Register Now to Attend: Click Here to Register for the Thomas Howard Lecture
Category: Dr. Patrick
Felix Culpa, Happy Fault
Master, was this man guilty of sin, or was it his parents, that he should have been born blind. Neither he nor his parents, Jesus answered; it was so that God’s work might be made evident.
There was an argument among Jesus’ disciples. Broadly, the question was, why do bad things happen. More particularly it was, why was this man born blind? Various answers were proposed: because he was a sinner, and thus somehow brought punishment on himself; or perhaps his parents sinned. Somebody must be to blame. Some evils are indeed blameworthy. When the bridge fails, it may be the fault of the builder. When the crop fails it may be due to slothful husbandry. When a bank fails, it may be the fault of improvident investment. But in the case of the man born blind there was no one to blame; his blindness was that kind of evil that puzzles and afflicts us all: small children with leukemia, a sudden tornado that destroys the work of a lifetime in an hour, pandemics from nowhere, the inexplicable failure of vast plans well designed and well intentioned.
Why do these evils exist; why does evil exist in God’s good world at all? Because God created man with freedom. No freedom, no love, no obedience. But where there is freedom there may be sin, and as it happened sin came into the world first through the rebellion of angels (Isaiah 14:12–15) and then through the rebellion of our first parents (Genesis 3:6). The Lord God Almighty is not bound by anything outside himself but He is constrained by the revealed determinations of His holy will. We know from the fact of the persistence of the cosmos through patient millennia that on that day when our first parents sinned, God choose not to destroy His creation but determined to see His plan, which He had intended to be perfect in Eden, fulfilled through long ages during which He would, after the catastrophe of the fall, bring humankind to the end for which He had destined them before the foundations of the world.
To do so required that evil be permitted in order that it might be overcome. The theological history of the world is the story of God’s indefeasible love overcoming the evil He has permitted in a warfare that lasts from Genesis 1:3 to Revelation 19:13–16. Because mankind is a creature of will who in accordance with God’s plan must not be destroyed but converted, and because the victory over sin and death is a work in time, the healing of the world is a process, the crown of which is the healing of souls, which must be accomplished not against the human will but through the human will. Evil was and is permitted to exist, as Jesus told His disciples in John 9:3, in order that God’s power might be evident. Evil exists to be overcome by the salvific actions of God as He pursues His determinate will to make all things new. In Saint Augustine’s words: “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”
This is the answer given in the story of the man born blind. Is he blind because he sinned? Or because his parents sinned? Not so: the man was born blind, suffering in some mysterious way from the deformation of nature called original sin that was inflicted on nature and human nature by God’s permission, so that the work of God might be revealed in His healing. Evil was and is permitted only to be overcome. The answer rings in the darkness of the Easter Exultet: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” The sin of Adam was permitted so that it could be destroyed by the death and resurrection of Christ.” The blindness of the man who sat by the road was permitted so that God’s glory could be revealed.
From the broad brush of God’s providential government of creation to His particular healings of this man’s disease to His particular protection on occasion to the healing of man and cosmos through His death, His Resurrection, and His sending of the Holy Spirit, evil has been allowed to persist only to be overcome to the glory of God. This is what inspired Paul to give the Romans, and the world, the image of creation groaning and travailing, not because of some evil of its own, not because of some flaw intrinsic to it, but for the sake of Him who condemned it in hope. Nature and human nature, with divine permission invaded by evil, is groaning and travailing looking forward to the redemption of man and nature (Romans 8:16–22).
The story of the Creator’s battle with evil begins with the Genesis account of God’s overcoming of the darkness, chaotic formlessness, and emptiness inflicted upon creation by the rebellion of the angels with light, form, fullness of being. Later there would be the cleansing of the earth with the great flood after sin left only one righteous man (Genesis 7:1–9), then God’s tutelage of the rebellious chosen people who killed the prophets He sent, and finally the sending of the one who as man could accept His holy vocation, who could resist Satan, and in whom the loving obedience God had sought in Eden was finally realized.
The last act of creation’s story is not the gradual emergence of the peaceable kingdom in history, not the fruition of some evolutionary progress, but the last battle, described by the Prophet John, when the Word of God, Himself leading the armies of heaven (Revelation 19:12–18) , defeats Satan so that the time comes “for the wedding feast of the Lamb” (19:7). The last act is not the emergence of the utopian kingdom of earth but a penultimate last battle, after which, finally and consummately, God’s will that there should be a race of free, rational, men who will love Him and praise Him in a perfectly in a renewed Eden is realized.
The warfare goes on forever in the heavens (Ephesians 6:10–12), until at the birth of the Savior warfare is absolute, with Satan cast into and on earth (Revelation 12:13, 17), until in the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of John’ s Apocalypse, death and hell are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), making way for the twentieth and twenty-first chapters which describe God’s victory in the New Creation, the New Jerusalem, and a renewed nature. The battle begun in the Garden only becomes more acute in this present age when the Holy Spirit calls and forms the Church, the time called in Scripture the Last Days, when Satan is opposed by the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Because man was the means through which sin came into the world of Genesis, and because man restored was in the beginning the object of God’s indefeasible love and purpose, it must be that through man sin must be taken out of the world. No man enmeshed in sin from birth could make the perfect offering of life to the Father, restoring in obedience what our first parents had refused to offer when they opted for the serpent’s proposal that they should be their own lawgivers. So God sent His Son, to take perfect human nature from the woman preserved from sin by the merits of Christ foreseen, to become incarnate, in the greatest of the works of God through whom His power is shown and evil overcome in those who live in Him.
In God’s wise dispensation the part played by every human in the story of God’s victory over evil is each person’s willingness to allow God to enter and heal in himself the sin-afflicted soul of every man and woman through the means He has decreed, the sacraments or holy-makers: baptism, confession, sharing in Christ’s body and blood. Through these we live in Christ, our lives hid in him. By so doing we join that number whose names are written in the book of life and who will be with Christ forever in the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God. And the last chapter is the healing of nature, the renewal of Eden described in the last chapter of the last book in the Bible (Revelation 22:1–5, Ezekiel 47:1–7). In this the work of God is made evident and glorious.
In the long arc of God’s purpose evil let into creation by rebellious angels and men will be permitted until the end. It will be evident in creation, in which God’s struggles to create and maintain an ordered world for man in the face of the malevolent powers of this world’s darkness, who ever seek to return nature to the formlessness, emptiness, and darkness from which God rescued it. Evil was in the in the Garden, in which God permitted the most subtle beast to tempt (Genesis 3:1–7), evident in the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1–11), evident in the doubt displayed (and overcome) in Gethsemane (Matthew 25:37–39). Jesus described the character of these times, in which the power of God is displayed in the coming of the Holy Spirit while Satan, knowing that his time is short (Revelation 12:12), continues to exercise as much of his power as God will allow; a time of glory for redeemed souls amidst a history marked by wars and rumors of wars, by the failure of love, of betrayal and disturbances of nature (Matthew 24–25). All this permitted so that God’s power may be revealed in His final victory. Jesus miraculously healed the man born blind so that the work of God might be made evident. In the end He will heal every blindness, every defect of nature, every sorrow, wiping away every tear, with the light of his glory in the new creation.
From the Archives
Originally Presented at Text & Talk, August 15, 2020
George Orwell, Democratic Socialism, and 1984
Eric Arthur Blair, who later became George Orwell, was born in 1903 in Motihari, Bihar, British India. His great-grandfather, Charles Blair, was a wealthy country gentleman in Dorset who married Lady Mary Fane, daughter of the Earl of Westmorland, and had income as an absentee landlord of plantations in Jamaica. His grandfather, Thomas Richard Arthur Blair, was a clergyman. Eric Blair described his family as “lower-upper-middle class.” His father was in the opium department of the British imperial civil service. His mother was the daughter of a French entrepreneur with interests in French Indochina.
The family, without their father, whom they would not see again until 1912, returned to England in 1904, and Eric began his school career at Wellington, which he hated, and Eton, which he admired. When his classmates were at Oxford and Cambridge, Eric was in the Burmese police, perhaps the first notice of his interest in justice and fairness, a disposition his sister claimed was characteristic even of the boy. In his late twenties he made the investigation of the poor and of poverty a principal project, visiting the East End and similar scenes in Paris.
These experiences gave Orwell the material for Down and Out in Paris and London; the book’s publication in 1933 earned him some initial literary recognition. One critic catalogs Orwell’s early novels thus: “Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days (1934), established the pattern of his subsequent fiction in its portrayal of a sensitive, conscientious, and emotionally isolated individual who is at odds with an oppressive or dishonest social environment. The main character of Burmese Days is a minor administrator who seeks to escape from the narrow-minded chauvinism of his fellow British colonialists in Burma. His sympathies for the Burmese, however, end in an unforeseen personal tragedy. The protagonist of Orwell’s next novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), is an unhappy spinster who achieves a brief and accidental liberation in her experiences among some agricultural labourers. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is about a literarily inclined bookseller’s assistant who despises the empty commercialism and materialism of middle-class life but who in the end is reconciled to bourgeois prosperity by his forced marriage to the girl he loves.”
Orwell’s first socialist book, The Road to Wiggan Pier, published by Gollancz in 1937 was a two-part work, the first describing the lives of a Sheffield family who lived at the top of the category called “the poor.” The second was a defense of what he later called Democratic Socialism, and which he would persist all his life. The boy born into the imperial civil service was moving away from that culture and into a life-long defense of the poor and of the system he believed would bring them relief. It was a complex mission, for although Orwell had the acuity to see that although oppression may begin, as he, in common with about a million upper middle-class Englishmen saw it, with poverty, there was a deeper darkness afoot.
1984 is not a critique of any particular regime, although one can see in it references to elements of the Marxist terror and to the rise of Fascism in Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain. It is a futuristic dystopia built of demonic uses of communications technology to provide universal surveillance; appropriation of all property and all means of production by the party; the systematic destruction of the past so that memory cannot challenge the present, partly through the direct ‘correction’ of history, more significantly through the conversion of English (and presumably every other language) into Newspeak so that Oldspeak and the ideas it carried with it are simply unavailable—recall that Winston’s friend Ampleforth had been sent to Room 101 for using in desperation, there being so few rhymes for ‘rod,’ the word ‘God;’ the sewing of distrust and fear among the population so that no one quite knows who has betrayed whom; the use of what we would recognize as deconstruction so that there is no objective reality that might challenge the party; political control through a single ideology supported by a single party; dark uses of psychology, and above all the use of terror, all justified by the endless pursuit of unwinnable wars the purposes of which have been forgotten. Who would like to argue that these policies and ideas are not represented somewhere in the political temper of the West today? Perhaps triumphant in the various Marxist regimes (China, Venezuela, North Korea), perhaps as a shadow on the horizon in most western democracies. If Orwell was wrong about anything, it was his assumption that sexual pleasure would wither away. It has its uses; in directing desire toward this pleasure as destructive of Oldspeak.
If the above is even in part an apt analysis, it is difficult to see why Orwell so consistently supported Democratic Socialism. Understand first that there are a dozen well-represented Socialisms. Social Democracy (Norway and some other European states) is not Democratic Socialism. In the former the state does not own the means of production; in Democratic Socialism the state may and often does. The 1945 government of Clement Atlee exemplified Democratic Socialism, with the government owning mines, railroads, airlines, and gas and electrical services. Presumably, George Orwell approved of this. But the controversy centers around the fact that socialism is always a threat to property, and while it does not always exert its power to the fullest extent, it may at any moment do so. And property. As Richard Weaver wrote, is essential to personality. Orwell knew this: “Everywhere, always, the eyes watching you, he voice enveloping you . . . . Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your head” (Winston, BNW, 26).
Was Orwell correct in seeing capitalism as the cause of poverty? One may wonder if there is any other society on earth in which home ownership stands at 64%?
Of course there are other problems. One is the inability of African-Americans to move above 42% home ownership since 1994, while Asian ownership in the same time-period has increased almost 10%, and this in a period when black applications were seldom turned down. Another is the inability to control the monopolistic drift that characterizes capitalism. There have been many federal anti-trust laws, but there is a tendency not to use them. And never to be forgotten is the cash nexus between politicians and donors. A swing senate race may cost a cool million, or more. And donors consider themselves worthy of a little respect.
Even if one considers Orwell’s politics as contrary to his broader goals, his political insight is a permanent treasure. Consider:
- “Television will tell them what to believe and they will believe it.”
- “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people something they do not want to hear.”
- “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
- “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
- “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
- “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
- “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
- “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
- “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.”
This last quote is an opportunity, obliquely, to consider Orwell and religion, specifically Christianity. Of course he disliked Roman Catholicism. Sometimes he called Christianity the lesser of evils. When he died, he surprised his executors by commanding that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England, that he not be cremated but buried in the church yard. In the hospital he befriended Waugh and Muggeridge, who was asked to write Orwell’s biography but failed. This is, like almost everything Orwellian, complicated. Let me add as a subscript that I understand only superficially the pleasures of power for its own sake. Perhaps others can shed some light.
2023 Thomas More Lecture
Register Now to Attend: Click Here to Register for the Thomas More Lecture
Come, Lord Jesus
“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand
It is not possible to know what Galileans thought of heaven or how deeply the Hellenistic cosmography which saw the earth as nestled at the center of seven spheres had penetrated the Jerusalem Judaism familiar to Matthew; Paul does speak of being caught up to the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2). We can know that in the Hebrew Scriptures as in the New Testament Heaven is the dwelling place of God, from Deuteronomy to Our Lord’s prayer to our Father who art in heaven that His will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the Hebrew Scriptures the kingdom is David’s kingdom or its successor, an earthly kingdom promised by God to His chosen people, but in the New Testament the Kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of the Messiah is not of this world (John `18:36).
In its fullest sense the Kingdom of Heaven is the home of the Blessed Trinity, although it is perhaps better to think of the Trinity as somehow containing heaven rather than conceiving heaven as the location of God, with Christ at His center, Jesus the crown of creation, himself including everything that is the will of the Father and therefore good. John and Paul, apostles but as well the greatest theologians, saw that Christ is from the beginning, and that everything that belongs to God’s good will exists in him from the beginning, So John says of Jesus, “He was God; He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:2–3). And Paul: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities of authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things find their place. He is the head of the body the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15–20).
The Revelation of the prophet John shows us the glory of heaven: A door was opened into heaven and the prophet saw Christ enthroned in the rainbow glory of the Father, the sevenfold spirit proceeding from him as the elect of Israel, the Gentiles, and animate nature sing endlessly to the glory of the Lamb who although slain lives forever (4:1–5:14). The Book of Hebrews gives us a rough census of the kingdom of heaven: innumerable angels in festal gathering, the assembly of the firstborn, God who is judge of all, the spirits of just men made perfect, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant (12:31–34).
This is the glorious kingdom of heaven that Jesus tells is very near, even at the door. So how does this glory enter human history? Through the mission of Christ, the Second Person made flesh, His forgiveness of our sins by His death, His vindication as judge with His resurrection, and His gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the apostolic mission that He appoints those whom Christ calls are privileged to enjoy what Saint Paul calls the firstfruits of the Kingdom. Those firstfruits are realized at Pentecost, when the prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets were fulfilled. They had prophesied of a New Covenant. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people, and I will forgive their iniquities” (Jeremiah 31: 32-34). “And it shall come to pass that I will pour out my Spirit in all flesh” (Joel 2: 38, cf. Ezekiel 18:30–32; Hebrews 8:8–13). This is the covenant whose blood Jesus established when He said: “This is my blood of the New Covenant” (Luke 22:20).
The kingdom of heaven in this world is the kingdom of the new heart created by the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when Peter, reciting the word of the prophet Joel, stood up and said to the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost: “This Jesus God raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this which you see and hear. “ What they saw was tongues of fire, the fire to whose kindling Jesus had looked forward eagerly (Luke 12:49), resting on every head; what they heard was the message of the universal knowledge of the Gospel of Christ, spoken by Galileans, heard and understood by each in his own native language (Acts 2:7–8). The result of this display of the power of God was repentance and a desire to receive the Holy Spirit (2:38–42).
This is the first fruits, the presence of the Kingdom of heaven in this world’s history, its ability to renew the human heart attesting the promise that in the end the new city of God will come down from heaven to earth, to a renewed creation that fulfills God’s purpose that He will be our God and we His people in the kingdom of no hurt when He wipes the tears from our eyes and there is no more pain or death (Revelation 21:1–22:5).
The mission of Jesus and of the apostolic mission He commissioned is to colonize the fallen earth on behalf of the eternal and glorious kingdom of heaven (Matthew 28:18–20, 10:40), made present at Pentecost in the community of the new heart, which Paul called the firstfruits of the coming glory, present in fullness when the new heaven and the new earth come down out of heaven from God, when He will be our God and we will be his people (Revelation 21:2,4). To this hope the Church is the eternal witness, beginning in Jerusalem and Judea and extending to the furthest parts of the earth while time shall last. Jesus says to the Prophet John, the last words recorded in his Revelation, Surely, I am coming soon,” to which John replies, “Let it be so; come Lord Jesus” (22:20). And the Church ever replies, “He will come again in glory.”
Thoughts on the New Year
And a voice from the throne said, “Behold I make all things new.”
New Year’s Day has not always been January 1, for during the long Middle Ages it was the Feast of the Annunciation on March twenty-fifth that marked the New Year. On that date the Angel Gabriel visited the Blessed Virgin Mary with the good news that, enwrapped by the Holy Spirit, she would become the mother of him whose name is Emmanuel: God with us, “Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Exactly how the Christian calendar was constructed as feasts and fasts commemorating events in the life of Christ and the Saints took their place in an annual rote is still not fully documented. We know that a principal mover was Dionysius Exiguus, the humble, who devised the calendar that counts the years from the birth of Christ, hence AD, Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, . But for Christians March twenty-fifth celebrated the beginning of a new world with the anticipation of the birth of Jesus nine months later, on December twenty-fifth. There is the thought that post-Constantinian Christians made December twenty-fifth, a date suspiciously close to the winter solstice, an event celebrated by the Hellenistic world as the rebirth of the sun with the merry, raucous Saturnalia, Christ’s birthday for political reasons, but since Saint Hippolytus (180-235) there has been the tradition that Jesus was born on that date.
When in the Anglosphere the Church calendar lost much of its cultural significance, with many of the reform-minded concerned that the keeping of specific days seemed idolatrous or legalistic. The first day of January, conventionally the first day of the Julian and Gregorian year— Janus being the Roman god of beginnings, gates, and doorways—became New Year’s Day, having (until 1960) Christian significance as the Feast of the Circumcision, eight days from the birth of Jesus. Now the first day of January is universally recognized as a time of expectation, hope and renewal.
Thinking of time in a broad sense, the one thing certain is that the world as we know it is wearing out. The sun, still pouring light into the universe, is growing old and will be gone in five billion years, a fate distant but certain. On a much more compact scale, despite the push of energy that will last into one’s thirties, each of us is wearing out; your knees and your heart are wearing out, and despite the prodigiously long life of a few, your body will be worn out in seven or eight decades. God commanded this: He told our first parents: “In the day that you eat the fruit of the forbidden tree you will die,” and from them we have inherited death (Genesis 3:3, Romans 5:12, I Corinthians 15:22)..
Holy Paul saw clearly that the human problem is not caused or solved by politics or pleasure. Death is the universal human problem. Paul asks, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The answer: “Thanks be to God, through Our Lord Jesus Christ.” So Paul’s letters contain a line of victorious confidence rooted in the conviction that One had defeated death, promising unending life to those who lived in Him. This is universally the promise proclaimed by the apostolic mission. “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality He will give eternal life (Romans 2:7). “For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life. And I will raise Him up at the last day” (John 6: 43).
Death is the last enemy, The prophet John saw that in the end death is thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). The world is groaning and travailing in the expectation, confirmed by the Spirit, of “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). So in the midst of a travailing, dying world, something is being born. “Therefore we do not lose heart; for though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” (II Corinthians 4:16). That inner man was created for life eternal with God. And if we are blessed, if we are Christians, if we have welcomed the Holy Spirit whom we received without measure at Baptism. Our capacity to love, to believe, and to look forward to life with God in Christ is growing even as our bodies fail. And more than that we know that it is the will of the Father to bring that person whom he knew before the foundation of the world and in our mother’s womb into His presence.
This world of nature with a glory that shines through its failure and finitude, and our lives, with their promise and fruition in the midst of pain and sorrow, are a sacrament of the new and perfect creation that Christ will bring with Him when he returns in glory. One great turning point in the history of the world is the sacrifice of the Son of God and the forgiveness and gift of the Holy Spirit that Sacrifice brought to lead souls to God. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 17:4, 19:30). And though we know He will always make intercession for us in heaven, the mission of the Son was complete, occupying all of time, on Golgotha.
Then we are told that there is a second completion, when God himself, who created the world in the beginning, speaks into creation from his throne:
“Behold, I make all things new” and He also said “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true” and He said to me: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life.’ and ‘He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son…..” (Revelation 21:5-7).
There follows John’s vision of the descent of the New Jerusalem out of heaven from God and the promise that God will be with his people, to wipe away every tear from their eyes in his kingdom without hurt or sorrow or death.
So facing a New year in which in only twelve months your body will show more wear and tear, be aware that your self, that inner man, is capable of infinite growth and renewal. We are told that our knowledge of God, and knowledge is a kind of love, will grow forever, beginning now.
You Are God’s Project: Merry Christmas
God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him. God
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And he walked in the Garden in
the cool of the day, and He called Adam’s name. “Where are you Adam?”
Genesis 2:7, 3:9
And His name shall be Emmanuel: God with us.
An the angel said, “You shall call His name Emmanual, God with us.”
And the Holy City came down out of heaven from God. And God will be with
them; He shall be their God and they will be His people, and He will wipe every
tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or sorrow.
Of all the questions Christians are likely to ponder, among the most persistent is this: It might be called the Christmas Question, because at this holy season we are confronted with the claim that One Person of the Blessed Trinity left His heavenly throne and chose to be born of a woman in Roman Judea in the reign of Augustus. That question is “Why did He do it?” Why did God make a world in which beauty and order are threatened by chaos and darkness, enter it himself, die, rise again in glory victorious over death, and send His Holy Spirit to guide us into a glorious future with Him. Why did He do this for us?
There is a broad answer and true. He did not do all this simply for us, but because He is who He is. It is of the nature of the Blessed Trinity as He has revealed himself that the love that exists among the three Persons causes the superabundant overflowing of love into existence. That is what love or charity is: in human terms the desire for the existence and the good of another, and those actions that enhance the existence of others. And when God is the lover, it is more than desire sometimes realized. What God loves He causes to exist; what He wills to happen is certain.
And there is a more particular answer to the question “Why did He do it?” All of Scripture testifies that He had a project and a plan, and that nothing that He plans does not come to fruition; in Job’s words: “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted” (1:42). His indefeasible project was that his creature man might be known by Him, might answer when he calls our name. There are many books, and useful, about our finding God, but our search is predicated on the more fundamental truth that He is seeking us.
But often this happy answer is obscured by the undoubted fact that faith in Christ is capable of and necessarily does produce holy behavior that makes its subjects fit citizens of the Kingdom of the New Heart, along the way gentling the civilization in which it subsists. This attractive and essential consequence is apt to distract from the principal line, the deep reality, in the Christian story, just as does the southern habit of equating Christianity with being saved, without being very specific about what one is saved from and into. God wants to save us from our sins which prevent our answering when He calls us and therefore prevents His knowing us, but our being saved is greater than our being forgiven, wonderful as that mercy is; we are given new hearts for the purpose of our knowing God forever and living with Him as it was intended in the beginning. Our repentance and forgiveness is the prologue to a long story that begins in time and ends in eternity. “Whom He justified He glorified” (Romans 8:30).
Because we are rebels in the following of our first parents, the Gospel begins with a threat: “You generation of vipers” (Matthew 3:7, 12:34); God’s wrath is revealed against all unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), but it is a threat on behalf of then invitation that is the heart of the Good News. The parables of Christ teaches are too rich and varied to be subsumed under one title, but one of the dominant images is the banquet or the wedding feast, into which God invites His elect. Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding feast. The king prepared a feast and invited many (Luke 14:16). Because the ten wise virgins are wise, they will go out to greet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1). The promise to the faithful is that “you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29–30). “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Matthew 8:11).
Just imagine how pleased you might be if Solzhenitsyn or Benedict XVI or Rick Santorum or Samuel Alito—think of someone you truly admire–was coming to town with the express desire of wanting to meet you, coming to dinner to know your aspirations and your best desires. But the one who comes seeking to know each of us at Christmas is greater: the Word of God made flesh. The central truth of the Biblical story, of Tradition, of Christian experience is the fact that the Almighty God, Blessed Trinity, wants to know you, and me, and each of us; for this He created us. The Blessed Apostle Peter says that God wants us to share in His very nature (II Peter 1:3–4). This is the reason he created the world, the reason he became incarnate, the reason he will come again. Begin with the moment when, the chaos, darkness and emptiness of Genesis now overcome, God held Adam before Him and breathed something of His own life into Adam’s face and gave Adam dominion over all that is the garden of creation. The garden called Eden God claimed as His own; He walked in it in the cool of the day and as He did so He called Adam’s name. Adam and Eve did not answer. We know that they had chosen the advice of the serpent, and they had been able to do so because they had a gift no other creature possessed; freedom. Perhaps had we been the creators, we would not have given our first parents the gift of freedom, but remember: freedom is the presupposition of love; no freedom, no love. And the purpose in God’s creation was his desire to find a response of love to the love that made the world. The whole history of the world and of every man is our learning to answer when God calls, realizing that insofar as His purpose is revealed, God wants to know His rational creatures, to find in them a return of the love He had displayed in making them and giving them a world from which intimations of glory are never absent.
This desire of God to know us is the mystery at the heart of the world. His first command was not a moral precept—those will follow—but: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). His every action, through Exodus, through the covenants, through the promise of the prophets that at last we would be given new hearts, to the Incarnation and the coming of the Holy Spirit; each of these mighty acts appearing in the fullness of time, is directed toward fulfilling one thing: that at last God might be with us and that we would answer with obedient love. Isaiah had prophesied the coming of one whose name would be Emmanuel: God with us. And this is the text Matthew cites in his narrative of the birth of the Savior: You shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us.
There is no intimacy in this world greater than that presupposed by Jesus’ words. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you, but if you eat my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world, you will live with me forever (John 6).. Christ gives us Himself, body and blood, the new manna come down from heaven, so that we may live in Him and He in us.
We are promised that in the end, Christ who is sacramentally present now will be with us in glory, when the new creation comes down out of heaven from God, that in it Christ is the light, that at last what He willed in the beginning, when He made us and called our names, will be made perfect. And the voice from the throne said, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be His people and God Himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3–4), God’s purpose was fulfilled at last. “He will wipe away every tear from their and He will do away with mourning and sorrow and wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more , neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. And He who sat on the throne said, “Behold I make all things new.” And He said, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” He was there in the beginning seeking us in the garden; He is calling us to share his life in the Eucharist day by day; he will dwell with us in His glory at the end, an end that is in fact an eternal beginning..
So think about the Incarnation that Christians celebrate in this way: The particular purpose in God’s creation, of His providential acts in history and in our lives, is to know us and finally to bring us to be with Him in the kingdom of glory and no hurt. This is what John the Evangelist meant when he wrote: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us .” (I John 4:10 )
Christmas is the central chapter in God’s desire to know us, celebrating the day when He came down to Bethlehem in search of us.
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.”
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 tragedy: not 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.
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.