The Prophetic Voice

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishops’ Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empire of Freedom

Presented at the weekly Text & Talk session available on Zoom.  These sessions are open to those persons registered with Lewis Tolkien Society.  To register go to the Lewis Tolkien Website.  To attend a Text & Talk session go to the web site and click on the calendar. then click on the day of the meeting.

To begin with a thesis that is not popular.   There will always be an empire, now perhaps more than one, contending for military and ideological or better cultural supremacy.    The Roman Empire, Christian since the third century, made the world we inherited.   Its rule extended from the Euphrates in the East to Hadrian’s wall across the neck of Scotland and from the Rhine to the Sahara. It inherited the idea of freedom we associate with fifth century Athens.  It was free in the sense that its citizens were pretty much left alone, perhaps this was partly because the state had such limited information and such limited instruments of coercion.  But in any event there was freedom, unless you were a slave.   The empire would have left Christians alone if they would have acknowledged the supremacy of the state, which seemed obvious to Romans, and within which broad cultural requirements citizens were, as above, left alone.  What destroyed the Roman empire remains a question and an argument.   That Christianity was the culprit is unlikely; even under persecution their loyalty was impressive.    More probably they followed the classic pattern:  fiscal profligacy, debased coinage, inability to defend the borders, dilution of the will to fight in a stew of internal politics.  They forgot, or could not sustain, the fact that continuing to be successful means continuing through military means to defend against the enemies at the borders.   The Persians in the East and the Goths in the north were suppressed but never defeated.  The war with Carthage was the only ideological or partly ideological war; the Romans hated the religion of the Carthaginians.

The Christian Roman empire morphed into the empire of Charlemagne, roughly the same territory minus Africa and Spain which had gone to the Muslims and Britain which after the legions were withdrawn in 410 had slipped back into a kind of tribalism of chaos and petty kingdoms.   

           The Carolingians empire then became the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, which existed in one form or another until 1808 (Napoleon) or 1919 (Woodrow Wilson), Britain and France and Spain lying outside its geographical borders but within  a common field of ideas.   

            Meanwhile the Spanish, French, and English contended from imperial success in the New world. With Spain and Portugal successfully colonizing South and Central America, England North America, while France gave up the enterprise, leaving behind cultural victories such as Quebec and Haiti.    

The eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century saw the efforts by European states to colonize Africa and Asia, especially southeast Asia.   In the eighteenth century England emerged as the world empire, while Spain gently declined, leaving behind an impressive cultural heritage in Spanish-speaking South and Central America and in the United States.

What all these empires at their best have had in common is freedom under the rule of law.  There are degrees of freedom.   Many south and central American states would be ranked “partly free,”  But it is a defensible generality that freedom under law has grown up under the shelter of Christianity, and the corollary that when Christianity fails societies descend first into reliance on positive law and then fall into tyranny or chaos.    A part of this freedom has been the right to be left alone with the corresponding duty to be responsible for one’s self. 

Beginning in 1900 with the defeat of the Spanish Empire the United States set upon the road to become the world empire.    We have always protested that we did not intend to be a world empire.    But that is what the United States is.   I will digress to point out that since the seventies, with the Viet Nam debacle, the United States has been increasingly restive under the imperial burden.   Defeated in VietNam.  Uncertain in Iraq.   It is hard to believe that, having given up the political position by adopting the one China policy, the United States is prepared to go to war over Taiwan or for that matter the Crimea.    Not to suggest that such wars would be a good thing, but unwillingness to defend one’s allies is the hallmark of imperial failure.    Just so the suppression of violence in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan, which we are preparing to leave, is a sign of failure.  US troops are not in Afghanistan to win a war against the Taliban, which, given their support in Pakistan, is probably impossible, but to suppress the Taliban and at a great cost in life and treasure to secure a forward position.

Similarly troops in Germany and Korea are not there to fight a war but to provide a counter force to Russia and North Korea.   One cannot imagine the Roman Senate debating the removal of the legions on the Rhine because they have been there a long time.  The legions were at Hadrian’s Wall for three hundred years and when they were withdrawn Roman Britain quickly ended.  The fact is that the United States faces every day the temptation to give up its imperial role on the grounds that it is burdensome and expensive; and surely all nation states will  live peaceably together under the rule of law.    How this is to be decided is still undetermined at this writing.   

  And there is this.   Empire building from Rome to the present has always been the work of states whose normal formation was that of Christendom, with Christianity being the ultimate, if unacknowledged,  cultural steam.   The pressures have always been from without.  Now there is the threat of dissolution from within.   Great writers, political and theological, from Justinian to the 1500s, almost universally insisted that the glue that held the state together was love and friendship.   This is not easy to imagine in fourteenth century Florence but in any event Christianity was assumed.    There have been rebellions of one class against another; occasional servile wars, the peasant rebellions of the 1500s for example, but they have not carried public opinion with them.   This was, one suspects, in part the result of two doctrines.     The doctrine of providence which is the most significant conveyor of contentment, teaching us all that we are where God had put us. And the doctrine of the symbiotic roles of the rich and the poor, it being the duty of the rich to relieve the necessity of the poor and the duty of the poor to pray for the rich.    

In the nineteenth century, perhaps under the power of the abstractive themes of the industrial revolution these doctrines weakened to the point of irrelevance.  And then the Devil steps in with class hatred.   I wonder if the hatred was real or if it was mostly just a theory.  At least in the Anglosphere it is hard to find cases of full-blooded hatred of the poor for the rich.  But be that as may be, hatred, marching at first under the banner of justice, was the doctrine of Marxism, which framed itself as the defender of the proletariat.  In fact the only culture that has ever done much for the proletariat is the liberal capitalism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries while every Marxist regime became a prison, from which millions escaped.    Five thousand Nicaraguans leave every day,  Finally, flight is prohibited as in Cuba.   As in East Germany, where a wall was built to keep the population captive.   As a populist movement Marxism is a dismal failure, for without the police power, exercised by a corrupt intelligentsia, it always fails.   North Korea and China are vast prisons.   In its perfected form there is always Orwell’s five minutes of hate in some form, soft or strident.     

But hatred has its ways, and now its program is, in the United States, to generate hatred between the races, building on the fact that retrospectively slavery is recognized as unjust, using the equality doctrine, interpreted in economic and political terms, to bring down the civilization, with thugs enlisted as the foot soldiers of neo-Marxism. The name of the system is critical race theory.     Its auxiliary is the alleged climate crisis, in which what should be of some concern is magnified into apocalyptic proportions,  which has grown men under the inspiration of political purposes  believing that the world will end in what must now be a mere ten years.   And not to be forgotten is the middle class sop that enlists millions of women and men in the cause of the destruction of the unborn.  People who will do this have already, perhaps unconsciously,  passed into the precincts of lawfulness, of which the broad attack upon language and nature are symptomatic.  The characteristics of these movements is a kind of lawlessness stoked and fired by a  ‘Puritanism’ or fanaticism in which, as in progressivism generally, the goal is theoretical or elusive so that there can never be enough equity or enough suppression of greenhouse gases.    There will never be enough destruction of language.   Ultimately, such things are made possible by the descent of the West into reliance on nothing more compelling than positive law, law which is enforced by no authority higher than the power of the state.    

These things have as their end game the destruction of the empire of freedom under law because they recognize no law.   Law that is merely positive will not fight.  And in the end there is no will to defend what I have called the empire of freedom.   An army that in its higher ranks is increasingly not a fighting force but an instrument of social change, in which the criterion of  success includes  the number of women and minorities in command positions,  can only with difficulty and improbability be set to oppose China when it strangles Taiwan or Russia when it lops off another piece of Ukraine.   

Various agencies rank nations according to the existence of freedom in their borders.   The criterion is apparently complicated and not often published.    Out of about 150 the United states usually ranks in the forties.  Germany and Canada both rank higher than the United States.  But Germany is a place in which you cannot educate your children yourself at home.  Canada is a place in which if your twelve year old has decided it is of a different sex you may go to prison for refusing to refer to that child by his chosen gender.   One wonders what the rankings would be if the criteria included the ability  to educate one’s children  outside the government system.   Not in Germany. Not in Sweden.  In France only with difficulty.   In Canada only with permission.  In New Zealand only with the approval of the Board of Education.  

According to a respected study, only about fourteen percent of the earth’s population is free.  This seems impossibly small until one remembers the population of China and southeast Asia.  The question must be: is this country and the cultural similitude it shares to some degree with some intellectual pockets in Europe, South America, and Africa the last incarnation of the empire of freedom?

Eternal Wounds

Thoughts on the Gospel
the Third Sunday In Easter

                                                   But if anyone does sin,
                                                         we have an Advocate with the Father,
                                                  Jesus Christ the righteous one.
                                                         He is expiation for our sins,
                                                  and not for our sins only
                                                         but for those of the whole world.
                                                                                                 I John 2:1

Christians know that Jesus is the Lamb sacrificed, the one full perfect sacrifice offered by the Son of God Incarnate in order to purchase forgiveness of our sins and to send the Holy Spirit of God into the world, creating the kingdom of the new heart.  The text superscript, which assumes that we may sin, tells us that  His work of expiation for our sins continues throughout time. 

Here is a great mystery.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ is always able throughout all time “to save those who draw near to God through  Him, since  He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).  The Prophet John, through the open door into heaven, saw the Lamb standing as though He had been slain, the seven-fold Holy Spirit proceeding from His eyes into the world.     Christ’s work of offering Himself “not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world,” even as  He lives in glory “between the throne, the four great living creatures, and the elders, eternally praised in creation’s new song.

                             Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,
                                    For thou wast slain and by thy blood
                                         didst ransom men for God
                             From every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
                                       And hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God
                                      And they shall reign on earth
                                                                                            (Revelation 5:9–10)

The sacrifice of Jesus fills all of time, and when we are forgiven we are forgiven not only and essentially through the cross of Golgotha, which planted Christ’s sacrifice in time, but through the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God which is ever present.  Our faith is not only a religion of what happened but of what is happening always.   Christ will make intercession for us until He comes in glory.  

One might ask, “But does Christ need to make intercession for us since we are justified by faith, by baptism, justified in God’s sight anyhow.    And to this there must be a resounding yes.  Sin is an action which we may hope by grace to avoid, but sinfulness is a weakness of human nature that guides us away from the cross of Christ, into reliance upon ourselves.  The best of us is imperfect.   Oh God cleanse me from my secret faults, sometimes faults so secret that we do not recognize them in ourselves.    And in any event our relation to God is not exhausted in our avoiding sin, for there is an arid sinlessness, opening upon pride, that can be worse than sin itself.      Christ’s intercession is not only a rescue mission; it is an external relation of love which means that we live within a forgiven and grace filled life during which Jesus eternally pleads before the Father for us.    

Is this pleading, represented so  graphically by the image of Christ sanding as though slain seen by the prophet John, an eternal crucifixion for the Son of God Incarnate?   The answer must be no.  Saint Paul says truly in Romans 6:9:  “Christ having died dieth no more.”   Yet we know that Christ resurrected in glory still displayed the wounds in His hands and in His side.   We know from the prophet John that He bears them eternally.  But now they are not signs of His suffering but of His triumph.    Were Jesus not to bear them in glory we might assume that the work of the cross is done, but it goes on forever.  Just as the sacrifice offered at the Christian altar does not imply a new and painful death but brings into the present and makes efficacious the one full perfect sacrifice, just so the appeal for forgiveness is addressed to Christ in glory whose hands and side still bear the marks of the nails and lance of Golgotha, without which sacrifice in time sins cannot be forgiven.

In the Middle Ages a great devotion to the Five Holy Wounds developed, Many medieval prayers in honour of the Sacred Wounds, including some attributed to Clare of Assisi,  have been preserved; St. Mettled and St. Gertrude of Hefts were especially devoted to the Holy Wounds. In the nineteenth century the Passionist Fathers encouraged the Chaplet of the Five Wounds, as a means of promoting devotion to the Sacred Passion of Christ in the hearts of the faithful. For students of English history it cannot be forgotten that the rising in the north in 1534 against Henry VIII’s destruction made its way toward London to petition the king for the restoration of the Mass under the banner of the Five Holy Wounds of  Jesus.   It would be an oddity of the new English religion that reminders of the suffering of Jesus were not popular with the government, the crucifix being forbidden in parish churches.

Christ’s Triumph Remembered

                            When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard 
                            that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 
                           they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
                             “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,
                                 even the king of Israel.”
                          Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written:
                              Fear no more, O daughter Zion;
                              see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.

                         His disciples did not understand this at first, 
                         but when Jesus had been glorified 
                         they remembered that these things were written about him 
                        and  what they had done to him. 

                                                                                                           John  12:12-16

Every Gospel, every account of what Jesus had done, lived  in memory, often finding its place in prophetic tradition before it was written down.  This is especially true of the Gospel of John.   After Jesus had cleansed the temple the disciples remembered that  Psalm 68:10 prophesied:  “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  After He had risen His disciples remembered that He had identified His body as the true temple of God’s presence (John 2:22).  After Jesus prophesied that His disciples would be forbidden the synagogue, indeed sought out and killed, Jesus reminds the disciples that He has told them these things so that “when the time comes for them to happen, you will remember that I told you of it” (John  16:4).   

It is characteristic of life that we often do not know what is happening while it is going on, and this is especially true of the apostolic memory, that the apostles did not know what was happening until after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after Pentecost they were able to see the import of the moments they had shared with Jesus.   They had not understood the meaning of Jesus’ life in the context of the Scriptures until on the road to Emmaus, in the very face of His resurrection, Jesus told them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.  Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer thee things and enter into His glory.  And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”    

In the text superscript the Johannine author or authors are remembering the day Jesus entered Jerusalem mounted on a lowly donkey to the acclaim of the Jerusalem crowd, some enthusiastic because He had raised Lazarus, but among whom there must have been those who hours later would shout, “Crucify him” before the Roman procurator.  Jesus’ entry into David’s city was to be located in the context of Zechariah 9:9: 

Your king comes to you. 
Triumphant and victorious is He,
humble and riding on an ass
on a colt the foal of an ass.,

The authors might have cited the Angel’s promise to Mary:  “God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign  over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32). Yet there is no doubt that the Johannine author, looking back, now understood that  what happened, remembered through the lens of Zechariah’s prophecy, made Jesus the heir to David’s throne and His entrance into Jerusalem an event pregnant with meaning for the future.  

Jesus must have known that it would end well only in terms of the divine promise, while seeming to human eyes an abject failure, the death of another revolutionary prophet.   But Jesus could not make the great sacrifice before staking His claim to be the King of Israel.  His success, especially His raising of Lazarus from death, had inspired the crowd and infuriated the Pharisees.    The end was now near, the hour toward which His life had been moving,   it remained only to assure the reader that the Greeks would be included in the great apostolic mission:   “Among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.  So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to Him, Sir we wish to see Jesus. Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Phillip and they told Jesus.  And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come  for the Son of Man to be Glorified.”     Then follows the passion narrative that occupies the last half of the book of John.

Having spoken of the disciples’  understanding of Jesus’ triumphal entry as the fulfilling of Zechariah, the text continues: they remembered what they had done with Him (or to Him). The exact meaning of these words  is difficult to capture.  The phrase might be translated idiomatically to refer to the things that had happened to Jesus but as the verb is plural and active it needs the disciples as its subject.  So this leaves the author reflecting on what the disciples had done at and after the triumphal entry:  Jesus ‘washing of the disciples’ feet, the last supper, the divine instruction to the apostles in chapter 14–17, the betrayal and trial and death.    If the phrase “what they had done” is taken extensively, it might refer to their role in the triumphal entry and in what followed, when the disciples played a less than noble part.   Jesus knew what would happen:  “The hour is coming  indeed it has come when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:31.)   From the time of His arrest, Jesus was left alone; there followed Jesus’ betrayal and trial,  and at the end, as far as we are told, only one disciple stood with His mother witnessing His death (John 19;26).  

A political failure: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem signaled no successful revolution, and an eschatological disappointment as well; the Jewish expectation that the Messiah might suddenly inaugurate the supernatural end of history went unfulfilled, this event was still the greatest earthly, historical, representation of Christ’s eternal kingship, the sole occasion when Jesus, having previously counseled  his followers to tell no man, permitted publicity.  Jesus left this world in pain and shame, only to fulfill His promise by appearing in glory to Peter, Paul, John, and other disciples, sending His Spirit with life changing and confirming power at Pentecost.    

After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem there will be no other triumph in history until He returns in glory.    The spread of Christianity, the seeming triumph of the Church at times when it was culturally dominant, eucharistic congresses attended by tens of thousands, even the glory of the Eucharist when it is celebrated with extrinsic beauty, none of these, although they may sometimes reflect His glory,  is the triumph  of Christ, which is only realized perfectly in the lives of the saints.    Christ’s triumph will come when He returns in glory, bringing the saints with Him to live forever in His presence in the renewed creation, where, as Irenaeus says, we will ever have conversation with our Creator.   

What We Believe Is Who We Are

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, 
so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish 
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but that the world might be saved through Him.
Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned, 
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, 
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
                                                           John 3:16–18

John 3:16 is arguably the best known and best loved verse in the New Testament, expressing as it so beautifully does God’s overarching purpose in the creation of humankind, His patience through the long years of disobedience catalogued in the Sacred Scriptures, culminating in the gift of His only Son, whose death and resurrection brought salvation to the world.  “World” in this text is not the world organized against God, as in First John 2:16: “All that is in the world is not of the Father,”  but refers to the created order, declared good in the beginning, that has been the object of God’s love since creation.    

Yet there is more to the story than God’s great all-comprehending  love, for the text goes on to say that our appropriation of this great gift  of life and blessedness is by belief in the Son, adding the harsh word that lacking belief or faith in the Son of God means being condemned already. Souls are not in the first instance lost by falling into sin but by skepticism in the face of God’s revelation: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness” (19).  Near the end of the Gospel of John the author will tell us that as well as dying on the cross for love of God and us,  the Son came to teach us what righteousness is and what sin is.  When He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness, of sin because they do not believe in me.   And belief in Jesus is the author’s purpose.   As he says at the end of the book, apologizing for  abbreviating the account of Jesus’ signs:  “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”  

Belief, one of the too numerous capacities that distinguish the human person from our animal relatives. Every person lives within a texture of convictions that describe reality and informs behavior, a construct that is for that person reality.  This is as true for a skeptic as for a saint.  On a certain level these are assumptions born of day-to-day experience.  But beyond these lies faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), the meaning of life in a future not yet known.  Belief that Jesus is the Son of God is the summary of that faith.  It affirms that there is one we know who the son of god in the loose sense is not that an emperor might have been so described but is rather the Son of the incomprehensible Glory who created this world, who rules nature and every heart through His divine providence, who condemned the world because of sin and saves it because of His indefeasible will that the conversation interrupted in the Garden may find fulfillment among His elect and in His coming kingdom.   

  It is not good works, not even fine character, but belief that Jesus is the Son of God that in the first and fundamental instance fulfills our duty toward God, being as it is the reality from which the actions that are our life flow.  The verb for “to believe”  in the present tense is found about seven times in Matthew, ten times in Mark, five times in Luke, and fifty-one times in John.  Unsurprisingly, we find in the Letters of Paul the reiterated claim that we are made right with God by faith, which means believing that God is who He is and that He will do what He has promised.   “Abraham believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” Genesis 15:6.  As the lynchpin of his preaching this text is quoted by Saint Paul the Pharisee with the explanation, “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due.  And to one who does not work but trust in  Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5).   And  to this the Apostle James adds the example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command as proof that faith issues in obedience:  “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (2:21-22).  And the apostle adds: As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”   

From its birth Christianity fought persistently against the tendency of some to find a fulfilling peace in a certain intellectual apprehension that imitated the gift of faith. These were called gnostics, “the knowledgeable,” “the insightful,” who argued that the redemption Christ offered could be experienced through what was, to use Saint Irenaeus’ word, invisible, transforming the soul through union with God but having no ability to conform the human will to the will of God in witness and behavior.   But when faith is real, when love is real, it issues in a desire to please God our Father.  Saint John is speaking of the common Christian aspiration when he says:  “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (I John 3:9).    

Of course Christians do sin, sometimes grievously, but faith is not stamped out and the claim God has upon the baptized is not obviated.  The same Saint John who says that if we are born of god we cannot sin, writes in the same letter, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9).   And this requires belief, believing in God’s mercy, believing that Christ gave the apostolic mission the power to forgive sins, saying to the frightened disciples on the evening of the first day of His life in glory: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).

Following Nature to Find God

The star which they saw in the East went before them
til it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

                                                                           Matthew 2:9–10

The sixth of January, the twelfth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the recognition of Jesus as the Great King by the gentiles in the persons of the  wise men is celebrated. The wise men, magi as the Greek calls them, came seeking a king.  And this the Angel Gabriel had promised to Mary:  “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob, and of His kingdom there will be no end”(Luke 1:33–34). The wise men had not come to discuss theology or to satisfy curiosity but to worship.   And their worship and their gifts represented the humble allegiance to truth of those we now call men of science, for the magi were the natural philosophers of the first century, men of the East, perhaps Persians, astronomers and perhaps astrologers, interested in understanding nature’s lessons, in this case, willing to follow a star, known to them as “His star,” the King’s star.  

It has ever been the intellectual habit of Christians to learn from nature.  We do not know much about Saint Paul’s education, beyond the fact that he studied with the great scholar Gamaliel in Jerusalem.   Then there is the hint in Romans 1, where he acknowledges his debt to the Greeks and to the Barbarians.   His debt to the Greeks is evident in his ability to quote the poets Epimenides and Aratus before the council of the Areopagus (Acts 17:28–29), as well as in his grasp of ideas such as the participation of Christians in Christ that might be shared with the Platonists and Stoics of his day.   Paul’s claim too, like that implicit in the magi’s journey, was that nature taught the most important thing, the existence and power of God; that nature, like the wise men’s star, would, if followed faithfully, lead us to our King.     

From Paul, through the great medievals, Aquinas and Bonaventure, to the nineteenth century, it has been the claim of Christian scholarship, and indeed of all Christian thought, that knowledge of nature would lead to God.  Perhaps this reached a popular apotheosis with the Romantic Poets of the nineteenth century.   And then, as though a door has been slammed in the face of the inquirer, it became philosophically unfashionable to see God’s mighty hand or the beauty of Christ’s face in nature.   Now it would not be easy to find a professional philosopher who  taught that St. Thomas’s Five Ways offered intellectually compelling reasons for belief in God.  

This is in some measure due to the circumstance that it is now the enemies of reason who define the reach of reason.  We owe to the eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume the observation that treatises on divinity contain no knowable truth while impressions derived from the senses, call them matters of fact, may be considered true,  and analytical statements, statements in which the predicate is contained in the subject (unicorns are one-horned animals), may be considered if not true at least logically valid.  It may be admitted that speaking of God’s existence under these canons of reason is impossible.  There can be no empirical proof, for while God may make himself known to Moses, and while Christ might appear to the apostles, these events, like Pentecost itself, are not empirically knowable since they are the experiences that while they may be compelling are the consequence of faith and as such are not universally available as evidence of God’s existence.   And as for logical proof of God’s existence, the first premise in a deductive argument must always be question-begging, assuming what it seeks to prove. 

       What this canon of the knowable omits is the kind of knowledge that may be called historical, that kind of argument in which thought, presiding over a field of facts and experiences, draws a conclusion.   Several of the classical arguments have this kind of form, most notably the argument from design, the observation, based on our experience of a world of great complexity in which things have purposes and patterns, that where there is order and design there is a designer.  We see that a nation is experiencing an unprecedented military buildup, which is coupled with threats and bellicose speech.  We may conclude that war is likely, or very likely.   War may or may not come, but in a pale analogy to Pascal’s wager, better safe than sorry, we are probably best advised to be prepared for war.   Probability is, as Newman counseled, the guide of life. We  experience, often through long years, an ordered world in which some things go wrong, but more go right.  By calling the wrong things wrong, we acknowledge that they do not belong to the order of reality.   From this preponderance of evidence we may conclude or be led to believe that the world moves under the providence of a loving and beneficent God.  This is not a formal philosophical argument any more than was Paul’s observation in the first chapter of Romans that from the creation of the world the unseen things of God, his divinity and power, are clearly perceived. 

       The Psalmist knew this:
              The heavens declare the glory of God
              And the firmament showeth his handiwork

       For Dante, “Nature is the art of God,” an idea persisting even amid the pantheistic theology of the Enlightenment, in Alexander Pope’s words:
              All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
              Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794), which remained an important collegiate text throughout the nineteenth century was the scholarly formulation of the common observation that the intricate regularity of nature attests the existence of its creator.  This idea is a perennial of human thought and imagination. That the glory of God my be perceived in the things that are made persisted into the foothills of modernity in sentimental ballads of the 1950s: 

              I believe above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard
              I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word
              Every time I hear a newborn baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky
              Then I know why I believe.

In the long run the only argument against the argument from design, the claim that there is no Great Designer, is naturalism, the assertion that nature is a self-explanatory  process.  And the only counter argument is wonder. Mankind, not educated to skepticism by the infernal knowingness of the fallen world, has always found nature, despite that side of things that is disordered,  wonderful and has moved in imagination to the conclusion that God is the Creator.  When told that the old proofs for the existence of God are invalid, pay no attention.   They are for the most part not formal deductions but common inferences.  Such knowledge is not of itself salvific, but it does provide the common insight that faith presupposes and without which faith cannot possess the human heart.  As Hebrews tells us, “Whoever would come to God must believe that he exists” (11:6).   

 Just how the wise men knew  that the star they followed was his star, the star of the great king,  is hidden in their science, but on they came o’er field and fountain, moor and mountain following the star, willing always to be led by nature to the King whom they had travelled far to worship. 

Small Hands

Text and Talk With Dr Patrick
09 January 2021

Small Hands

“Such is of the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

These are lines from (I think) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings describing the condition of fallen mankind. Be it remembered that work is a curse: Because you have done this thing, “cursed is the earth in your work, with labor and toil shall you eat thereof all the days of your life” (Genesis 1:12). Throughout the ages a good deal of energy has been spent avoiding work, so that in every society there is a class of persons who are freed from the necessity of labor, these would be at present those who possess enough capital to invest, as well as members of the bureaucracy at the local or national levels, who, although they may be reassigned cannot be fired. In a broad sense members of the professions, although they may work very hard, are viewed as being freed of the necessity of laboring in order to pursue their vocation.
       The small hands who move the wheels of the world are thought of as having a job, not a vocation. In the Old Testament these were the people of the land, for whose protection here were special provisions. They are always there; land owning serfs in the middle ages, cobblers and millers and carpenters who possessed a skill but no property. Those who wove the Anjou Apocalypse tapestry in the 1370s, the builders of the great cathedrals, the principal activity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, whose names are lost.
       This class of workers revolted in England in 1381; in Germany in the 1520s , where they were put down with violence. After the industrial revolution relocated labor from the land to cities, the peasants of industrial society constituted a group sufficiently large and sufficiently vocal to claim the interest of the governing class, and indeed “Labor,” after the near revolution of 1830, claimed the interest of politicians who would variously seek justice for the laboring classes, or appease them, or seduce them for the interests of the governing class.
       Viewed realistically, it is the small hands who make American society habitable. This essay began with a reflection of whoever it is who paints the white lines on the roads. They must do so in the early hours of the morning, for they are seldom seen, but without those white lines it is impossible to drive after dark if you are over seventy. Then there is the cleaning lady, legal or illegal, who makes $10.50 an hour. In recent days those who work through the night to stock the shelves in grocery stores. Plumbers’ helpers, you can make your own list. This is a class of persons no longer poor. The driver of an eighteen-wheeler may earn six figures, as may the operators of the digging and concrete crushing machines. But they are still members of the class I am trying to describe.  The cleaning lady and the backhoe operator are bound together by a common culture.  They watch television. They do not read books.  They do not know who or what Derida and Richard Rorty, subjectivism, deconstruction, or critical theory might be, and although they are perfectly capable of understanding these ideas, they do not find them interesting. They are not socialists because they have property, and yes, they are disproportionately white, although this class will include numbers of Hispanics and blacks. There are generally not socialists, although it has been pointed out that voting socialist would be in their own interest. And in an age of atheism they are disproportionately Christian. They are also disproportionately uneducated in the sense that they do not always go to college. In terms of the criteria that have been established by sociologists and politicians they are racists because they do not understand why black persons who seem to them to lead disorganized lives should be favored by the government, but those minority persons who work and who accept their vision are welcomed to the table by them. They are fiercely independent. Probably they are genetically disproportionately Scotch-Irish. They are a diminishing class, essentially doomed, because urbanism recruits them away from their often unconsciously held principles, because the drug culture ravages them, and because television , apart from Duck Dynasty, recruits their children into modernity.
       While those who say that the Founders established an order that benefited themselves have a point, it was on the behalf of this group that the nation was founded. Gordon S. Wood’s study of how a monarchical, hierarchical society became equalitarian in about ten years ends by pointing out that although what Burke would have called the unbought grace of life was abrogated, the American settlement brought unimagined benefits to the class I have been describing, Jefferson’s small, independent farmers and shopkeepers. Disproportionately, they work with their hands. But these are the people who about 2010 found a voice in the Tea Party: According to political analyst Scott Rasmussen. Tea party participants “think federal spending, deficits and taxes are too high, and they think no one in Washington is listening to them, and that latter point is really, really important.” But how can the political class listen, when once one goes to Washington one is recruited into a conversation run by lobbyists, a culture whose voice is PBS, and whose most important citizens are not the folks back home but the donors that make reelection possible. Historically, resentment of the Federal government’s bailout of everybody but themselves, was, oddly, the spark that ignited a small American fire. Not well-versed in economic theory, they stubbornly refuse to believe that printing paper money to fuel an expansive state will work out well. Their work is not valued. The small hands that do the work of the world are just supposed to be there, while what is valuable is technology, medicine, lawyering, and politics. And what is profitable is trading in non-existent money.
       What we have just been witnessing, over the last decade, culminating in last week, is another peasant revolt, a large group of the small hands who went to Washington convinced that the November election was rigged. Their movement has religious and economic roots. Opposition to it is fueled by hatred, or rather by something worse, by contempt. Hillary Clinton defined the peasants as deplorable. What will be remembered from last week will not be the riots but the words of the ?CNN commentator Anderson Cooper “Look at them, they’re high-fiving each other for this deplorable display of completely unpatriotic, completely against law and order, completely unconstitutional behavior, it’s stunning. And they’re going to go back to the Olive Garden and to the Holiday Inn they’re staying at, or the Garden Marriott, and they’re going to have some drinks and talk about the great day they had in Washington. They stood up for nothing other than mayhem.” What will be remembered of Cooper’s remark is the tone; these people did not stay at the Ritz-Carlton or the St. Regis; they are the common lot.
       One may ask what fuels this attitude or superiority and its complement, contempt. It is the perfection of the attitude of Enlightenment philosophers, whose implicit claim was that they have seen through the dark superstitions of the past, to enter a world in which knew no bounds other than taste. Often the taste of the small hands does not measure up, and the wars of recent days can be seen as differences not over policy but over taste. The mere sight of the president throws the coastal elites into a state of inexpressible rage. He is and represents the wrong sort, so wrong that no rule of courtesy or honesty impinges upon attempts to remove and discredit him.
       The other thing that will be memorable from this disastrous week is the attempt to silence any criticism of the impending glory days. The capitol riots will be used by the left, as was the Reichstag fire, to justify extreme measures. I note that it unleashed the hatred of Peggy Noonan for the president and all his works. In any event, he will go away, and the troublesome small hands will remain unrepresented.

The Poetry of Christmas

The Poetry of Christmas

God gave us the great romance, for what could be more romantic than the story of the king born in a manger, his identity unknown to any but three great kings who follow his star to bring precious gifts, a child destined to struggle against and to defeat evil before offering himself for the life of the world, then to be vindicated as the conqueror of death, reigning gloriously for ever and ever.   

One might suggest that on a natural level, Christianity has a better story than the continual revolution against it.    The story of Lenin or Trotsky or Voltaire or Diderot, although powerful in evil, does not easily inhabit imagination, and it is well nigh impossible to imagine a boy, first realizing that he is in love, breaking into the Communist Internationle or the Marseilles or even the Star Spangled Banner.

This romantic superiority of Christianity coalesces around Christmas, a liturgical celebration of the birth of the Child, not the first or most important celebration, but one beloved perhaps even more than Easter, with its challenge of death and resurrection.   The Baby in the Manger, at least superficially, offers no challenge whatever our way of life, and is easily sentimentalized.   

The incorporation of Christmas into popular culture is accomplished through the poetry that is music. The person who is the meaning of history was not developed or recruited or discovered, but was given to us when the Word, the meaning, the incarnate rationale of the cosmos, who is God, was born  in the manger in Bethlehem.  Unto us a child is born, not a leader or a commander but a child. He is the center and there is no further fulfillment. For Moslems history may mean a will and finally a garden of delight.  For secularists it means death.  For Christians it means a baby in a manger.  It is enough for the author of I John to say  that all we know of what the future holds is that when he appears, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  “And at last our eyes shall see Him. Through His own redeeming love.  

      The great poets found Christmas a challenging subject.  For Longfellow Christmas posed a too-sharp  contrast between the peace of Christ and a nation at war, as in his poem “Christmas Bells.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”


I will merely mention in passing Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve,” a long poem ruminating on the  ambiguities of religion.  Tennyson’s Christmas poem. “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” is melancholic.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good. 

  These oblique reflections did not pass into poplar culture, where the life of the Child born in the mangers was set to music. We are not told that upon the announcement of his coming the Blessed Virgin sang, but the Magnificat is poetry, and surely the author of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels we have heard on High, Sweetly Singing through the Night” were right that multitudes of the angels sang their Gloria.   At the end of the story, after he had given us his Body and Blood, Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples (Mt. 26:30), his last act before the Garden and Golgotha.  St. Paul said that the life of the Church should be characterized by hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) 

      And not much time passed before the Church had set the liturgy to music, first to the plainchant, the majesty of Gregorian plainchant, then to polyphony; Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, and Elgar.   And all this glory because “He Came down from earth to Heaven, Who is Lord of all.” These words are from “Once in Royal David’s City,” and that brings us to the fact that only the church has a song that sums up the meaning of things as it lifts up the heart.   Many things could be said about the song Christ creates in us.  He was in the Psalms, and the song he inspires has always accompanied the liturgy.   He created hymns, but most dramatically he created the music of Christmas; it is Jesus who is the song that makes the world sing.  

      The origin of the Christmas Carol is not well known. The word has an etymology too rich to yield precision. It may be derived from the Greek word for chorus, and it is obviously related to the French carole and caroler.  A carol is a hymn, and more specifically a hymn of joy.  An 1889 reference associates it with wassailing, described as “the singing of Christmas carols at the doors of houses, a practice which is dying out.”

       But not so fast.  A century later carols are still sung, sometimes  at the doors of houses.   The genre has its models and its history.  The most famous carol is perhaps “Silent Night,” the words of which were written in German by the young parish Priest of Amsdorf in the Austrian Tyrol in December 1818.  Performed originally on a guitar, “Silent Night, Holy Night” quickly captured  hearts.

       Not all famous carols were composed in such a straight forward way.  “O Come All Ye Faithful” appears first among the supporters of James III, exiled in France, and is assigned on calligraphic evidence to James Francis Wade (1711-1786)..  The Latin Adeste fidelis was translated into dearly loved English as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” by Frederick Oakley of Oxford Movement fame in 1841.  The impetus for the writing of the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was the recollection of Phillips Brooks, later the famous Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, on a  Christmas Eve night in the fateful year 1865.  By 1868 the words had been set to music by Louis H. Redener, in a hymn titled “St. Louis.”  

The late-Gothic Kings College Chapel in Cambridge is one of the great works of the human imagination and human hand.  Every year since 1919, the year that stood in the shadow of the Great War that effectively ended Europe, the choir of Kings College has presented in the chapel the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.   Famously, the service open with a processional:  “Once in Royal David’s City,” a Christmas carol  originally a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, and shortly afterward set to music by H. J. Gauntlett, published in that year in Miss Celia Humphrey’s Hymns for Little Children.  The memory of the single voice singing “Once in Royal David’s City” invests imagination with its beauty.

      All of these, every Christmas carol is a gift of Jesus Christ, who makes the whole world sing, and especially at Christmas.   “God rest you merry, Gentlemen, Let Nothing You Dismay.”  “Joy to the World. Carols are the popular form of Christmas poetry 

Along the way music that would be considered classical was recruited into Christmas.  Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892, is a popular favorite , particularly in North America, where it is often staged or played at Christmastime.  The revenue from the Nutcracker constitutes about forty percent of the income of the major ballet companies.  George Frederick Handel’s Messiah was originally intended as an Easter Oratorio, but it is now Christmas music par excellence.   

Handel was a composer of operas who, when that form lost popularity turned to the oratorio, of which he had composed three before The Messiah in 1741, written originally for performance at Easter in Dublin in 1742.  The text or libretto is by Charles Jennens, a high Anglican Jacobite who used the Authorized Version or King James and the Coverdale Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer to create a text that illustrates the life of the Messiah. “A meditation on our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.” The finished work, says one critic, “amounts to little short of a work of genius”. There is no evidence that Handel played any active role in the selection or preparation of the text; it seems, rather, that he saw no need to make any significant amendment to Jennens’s work.  How Handel made the text and the music come together is one of the several mysteries of music.  Handel had made his reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, as a writer of Italian Opera, and The Messiah is an opera in which the plot is the text, written in scenes arranged around Scripture. Everybody knows the so-called ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ the ascending repetition of the line “King of “Kings and Lord of Lords, He shall reign forever and forever.”  And there is the full stop followed by “The Kingdom of this World has become the Kingdom of Our Lord and His Christ.”  Heavy on the prophets and the Apocalypse, The Messiah completely lacks sentimentality.  It now means Christmas in the Anglosphere.    

           And lastly not to forget the Christmas ballad tradition of which the centerpiece is the nostalgic “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Just like the ones I used to know,” written by Irving Berlin for Holiday Inn in 1942, the worst year of the war.   And one more “The Christmas Song” written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells  in 1945, that begins: 

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose

Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos

And ends:

And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.

—– Dr James Patrick —–

Thoughts on the Second Reading for Christmas Day

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, He has spoken to us through the Son,
whom He made heir of all things
and through whom He created the universe,
who is the refulgence of His glory,
the very imprint of His being,
and who sustains all things by His mighty word.

Hebrews 1:2–3

These words, in all their beauty and power describe the  glory of the child born in Bethlehem, who while he lay in Mary’s arms is the Word of the Father, the means through which creation exists, the refulgence of God’s glory, the very imprint of God’s being. The shepherds came from  the east not to satisfy curiosity or to discuss the theology; they sought the child but to lay their precious gifts before Him and to worship. And ever since, through long centuries, it has been the privilege of the apostolic mission to testify to the truth that the child born in Bethlehem, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, was not an ordinary child who through grace would come to share in the life of God, but that the child born of Mary in Bethlehem is indeed the one through whom God created the Universe, reflecting always God’s glory, sustaining the world as the eternal Word of God.   The child is He “Through whom He created the  Universe,” as John says, “All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made” (1:3).  He is the eternal Son of God, God’s very speech, existing from all eternity.  He was the one in the beginning, the Word through whom God spoke the Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep to bring, order, light, and the fulness of being, and who at this time and in this place, in the principate of Augustus, took human nature to himself, healing the chasm torn across creation when our first parents chose the serpent’s way.  And like the Magi we worship Him. 

That one displaying the refulgence of the Father was born into our world tells us something about that world in which we live and also tells us something about the son of God in His relation to our world.  First, it tells us that every piece of creation, from our bodies to the trees and sky, while these do not  share in the life of the Blessed Trinity–only the eternal Son is of one glorious substance with the Father—are each gifts of God, bearing the impress of His mighty hand, and in that way enjoying a derivative holiness.   This intuition of  God’s ownership and authorship is the warrant claimed by the romantic poets,  evident in Wordsworth’s “Lines composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (122–128):

                 This prayer I make, the heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
                 Through all the years of this our life, to lead
                 From joy to joy: for she can so inform
                 Knowing that Nature never did betray
                 The mind that is within us, so impress
                 With quietness and beauty, and so feed
                 With lofty thoughts.

This is what Gerard Manley Hopkins knew when he wrote that for all the irreverent damage men might do to God’s nature:

And for all this, nature is never spent:

          There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Poets echo with imagination the fact that Christ the Word is present in everything the human hand touches and in our hands themselves.   The worship of nature is one of those great mistakes that attests to a great truth gone awry, for the object of our worship must always be not the creature but the Creator.  Yet the fact of the presence of Christ in everything natural is a clue to how we should treat nature.  Because we see the beauty and order God has put in the world, while knowing that victory cannot be perfect until Christ returns, we should strive to overcome the natural evil that has plagued us since Eden, the fruits of sin issuing in death.  This is the work of priests, physicians, and teachers, always striving to replace disease and ignorance with holiness, health, and knowledge.   But beyond this is the necessity always to touch nature with love, not viewing the natural world as a scene of blank potentiality but as a work of Christ through whom all things were made.  His work is perfect, but humankind has the power to perfect creation guiding it toward the glory that lies within it, or to degrade it. Anyone reading this essay could catalogue those things that should never have been made.  So those with the power to make should ask, “Does what I’m about to do reflect the reality that everything belongs to God, given to humankind as a gift, bearing the stamp of His almighty hand, and should therefore be touched only with reverence.” 

And second,  seeing Christ in nature enables us to see Christ as He is.  As Saint Paul wrote, what can be known about God is evident, for 

          “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely His                eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that               have been made” (Romans 1:20).

And what we see in nature is the work of one possessed of all the power and gracious goodness of the Father.   Miracles in themselves, although they can be believed and their deep reasonableness appreciated,  cannot  be explained,  nor can the great mysteries of creation, salvation, and the new creation  be explained.  We do not know why Jesus heals this blind man and turns this water into wine,   but the predicate of every supernatural act of our Lord is the fact that  everything that exists was made by Him.  He is inside nature, and the laws and rules for nature that we confess are mere effective metaphors in comparison with the informing knowledge possessed by the Son.    This fact should warn every believer away from modern atheism, the work of Enlightenment philosophers, which includes among its founding principles the belief that nature is merely natural.