Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

For His Glory

In Him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of His will,
so that we might exist for the praise of His glory.

Ephesians 1:11-12

 

There is an idea, a very old idea, that Aristotle named final causality.  It existed before Aristotle gave it a name, and it is different from efficient causality.  That the car starts when you turn the key in the ignition switch illustrates efficient causality; that you turn the switch so that the car will start so that you can go to your office is final causality of a not very important kind; final causality being that for the sake of which an action is undertaken.  And our lives are like that.  We do countless small and expedient things on behalf of larger purposes, and in the end the answer to what is my life for is its final causality.

          Unhappily, post modernity runs shy of final causality, or at the least engages it with confusion.  In my favorite movie, Isabel Colgate’s The Shooting Party, the master of the house proposes that we are here to leave the world a better place than we found it.  The most sympathetic character, a servant wounded in the shoot as he dies, half-shouts the faith of many nineteenth-century Britons: “God save the British Empire!”  These, variously vague and trivial as they may be, exude nobility in comparison with what an alien observer might deduce from the common culture of twentieth century America, where reigns the philosophy of Epicurus, the first to say that the purpose of life was to enjoy as much pleasure as might reasonably be possible and to avoid pain, inventing therewith, in the sixth century before Christ, the culture of pleasure and comfort.  Epicurus’ idea of the purpose of life was denounced by Aristotelians, Platonists, Academics, and Stoics, but Epicurus had discovered a truth that will endure while time lasts:  Pleasure is a good of a kind, and when nothing lifts the eye of the soul above the world of the immediate, pleasure will be the default position of mankind.  His principle was that men should seek pleasure reasonably.  As it worked out, in the contest between reason and pleasure, it was all too often pleasure six, reason zero.  Continue reading “Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Telling the Story

“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears Him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to Him. You know the word which He sent to Israel,
preaching good things of Christ (He is Lord of all).

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also.

Acts 10: 34–36, 44

 

The visit of the Apostle Peter to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius was remembered by Luke as a great occasion in the spread of the good news of Christ because among other things it was there that God revealed to the great apostle the universal character of God’s invitation to humans.   Pentecost, rightly called the birthday of the Church, had taken place in Jerusalem the capital of Judea, on the Jewish festival celebrating the Feast of Weeks that fell on the fiftieth day after Passover.  The impressive census of those present from across the empire who had come to celebrate the feast presumably consisted entirely of Jews and gentile converts (Acts 2:8–11).  It was a Jewish celebration, Peter’s inspired proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies was addressed to the “men of Israel.”  The apostles had seen their mission as directed toward their Jewish brothers, a strategy that persisted until it became clear to Paul and other apostles that they were not welcomed in the synagogues (Acts 8:5–16).    

          In Acts we find the Apostle Peter convinced that salvation is not only of and for the Jews but for the gentile as well when the same spirit of Pentecost sends Paul to the household of a ranking officer in the Roman forces of occupation in Caesarea and at the same time prepares Cornelius’ heart to receive Paul’s words.  It is on this occasion that Peter understood:  “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but that in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”  

          This was not a proclamation that there are many ways to God but an inspired recognition that the call of Christ into communion with the Father was and is addressed to all mankind.  What happened in Cornelius’ house might be seen as a kind of gentile Pentecost.  Cornelius had been prepared for Peter’s visit by a vison he had been given during his morning prayers commanding him to send for the apostles.   His household stood in the presence of God, prepared to listen.   Cornelius had been given the gift of prevenient grace, the grace of the Holy Spirit that goes before conversion, the grace that inspires listening, without which belief and repentance are impossible.     Continue reading “Sixth Sunday of Easter”

the Newman Option

Talking Points from Text and Talk

April 28, 2018

 

The Newman Option

The reference is obviously to Rod Dreher’s title The Benedict Option, which recommends as the model for the Church in modernity the Benedictine life, with its notes of single-hearted devotion to God, liturgical solemnity, the nine-fold pattern of prayer, and labor with one’s hands.   Dreher did not suggest that everyone should become a Benedictine, but that this pattern had applications to the life of the laity that were especially appropriate for these spiritually hard times.

            John Henry Newman, on the occasion of his elevation to the Cardinalate in 1878 made a short address that should be read and recommended repeatedly because of its prescience.   Newman saw that the danger to the Church was not the public refutation of its principles but its subtle transformation into a humanitarian project in which the highest virtue was kindness or the desire to avoid pain for oneself and others, the highest concern the goods of this life to which a certain commercial morality was intrinsic, and theology a kind of religious atheism.  He considered this more dangerous than such obviously incarnation-denying heresies as Arianism, because it would seem to be a kind of fulfillment of Christianity for modern times, providing a kind of quasi-religious object for sentiment while ignoring the purpose of the religion of Christ, which is to make us worthy Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven who now live in Christ and who will live with Him forever.  It cannot be said too often that the only movement that has ever significantly gentled the human condition is the living faith of the Church, which from the beginning defended the human person as the property of God, elevated women from chattel to partners, and taught princes to govern as men themselves under judgement.  But it also cannot be said too often that this was never the project of the Church but an effect of Christianity and that to make such goals the purpose of the church is to commit it ultimately to the service of the prince of this world, the final form being that slavery to matter called in our day Marxism or Communism or comfort-soaked capitalist materialism

              If Newman were alive today, he would, I am certain be anxiously concerned, for something new is happening in Rome.  Forces kept at bay since 1814 are having their moment, in which the moves are designed to come to terms with the world.   This is unlike the failings of previous popes, which for the most part have been the failings of powerful men in every age, lust and greed and the desire for domination.  The ‘new paradigm’ indeed has no place in tradition; it undercuts the teaching of the predecessors, derogates common piety, and ridicules the desire for clear teaching.  This is no place to canvass the details, but to Catholics who go to Mass and go to confession more than once a year it is profoundly disturbing.    Newman might say, “This is the end of the pattern I predicted in 1878.”

But he would also say something else; he would say, “Have a little patience.”   

            And this is why at the end of the Biglietto Speech, so named because it was the occasion on which the newly elected cardinal received the ticket or biglietto admitting him to the conclave, after he had painted in vivid colors the catastrophe that was coming, his advice was, “Do nothing.”   Go on your way in faith and hope and charity.  “Christianity has too often been in deadly peril, that we should fear for it in any new trial now.  So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance.”  

Newman then lists four of those surprising ways in which Providence has acted to save the elect inheritance.   An apostrophe here.   Let it be admitted that the elect inheritance is not in the end “the Church” as a visible institution but  is the communion of the elect with Christ in heaven, although the Apostolic mission is indeed present there as the foundation of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:14).  While the historical corporation has no place as such in the Kingdom of Heaven, let it also be admitted that there would be no elect body of saints without the very incarnate apostolic mission which Jesus sent, which was and is itself the mystical body of Christ, joining the faithful to God is Jesus, teaching and governing, destined to exist while the world lasts, sheltering in its arms the elect saints.   Between the corporate body and the kingdom of Heaven there exists an ambiguity, or an effective mystery, which cannot be readily resolved.  Robert Bellarmine said that the Church was “a perfect society.”   The Second Vatican council said in 1965 that the fulness of the faith subsists in the Catholic Church.   This has been variously interpreted, but it offers this grace, it relieves the faithful from believing that the instructions of the diocesan education department necessarily deserve the assent of faith.   

That said, Newman reflects, first, that sometimes danger is averted because the enemy of the Church is turned into a friend.    Of this the obvious example was the conversion of the empire from its program of persecution under Diocletian in 304 to the de facto Christian empire of Constantine in which Christianity was after 313, increasingly the favored faith.   And in a more general way even eighteenth-century enlightenment empires, at heart often deeply anti-Christian, would befriend Christianity, establishing religion as the common conviction and moral ground apart from which the state could not stand. It should also be noticed with respect to the old enemy Protestantism that conservative Protestantism is the only ally the Roman Church can find in the twenty-first century.

Second, there are those events in which the enemy is despoiled of that special virulence of evil that was so threatening.    The project of Enlightenment European princes for making the Church a department of religion was curtailed by the disappearance of the princes in the revolutionary storms of the early nineteenth century.   The threat of Moslem invasion was forestalled by the siege of Malta, Lepanto, and at five-minutes-to-midnight by John Sobieski.  

            Thirdly, there is the fact that systems opposing the Church are very likely after a time to fall apart.   Gnosticism, which threatened to destroy the Church and of which the great doctors of the second and early-third centuries were mightily afraid, exists not unless in the culturally marginalized precincts of the New age and Christian Science and Unitarianism.   It is very difficult now to find an Albigensian, whose dualistic fanaticism seriously endangered the Church in France in the thirteenth century.  And something can be said of Northern European Protestantism, which, however prosperous and pacific it may now be, came on the scene as, among other things, the dedicated enemy of Roman Catholicism. What Voltaire said of English religion in 1800, that the Tories had little religion, which was more than could be said of the Whigs who had none, could now be said of Catholicism and Protestantism in Germany.  The Catholic Church in Germany is on life support, but it is breathing.   In England the bloody two-centuries long campaign to destroy Roman Catholicism has ended in a situation in which, pitiful as the numbers are, more Catholics than Anglicans go to Church on Sunday, the Church of England having imploded in its homeland.  Stamping out Catholicism has been an unprofitable exercise, usually done most effectively from within.  But still it is striking that there were 9,000  Catholics in Norway in 1971 and 100,000 in 2012, which, even given that many of these may be migrant Poles and Mexicans, is remarkable.  Of course none of this apparent persistence means that any particular soul will see the face of God, but the temporal prospects of the Church falls into the same category with “by their fruits you shall know them,” an observation that is not taken to derogate the deeper truth that only God knows his own.  

            Finally, and fourthly, Newman reflects that God may allow the enemy to do just as much as is beneficial, and no more.    Generally, persecution has that effect but what Newman meant, I think, is a situation like the French revolution, which got rid of church establishment whose relation to the Gospel was decidedly ambiguous.  It is certainly true that the religious rebellion of the 1520 drove the Church into the Council of Trent.    Perhaps Pope Francis will with his common touch do good for many. 

            One may justifiably take comfort ln these facts, but these are secondary historical considerations calculated to reinforce a higher truth.   Since the destiny of the Church is always in the hands of God, since the agency of its effectiveness is in only the most derivative and secondary sense a human work, Newman would write, “Commonly the Church has nothing to do but to go on in her own proper duties in confidence and  peace.”   The patient will inherit the earth, and they will rejoice in the plentitude of peace” (Psalm 37:11). 

Would Newman change his mind if he were here now?   He lived and died in a world on horseback in which the train and telegraph were new, knowing nothing of the abstractive ravages of technology that were on the way.   I think he might say something like this:  “What did you expect?  Did you think that Satan having pretty well damaged its offshoots would leave the apostolic, Roman Church alone?.   Be a little patient.  We do not know how God will save his elect.  And remember, He will return.”     

Fifth Sunday in Easter

Sure Knowledge

                   Those who keep His commandments remain in Him, and He in them,
And the way we know that He remains in us 
Is from the Spirit He gave us

John 3:24

 Then Barnabas took charge of him
and brought him to the apostles,
and he reported to them that he had seen the Lord,
and that He had spoken to him

 Acts 9:27

 

Since the late eighteenth century the first principle of the increasingly common academic  philososphy has been the conviction that nothing deserved the name ‘knowlwdge’ that could not be seen or touched.   This idea, which has not stayed within university walls, has  recurred since Lucretius or before.   In current form it is attributed to David Hume (1711–1776), who used it to say that books of theology and metaphysics pretended to a knowledge that they did not in fact command, since the realities they bespoke, although thought and experienced from Plato to Descartes, could not be touched or seen. This passage from Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding has been quoted tirelessly to discredit revealed wisdom and any philosophy that claimed knowledge of things transcendent and to lay the foundations for the common empiricism that discredits every claim to knowledge that does not respect the Humean dictum, which is most of thought occurring before 1770.

          Hume’s is a principle that can derogate and delimit but cannot explain.  It cannot explain why Newton took time off from his study of the Apocalypse of Saint John to construe laws about the starry heavens and the circling planets.  It does not explain why Shakespeare wrote Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.   Of course Shakespere needed the royalty, but that need does not explain Mid-Summer’s Night’s  Dream.    It explains neither why Thomas Edison made hundreds of tries for a filament that would make the incandescent lamp nor what the light it emits is.    It does not explain why the French soldier traded himself for a hostage and died.  It does not explain why Elgar wrote his Ave Verum Corpus.  It does not even explain things destructive; why intelligent, well-read Europeans would construct camps for people of different races and kill them.    It does not explain the revolutionary fury that brought down the French monarchy in the late eighteenth century, or the Japanese invasion of China in 1940.

          To say that the Humean proposition has no explanation for any of these things, the effects of which are obvious but the springs of which are hidden, is not to claim that there are causes Hume overlooked—in fact he was puzzled by the very idea of causation—but to notice that none of the actions or attitudes cited above can in their causes be touched, weighed or measured.    Hume’s implied theory cannot even explain Hume, a Scot, who had a theory, or theories, that reached deep into Hume’s personality.   Unkind critics have suggested that his philosophy was motivated by his distaste for Calvinsim, but distaste for Calvinism cannot be weighed or measured.    The fact is that from the love that moves the sun and other stars to the heroism of the man who jumped off the 14th Street bridge into the rocky Potomac when Air Florida went down in 1990, the world is a texture of  experiences that cannot ignore but will always transcend Humes’ common sense observation, which could have been made by Aristotle,  that we should pay attention to what our senses tell us as they engage the world.   

          Christianity shares with Hume an essential interest in the empirical because it rests on experience.  The Apostle Thomas believed only after he had put his hand in Jesus’ side (John 20:27).  The disciples believed Jesus after He spoke to them on the road to Emmaus (Luke 13:31).  The Gospel of John rests its claim to authenticity on the fact that the Beloved Disciple had seen Jesus make the great sacrifice (John 19:35).  The disciples brought Paul to the apostles not because he had subscribed a statement of faith but because he had seen Jesus, who had spoken to him.    John says that  we know Christ remains with us because He has given us His Spirit who lives in us.    These are experiences, things felt and touched, that, like the inspiration for the Mozart Requiem, go beyond the obvious, but they are unlike these purely human, if mysterious, experiences, in that they engage the human soul with the divine or supernatural.   They are however experiences, and they can be discredited only on the thesis that the supernatural cannot and does not exist, which is information Dawkins and Hitchens cannot have and which they can assert only by relying upon the Humean canon, which begs the question by asserting that there is nothing beyond what can be touched or seen,  

John says of Jesus resurrected in glory we have seen Him with our eye and touched Him with our hands (I John 1:1).    John’s testimony can be discredited only by assuming that Hume had offered a comprehensive description of reality, when in fact it not only denied the transcendental without more than a dogmatic warrant but does not in fact explain Hume. This is not to say that belief in the created mystery represented by Tchaikovsky’s writing of his Second Symphony or Raphael’s painting of the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament is to be confused with those mysteries enabled by grace and grasped by supernatural faith, but is to say that human life is open to more than the obvious and that, given the evident truth that the human soul is thus open, God can bless the experience of knowing Him with a certainty rooted in the experience of His presence that lies beyond what Hume was able to describe.   We know that He is with us and indeed in us because He has given us Himself, His Holy Spirit.

The refusal of the Church to accede to what the popular culture of modernity considers its obvious intellectual defeat by the Humeans, the Utilitarians, the Pragmatists of every kind, is surely a cause of frustration to its enemies.   The religion of Christ should have died in its cradle as an antisocial myth foreign to civilized Romans, and, that failing, it should have suffocated when it became deeply implicated in wealth and politics, and then again it should have expired when it was fractured in the sixteenth century.   The Enlightenment should have killed it.  Darwin, whose theory proposes a yet-to-be solved challenge, instead of damaging the faith should have finished it off.  

But there it is, wounded in its heart and in its homeland, but still indefeasible, inspiring fidelity and martyrdom across the world, and still as when John wrote the possession of those who know that He remains in us by the Spirit He has given, an experience. a knowledge, that the Humean canon can neither derogate nor illuminate.  Holy Schadenfreud, pleasure in the discomfort of others, would be an evil oxymoron, and taunting the Prince of this world would be the most unwise of policies; but his lot must ultimately be frustration.  He will remain lord of the world until Christ returns, but only until then. 

Of that event Jesus asked (Luke 18:8), “When I return, will I find any faith on earth?”   We know that the answer is yes, although how much in how many and where is not ours to knows. 

Fourth Sunday of Easter

No Other Name

There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.

 Acts 4:12

These words, the burden of the apostolic mission, fall on the ears of a relativistic and (at least theoretically) egalitarian generation as a disqualifying claim that belief in the resurrection and teaching of a first-century Jew effects salvation.     Salvation from what?    Is the human race not good enough, and is it not the case that daily progress is being made against ignorance, poverty, and inequality?  

The honest answer is a resounding no; the human race is not good enough.   We have a family secret; we have, so to speak, bad blood, inherited from our first parents wherever and whenever they were; we are rebels.   The proof of this is evident and existential.  Viewed as the story of souls and as the cosmopolitan story of the world, the whole thing is a vast dark failure illuminated by flecks of light and glory that are enough to lead us on but not enough to bring us home, each person bound for death from the day of his birth, with projects marked always by a daunting fragility, with happiness fleeting and the presence of evil and danger of failure persistent, with our souls, which on a certain day can reach the stars, inexorably engaged to a  body that cries esuriently for food, and for pleasure, the care of which will eat up wealth as one moves toward the end.   Who, said Saint Paul (Romans 7:24), can deliver us from the body marked for death?     His answer was his near contemporary, a Jew of Galilee, the Messiah, who had been crucified, died, and was buried, whom he had seen alive on the road to Damascus.

Paul’s is the large-scale, dramatic account, which the average soul experiences in smaller experiences of envy, frustration, lust and lying, partiality and emulation, the story told in the twentieth-century novel.  In Romans Paul is giving a masterful and moving presentation of what might be called the unhappiness argument, which in Saint Augustine’s eloquent hands will become   the restless heart argument.    And there is much, very much, in this argument but not everything.    There are so many for whom life is not unfulfilled, not unhappy, but is rather a satisfied life of contented godlessness.   Many are prisoners of war, shut up in contented ignorance.    Jesus did once point out to Martha that she was troubled because her respective duties to her soul and her kitchen had become disordered (Luke 10:41), and the ‘rich young ruler’ was sorrowful because he could not have it both ways, his attachment to his wealth and the kingdom of God (Matthew 10:22), but it is nowhere written that Jesus engaged anybody with the words, my son you are unhappy,  

God did not send His son to relieve our anxieties, although His indwelling grace may have that effect, but through His love to bring us into conformity with His will, which is itself the very form of reality,  so that we can enjoy life with Him forever and avoid the consequences of His wrath, that eternal, silent, awareness of nothing but one’s self in outer darkness or perhaps eternal fire. Take your choice.  The apostolic mission comes not with offers or even holy enticements but the voice of unfailing witness that seeks never to coerce with unrealistic fear but only to fulfill an eternal duty of witnessing and teaching, offering not happiness but blessedness.  The Church does not argue but speaks with the voice of a divinely commissioned herald.  With regard to the necessity for salvation the teaching Church says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).   And when the world says, “This is peace-destroying propaganda, useful for frightening children but not men come of age,” the Church repeats “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth.”   With regard to the scandalous particularity of salvation through Jesus alone, she reports with authority that God spoke from heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, hear him” (Matthew 17:5).   And when the world says, but this is mythic nonsense reported in your Bible, the Church says:  God spoke from heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.”   The Church teaches thus persistently and faithfully, not with the voice of triumphalism but in humility, as an earthen vessel charged with a treasure of inestimable value, those truths revealed and healing powers given by the omnipotent Majesty who is the font of every good.     

This is not to say that the Church, while basing its authority in truths that, as revealed by God, are above demonstration, is slow to offer grounds for considering her teaching to be credible.  Since Paul made his apology to the wise men on the Areopagus, the apostolic mission has offered reasons.  It is reasonable that if mankind is to be brought to truth, it will not be through something less than man.  It is evident that since the object of Gods’ love is man, that love cannot be fulfilled through abstractions, but must be accomplished through the relation of the divine persons to human persons, which is why Jesus says that His followers live in Him and He in them (John 14:20, 15:10-11).   The story of Israel began when the angel appeared to one man in the desert, and that one man, our father in faith Abraham, believed God.   He gave the law through one man, Moses, and conquered the world though thirteen apostles.     There is no point in saying that science with its abstractions can save the world because it knows nothing of any person, nothing of the new heart.   Only Jesus through the Holy Spirit whose presence He purchased with His death can do that.  There is no other name.

Easter Sunday 2018

Thoughts for Easter Sunday 2018

The Gift of Life

 For you have died, 
 and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 
And you too will appear with Him in Glory

 I Corinthians 5:8

Sunday is a Roman name, the day of the unconquerable sun, but for Christians and the civilization Christianity formed it became the Lord’s Day, a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, not the old seventh day but the first day, the beginning of a new creation. Easter is of course the original feast day.  It is an oddity of the Old Testament and of Mediterranean culture generally, that nobody really believed in death as such.  The influence of this idea is still present among post-Christians who speak of the after life in terms of some sort of conscious survival somewhere.  Most Romans, thinking that just dying was not a realistic possibility, for how could a soul that was a spark borrowed from the gods die, held an almost universal conviction that the dead were in Hades.  This realm of the dead, with its river Styx and the three-headed dog Cerberus, was where nobody would wish to be, but it represented the realistic view that death was not a good thing and the attendant awareness that the dead had to live on somewhere.  Over time the Romans came to suspect that some moral distinction might be made, so that Elysian fields were provided for good soldiers and life in the stars for great generals, but the ordinary citizen looked forward to the half-life of Hades. 

          Likewise the Hebrews, for whom the place of the departed was Sheol, another under-world in which the dead lived on forever.  Thus the Old Testament writers were given to reminding God not to send them down to Sheol hastily, for then who would praise Him (Psalm 6:5)?  

          But among the Hebrews, at least from the time of the writing of Job, there had been an awareness of the shallowness of the doctrine of death forever.   For one thing, it meant that justice would never be done, for if both good and evil men enjoyed the same dreary existence, where was the justice of it all, and why seek righteousness.  Job who reflected that men are in a worse condition than a stump; they lie down and rise no more; til the heavens be no more they shall not awake.  The condition of a tree was better, because when spring comes the stump may blossom again, but mankind is destined to live forever in the dark world that I Peter described as a prison of spirits.  

          But, thinking on, Job asked: 

          If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes.  Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee:  Thou wilt have a desire for the work of Thy hands (14:!4–15).     

          By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was already a belief in the resurrection, developed from the prophetic revelation of the Day of God on which the just would be rewarded and the unrighteous punished, which belief was amplified by the unofficial intertestamental books. Belief in the resurrection was a common belief among the Pharisees.  Lazarus’s sister Martha was a well-catechized lady of that party, who could say, “I know that my brother will live again in the resurrection at the last day.” So the background for belief the human soul has an eternal destiny that was more than just endurance was in place.  But that one should rise from the dead, that had never happened until that day when the women, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb only to find it empty.  The apostolic mission was then fired with the knowledge of the living Christ.  Paul, who saw Him on the Damascus road, knew that Jesus had appeared to Peter, James, the other apostles, to over five hundred brethren at once.   John the Evangelist says “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  

          The time between Our Lord’s resurrection on the third day and Pentecost was one of expectant confusion; the disciples believed, but they still did not know what this meant. They were glad when they saw the Lord, but there was still doubt.  Then came Pentecost, and the apostles were ready to preach not a better morality, although repentance was necessary, but the fact that a corner in history had been turned, that the resurrected Christ was the Man who lives forever and He has the power to draw all those who were His into the divine life of the Incarnate God that would be lived in the New City, where there will be no hurt, no sin, no darkness (Rev 21:4-7).  

          Jesus gave His disciples, and through them all mankind, a very specific promise.  Jesus promised life to those whom He loved and who loved Him.   The promise was not given to those who had an abstract desire for life; everyman fears death, but to those who belonged to Christ.  And what was promised was not mere existence, but the fulfillment of the heart in knowing even as we are known, seeing face to face, and continuing forever in the community of the saints that will carry us, as C. S. Lewis described it, further up and further in. 

          Of course there was a problem about the past.  What about all those countless souls who had gone down to Sheol without knowing the Messiah, the Patriarchs and prophets of course, but also our parents and friends who missed the Good News.  For them, as the Creed proclaims,  Christ went down into that gray world and those who had longed for Him, who had in whatever terms believed in goodness, in life, in virtue, in self-giving,  perhaps without knowing what Martha knew, saw the fulfillment of their expectations  and came to Him.  As the Apostle Peter says:  He preached to the Spirits in prison (I Peter 3:19).  It may have been a lack of understanding of this truth that concerned members of the first Christian generation, some of whom feared that their beloved departed, people that one knew and remembered quite specifically, would be forever denied knowledge of Jesus.  Thus for a brief period the doctrine of the communion of the saints was interpreted  to  permit the living to be baptized for the dead (I Corinthians 15:29), bringing them into the community of the elect.  Saint Paul neither commended not reproved this practice, and it soon disappeared.  One of the startling texts in early Christian literature is the passage in the second-century Shepherd of Hermas that attributes to the apostles an appearance in the place of the departed to preach the Gospel of life. The Shepherd was a much valued yet in the long run not a canonical book, but this naïve, holy conviction that the Gospel should be preached universally attested the charity that inspired the apostolic mission.  And for the rest of history there would be the witness of those who believed in the resurrection to life with God.    

          Of course to be a modern is to be troubled by the particularity of this question.  Saint Paul was not troubled with the abstract knowledge of the millions who lived beyond his tight Mediterranean world as are we who have daily knowledge of vast races and nations who do not believe or who believe in something other than the Son of God.  How God may use what is good in the intentions of those who do not know or believe perfectly, how He may understand their circumstances and limitations gently or narrowly is not part of our story.  But God is the God of the particular.  He does not know abstractions and medians.  He numbers the stars and gives them their names (Psalm 147:4). That He should have chosen one people, not because they were great, for they were not great, but because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:8), then one person, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word of his own Trinitarian life, to accomplish His will, is no more mysterious than that anything at all should exist.   And having caused a world and mankind to exist, that He who made it out of love, who has entered personally into the lives of His elect, would give His creation and His beloved over to death is truly incredible.   

Passion Sunday

On Being a Good Donkey

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, 
he sent two of his disciples and said to them, 
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it, 
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it.”

                                                                   Mark 11:1–10           

 

The colt the disciples found was not a horse but a young donkey, unbroken to the duty of carrying a burden on his back.      This donkey was not the only one of its kind to play a part in the Biblical story.  Numbers 22:1-31 recounts the attempt of the Midianite prince Balak to secure the blessing of the Prophet Baalam in the face of the impending invasion of his land by Israel, now freed from Egypt and on the march to Canaan.   Baalam’s indecisiveness in the face of this invitation leads the  Lord to send an angel to stand in the path, blocking the way to Moab.   Balaam did not see the angel but his donkey did, and so refuses to go forward on Baalam’s misguided mission.  Having urged his perceptive ass forward three times to no avail, Baalam then strikes the donkey, who protests, “What have I done to you , that you have struck me these three times?”  Baalam replies, “Because you have made sport of me.  I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.”   Baalam’s ass replied, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day?  Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?”  The Lord then intervenes: “Why have you struck your ass these three times?  Behold I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me and the ass saw me. . . . .  If she had not turned aside from me surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.”   

           Baalam and his talking ass were famous in Israel in apostolic times, so that Peter in his Second Letter compares the false prophets of his day to Baalam; “forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Baalam, the son of Peor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (II Peter 2:15–16).  And tradition has quite reasonably assigned the donkey a place in the story of Jesus’ birth.  The donkey is central to the image of the flight of the Holy Family, depicted so lovingly in Giotto’s fourteenth-century painting showing Mary mounted on a donkey holding Jesus, following Joseph into Egypt.   And tradition has further enriched the role of the donkey by locating him at the manger, medieval tradition flowering in Christmas music such as the 1865 carol by William Chatterton Dix: “Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?”   And in this text for Passion Sunday from Matthew a young donkey is given the honor of bearing the Lord into Jerusalem for the only popular acclaim He ever enjoyed, and if that acclaim was marred by irony—the crowd that shouted hosannas would soon turn on Jesus to demand His death—this was not the donkey’s fault.  The colt was commandeered, willingly as it happened, because Jesus had need of him.   Without the donkey there would have been no triumphal entry, no event that alerted the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the possibility that this Jesus might be so popular that civil unrest, even rebellion, might occur, no arrest, no cross, nor resurrection; the greatest story would not have been told in the way that it must have been told.

          “The Master has need of it” strikes the imagination awkwardly, but in order to work His holy will in the world Jesus had needed many things.   Without the six stone jars that the Virgin commanded be brought there would have been                                                                                                                                                                   no miracle at Cana (John 3:6).   The miracle of the feeding of five thousand could not have taken place without the five loaves and two fishes that Philip discovered (John 12:22).   Christ sent two of His disciples into Jerusalem to ask a householder, “Where is my guestroom where I am to eat my Passover?”  The Lord made bread and wine the means of His presence in the Church.  From the cross the Lord cried out for water (John 19:28).   He called the disciples because He needed them for the apostolic mission upon which He would send them as witnesses to His resurrection.   And in a yet deeper sense Jesus longs for souls.  One of the greatest of theologians, that fifth-century Dionysius of whose history we are ignorant, wrote that God through His excess of goodness yearns for mankind.  Christ is a shepherd who seeks us, “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 9:10).   Even Plato wrote in His Laws that God who is just cares for men.   

          It is a great mystery that this caring, the desire for the good of mankind, does not represent a want or a need or an insufficiency in the divine life, because in the community of the Blessed Trinity all truth is established, all love fulfilled, and all of time comprehended in a way that while it may be acknowledged is beyond human knowing.  God’s willingness to engage human reality from creation to redemption is an expression of the love that overflows from the joy that is the eternal fruition of all being in the begetting of the Son by the Father through the Love that is the Holy Spirit.    God’s willingness to know humanity from within, His omnipotent life expressed in an incarnate life of Jesus, seems to answer to our necessity but in the divine life it is the center of an ever-present reality, of a story whose beginning and end are known to the Story-Teller from the foundation of the world.    Jesus’ need for the colt, His calling the twelve, are moments in an eternal design within which for God there are no surprises.    But the drama and the glory of human life is our being called, as was the young colt, into the divine design whose end we do not know and which for us, is an open road.   The animal who warned Baalam was, as Saint Peter writes, a dumb ass who by divine agency spoke.   And one can at least hope that the colt, the untried donkey, who bore Jesus into Jerusalem, if he could not know as persons might know that he was bearing the Lord of glory, had at least the inchoate awareness that he was playing a starring role in God’s plan.   

          There is something in the very character of the donkey that portends a place in God’s scheme of things; he is little, lacking the intrinsic nobility of his cousin the horse, not the mount of a great warrior but a barer of burdens.   It was with insight that C. S. Lewis made the donkey Puzzle the animal hero of the Narnia stories, a role much different from that other Narnian hero, the valiant mouse Reepicheep, but the emblem of that patience and endurance and simplicity of soul without which we will not see God.   It is ours to imitate the donkey of Passion Sunday, doing with the freedom and good will that belongs to the human estate what the colt did in the way that nature always hears the voice of its Lord, bearing Him with us toward the cross that belongs to every life and rejoicing with Him in His defeat of death and gift of life unending with Him.        

A Prayer of Saint Anselm for Lent

Most merciful Lord
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.

Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends toward this –
that by remembering and medicating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.

Your goodness, Lord, created me’
Your mercy cleansed what you had created
from original sin;

Your patience has hitherto borne with me,
fed me, waited for me,
when after I had lost the grace of my baptism
I wallowed in many sordid sins.

You wait, good Lord, for my amendment;
my soul waits for the inbreathing of your grace
in order to be sufficiently penitent
to lead a better life.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Thoughts on the First Reading

The days are coming, says the Lord, 
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel 
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand 
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; 
for they broke my covenant, 
and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant that I will make 
with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; 
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, 
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

                                                                   Jeremiah 31:31–34

 

The prophet Jeremiah knew that he lived at the end of an age.  The reign of good king Josiah (606–-598) was followed by the rule of his son Jehoiakim, himself politically ensnared and inept, vacillating between alliances with his powerful neighbors Egypt and Syria, presiding over a kingdom too weak to maintain its independence, with religion reduced to external observance. 

          These were not good days for prophets.  Jeremiah had begged off the job, arguing that he was too young and inexperienced to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:6-8).   It was always dangerous; Jesus would later make the persecution and murder of the prophets a characteristic of Israel (Matthew 5:12. 23:31).  Jeremiah’s prophecies had so irritated the chief priest that he had ordered Jeremiah “put in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the House of the Lord” (20:1-4).   Jeremiah complained bitterly that he had been deceived by the Lord.   He was commanded to proclaim violence and destruction, so that the words he spoke were a source of reproach and derision all the day long.   He had tried to be silent, but if he said, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” Jeremiah’s heart became a burning fire within so that he was weary with holding it in, and indeed he could not.  So he heard whispering on every side, “Denounce him! Let us denounce him! Say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall”(20:7–11).  It was a hard lot; indeed Jehoiakim had ordered the death of the prophet Uriah, a fate from which Jeremiah would be saved by the fortunate influence of a court official, Ahikam, who was friendly to him (26:20–23). Continue reading “Fifth Sunday in Lent”

Fourth Sunday in Lent

When God Lets Us Go

The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by His messengers because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, till the wrath of God rose against His people, till there was no remedy.  II Chronicles 36:15

 

The account from the Book of Chronicles tells the story of the final events in the pre-exilic history of Judah, after which in 586 the nation would be taken captive into Babylon.   The history of Israel account in the concluding chapters of Chronicles is a particularly grizzly tale of national apostasy, idolatry, and the rebellion of the kings.  After good king Hezekiah came Manasseh, who built altars to the hosts of heaven, listened to sorcerers and wizards, and burned his sons as an offering in the valley of Hinom.  The story ends with the faithlessness of Zedekiah, who, refusing to hear the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar.   God “stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord.  The leading priests and people likewise were exceeding unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations, and they polluted the house of the Lord which He had hallowed in Jerusalem” (Chronicles 36:11-14). Even then because He had compassion for the people and for His dwelling place, He “sent persistently to them by His messengers . . . but they kept despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, till the wrath of the Lord rose against His people.” So God sent Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans, and Israel went into slavery in a far land.       

           As it happens we have Jeremiah’s account of his prophecy to Zedekiah:  “It is I who, by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.  Now I have given this land to Nebuchadnezzar” (Jeremiah 27). Nebuchadnezzar was a notorious tyrant, a worshiper of false gods, but, like every circumstance of history, an instrument of God’s providence.    In His omnipotence and omniscience God had used circumstance to punish and chastise; when those He loves despise His words, He may withdraw for a time the hand of His blessing and give them over to evil. 

          It is possible to decline God’s message, to walk away from His commandments, as did Zedekiah and Israel.  In the New Testament the rich young ruler did just that.   He wanted to enter the kingdom, but when Jesus told him to sell his goods and give the money to the poor, he walked away (Matthew 19:21).  When the philosophers on the Areopagus heard Paul’s preaching of the resurrection some believed but some mocked, and others suggested politely that such a weighty matter should wait for another day (Acts 1:32-34). Continue reading “Fourth Sunday in Lent”