Reserve your seat, here
“Hear me, all of you and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
With these words Jesus challenged the Pharisees claim that holiness consisted in strict obedience to the propositions of the Law, 613 in all according to later tradition, that included not only the Great Commandments: You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, but also minute rules about the washing of hands and the company one kept. Our Lord’s point in this exchange was simply that it was damaging to the soul to insist on the small things that affected the outside, our behavior in the world, while ignoring what was going on within. And what was going on within Jesus described graphically, from evil thoughts and unchastity to blasphemy and folly, in short the catalog of human failure when the human heart is unhealed. This will create a situation in which law will be used to blot out charity and duty, as, for example, when one refuses to support aged parents on the grounds that the money is already corban or promised to the Temple treasury, a practice not uncommon among the Pharisees, who used the law to avoid true righteousness.
When the human heart, which is born in slavery that is original sin, is unhealed, unrighteousness will reign; human cleverness will think of a way to seem righteous while in fact assiduously achieving the projects of a fallen will. Throughout the long years catalogued in Hebrew Scripture, Israel had been moving ever closer to the moral fulfillment anticipated in this text, the day when God would give not only commandments but a new heart. The Pharisaic movement was the project of the best and the brightest, and it was woefully incomplete at its heart. The prophets had always known that God would not accept the sacrifices of any save those of humble and broken heart, who, following the great example of Job, would finally cease arguing their own righteousness and accept the truth that God was the potter, they the clay. It was not news in Israel that God would put down the mighty and lift up the lowly and meek. But the entire Pharisaic tradition was devoted to what Newman called making a fair outside, which made Jesus say that the Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs, clean and bright on the outside, while within there were dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27).
There is something here about the order of men’s loves and the order that is in their lives. If one wishes to have a clean outside, this project, the project of having a clean outside cannot be pursued directly with authenticity. But if one puts first things first; namely love of God and neighbor, the world of smaller things may very well order itself aright. In the long run one cannot have good manners without good morals. While always recognizing that the claims of God are not to be met on utilitarian grounds; we cannot with success teach Christianity to have a safe society, there is a reason why convents usually have a lovely and evident order, and it is not because religious women are better at house cleaning.
Given that Jesus was right and just in his condemnation of Pharisaic morality, given that His catalogue of the contents of the un-graced human heart is correct, the only cure for humanity is not the cure proposed by the philosophers, which, although it had a certain truth lacked power to make holy, pleasing to God, and pure in conscience. The only cure that would suffice would be the gift of a new heart. This was the promise of the great prophets; that God would establish His reign by giving a new covenant, “not like the covenant he made with their fathers when he brought them out of Egypt,” but one under which he promises those He calls into His kingdom new hearts. It is Jeremah who promises in God’s name: I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts (31:31-34). Christ’s death on the cross was the blood of the new covenant that purchased the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 26:27). His resurrection foretells the life of Glory. His promise was that He would send His Spirit, so that He would be in us and we in Him (John 14:11, 20). The analysis Jesus gave the Pharisees, His awareness that the human heart left to itself is desperately wicked, is background for the miracle effected at baptism and in the sacraments through which those whom He calls are made holy so that our will may be His will; as Dante wrote, in His will is our peace, and our joy and above all the possibility of being pleasing to our Creator, who is also our Father.
Modernity, the harsh period through which we live, makes two mistakes. It often assumes that as we are found in the world we are good, a theory urged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the end of the eighteenth century and since taken into the cloying moral environmentalism which assumes that were it not for poverty and poor education every person would be good. This popular theory is self-evidently false and to its falsity every newspaper witnesses daily as it catalogs our follies. CEO runs off with secretary; banker absconds with funds; woman beaten, child abandoned, etc., etc. In fact we are not good as we come into the world; we are liable to the catalog of sins with which Jesus confronted the Pharisees, but we can be made good by the grace of God the Holy Spirit, so that Jesus’ catalog of what lives in the human heart is not the final report.
And then modernity, while proclaiming the essential sinlessness of the human race, simultaneously denies the possibility of holiness because it denies the very possibility of the restraint that lifts the human person into the company of the saints. The line from the country music song, “If it feels so good it can’t be wrong,” does not, as a moral theory, do much to elevate the human soul above the terrain we as animals share with our cats and dogs, but it is the thesis of a good deal of the moral chaos Jesus described in the superscript above.
“We aspire to please Him, for we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” — II Corinthians 5: 8-10
In this text Paul, a Jew of Tarsus, is telling the whole Mediterranean world, in a voice that resonates even unto our present, that every person will face the judgment of God, answering for what he has done in the years given him by a gracious Creator. Shocking to say, but when the curtain goes down on our lives, the only thing that will have mattered will be the approval of an audience of one, resplendent in His glory, magnificent in His justice, mighty in His mercy. Therefore, says Saint Paul, let us please not ourselves, for our own hearts can deceive us, but let us please Him. For we all must appear before the judgment seat of God. It is easy, knowing ourselves as we do, to look forward to judgment with fear, but it is important to remember that God’s judgment on those who love him, who are in Christ, will be “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the place prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 35:34). Paul’s point is not that God condemns his people but the hard fact that whether we have done good or evil matters to the only Judge.
This is Holy Paul, in the superscript above. striking the prophetic note that belongs to the apostolic mission, writing in a few words, without apology, without consideration for the opinion of ‘the world,’ the truth that the meaning of our lives is compassed in choices and graces accepted or rejected as these will be judged by God. It is a message that the world whether in the age of Tiberius or in post modernity does not welcome. But the apostles were not sent to engage in dialectic, but like their predecessors Jeremiah and Ezekiel to announce the Word of the Lord as heralds, not as salesmen. Jesus told His disciples to offer a choice, to offer peace to any house they might enter but should anyone refuse to hear the apostolic message of those sent by Jesus they were not to argue but to shake off the dust from their feet and be on their way (Matthew 10:13-15). In the day of judgment, says the Lord, the fate of the house or town that will not receive the apostolic message will be worse that the destruction visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Gospel is not in the first instance an instrument of judgment but of grace, addressed to a world that through complicity in the Garden with the Serpent’s project has already fallen under God’s judgment: “He came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it,” and yet the apostolic writings are replete with notes of exclusivity, offered on a tone that seems confident or even preemptory, defining the narrow way apart from which we cannot enter into life. Jesus begins His ministry with the command: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve” (Mathew 4:10). And again He says that He is the only way: “No man comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). These are choices of the heart.
Hard words to the unbelieving ears of those who think their first duty is to please themselves. But Paul and others entrusted with the apostolic warrant to teach Christ’s truth, like the Church in our day, must say such things, words outrageous to the unbelieving heart, because they are called by God and filled with the same Spirit that inspired the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, enabling them to teach truth without reference to the human sensibilities and if, as at the Areopagus, Paul occasionally appeals to the insight of poetry, this is only to set as it were in a golden frame the truth that God has not come to argue but tell us how it lies with each of us: “Now He commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world” (Acts 17:21-32).
Often those who would convince this modern age of the truth of Christ struggle for an effective apology, arguing truly that rebellion against God leads to an unhappy life, while loving obedience leads to peace. There is truth in this, and there are many good and worthy reasons why Christianity should be believed. It is good for the civil order. It mitigates cruelty with gentleness. It teaches truth-telling and blesses our work. But the one eternal and summary reason for belief is none of these but that it is the will of our wise Creator for mankind. The warrant of the apostles is simply “God says.” The prophets, and their successors the apostolic mission, in their task of divine proclamation, are not sent to argue but to announce the truth. “Go and proclaim: Thus says the Lord.” Apostles, like prophets, are not recruited but called. In the prophet Jeremiah the Word of the Lord burns intensely that he cannot but prophesy (20:9-18), and Paul says, “A necessity is laid upon me: for woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16). This is the witness which Jesus commanded the apostles to make before the world. This witness is the first step in the conversion of souls. The second is the opening of hearts to the Gospel by the Holy Spirit. And these two, taken together, without argument have and will convert those whom God has called into His Church.
The bold witness of heaven-sent prophets and apostles is essential if we are to play our part in the unfolding story of our lives well, for, among other reasons, our lives do not have their meaning written on them with the clarity we might expect if we lived in an unfallen world. The script we are given as we come onto the stage that is our time and place is incomplete and we are liable to an inherited weakness of sight. God has left compelling clues in the natural world which are calculated to open our eyes to the reality of the supernatural.. One of these clues is the creation itself, which, viewed with wonder attests the power and glory of God (Romans 1:19-23). The other is the voice of conscience, which, while it may not tell us what is right moment by moment, inexorably tells us that something is right, and that we must find and follow it (Romans 2:15-16). Following these good clues, enlightened if it may be by grace of the Holy Spirit, we may find that our meaning is in the one who made the wonder of the world and stamped upon our hearts the longing for what is good and right. But always we will require the prophetic voice to tell us with bold words God’s will for our lives as we seek to please Him, to assure us on one hand that despite the vicissitudes of this world we are made for an eternity of blessedness, and to warn us on the other that failure to please God has its consequences of eternal loss.
“They were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29), who like the Pharisees, argued endlessly about the right application of the Law while in heart they were far from the Kingdom. And in these last days, days that began with Christ’s resurrection and will end when He returns, it falls to the Church in the persons of the apostolic ministry to be the prophetic voice, speaking in the name of Jesus, addressed to us and our world, not fearing the anger and ridicule of a world that .is ever failing. We have always known what the response of that world would be: “You will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9). Yet nothing can still the apostolic voice, which will speak with a prophetic voice from the power of the Holy Tradition even when to human eyes the Church is in ruins. The rulers of this age may like those rushing forward to stone Stephen stop their ears (Acts 7:57), but the apostolic voice, speaking words of comfort and warning, will always be heard by those who listen, teaching those things which Christ has commanded. And He assures us, “Behold, I am with you even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The apostles, like the prophets who were rejected and killed for delivering God’s message, would die and are still dying for the sake of the Gospel message. “Rejoice and be glad, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
This note is about what might seem to be a Catholic problem. In fact it is everyman’s problem, for it involves deep questions about the natural law and human agency and integrity.
For the first one hundred fifty years of our national existence the chances that a Roman Catholic might win the presidency was not really a question. And there was this: should such an unlikely event occur, the moral formation of such a person would not have been markedly unlike the moral formation of his Protestant neighbors. Presbyterians and Baptists were just as morally firm, some would say rigid, as Catholics until the artificial birth control issue came up with Margaret Sanger’s campaigns of the twenties. That split the moral witness of American Christianity; Episcopalians in 1930, other Christian bodies soon afterward. And to anticipate, then came the pill, about 1963, just after John F. Kennedy’s speech before the Methodists in Houston in 1960.
It was a reassuring speech, cleverly constructed. And while there was the brave line: “Should there be a conflict between my conscience and my office I would resign my office,” there was also, “My opinion will not be shaped by any Church,” and overall the Houston Speech promised that he would not govern according to the moral teachings of his Church. John Kennedy was never very much of a Catholic. The flaws in his behavior, as with Martin Luther King, have been obviated by assassination and memorable rhetoric, as is right; we ought always to remember the best. There was something to be said for Camelot.
Kennedy’s speech quietly laid the groundwork for the personally opposed position, in which one was excused from displaying any personal integrity by holding an opinion which did not affect behavior of governing principles. In 1960 Roe v Wade lay 13 years in the future. When it became law in 1973, it became the duty of the Chief executive to conform presidential actions and decisions to it, whatever the moral convictions of the executive might be. It was a ruling that set part of the population against government policy and set anti-abortion forces in motion. As the abortion question settled into the culture it became clear that about half the population energetically disagreed with the 1960 court decision. This disagreement had and has a religious base, being located principally among believing Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Adding fuel to the fire was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life. This of course did not mean that every such act that was not, for instance in the natural periods of infertility, was unlawful; indeed the Church encouraged knowledge of such periods, and said that with due regard to charity these could be recognized as a means of limiting procreation. But one could not deliberately subvert nature’s purposes with devices mechanical or chemical so that the only purpose of the ultimate intimacy was pleasure. This decision, which probably assumed that those to whom it was addressed would be married couples, now seems quaint. In 1968 Paul VI could not imagine that for many, perhaps most, sex would become an amusement, nothing sacred, or even romantic about it. But this became the cultural premise and as such it fed the abortion market. If one assumes that sexual intercourse is a conscience-less pleasure and then, sure enough, one turns up pregnant, abortion appears as a right, a right for whom a large majority of Americans will fight by whatever means possible.
And thus late modernity got crosswise with a large minority of the Christian population of the United States, the last culture in Western society with a big enough minority to effectively represent the Christian cause. At the heart of the resistance to the destruction of little children was the Catholic Church, although many, many non-Catholics joined the battle. The very first Christian document, dating from about seventy-five or eighty, before there was any Gospel text, having gone through the Sermon on the Mount, lists the actions that must be avoided by Christians just coming in out of the cold of Hellenistic sensuality. No abortion, no infanticide, no corrupting of boys, all actions that while distasteful among the best were tolerated and in a sense unremarkable. Tertullian, writing about 200, developed the matter thus. “Murder, being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing, nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is coming to be one.” Reiterations could be multiplied unto this present.
Now let us think about another element in the currently explosive mix. Justin Martyr wrote about 150, that those are welcomed to the Eucharist who are baptized and who live as Christ handed down to us. This meant that those Christians guilty of serious or mortal sin should not participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood until they had made it right with God by confessing their sins. [In this vocabulary grave or serious or mortal sin is one in which the matter is grave—stealing a pencil usually does not qualify—and one’s will deliberately and knowingly is set against God’s commandments.] From that day till the present the Church has taught that failure to live as Christ taught us prevented those guilty of mortal sin from receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ until they repent. The Reformed tradition, the most important Christian tradition in America for much of its history, would seem to have forgotten that before about 1850 on the weekend of the Lord’s Supper the minister would routinely issue communion tokens to those in good standing, those not guilty of immoral behavior, permitting them to share in the communion service. The usual remedy for Catholics who have slipped up badly was and is just to go confession and all would be well. Unless, of course one had been publicly promoting say adultery or homosexuality or abortion or, in the case of one of the fourth-century emperors, Theodosius, permitting soldiers to commit atrocities unrebuked. On which occasion Saint Ambrose—this was during the brief period when Milan was the capital of the western empire—asked the emperor not to show up for Mass until he had publicly repented. Over time excommunication became the method for protecting both the sinner and the Sacrament from sacrilege. Rarely used, and obviously, if one is not a Catholic, excommunication has no meaning or effect.
Now consider this. In the United States there remaineth even in this present a core of Catholic fideles, Maybe half the Catholic population of perhaps 70 million, maybe less, maybe thirty percent. These 30 or 35 million at their best are characterized by a disposition of obedience, the obedience that belongs to love. From them comes the cash that makes ecclesiastical wheels spin. They are likely to go to confession maybe once a month, confessing having been rude in traffic or having read a salacious book or looked at the wrong movie or cheated in their income tax. They will show up on Saturday afternoon or whenever to confess their sins whether these be mortal (1 John 5:16-17) or not. And they will be there on Sunday. Perhaps ten percent of them pay some attention to Humanae Vitae. They all abominate abortion as wrong and morally repugnant. And it is the case that they, this small percentage of the much larger number who will check the Catholic box on survey forms, consider the Blessed Sacrament the very presence of Jesus in time and place. It does not matter much to them that millions of atheists consider such beliefs delusional, that Baptists, if they think about it at all, consider this idolatrous, or that Lutherans consider the doctrine a metaphysical impossibility. For them, just as a sociological fact about a part of the American population, the Blessed Sacrament is the center of life.
Now comes a president who is advertised, and lets himself be advertised, as a practicing Catholic, who, while claiming that he is personally opposed to abortion, is putting the entire force of the government behind promoting abortion. It has been suggested by a learned letter in the WSJ that since Pius X encouraged frequent communion, teaching that the Eucharist is food for the pilgrim on the way, not a reward for the perfect, all, thinking now of the President, should be welcomed to the Lord’s table. What this overlooks is the fact that since Saint Paul about 45 AD advised the Corinthians that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” no bishop, no pope, no faithful Christian has ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin, should share in the Mass or Holy Communion.
It is a bad year to be a Catholic bishop. The President is a scandal to the faithful, and I suspect not merely to Roman Catholics. What kind of person says: I’m personally opposed, but I don’t think I can foist my opinion on others. Let the killing proceed and multiply. Or perhaps the President is among the multitude who have convinced themselves that being opposed to abortion is just an opinion, rather than a close derivative of natural law and of the divine command “Thou shall not kill.” Tertullian was right, you can kill a child early or late, but you are still killing a child. As Benedict XVI put it, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
So what are the bishops to do? They have been told that Pope Francis would not support a national policy; Cardinals Gregory in Washington and Tobin in Newark and Cupich in Chicago and their allies must be allowed to go on welcoming the unrepentant to Communion. Stuck between a hard place and a rock the majority of the bishops on June 17th decided by a vote of 165 to 71 that they should say something. Apart from the question of duty and conscience, if they remain silent they will slip further in the esteem of the fideles. On the other hand, if they dare to single out the President and the Speaker, they will be accused of politicizing the sacraments by liberal Catholics represented by the 71. They know that in the entire still-vast organism of the Catholic Church there has been only one, a priest in South Carolina, who has dared to refuse communion to the President, and furthermore that the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an appointee of Pope Francis, would be the last person to do so or to back up his clergy should they.
But on the other hand it is a great opportunity for teaching, for teaching Catholics, any Catholics anywhere, to approach the body and blood of Jesus with serious sins on their conscience is a sacrilege that is fatally damaging to their souls and derogative of the honor due Christ. The teaching is not in doubt. There are several millions who need to hear this who are not in politics. As for the President and the Speaker and the like, just pray for them, for they are sold-out souls, too characteristic of a culture in which, taking the advice of the Serpent, we make up the rules for ourselves, in which the gap between profession and action yawns, in which sentimentality is taken for reality. In a way Catholic politicians who claim the word Catholic with the respectability it still brings while despising the teachings of the Church are a poignant sign of the times, an era when words mean nothing, when the political discourse that shapes the culture is, and is known to be, more often than not, a texture of untruths, if not formally, then materially, uttered by those among whom the relation between words and reality has long been considered a matter of mere expediency.
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called children of God.
Yet so we are.
I John 3:1
For much of the last century fatherhood has been an endangered vocation. In the popular culture of the twenty-first century Patriarchy, when it is not the subject of ridicule, is a synonym for repression, an ancient pathology belonging to a vanished world in which fathers attempted arbitrarily to exercise authority and commanded obedience. In a complementary way to be child-like, open and trusting, an attitude that our Savior considered necessary to faith, is now counted naiveté. Yet He once called a child, put him in their midst, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5). And the wide world forgets that Jesus taught His disciples to call God His Father and theirs. Christ the Son of God taught us to pray beginning with the words “Our Father,” that He calls God His father thirty-four times in the discourses of chapters 14–17 of the Gospel of John, and His last words were, “My Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
But leaving aside the folly of the present—and every age has its follies—we can remember that fatherhood is the cornerstone of reality in the world Christ revealed: the divine paternity of our Creator, the paternity over the Church of him called in Italian Papa, our pope, in the old world the paternal government of the anointed king, and everywhere the divinely appointed fatherhood of the head of every human family.
Among things human, the finest aspiration of every man is to be a good father, to beget children of the woman beloved is a natural duty, but fatherhood itself in its fulfilment of a vocation that must be chosen and in Christendom fatherhood is a supernatural vocation. In the natural and divinely appointed order every father is the head of household, for which, the Christian way teaches, he must be willing to give his life, not always or even often in a dramatic one-time fashion, but in the wearying, unending way of life lived, thus imitating Christ, who gives his life for the whole world and who still intercedes for us. Fathers of sons and daughters to a great degree chose that role, and when they choose to fulfill it they do so in imitation of our Father in heaven, who, having called our humankind into existence first gives His life for His bride the Church whom He loves and then nurtures and disciplines every one of His children.
Just so every father on earth is to his daughters and sons the model of our Father in heaven who governs with power and authority transfused with a tenderness that loves and gives. Christ assumes the just generosity that belongs to fatherhood: “Which of you, if a son asks for bread will give him a stone? If you give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9). The Epistle to the Hebrews construes the obedience of children to their fathers as analogous to the duty of every Christian to God the Father: “We have earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of Spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:7).
The world Saint Paul assumes is one in which the bond that binds the family together is love made present in obedience. We know that these are inseparable: Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Saint Paul says directly: “Children obey your parents for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1–2). And Paul then makes it clear that paternal authority combines patient teaching with discipline: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
When Saint Paul commands children to obey their parents and wives to obey their husbands he is assuming that this obedience within the family is the second step in a hierarchy of obedience that begins with the father who is head of the family. To be a good father is not simply to exercise one’s own will, for the tree of obedience that bears much good fruit begins higher. It begins when the Father himself is obedient to the laws divine and natural, to the teaching of the Church and the laws of the political community, themselves being the reflection of natural and divine justice. To ask one’s children to be obedient in the Lord, to ask one’s wife to be subject to him, every father and husband must first himself be submitted to the law both of the cross and of this world’s authority. Saint Paul’s command regarding obedience to political authority , necessarily addressed to fathers as head of the family, are now no less embarrassing than his command that Christians obey and revere the emperor. But the fact that they cannot easily be located in post-modernity does not mean that they can be ignored.
Just as when nature has been defeated by the awful technological transcendence that ignores the very forms in things, one must still respect those forms, just so when political authority claims only positive sanction, only the ability to command and punish, Christians, and especially the head of the house, must live as though the law has the authority of God because the law of Christ lives in our hearts and is taught by the Church. When the head of the house, the authority in the family is truly submitted to the law of Christ it may be time to consider the duty of wives to be submitted to their husbands and of children to be obedient. If the husband and head is truly submitted to God he has before him ever Paul’s admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and died for her (Ephesians 5:25), and as well the teaching of Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed: “The gentiles lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you,” and he has in memory as well the admonition that children are not to be provoked to anger (Ephesians 6:4). A husband and father thus armed is able to expect from his household the obedience that belongs to love.
Saint Paul incidentally names one other tie between fathers and children. In explaining to the Corinthians that he seeks nothing but their good, that they owe him nothing, he writes, “Children ought not lay up for their parents but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” Paul is citing a commonplace of family life to illustrate a spiritual obligation, but it is noteworthy that he recognizes the duty of fathers to the secular future, to lay up something for their children. But Paul knows that the greatest gift of fathers to sons and of mothers to daughters is a tradition of Christian virtue and honor.
Thoughts on the Gospel
the Third Sunday In Easter
But if anyone does sin,
we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only
but for those of the whole world.
I John 2:1
Christians know that Jesus is the Lamb sacrificed, the one full perfect sacrifice offered by the Son of God Incarnate in order to purchase forgiveness of our sins and to send the Holy Spirit of God into the world, creating the kingdom of the new heart. The text superscript, which assumes that we may sin, tells us that His work of expiation for our sins continues throughout time.
Here is a great mystery. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ is always able throughout all time “to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). The Prophet John, through the open door into heaven, saw the Lamb standing as though He had been slain, the seven-fold Holy Spirit proceeding from His eyes into the world. Christ’s work of offering Himself “not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world,” even as He lives in glory “between the throne, the four great living creatures, and the elders, eternally praised in creation’s new song.
Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,
For thou wast slain and by thy blood
didst ransom men for God
From every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God
And they shall reign on earth
The sacrifice of Jesus fills all of time, and when we are forgiven we are forgiven not only and essentially through the cross of Golgotha, which planted Christ’s sacrifice in time, but through the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God which is ever present. Our faith is not only a religion of what happened but of what is happening always. Christ will make intercession for us until He comes in glory.
One might ask, “But does Christ need to make intercession for us since we are justified by faith, by baptism, justified in God’s sight anyhow. And to this there must be a resounding yes. Sin is an action which we may hope by grace to avoid, but sinfulness is a weakness of human nature that guides us away from the cross of Christ, into reliance upon ourselves. The best of us is imperfect. Oh God cleanse me from my secret faults, sometimes faults so secret that we do not recognize them in ourselves. And in any event our relation to God is not exhausted in our avoiding sin, for there is an arid sinlessness, opening upon pride, that can be worse than sin itself. Christ’s intercession is not only a rescue mission; it is an external relation of love which means that we live within a forgiven and grace filled life during which Jesus eternally pleads before the Father for us.
Is this pleading, represented so graphically by the image of Christ sanding as though slain seen by the prophet John, an eternal crucifixion for the Son of God Incarnate? The answer must be no. Saint Paul says truly in Romans 6:9: “Christ having died dieth no more.” Yet we know that Christ resurrected in glory still displayed the wounds in His hands and in His side. We know from the prophet John that He bears them eternally. But now they are not signs of His suffering but of His triumph. Were Jesus not to bear them in glory we might assume that the work of the cross is done, but it goes on forever. Just as the sacrifice offered at the Christian altar does not imply a new and painful death but brings into the present and makes efficacious the one full perfect sacrifice, just so the appeal for forgiveness is addressed to Christ in glory whose hands and side still bear the marks of the nails and lance of Golgotha, without which sacrifice in time sins cannot be forgiven.
In the Middle Ages a great devotion to the Five Holy Wounds developed, Many medieval prayers in honour of the Sacred Wounds, including some attributed to Clare of Assisi, have been preserved; St. Mettled and St. Gertrude of Hefts were especially devoted to the Holy Wounds. In the nineteenth century the Passionist Fathers encouraged the Chaplet of the Five Wounds, as a means of promoting devotion to the Sacred Passion of Christ in the hearts of the faithful. For students of English history it cannot be forgotten that the rising in the north in 1534 against Henry VIII’s destruction made its way toward London to petition the king for the restoration of the Mass under the banner of the Five Holy Wounds of Jesus. It would be an oddity of the new English religion that reminders of the suffering of Jesus were not popular with the government, the crucifix being forbidden in parish churches.
Reserve your seat, here
When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard
that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,
even the king of Israel.”
Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written:
Fear no more, O daughter Zion;
see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.
His disciples did not understand this at first,
but when Jesus had been glorified
they remembered that these things were written about him
and what they had done to him.
Every Gospel, every account of what Jesus had done, lived in memory, often finding its place in prophetic tradition before it was written down. This is especially true of the Gospel of John. After Jesus had cleansed the temple the disciples remembered that Psalm 68:10 prophesied: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” After He had risen His disciples remembered that He had identified His body as the true temple of God’s presence (John 2:22). After Jesus prophesied that His disciples would be forbidden the synagogue, indeed sought out and killed, Jesus reminds the disciples that He has told them these things so that “when the time comes for them to happen, you will remember that I told you of it” (John 16:4).
It is characteristic of life that we often do not know what is happening while it is going on, and this is especially true of the apostolic memory, that the apostles did not know what was happening until after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after Pentecost they were able to see the import of the moments they had shared with Jesus. They had not understood the meaning of Jesus’ life in the context of the Scriptures until on the road to Emmaus, in the very face of His resurrection, Jesus told them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer thee things and enter into His glory. And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
In the text superscript the Johannine author or authors are remembering the day Jesus entered Jerusalem mounted on a lowly donkey to the acclaim of the Jerusalem crowd, some enthusiastic because He had raised Lazarus, but among whom there must have been those who hours later would shout, “Crucify him” before the Roman procurator. Jesus’ entry into David’s city was to be located in the context of Zechariah 9:9:
Your king comes to you.
Triumphant and victorious is He,
humble and riding on an ass
on a colt the foal of an ass.,
The authors might have cited the Angel’s promise to Mary: “God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32). Yet there is no doubt that the Johannine author, looking back, now understood that what happened, remembered through the lens of Zechariah’s prophecy, made Jesus the heir to David’s throne and His entrance into Jerusalem an event pregnant with meaning for the future.
Jesus must have known that it would end well only in terms of the divine promise, while seeming to human eyes an abject failure, the death of another revolutionary prophet. But Jesus could not make the great sacrifice before staking His claim to be the King of Israel. His success, especially His raising of Lazarus from death, had inspired the crowd and infuriated the Pharisees. The end was now near, the hour toward which His life had been moving, it remained only to assure the reader that the Greeks would be included in the great apostolic mission: “Among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to Him, Sir we wish to see Jesus. Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Phillip and they told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be Glorified.” Then follows the passion narrative that occupies the last half of the book of John.
Having spoken of the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ triumphal entry as the fulfilling of Zechariah, the text continues: they remembered what they had done with Him (or to Him). The exact meaning of these words is difficult to capture. The phrase might be translated idiomatically to refer to the things that had happened to Jesus but as the verb is plural and active it needs the disciples as its subject. So this leaves the author reflecting on what the disciples had done at and after the triumphal entry: Jesus ‘washing of the disciples’ feet, the last supper, the divine instruction to the apostles in chapter 14–17, the betrayal and trial and death. If the phrase “what they had done” is taken extensively, it might refer to their role in the triumphal entry and in what followed, when the disciples played a less than noble part. Jesus knew what would happen: “The hour is coming indeed it has come when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:31.) From the time of His arrest, Jesus was left alone; there followed Jesus’ betrayal and trial, and at the end, as far as we are told, only one disciple stood with His mother witnessing His death (John 19;26).
A political failure: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem signaled no successful revolution, and an eschatological disappointment as well; the Jewish expectation that the Messiah might suddenly inaugurate the supernatural end of history went unfulfilled, this event was still the greatest earthly, historical, representation of Christ’s eternal kingship, the sole occasion when Jesus, having previously counseled his followers to tell no man, permitted publicity. Jesus left this world in pain and shame, only to fulfill His promise by appearing in glory to Peter, Paul, John, and other disciples, sending His Spirit with life changing and confirming power at Pentecost.
After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem there will be no other triumph in history until He returns in glory. The spread of Christianity, the seeming triumph of the Church at times when it was culturally dominant, eucharistic congresses attended by tens of thousands, even the glory of the Eucharist when it is celebrated with extrinsic beauty, none of these, although they may sometimes reflect His glory, is the triumph of Christ, which is only realized perfectly in the lives of the saints. Christ’s triumph will come when He returns in glory, bringing the saints with Him to live forever in His presence in the renewed creation, where, as Irenaeus says, we will ever have conversation with our Creator.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through Him.
Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 3:16 is arguably the best known and best loved verse in the New Testament, expressing as it so beautifully does God’s overarching purpose in the creation of humankind, His patience through the long years of disobedience catalogued in the Sacred Scriptures, culminating in the gift of His only Son, whose death and resurrection brought salvation to the world. “World” in this text is not the world organized against God, as in First John 2:16: “All that is in the world is not of the Father,” but refers to the created order, declared good in the beginning, that has been the object of God’s love since creation.
Yet there is more to the story than God’s great all-comprehending love, for the text goes on to say that our appropriation of this great gift of life and blessedness is by belief in the Son, adding the harsh word that lacking belief or faith in the Son of God means being condemned already. Souls are not in the first instance lost by falling into sin but by skepticism in the face of God’s revelation: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness” (19). Near the end of the Gospel of John the author will tell us that as well as dying on the cross for love of God and us, the Son came to teach us what righteousness is and what sin is. When He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness, of sin because they do not believe in me. And belief in Jesus is the author’s purpose. As he says at the end of the book, apologizing for abbreviating the account of Jesus’ signs: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Belief, one of the too numerous capacities that distinguish the human person from our animal relatives. Every person lives within a texture of convictions that describe reality and informs behavior, a construct that is for that person reality. This is as true for a skeptic as for a saint. On a certain level these are assumptions born of day-to-day experience. But beyond these lies faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), the meaning of life in a future not yet known. Belief that Jesus is the Son of God is the summary of that faith. It affirms that there is one we know who the son of god in the loose sense is not that an emperor might have been so described but is rather the Son of the incomprehensible Glory who created this world, who rules nature and every heart through His divine providence, who condemned the world because of sin and saves it because of His indefeasible will that the conversation interrupted in the Garden may find fulfillment among His elect and in His coming kingdom.
It is not good works, not even fine character, but belief that Jesus is the Son of God that in the first and fundamental instance fulfills our duty toward God, being as it is the reality from which the actions that are our life flow. The verb for “to believe” in the present tense is found about seven times in Matthew, ten times in Mark, five times in Luke, and fifty-one times in John. Unsurprisingly, we find in the Letters of Paul the reiterated claim that we are made right with God by faith, which means believing that God is who He is and that He will do what He has promised. “Abraham believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” Genesis 15:6. As the lynchpin of his preaching this text is quoted by Saint Paul the Pharisee with the explanation, “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trust in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5). And to this the Apostle James adds the example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command as proof that faith issues in obedience: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (2:21-22). And the apostle adds: As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
From its birth Christianity fought persistently against the tendency of some to find a fulfilling peace in a certain intellectual apprehension that imitated the gift of faith. These were called gnostics, “the knowledgeable,” “the insightful,” who argued that the redemption Christ offered could be experienced through what was, to use Saint Irenaeus’ word, invisible, transforming the soul through union with God but having no ability to conform the human will to the will of God in witness and behavior. But when faith is real, when love is real, it issues in a desire to please God our Father. Saint John is speaking of the common Christian aspiration when he says: “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (I John 3:9).
Of course Christians do sin, sometimes grievously, but faith is not stamped out and the claim God has upon the baptized is not obviated. The same Saint John who says that if we are born of god we cannot sin, writes in the same letter, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9). And this requires belief, believing in God’s mercy, believing that Christ gave the apostolic mission the power to forgive sins, saying to the frightened disciples on the evening of the first day of His life in glory: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).
The star which they saw in the East went before them
til it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
The sixth of January, the twelfth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the recognition of Jesus as the Great King by the gentiles in the persons of the wise men is celebrated. The wise men, magi as the Greek calls them, came seeking a king. And this the Angel Gabriel had promised to Mary: “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob, and of His kingdom there will be no end”(Luke 1:33–34). The wise men had not come to discuss theology or to satisfy curiosity but to worship. And their worship and their gifts represented the humble allegiance to truth of those we now call men of science, for the magi were the natural philosophers of the first century, men of the East, perhaps Persians, astronomers and perhaps astrologers, interested in understanding nature’s lessons, in this case, willing to follow a star, known to them as “His star,” the King’s star.
It has ever been the intellectual habit of Christians to learn from nature. We do not know much about Saint Paul’s education, beyond the fact that he studied with the great scholar Gamaliel in Jerusalem. Then there is the hint in Romans 1, where he acknowledges his debt to the Greeks and to the Barbarians. His debt to the Greeks is evident in his ability to quote the poets Epimenides and Aratus before the council of the Areopagus (Acts 17:28–29), as well as in his grasp of ideas such as the participation of Christians in Christ that might be shared with the Platonists and Stoics of his day. Paul’s claim too, like that implicit in the magi’s journey, was that nature taught the most important thing, the existence and power of God; that nature, like the wise men’s star, would, if followed faithfully, lead us to our King.
From Paul, through the great medievals, Aquinas and Bonaventure, to the nineteenth century, it has been the claim of Christian scholarship, and indeed of all Christian thought, that knowledge of nature would lead to God. Perhaps this reached a popular apotheosis with the Romantic Poets of the nineteenth century. And then, as though a door has been slammed in the face of the inquirer, it became philosophically unfashionable to see God’s mighty hand or the beauty of Christ’s face in nature. Now it would not be easy to find a professional philosopher who taught that St. Thomas’s Five Ways offered intellectually compelling reasons for belief in God.
This is in some measure due to the circumstance that it is now the enemies of reason who define the reach of reason. We owe to the eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume the observation that treatises on divinity contain no knowable truth while impressions derived from the senses, call them matters of fact, may be considered true, and analytical statements, statements in which the predicate is contained in the subject (unicorns are one-horned animals), may be considered if not true at least logically valid. It may be admitted that speaking of God’s existence under these canons of reason is impossible. There can be no empirical proof, for while God may make himself known to Moses, and while Christ might appear to the apostles, these events, like Pentecost itself, are not empirically knowable since they are the experiences that while they may be compelling are the consequence of faith and as such are not universally available as evidence of God’s existence. And as for logical proof of God’s existence, the first premise in a deductive argument must always be question-begging, assuming what it seeks to prove.
What this canon of the knowable omits is the kind of knowledge that may be called historical, that kind of argument in which thought, presiding over a field of facts and experiences, draws a conclusion. Several of the classical arguments have this kind of form, most notably the argument from design, the observation, based on our experience of a world of great complexity in which things have purposes and patterns, that where there is order and design there is a designer. We see that a nation is experiencing an unprecedented military buildup, which is coupled with threats and bellicose speech. We may conclude that war is likely, or very likely. War may or may not come, but in a pale analogy to Pascal’s wager, better safe than sorry, we are probably best advised to be prepared for war. Probability is, as Newman counseled, the guide of life. We experience, often through long years, an ordered world in which some things go wrong, but more go right. By calling the wrong things wrong, we acknowledge that they do not belong to the order of reality. From this preponderance of evidence we may conclude or be led to believe that the world moves under the providence of a loving and beneficent God. This is not a formal philosophical argument any more than was Paul’s observation in the first chapter of Romans that from the creation of the world the unseen things of God, his divinity and power, are clearly perceived.
The Psalmist knew this:
The heavens declare the glory of God
And the firmament showeth his handiwork
For Dante, “Nature is the art of God,” an idea persisting even amid the pantheistic theology of the Enlightenment, in Alexander Pope’s words:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794), which remained an important collegiate text throughout the nineteenth century was the scholarly formulation of the common observation that the intricate regularity of nature attests the existence of its creator. This idea is a perennial of human thought and imagination. That the glory of God my be perceived in the things that are made persisted into the foothills of modernity in sentimental ballads of the 1950s:
I believe above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why I believe.
In the long run the only argument against the argument from design, the claim that there is no Great Designer, is naturalism, the assertion that nature is a self-explanatory process. And the only counter argument is wonder. Mankind, not educated to skepticism by the infernal knowingness of the fallen world, has always found nature, despite that side of things that is disordered, wonderful and has moved in imagination to the conclusion that God is the Creator. When told that the old proofs for the existence of God are invalid, pay no attention. They are for the most part not formal deductions but common inferences. Such knowledge is not of itself salvific, but it does provide the common insight that faith presupposes and without which faith cannot possess the human heart. As Hebrews tells us, “Whoever would come to God must believe that he exists” (11:6).
Just how the wise men knew that the star they followed was his star, the star of the great king, is hidden in their science, but on they came o’er field and fountain, moor and mountain following the star, willing always to be led by nature to the King whom they had travelled far to worship.