Part of the Defending the Faith in the 20th Century series
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.
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.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
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
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;
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.
Life Means a Person
If the blood of goats and bulls
And the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes
Can sanctify those who are defiled
So that their flesh in cleansed,
How much more will the blood of Christ.
Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God,
To worship the living God.
For Greeks a person was body and soul. For Hebrews a person was body and blood, with the understanding that the blood is the life. Without the shedding of blood, there could be no effective communication with the gods or with God, –remission of sins, a truth held not only by Jews and Christians, but by Greeks and Romans, for whom sacrifices, personal and as participation in civic liturgy, were part of daily life. In the superscript the author of Hebrews is drawing a comparison between the sacrifices of the Temple and the once-offered sacrifice of the Messiah. He does not deprecate the sacrifices of the Temple, which had been commanded by God to atone for sins, but points out that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (Hebrews 10:4). The Sacrifice of Jesus makes new creatures because His Holy Spirit renovates the human heart, not forestalling God’s just punishment, but “taking away sin,” putting God’s law in their hearts and writing it on their minds (Hebrews 10:16–-17). And from the beginning there was this great difference. Romans would sacrifice to gain favorable treatment and bring good fortune. Christians sacrificed, inspired by love, in order to fulfill the Lord’s command given on the night He was betrayed, but also in order to share in the very life of Him who is God and man for knowledge of whom the soul longs.
That blessed ability to know God in the person of Jesus, is the consummation of a long education through long ages during which God became ever nearer to the people who had rejected Him in the garden. His drawing near has from the beginning been a bloody business, effected first by the sacrifice of all clean animals when He made the first covenant with Noah, promising the stability of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 8:20–22). The passage of Israel out of Egypt was secured by the offering and eating of the Paschal Lamb, whose blood would warn way the angel of death (Exodus 12:1–36). The covenant at Sinai was sealed by the sacrifice of young bulls, whose blood, scattered on altar and people made peace with God, at which time the elders saw God and ate and drank in His presence (Exodus 23). These are the ante-types. Each secures a great promise. For Noah the stability of the heavens and the earth, sealed by the rainbow; for Israel at Sinai the gift of moral form with the ten commandments, sealed by the presence of God with Israel in the tabernacle. Continue reading “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ”
Thoughts on the Second Reading
The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.
The verb in “suffer with Him” is paschō, as in “paschal lamb,” the lamb offered, and it does not mean ‘to die” but rather “to endure” or “to undergo.” It is easy to see that Christianity was and is founded in the suffering of the great witnesses, the martyrs who loved not their lives unto death. The Roman Calendar rolls through their names from Agatha to Zephrinus, and these are but tokens of the thousands who died in unity with and imitation of our Savior Christ. In contra-distinction from the greatest modern theme, which is the assertion of the will, reasonably, in satisfaction of appetite, the religion of Jesus was a life of giving up one’s self. If the grain of wheat should die, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).
Most of the suffering upon which the Church is founded was and is not the dramatic suffering of the arena or the inquisitor’s fire but is rather the kind of suffering the world cannot see. Often it looks remarkably like the way of life that is routinely denounced as bourgeoise by those who have progressed beyond good and evil, by the ‘scientific’ community, and by economists and sociologists, who will call restraint and bearing up delayed gratification. But there is more to it than that, because the suffering that is the hallmark of the Christian life is born of love for God, self, and neighbor; it means giving up our desires not for the sake of commendable self-discipline or reasons of health or vanity, but out of love for god and a desire, however weak and wandering to share in the suffering of Jesus.
Every person born into this world is blessed with a vocation or a particular calling if they can find it, but the more universal vocation is the transposition of the self from one who is stuck in this world as it is, a world over which Satan roams until Christ return, into citizenship in the kingdom of the new heart, which means discovering in the morass of a fallen world the person whom God knew at the foundations of the world and finding his or her particular adventure, formed by discipline and loving obedience, toward glory
The Gospel of that famous eighteenth-century Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau teaches that we are born innocent, born free but somehow now in chains, leaving those who believe this lie everlastingly befuddled because we know in our hearts this is not true and because experience in the world teaches otherwise, as do the pages of the newspaper and the gaze of the electronic eye. The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells another story, that we are born in humiliating, justly deserved slavery to the Lord of this world, into whose service we have passed as children of rebellion, but that we may be set free by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and life in the Spirit He sends. It is the great glory of the Christian religion that it teaches men and women that their just deserts as members of the rebel band is eternal loss, but that by grace we have been saved, transposed from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light and goodness, and that we gain true freedom by denying the self that is rooted in this fallen world.
Evil is never overcome without suffering, but the suffering that overcomes the world is sometimes hard to see. We do not think of the father who wakes up to another day of tasks he may not have chosen as suffering, but in his endurance is the pattern of the cross. We do not think of the person who chooses purity of heart over the satisfaction of appetite as suffering, but the Christian world is full of such offerings. We do not think of the wife who is faithfully loyal to a marriage that holds nothing of worldly satisfaction as a martyr, but so she is, and a very great witness. And the same is true of every person who has chosen to endure. Every acceptance of discipline and duty is for Christians a sharing in Christ’s enduring. Philo of Alexandria once wrote, “Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
It is the distinctive folly of our time to say to those embattled, “Give up.” Or perhaps to point out that there is no battle so that victory and defeat are meaningless. Naturalism is the doctrine that the world as we find it and ourselves as we find ourselves in the world are as these things should be. Remarkably, this program is not applied to nature itself, which is chopped and changed at will, but to the moral life of mankind, in which enterprise, dominated as it is by the naturalistic presupposition, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the behavior of humans from the behavior of beasts.
The battle to elevate the relation between men and women to something holy on the part of the Church has been itself arduous and always only partly successful. But it has been among the greatest contributions to the gentling of the world that is sometimes mistakenly called Christian civilization, that is, a civilization sometimes influenced in the moment by Christian men and women. The dimensions of the disaster as that influence fails are difficult to grasp. Ours is a culture in which it is assumed that purity of heart even as an imperfectly grasped aspiration is impossible. What precisely is happening when behavior that until day before yesterday was punished by imprisonment is a condition so favored that the attempt to alter it is forbidden by law? What is happening when one great political philosophy has as its non-negotiable principle the right to destroy very small children. What is happening when a schoolboy, seventeen, kills because his feelings are hurt? What is happening when young women view as risible Paul’s advice that as the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives be subject to their husband in all things and when husbands are unwilling to hear that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, being now too frequently ready to abandon rather than to suffer?
What one is witnessing is a civilization in which the habit of enduring on behalf of the good life which even the philosophers knew, and which was perfected by Christ as suffering on behalf of the holy life, is failing under the assaults of that naturalism which counsels relapse onto the condition of fallen nature which means calling what is evil good. This is a kind of great abandoning of the human estate, the essence of which is the ability by the exercise of will to rise above nature. The unqualified expectation of happiness in this world has led to unqualified disaster. To begin with the assumption that we are owed happiness, that our lives are supposed to be free of fear and free of want, is so unrealistic as to cause nothing but grief.
On this Trinity Sunday, it is good to recall that the very life of God insofar as it has been revealed to us, consists in mutual self-giving, a self-giving that when evil is encountered issues in suffering. The mystery of the suffering of Jesus who is God and man has ever engaged the mind of the Church. After the defeat in the early fifth century of the idea, an idea sponsored incidentally by the great archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius, that Jesus is part man and part God, with divine and human natures cooperating to effect incarnation, in favor of the truth that the union of the Word with human nature is real, personal, and eternal, after the reality of Incarnation was made dogma, it followed that the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the cross, a mystery in which the Second Person somehow participated, would come to the fore. The great Cyril of Alexandria did not write that he was able to describe this mystery, but he did insist that in our ignorance we ought never to deny that One Person of the Blessed Trinity suffered for our sakes.
Paul says that if we suffer with him, we shall also be glorified with him. The life of suffering with Christ, off enduring, may on a certain day seem to be nothing more than a trail of tears, or at least of inconveniences, when it is in fact a source of that hard-to-define word joy. As Paul says, we do not endure alone, but with Christ, with the comfort of His presence and His sacraments. There is something called a state of grace, a condition of being in God’s favor. Aristotle called it eudaimonia, or well-spiritedness. Jesus called it blessedness. Conscience can accuse, but conscience can also bless.
Love Perfected in Us
Those who say, “I know Him,” but do not keep His commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps His word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.
He who says he abides in Him ought to walk
in the same way in which He walked.
First John 1: 5-6
In this text John is speaking to those whom Irenaeus and scholars after him would call gnostics or knowers, or as we might say, ‘intellectuals,’ Christian-like folk who believed in a ‘spiritual’ religion in which Christ had come not in the flesh but as a spirit, who denied that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, and who did not believe in Christ’s return, His ‘spiritual’ presence being the fulfillment of His every promise. The difference between this pseudo-Christianity and the faith of Matthew and John, Ignatius and Irenaeus, was subtle but definitive. The Church Catholic, as Ignatius calls it, believed that Christians were made by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirt given at Baptism. What John engages in the knowledgeable folk who existed in his Churches is the belief that enlightenment, understanding the world-system, a certain illumination of intellect, renders sin, as belonging to an evil and fallen world, irrelevant. So those of this opinion would say, “I know Him,” while ignoring His commandments.
The first and second commandments will always be love for God and for neighbor, and John himself says that to love fulfills the commandments. But the early Church has left a record of Christians’ understanding of just how love works in the world by construing a list of Christian ways. Sometimes the list takes the form of a description of the two ways, the way of death and the way of life. In this literature of Christian behavior, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 with its injunctions, with its assumption that Christians can act out of the goodness of the renewed heart, is always prominent, but the list as its appears in Christian literature of the first century after Pentecost is expanded in detailed, reiterated precepts. The prohibition of abortion is always there, and there is the warning against the detestable Greek practice of corrupting boys. In its negative aspects, these precepts list things that are prohibited absolutely, so that there is no degree of theft, adultery or fornication that can in some circumstances be considered right and blameless. There is a new note of tenderness to the poor and a recognition, reflecting the influence of John 13:3–11, that we are all servants of Christ, that those we serve and those who serve us are our brothers. These early texts, summarized here, may be cited to show that love for Christ was expressed in the pattern of Christian behavior. In this literature the question of legalism or rigorism did not come up, for these ways were taken to be expressions of both love and obedience. They fulfilled what John meant when he said that the love of God is perfected in us as by the power of His grace we keep His word, His ways, His commandments. If we say we abide in Him, we should walk in His ways.
Now notice that this fulfilling is not obedience to an extrinsic law, but is love of God fulfilled, made perfect, in human life and thought and action by the mystery of our incorporation in Christ. Christ does not command us to be good but to repent; He asks us to allow the love of God the Holy Spirit to shape in us those new hearts from which will flow the kind of life that is pleasing to Him, giving us indeed the very mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Thus it is that when we sin we do not so much break the law, athough there is always that as well, as we do violate the relation of sonship into which baptism has brought us. And this is worse than an infraction of the law, itself rebellion against the divine will, it is the breaking of the bond of charity, a rejection of the love of Christ for the love of self or something worse
Such rejections, which are rightly called sins, or mark-missings, ought not occur. Every baptized soul wants to please God. Who cannot understand Paul’s disappointed anxiety that he was at some level displeasing to God because sin lingered in his body? In Romans 7:13 the great apostle says: “I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” while my very hating of it testifies that the law of which I am so painfully aware is good. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my innermost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.”
Paul is probably not here speaking of the allure of those higher sins of the spirit, rebellion, spiritual pride, or of the tiny tinge of emulation evident in his observation that other apostles have wives and enjoy generous support (I Corinthians 9:1–13). He is thinking of those sins the human race associates with the pull of bodiliness. Speculations about the particularities of Paul’s moral life invariably disappoint curiosity. We know that he had a persistent failing or temptation that he called a thorn in his flesh, not in his mind but in his flesh. Perhaps a persistent bodily weakness. But in Romans Paul seems to be contending with sins of the flesh that troubled his soul. We do not know that it was not something as tawdry as the sins of the flesh he warned against so persistently, convinced as he was that the body is the very temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16-19). It is not impossible that Paul was sometimes afflicted with the very distorted attraction he denounced so dramatically in the early part of the Letter to the Romans (1:18–27), which would make him, and the victory he won, the very saint for the twenty-first century, when again, as in the days of Tiberius and Nero, the very forms of nature are under attack by skewed passions. We do not know.
We do know that he was always zealous to warn his Churches that every Christian is always in a battle until the end which did not always feature settled peace in the will of the Father. Paul does seem to have tasted victory; we know that at the end of his life, when he was handing on his ministry to others, he said, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who love His appearing” (II Timothy 4:9). But along the way there had been nothing but hardship and struggle, imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck, fighting with the beasts in the arena for the lunch-time sport of the bystanders.
John surely had in mind the gnostics or spirituals when he wrote his first letter, but his advice that knowledge of God, whether by gnostic illumination or through baptism and catechesis, is not enough, is part of the patrimony of Christendom. One would have thought that Paul, who was approaching old age when he wrote his letter to the Romans, would have already won the victory, that Satan would have given up, that the itches that souls endure while living in the body would have been cured. But alas, it was not so; the business of allowing the love that God has poured into our hearts to inform our lives perfectly, may be, most usually is, the fruit of a life-long battle. And even then, we may have fought so imperfectly that much will be burned away, as Paul says in First Corinthians. Even those who will be saved in the Day may have built on imperfect foundations of wood, hay, or stubble, so that these false foundations must be burned away so that they can be perfected (I Corinthians: 3:10–15).
Where, one might ask, is the joy in all this, combat perhaps extending beyond this life. The joy is in the fact that although the Christian life may be made difficult for many by the situation of the soul in a world infested with Satan’s rebellious angels, by our own willfulness, the God who claims us in baptism will let us go only reluctantly and upon reiterated evidence that we are not willing to allow His love to form in us His own image. The mark of salvation is the knowledge that there is nothing in us despite our immersion in a sinful world, despite our failures along the way, that we more deeply desire than to know Him. He that is in us, the sovereign Spirit of God, is greater than he who is in the world (I John 4:4). Distress and tribulation cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord (Romans 8:35–39).
Victory in Battle
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
First John 5:1
Every person born into this world is born into the midst of battle that he is bound to lose, not because he lacks strengths of body or the power of reason but because his enemy is supernatural power and because he is himself a natural born traitor, marked in his heart by a sympathy for the enemy who would destroy him. At baptism we or our sponsors for us change sides. We renounce Satan and all his works and promise, with our born-bound allegiance to Satan obviated by the power of the cross, to serve God and His Christ. By this act we have become the special object of Satan’s wrath. Those who remain all unknowingly in his service he may leave alone, perhaps undisturbed in comfort, for he knows that although they may not do good in God’s service, they will keep their hearts to themselves alone and so will in the end be his. But Satan believes that in the order of reality every son of Adam is his, and he will tirelessly pursue each baptized soul who through the sovereign mercy of God has crossed the lines into his enemy’s camp. Just how many of these would-be traitors to Satan’s cause will escape his power is a mystery hidden in God’s omniscience, for as long as any soul is in this world there will be echoes of that earth-born allegiance to God’s adversary that may be fanned into rebellion. But having once been born of water and the Spirit, the claim of the baptized soul upon the grace and goodness of Christ is absolute, and while freedom is such that even the elect may be deceived, those whom God has called across the enemy line he will make right and holy. Each will have won the great victory, so that the evangelist John will write that the faith of Christians is the victory that overcomes the world.
Overcoming the world is both the victory given Christians who are born anew through baptism and the project of a lifetime. When John speaks theologically and hopefully of the victory that has been won by young and old who have overcome the evil one, he yet knows that the victory may be forgone for the road is not smooth. It is this same John who says to those who have been anointed by the Holy Spirit, who have passed out of death to life, that while they abide in God they do not sin, that God’s very nature abides in them as God’s children; John says that even these, if they say they do not sin both deceive themselves and make the Son of God a liar, standing as they do ever within the precincts of Satan’s wrath and ever under the necessity of the cleansing blood of Christ.
The sins John is describing in the opening verses of his first letter are those which belong to the biography of every Christian (I John 1:8-10) . These are not sins that kill grace in the soul, that will not destroy the promise given at baptism or the faith that apprehends the promise. The Church is to pray for those who have fallen into these sins, knowing that they are ours, knowing that because of such prayers these repentant souls will be given life. Thus the Eucharist is usually begun with the common confession ending with the request that our brothers and sisters pray for us to the Lord Our God. But there are, says john, those sons that impair fatally that union with Christ which promises life, as we might now say not small sins born of ignorance or inadvertence, lacking deliberation, but sins of willful rebellion. These are, John says, “sins unto death.” John does not say that such sinners are eternally lost; the great apostle simply professes agnosticism before the anomaly that one who had been given the gifts he describes should commit such sins. “I do not say that one is to pray for that, for one whose sin is mortal” (I John 5:16). John offered no list. The author of Hebrews wrote that if one apostatized who had lived the Christian life, who had been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift of the Eucharist, received the gift of the Holy spirit, tasted the goodness of the Scriptures, and known the supernatural hope of heaven, that one could not be restored (Hebrews 6:4). This certainly was mortal sin.
For almost two hundred years the Church seemingly remained silent about mortal sin, although what sin was, was it thought as well as action, could sins after baptism be forgiven, remained popular topics as was evidenced by the popular second century Shepherd of Hermas, in which these questions are canvassed hopefully but indecisively. And there is a reading of the evidence which suggests that the power of the keys given in Matthew 16:19 remained dormant in the sense that not much appeal was made to it in the late first and second centuries. Perhaps it was read not as referring to sins but to larger matters of precept and government of the Church. Whatever the cause of this reticence, the possibility of the forgiveness of adultery, murder and apostasy was not much proposed until a great crisis of 215 at which time the Roman Bishop Callistus, to the scandal of Tertullian and Saint Hippolytus, claimed the ability to forgive such mortal sins. Over time, through a process not to be documented here, the Church broke the silence of John regarding the forgiveness of sins unto death and claimed the power of the keys to forgive even the mortal sins of the truly penitent. Perhaps this power was clarified, or more clearly recognized, after the Gospel of John, with the text (19:19) in which the Lord breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples, giving them the power to forgive sins, became part of the public literature of the cosmopolitan Church at mid-second- century. The story of the development of the application of the apostolic power to secure victory over the world by forgiving soul-destroying sin is too long and complicated to be told here; suffice it to say that over time the mercy of such forgiveness became part of the life of the Church, sins being forgiven generously, often with only formal penances. This power to forgive the guilt of sin, restoring the penitent to life in Christ, did not address the mystery of satisfaction, or the desire to make things right again, which made the reality of purgatory obvious for those who had in this life accepted the mercy and not done penance.
The Evangelist John’s point is the great truth that faith, its gift and practice, brings victory to the soul in a battle that is not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities in the heavenly places. The extended footnote is then the fact that the battle is not won until our last day, that in the interval we will remain sinners who require the presence of Christ in prayer and the sacraments of the Church to have hope of winning out in the end, and that, John’s silence broken, there is even a cure for the mortal sins before the anomaly of which he stood silent.
It is among the most tempting of follies that the world can become our friend. When the Church is welcomed into culture, even when in the historical past it may seem to permeate and dominate that culture, the world is still an enemy, being now not outside but within. The world is ever the precinct of the devil and of the domain of the flesh, of pride of life, of those lower appetites and those ‘higher’ spiritual failures, rebellion and the illusion of self-sufficiency, that seek to drag us back across the battle line and into Satan’s camp.
Having been justified by faith, we have peace before God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand by faith. And we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we boast in tribulations knowing that tribulation produces endurance and endurance character and character hope, which very hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
This text is an inspired summary of means and meaning of salvation as Paul knew it and taught it in years 35–65 the politically terrible years of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The underlying image is of a petitioner seeking access to an imperial official whom we are not on our own merits and standing able to approach, but in Paul’s Letter to the Romans it is not Tiberius but the Eternal Majesty, in whose gift lies every good thing, including the possibility of sharing in the glory that belongs to Him alone, in whose presence we are not worthy to stand.
To gain such access the petitioner must be justified, he must be right, but here the word is a passive voice meaning, “having been made right,” made worthy to enjoy the promises of Christ, the passive voice indicating that this is the work of God in us. It is the presupposition of the use of the words justify and justification that there is a standard that God expects His sons and daughters to meet, a standard before which, as Paul writes later in this text, we stand helpless. We know that this standard is more than the keeping of the old law, for the entire Sermon on the Mount teaches that its propositions are to be surpassed, and we know that this law-surpassing goodness is the gift given at Pentecost, the gift of the new heart formed by God’s own love. Continue reading “Third Sunday of Lent”
Thoughts on the Reading
There is Hope for a Tree
If a man die shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait
till my release should come.
Near the end of their national existence Philo of Alexandria (BC 15–50AD) wrote treatises on philosophic topics in the way of Hellenistic Greek philosophers, but for most of their history Jewish thinkers avoided abstract questions about how we know the world and what its basic elements might be. Jewish literary culture did however have a kind of writing called Wisdom literature that took up existential theological and ethical topics such as the situation of man in the world God had created and the meaning of finite existence. The classic of the genre is the Book of Job, which goes beyond the usual terrain of Wisdom to be a kind of Gospel before the Gospels, recounting the conversion of the just man so that he becomes the man of humble and believing heart, but there were other books belonging to the genre, including the Book of Wisdom and Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, and along the way books such as Job and Ecclesiastes delve deep into the situation of man in whose heart God has put eternity yet not so that he can find out the beginning and the end (Ecclesiastes 3:1). (For more on Wisdom literature see Peter Kreeft’s Three Philosophies: Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs.)
The fourth chapter of the book that bears his name finds Job world-weary because his days march on leading to nowhere, to nowhere but death, Sheol, that place of existence without hope. Job is with the permission of God much afflicted in his body (Job 2:4–6). He is condemned to hear his three theological friends present version after version of the proto-Pharisaic claim that the righteous do not suffer, which by the lights of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar meant that suffering Job has sinned and is stubbornly refusing to confess his faults. This unhappy condition provides background of Job’s complaint, an episodic outbreak of a frustration bordering on despair.
Has not man hard service upon earth,
And are not his days like the days of a hireling who looks for his wage,
So I am allotted months of emptiness, Continue reading “Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time”