To Every Saint His Time

 

“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My
lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
        “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
       they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood
       of the Lamb.”

                                               Revelation 7:13–14

Until this day a newly baptized person is given a white cloth symbolic of the white robe of baptismal purity.   Since God’s Spirit called the Church at Pentecost, Christians are baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), with water in the name of and therefore by the power of God the Blessed Trinity, set free from the familial weakness and rebellion called original sin and given the Holy Spirit, the character of Christ, and the power of faith hope and love, washed in the cleansing blood of the Lamb of Calvary.  The author of Revelation, the prophet John, was a Jew, who knew that before the sacrifice of the Messiah, for long centuries, in the morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed in the temple in expiation of the sins of Israel (Exodus 29:38-44), these daily sacrifices being the reiteration of the great salvific sacrifice of the Passover lamb.  

The work of a lifetime for these white-robed saints will have included, as it does for us,  exercising dominion over creation in a particular vocation, multiplying and filling the earth, the pursuit of our particular vocation.  But it was just these tasks, good in themselves, rooted in the nature that God had made, that in the lives of those John saw had paled before the supernatural task of bringing the white robe given at baptism, by unfailing faith and the grace of the sacraments, unspotted into God’s presence when He had called them to Himself.   The French poet Charles Péguy will ever be remembered for having written the obvious: “In the end life holds only one tragedynot to have been a saint.” For those whom John saw, life had been a comedy in the classic meaning of that word, a story with a happy ending, consummated in the marriage feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7).

In the text superscript the Prophet John describes God’s holy ones  as those who have survived the time of great distress.   It is characteristically human, especially in a society of abundance and safety, to think of the pursuit of holiness as a part of the good life, unfolding in untroubled fashion over seventy years among men and women of good will.  But this has not been the experience of the saints.  Perhaps when John wrote of a time of distress he may have had in mind the destruction of the temple and ruin of the Jewish homeland by the Roman general Titus in 70 AD or the persecution of Christians at Rome by the emperor Nero.   Perhaps some who had endured such troubles were in exile with John on the island of Patmos near Ephesus.    But these difficulties exemplify the words of Christ:  “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). 

There is no time that in the midst of certain hope that does not bring some distress to Christian life.   At present, in the West, Christian profession brings no imminent fear of loss of life or loss of freedom, but this may change.  Already Christians in Africa live in fear for their lives; in China opposition to the patriotic church brings swift punishment. A greater enemy of the Christian life than fear of the sword is the culture of affluence and comfort with which the West is surfeited.  Add to this the confidence-destroying culture of relativism which denies the very possibility of truth.     

In this moral climate,  trouble inevitably comes to Christians.  Despite the gifts given at baptism, the weakness of sin is done away, mitigated, and contained only through the long and persistent use of the sacraments, through discipline and patience. There is always the enemy within that must be defeated, those effects of fallen human nature, the moral undertow of previous defeats. those predispositions and circumstances that entice, those sins that in the words of Hebrews cling so closely that they make the race difficult (12:1).                      

And there is always the enemy without, for the very world that God loves, is infected with the evil that as long as time endures springs from the enmity of Satan and his rebel angels..  To strive for holiness is to engage the attention of Satan, who bedevils those whose life work it is to be pleasing to God.   To seek holiness, to dare to be given to God, is, as is said in the liturgy of baptism, to repudiate Satan and his works.  Be assured, he will notice your defection from what he considers his kingdom.   He will surround you with a godless culture that makes devotion seem fanatical.  He will arrange the disappointment of earthly hopes.    Or perhaps he will give you a surfeit of the good things of this world so that you will imagine that you do not need God.   There are many different demonic strategies for bringing the distress of the times to bear on those who aspire to the Christian life.  

Perhaps the greatest danger is the quiet apostasy that comes from the death-inspired belief that the clever may successfully have a foot in both the kingdom of God and the world, forgetting that friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4).   For ordinary Christians loyalty to one’s heaven-sent vocation does not mean wearing unusual clothing or making oneself a public nuisance in public every occasions but it does mean seeing one’s life as a consistent witness.   The duty to bear witness is not obviated by its difficulty.  Every Christian has a religious vocation.  Feed your soul with prayer.  Live a virtuous life in a corrupting world.  Bear witness as a family.   Keep Sunday holy. Have children.   If it lies within your power, educate them to love God, which means outside the government system, which tends to alienate children from family and tradition.  

And remember that immediately following Jesus’ warning that in this world His followers will have trouble there are these words:  “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  Exactly what these encouraging words meant to Polycarp when the mob shouted for his death in 154 or to Thomas More when in 1535 he faced execution for defending the Church; how Christ’s words strengthened the resolve of Isaac Jogues as he was hacked to death by the Mohawks in 1646 or how these words comforted Elizabeth Ann Seton when in the 1830s her work was threatened by violent anti-Catholicism is part of their story, but we do know that when Christ sent His Spirit  into this world His presence encouraged hearts and stiffened resolve to enable the saints of every age to survive times of great distress, and that not grudgingly.    The Church has always remembered them.   One can see in the list in the Roman rite the Church remembering:   the glorious and ever-virgin Mary, the Blessed Apostles, Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogenus, John and Paul, Cosmos and Damian, and all the saints.  Finally there were too many, so the Church gave up listing them in the Roman Canon and began to remember them day by day.    And of course the known saints are one hopes a tiny fraction of those whose names are not known.   Each of them made it through the stress of their time and now makes intercession for us in the presence of God.  

These heroes we know, and thanks be to God for them.  But it is also true that most saints, that great company whose names we do not know, are made saintly not through dramatic confrontation with the powers of the world but through the patience and fidelity they exercise  in the face of the most obvious, and one fears often successful, stratagems of the Other Side:  the nattering insistence that if God loved us, he would give us perfect peace now rather than the perfecting trials apart from which no one will see God.   These trials are uniquely ours, in our time.   

Dr.  Patrick’s recent book  The Making of the Christian  Mind is 

available  from Amazon or St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN.

God Hears the Humble

 

The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High answers,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

                                               Sirach 35:12

Christ brought into the world and placed as the one thing necessary a virtue that while the Romans knew something of it was not the cultural standard.  What Romans knew and rightly feared was hubris, the overweening pride that destroyed  Oedipus, the-know-it-all Oedipus, who intemperately destroyed the Sphinx with a display of his own insight. Against such disordering brashness the poets warned; every educated Roman boy would have known the story.  But they would not have heard that something called humility is the mother of every virtue and to be most desired.  Perhaps they would have put in its place honor, or being respectable and respected, with an implication that the honorable man is virtuous.      

       Humility is different from hubris because it means locating oneself in relation to God as the lowest and in relation to others as being willing to serve.   Interestingly, in a Christian culture humility obviates equality.  It is one thing to claim one’s just share in the common good in which all have an equal share.  It is another to entertain that child of pride:  I’m as good as you are.  In fact nobody is as good as anyone else; we ought not make that claim of persons except most equivocally;  Jesus taught us that one alone is good (Matthew 19:17).  The great symbols of Christian behavior are images of condescension, beginning with the cross, when the Son of God emptied himself of his glory and came down to teach us and finally to die for our sins.   This is the image Christ gives to those whom he knows will lead the Church when he washes the disciples feet and warns them that  the servant is not greater than the master nor him who is sent greater than the one who sends them (John 13:3-17).   When His disciples fell to arguing among themselves about who should be the greatest, Jesus warned that while the great among the Gentiles exercise authority over their clients, it should not be so among His disciples; them He charged to serve one another, reminding them that he had come among them as on who serves (Luke 22:22-27).  Humility is the cousin of love because its attention is directed to the good of another.   

        The prideful love the powerful and well-off of this world, but the Lord loves the lowly because they and they alone will listen to Him.    To be lowly is to admit one’s insufficiency, to know that God created us and not we ourselves and to be aware that without his willing our existence moment by moment the dust, the mere vapor (James 4:14), that we are would be dissipated and gone.   And the first thing we know if we listen is that he cares for us, which means two things.   First, he will not leave us in our sins but will give us grace to attain to his high standard, and second He wills to bring us if we will come into his presence into that condition we  enjoyed when God held us in his arms and breathed life into our faces (Genesis 2:7); that is he loves us.   

       These things the humble may know; they are forever obscured from the knowledge of the proud.     To be proud is to need no one; to listen to no one, to be self sufficient, and this in the face of the fact that self sufficiency belongs to only one, to God; he alone is self-founding (Mark 10:18).   This is why God’s heart reaches out to the poor and to the poor in spirit or humble of every time and place who know they need him.   This is why Christ repeatedly tells us to ask, for to ask is to recognize our need (John 16:24). And of course He reaches out to the proud at the same time, but they cannot hear: “seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Psalm 115:6).  Wealth and pride not always but often go together, wealth always being a temptation to the illusion of self sufficiency, but while on one hand there is aways the barn builder (, who believes falsely that his riches can insure his security (Luke 12:16–21), there is also Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the council who gave Jesus the place of his burial (Matthew 27:57–60).

       Humility undergirds a stance toward the world that Our Lord illustrated in the contrast between and the self-righteous Pharisee, who explained his virtues, touted his own righteousness, and the tax collector, a man despised in the culture of Jerusalem as the oppressive agent of a foreign power.  But the Pharisee is the image of pride, a lost soul, who tells us he is not like others:  sinners, adulterous,  while the tax collector is an image  of saving humility (Luke 18:9–14).   

       Not least among the damning attitudes of the proud is the belief that one is not like other men, but better.    Not only is this subjectively damning, but just as pride makes it impossible for us to hear the voice of God it makes it impossible for us to know others.  We humans are so very, but so interestingly, different, while at the same time we are very much alike.  The basis of our natural unity is our common human nature,  the basis of our supernatural unity is our common baptism which blossoms in the communion of saints.    Every person is facing some challenge, dealing with some disappointment, aspiring to some unrealized hope, dealing with disease or want of some kind.    Failure to appreciate this, failure to see that even those whom we believe blessed abundantly in this worlds goods, may have borne burdens we did not see and endured difficulties we cannot imagine.  

       Those who most need our prayers are the morally damaged, those beset by hatred that cannot be let go, by itches that seemingly cannot be satisfied, by lies that cannot be unsaid, by moral blindness, the frustration of hopes that we never knew.   To think that we are better than anyone is to claim knowledge that only God who knows the heart can possibly have. Better to assume that our neighbor, however successful and secure he may seem, is struggling with some of the same difficulties, disappointments, and unfulfilled aspirations as trouble our own lives.   The humble always have company; the proud are alone. 

Doing Nothing

 

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores. . . .
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.

                                               Luke 16:19-23

       It is a peculiarity of the famous parable that we are not told what the rich man had done to deserve punishment in the fires of hell.  He might be charged with gluttony and with directing his attention to making the good life for himself to the neglect of other responsibilities, a selfishness God promises to redress.   And thus devotion to his own comfort blinded him to the lot of the beggar on his steps.  Each morning when he left his house the rich man stepped over the recumbent form of the poor beggar Lazarus, so that knowledge being a condition of responsibility, he was quite aware of the fellow’s existence and his hunger.    And what he did was nothing.  And notice that the beggar was not far off, not a victim of some distant famine but was on the rich man’s doorstep.    And he did nothing.   

       And there was another servant, given a talent by his master, who instead of putting it at interest, hid it in the ground.  He did nothing and was cast into outer darkness (Matthew 25:24—30).

       On another day a wealthy young man, and pious, a keeper of the law, came to Jesus to ask what he must do if he would enter the kingdom.  Jesus told him, but he did nothing, for he had many possessions (Matthew 19:16-22).    

       It is a popular idea that hell is populated by notorious sinners,  and certainly they are among its population.  The prophet John writes, “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be with the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (21:8).  The cowards and the faithless, whose sins head the list of moral failures,  have not committed grave sins, they lack the courage to act;  they have no faith: “He who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).   Doing nothing is as certain a path to the inescapable flames to which the rich man was committed as is murder and idolatry.    Jesus’ approach to sinners was forgiveness; the language of the stories He told suggests that the fate of those who do nothing is hopeless.

       Every person is  born with an obligation to know and serve the Almighty and Eternal God.   For the morally blessed person this will first come  as a sense that there is more to this business of existence than meets the eye.  Call it wonder.   The providentially blessed will be told the story of God and will be given the opportunity to know Him and to enter into life.   At this point the ball will be in this person’s court.   

       But at every step Satan will oppose this knowledge and this grace.  He will have at his disposal a culture that hates God, ready with explanations and doubts to plunge the developing person into the flat would of the obvious, the ordinary, and  the skeptical.   Eitner the maturing soul will see through this, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, or he will not.  And if he does not,  he too may do nothing, joining what appears to be the mass of mankind who  neglect and therefore despise God.   While Jesus never gives us the answer to the many-or-few question, He did describe the fate of the seed of salvation sown into the world.   Some will fall on rocky ground, some on the path, some the birds devoured, others fell among thorns (Matthew 13:24–33).  This parable also tells us why tares spring up, choking out the wheat: an Enemy has done this.  

       What part  of this loss is the result of indefeasible ignorance born of circumstance in a fallen world is known only to God.  But to the degree that for each person there exists the choice based upon some degree of knowledge, either  to affirm or deny God’s claim,  a direction will be chosen that leads to either eternal life or eternal death.     

       Divorce in Texas may be no fault, but life is not.    Life is the greatest gift with great consequences.   When the disciples asked Jesus, “Will those who are saved be few?”  Neither here nor elsewhere in the Gospels  does Jesus give a census of the Kingdom.   He replied “strive to enter by the narrow door; for many I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:23).  There are those like the wise and foolish virgins who know their duty to God and those who do not, who will have failed to be prepared when Jesus returns (Matthew 25:1–13).  Among the foolish are those who, like the rich man, do nothing because they do not care, having willfully failed to seek to fulfill their duty to God.  

       Truly God wills all men to be saved, but having given them freedom in the beginning, he will not deny its consequences  in the end; He will not coerce or intimidate or destroy faith with obviousness.    To those who do not wish to know or obey him, He will grant their desire. Hell is a place or condition prepared for those who do not want to be with God, beginning with the devil and his angels, to whom are joined those who knowingly have rejected knowledge and love of God, which includes preeminently those who, like the rich man in the parable have done nothing.  

       Of course this seems cruel to our postmodern ears, but that is because we think of our faith as an optional activity that may enrich life rather than as a duty owed to the Almighty and merciful God on which our eternal destiny depends.   This, of course, is part of the demonic delusion.  Sed contra, Justice is rendering to each his due. The chain of duties incumbent on every person born into this world begins with the supreme duty of giving to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is Justice himself,  worship,  obedience, and love.

Rulers and Governors

 

First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers,
petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone,
for kings and for all in authority,
that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life
in all devotion and dignity.
This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
who wills everyone to be saved

                                               I Timothy 2:1-2

By the reign of Nero (54-68 AD) the Empire had begun to harass and soon to kill the disciples of the Prince of Peace.    Neither the Roman officials nor the Roman population generally liked or approved of the new religion.  Philosophers considered its doctrine of the resurrection and its claim that Jesus would return in glory not so much mistaken as scandalous naive.   In this environment Christians were convenient scapegoats.   Nero blamed the great fire of July 64 in the Roman capital  on Christians, some of whom, Peter probably among them, he crucified upside down in the Circus that bore the emperor’s  name on the Vatican Hill.   At the turn of the third century Tertullian reminded his readers that when the Tiber overflowed its banks the cry would go up, Christians to the lions.   The state soon came to see that despite their quiet peaceable way of life the new religion posed a threat because it taught a loyalty higher than the customary duty of citizens to the state.    Typical Romans found Christianity threatening because Christians stood outside familiar culture and because they worshiped God who was not a creature of the state but the Creator of all things visible and invisible, becoming thereby politically unreliable.  Persecution was apparently sporadic and localized until Decius, about 250, launched an inquisition that required every Roman to affirm his loyalty to the empire by worshiping the imperial statue.  The apogee was the great persecution in the reign of  Diocletian (300-303).   Eight years later Constantine and Licinius published their edict of toleration, and Christianity began its march toward cultural popularity and then dominance.

       But throughout the long three centuries of oppression the Church never counseled rebellion, always hewing to the apostolic line that “the powers that be are ordained by God” (Romans 13:1),  that rules and rulers are providentially provided to reward goodness and to punish evil (I Peter 2:13–14).    So we find Saint Paul, as early as fifty or sixty, counseling Timothy in his second letter to command in Paul’s name, “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority” ( 2:1–2).  Depending on just when Paul wrote First Timothy, the emperor for whom Paul urged prayer would have been Claudius, Caligula, or Nero.    

       Beneath the Pauline command that authorities be prayed for and obeyed lay the Christian understanding of God’s providence, expressed eloquently about 90 AD by Clement, perhaps the third bishop of Rome, in the great prayer that concludes his Letter to the Corinthians.   

       To our rulers and governors on the earth — to them You, Lord, gave the power of the kingdom by Your glorious and ineffable might, to the end that we may know the glory and honor given to them by You and be subject to them, in naught resisting Your will; to them, Lord, give health, peace, concord, stability, that they may exercise the authority given to them without offense. For You, O heavenly Lord and King eternal, givest to the sons of men glory and honor and power over the things that are on the earth; do Thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well-pleasing in Your sight, that, devoutly in peace and meekness exercising the power given them by You, they may find You propitious. O Thou, who only has power to do these things.

       As Paul knew the political order, like the order of salvation governing the redemption of souls, is ordered by God’s providence, under rulers he has permitted to rule, not because of any moral excellence of their own but because they are put in place by God.   To rebel against that order is to rebel against God.     

       So what is every Christan’s defense against the inevitable descent of the political order into tyranny, or in Augustine’s words domination?   It is one thing to obey a just, wise, and gentle ruler, another to accede to a tyrant.  Is submission the only Christian choice; rebellion being impossible since the order of the world is providentially ordained by God?  The answer is the same answer the martyrs gave in the days of persecution:  witness.   They did not frame the question as one to be resolved by political action but as one touching the moral imperative intrinsic to their situations:  to sacrifice or not.   Christians we are not encouraged to raise an army against the prince,  even when oppression is obvious and dire, partly for the sound theological reason that the powers that be are providentially ordained or permitted and partly for the practical reason that political rebellion is as likely to bring harm as it is to effect righteousness.   

       We are, however,  commanded always to bear witness by never being complicit with evil.   We are not permitted to hate any person , to believe lies, to act on behalf of injustice, or within our power to countenance anything that denies or runs counter to the teachings of Christ.   It was this witness, person by person, year after year that turned the Roman empire into the empire of Christ the King.   

       This witness is now weak—perhaps it is always weak—but still to be found, and still has the power to confront tyranny.   It is the Little Sisters of the Poor after decades of litigating still unwilling to provide abortion for their employees.    It is an archbishop who will not permit the desecration of the Mass as it damages souls or a bishop who will not be silent as Christian morality is assailed.  It is  observant Catholics who go to Mass and confession, and those who undertake the religious life of poverty, chastity and obedience when these are profoundly anti-cultural.   It is those who take time to know who they are voting for.   It is those who sacrifice to send their children to the parish school. And it is those who pray for our rulers.   Without reference to any particular person, God’s grace can change them, or permit them to continue in rebellion against the good and the true as he wills; our hostility and hatred can only affect the destruction of  souls, our own.    

       Christianity has always been disappointing to those who will not trust God’s will.   Judas was only the first to betray because (we assume) he had expected a successful revolution on behalf of power, human or divine.   What happened was the cross.

Unexpected

 

Be sure of this;
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come”

                                               Luke 12:40

The Gospels are replete with parables the point of which is the importance of watchful behavior until the master of the field, the harvest, the cosmos returns, soon, unexpectedly.     The twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew is a description of the last days of this age, the age inaugurated by the Incarnation that will endure until Jesus returns.   It is a scene with which we are familiar:  wars, rumors of war, the deception of false messiahs, the instability of nature, betrayal, love grown cold.    The Apocalypse of John (8:7-19) is a revealed description of the last days that parallels Matthew 24.

  Then Jesus, a having described the world of the last days,  warns that when you see these things, things going on around us, we are to know that the end is not yet, that we are to stand to our duty, to be His witnesses, to be among the faithful whom he will find when he returns.  Jesus tells us that only the Father knows the time of his return, when his appearance will be as the light shining from east to west, when  he will return just as the Blessed Virgin and the disciples saw him go.     

Jesus’ second advent is a time of triumph.  Saint Paul gives a fulsome picture in First Thessalonians 4:16.  Christ will descend with the archangel’s shout and the sounding trumpets of God, and the elect, living and dead, will go out to meet him in the air, and so always to be with the Lord.

Yet all this woe and turmoil belonging to these last days is but a  prologue to the day of Christ’s return.   A major family of New Testament parables has as its burden the warning that Jesus would return when least expected.  This is the burden of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the wise preparing for the return of the bridegroom with lamps alight, the foolish, having no oil for their lamps, shut out of the wedding feast (Matthew 25:1-13).  As also the parable of the man who went on a journey, having given his servants one, two and five talents respectively, with the provident investor being rewarded and the too-cautious one-talent servant cast into outer darkness (Matthew 14–30). The figure of the thief in the night is ubiquitous in the Christian literature of the first two centuries.

Writings such as the Didache and the Apocalypse of John end with the cry “Come Lord Jesus.”  The expectation of the Church was that Christ would return soon, so soon that Saint Paul thought it improvident to marry, establishing a relationship that belongs to this world when the return of Jesus is imminent (I Corinthians 7:27–29).   The Johannine community expecting Christ to return while their beloved disciple was still alive (John 21:20–23), were disappointed when this did not happen as they had hoped. Time passed, there was disappointment.  In Peter’s Second Epistle there are those who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?”  The world goes on just as it has since the days of the Fathers.  To this questioning Peter provided the answer:  “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you. Not wishing that any should perish but that all should each repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Peter 3:8–10).

Perhaps it is not too difficult to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Perfection of man, but in a post-scientific, post=Darwinian age the historical doctrines of the Christian faith, those events when the supernatural intersects time, present challenges to belief.   Creation out of Nothing, Jesus’s ascent into Heaven, His return in glory bringing judgment and a renewed world.   Of course the gift of faith enables Christians to believe all things.  But on a natural level, defeating the illusion of obviousness is a help to faith.   The Latin obvious is a compound of the preposition ob, meaning against, and via meaning street or road.  The obvious is what is staring you in the face, self-evidently real and true.  For those locked in contemporary irreligion or weak in faith, the world appears as a gigantic, obvious reality, when, while this creation is truly the center of God’s love, in its self-founding qualities it is less than a speck of dust in the eternal light that is the Blessed Trinity.  There is nothing necessary about my existence or yours, nothing necessary about the existence of a little globe, with its sun and moon, supporting historical life for perhaps five thousand years Ina cosmos five million years old, nothing necessary about horses or cats or gazelles or elephants, nothing necessary about tomorrow.    But God has willed that these exist, and that tomorrow will exist as long as he wills.  And so will his creation, whose existence is not necessary, but is a gift, a sacrament of the glory that is to come when Christ will return, fulfilling his promise that at the end of the age lies not destruction—indeed destruction of evil–, but purified,  renewed post-Edenic splendor (Revelation 20–21).

The moral quality of every life is bound up with the question “Whom do you  really want to please?”  Christianity proposes that the truly good life is lived with the expectation that our first duty is to please the now-absent landlord by living a life in thought and action that is pleasing to him.  Be sure of this, that to live so as to please what the apostolic writers call the world, is to live in an illusion.  For the voice of Christ teaches in Scripture and Tradition that “the world passes away and the lust of it, but the will of God abides forever” (2 John 2:17).  In Paul’s words: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself, will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body” (Philippians 3:20).   This was the hope of the Church in the beginning;  it is the message of the Church still and until the Day.  Meanwhile it is the vocation of the Church, of God’s elect to live so that when He returns, He will find faith on earth (Luke 18:8) 

          The importance of our actions as we live through these last days is illustrated in Matthew 24:40-44.   Two men will be in the fields; one will be taken into the Kingdom, one left.  Two  women will be  at the mill; one will be  taken, one left.  Those left behind to endure the wrath that must come before the glory had not prepared their souls for God’s presence.  “You must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at a time you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44).  His coming is very near, just around the next corner, behave in ways that will deserve his judgment:  “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Witness We Must

 

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

                                               Acts 5:27-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set My People Free

 

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

                                               John 20:21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Judge Eternal

 

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

                            Acts 10:42-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the Righteous

 

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

                            Mark 2:16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fasting, Feasting, and Festivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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