Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The week has been full of Church news, centering  on the publicity surrounding Cardinal McCarrick, whose fate should evoke sympathy, fill our hearts with pity and cause prayers for his soul’s good.   Cardinal McCarrick is the most notorious.  Nine Bishops have resigned, not when church authorities challenged their behavior but when civil authorities intervened.   But I am not turned aside from writing about the Scriptures to record disappointment over McCarrick, but to look deeper.   The history of the Church is full of collapsed clerics; they are all by nature sinners like the rest of us.   The clergy, good and bad, deserve our persistent prayers; in a profound sense, they are us.     

But the Cardinal represents something different and frightening.  A noxious underground stream flowing through the foundation of the holy Church culminating in the present engineered pontifical confusion.   Who can isolate its source?  The serpent in the Garden?  The French Revolution?   Modernism as condemned by Pius X?   Certainly, something very like modernism became endemic in the wake of the second Vatican Council.    I say in the wake because it is not clear that the bishops wanted the results they achieved.    The typical institution, say General Motors or perhaps CNN, should they suddenly lose half their customers would stop to re-evaluate.   The episcopal body has felt it right to insist that the results of the council were positive and fruitful, ignoring the fact that when you change the language you subtly change the meaning.   Of course, in a way the post-conciliar collapse was to be anticipated.   It is not unusual that after a great council there is a kind of confusion as the decisions taken are established in the fabric of the Church.   But what occurred was not the result of any conciliar decision but was a widespread blurring of the moral lines, conveyed through a thousand clues, that separated a life pleasing to God from one that encompasses a psychology of self-fulfillment.    The charter of holiness as even righteous pagans knew is , ‘Deny yourself.’      The subtle post-Vatican II message was, “Fulfill yourself; God wants you to be happy.”   

          The crisis point was the publication and almost simultaneous practical repudiation of Humane Vitae, which hit the sixties in their weak spot, for it proposed, in deference to God’s good plan for man and nature, restraint, just at the point when the invention of the pill made restraint seem unnecessary.    The Belgian bishops repudiated Humanae Vitae in solemn assembly, and now Belgium is a spiritual waste land.   The Dutch assembled in solemn convocation to declare their freedom from it.   Another waste land.  Canada?  And western civilization began the long march toward making sexual pleasure the sovereign right.    If human sexual relations are just about pleasure, not about procreation to which sexual pleasure is providentially linked—God has a way of rewarding what he wants done― it will be found that humans, having set aside the sometimes-onerous relation between pleasure and child-bearing and rearing, historically have discovered, or rather fallen back into,  numerous means to pleasure, some casually and extravagantly carnal, some solipsistic, some baroque, some bizarre, some cruel, all set violently against God’s design that, having made them male and female, they should multiply and replenish the earth.  If pleasure is the justifying end, contraception is the means; if that fails, conception being an unwanted burden, abortion, the solemn act that establishes man’s ownership of himself, or, as the saying goes, that a woman’s body, including the child within,  is her own property—a proposition specifically denied by St, Paul in Ephesians 5―is the solution.  Nor is homosexuality unrelated, for once the justifying purpose of sexual relationships is pleasure, it will be found that weak humanity will find diverse ways to obtain pleasure.  

          In the wake of Paul VI’s defense of life there followed two great popes who understood that abortion and homosexuality represented the failure of the fulfillment of the human vocation.   But now come those who believe not that these things are right,  but that on a certain day they can be done.   In the United States the point man for this new paradigm is the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, who goes about urging, in coded but sufficiently obvious language, benign acceptance of communion for the twice married, the possible goods of homosexuality.   I, in my place, as a would-be-faithful Catholic, a sinner sometimes forgiven, have a message for the Cardinal.   He has his constituency.   They are there, some of the clergy, perhaps especially those victims of the seventies and eighties; they are there in the chanceries, that class of professional religious who push the buttons and turn the cranks of the bureaucracy and who by nature dislike the sharp lines that Catholic teaching draws and perhaps harbor as well as a distaste for the history of which they were not part; in the professional societies, whose members seem always prone to  value their insights above the common teaching of the Church; and of course they are there among those who find justification for their sins in weak or ambiguous teaching.  

My message for Cardinal Cupich is that he will fail; he will not be able to convince those priests who carry in their hearts the faith of the apostles, nor will he be able to convince the typical weekly-mass-going Catholic, that these things are good and right.  What, on the other hand, he may be able to do is to convince some mass-goers that such behavior while not right is not wrong, which is different but no less debilitating.  The cardinal vice of modernity is sentimentality, and that which we cannot condemn we somehow condone.  Who after all would want to cause pain?   And this brings me to the point of this week’s thoughts.  The text for the second lesson was taken from Ephesians chapter 2.  It expresses  Paul’s anxiety about the relations between the Old Israel and the New, his teaching that Christ’s death has broken down the wall of separation, creating in Himself one new man in Christ, neither Jew nor Greek, in place of two.   This is at least complicated; good luck to the homilist!  It will surely cause no pain.

In choosing this text the lectionary passed over the preceding verses, which are not complicated: 

And you he made alive, through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.  Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive through Christ (by grace you have been saved).  

And one final request, your Eminence, do not accompany us, for the tendency of weak and fallen sheep is to head straight for the weeds.  So instead of accompanying us, raise the standards of truth and holiness, which require faith and above all restraint; ‘Deny Yourself.’     It’s the human thing to do, and divine.               

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

For His Glory

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

Ephesians 1:11-12

 

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

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

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

God did not make death,
Nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For He fashioned all things that they might have being.
                                                            Wisdom, 1:13–15

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
                                                              John 1:4

 

Jesus is about life. “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)  Christianity does not teach the immortality of the soul in the way that theosophists and New Agers teach it.  It does teach this truth: that at the moment of conception God creates in time a person whose name he had known from the foundations of the world, a person with a determinate destiny, with a future that is forever, a person who will know the Father and His Son Jesus Christ in this life and who will then pass through the door marked death to enjoy the vision of God and to sing with the saints the praise and glory of the Creator. 

This is what seen from a human point of view might be considered Plan B, for in the beginning God had intended that the creatures made in His image should live blessedly in the Garden and should answer when He called their names.   What supervened was the serpent, disobedience, and death.  And this is the part of the story we know best, for we live amidst the ruins of rebellion, and in the daily presence of death.  “Who,” said Saint Paul, “will deliver us from this body which is consigned to death? (Romans 7:24)  And the answer is, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ”. 

Jesus is the person in whom life is victorious over death, who commanded the prophet John to write: “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys to death and hades.” (Revelation 1:18)  And at the end of John’s vision he sees that death and hades are thrown into the lake of fire (20:14), with those who have chosen death by joining Satan’s rebellion.  For by our creation we are ordained to live forever.  That any should be lost forever is a dark mystery founded in the inexpressible value of every soul, the reality of freedom, and the providence of God.  But His will is life and His mercy more powerful than Satan’s wrath and deceit, The center of the New Creation is not a Constitution or a Declaration of Rights but a person, Jesus Christ, whose name is Emmanuel, God with us, who will wipe the tears of life from our eyes so that we can behold the light of God’s glory, and the lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:3–4, 23) 

The Christian religion as defining of reality is distinctive in that, while it is framed around certain beliefs expressed in the great creeds to which believers adhere through the gift of faith, it is even more fundamentally about a life lived in, with, and through the divine-human person who was born of Mary and the Holy Spirit in the reign of Augustus, who is the meaning of history because beyond the ambiguities of present experience and the wreckage of time, He lives. His disciples did not believe the truth that He is the Messiah until He spoke to them and they knew that He was alive. He is person writ large as the living meaning of time.  As Christian thought unfolded it became clear that this person was more than a person in that He was not only the person whose death on the cross the Johannine witness remembered, not only the teacher who had perfected the Law to make it a thing of the new heart, but the Word through whom all things were made, who as Word filled the cosmos, so that Paul could say that in Him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible; even the highest choirs of angels, thrones, dominions, and powers were created through Him and for Him. (Colossians 1:15–20)   And it is His high desire that all should not only have life by believing in Him, for this is the will of the Father, but that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.  The purpose of belief is life; “that believing you may have life in His name,” and  beyond belief, it is the will of Christ that those who believe should share in His life by partaking of His very person.  I am, Jesus said, living bread; bread that is and gives life, one may eat of this bread and live forever. (John 6:51)  And in this famous passage from John 6, Jesus identifies the body that will be given for the life of the world on the cross with the living bread that comes down from heaven.  The pathway to life is sharing in Christ’s body and blood.  “As He said to everyman: have life; eat my flesh and drink my blood; otherwise you have no life in you. (John 6:52) These are astonishing words.   If there was one principle in Israel it was the prohibition against drinking the blood of any creature, for the blood was the life, with life understood as analogous to the Greek soul, the very principle of existence, which as such might be offered to God, but which no man could claim as his own.  In the book of Acts, that Christians should refrain from blood was an apostolic concession to Jewish tradition and sensibilities (Acts 15:20).  Body and blood are the Hebrew anthropology, analogous to body and soul in things Gentile, Greek and Roman.  Since Christ is the sacrifice, sharing in His sacrifice as life giving is no more remarkable than the sharing of the sacrifice at Mount Sinai or the sharing of the Passover Lamb.   But the command to share in the divine life by drinking the blood of the Son of Man is an especially compelling command that believers share in the very life of Christ.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John was written in a community in which the sacrifice commanded by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke was certainly celebrated, and it is perhaps characteristic of the Johannine author to elaborate the theology of the thing while assuming that the pattern of the celebration is too well known to require reiteration.  It was surely celebrated to realize the promise Jesus teaches in John 6:  “Abide in me, and I in you;” that He may dwell in us and we in Him.  The language of the New Testament is quite unaccountable except on the thesis that the gift of faith and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist effected union with Christ who lives throughout time because time is His creature.  For Paul, simply, to live is Christ; believers are to have the mind of Christ.   Surely this union is effected by faith, but it is realized and fed by the Great Thanksgiving through which Jesus is present, offering His body and blood.  The baptized says Paul in Galatians “have put on Christ.” “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)   

 It is difficult to convey the freshness with which the apostolic mission engaged the world, for while there were words to be believed there was so much more to be lived.  And so it remains.  The answer to the claims of Jurassic park, to the argument that He will not appear to have His existence verified by analytic philosophy, to the undoubted fact of the pain of the world must always begin with the impressive intellectual arguments put forward by the Christian mind, but to the  eternal frustration of the Adversary, the irrefutable claim will always be, “I know Him.” 

The Feast of Saint John Baptist

The Feast of Saint John Baptist

 From this man’s descendants God, according to His promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded His coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
Acts 13:24

The Gospel is good news, the story God’s favor in sending His Son to teach, to offer Himself, to rise triumphant over death and to send His Spirit.  And always and everywhere that greatest story has a preface through which one enters it, and that preface is repentance, looking at one’s life in the light of God’s justice and love and saying, with conviction and perhaps with tears, “Sorry; sorry that I have despised your grace and kindness and chosen not to please you but to please myself.”

            John the Baptist came to baptize not with the Holy Spirit and with fire, but to call the world to the sorrow of repentance (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16).  He did not begin as would the Lord with the gentle words of Isaiah, with comfort for captives and prisoners (Luke 4:16–19), but with arrows shot to the heart of a rebellious race.  To the most religious, those who had no need of forgiveness, he said, “You brood of vipers, bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:7).  And John’s baptism prophesied but did not offer the regeneration, the rebirth, of the heart by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). That gift awaited Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and with His coming the power of the sacraments through water and the Spirit to make new hearts.

          John’s preaching established the pattern of Christian life, which always begins with repentance, with saying “Sorry.”  Thus the public worship of the Church begins with the words “I confess,” and thus begins the confession of serous sins which can only be forgiven by the power of the keys.  The tawdry sins of lust and greed are more obviously causes of sorrow, but beneath these and more fundamental, is the proposition “I was right” and its near relation “I was good enough” testimonies to the hard kernel of pride.  Our tendency to know better than God can be traced to our first parents, from whom we have inherited bad blood.  In fact to be human is to be wrong when we stand before God, because then the question is not who is right but who is God, who is a creature, who is the omnipotent, omniscient creator, and who is a beloved handful of dust. 

          Augustine, among others, was fond of pointing out that there was sweetness in sorrow, and here he is seconding the first two of those mysterious sayings of Jesus called the Beatitudes.   Blessed are the poor in Spirit, that is the humble, and blessed are the sorrowful (Matthew 5:3–4).  These two great blessednesses reinforce one another.  Humility is the virtue that tells the truth about oneself, about just where each of us belongs in the vast arrangement of things, which, we are reminded, is, happily, in the lowest place.  Sorrow, sweet sorrow, which is quite a different thing from regret, is a blessing that comes upon any soul as experience of the world yields its harvest of sins and sorrows.  Nobody over thirty looks back over his or her life and says, yes, I have done very well, even perfectly. 

          Repentance means the laying down at the foot of the cross the burden of having been right   The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind, making it over anew with a desire to please God.  One of the greatest fracases in the history of the Church was occasioned by the decision, made in the early third century, that even sins, serious sins, mortal sins, committed after baptism might be forgiven.  But such forgiveness comes at a price.  Not only must there be repentance but also the firm intention not to sin again.  History shows that we may sin again but being sorry cannot contain a small nugget of reserve that plans to do so.  And much of the cleansing power of forgiveness depends upon the cleansing power of sorrow, without which there is no forgiveness.  A great pastor of souls who knew me well would always say, “Be sorry for all your sins.”  But if we can be sorry, we can always rise and return to our Father, who ever welcomes the prodigal.

          Knowing ourselves as people who are not right has the liberating power that gentles the world, because if we can see ourselves as forgiven sinners, we can by grace see those among whom we live as persons often engaged in the battle against the demon of rightness whose name is self-righteousness.  Because we have been forgiven, we can forgive.  The bad effects of the disease of rightness, pride compounded by self-willed ignorance, darkens the world.  The ‘news’ is a concatenation of complaint that our opponents are not right; when a word is uttered it is the occasion of challenge because it is not quite right.  There has been in the past a regime of sympathetic interpretation, fed remotely by some Christian root, but now that root withers.  Where malice is assumed, error is presupposed, so that the purpose of public rhetoric is to prove the opponent not right, and to do so not with an eye to his or her correction but to accomplish the opponents’ destruction. 

In a world in which no one is right before God as the world understands ‘rightness,’ it is wisdom to see that every person wants to achieve the good they see, even if that good is so suffused with self-interest, so committed to doubtful presuppositions, as in fact to be harmful and to deserve in the long run stiff opposition.  The desire to be right is a good thing—animals are not troubled with it―but in a fallen world our rightness is too often found not in humbled submission to God’s rightness but in stubborn advocacy of our own.  When in Mark 10:18 Jesus said that no one but God is good, He was not under-writing ethical or intellectual despair, but making clear the fact that there is only one standard, to which in this world our access is imperfect and episodic.

Warfare always issues in violence; it may begin in deafness, in a willed inability to hear what the other says and sees.  Only the possessed and the pathological—perhaps often the same thing—desire evil; everyone else, each of us in our own way, just wants to be right. And this means that in the world as it is everyone deserves a hearing and a place in the conversation in which they can live through, and perhaps survive spiritually, their own rightness.  One corrective is the willingness of Christians to reflect on what we truly deserve.  We enter the world each day knowing that we are the objects of unmerited and unaccountable grace, and that since we have not gotten what we deserve, God having graciously ignored our claims to rightness and given us something better, we can be gentle with the world.  The sweetness of our sorrow makes room, or should make room, in our hearts for all those others who may still be right.

A. M. G. D.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Life Means a Person

 

If the blood of goats and bulls 
And the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes 
Can sanctify those who are defiled
So that their flesh in cleansed, 
How much more will the blood of Christ. 
Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, 
To worship the living God.

 

Hebrews 9:13-15

 

For Greeks a person was body and soul.   For Hebrews a person was body and blood, with the understanding that the blood is the life.  Without the shedding of blood, there could be no effective communication with the gods or with God, –remission of sins, a truth held not only by Jews and Christians, but by Greeks and Romans, for whom sacrifices, personal and as participation in civic liturgy, were part of daily life.  In the superscript the author of Hebrews is drawing a comparison between the sacrifices of the Temple and the once-offered sacrifice of the Messiah.  He does not deprecate the sacrifices of the Temple, which had been commanded by God to atone for sins, but points out that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (Hebrews 10:4).  The Sacrifice of Jesus makes new creatures because His Holy Spirit renovates the human heart, not forestalling God’s just punishment, but “taking away sin,” putting God’s law in their hearts and writing it on their minds (Hebrews 10:16–-17).  And from the beginning there was this great difference.  Romans would sacrifice to gain favorable treatment and bring good fortune.  Christians sacrificed, inspired by love, in order to fulfill the Lord’s command given on the night He was betrayed, but also in order to share in the very life of Him who is God and man for knowledge of whom the soul longs.

          That blessed ability to know God in the person of Jesus, is the consummation of a long education through long ages during which God became ever nearer to the people who had rejected Him in the garden.  His drawing near has from the beginning been a bloody business, effected first by the sacrifice of all clean animals when He made the first covenant with Noah, promising the stability of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 8:20–22).  The passage of Israel out of Egypt was secured by the offering and eating of the Paschal Lamb, whose blood would warn way the angel of death (Exodus 12:1–36).  The covenant at Sinai was sealed by the sacrifice of young bulls, whose blood, scattered on altar and people made peace with God, at which time the elders saw God and ate and drank in His presence (Exodus 23).  These are the ante-types.  Each secures a great promise.  For Noah the stability of the heavens and the earth, sealed by the rainbow; for Israel at Sinai the gift of moral form with the ten commandments, sealed by the presence of God with Israel in the tabernacle. Continue reading “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ”

Thoughts on the Second Reading
for
 The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity

 

 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:16-17

The verb in “suffer with Him” is paschō, as in “paschal lamb,” the lamb offered, and it does not mean ‘to die” but rather “to endure” or “to undergo.”  It is easy to see that Christianity was and is founded in the suffering of the great witnesses, the martyrs who loved not their lives unto death.  The Roman Calendar rolls through their names from Agatha to Zephrinus, and these are but tokens of the thousands who died in unity with and imitation of our Savior Christ.   In contra-distinction from the greatest modern theme, which is the assertion of the will, reasonably, in satisfaction of appetite, the religion of Jesus was a life of giving up one’s self.  If the grain of wheat should die, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

Most of the suffering upon which the Church is founded was and is not the dramatic suffering of the arena or the inquisitor’s fire but is rather the kind of suffering the world cannot see.  Often it looks remarkably like the way of life that is routinely denounced as bourgeoise by those who have progressed beyond good and evil, by the ‘scientific’ community, and by economists and sociologists, who will call restraint and bearing up delayed gratification.  But there is more to it than that, because the suffering that is the hallmark of the Christian life is born of love for God, self, and neighbor; it means giving up our desires not for the sake of commendable self-discipline or reasons of health or vanity, but out of love for god and a desire, however weak and wandering to share in the suffering of Jesus.

Every person born into this world is blessed with a vocation or a particular calling if they can find it, but the more universal vocation is the transposition of the self from one who is stuck in this world as it is, a world over which Satan roams until Christ return, into  citizenship in the kingdom of the new heart, which means discovering in the morass of a fallen world the person whom God knew at the foundations of the world and finding his or her particular adventure, formed by discipline and loving obedience, toward glory

The Gospel of that famous eighteenth-century Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau teaches that we are born innocent, born free but somehow now in chains, leaving those who believe this lie everlastingly befuddled because we know in our hearts this is not true and because experience in the world teaches otherwise, as do the pages of the newspaper and the gaze of the electronic eye.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells another story, that we are born in humiliating, justly deserved slavery to the Lord of this world, into whose service we have passed as children of rebellion, but that we may be set free by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and life in the Spirit He sends.  It is the great glory of the Christian religion that it teaches men and women that their just deserts as members of the rebel band is eternal loss, but that by grace we have been saved, transposed from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light and goodness, and that we gain true freedom by denying the self that is rooted in this fallen world.

Evil is never overcome without suffering, but the suffering that overcomes the world is sometimes hard to see.  We do not think of the father who wakes up to another day of tasks he may not have chosen as suffering, but in his endurance is the pattern of the cross.  We do not think of the person who chooses purity of heart over the satisfaction of appetite as suffering, but the Christian world is full of such offerings.  We do not think of the wife who is faithfully loyal to a marriage that holds nothing of worldly satisfaction as a martyr, but so she is, and a very great witness.  And the same is true of every person who has chosen to endure.   Every acceptance of discipline and duty is for Christians a sharing in Christ’s enduring.  Philo of Alexandria once wrote, “Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” 

It is the distinctive folly of our time to say to those embattled, “Give up.”  Or perhaps to point out that there is no battle so that victory and defeat are meaningless.  Naturalism is the doctrine that the world as we find it and ourselves as we find ourselves in the world are as these things should be.  Remarkably, this program is not applied to nature itself, which is chopped and changed at will, but to the moral life of mankind, in which enterprise, dominated as it is by the naturalistic presupposition, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the behavior of humans from the behavior of beasts. 

The battle to elevate the relation between men and women to something holy on the part of the Church has been itself arduous and always only partly successful.   But it has been among the greatest contributions to the gentling of the world that is sometimes mistakenly called Christian civilization, that is, a civilization sometimes influenced in the moment by Christian men and women.  The dimensions of the disaster as that influence fails are difficult to grasp.  Ours is a culture in which it is assumed that purity of heart even as an imperfectly grasped aspiration is impossible.  What precisely is happening when behavior that until day before yesterday was punished by imprisonment is a condition so favored that the attempt to alter it is forbidden by law?  What is happening when one great political philosophy has as its non-negotiable principle the right to destroy very small children.   What is happening when a schoolboy, seventeen, kills because his feelings are hurt?   What is happening when young women view as risible Paul’s advice that as the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives be subject to their husband in all things and when husbands are unwilling to hear that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, being now too frequently ready to abandon rather than to suffer? 

            What one is witnessing is a civilization in which the habit of enduring on behalf of the good life which even the philosophers knew, and which was perfected by Christ as suffering on behalf of the holy life, is failing under the assaults of that naturalism which counsels relapse onto the condition of fallen nature which means calling what is evil good.   This is a kind of great abandoning of the human estate, the essence of which is the ability by the exercise of will to rise above nature.  The unqualified expectation of happiness in this world has led to unqualified disaster.  To begin with the assumption that we are owed happiness, that our lives are supposed to be free of fear and free of want, is so unrealistic as to cause nothing but grief.

             On this Trinity Sunday, it is good to recall that the very life of God insofar as it has been revealed to us, consists in mutual self-giving, a self-giving that when evil is encountered issues in suffering.  The mystery of the suffering of Jesus who is God and man has ever engaged the mind of the Church.  After the defeat in the early fifth century of the idea, an idea sponsored incidentally by the great archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius, that Jesus is part man and part God, with divine and human natures cooperating to effect incarnation, in favor of the truth that the union of the Word with human nature is real, personal, and eternal, after the reality of Incarnation was made dogma, it followed that the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the cross, a mystery in which the Second Person somehow participated, would come to the fore.  The great Cyril of Alexandria did not write that he was able to describe this mystery, but he did insist that in our ignorance we ought never to deny that One Person of the Blessed Trinity suffered for our sakes. 

Paul says that if we suffer with him, we shall also be glorified with him.  The life of suffering with Christ, off enduring, may on a certain day seem to be nothing more than a trail of tears, or at least of inconveniences, when it is in fact a source of that hard-to-define word joy.  As Paul says, we do not endure alone, but with Christ, with the comfort of His presence and His sacraments.  There is something called a state of grace, a condition of being in God’s favor.  Aristotle called it eudaimonia, or well-spiritedness.  Jesus called it blessedness.  Conscience can accuse, but conscience can also bless.

 

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Telling the Story

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

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

Acts 10: 34–36, 44

 

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

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

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

Fifth Sunday in Easter

Sure Knowledge

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

John 3:24

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

 Acts 9:27

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Sunday of Easter

No Other Name

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

 Acts 4:12

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday of Easter

Love Perfected in Us

Those who say, “I know Him,” but do not keep His commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps His word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.

He who says he abides in Him ought to walk

in the same way in which He walked.

 

First John 1: 5-6

 

In this text John is speaking to those whom Irenaeus and scholars after him would call gnostics  or knowers, or as we might say, ‘intellectuals,’ Christian-like folk who believed in a ‘spiritual’ religion in which Christ had come not in the flesh but as a spirit, who denied that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, and who did not believe in Christ’s return, His ‘spiritual’ presence being the fulfillment of His every promise.   The difference between this pseudo-Christianity and the faith of Matthew and John, Ignatius and Irenaeus, was subtle but definitive. The Church Catholic, as Ignatius calls it, believed that Christians were made by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirt given at Baptism.  What John engages in the knowledgeable folk who existed in his Churches is the belief that enlightenment, understanding the world-system, a certain illumination of intellect, renders sin, as belonging to an evil and fallen world, irrelevant.   So those of this opinion would say, “I know Him,” while ignoring His commandments. 

          The first and second commandments will always be love for God and for neighbor, and John himself says that to love fulfills the commandments.   But the early Church has left a record of Christians’ understanding of just how love works in the world by construing a list of Christian ways.    Sometimes the list takes the form of a description of the two ways, the way of death and the way of life.   In this literature of Christian behavior, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 with its injunctions, with its assumption that Christians can act out of the goodness of the renewed heart, is always prominent, but the list as its appears in Christian literature of the first century after Pentecost is expanded in detailed, reiterated precepts.  The prohibition of abortion is always there, and there is the warning against the detestable Greek practice of corrupting boys.  In its negative aspects, these precepts list things that are prohibited absolutely, so that there is no degree of theft, adultery or fornication that can in some circumstances be considered right and blameless.   There is a new note of tenderness to the poor and a recognition, reflecting the influence of John 13:3–11, that we are all servants of Christ, that those we serve and those who serve us are our brothers.    These early texts, summarized here, may be cited to show that love for Christ was expressed in the pattern of Christian behavior.    In this literature the question of legalism or rigorism did not come up, for these ways were taken to be expressions of both love and obedience.   They fulfilled what John meant when he said that the love of God is perfected in us as by the power of His grace we keep His word, His ways, His commandments. If we say we abide in Him, we should walk in His ways.

          Now notice that this fulfilling is not obedience to an extrinsic law, but is love of God fulfilled, made perfect, in human life and thought and action by the mystery of our incorporation in Christ.   Christ does not command us to be good but to repent; He asks us to allow the love of God the Holy Spirit to shape in us those new hearts from which will flow the kind of life that is pleasing to Him, giving us indeed the very mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5).    Thus it is that when we sin we do not so much break the law, athough there is always that as well, as we do violate the relation of sonship into which baptism has brought us.   And this is worse than an infraction of the law, itself rebellion against the divine will, it is the breaking of the bond of charity, a rejection of the love of Christ for the love of self or something worse   

Such rejections, which are rightly called sins, or mark-missings, ought not occur.   Every baptized soul wants to please God.    Who cannot understand Paul’s disappointed anxiety that he was at some level displeasing to God because sin lingered in his body?   In Romans 7:13 the great apostle says: “I do not understand my own actions.  I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” while my very hating of it testifies that the law of which I am so painfully aware is good.    So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is right, evil lies close at hand.   For I delight in the law of God in my innermost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” 

  Paul is probably not here speaking of the allure of those higher sins of the spirit, rebellion, spiritual pride, or of the tiny tinge of emulation evident in his observation that other apostles have wives and enjoy generous support (I Corinthians 9:1–13).  He is thinking of those sins the human race associates with the pull of bodiliness.  Speculations about the particularities of Paul’s moral life invariably disappoint curiosity.  We know that he had a persistent failing or temptation that he called a thorn in his flesh, not in his mind but in his flesh.   Perhaps a persistent bodily weakness.   But in Romans Paul seems to be contending with sins of the flesh that troubled his soul.   We do not know that it was not something as tawdry as the sins of the flesh he warned against so persistently, convinced as he was that the body is the very temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16-19).   It is not impossible that Paul was sometimes afflicted with the very distorted  attraction he denounced so dramatically in the early part of the Letter to the Romans (1:18–27), which would make him, and the victory he won,  the very saint for the twenty-first century, when again, as in the days of Tiberius and Nero, the very forms of nature are under attack by skewed passions.  We do not know.  

We do know that he was always zealous to warn his Churches that every Christian is always in a battle until the end which did not always feature settled peace in the will of the Father.  Paul does seem to have tasted victory; we know that at the end of his life, when he was handing on his ministry to others, he said, “I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who love His appearing” (II Timothy 4:9).    But along the way there had been nothing but hardship and struggle, imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck, fighting with the beasts in the arena for the lunch-time sport of the bystanders.  

          John surely had in mind the gnostics or spirituals when he wrote his first letter, but his advice that knowledge of God, whether by gnostic illumination or through baptism and catechesis, is not enough, is part of the patrimony of Christendom.  One would have thought that Paul, who was approaching old age when he wrote his letter to the Romans, would have already won the victory, that Satan would have given up, that the itches that souls endure while living in the body would have been cured.    But alas, it was not so; the business of allowing the love that God has poured into our hearts to inform our lives perfectly, may be, most usually is, the fruit of a life-long battle.    And even then, we may have fought so imperfectly that much will be burned away, as Paul says in First Corinthians.  Even those who will be saved in the Day may have built on imperfect foundations of wood, hay, or stubble, so that these false foundations must be burned away so that they can be perfected (I Corinthians: 3:10–15).    

          Where, one might ask, is the joy in all this, combat perhaps extending beyond this life.   The joy is in the fact that although the Christian life may be made difficult for many by the situation of the soul in a world infested with Satan’s rebellious angels, by our own willfulness, the God who claims us in baptism will let us go only reluctantly and upon reiterated evidence that we are not willing to allow His love to form in us His own image.  The mark of salvation is the knowledge that there is nothing in us despite our immersion in a sinful world, despite our failures along the way, that we more deeply desire than to know Him.  He that is in us, the sovereign Spirit of God, is greater than he who is in the world (I John 4:4).   Distress and tribulation cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord (Romans 8:35–39).