Belief and Witness

At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him.”

Matthew 1:25–30

The closer one comes to the Harvard faculty lounge, the nearer one approaches a society built upon gentle contempt for Christianity, comfortable in the neglect of God.  Such statements must of course always be qualified for as one indulges the generalization one may be surprised to find important exceptions. Yet it remains true and dispiriting that by all appearances God has indeed hidden the truths of Christ from very many of our wise, highly educated academics who, although perhaps even now occasionally born in the parsonage or the rectory, have, as the morality of Christianity became unfashionable and troublesome, moved more and more into atheism, not the angry atheism of Voltaire or even Christopher Hitchens, but the cool atheism of neglect, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus that the things of God may be hidden from the wise but shown to the humble.   This feature of Christianity, its tendency to prefer the faith of the humble to the wisdom of the philosophers was a cause for Pagan contempt; the second-century philosopher Celsus charged:  “Just as the charlatans of the cults take advantage of the simpleton’s lack of education to lead him around by the nose, so too with the Christian teachers:  they do not want to give or receive reasons for what they believe.  Their favorite expressions are ‘Do not ask questions, just believe!’ and ‘Your faith will save you!’ ‘The wisdom of the world,’ they say, ‘is evil; to be simple is to be good.’”    

Of course there is a profound sense in which God never begrudges the truth to any person; God does not prevent the wise of this world knowing the truth but some minds are so clouded with pride and preconceptions that they cannot see or hear.  Hearing they do not hear.  Behind this blindness is  a habit of mind that revels in obviousness and derogates as unrealistic wonder, that attitude of soul  with which, says Aristotle, philosophy begins.    For them the world does not open upon a mystery but is known exhaustively  through facts, or a series of facts called scientific, which are held to explain exhaustively.   They are progressive, which means at its limits the destruction of every form, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic, in things, every tradition, and every rule to be replaced by a  vulgar utilitarianism that values existence and pleasure above sacrifice and virtue. Add to this the fact of pride and the closed-heartedness that pride brings, the self-sufficiency of the closed mind that clouds the eye of the heart.

   This is why Jesus taught us that if we would learn the rules of the Kingdom we must become like children; not that ignorance can be virtuous but that when we are willing to listen, we can be taught.  But without faith, that threshold virtue without which we are left with a religion of our own devising. Knowledge of God on the other hand comes by revelation.  No one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom He wishes to reveal Him.   Revelation is a situation foreign to modern expectations.   Christ speaks; we listen. There are many hints and clues in nature, experience, and philosophy that point toward Christian truth, but these will remain pieces of a puzzle ever incomplete until we allow them to be made whole and effective in our lives by the submission of our wills to the teaching of Christ as it is represented by the apostolic mission that is His Church and the transformation of those same wills by the Spirit of God through the Sacraments.    Christ says:  “Learn from me.”    “I am meek and humble of heart.”  Learn the lesson that Jesus exemplified from the beginning to His death.”  Learn to listen and obey.  At least superficially, nothing could be more alien to the autonomous, self-creating person of the twenty-first century.   But this submission, real as it must be, is an easy yoke and a light burden, for it is the will of God not to subsume His creatures into Himself but to fulfill in them the goodness that was foreknown at the dawn of creation, and indeed with the greater gift, life with Christ in glory in the new creation.    

Early in its career Christianity met those who would have turned it from a religion of faith and obedience into a religion of knowledge and self-realization.  These were the ancient Gnostics, or knowers, or intellectuals, who in the early life of Christianity, especially in the second and third Christian centuries, proposed that Christ had not come by the shedding of His blood and the gift of the holy spirit to renew mankind and creation but had rather descended from a spiritual fullness to enlightened the gnostic elect with the truth that mankind is already divine, a saving truth among those able to appropriate it.

In the same early centuries there was an argument as to whether while the great Church always produced martyrdoms, witnesses unto death, the gnostics produced few or none.  For it was an entailment of Christian profession that Christians did not deny Christ but bore witness, if necessary, with their blood.   Regarding this feast of suffering and death Christ was quite specific.  If we acknowledge Him before men, He will acknowledge us before his Father in Heaven; if we deny Him, He will deny us before the Father of us all.  Jesus left us specific commands:  Go, teach, baptize (Matthew 28:18).   Do this in remembrance of me (Luke 22:19). Be my witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). 

Belief entails witness, or, to say this in other words, belief is the first half of membership in the kingdom of the new heart, witness the second.  Perhaps it would be true to say that while the apostolic teaching never fails, witness to that faith is presently endangered.  The great issue in western culture is nothing less than the definition of the human person.  Does every person belong by right to God, who created mankind and to whom we must answer, or do persons belong to other persons or to the state?  This question comes home in the matter of the lawfulness of allowing the destruction of children in the womb, not primarily for reasons of health, regarding which there might be an argument, but  in order to ensure that the irresponsible pursuit of pleasure does not involve what is seen as an intolerable burden.  Assuring the technical legality and availability of this destruction is the sine non qua of one of the great political parties, among whose members there are many who by their profession as Christians know better.  

Silence means consent.  As Newman wrote in his Biglietto Speech of 1878, in the humanitarian age, an age in which there are many faiths and many skepticisms, each claiming an equal place, religious profession will become a very private thing; religious practice permitted only on sufferance, tolerated as long as it does not constitute an annoyance.    The silence one hears regarding the routine destruction of little children for pleasure’s sake is the silence of a civilization in decay of which the immediate cause and immediate consequence is apostasy. 

Dr James Patrick  —  Lewis Tolkien Society


Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into His death?  We were buried therefore with Him in death
so that as  Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life but now made manifest.

Romans 6:3-4


In this text from Romans Paul is being a good teacher to Christians who are still learning the full meaning of their faith.   The situation is not unique.  Age after age there have been those possessed of the treasure of union with Christ and life forever in Him who have understood the meaning of their baptism only in part.  Thus Paul begins with a question:  “Are you unaware?  Do you not know what your baptism means?   

It means, says Paul, that when you were baptized, you have already passed through the door marked death, with death taken to be the penalty for rebellion pronounced by God in the Garden, into new life with Christ forever.   “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).     If many died through that one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” (5:15).  “For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification” (5:16).   And the free gift is that baptism into Christ through which we are freed from the punishment of rebellion and made righteous by the gift of Christ’s sacrifice so that we can indeed walk in newness of life, already, in Paul’s words, living unto God, enjoying in the Holy spirit a foretaste, the firstfruits as Saint Paul says (Romans 8:23), of life everlasting.  

Newness is the great theme of the eternal Gospel  The prophets promise a new heart (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 11:19, Joel 2:28-32).  Jesus gives a new commandment that is not new: Love one another (John 15:12).  Paul promises that by baptism one may walk in newness of life.  The prophet John sees a new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21:1), and in his great vision He who sits upon the throne says, “Behold I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  

Of all the promises of Christ, moderns find His promise of redeemed persons, bodies and souls, and a renewed creation most difficult.   Perhaps this is why we find it easier to descend to a kind of naturalistic paganism, somehow unwilling to believe that death is the final word, hoping that something of the soul survives to live a kind of pointless existence, meanwhile overlooking the very explicit promises of the Gospels and the apostolic writers that offer a texture of insights into the new world that is coming.   In it we will not be unclothed but clothed in glory (II Corinthians 5:4).  We will sit down at table with Abraham, the father of our faith (Matthew 8:11).  Christ will wipe away every tear we have suffered for Him and His kingdom (Revelation 21:4).  There will be pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11).  We will judge the nations (I Corinthians 6:2). We will join with the angels in endless praise of God (Revelation 4:11, 6:9-10).   

Each of these images is in  its own way a mythic clue to the new world that is coming. Almost every civilization has it own natural insights regarding the ultimate fruition of hope, testimonies to the nearly universal human intuition that there is, or at least there ought to be, a perfecting moment that redeems the pain of historical existence, offering a promised reward for the virtuous or righteous who deserve life in the Blessed Isles or in the glory of the ever-living stars, or the eternity of the Egyptian underworld for which kings were so carefully prepared, or in the eternal warriors’ hall, where there is feasting forever, a time when those who are wise “will shine like the brightness of the firmament” (Daniel 12:3),  a Narnian world beyond the West.  Or Bilbo’s song as he makes his way toward the grey havens: 

Thoughts on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Remember Me

“Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 6:12

“And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart
and you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Deuteronomy 6:6

“Do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:19

       Among the religions of the Mediterranean world the religion of Israel was distinctive in that it was a community of memory.  The Greeks had no communal story of what Zeus had done for them; indeed paganism had no historical root. There was no time and place when any member of the Olympian pantheon had entered history, but to know an observant Jew has always been to hear the remembered story.  As Stephen was dying, he recited it: the God of Glory appeared to our Father Abraham, and He delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt.  And so Saint Paul, who remembers that after their rescue they were unfaithful (I Corinthians 10:1).    To be a Jew is to remember.  The story did not have a happy ending.   Stephen also recalled the fact that Israel forgot God. They offered sacrifice to idols, and God gave them over to worship the hosts of heaven (Acts 7:42).  As Romans 1 teaches us, God does not always punish sin with plague and destruction or with fire from heaven as at Sodom and Gomorrah; His worst punishment is to let us go, to withdraw His protective hand, to allow us to forget Him.

       Augustine gave us the beautiful image  of the palace of memory that contains all of the past, all of our past, our past which is our present.  Furnishing that palace with things good beautiful and true.  It is the arsenal from which we draw judgement and hope.  It is the fact of experience and the work of education to have a memory well furnished.  It is the work of a lifetime.  Perhaps we can understand this terrible time in which we live as the age of chosen amnesia, the age of forgetfulness.  The true history of our country is now seen and taught through the lens of ideological obscurantism.  The books that in the past have formed our imaginations are forgotten.  The one book that formed our character as a people is now closed to many of us; children no longer know th story of Eden, the history of Israel, which is their history too, or the story of the barn-builder or of the lost coin. We have allowed the very mention of Christ’s Holy Name to be pushed out of our public culture.  Like sleepwalkers, we have allowed the schools to which we send our children to be seized by those who believe that forgetting the God of Glory would be beneficial and indeed necessary.  The result, increasingly, is a race that does not remember what it has forgotten, so that the culture is coarsened, sensuality considered normal,  barbarism reigns in the streets, and many, many souls threatened with eternal loss. Meanwhile the ethical and political wisdom of the centuries is forgotten.  Hapless legislators behave as they do at least partly out of ignorance.  They do not know what to do. They have forgotten.  There is a turn of speech that comes to mind when a good person, perhaps ourselves, has wandered from the right path:  we say, he has forgotten himself.  He has abandoned that good self laboriously constructed and must now begin again, perhaps with sorrow and repentance to remember who he truly would be.

       The Church of Jesus Christ is constructed from the apostolic memory.  After Christ died on the cross, the twelve had intimations of faith, but memory was uncertain.  Then they remembered that He had told them He must die (Luke 24:8).  Later the risen Christ would explain to them the Scriptures (Luke 24:32).  After His resurrection the twelve remembered that Jesus had prophesied His resurrection (John 2:22).  The twelve did not understand Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but when Jesus was glorified, they remembered Zechariah 9:9.

       After the apostolic memory was informed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, only two actions were required.  Jesus said, “You are my witnesses for all ages and to the ends of the earth.”   And this: “Remember me.” The principal sacrament the Church offers for the daily road is rooted in memory, for on the night in which he was betrayed Jesus took bread and broke it, took the cup in his sacred hands and said, “This is my body, my blood, do this in remembrance of me.”  Do not forget me; if you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall have eternal life with me forever (John 6:35-59).  “This,” many of his disciples said, “is a hard saying; who can bear it?” But from the time on the Emmaus road when He was known to the disciples in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35) He had been remembered at the altars of His Church.  This Holy Eucharist exists as a reiteration of the sacrifice of the cross, and as a means through which we remember Jesus and in remembering Him, we remember who we are.   And so, remembering the Lord, and remembering the command “Do this,” we are transformed into His likeness by our participation in His very person.  “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness” (II Corinthians 3:18).

Thoughts on the Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday in Easter

Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
1 Peter 3:15-17

In the first line of the text above, behind the word for explanation is the Greek apologia. This means defense, a tougher word than explanation, which is given in the official translation.  Explanation tends to be self-referential.  One might have adopted the Christian faith from expediency, from the pressures of life’s unexpected events.  What Peter means, I believe, is that Christians should be able to give a defense of the Incarnation and the Atonement, to represent truly God’s wrath against the negligent and the unrepentant and the blessings He bestows on those who love and obey Him, and also to tell of the great hope that Christians will be with Jesus in a renewed creation at  the end of the age.     

Because Christians from the beginning considered, and still consider theirs the universal religion revealed by God to the Apostles, with a mission to all mankind, its apologists, while understanding that it is God who calls the elect, sought to convince the world that the texture of ideas it proposed to the intellect was true, as such deserving, first, consideration and finally acceptance. The first apologist was Paul, who appealed not only to principles found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but to tradition, conscience, nature, and poetic insight, arguing in Romans that Gentiles should learn from nature the power and existence of God (Romans 1:21–22) and from human nature that the existence of conscience is enough to establish the claims of righteousness (Romans 2:14–16). Paul sought by quoting the pagan poets and noticing the unknown god to make an apology for Christianity to the council of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22–31).   

Christian literature before Ignatius tends to be didactic as in the Didache, or disciplinary as in First Clement, but there survives a fragment of the lost Apology of Quadratus, probably written as early as 124.  Justin wrote his First Apology, addressed to Antoninus Pius, about 150. In his Against the Greeks Apollinaris of Hierapolis addressed the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Miltiades’ lost, nearly contemporary Apology for Christian Philosophy and Athenagoras of Athens’s Plea Regarding Christians, written after the Emperor Commodus was associated with his father Marcus Aurelius in 176, followed. The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus and Tertullian’s To the Heathen and Apology, belong to the early third century.  Underlying their intellectual, theological, and moral arguments was always the conviction that Christianity, far from damaging the Empire by teaching a degrading superstition, was the agent through which religion was rendered reasonable and morals lifted above the turpitude that characterized popular culture in the age of the Antonines, 138–92 AD. After Constantine made Christianity legal Christian apologies were fewer, while stories of the martyrs and of miracles tended to reinforce Christian belief.  Contemporary with the Constantinian revolution were the two appendices to his masterful treatise On the Incarnation, a Refutation of the Jews and a Refutation of the Gentiles. 

The apologists of the second and third centuries shared certain themes, the proof from prophecy which argued that Christ fulfilled perfectly the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the claim that Plato learned from Moses, who was much older than any philosopher.  There was the moral argument, which claimed that paganism had produced a squalid culture, which permitted infanticide and sexual promiscuity, while Christianity fostered a culture of purity and restraint.   And with a positive note it was argued that Christianity was good for the empire.  Their tone was factual.  Their arguments never became personal. But at the heart of it is always the conviction that Christianity is true, that while they may share some truths that belong also to  Plato, Christian doctrine is the summary regarding the destiny of man and his responsibilities before God.  These were not explanations for their hope but defenses of the faith on which that hope was founded. Paul added two injunctions.  Apologists for the faith were to make their defense with courtesy.   And when the world rejected their apology they were not to offer angry rejoinders but to bear rejection with the patience of Christ.    

The apologetic task directed toward an unbelieving world became important again in the late nineteenth century, when Christianity was losing the place it had held in the culture since the fourth century.   Robert Hugh Benson (1871 – 1914) was an  Anglican priest who in 1903 was received into the Roman Catholic Church in which he was ordained priest in 1904. His notable dystopian novel Lord of the World (1907) predicted the culture of the secular future. Ronald Arbuthnot Knox (1888 – 1957) was an English Catholic priest, theologian, radio broadcaster, and author of detective stories. Meanwhile he was a formidable defender of the Catholic faith in works such as  Heaven and Charing Cross (1935) and In Soft Garments (1942). Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was an English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic, author of two of the greatest apologies in the English language: Orthodoxy (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925).    Two contemporaries who deserve gratitude are Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and King’s College in New York, author of over eighty books on Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics and Thomas Howard, whose “Chance or the Dance” and “Christ the Tiger” are classics of literary Christian apologetics. 

These authors, and a hundred others, took on the task of defending the faith in the face of a rising secularist tide, perpetuating the work of Quadratus and Justin Martyr in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, always remembering Saint Paul’s injunctions that defense should be carried on with courtesy and that apologists should never be disappointed by the world’s rejection but should bear with patience in imitation of Christ.  Every generation will have its apologists, defenders of the faith in  the face of the opposition of the world.  Their tasks will be more effective when they are surrounded by the prayers and example of the faithful.

Thoughts on the First Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Easter

The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Acts 6:7

The sixth chapter of Acts has as its subject the mission of Peter which was blessed with the increase of the disciples in Jerusalem. We know that many of these first converts were Jews and some were Hellenists. Then Acts gives the surprising information that a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith. These were members of the hereditary priesthood, serving the Temple in shifts of three per week, witnesses to the dawn and evening, ninth hour, sacrifice of lambs, each having been inspected to assure that there were no blemishes, washed, given water from a golden cup, and tied, fore and hind legs together, as depicted by Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), in his “Agnus Dei,” and sacrificed in expiation for Israel’s sins. Later the meal offering would be made, the second lamb sacrificed, and the Ten Commandments and the Shema read: “Hear O Israel, the Lord Your God is one Lord.”

This is what the priests who were beginning to believe in Jesus would leave behind. The Lamb of God would now be Jesus. The liturgical phase, “Behold the Lamb of God” was introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Sergius I (687–701) in the context of his rejection of the Council of Trullo (692), which was well received in the East and called the Quinisext Council, but whose canons had forbidden the iconographic depiction of Christ as a lamb. Jesus is named the Lamb of God nineteen times in the prophet John’s Apocalypse, a much-valued text in Rome, including Jesus depiction as the Lamb as having been slain, bearing still the marks of His wounds, standing on His throne, surrounded by the rainbow glory of the Father, in 5:6.

On two other occasions in the literature of the early church reference is made directly to the Jerusalem priesthood. The author of the Didache, written perhaps before the fall of Jerusalem, a Christian still much in the ambiance of the Temple and its worship, reminding his readers of the importance of the prophetic office, wrote: “The prophets are your high priests” (13:1). A century later Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, remembered that John the author of the Gospel had been a priest wearing the breastplate, information difficult to assimilate to any traditional account of the origin of John, but the evidence is from a weighty source.

Such references as well as the text from Acts above, serve to remind us just how Jewish the Jerusalem Church was in the beginning and how Jewish it has remained. This is of course inevitable, for the history of the Church is the history of Israel; it is not for nothing that at the Easter Vigil, the most solemn celebration in the Christian year, the Exultet: “Rejoice, O ye heavenly legion of angels,” is sung commemorating God’s redemption of Israel: This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea. The means of their escape had been the lamb slain, his redemptive blood spread on the doorposts. This is the lamb to which the sacrifices of the Temple before 70 AD always made implicit reference, and it is to the same Lamb to which the Eucharistic Sacrifice makes implicit if remote reference daily in the Church through the Agnus Dei: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The sacrifice of the Lamb in Egypt was the distant warrant for both the sacrifices of the Temple and for the recollected sacrifice of Christ the Lamb of God.

Our entire picture of Christian origins is inevitably colored by the extensive literature, thirteen or fourteen letters from Paul. Most were directed to Greek congregations in Asia, Macedonia, or Achaia, in which Paul’ efforts were largely, first, to tear new believers away from the Greco-Roman culture, and second to encourage the holy transformation of hearts by the virtues of faith, hope, and love, while always carrying on a stiff opposition to the belief that good works were salvific or necessary, and until late enjoying a tension-ridden relation to the apostles at Rome, Peter and James, to whose authority he submitted, reluctantly, to be sure that his Gospel did not differ from theirs. The heresies men leave are hated most, and while Paul a tenderness toward his own people, he was deeply convinced that any reliance on good works led away from the Gospel.

The Jerusalem Church, of whom the Epistle of James is representative, was fed by the Gospel of Matthew, written originally in Hebrew, and cherished by those who did not think that either its teaching or, in some cases, it language could be left behind. The theology of Matthew devolves entirely in the last chapters on the simple question of charitable works done to the poor, hungry, and naked. This is the piety of Judaism perfected. Similarly, John’s Apocalypse, despite the prophet’s warning to the Church at Philadelphia against those who say they are Jews but are not (3:7), is, like Matthew and James, born of a Jewish background and piety. Quite simply, the books are opened and all are judged by what they have done (Revelation 20:13). When one turns to the letter of James, one finds inspired moral advice but also a rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from good works that made Martin Luther wish the book could be excised from the Bible (James 1:22–25, 2:14–26).

Throughout the second and third centuries there are rare references suggesting the survival of these Hebrew-speaking Christians, who are never cited for any defect in their faith but are always described with puzzlement as still clinging to the Hebrew Matthew, which is probably the core around which the Greek Mathew was written. Papias of Hierapolis, writing about 110, remembered that the Gospel of Matthew was written originally in Hebrew, but that everyone translated it, into Greek, as they were able. After the destruction of the Temple in 69–70, its sacred furnishings carried off in triumph by the Emperor Titus, his victor’s booty still to be seen carved in the arch that bears his name in the Roman Forum, the Jerusalem Church with James as its head disappears.

The site was the scene of destruction until a new city, Colonia Aelia Capitolina, named in part for Hadrian, whose gentile cognomen (clan or extended family name) was Aelius, and also for Jupiter Capitolinus, the Jupiter of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, was built during his reign (117–38), and then Jerusalem was a gentile city, having already been consecrated to Zeus, the Greek Jupiter, by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in the BC 168. But Jerusalem was so rich in sites associated with the life and teaching of Jesus that as the Church became a legal institution Jerusalem became the object of Christian pilgrimage, as it still is. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, made the discovery of Biblical sites her project, causing churches to be built at these holy places. The remnants of the Hebrew speaking Church disappeared or were swept into the Constantinian Church of the early fourth century. But there were words that could not be put into Greek, notably Jesus’ last words from the cross, “Eli, Eli, Lama sabach-thani?” My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 


 – Dr. James Patrick

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Thoughts On Easter

The Gift of Life

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

I Corinthians 5:8

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

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

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

But, thinking on, Job asked: 

If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes.  Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee:  Thou wilt have a desire for the work of Thy hands (14:!415).  

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

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

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

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

Of course to be a modern is to be troubled by the particularity of this question.  Saint Paul was not troubled with the abstract knowledge of the millions who lived beyond his tight Mediterranean world as are we, who have daily knowledge of vast races and nations who do not believe or who believe in something other than the Son of God.  How God may use what is good in the intentions of those who do not know or believe perfectly, how He may understand their circumstances and limitations gently or narrowly is not part of our story.  But God is the God of the particular.  His actions suggest that he does not know abstractions and medians.  He calls even the stars by name.   That He should have chosen one people, then one person, Jesus of Nazareth to accomplish His will, is no more mysterious than that anything at all should exist.

Thoughts on the Second Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Painting by Alexander Clemens

His Spirit Dwelling In You

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you,
although the body is dead because of sin,
the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through His Spirit dwelling in you.
Romans 8:8–11

This text on first reading is about the persistent warfare between the desires that seem to dwell in our flesh and the higher and better life in the Spirit that the Gospel promises.   And it is that, but this text also enshrines Paul’s Gospel of the resurrection. The body/soul disjunction, the split between spirit and soul and mind, variously conceived as eternal and undying, on one hand, and on the other the corruptible body, flesh and matter is among the oldest practical commonplaces in the history of mankind.   It lay at the center of Orphism and was assumed with varying interpretations and images by the majority of philosophers, excepting a few like Lucretius, who solved the problem by assuring his followers that death ended consciousness, thereby obviating the problem or promise or opportunity, or perhaps threat, posited by the seeming transcendence or eternity of the soul.    

In a general way, the theology of the early Church did not argue the natural eternality of the soul as separable from the body.  Judaism assumed the persistence of personal identity when, “taking into account the resurrection.” Judas Maccabeus ordered prayers for the idolaters who had fallen in battle and sent two thousand drachmas to the temple in Jerusalem “to provide for a sin offering” (II Maccabees 12:39-45).   Judas commended prayers for the dead in language that did not suggest that they were disembodied spirits. Jesus teaches that the redeemed will sit down with the saints at the messianic banquet and the prophet John looks forward to the day when Jesus will wipe every tear from the eyes of those who have suffered for the sake of Christ; He also teaches that because of sin the whole person, body and soul, might be cast into hell.  

When the assumptions of Judaism ran head on into the dualism of Hellenism, the question of the bodiliness of the Savior and of the resurrection of the bodies of the saints became pressing.  There was an entire anti-church dedicated to the proposition that although Christ had indeed come, He had not come in the flesh. Thus the Gospel writers were quick to include those memories that demonstrated the fact of the resurrection of Jesus in His fleshly body of glory, and it was these, the encounters of the apostles with the risen Lord, confirmed by the Pentecostal gift, that set the apostolic mission on the road.    It was Paul, who carried the Gospel into the intellectual terrain of Hellenism, into Athens, Ephesus and Rome, who encountered the anti-resurrection dualism of those to whom he had been sent. And it was that encounter that caused Paul to develop his theology of the resurrection of the body, a fact that Jesus had demonstrated but regarding which He had left only clues, principally the teaching that in the resurrection the righteous will share in the glory of the angels, which, it might be added, does not mean that Christians will become angels, but rather that we will share in the glory of life in the presence of the Father.  

Paul was given the task of explaining this to the Greek world.

This he did first of all  by rejecting decisively the doctrine of the bodyless, ‘spiritual’ resurrection  proposed by some at Corinth (I Corinthians 15:12–28, I Timothy 1:20, II Timothy 2:17). He was not the only apostle who spoke to the dualism that during their lifetimes was  developing into another religion. John was careful to remind the readers of his Gospel that the crucified Christ was human, one from whose side water and blood flowed (John 19:34) , one who appeared “in the flesh” to Thomas (John 20:28).  

  But the principal advantage Paul enjoyed in the argument with the “spirituals’ or gnostics was the fact that he had a reason for the undeniable tendency of the flesh toward corruption and death and at the same time  a rationale for the resurrection of the body of flesh. Our bodies must die because of sin; we will be resurrected because of righteousness, that righteousness not our own but the work of the Spirit of God in us. Thus was God’s warning made effective. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you will die.”  The body bore the punishment of the rebellious will, so that through the long ages from Eden to Paul, there was good reason to assume the death of the body.   

           As for the soul, it was assumed throughout the Mediterranean world in a variety of proposals and images, unsystematic but held almost universally, that the soul did not die.   There was an underworld, sheol to the Jews, the underworld over which Hades and Persephone presided for the Greeks. There were embellishments. For great civic saviors there was life among the living stars, described by Cicero in the last chapter of his Republic, an image shared by Daniel (12:3).  For brave soldiers there were Elysian fields or Isles of the Blessed envisioned by Homer and Hesiod.   Egyptians might enter a perpetual cycle of re-birth. Taken together these doctrines tended to offer hope that the best things in life, beginning with life itself, might continue, overlaid upon the insight that there must somehow be cosmic justice, that the good would be rewarded and the wicked punished.   And there were philosophic footnotes. The Stoics taught that individual souls might be taken up into a world-soul. Plato hinted that good men might survive death because goodness must survive; Aristotle that the soul did not die.  

              Paul saw clearly that the resurrection of Jesus did not mean merely the survival of the soul but the resurrection of those in Christ with Him to life in glory.  And it was Peter who saw that Jesus gathered up and redeemed the past by calling the righteous from the place of departed spirts into the light of the resurrection (I Peter 3:8–19).    Thus the affirmation of the Creed that in the Spirit, before His resurrection on the third day, Christ went to those who had been disobedient and preached to them the eternal Gospel that they might be saved.  To the typical philosophic Roman death was a part of life to be borne as best one could, a shadow cast across all of existence.   

In Paul’s account there is a reason for this shadow.   The reason for death is not the natural corruptibility of the body or the flesh, the cause  of death is sin and the ultimate work of God is the undoing of the curse of Eden. Saint Athanasius in his timeless treatise  On the Incarnation deals with the difficulties God seems (as we humans might say) to face in redeeming fallen mankind.    His punishment laid upon the family of man was just, God could not simply forgive, for this would violate His eternal character and nothing would be accomplished, man would still be in rebellion.  Therefore it was necessary that one who owed no debt should pay our debt. The Savior came to teach, but more , that having proved His godhead by His works, “He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and  free mankind from the primal transgression” And not only to free us but to recreate in us the image of man as God intended us to become by the gift of the Spirit, which, working in us and with us is the first fruits of a glorious redemption leading us toward eternal life.          

We die not because the flesh is evil, but because of sin.  We live and will live because the Spirit that raised Christ dwells in us, ever working the righteousness that means life.  That same Spirit will raise us to life with Him forever. “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like Him and we shall see Him as he is” (I John  3:2). And for the present, “We ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).  

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God’s Design and the Race We Run

He saved us and called us to a holy life,
not according to our works
but according to His own design
and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began,
but now made manifest
through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,
who destroyed death and brought life and immortality
to light through the gospel
2 Timothy 1:9-10

My purpose in these notes is to convince the reader, who from time to times may have been puzzled that we are bound to believe that God causes everything while at the same time knowing that we are responsible and free, to be grateful for God’s predestining justice and love while trying manfully to live each day to His glory.

The subject of the first sentence of the text from First Timothy is God. This text tells us what God, in the majesty of his omnipotence and foreknowledge, does, how He does it, when He began, and the effects of His action. He saved us and called us to a holy life, without which we will not see God, not by our own works but by His plan, which was in effect at the beginning of creation, and which plan envisioned from the beginning the revelation of Jesus, who by His death and resurrection destroyed death and brought life and immortality. Our part in this grand design is to accept the gift, to accept the grace God gives through which we are able to love Him and to adhere to His will obediently.

Our willingness to accept the grace God gives was effective before time began. It has been in place forever. A holy life, apart from which we will not see God, is the gift of God, a work of grace, made effective with the appearance of Jesus. A holy life may be chosen by anyone. It will not be effective without enabling grace. This text places agency squarely where it belongs, in the will of God as it had been eternally. The metaphor of the potter with His clay is rooted in the Old Testament, and perfected by Paul (Isaiah 64:8, Romans 9:21). Its unmistakable point is that until God calls, we cannot answer, and that, further, answering is His gracious work in us. The great symbol of God’s perfect will is the Book of Life, in which the names of the elect have been written from the foundation of the world (Revelation 20:12).

Saint Paul summarizes the text superscript from First Timothy in the eighth chapter of Romans. “Those whom He foreknew, those He called. And those whom He called, those He justified, and those He justified those He glorified. What then shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? The design and gracious power are God’s.  It has never been part of His Gospel, part of the teaching of the apostolic ministry, that the elect are saved through their wills and good works apart from God’s grace, nor is anyone saved in opposition to his will, the will of everyman being free even as it is subject to God’s call and design.

Life is an awful business, awful because God, whose purposes will be done, will not take from any of His creatures, angels or men, the freedom that lies at the heart of personality as God created it in love. From the greatest angel to the newly conscience-aware child, and from the rebellion of the great archangel to the disobedience of our first parents, to those described by the daily newspaper, the possibility of rejecting the grace of God has been among us since Satan said, “Non serviam, I will not serve.” Even Satan, alien and malicious, is permitted to wander throughout the world (Revelation 12:17). The rejection of the will of God by anyone, read backward as it were, tells us that the cause of the rebellion must somehow lie in God’s predestining will, not in His positive will, for God can do no evil, but in His permissive will, which will not deny His creatures’ freedom. To paraphrase Saint Thomas, from question 23, article 3, as predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory, so also it includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to receive the punishment of eternal loss on account of that sin, if unrepented and unforgiven.

These truths govern the fearful economy of salvation, over which the eternal good will of God presides. This high theology does not explain the fate or end of any one soul, which God knows from eternity but which we do not. We, however, who are still on the road are given instructions for today by Christ Himself. We are to believe in His good will toward his creatures, We are given the prayer which He commanded His disciples to pray. Its final petition is for a race whose moral future is open. We are to pray: “Lead us (O God) not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (or the evil, or the evil one).” The argument has been made that the text cannot mean that God leads anyone into temptation. Yet we are told in Matthew that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and if He spared not His beloved son this trial, that same trial surely belongs to those who are His.

This cannot mean that God is seeking the destruction of any soul, but it may be that He permits the trial of many, not only in obvious ways such as want and persecution, but by the enduring of temptation. “Count it all joy,” says the Apostle James, “when you fall into various temptations. For you know that your testing produces steadfastness.” And the same apostle warns that God tempts no one, but we may be drawn away by the lure of our own passions; passion conceives and gives birth to sin; when sin has reached its full growth it breeds death (1:1–2). Thus souls are lost. We know that this may happen. Luke records Christ’s words describing the man whose soul is not planted deep in grace, who when temptation comes falls away (8:13).

So it is not impossible that anyone should fall from grace, which fact ever warns the Christian away from presumption. The theology of divine salvation and reprobation, the grand story of what God has willed from eternity, is not the story of the blessedness or loss of any soul, and ours it is, not daring to know the judgment of God, and believing in His favor to us, to be certain that the story of the man of rootless faith, the story of the barn-builder whose soul was required, the account of the rich man who neglected to feed the poor, the story of the rich man on whose doorstep Lazarus starved; that none of these is our story.

Our making good of life, living so that we can live with God throughout the ages of ages, is opposed not only by our weakness but by Satan, who with His alien band labors endlessly to deny souls the vision of God. The only rational creatures known finally to be lost are Satan and His fellow rebels, for they, having been created beyond time, having one only act of will, cannot now repent. The glory of God’s predestinate will is a cause of confidence in His justice, a subject of meditation and praise, but we are saved through our participation in the race that Saint Paul describes. Enabled by God’s grace, we can pursue the goal of making a holy life; being called to a holy life, is the work of a lifetime, the end of which we will know only by faith. We have been given the privilege of running the race that is set before us.

– Dr. James Patrick

Thoughts on the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Body as Temple

Brothers and sisters
Do you not know that your bodies
are the temple of God
Because the Holy Spirit dwells in you?
1 Corinthians 3:16

In the beginning God intended to be with us, for He came down to walk in the garden He had made and called our name (Genesis 3:8–9). But we hid because we had preferred Satan’s proposition, that we would eat the fruit of the tree, know good and evil for ourselves, and, true to God’s warning, suffer death.

The entire rest of the story, through the long years of slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, conquering the promised land, apostasy, captivity, and return, can be seen as the Lord God’s unrelenting attempt to get in touch with us and, finally, to give us the gift of life with Him. So after the days of the early chapters of Genesis, after rebellion, murder (Genesis 4:8), trafficking with demons (Genesis 6:1–4), the futile attempt to know God through their own means and on their own terms (Genesis 11:1–9), perversion in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19;1–13), He began, as we might say, to re-establish communication with us. He found Abraham, the man who would believe His words (Genesis 15:6); and Moses, who would lead His people out of slavery into the promised land of Canaan. He appeared, terrible and awful to give the law (Exodus 20:1–26, 24:1–18)). And He did something else. He commanded the construction of the tabernacle: “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8), a temporary, moveable temple, its purpose not unlike the purpose of the Capitol in Rome with its temple of the great god Jupiter with twelve tables of the law affixed.

The tabernacle was a place of memory, presence and sacrifice. Its center was the ark of the covenant, containing the stone tablets on which the law was written, and above which God Himself would appear, between the cherubim, in the Holy of Holies, to speak to the high priest as he offered sacrifice on the day of Atonement. So the Ark journeyed with Israel until they reached the land God had promised, until Solomon had built the Temple as a place of God’s presence. God’s name dwelt there, and it was toward this place that Israel was to pray. The Jerusalem temple was a holy place because in it God appeared. The temple of Solomon must have been of surpassing beauty, its columns crowned with lily-work, its walls carved round about with figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers (I Kings 6:29, 7:22). But above all it was a place in which God was present, appearing over the mercy seat, between the cherubim, to hear and to forgive.

Solomon’s temple was destroyed in BC 586 by the Babylonians. A second temple was rebuilt beginning in 516, and this was the temple the construction of which Herod augmented and beautified. It was from this temple that Jesus drove those selling oxen and sheep and pigeons as well as the money changers, with the command: “Take these things away, you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade. His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me’” (John 2:19-22, Psalm 69:9). And when the Jews asked for a sign that justified His actions, Jesus said “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Johannine author adds, “But He spoke of the temple of His body,” which the disciples did not understand until after His resurrection.

When the Word became flesh, in Christ God dwelled in human nature, so that Christ’s holy body was the temple in which the Word was made flesh. For Christians, the body is formed by a soul in which the Spirit of God lives, so that the body of every believer was and is a temple. Of all the aspects of Christianity that the Greeks found unintelligible the most scandalous was the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, for one of the most certain assumptions of Hellenistic culture was the ultimate worthlessness of the human body, which was at best a prison from which the soul longed to escape. The human body, the philosopher Celsus assured his readers, was no different from the body of a bat, destined for decay and dissolution.

But the apostles had seen Christ alive after His death on the cross; belief in the resurrection was unshakeable and had consequences that not only informed faith and inspired hope but which dictated behavior, and which proceeded on the conviction that the baptized bodies of Christians had a glorious future. The body of every Christians participated in the body of Christ, so that individually they lived in Christ but collectively they were His body the Church (Ephesians 5:23). Thus Paul’s charge against fornication was not only its sinfulness but its scandalous, blasphemous character, being as it was an impossible attempt to join Christ to a prostitute. Your bodies, Paul reminded, belong to the body of Christ (I Corinthians 6:15–-16), and as such they are offered with mind and heart to God: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice,” consecrated to God, worthy of His acceptance. which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).

This belief that the body had a future no less noble than that which belonged to the soul, and that Jesus’ atoning death offered eternal life not only to the soul but to our soul-informed bodies, was the belief with which Christianity invaded Hellenistic culture, substituting for the lingering fear that was the background of every life belief that, once joined to Christ in baptism, once fed on His Body and Blood, Christians, having in the time of God’s providence passed through the doorway of death, would find it to be a new birth, a putting on of the body of glory, and would be with Him in a place of light, refreshment, praise and beauty forever. We do not, Paul wrote, expect to be unclothed but clothed upon (II Corinthians 5:4), when our bodies, sown in the corruption and dishonor which the philosopher Celsus understood so well, shall be raised in incorruption and glory (I Corinthians 15:42–46).

Given this hope, it is important to treat the body as the holy thing it is because you will have it with you in some form or another forever. There was a confusion in the fifth century, with some maintaining that in the resurrection every Christian will have a new body, unrelated to the body we bear through our earthly years. After due consideration the fifth ecumenical council in 553, in its first and eleventh anathemas, determined this to be false; the body of the resurrection will be the body we now bear, perfected in some way, the body as it would have been had not original sin and its minions disease and disfigurement left their marks.

From the time when Paul advised taking a little wine for the good of one’s stomach (I Timothy 5:23), Christianity has been on the side of pleasure and the bitter foe of those who attempted to deny our bodilness. The great heresy of the first three centuries did not deny that Jesus had come but insisted that He had not come in the flesh (I John 4:1–4, II John 7). The theology of the semi-Christian dualists from the second century Paulicians and Gnostics to the thirteenth century Albigensian the great Church simply denied, while at the same time every sensuality, every claim of the senses to run unchecked by the discipline of grace-enabled restraint has always been condemned.

Which brings us to the twenty-first century. Grace may perfect the body, but the body unaided by grace will reliably affect the soul with its passions. The appeal of the body is immediate. Sins of envy and emulation through which fallen will challenges goodness and truth are, while persistent, more subtle, and perhaps more damning. Settled hatred or envy or pride will lead to destruction more reliably than the common sins of the flesh; it is possible to lose one’s soul to the darkness while refraining from sins of the body, but the process is often half-conscious and slow, while the appeal of the body is immediate. This was a reason why, having rebelled and fallen, having realized their condition, the first thing our first parents did was cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:7). We have uncovered ours. Modesty is the virtue that removes temptations posed by the withdrawing those parts of the body that incite sensuality most immediately from sight. Immodesty always gains interest, sometimes desire and lust. There is a reason why so many advertisements for automobiles and vacations feature a beautiful woman; if men won’t buy the car, they will almost always buy the woman. So Saint Paul says women should adorn themselves in modest apparel (I Timothy 2:9); don’t dress to attract attention. The flesh as created by God is intrinsically good, but it is not innocent, and our senses are disordered.

Of all the commandments that Our Lord gave in the Sermon on the Mount, the most challenging in Christ’s list of transpositions from objectively guilty behavior under the law to sins of the heart is surely His command that our sight, that light within us that illuminates the world we see (Matthew 6:22 ), be innocent, that looking on a woman with lust is as good as the act, while the goal is the purity of heart mentions in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8, 27–30). The moral antonym for lust is not a charity-less aridity but another more profound, always innocent, love, love for Christ and a desire to please him. The great project of a lifetime.

 – Dr. James Patrick

Thoughts on the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Delivered From Death

Since the children share in flesh and blood
He Himself likewise partakes of the same nature,
that through death He might destroy him
who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
and deliver all those who through fear of death were in lifelong bondage.
For surely it is not with angels that He is concerned but
with the descendants of Abraham.
                                          Hebrews 2:5–6

This important text occurs in an apostolic letter not securely assigned to Paul until the fourth century.   Born in the heart of a community of Jewish Christians, who must be reminded that Jesus has been counted worthy of much more glory than even Moses, here Hebrews gives insight into a community that has little concern with the Greeks to whom Paul was sent; its interest is in the sons of Abraham.  It is a community that would glory in the Gospel  of Matthew and cherish the advice of the Letter of James.  The author finds this Church in a precarious situation, too much fascinated with the first-born of God’s creation, the angels.  “For to what angel did God ever say, ‘Thou art my son, this day I have begotten you?’”   And again, “Surely it is not with angels that He is concerned, but with the sons of Abraham.”   Perhaps the congregation to whom Hebrews is written had read a work or works such as the Book of Enoch, which is roughly cotemporary with the New Testament, and which contains a very full angelology, including an account of the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1–8.  Hebrews is insistent that Jesus came in flesh and blood because He came to save those who are flesh and blood, who will be joined to Him in Baptism and the Eucharist; and, further, that Jesus had no angelic existence but suffered and was tempted just as we are, in flesh and blood.

Famously, for Paul the problem of living is dying, and in this concern, he was at one with other contemporary philosophers.  The appeal of the atheism of the poet/philosopher Lucretius (BC 99–55), based upon the teaching of Epicurus (BC 341–270), was the assurance that death held no terrors since it ended life, no Hades, no underworld, simply nothingness.  The stoic Epictetus, (BC 155–85) sharing the Platonic belief that souls were created immortal,  proposed that upon death the individual soul joined the great world-soul.  The Christian Paul confronts death squarely.   Death, the reader is told, lies in the power of the devil, from which power Jesus delivers those who believe and who belong to Him.   This He does through His own death, an idea that enjoyed a rich and controversial future in Christendom, with Christians loving and reverencing the cross of Christ without always having a clear idea of its necessity and meaning.    

Why does the death of this person at one time set right a world gone wrong, depriving death of its fearsome aspect, and opening the gates that guard the presence of God? Christ’s death turned what must be always the fear lurking in the back of every human plan and desire as we face death into a door that opens upon the real world of glory of which what we see is a fallen copy.  Death has its sting, but it does not have the victory.  In a certain sense the life of everyman is marked by the engagement with death foreseen.  Its herald  named disease is ever seen as the enemy.  We make puny and tentative claims on the future, hoping that our children will thrive and remember.  There are legal documents and provisions that are intended to govern the future.  But for Christians even these occur within a new context.  

In the words of the great Athanasius:  “Have no fear then.  Now that the common savior of all has died on our behalf, we who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the commands of the law.  And that condemnation has come to an end; and now that, by the grace of the resurrection, corruption has been banished and done away, we are loosed from our mortal bodies in God’s good time for each, so that we may claim thereby a better resurrection.     

Broadly, the answer is that this world has hidden  from God since in Genesis Adam hid himself, and in that absence and alienation has lived its life as a rebel.  In the day that you eat of the fruit of the tree of willfulness and defiance, making up good and evil for yourselves, you shall die.  Paul and others use the harsh language of the wrath of God, which is directed against all those who knowingly neglect or defy His will, but human nature and those who share in it can be offered to the Father by one who can make that offering for the world because, like us in all things except sin (Hebrews 4:15), He does not owe the debt of every sinner.  Yet we are in this together. Jesus did not act for Himself or for the Twelve, but He took human nature, and as such became the representative of every man.  He is the first-born of many brothers (Romans 8:29).  For this reason the text of Hebrews insists that Jesus was tempted as we are and suffered as we do (2:17–18, 4:15).  For before we share in His divine nature, we share in the humanity that He, first as the Son through whom all things are made, created, and then has called to share in His own supernatural life.   “Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” (Romans 8:9)  This is the splendid image of  man and men in glory conformed to the image of Christ.   

Christ does not only die to pay the debt of obedience that we cannot pay, but through His death He purchases for His people the gift of holiness that enables them to share in the great offering (John 16:7),  The Gospel is not only attested to us by those who heard Jesus but “by the gifts of His Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (I Corinthians 12:11).  Thus it is that from the first days of the Church one did not make the great offering without having examined himself and confessed his sins: “A man must examine himself first and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup” (I Corinthians 11:28).  Our sins are brought before us by the same Spirit, sent to convict the world of sin and of righteousness, so that they may be forgiven by the power of that same Holy Spirit whom Jesus breathed upon His disciples with the command that they forgive (John 20:19).                 

In  a certain sense the glory of this present world is the enemy of the glory that belongs to the future, which is especially true for the citizens of the pacific and comfortable  West in which life can be arranged as a succession of pleasures, from which the holy saying, “Deny yourself” has been stricken.  In fact every Christian is called to live a recollected life, in which knowledge of his true condition and his true responsibilities is allowed to mitigate the blindness which the Other Side encourages.  Our duty is to God and to our neighbor.  Seen in the light of the true knowledge of our insecure situation, lives that are weak, never completely beyond the solicitation of the devil, our hope of success is the protecting, empowering  grace of Christ.  And every duty done in a fallen world is a life-giving death. And His promise is that there is pleasure at His right hand forever.