natural law and human agency and integrity.

       For the first one hundred fifty years of our national existence the chances that a Roman Catholic might win the presidency was not really a question.  And there was this: should such an unlikely event occur, the moral formation of such a person would not have been markedly unlike the moral formation of his Protestant neighbors.  Presbyterians and Baptists were just as morally firm, some would say rigid, as Catholics until the artificial birth control issue came up with Margaret Sanger’s campaigns of the twenties.   That split the moral witness of American Christianity; Episcopalians in 1930, other Christian bodies soon afterward.  And to anticipate, then came the pill, about 1963, just after John F. Kennedy’s speech before the Methodists in Houston in 1960.      

       It was a reassuring speech, cleverly constructed.   And while there was the brave line:  “Should there be a conflict between my conscience and my office I would resign my office,”  there was also, “My opinion will not be shaped by any Church,” and overall the Houston Speech promised that he would not govern according to the moral teachings of his Church.  John Kennedy was never very much of a Catholic.  The flaws in his behavior, as with Martin Luther King, have been obviated by assassination and memorable rhetoric, as is right; we ought always to remember the best.  There was something to be said for Camelot.

        Kennedy’s speech quietly laid the groundwork for the personally opposed position, in which one was excused from displaying any personal integrity by holding an opinion which did not affect behavior of governing principles. In 1960 Roe v Wade lay 13 years in the future.    When it became law in 1973, it became the duty of the Chief executive to conform presidential actions and decisions to it, whatever the moral convictions of the executive  might be.  It was a  ruling that set part of the population against government policy and set anti-abortion forces in motion.  As the abortion question settled into the culture it became clear that about half the population energetically disagreed with the 1960 court decision.  This disagreement had and  has a religious base,  being located principally among believing Protestants and Roman Catholics. 

       Adding fuel to the fire was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life.   This of course did not mean that every such act that was not, for instance in the natural periods of infertility, was unlawful;  indeed  the Church encouraged knowledge of such periods, and said that with due regard to charity these could be recognized as a means of limiting procreation.   But one could not deliberately subvert nature’s purposes with devices mechanical or chemical so that the only purpose of the ultimate intimacy was pleasure.  This decision, which probably assumed that those to whom it was addressed would be married couples, now seems quaint.   In 1968 Paul VI could not imagine that for many, perhaps most, sex would become an amusement, nothing sacred, or even romantic about it.   But this became the cultural premise and as such it fed the abortion market.  If one assumes that sexual intercourse is a conscience-less pleasure and then, sure enough, one turns up pregnant, abortion appears as a right, a right for whom a large majority of Americans will fight by whatever means possible.    

       And thus late modernity got crosswise with a large minority of  the Christian population of the United States, the last culture in Western society with a big enough minority to effectively represent the Christian cause.   At the heart of the resistance to the destruction of little children was the Catholic Church, although many, many non-Catholics joined the battle.   The very first Christian document, dating from about seventy-five or eighty, before there was any Gospel text, having gone through the Sermon on the Mount, lists the actions that must be avoided by Christians just coming in out of the cold of Hellenistic sensuality.   No abortion, no infanticide, no corrupting of boys, all actions that while distasteful among the best were tolerated and in a sense unremarkable.   Tertullian, writing about 200, developed the matter thus.  “Murder, being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance.  To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing, nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or one that is coming to the birth.  That is a man which is coming to be one.”   Reiterations could be multiplied unto this present.     

       Now let us think about another element in the currently explosive mix.  Justin Martyr wrote about 150, that those are welcomed to the Eucharist who are baptized and who live as Christ handed down to us.   This meant that those Christians guilty of serious or mortal sin should not participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood until they had made it right with God by confessing their sins.  [In this vocabulary  grave or serious or mortal sin is one in which the matter is grave—stealing a pencil usually does not qualify—and one’s will deliberately and knowingly is set against God’s commandments.] From that day till the present the Church has taught that failure to live as Christ taught us prevented those guilty of mortal sin from receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ until they repent.  The Reformed tradition, the most important Christian tradition in America for much of its history, would seem to have forgotten that before about 1850 on the weekend of the Lord’s Supper the minister would routinely issue communion tokens to  those in good standing, those not guilty of immoral behavior, permitting them to share in the communion service.  The usual remedy for Catholics who have slipped up badly was and is just to go confession and all would be well.   Unless, of course one had been publicly promoting say adultery or homosexuality or abortion or, in the case of one of the fourth-century emperors, Theodosius, permitting soldiers to commit atrocities unrebuked.    On which occasion Saint Ambrose—this was during the brief period when Milan was the capital of the western empire—asked the emperor not to show up for Mass until he had publicly repented.    Over time excommunication became the method for protecting both the sinner and the Sacrament from sacrilege.  Rarely used, and obviously, if one is not a Catholic, excommunication has no meaning or effect.  

       Now consider this.   In the United States there remaineth even in this present a core of Catholic fideles,  Maybe half the Catholic population of perhaps 70 million, maybe less, maybe thirty percent.   These 30 or 35 million at their best are characterized by a disposition of obedience, the obedience that belongs to love.   From them comes the cash that makes ecclesiastical wheels spin.   They are likely to go to confession maybe once  a month, confessing having been rude in traffic or having read a salacious book or looked at the wrong movie or cheated in their income tax.   They will show up on Saturday afternoon or whenever to confess their sins whether these be mortal (1 John 5:16-17) or not.    And they will be there on Sunday.   Perhaps ten percent of them pay some attention to Humanae Vitae.  They all abominate abortion as wrong and morally repugnant.   And it is the case that they, this small percentage of the much larger number who will check the Catholic box on survey forms, consider the Blessed Sacrament the very presence of Jesus in time and place.   It does not matter much to them that millions of atheists consider such beliefs delusional, that Baptists, if they think about it at all, consider this idolatrous, or that Lutherans consider the doctrine a metaphysical impossibility.  For them, just as a sociological fact about a part of the American population, the Blessed Sacrament is the center of life. 

       Now comes a president who is advertised, and lets himself be advertised, as a practicing Catholic, who, while claiming that he is personally opposed to abortion, is putting the entire force of the government behind promoting abortion.   It has been suggested by a learned letter in the WSJ that since Pius X encouraged frequent communion, teaching that the Eucharist is food for the pilgrim on the way, not a reward for the perfect, all, thinking now of the President, should be welcomed to the Lord’s table.   What this overlooks is the fact that since Saint Paul about 45 AD  advised the Corinthians that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” no bishop, no pope, no faithful Christian has ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin, should share in the Mass or Holy Communion.  

       It is a bad year to be a Catholic bishop.  The President is a scandal to the faithful, and I suspect not merely to Roman Catholics.   What kind of person says:  I’m personally opposed, but I don’t think I can foist my opinion on others.  Let the killing proceed and multiply.   Or perhaps the President is among the multitude who have convinced themselves that being opposed to abortion is just an opinion, rather than a close derivative of natural law and of the divine command “Thou shall not kill.”  Tertullian was right, you can kill a child early or late, but you are still killing  a child.   As Benedict XVI put it, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”         

       So what are the bishops to do?   They have been told that Pope Francis would not support a national policy; Cardinals Gregory in Washington and Tobin in Newark and Cupich in Chicago and their allies must be allowed to go on welcoming the unrepentant to Communion.  Stuck between a hard place and a rock the majority of the bishops on June 17th decided by a vote of  165  to 71 that they should say something.  Apart from the question of duty and conscience, if they remain silent they will slip further in the esteem of the fideles.  On the other hand, if they dare to single out the President and the Speaker, they will be accused of politicizing the sacraments by liberal Catholics represented by the 71. They know that in the entire still-vast organism of the Catholic Church there has been only one, a priest in South Carolina, who has dared to refuse communion to the President, and furthermore that the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an appointee of Pope Francis, would be the last person to do so or to back up his clergy should they.  

       But on the other hand it is a great opportunity for teaching, for teaching Catholics, any Catholics anywhere, to approach the body and blood of Jesus with serious sins on their conscience is a sacrilege that is fatally damaging to their souls and derogative of the honor due Christ.  The teaching is not in doubt.  There are several millions who need to hear this who are not in politics.   As for the President and the Speaker and the like,  just pray for them, for they are sold-out souls, too characteristic of a culture in which, taking the advice of the Serpent, we make up the rules for ourselves, in which the gap between profession and action yawns, in which sentimentality is taken for reality.  In a way Catholic politicians who claim the word Catholic with the respectability it still brings while despising the teachings of the Church are a poignant sign of the times, an era when words mean nothing, when the political discourse that shapes the culture is, and is known to be, more often than not, a texture of untruths, if not formally, then materially, uttered by those among whom the relation between words and reality has long been considered a matter of mere expediency.