Santa Claus: Gentling Gomorrah

Wherever there is a living religion it will influence the popular culture.  The notion of gentling the culture, in that specific language, belongs, I think, to Leo XIII, and was used by him to describe the situation in which Christianity, while it elevates souls directly through conversion touches and elevates the general culture indirectly by the tendency of that culture to engage the customs and themes of religion at a popular level.  Where there are Italian Catholics there still will be processions of the statue of the Blessed Virgin or the local saint, held shoulder high, amidst showers of sparklers and fireworks. Where there are English-speaking Christians there will be Santa Claus and more recently Lessons and Carols. In Czechoslovakia there has recently been objection to Santa Claus, on the grounds that their tradition insists that presents are delivered by Baby Jesus.      

  One of the first and most persistent incursions of Christianity into popular culture involved and still involves the rhythm of time. The Christian calendar is rooted in Jewish practice and in the Roman calendar, while reflecting as well the natural cycle of the seasons.  Over time the Roman week of eight days was replaced by the seven-day Christian week borrowed from Judaism and Genesis. Easter, the first and still-greatest Christian festival, set the Passover, as it were, in a new key, and after a period when it was celebrated (at least in Asia) on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nissan, its date was determined by astronomical calculation. In Rome the new year traditionally began in March, the season of nature’s regeneration. The tradition that Christmas was to be celebrated on December 25th dates to the third century.  [I am reminded of the (to us) odd custom of reciting the date of Epiphany and (I think) Easter at the Christmas midnight Mass.]  In the Middle Ages March 25, was New Year’s Day as well as the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel, or Lady Day. Nine months after March 25 is Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the Lord, which falls upon or near the December feast of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and gift-giving.

Hippolytus wrote about 204 in his Commentary on Daniel that Christians esteemed December 25 the birthdate of Jesus and March 25 the date of the great sacrifice, or the Easter celebration.  None of this was rationalized until the scholarship of Dionysius (470–554), a Scythian monk called Exiguus, “the humble”, in his work Anni Domini nostril Jesu Christi 532–627 gave the Christian world a calendar that for the first time counted years from the birth of Christ, a task Dionysius undertook because he “preferred to count and denote the years from the Incarnation  of our Lord, in order to make the foundation of our hope better known and the cause of the redemption of man more conspicuous.” This has proved a challenge to secular scholarship, which prefers BCE (before the common era) and CE (Common Era) to “Before Christ” (BC) and AD (Anno Domini, the year of our Lord).   However one does it, unless willing to redate every event, the dividing point is still the life and death of Jesus Christ.  

The relation between the Roman feast of Lupercalia, celebrated in early February, involved the (unusual) sacrifice of a goat and a dog, whose blood would be smeared on the Luperci, who then would run a race. The Lupercalia was still celebrated in 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned it and substituted the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.  Because the Lupercalia was the merriest feast of the year, a time of gift-giving, there is always the thought that some relation existed between that Roman festival and Christmas, but the date of Christmas seems to have been determined by factors distinctly Christian. 

The influence of Christianity on the calendar was small stuff in comparison to its moral influence in the general culture, especially on the customs and rules regarding marriage.   The Church tried persistently to suppress abortion and infanticide and in general succeeded. The church also attempted with some success to make divorce illegal, resting its case on Matthew 19 and Saint Paul’s analogy relating the indissolubility of marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church.  

            Not the least influence of Christianity was the coopting of the chivalry into what one might call a quasi-religious vocation, especially evident in the crusades. 

The preparation for a knighting (or dubbing as it is sometimes called), which might include any number of knights-to-be, began the day before, with the squire brushing himself up with a bath and a shave or beard trim. Overnight he might spend the hours in a vigil within a chapel with his sword resting upon the altar. . . . On the day of the ceremony the squire was dressed by two knights with a white tunic and white belt to symbolize purity, black or brown stockings to represent the earth to which he will one day return, and a scarlet cloak for the blood he is now ready to spill for his baron, sovereign, and church.  The newly made knight was given back his sword, which had been blessed by a priest with the proviso he always protect the poor and weak. The blade had two cutting edges – one to represent justice, the other loyalty, or more generally, chivalry. The squire was actually knighted by a simple tap on the shoulders or neck with the hand or sword, or even a heavy blow, meant to be the last blow he should ever take without retaliating and to remind him of his obligations and moral duty not to disgrace the man who dealt the blow. A few words might be said but nothing too fancy, perhaps a simple ‘Be thou a knight.’ 

One of the projects of knighthood was the maintenance of the Peace of God. Robert the Pious (996–1031) espoused an oath that instantiated the peace of God, which while never effectively maintained offered some respite from the incessant wars of the Middle Ages.  

I will not infringe on the Church in any way. I will not hurt a cleric or a monk if unarmed. I will not steal an ox, cow, pig, sheep, goat, ass, or a mare with colt. I will not attack a villain or villainess or servants or merchants for ransom. I will not take a mule or a horse male or female or a colt in pasture from any man from the calends of March to the feast of the All Saints unless to recover a debt. I will not burn houses or destroy them unless there is a knight inside. I will not root up vines. I will not attack noble ladies traveling without husband nor their maids, nor widows or nuns unless it is their fault. From the beginning of Lent to the end of Easter I will not attack an unarmed knight.

While these large aims were being pursued as derivative manifestations of Christianity in popular culture, the popular culture itself was recruited into the Christian cause through the mystery plays and through the magnificence of the liturgy.  And one might remember the guilds, an organization of artisans conceived as having the religious purposes of mutual support and dedicated to maintaining the standards of the craft, its activities typically aranged around a patronal festivals. Often the guild would have a church such as Raphael’s Sant’ Eligio degli Orefic, built in 1509 for the goldsmiths of Rome.    

Christmas was of course a liturgical celebration required as the Feast of the Nativity by the Roman missal and the English book of Common Prayer.  Puritans did not like it, attributing its origin to paganism or Catholicism, and in the Cromwellian years of mid-seventeenth century, its celebration was illegal.  This was the Puritan tradition inherited by Massachusetts. When the Reverend Charles Coffin travelled south about 1800, he encountered as an oddity the celebration of Christmas in Virginia.  

To skip to the nineteenth  century, the secularization of the two greatest Christian festivals brought an increasingly secular culture face to face with the fact that it had no cause for celebration that was not ultimately rooted in the Christian story.  One might suppress “Christmas” in favor of “holiday,” but a holiday is nothing but a holy day, and the giving of gifts is derived from Saint Nicholas, whose feast was December 6th. Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas.  

In  1821, the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. “It contained Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Our modern idea of Santa Claus was encouraged by the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823; Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at the General Seminary in New York,  is reputed to have written it while on a shopping trip by sleigh.”  St. Nick is described as being chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf with a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.   The reindeer were named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem, the last two of which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen. 

Santa Claus lost his character as a Christian bishop and became childhood’s delight and a commercial property, first of New York merchants and then of the country, but he remains the symbol of love and generosity.  And if the world is a bit gentler; if almost everyone gets a day off for the purpose of eating themselves silly and talking with family, this is attributable to the ability of Christ to gentle civilization. The pope chose his words well because the Church does not propose to create a Christian civilization.  It asks the right to be itself and to tell its story, which makes the world a better place, not in the sense of some cumulative progress toward a historical utopia but by way of gentling a culture that without its elevating touch will become coarser by the day. And of course at Christmas stores make money, recouping the dry mid-summer months; and that’s a good gift too.

Thoughts for the Feast of Christ the King

 He is before all things,
and in Him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through Him to reconcile all things for Him,
making peace by the blood of His cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

Colossians 1:16


In His divine humanity Christ is one of us but without sin.  In His cosmic divinity, while remaining incarnate, He is present in the heart of the Father even while in every moment of time He is the word through whom the worlds were made.  He is present personally in the Eucharist, and by His living and present power He is present throughout creation. He is present in the scientist’s true formula and the philosopher’s right reason.   His glory shines wherever there is beauty, the beauty of a human face or of Mozart or of Bernini or of a summer’s day, wherever there is charity or any virtue.  He is particularly present where evil is being borne and temptation resisted.
            It is a great scandal to Satan’s cosmopolitan mind that in a world full of so many peoples, so many ideas, so many loyalties, it is Jesus alone who is the image of the invisible God.  In Him, in the Word, all things hold together. He has no competitors, and this in part because whatever is true of human experience lives in Him. Whatever is true in humanism, in Islam, in Judaism, exists in Him, while if any of these pretend to universality or even sufficiency, they become idolatries, false gods.   There may be some truth in everything, but nothing is true but Christ. 

 It is the grand illusion of the human race that we are the sole and active agents in creation and in our destiny, when in effect we share a borrowed power, and exist moment by moment by the will of another.  It is by His gift that we live and move. In Him all things hold together. He is the cause of causality, the source of just individuation, the perfection of every perfect thing insofar as it is perfect.     

And without Him all things fall apart.  While He cannot be driven from creation and He wills not to stop the beating heart even as it rebels. But the divinely willed stability of nature provides no morally neutral ground. For where Christ is,  while through His will and power e=mc2 and the Pythagorean their will remain stable, there will also be in a world that neglects Christ and His truth the incessant importunings of Satan, hidden at first in equivocation, self-esteem, and pride, but increasingly unveiled in souls who do not cleave to Christ, until blinded and unknowingly those souls abandon the good and become victims and agents of evil.   

It is the persistent lie of the world that Christ is an optional enrichment, one among many alternatives.  It is the claim of those He sent that He is the way and the truth and that none comes to God by any way other than Christ and His cross.     True, the modern world proposes its alternatives to the scandal of Christ. Beginning with the dispiriting lie that humankind is not only good but unflawed, the proposal is that we must develop a community of natural kindness. This is the humanitarian religion whose victory Newman foresaw in his Biglietto Speech of 1879.  This new religion was developed through Modernism and the New Theology of the Edwardian era, until it became the presupposition of religion in the 1960s. It proposes to obviate the pain of life and in the attempt to do so destroys life’s adventure. Its political form is socialism, its philosophy is cynicism and despair of the truth, its religion modernism, which directs imagination away from God and toward the melioration of the human condition.  Winston Churchill described it as “the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.”   

Secularism, this-age-ism, may take many forms, but like Christianity secularism has its revealed principles, and while it has a philosophy and an economic policy, in its origin and for its power it depends upon faith that this world is what is, all  that is. A secular world is one that cries out for government solutions as a faithless people find the vicissitudes of freedom unmanageable. Then it is easy to put one’s faith in Big Brother, and then follows the belief ; that mankind, having failed to become brotherly and disinterested under the influence of Christ, after a long and painful tutelage under an absolute authorianism, their natural goodness finally revealed,  may become virtuous according to the Socialist pattern; and that there is a race of men, vastly different from the ordinary sinners depicted in the daily newspaper as they are carried off for peculation, abuse, and prevarication, and the common consequences of lust and greed; a race justly capable of planning the future, assigning employments, and distributing resources, to whom the development of a future without risk, pain, or fear may be confidently assigned.  Then, having been unwilling to bow the knee at the name of Jesus, every back will bend beneath the knout and the whip that invariably accompany the expropriation, murder, and torture that is required to establish the humanitarian state. It is a painful truism that since the great example of Israel’s Babylonian captivity, those who will not have God will be taken into slavery.     

Interestingly enough, one may see from the governments that dominate in much of Asia and some of the Caribbean and South American states, that these regimes are established by fear and violence.  Not so the reign of Christ, which in its origin is the kingdom of the heart, which is founded in the mystery of freedom, and which seems to lie defenseless not only before these socialist authoritarianisms but in the face of the moral decay of the great democracies that live in the delusion that one may have justice and freedom without God.   In a very practical way their polities share the principles of Castro and Xi: history is not moving toward the return of Christ but toward the comfortable, pain-free life, a life that summarizes human possibility, which is made available by the state.   

In this situation in which Christ has no army, in which the corporate witness of the Church is weak and confused, the only weapon at hand is the weapon that was available to Christians in the age of Nero, Decius, and Diocletian, their lives.  There are countless lives that by their unwavering faith and exemplary charity testify to the power of Christ. These may be hidden, but there are also heroes, those who dare to receive a family of children as determined by God rather than by reproductive technology.  And there is still individual heroism. One thinks of the priest who dared to deny the body and blood of Jesus to a politician who publicly defends the destruction of little children. And there was this week the Chinese bishop who fled rather than witness to the lawfulness of the official Church. And not long ago a highly placed official made a public speech at a religiously-founded university not noted for unwavering witness in which He denounced the deconstruction of values native to Christianity.  He and his words were condemned as divisive. Christianity is always divisive and is always resented by the secular order which longs for secular peace among a population undisturbed by any idea that rises above the historical horizon. These in their different ways were the witnesses Jesus commanded when He said: you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  

Such witnesses have special importance when the magisterial Church is in disarray, afraid to preach the unique necessity of Jesus—nobody has to believe it but Christian witness hurts feelings, with some notable exceptions lacking the courage to stand up to the sexual revolution, coopted in its humanitarian concerns by the secularists, unclear on the point that holiness is the one thing necessary.  Jesus told us that He had come to bring not peace but the sword, and while we know that the peace He does not promise is secular peace and that the sword is the sword of the Spirit, Christ will always have His army of witnesses, unto the ends of the earth.

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Gift of Work

Brothers, you know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
we worked, so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.

II Thessalonians 3:6-12


It is a matter of consummate interest and importance that before Adam fell, he was put in the Garden and told by  his Creator to till it and keep it. From the beginning, it was God’s plan that the earth required the perfecting hand of man.   Although later the earth would be cursed because of man’s complicity in the great rebellion, work itself was holy, having a specific object, to bring forth from the soil the bread by which mankind lives, which bread in its highest use would become the body of the Lord.  Sin makes the ground resist the human hand, but work itself is a gift commanded at the dawn of creation.  

Until the day of our grandfathers, while there would be workers with words, priests and teachers, and also men of just violence, soldiers, tilling the soil would be the common vocation. Now work is likely to involve neither the plow nor the scythe, but the electronic screen through which all that is in the world flows into mind and imagination. 

Paul’s situation is one in which some do not work while living off the charity of others, perhaps believing that the apostolic order of common property remembered in Acts and effective in the days of Pentecost was permanent (Acts:2:44, 4;32). It may have been easy to fall into this way of life in a community of Christians who were daily expecting the Lord’s return, making the pursuit of duty and profit  redundant. Paul’s point is that work, producing one’s own food, orders the soul rightly, whereas sloth, the vice of laziness should not be found among Christians, leading as it does to moral and hence finally to civil chaos.. In support of this admonition, Paul offers his own example, the example of a life spent not only in apostolic labor that repeatedly brought him into distress and great labor but also a life spent practicing the craft at which he was a master, tentmaking, so that his maintenance was never a charge on the Churches he served (Acts 3:18).  It was a tender point. Paul pointed with some pique to the fact that he and Barnabas were the only apostles who had foregone the support they might justly have claimed and which others enjoyed (I Corinthians 9:3–7).    

Work usually means doing, and so it is a verb, but there is also a noun, the Latin opus, used with reference to something created with forethought and imagination.    We will say that Beethoven’s Opus 53 is Sonata Number 21 in C Major, a work complete in itself, as perfect as its composer could make it.   Paul is seeing his life as an opus, a finished work when he writes the beautiful passage that begins, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.  Therefore there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (II Timothy 4:7). And in that way every life can be an opus, not simply a labor. 

The key to a life that is a perfected work is discovering a vocation, from the Latin noun vocatus and the verb voco,  or calling. For many this will mean  accepting the shape of necessity as the will of God,  a life of labor dictated by circumstance, which must then be transformed often by labor into an opus. This possibility is among the blessings of a world now often freed from labor on the land and cast into a cauldron of possibility.   A person now twenty may become if not anything at least a great number of things, and in a world in which we no longer inherit our vocation from our father, and are often not bound by necessity, this means the danger of possibility.   When the forms are dissolved, each person must as is said “Make up his own mind.”  

In this exercise of discerning a vocation there are no rules but there are considerations.  There is the possibility that God is calling you into His immediate service.  There are your responsibilities which must be consulted. Then there is the fact of your natural abilities, which are a guide.  And perhaps above all there is the fact of your interests. And out of this texture of projects and necessities the Christian will make a life that is his or her opus.  

At present work is more than usually frustrated  by various schemes that propose to take away that part of work that contributes to the pain of life; the monotony, the limitations on freedom.  It was part of the grand illusions of the sixties that we just might be able to invent a laborless world. Perhaps robots would do it all! Or automation.  This, these proposals, overlook the truth that work is not only good for the soul but essential to the good life. Our meaning is in forming our own opus, that finished work of  our lifetime, spent either in the factory or the office, that says well done.     

That opus will have many meanings and many levels;  imaginative, affective, economic, but the one level that will locate and give true value to the others is the moral meaning of every action of a lifetime.   Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that what our lives mean is to be found in what we do for others. This begins, as Paul says, by working with our hands and minds, by minding our own duties and not the business of others, taking care of ourselves and our families.  Paul has harsh words for those who fail in this, writing that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and I worse than an unbeliever” (I Timothy 4:8). This care for others ranges out from our own to touch the hungry, the stranger, and the naked with the divine charity.  To those who do these things, the Lord will say, “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). 

There are varieties of Christianity that doubt that our works matter in the face of the all-sufficient efficacy of faith.  To this it can only be said: These, these works, this are my life, taken together my opus, a work of your grace offered to you, O Christ.         



Hispanics and Anglos

The Ancestors of English-speaking Americans were living in wattle huts and trying unsuccessfully to fend off the armed Scandinavian migration.  Iberia, later called Hispania, was a much coveted colonial post among aspirant consuls-in-the-making, its climate warm and welcoming, its fields fertile, and the commerce of its ports, Barcelona and Valencia, humming.   This peace was interrupted by the Vandals and then by the Muslim invaders, who occupied various parts of Spain for about seven hundred years.  

Then two things happened.  In 1492 the last Muslim stronghold, Grenada, was taken.   Spain was the result of the slow union of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, accomplished as the war against Islam became increasingly successful.   Spain’s Atlantic trade challenged the Hansa and her Mediterranean commerce rivaled Genoa and Venice. In that fateful year Isabella, Queen of Castile from 1474 until her death in 1504, supported and financed the journey of the mystical, able Genoese  Christopher Columbus that led to the opening of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century.  Her reforms and those she made with her husband had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are known for completing the Reconquista and for ordering conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects.  Their national existence won by a long, bloody struggle, perhaps Ferdinand and Isabella were inspired by a Poland-like nationalism; being occupied by the Russians and the Third Reich has a clarifying power. Isabella, granted together with her husband the title “the Catholic” by Pope Alexander VI, was recognized as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church in 1974. Perhaps some day she will be considered a saint. Meanwhile the president of the Catholic University covers the murals depicting  Columbus’ voyage, preferring perhaps an America in which the Aztecs are unimpeded in their penchant for sacrificing maidens and ravaging their neighbors.  

Before Roanoke, before Jamestown, before Plymouth, the Spanish had organized an empire that included the Caribbean islands, the west coast of North America—yes, Virginia, Mexico is in North America—from what would be Oregon to the Terra Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina, including ultimately the distant Pacific Islands named for Phillip II.  It is satisfyingly hyperbolic but also true that there was grand opera in Lima before Jamestown was envisioned. 

It is hardly surprising that Henry VII was anxious to marry his heir Arthur to Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, or that after the death of Arthur, only six months married, Henry hastened to negotiate Catherine’s marriage to his second son Henry, despite the difficulty involved in dispensing the bond of consanguinity that existed between Henry and Catherine due to her previous marriage to Arthur.  From the attempt of Henry to have his marriage to Catherine annulled would grow the Black Legend, Spanish Leyenda Negra, a term indicating an unfavorable image of Spain and Spaniards, accusing them of cruelty and intolerance, prevalent in the pre-modern works of many non-Spanish, and especially Protestant, historians. “Bloody” Mary and her failed marriage to Phillip II is part of that story, the lynchpin of which is the attempt of Phillip in May 1588 to invade England and unseat the heretic Elizabeth.  It was this event which snuffed out the last Catholic resistance, ushered in violent persecution of Catholics, and, I think, made nationalism an essential part of the English national religion. A proud people do not take kindly to the attempt, however unsuccessful, to invade their country and change their government. Overlooked is the Treaty of Nonesuch, under which Elizabeth had offered support to the rebels in the Spanish Netherlands.

The voyage of Columbus ultimately unleashed a three-way race among the great European powers to claim territory in the New World.  Spain had a head start, and a state of war existed between Spain and England. Elizabeth never financed an expedition to the New World, but she licensed privateers who preyed upon the Spanish ships bearing gold back to Spain.   Sir Francis Drake, famous for his circumnavigation of the globe, the most famous of the privateers, claimed California for England and attacked St. Augustine in 1586. Relations between England, and Americans, the English surrogates  and Spain would remain anxious, erupting into armed hostility as English-speaking settlers brought the lightly settled Spanish frontier in North America under pressure. Spain’s last-minute entry into the French and Indian War on the side of France cost it Florida, which the British acquired through the first Treaty of Paris in 1763. After twenty years of British rule, however, Florida was returned to Spain as part of the second Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution in 1783.  In 1819 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams achieved a diplomatic coup with the signing of the Florida Purchase Treaty, which officially put Florida into U.S. hands at no cost beyond the U.S. assumption of some $5 million of claims by U.S. citizens against Spain. Formal U.S. occupation began in 1821, and General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, was appointed military governor.   Louisiana was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain from 1763 to 1801 that consisted of territory west of the Mississippi River basin, plus New Orleans. Spain acquired the territory from France.  It was sometimes known as Spanish Louisiana. The district was retroceded to France, under the terms of the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso and the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1802 only to be acquired by Jefferson from the cash-strapped Napoleon in 1803. 

In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain.  Meanwhile, Anglo settlers kept pushing west, and in 1836 the Republic of Texas was founded in the face of Mexican territorial claims.  This dispute was settled, supposedly, by the Mexican War of 1846–1848, which took American troops to California, Santa Fe, and finally to Mexico City.  In Mexico it is called the American Intervention of 1846. Meanwhile there was the French-Austrian attempt of 1864–67 to make Mexico a monarchy and an empire, narrowly defeated. The war of 1846 was the curtain-raiser  to the Spanish-American War, when, with doubtful justification Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines were annexed from a weak Spanish monarchy, a project promoted by a subtle anti-Catholic propaganda. In 1903 the United States built the Panama Canal on land acquired by purchase.  

Since Henry’s rejection of Catherine of Aragon, since the Spanish Armada,  relations between Spain and England have intermittently been stiff. Things were not helped by the English acquisition in perpetuity of Gibraltar under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which now seems to the Spanish an unjust humiliation.  More recently there was the mystery of Franco, who either quashed a duly elected liberal government with savage violence, or prevented Spain’s becoming a socialist tyranny and Russian client state. What is forgotten, because we are more ignorant of Spanish cultural history than of the history of France and Italy, is Vasquez, El Greco, and Cervantes.  Also often neglected are great moderns: Antoni Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia, Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel Unamuno. 

For five centuries relations between Anglos and Hispanics have been complicated by religion, of which relation the black legend is the pathology.  Spanish Catholicism is the Inquisition, the enslaving of conscience to superstition, given which representation, the freeing of territory into American influence and possession is right and just.  But at the heart of the distanced relationship is the fact that so many Hispanics don’t do like folks do. Well, some do: the business elites, and maybe Costa Rica and Chili. But there is too much disparity between rich and poor, too much violence and disorder.  This is partly due to the fact that Latin America was not really settled by Europeans; there were two few Spaniards; partly due to the fact that the Spanish regime while not barbaric or anti-Christian lacked any meaningful element of consent or participation. There was no Magna Carta.  Some of the reasons for this would include the apparent inability of post-feudal colonial culture to support the idea of any degree of transcendent lawfulness. Remembering that for corruption to be damaging it does not have to be universal, it would seem that what one often finds is the survival of a degenerate, lawless bastard feudalism in which the strong man and his clientelia are the government.  As one politician put it, “For my friends anything; for my enemies the law.” In this environment it’s to some degree every man for himself. At the top the rich will build a gated and guarded compound. At the very bottom one might join a gang. In the middle one muddles through, remembering that the police may or may not be your friend; they are taking care of themselves too. This creates an environment in which investment is hard to find because it is never quite secure.   When there is no job there is trafficking in drugs, or smuggling. And there is always Socialism and Revolution. What makes a public political culture. Religion surely, but more importantly legal tradition, and still more importantly an incorruptible judicial system. As in Chicago, the police may charge but the case will never come to trial.  

Ukraine has some of the most exceptional farmland on the planet. But the country is totally broke.  150 years ago, Hong Kong was a tiny village of illiterate fisherman. 50 years ago in Singapore they used to defecate in the streets.  Twenty-five years ago Estonia was still part of the crumbling Soviet Union. None of those places has any resources to speak of. But they’ve become among the wealthiest in the world. What’s the difference between Hong Kong and Ukraine? Singapore and Venezuela? Estonia and Nicaragua? Wealthy nations do have some common characteristics.  Wealthy nations have a culture that values hard work. Knowledge. Productivity. Innovation. Risk-taking. Saving. Self-reliance. It’s not that people in poor countries don’t work hard. Far from it.” But there is no culture that supports these values. Poverty is in large measure the failure of public political culture.  

Perhaps Protestant critics are right.  Perhaps it’s their religion. It is true that Catholicism in health considers neatness and industry a bit downstream from some higher values. But persistent, even failed, Catholicism, hasn’t quite made mainland Spain or France or Italy an economic-political wasteland, although parts of Italy are marginal.  The trash cannot be dealt with in Sicily and the Milanese consider Neapolitans a lesser breed.    

One way to look at the problem of poverty in Latin American is to think of their pattern as predictive of where we may be headed as the political culture becomes Godless.  It is important to remember that while Argentina may still have Roman Catholicism in its constitution, Mexico is officially, and in the 1920s viciously, anti-clerical. Not everybody in El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico is poor.  If you are well placed, you go to a (probably) religious high school and you may get out of Mexico for university. There is probably a pious picture of Msgr. Escriva somewhere in the house. On the other hand there are the cardboard villages, the untreated disease, and always the shrine to Archbishop Oscar Romero.  And if these are persistent you come to the United States. Deep in your consciousness there lies the conviction that Texas and Arizona and California belong to you.


To begin autobiographically, I can never think of the word “power” without thinking of Malcolm Muggeridge’s phrase “the vulgarity of power.”     What Muggeridge had in mind was the uses of power in contemporary culture and politics which typically involves the assertion of will without justice and certainly without love.  In the raw, power satisfies the human desire to dominate rather than to be dominated. As Augustine wrote, the search for power in the form of domination has been the failure of regimes, At the end of Nineteen-Eighty-Four the only answer the controllers can give as to why they have turned earth into hell is power.  This is the perversion of something that as belonging to human nature is good. It is a gift of God, who is omnipotent, all powerful, who wills that man share in this goodness, that we have the ability to exercise dominion in the world, and to pursue what is good, that is to be pleasing to God by rejoicing in his will.   “In his will is our peace,” as Dante wrote.  

As it happened, we humans have tended to use our powers not to please God but to pursue pleasure, for pleasure is the form  of those secondary goods that have the apparent ability to satisfy. Both carnality in its many aspects and dope, from marijuana to Heroin and meth, represent the exercise of power on behalf of pleasure.   Of course one may appeal to the Stuart moral philosophy, the principle of which was, “God never damned any man for having a little pleasure.” But against this is the experience of Eve, who, while her underlying sin was rebellion, was moved to disobedience by the facts that the fruit was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and capable of producing wisdom (Genesis 3:6).   The formless pursuit of pleasure, without restraint, without underlying moral purpose, is central to Satan’s project, which is the destruction of souls. Satan thought to seduce Christ, not with the tawdry pleasure of the flesh, but with the promise of political power: the rule of kingdoms, bodily invincibility, the power to feed without labor. He failed, and the Messiah went on to offer salvation through the abandonment of every exercise of power other than the power of love.  He was not able, or would not, come down from the cross. Yet he did promise to come again in great power, full of justice, full of might, in great glory, to punish sinners and establish the incarnate kingdom of the new heart.   

In the meantime Jesus promised power of a certain kind to the Church, that is to his elect.  Christ said, “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). And this was reiterated as Jesus ascended to his father: “You shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses” Acts 1:8.    And in John 1:12: “As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become sons of God, even to them who believe on his name: which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” And in 3:3 to Nicodemus, “Unless a man be born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  

Here one might step back to consider the history of human attempts to be pleasing to God or the gods, and what one finds is a history of failure despite a fullness of information and plentitude of aspiration, vacillating and uncertain though these attempts be.   Israel was certainly not ignorant that their first task was to love God with all their hearts. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Cato, Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus had a clear understanding of the righteousness of the gods and offered various proposals for pleasing them.  All these projects, Hebrew and Greek and Roman, on a certain day had a certain nobility, but the results they achieved were episodic, fragile, and ultimately frustrated. It was not yet time for the lifting of the veil that stood between the sons of Adam and the Creator.  But then in the fullness of time Christ came, Pentecost came, and we were given the power to know the Father in his Son Jesus Christ.  

This did not end the question about power, for the Gospel maintained that we were made sons of God not by our own power, but by the power of God. Even among the elect there was controversy.  The difficulty was evident in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which it was maintained that God’s power was made perfect in our powerlessness. Maintained consistently for five centuries, adumbrated by Saint Augustine, this came under attack in the early fifth century by a Roman advocate who thought this admission of incapacity in their one thing of ultimate importance admitted a shameful fault in God’s design of man, who, after all had been given freedom and choice.   This controversy, although settled and re-settled, and decreed and taught with anathemas, has never lain quiet. In the twenty-first century the occasional German bishop may be found opining that Pelagius might be right after all. Christianity put a check to the theory that power is self-justifying. There is no greater power than the power to forgive, to join the believer to Christ, to re-make the past.     

Whatever else it did, the Pauline-Augustinian position introduced into the political bloodstream of the West a healthy fear of power unchecked.   This was evident in the tendency of political power in the Middle Ages to prefer subsidiarity, to reject royal absolutism as in Magna Carta, and to consider human justice at its best a reflection, albeit imperfect, of divine justice.  The inherently transcendent rule of law itself mirrors distrust or arbitrary power. Between 1500 and the Age of Revolutions (1640–1790) arbitrary power triumphed as the Church was nationalized and the other parts of the body politic subordinated to royal authority.   When the revolutions came, the new polities, especially the Constitution of the United States sought to limit arbitrary authority through the disbursal of power among the branches of government, a noble and partially successful goal, successful accidentally while resting on the Hobbesian principle that life is he unending quest for power among contending interests.  

This still left our country with what at times seemed to be a monopoly of power.   Political power in a secular age is not seriously checked by extra-governmental interests of any kind.   Each exercise of state power can only be argued on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the double defeat of Germany was just; perhaps Viet Nam was not.  Perhaps. Christianity teaches that power should always be exercised with humility; this I think may be the meaning of the third Beatitude, which means blessed are the gentle; those who do not insist or push. As history shows, and I mean by history not ‘history’ as Hegel envisioned it but the past, the attempt to exercise power without reference to God and his justice, pursuing the conviction that we can be good without him, will always court disaster.   It is better to exercise one’s power on behalf of another than on behalf of one’s. Thus Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. Thus the Benedictines and monasticism generally. Thus, by the way, is being a father or mother.

In the twenty-first century power has found new means of achieving its will.  Language itself is power, and at present the public rhetoric is characterized by a new violence in which not only is shouting good, but it is noble to attribute motives and to lie bout one’s political opponents for the good of the country.  That there are reasons for this does not really mitigate. But in the end all power is from God, and before his just judgement earth and sky will flee away. Saint Augustine wrote a long book about this, showing that the pursuit of domination offers transitory success and long-term failure.


The Latin monere means to remember, and the suffix ment recognizes the result of an action, as in armament and accomplishment. The word monument is especially associated with the remembrance of the deceased; it is a distinctively human thing, buried in the ancient memory of the race, that our departed are not abandoned to the animals but buried with some external sign, a standing stone, a pile of rocks, or covered with stone slabs.  We know so little about the past. In 2012 a cemetery 4000 years old in which two important personages were discovered buried with their chariots in Georgia. And by then we are coming upon the pharaonic obsession with being buried in unforgettable splendor with all the equipment necessary for the good life included. To be a great person was to have a great tomb, as in the case of the tomb of Hadrian, better known as Castel San Angelo and the tomb of Augustus, almost as large but in ruins, and the doughty little tomb of Theodoric the Great on a traffic island in Ravenna.  The Middle Ages displayed a special interest in erecting be-jeweled monuments over the relics of the saints, as at Becket’s tomb—hastily destroyed by Henry (wrong message)―and at Compostela. For splendor it is hard to beat the tombs of the Medici in Florence, and then there was apparently the scheme of Julius II, happily frustrated, to make the new St. Peter’s a family tomb. St. Peter’s was already a vast memorial to the Apostle Peter, whose remains lay beneath the high altar.  

In a general way the Renaissance was the last great age of tomb building.  One thinks of the canopied tomb of the Viscounts Carey that occupied one chapel in St. Mary’s, Burford, Oxfordshire.  But from that point there was a steady diminution in great tomb-building, culminating in the twenty-first century, when you ancestors can be reduced to ashes in a number eight juice can.  But in the intervening centuries burial in the church-yard or the family cemetery on the farm or plantation was the Christian way. And of course among Catholics the practice of praying for the departed, who might be in the last stages of the great journey, persisted.   

Great events were also memorialized.   One can see the entire liturgical history of Israel  as a corporate act of anamnesis, from Passover, which recollects the deliverance from Egypt under the protection of the Lamb to the Feast of Booths.  Christianity is founded on the act of recollection commanded by Christ on the night in which he was betrayed, which remembrance, with its varied meanings, is now probably the most commonly shared activity of the human race.  The Greeks, too, had their memories; thus the monument to those who fell at Thermopylae, and the various monuments to the poetic and athletic achievements they so admired, as in the famous Choragic Monument of Lysiscrates in Athens.  

The wars and revolutions of the great consolidated states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided ample opportunity for monument building.  Paris is significantly a monument to Napoleon Buonaparte, the gifted soldier and revolutionary bureaucrat who made France great again to the detriment of the rest of Europe.  The Pantheon is his tomb, and the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, the Arch of Triumph of the Star, commissioned in the wake of Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at Austerlitz in 1805, recounts his conquests.  The Trafalgar column in London was commissioned at about the same time, commemorating the victory of Nelson over the Spanish and French in 1805. Washington is full of monuments, most notably the monuments to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington,  Only the Washington Monument is (belatedly, 1831) a burial place.   

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had their internecine, civil wars.  The conflict between Jacobins (defenders of the hereditary rights of the Stuarts) and the Hanoverians, the succession of William and Mary, lasted for about fifty years (1790-1845), the English won, and as far as I know―which is not very far—there are no English monuments to the valor of the supporters of the Stuarts in the uprisings of 1715 and 1745.  The Scots were annexed, their clans outlawed. Similarly, the French revolutionaries killed perhaps 200,000 French citizens of the Vendée between 1793 and 1795. One might say that the American Revolution was a kind of civil war. It was not very easily compromised, but after the collapse of Napoleon British and Americans found much in common.

The War Between the States or the Civil War was not easily settled and is perhaps not settled yet.   Battles between brothers often have a special bitterness. The South, especially the lower south, had been successfully invaded and punished, and was to remain occupied until 1875.   Then the South enjoyed its first modest post-war boom. If you will study the pictures of your ancestors, even of the farming yeomanry, you will see that by 1895 prosperity had set in.  There was a movement toward unity all around. But memory ran deep, and in southern imagination the war had been fought over a political theory—was the united States a unitary sovereignty such as France or was it a compact of states.  There was a respectable body of opinion that it was a compact, solemn, but a compact still. In 1814-15 the New England Federalists seemed willing to threaten secession over the three-fifths rule. South Carolina had always been a troublesome member of the Federal Union, requiring Andrew Jackson in 1836 to threaten, Trump-like, to go to South Carolina to hang the governor himself if the state persisted in nullification.   Why was Lincoln a convinced exponent of the unified state theory? Perhaps because civic piety required it. Perhaps because this was the platform of the National Republicans. Perhaps because he was from that part of the country that saw itself as the creation of the Federal government. In any event, Lincoln would have the union with or without slavery, but he would have the union. South Carolina thought otherwise and considered Lincoln a danger to its existence as a place utterly dependent upon African labor,  which was no more than the Federal constitution had guaranteed just seventy years before. South Carolina seceded on December 6, 1860. Fort Sumpter surrendered on April 12th.  This was Lincoln’s last causus belli, the other forts having surrendered.  On the 15th, he called from each state to provide 75,000 troops to suppress South Carolina.  The reply of the Governor of Tennessee, on his way out of the union, was “Not one soldier for coercion.”   But the war was on. The southern population flocked to the defense of their country and with that the back-handed defense of the institution that so exacerbated Abolitionist opinion, an institution in whose defense it had in general displayed no fervent interest. The issue was that Lincoln was raising an army against them. Half a million lives later the union was preserved.   

A nation may be defeated but not vanquished.  Bitterness seems to have died quickly, but there survived, among a people who believed in the hand of providence, both acceptance and a  sense of justice defeated, or at least a sense that we survived and were glad we did, our soldiers fought valorously and had a good constitutional cause.  As Walker Percy put it, “I’m glad we lost, but I’m glad we fought.” Thus the period 1890-1910 saw the beginning of the creation of a southern national memory, at the zenith of which was Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 Gone with the Wind, and which persisted into the states rights movement of the fifties.   Along the way there had been Thomas Nelson Page, and the glamorizing of southern history.  Consider the Dallas Confederate memorial, erected in 1896, the year that the United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in Nashville. The inscription on the south-facing side below the medallion reads, “The brazen lips of Southern cannon thundered an unanswered anthem to the God of Battle.” The northern face is decorated with an anchor, and reads, “It was given the genius and valor of Confederate seamen to revolutionize naval warfare over the earth.” Below the writing, another inscription says, “This stone shall crumble into dust ere the deathless devotion of Southern women be forgotten.” The west side inscription is below an engraving of crossed swords and reads, “The Confederate saber kissed his blade homeward riding on into the mouth of hell.” The east side of the Dallas monument is decorated with crossed rifles, and reads, “Confederate infantry drove bayonets through columns that never before reeled to the shock of battle.”  Thank you, southern ladies.  

Retrospectively, what Lincoln had signed up for, what he would not forego, was the North American version of the nineteenth-century consolidation movement, thank you Hegel.  This same movement inspired the creation of the compact French empire, provinces all new-named, of the same size, and the revolutionary invasion of the rest of Europe, the expansion of the Russian empire to the northwest frontier of India, the consolidation of the non-Austrian German-speaking states into the Prussian Empire, with the consequent sacking of Silesia, Schleswig-Holstein, and the invasion of France in 1870, leading of course to the Third Reich.  Along the way a consolidated Italy featured Mussolini and the invasion of North Africa and Greece.  

It also created the American Empire.    Consolidation was at the least an ambiguous good.  David Bentley Hart was speaking of secularization of the churches, when he wrote “It is hard not to conclude that the chief inner dynamism of secularization has always been the modern state’s great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral and sacramental allegiances that still held it, even partially, in check, so that it could get on with those mighty tasks—nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscription, mass extermination of civilians, and so on. . . .” (Atheist Delusions, 223). Consolidation was an essential step along the way.   

But to return to monuments.  The secular Puritans are right to attack them, although they do not know why.  The monuments of the 1890s were not in celebration of the suppression of anybody, although there is always in southern society, and perhaps elsewhere as well,  a shameful anti-black hostility shared by a narrow range of the lowest rungs of society, which will be here forever—African-Americans rightly call them Crackers.  The monuments were a celebration of the fact that while we had not won we were not defeated and we were and are proud of the men who fought and those who led them.  Obliquely they stand as a reproach to the Lincoln government who, perhaps understandably, would not wait.     


Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The week has been full of Church news, centering  on the publicity surrounding Cardinal McCarrick, whose fate should evoke sympathy, fill our hearts with pity and cause prayers for his soul’s good.   Cardinal McCarrick is the most notorious.  Nine Bishops have resigned, not when church authorities challenged their behavior but when civil authorities intervened.   But I am not turned aside from writing about the Scriptures to record disappointment over McCarrick, but to look deeper.   The history of the Church is full of collapsed clerics; they are all by nature sinners like the rest of us.   The clergy, good and bad, deserve our persistent prayers; in a profound sense, they are us.     

But the Cardinal represents something different and frightening.  A noxious underground stream flowing through the foundation of the holy Church culminating in the present engineered pontifical confusion.   Who can isolate its source?  The serpent in the Garden?  The French Revolution?   Modernism as condemned by Pius X?   Certainly, something very like modernism became endemic in the wake of the second Vatican Council.    I say in the wake because it is not clear that the bishops wanted the results they achieved.    The typical institution, say General Motors or perhaps CNN, should they suddenly lose half their customers would stop to re-evaluate.   The episcopal body has felt it right to insist that the results of the council were positive and fruitful, ignoring the fact that when you change the language you subtly change the meaning.   Of course, in a way the post-conciliar collapse was to be anticipated.   It is not unusual that after a great council there is a kind of confusion as the decisions taken are established in the fabric of the Church.   But what occurred was not the result of any conciliar decision but was a widespread blurring of the moral lines, conveyed through a thousand clues, that separated a life pleasing to God from one that encompasses a psychology of self-fulfillment.    The charter of holiness as even righteous pagans knew is , ‘Deny yourself.’      The subtle post-Vatican II message was, “Fulfill yourself; God wants you to be happy.”   

          The crisis point was the publication and almost simultaneous practical repudiation of Humane Vitae, which hit the sixties in their weak spot, for it proposed, in deference to God’s good plan for man and nature, restraint, just at the point when the invention of the pill made restraint seem unnecessary.    The Belgian bishops repudiated Humanae Vitae in solemn assembly, and now Belgium is a spiritual waste land.   The Dutch assembled in solemn convocation to declare their freedom from it.   Another waste land.  Canada?  And western civilization began the long march toward making sexual pleasure the sovereign right.    If human sexual relations are just about pleasure, not about procreation to which sexual pleasure is providentially linked—God has a way of rewarding what he wants done― it will be found that humans, having set aside the sometimes-onerous relation between pleasure and child-bearing and rearing, historically have discovered, or rather fallen back into,  numerous means to pleasure, some casually and extravagantly carnal, some solipsistic, some baroque, some bizarre, some cruel, all set violently against God’s design that, having made them male and female, they should multiply and replenish the earth.  If pleasure is the justifying end, contraception is the means; if that fails, conception being an unwanted burden, abortion, the solemn act that establishes man’s ownership of himself, or, as the saying goes, that a woman’s body, including the child within,  is her own property—a proposition specifically denied by St, Paul in Ephesians 5―is the solution.  Nor is homosexuality unrelated, for once the justifying purpose of sexual relationships is pleasure, it will be found that weak humanity will find diverse ways to obtain pleasure.  

          In the wake of Paul VI’s defense of life there followed two great popes who understood that abortion and homosexuality represented the failure of the fulfillment of the human vocation.   But now come those who believe not that these things are right,  but that on a certain day they can be done.   In the United States the point man for this new paradigm is the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, who goes about urging, in coded but sufficiently obvious language, benign acceptance of communion for the twice married, the possible goods of homosexuality.   I, in my place, as a would-be-faithful Catholic, a sinner sometimes forgiven, have a message for the Cardinal.   He has his constituency.   They are there, some of the clergy, perhaps especially those victims of the seventies and eighties; they are there in the chanceries, that class of professional religious who push the buttons and turn the cranks of the bureaucracy and who by nature dislike the sharp lines that Catholic teaching draws and perhaps harbor as well as a distaste for the history of which they were not part; in the professional societies, whose members seem always prone to  value their insights above the common teaching of the Church; and of course they are there among those who find justification for their sins in weak or ambiguous teaching.  

My message for Cardinal Cupich is that he will fail; he will not be able to convince those priests who carry in their hearts the faith of the apostles, nor will he be able to convince the typical weekly-mass-going Catholic, that these things are good and right.  What, on the other hand, he may be able to do is to convince some mass-goers that such behavior while not right is not wrong, which is different but no less debilitating.  The cardinal vice of modernity is sentimentality, and that which we cannot condemn we somehow condone.  Who after all would want to cause pain?   And this brings me to the point of this week’s thoughts.  The text for the second lesson was taken from Ephesians chapter 2.  It expresses  Paul’s anxiety about the relations between the Old Israel and the New, his teaching that Christ’s death has broken down the wall of separation, creating in Himself one new man in Christ, neither Jew nor Greek, in place of two.   This is at least complicated; good luck to the homilist!  It will surely cause no pain.

In choosing this text the lectionary passed over the preceding verses, which are not complicated: 

And you he made alive, through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.  Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive through Christ (by grace you have been saved).  

And one final request, your Eminence, do not accompany us, for the tendency of weak and fallen sheep is to head straight for the weeds.  So instead of accompanying us, raise the standards of truth and holiness, which require faith and above all restraint; ‘Deny Yourself.’     It’s the human thing to do, and divine.               

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

God did not make death,
Nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For He fashioned all things that they might have being.
                                                            Wisdom, 1:13–15

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
                                                              John 1:4


Jesus is about life. “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)  Christianity does not teach the immortality of the soul in the way that theosophists and New Agers teach it.  It does teach this truth: that at the moment of conception God creates in time a person whose name he had known from the foundations of the world, a person with a determinate destiny, with a future that is forever, a person who will know the Father and His Son Jesus Christ in this life and who will then pass through the door marked death to enjoy the vision of God and to sing with the saints the praise and glory of the Creator. 

This is what seen from a human point of view might be considered Plan B, for in the beginning God had intended that the creatures made in His image should live blessedly in the Garden and should answer when He called their names.   What supervened was the serpent, disobedience, and death.  And this is the part of the story we know best, for we live amidst the ruins of rebellion, and in the daily presence of death.  “Who,” said Saint Paul, “will deliver us from this body which is consigned to death? (Romans 7:24)  And the answer is, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ”. 

Jesus is the person in whom life is victorious over death, who commanded the prophet John to write: “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys to death and hades.” (Revelation 1:18)  And at the end of John’s vision he sees that death and hades are thrown into the lake of fire (20:14), with those who have chosen death by joining Satan’s rebellion.  For by our creation we are ordained to live forever.  That any should be lost forever is a dark mystery founded in the inexpressible value of every soul, the reality of freedom, and the providence of God.  But His will is life and His mercy more powerful than Satan’s wrath and deceit, The center of the New Creation is not a Constitution or a Declaration of Rights but a person, Jesus Christ, whose name is Emmanuel, God with us, who will wipe the tears of life from our eyes so that we can behold the light of God’s glory, and the lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:3–4, 23) 

The Christian religion as defining of reality is distinctive in that, while it is framed around certain beliefs expressed in the great creeds to which believers adhere through the gift of faith, it is even more fundamentally about a life lived in, with, and through the divine-human person who was born of Mary and the Holy Spirit in the reign of Augustus, who is the meaning of history because beyond the ambiguities of present experience and the wreckage of time, He lives. His disciples did not believe the truth that He is the Messiah until He spoke to them and they knew that He was alive. He is person writ large as the living meaning of time.  As Christian thought unfolded it became clear that this person was more than a person in that He was not only the person whose death on the cross the Johannine witness remembered, not only the teacher who had perfected the Law to make it a thing of the new heart, but the Word through whom all things were made, who as Word filled the cosmos, so that Paul could say that in Him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible; even the highest choirs of angels, thrones, dominions, and powers were created through Him and for Him. (Colossians 1:15–20)   And it is His high desire that all should not only have life by believing in Him, for this is the will of the Father, but that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.  The purpose of belief is life; “that believing you may have life in His name,” and  beyond belief, it is the will of Christ that those who believe should share in His life by partaking of His very person.  I am, Jesus said, living bread; bread that is and gives life, one may eat of this bread and live forever. (John 6:51)  And in this famous passage from John 6, Jesus identifies the body that will be given for the life of the world on the cross with the living bread that comes down from heaven.  The pathway to life is sharing in Christ’s body and blood.  “As He said to everyman: have life; eat my flesh and drink my blood; otherwise you have no life in you. (John 6:52) These are astonishing words.   If there was one principle in Israel it was the prohibition against drinking the blood of any creature, for the blood was the life, with life understood as analogous to the Greek soul, the very principle of existence, which as such might be offered to God, but which no man could claim as his own.  In the book of Acts, that Christians should refrain from blood was an apostolic concession to Jewish tradition and sensibilities (Acts 15:20).  Body and blood are the Hebrew anthropology, analogous to body and soul in things Gentile, Greek and Roman.  Since Christ is the sacrifice, sharing in His sacrifice as life giving is no more remarkable than the sharing of the sacrifice at Mount Sinai or the sharing of the Passover Lamb.   But the command to share in the divine life by drinking the blood of the Son of Man is an especially compelling command that believers share in the very life of Christ.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John was written in a community in which the sacrifice commanded by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke was certainly celebrated, and it is perhaps characteristic of the Johannine author to elaborate the theology of the thing while assuming that the pattern of the celebration is too well known to require reiteration.  It was surely celebrated to realize the promise Jesus teaches in John 6:  “Abide in me, and I in you;” that He may dwell in us and we in Him.  The language of the New Testament is quite unaccountable except on the thesis that the gift of faith and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist effected union with Christ who lives throughout time because time is His creature.  For Paul, simply, to live is Christ; believers are to have the mind of Christ.   Surely this union is effected by faith, but it is realized and fed by the Great Thanksgiving through which Jesus is present, offering His body and blood.  The baptized says Paul in Galatians “have put on Christ.” “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)   

 It is difficult to convey the freshness with which the apostolic mission engaged the world, for while there were words to be believed there was so much more to be lived.  And so it remains.  The answer to the claims of Jurassic park, to the argument that He will not appear to have His existence verified by analytic philosophy, to the undoubted fact of the pain of the world must always begin with the impressive intellectual arguments put forward by the Christian mind, but to the  eternal frustration of the Adversary, the irrefutable claim will always be, “I know Him.” 

The Feast of Saint John Baptist

The Feast of Saint John Baptist

 From this man’s descendants God, according to His promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded His coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
Acts 13:24

The Gospel is good news, the story God’s favor in sending His Son to teach, to offer Himself, to rise triumphant over death and to send His Spirit.  And always and everywhere that greatest story has a preface through which one enters it, and that preface is repentance, looking at one’s life in the light of God’s justice and love and saying, with conviction and perhaps with tears, “Sorry; sorry that I have despised your grace and kindness and chosen not to please you but to please myself.”

            John the Baptist came to baptize not with the Holy Spirit and with fire, but to call the world to the sorrow of repentance (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16).  He did not begin as would the Lord with the gentle words of Isaiah, with comfort for captives and prisoners (Luke 4:16–19), but with arrows shot to the heart of a rebellious race.  To the most religious, those who had no need of forgiveness, he said, “You brood of vipers, bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:7).  And John’s baptism prophesied but did not offer the regeneration, the rebirth, of the heart by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). That gift awaited Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and with His coming the power of the sacraments through water and the Spirit to make new hearts.

          John’s preaching established the pattern of Christian life, which always begins with repentance, with saying “Sorry.”  Thus the public worship of the Church begins with the words “I confess,” and thus begins the confession of serous sins which can only be forgiven by the power of the keys.  The tawdry sins of lust and greed are more obviously causes of sorrow, but beneath these and more fundamental, is the proposition “I was right” and its near relation “I was good enough” testimonies to the hard kernel of pride.  Our tendency to know better than God can be traced to our first parents, from whom we have inherited bad blood.  In fact to be human is to be wrong when we stand before God, because then the question is not who is right but who is God, who is a creature, who is the omnipotent, omniscient creator, and who is a beloved handful of dust. 

          Augustine, among others, was fond of pointing out that there was sweetness in sorrow, and here he is seconding the first two of those mysterious sayings of Jesus called the Beatitudes.   Blessed are the poor in Spirit, that is the humble, and blessed are the sorrowful (Matthew 5:3–4).  These two great blessednesses reinforce one another.  Humility is the virtue that tells the truth about oneself, about just where each of us belongs in the vast arrangement of things, which, we are reminded, is, happily, in the lowest place.  Sorrow, sweet sorrow, which is quite a different thing from regret, is a blessing that comes upon any soul as experience of the world yields its harvest of sins and sorrows.  Nobody over thirty looks back over his or her life and says, yes, I have done very well, even perfectly. 

          Repentance means the laying down at the foot of the cross the burden of having been right   The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind, making it over anew with a desire to please God.  One of the greatest fracases in the history of the Church was occasioned by the decision, made in the early third century, that even sins, serious sins, mortal sins, committed after baptism might be forgiven.  But such forgiveness comes at a price.  Not only must there be repentance but also the firm intention not to sin again.  History shows that we may sin again but being sorry cannot contain a small nugget of reserve that plans to do so.  And much of the cleansing power of forgiveness depends upon the cleansing power of sorrow, without which there is no forgiveness.  A great pastor of souls who knew me well would always say, “Be sorry for all your sins.”  But if we can be sorry, we can always rise and return to our Father, who ever welcomes the prodigal.

          Knowing ourselves as people who are not right has the liberating power that gentles the world, because if we can see ourselves as forgiven sinners, we can by grace see those among whom we live as persons often engaged in the battle against the demon of rightness whose name is self-righteousness.  Because we have been forgiven, we can forgive.  The bad effects of the disease of rightness, pride compounded by self-willed ignorance, darkens the world.  The ‘news’ is a concatenation of complaint that our opponents are not right; when a word is uttered it is the occasion of challenge because it is not quite right.  There has been in the past a regime of sympathetic interpretation, fed remotely by some Christian root, but now that root withers.  Where malice is assumed, error is presupposed, so that the purpose of public rhetoric is to prove the opponent not right, and to do so not with an eye to his or her correction but to accomplish the opponents’ destruction. 

In a world in which no one is right before God as the world understands ‘rightness,’ it is wisdom to see that every person wants to achieve the good they see, even if that good is so suffused with self-interest, so committed to doubtful presuppositions, as in fact to be harmful and to deserve in the long run stiff opposition.  The desire to be right is a good thing—animals are not troubled with it―but in a fallen world our rightness is too often found not in humbled submission to God’s rightness but in stubborn advocacy of our own.  When in Mark 10:18 Jesus said that no one but God is good, He was not under-writing ethical or intellectual despair, but making clear the fact that there is only one standard, to which in this world our access is imperfect and episodic.

Warfare always issues in violence; it may begin in deafness, in a willed inability to hear what the other says and sees.  Only the possessed and the pathological—perhaps often the same thing—desire evil; everyone else, each of us in our own way, just wants to be right. And this means that in the world as it is everyone deserves a hearing and a place in the conversation in which they can live through, and perhaps survive spiritually, their own rightness.  One corrective is the willingness of Christians to reflect on what we truly deserve.  We enter the world each day knowing that we are the objects of unmerited and unaccountable grace, and that since we have not gotten what we deserve, God having graciously ignored our claims to rightness and given us something better, we can be gentle with the world.  The sweetness of our sorrow makes room, or should make room, in our hearts for all those others who may still be right.

A. M. G. D.