Christmas

Thoughts on the Second Reading
 for
 Christmas Day at Dawn

“Enter in; be born in us today.” 
Phillips Brooks

When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of His mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom He richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by His grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

                                               Titus 3:4–7

Christmas has many meanings, each of which has its proper place.  It is a holiday, which means it is a holy day.  Poor secularists, the very language resists them.  Changing the greeting from Merry Christmas to Happy Holiday still leaves a word that has its origin at the altar, for holiday really means the holy day of Christmas, the great celebration of the Savior’s Birth; and analogously the reflective will know that moving from AD and BC to Before and After the Common Era still leaves the inquisitive soul wondering what there was about a certain day in the reign of Augustus that made the world number time anew.  

The meaning of Christmas can be obscured only with difficulty, for it means many good things.   It means profit at last for the stores and industries that persisted profitless through the long summer, waiting for the day after thanksgiving when the ledgers will move into the black, prompted by that human activity called shopping, which usually means at Christmas shopping pursued with asperity but also with a touch of charity.  It mean  a day off from work, always welcomed in a culture marked by the relentless rhythm of the machine, enjoyed even by those who may not attach any meaning to Christmas .   And who can miss the note of delight that makes those who do not worship Jesus give gifts and decorate their houses.    Continue reading “Christmas”

Third Sunday of Advent

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy.
I Thessalonians 5:23

Sometimes heavily theological things just sneak up on one, and so it is for this third Sunday in Advent.  In what is probably the earliest of Paul’s letters to survive, the apostle prayed that the Thessalonians might be made holy by the God of peace.  In that short prayer there are two grand assumptions.   The first is that the goal of life in Christ is holiness; the second that this work is accomplished in us by God, is proclaimed throughout Sacred Scripture; “You must be holy for I your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:2).  To be holy is to be set apart; as God is set apart from His creation, so Israel is set apart from the nations and their idolatry, so also the Church is set apart from the world.  Before the throne of God the four living animals, representative of all of animate nature, sing forever, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty.”   The offering at the Eucharist begins with the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.  Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The great prayer Our Lord gave His Church begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, let your name be held holy.” So Paul is teaching the Thessalonians and us that the end of life is to share in the life of God who is holy.

          In part God’s holiness is His otherness; what He is not, that He is not a creature and not to be worshipped under the image of anything on the earth, under the earth or in the sky above.  The existence of this Holy One, not a being but self-subsistent being Himself, who is conditioned by nothing on earth but who created every creature out of nothing through His will and is causing the existence of creatures moment by moment; who is personal and more than personal, and directs the ways of every person, who does not have justice but who is justice, who loves because He is love, and who will judge the world against the standard He has erected; be holy because I am holy.  His holiness is not an absence but a fullness, and having taught us that His beauty and His goodness are not of our conceiving, He assures us that as His gift these surpass what eye has seen or ear heard.  

         We are not holy in ourselves but we may become holy by participating in His holiness through our sharing in the life of Jesus Christ His son. The holiness He gives us is ours in fact, but it is not a thing but a relation, a gift of the companionship of God, which lives in the heart of the humble, and which, if it is not honored and nourished will turn dry, then hard, and then become a testimony against those who have presumed.   “Holy” is used rarely, if at all, of the living.  

          We achieve that participation not because we seek Him but because He seeks us and in seeking us gives us the desire to share His life and to do His will, which is the fruition of life in the Son who is consubstantial with the Father.  He makes us righteous and His sons and daughters in baptism.  Why every soul does not receive this gift is hidden in the particularity of a providence that chose Israel while neglecting the Greeks and Persians, and the destiny of those not, as far as  human eyes can see, enjoying this blessing must be left to Him.   Having justified us in baptism by His condescending charity through the sacrifice of Christ, His love does not let us go but through the sacraments, those holy-makers, makes us holy, that is, offered to God and called out of the world,  And this is, as Paul says, the work of God.

          In modernity this divinely revealed and accomplished pattern of our engagement with God is opposed by a noxious climate of ideas.   In an age that has lost interest in God, the temptation to see the principal work of the Church as the amelioration of human poverty and suffering tends to the derogation of Paul’s prayer that we must first be made holy to the Lord, whom we must first love before we touch the world, lest lacking charity, our works become as sounding brass and tinkling symbols, giving our goods and offering our bodies without the charity that makes then pleasing to God.

          Even more fundamentally damaging is the religious atheism that besets a still Christ-haunted world, a spirit unable to conceive that the world we know with its seemingly indefinite extension through galaxy after galaxy and its seeming persistence through ages upon ages is like a nut in the hand of the Almighty or a breath or vapor vanishing when morning comes.  And add to this debilitating blindness the insensitivity to things eternal that so easily allows the belief that the finality of life is the culture of comfort that dulls the taste for the adventure of the soul toward holiness which Paul commends, blotting out the light of heaven with the blue gaze of the electronic eye. And add the debilitating effect of a life of incessant noise and excitement, beside which the joys of sharing in the very life of God seems to a taste unaccustomed to the things of heaven to be a great bore.    The saints do not describe their journey toward holiness as vibrant, exciting, and innovative, but speak of peace, fulfillment, and sweetness.  

Paul adds to his words quoted in the superscript, “And may you entirely, spirt, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The life we live now in Christ is justified and perfected by its end, the return of Jesus.    For what life and indeed history mean is not an indeterminate process toward an unknown future but a Person.  Through whatever timefull meof companionship ans God repaired in nature the catastrophe of the fall, that process was perfect when God planted a garden in Eden.   The divine-human person who is at once the second Adam and the Son of God is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” in whom all things were created in heaven and earth .  .  .  .   He is before all things and in Him all things hold together. . . .  In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all things, whether in heaven or on earth, making peace by the blood of His cross.”  

           This same Jesus in whom the creation of all things exists, this Person, is He who will welcome those who have walked in His way, wiping the tears of life from their eyes. He is causing at this moment the existence of the world of minds and men and oaks and animals. As the celebration of the Birth of Christ approaches, be it remembered that the Child born in Bethlehem is of one substance with the holy, immortal God who made the star that announced His birth.  

First Sunday in Advent

Thoughts on the Gospel
for the

First Sunday in Advent

 Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
 Isaiah 63:17

Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgement has come and worship Him who made heaven and earth.
Revelation 14:7

 

The month of November has witnessed a public parade of moral turpitude involving figures sympathetic, Charlie Rose, unsympathetic, Harvey Weinstein, and political, who are said to have indulged in  forms of official oppression in which they explicitly or implicitly required sexual favors in return for approval or advancement. Their victims, perhaps sometimes accomplices, are for  the most part unidentified. None, as far as we know, were physically coerced, but each  chose pliancy rather than courage, assuming of course that they were grown ups, morally competent and free.  The preasuring  of the young is another matter.  

         It is a story as old as David and Bathsheba, and as  complicated.   Bathsheba might have chosen some place out of sight of the palace windows for her bath.   There was the circumstance that her husband was in the king’s service and resistance to the king’s wishes could hardly help his career.  But the most powerful man in Israel had sent for her.  The text assures us that it was springtime and that she was “very beautiful.”   

          There then followed deceit, duplicity, and murder, engineered by David, accomplished by the compliant Joab so that Bathsheba’s husband Uriah would die under the city walls at Thebez.  And David assured Joab, “Do not let this trouble you for the sword devours now one and now another.”  David’s desire had not abated; he waited until the period of mourning for Uriah had passed before he sent again for Bathsheba.    

          “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord,” who sent  the prophet Nathan to tell David the story of the rich man who had a great flock and the poor man who had only one lamb, but a lamb he had brought up, who ate of his mosel and lay in his bosom.   When, upon the unexpected  arrival of an important  guest, the rich man required a lamb, instead of taking one of his own he took the poor man’s one little ewe lamb.    David, angered by Nathan’s parable, said that such a man should die, to which Nathan replied, “You are the man.”   David was the man whom God had anointed king of Israel and given the place of his master Saul as well as Saul’s wives, and now this.    

           The deed done, God said to David though the prophet Nathan.  “You have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite. . . .  Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house” (II Samuel 12:11).  Israel was punished with eternal warfare persisting still; the child born to Bathsheba, despite David’s seven days of perfervid prayers, died.  But David repented.  In that wonderful turn of grace which God bestows upon His people Bathsheba became the mother of the great king Solomon.

          In so many ways the story of David is the story of Charlie Rose and Harvey Winestein, a story of weakness and sin, including the condemnation by the sinner of those who shared their sin.  But they are different in many ways as well.   After David despised God, he repented. Weinstein and Rose have regrets but they seem casually unconcerned that they have broken almost every commandment.  Within the context of the public record, these sinners have not repented; as far as we are told, none went to confession although one went to the hospital and another to a twelve-step program.  They did not recognize their obligation  to the justice of God who created them, whose wrath, if it can be believed, is more to be feared than  the disapproval of the entertainment culture.  

The fear of God that enabled David to repent is the lodestar of the good and goodly life.   Sometime ago it was decided, perhaps somewhere in the precincts of transcendentalism, that it is ungentlemanly and even unprogressive of God to threaten, for He is after all love in that modern spineless sense, which means that all of Paul’s talk about the wrath of God and all Our Lord’s teaching about the narrow way, everlasting darkness, and eternal fire was, basically, just sounds signifying nothing.  Yet from Jonathan Edward’s great sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to Pope Leo XIII’s 1890s addition to the rosary of the prayer that God will save us from the fires of hell, our Christian religion has taught us to fear God, not with servility, but with the realistic fear that the fallen creature owes the Creator and law-maker.   Think about it.  It really is possible that He is omnipotent and holy, and that nothing that is not pure will ever come into His presence.      

           Ignoring the facts is characteristic of a modern mindset driven by the philosophical detritus of the Enlightenment, which says that all things are not only equal but the same.  As the complementary members of the human family God gave men and women the fundamental gifts of life in common, but to each He gave a defining characteristic for the good of the human family.   Faculty senates and government committees may pass resolutions to the contrary into an indefinite future; there will be exceptions that challenge the pattern, but it will still be true that God’s gift to womankind is beauty opening upon marriage and motherhood and the care of that most valuable institution the household and to mankind the power that belongs to paternity and authority in the world.   There are so many exceptions that the pattern may seem to disappear.   All women are beautiful but in very different ways and the world is full of weak men, at least some of whom now wish to make a virtue of the effeminacy Paul condemns (I Corinthians 6:9).

And of course neither beauty nor power are the full measure of character. Women can prove more adept at the exercise of executive authority than men. But these fundamental defining characteristics, necessary but not sufficient, will remain. Beauty is to be managed with modesty, discretion, reserve, and refusal to give the gift until it can be given rightly; power with restrain, respect, and the awareness that sacrifice, duty, and discipline are the highest sign of authority.    And all done in the fear of the Lord.  Without that fear the incipient disorder that since Eden has inhabited relations between men and women will run free and we will have what we have got. And be it remembered that women who resisted the pressures of male importunity to the point of death, Saint Agnes, Saint Winifred, have been raised to the altars of the Roman Church.  The destiny of their oppressors, unless by some miracle they were brought to repentance, is best left in its native darkness.   

          Finally there is this to be said.   When the condemnations are complete, these men who now make the news, and the women who thought it best not to say no, deserve quiet sympathy, for, although we may have had despised God on different days in different ways, they, in the immortal words of Pogo, are us. 

Thirty-Second Sunday

He Will Return

The dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air. 
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.

I Thessalonians 4:15–17

 

The anticipation of blessedness in the presence of the Lord remains real even if we should, like the beloved departed of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, be among those who have already fallen asleep when He returns.  For it is Paul’s great point that there will be no disadvantage to those departed for they will be awakened by the same trumpet that calls  those who are alive into Christ’s presence. 

Faith that Christ will return in glory, while it is the bedrock of Christian hope, has always been a troublesome truth.   Jesus in His own words had promised that He would return, and the Christians in the churches of Paul and John expected the fulfillment of that promise within the generation of those who had heard the words of the Sermon on the Mount.   Despite long delay, the Church has never abandoned the conviction that He will return, and indeed as William Buckley once observed, the authenticity of the Christian religion depends on something that has not happened yet.   The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is one of several that warn believers to be prepared day by day (Matt 25:1-13), among them the parable of the talents, which also frames the adventure of grace in the context of the landlord’s certain return (Matt 25:14-30) . The warning that Christ’s return will be like the coming of a thief in the night, sudden and when we least expect it, will be a commonplace of early Church life (I Thess 5:2, II Peter 3:10).

          Why the Church has so stubbornly held on to the belief that Jesus will return is surely related to the confidence that His first promise to the disciples had been fulfilled promptly and powerfully.    What Jesus expected His death to accomplish was the coming of the Holy Spirit who would make of His disciples a kingdom of the elect, the Church.   “I came to cast fire on the earth and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49).     The author of John explains that when Jesus promised that living water would flow from the hearts of believers, “He was speaking about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. For the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.”    And again in John, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the counselor will not come to you” (John 16:17).   The death and resurrection of Jesus purchased the coming of the Holy Spirit that will make possible the participation in Christ called sacraments, holy-makers.    Jesus said in the upper room, “I tell you that I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in my father’s kingdom.”  That kingdom is the kingdom of  the new heart, and since Pentecost day He has presided as king and savior at every celebration of His death and resurrection.   Continue reading “Thirty-Second Sunday”

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You were Chosen

We give thanks to God always for all of you . . . .
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.

                                                                               I Thessalonians 1:1–5

 

The words ‘common’ and ‘community’ have unexpectedly complicated etymologies.   By derivation a community would be persons building together or sharing common beliefs, so that a community is in a broad sense always a political work, something done in the world by people who share a common project.    As it happens the Church is a community only in a secondary sense, for it is not a human work.    Speaking strictly no one ever ‘joins’ the Catholic Church; one is sent for.    One of the most important turning points in the life of the Church was the vindication of Saint Augustine’s reading of Saint Paul according to which the salvation of every soul, beginning and end, is the work of God, an opinion successfully defended at the Second Council of Orange in 529, which then made its way into the decrees of the Council of Trent in 1564.  Our salvation is a work done within us by the outpouring of love of God into our hearts, “not without us,” as Augustine sometimes said.   As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God has “chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundations of the world, to be saints, to be blameless in His sight, for love of Him,  marking us out beforehand (so His will decreed) to be His adopted children through Jesus Christ” (1:4).   God has written our names in the book of life.  He has marked out the path of the good life for us; “He who has begun a good work in us will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).   “And again it is God who worketh within you both to will and to accomplish according to His good will” (Philippians 2:13).   This does not mean that God has run rough-shod over any one’s freedom but that His grace has conformed our will to His, bringing us from slavery to sin into the freedom that belongs to his sons and daughters.  If you are at the banquet, it is because you were commanded to come by the King who sent His messengers into the highways and byways and hedges to find you (Matthew 22:1–14).  And if you are so blessed as to show up properly dressed, your robe white because it has been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14), this will be because of gifts He has given you.  And you will not have been called to any human institution but to the banquet of eternal life with Christ.        Continue reading “Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Twenty-Sixth Sunday

 Truth and Dialogue 

Your ways make known to me, O Lord, 
teach me your paths.  
Psalm 24:5

 Jesus before He endured the cross for our sakes was called rabbi, teacher. Those He sent were told “Go, teach,” and maturity in the Christian way has always been achieved through teaching.  Teaching the   ignorant has always been considered one of the corporal works of mercy. “Teach” is an Old English word that translates the Greek verb deiknēimi, to show, point out by words, and that is what a teacher does. 

        We come into this world needing to be taught, needing to be shown the end and the way, because amidst the mystery of every life, that complexity and half-vision which sometimes delights and sometimes terrifies, while there are pointers and intimations, the clear answer as to why we are here and where we are going is wanting.  Which is why God gave the law and inspired the prophets, then in the fullness of time sent Jesus the Messiah to teach.   He sat down and taught them, thus begins the divine teaching called the Sermon on the Mount.   And the crowd were astonished for He taught them as one who had authority.   Continue reading “Twenty-Sixth Sunday”

The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

The Countess and the Rock

 Thou art Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church.
Matthew 16:17

 

The Stately Home Murder is a mystery novel by Catherine Aird in which Inspector Sloan investigates a death in the great house of the Earl and Countess of Ornum.  Sloan is a raised-right boy who becomes interested in the, to him unfamiliar, behavior of the aristocracy at home.  At one important moment it has become clear that the murder cannot be blamed on anyone outside the family or outside the house.  The Countess observed calmly, “It must be one of us,” in response to which Sloan muses, “Facing the facts must be part of being an aristocrat.”  

          Since aristocracy is not an economic but a moral condition, participating in that fact-facing company is open to every Christian, being as we are servants of the one who said, “I am the truth.” And the pillar of truth in time is Peter.  When Peter professed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” the Lord looked at him and said, Peter, you are the recipient of a great grace for it is my Father who is in heaven, no man, who has revealed this to you.  And since that day Peter by the gift of that grace has been the sheet anchor of the apostolic mission whose purpose it is to teach the world reality and by doing so to form that great aristocracy that is the Saints. Continue reading “The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Risky Gift

 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea,
which collects fish of every kind. 
When it is full they haul it ashore
and sit down to put what is good into buckets. 
What is bad they throw away. 
Thus it will be at the end of the age. 
The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous
and throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

                                                    Matthew 13:47–50

Life as Jesus describes it in Matthew is full of risks, the choice being what is now called binary, either /or.    There is the broad way that leads to destruction or the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14).  One of the famous literary forms in the early church was the two-ways paradigm represented in popular Christian literature by the Didache and in Scripture by Mathew 24 and 25, in which at the end of the age those who have cared for the poor sit down with Abraham at the eternal banquet and those who have not are cast into outer darkness.  In the end  the weeds found in God’s garden will be cast into eternal fire while the wheat will be gathered into God’s barn (Matthew 13:36–41).   And in Matthew above the good fish will be saved but the bad thrown away, cast into eternal fire.  So Sacred Scripture says.   

Man is born in the endangered condition called freedom, a freedom God’s providential love does not obviate nor the present mystery of His grace in human actions destroy.   The price of freedom has been high; it was the presupposition  of the rebellion in the Garden, but the result of freedom endowed with grace is the glory of God.  Sacred Scripture spends many words explaining what the relation between the omnipotent, omniscient Creator and His creatures is.    We know from Genesis that when they are dust He causes them to exist by breathing life into them.   We know that He assigns them duties, to till the Garden and to multiply.   We know that He has given them the capacity to obey because He commands their obedience, and we know further that they chose disobedience, believed the serpent, and willed to know not the good God wills, but to know good and evil for themselves.   God punishes and the penalty is death, but from the beginning we know that His original, primal will for life will somehow be realized.   After punishment there is mercy and love. There is redemption from slavery in Egypt.   There is also redemption from slavery to sin under the law.  There is the promise of a new heart and a new creation not marred by sin.  There is the gift of Himself by His coming in the person of His Son, who is not only a messenger or a manifestation but is of one substance with His father, who will die and rise again,  bringing the new hope of life.   But there is this as well.   Just as obedience to His will was the price of life in the Garden, now obedience to His will is still the price of life, but with this difference:  in achieving this obedience He does not stand over against us but He is with us and in us and we in Him.   “In His will is our peace,” says Dante.   Continue reading “Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

An Enemy Has Done This

 The kingdom of heaven is to be compared to a man sowing good seed
in His own field, but while men were sleeping an enemy came
and sowed weeds among the wheat. 
Matthew 13:28

 

In the Parable of the Sower Our Lord explains the condition of the Church as it now is by the image of good seeds sown in a world in which each will find a different destiny.   Some will fall on stony ground, some among thorns. Some will fall on good ground and bear much fruit (Matthew 13:18–23).   Then in another parable immediately following  Jesus explains  the condition of the field itself, for along with the good seed there will appear  weeds that spring up to compete with the good seed for life and light.

          If one asks how this can be, Jesus’ answer is that God, sowing good seed, is not the only agent at work in the field of the world.   By His permission there exists another, an enemy, who sows weeds in God’s garden.   He is the second most important character in the Gospel story.  His proper name is Satan, the Adversary, and he is also called the devil, the serpent, the great dragon (Genesis 3:1, 14; Revelation 12:9, 17).  We know that he has been at work in the beginning for only his rebellion can explain the unspoken and undescribed catastrophe that must have taken place between the instant which God spoke His perfect world and the darkness, emptiness, and chaos we find in Genesis 1:2.   We meet him in the garden where he is the most subtle, most clever snake, ready to appeal with fatal effectiveness to the vanity and pride of Eve and the sentimental folly of Adam. Continue reading “Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

His Word Achieves His Purpose in Everyman

Just as from the heavens
The rain and snow come down
And do not return there
til they have watered the earth
making it fertile and fruitful….

So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
My word shall not return to me void
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10–11

The word that goes forth from God into the world is His dabar in Hebrew, the Logos of John 1:1–14 through whom all things were made, the light that lighteneth every man coming into the world.  The Word, because it is the expressed purpose of the Father is indefectible. The divine will it expresses has as its purpose not only the sustaining of creation, but the achieving of the divine purpose for mankind, which was and is to bring the rational creatures He made in the beginning, now fallen, into His presence so that they may share in the eternal symphony of praise and thanksgiving,, of ever more prefect knowledge of Him, for which knowledge they were intended, and that not a disembodied spirit but resurrected to the life of Glory in the Son. 

          The means through which God achieves this purpose are His providence and His predestining love.   Saint Thomas says: “Predestination necessarily presupposes election and election presupposes love.”    In Athens the elect or chosen representatives were called into the governing assembly, which in the Christian transposition means being called by God’s love into His presence,.  The word Church is the Germanic rendering of elect or chosen, cognate with Kirche, which in southern languages is the Spanish iglesia and French église. 

          Saint Thomas continues: 

The reason for this is that predestination, as was stated above, is part of providence. Now providence, as also prudence, is the plan existing in the intellect directing something toward an end.   But nothing is directed toward an end unless the will for that end already exists. Whence predestination to eternal salvation logically presupposes that God wills their salvation and to this belongs both election and love.   His will, by which in loving He wishes good to someone, is the cause of that good possessed by some in preference to others (Summa Theologica, Question 23, Article 4).

This is the thirteenth century reading of Saint Paul:  “For to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as according to His purpose, are called to be saints. And whom He foreknew He also predestined to be made conformable to the image of His Son. . . . “(Romans 8:28–29). Continue reading “Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”