Come, Lord Jesus

 

“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand
       

                                               Matthew 4:17

       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.”

                                               Revelation 21:5

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.

                                               Isaiah 7:14

 

An the angel said, “You shall call His name Emmanual, God with us.”

                                               Matthew 1:23

 

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.

                                               Revelation 21:2-4

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.”

                                               Revelation 7:13–14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Hears the Humble

 

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

                                               Sirach 35:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Nothing

 

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

                                               Luke 16:19-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rulers and Governors

 

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

                                               I Timothy 2:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected

 

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

                                               Luke 12:40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witness We Must

 

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

                                               Acts 5:27-32

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

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

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

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

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

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