Called, Chosen

Called, Chosen

Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business. 
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them. 
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 
Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come. 
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests. 
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. 
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
but he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and
feet, and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen. 

                                       Mathew 22:2–14

The King is the Lord God Almighty and this great parable is the story of His calling His elect.   The wedding feast to which He invites us is on  one hand the Eucharistic Feast, on the other the heavenly banquet, sitting at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Mathew 8:11), where there is fullness of joy and pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11).  The King’s invitation is given three times.   At the first those invited refuse to come.    A second time his invitation went forth:  “Behold, I  have prepared my banquet, come to the feast.”  But some of those invited were too busy with the things of this world, with their farm or their business.  Others were actively hostile:  “The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them and killed them.”  Enraged, the King sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city.   

Thus far Jesus’ words have an obvious  historical context as well as a universal meaning.  Our Lord’s mission was to the Jews.  It was to them that he was sent; “salvation is of the Jews.”   Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea to fulfill the prophecy of  Micah (5:2), but He was reared in Nazareth in Galilee, His native place later becoming a matter of controversy (John 7:40-43).   After the temptation, upon hearing that John his forerunner had been arrested, He withdrew to Galilee, called Galilee of the Gentiles by the prophet Isaiah because it bordered on the gentile territory to the north, to Capernaum  on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Galilee would be home; it was there that He found His disciples Peter, Andrew and Phillip, and it was to Galilee that He returned:  “Tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me (Matthew 26:32).  For Jesus Jerusalem, God’s own city, the city of the great king David was the beloved city of sorrow (Mathew 23:37). He had not taught secretly but often in the Temple precincts (Mark 14:49). But from the beginning of His mission, the Jews had rejected Jesus.  This story of  Jesus’ rejection  by those to whom He was first sent is made vivid in the Gospel of John, in which the Jews, those in Judea, the Temple crowd with the Pharisees at their head, are contrasted with Galileans.  In their blindness they did not see that healing the sick man at the pool of Bethzatha did not violate the Sabbath but fulfilled it.  And then He called God His Father, “The Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath but also called God His Father, making himself the Son of God”  (John 5:18),    At the Feast of the Dedication  “The Jews took up stones again to stone him .  .  .  .  We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:32-34).  And finally in Pilate’s courtyard: “Away with him, crucify him” (John 19:15).  And for three centuries, and beyond, this would be the lot of His followers.

Finally, rejected by the Jews, by those whom the King first invited, Jesus commanded that His mission be universal.  The apostles remembered that His last command, given by the resurrected Lord on  the mountain to which He had directed them was, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them  in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19.  Those the King had called were not worthy, so his servants went out into the streets and called good and bad alike and the hall  was filled with guests.   The call of the Gospel is universal, to every man dwelling on this earth, now and forever, both the good and the bad.   The Hall is  the Church, the ecclesia, those called out of the world into the communion of saints, containing both god and bad.  And always the holy Church, in its essence the communion of the saints, has contained both good and bad.   

But to be a member of the Church on earth, to be a beneficiary of God’s gracious call, is not to fulfill one’s baptismal promises, is not yet to win the crown for which Paul and every Christian struggles, for this is the work of a lifetime.   The Church on earth is the community of those called, but not the community of those chosen.   In this way the Catholic Church is always a scandal.  Revolutionaries who have murdered millions, Nazis who have gassed hundreds of thousands,  Senators who assent to the destruction of little children, all who may fall into mortal sin, the uncounted numbers of the baptized who succumb to the futility of sensuality and greed, all these are still called, baptized in the name of the Trinity.  They have not lost faith, but they have lost the love that joins and perfects, yet they are children of the Church, always beloved in the hope that they will finally be chosen, . 

But in the end the requirement is that these called appear before the King in their wedding garment.  Scripture calls it the white robe that belongs to the holy, as repeatedly in John’s Apocalypse (Revelation 4:4, 7, 9, 13; 15:6; 19:8, 14).   It is emblematic of the soul purified of sin and pleasing to God, and into this present those baptized are given symbolically a white robe.   This is but the beginning.  Baptism is the call, never refused to one who seeks it, conveying empowering gifts; forgiving our sins, cutting the root of original sin in us, giving us power,  faith, hope, and love, and even something of the very character of Christ.   But these gifts may go unrealized and the power given by the Holy Spirit may be squandered.    As a matter  of fact the world is and is very likely always  to be full of former Catholics, lapsed Catholics, Catholics who daily betray the faith,  Catholics who ignore the teaching of the Church, Catholics whose baptismal robes are covered with the dark and damaging imprint of sin.  That said, to be among the called is an opportunity for the greatest blessing and for the greatest danger, for the one called into the King’s presence who, having accepted the baptismal invitation, appeared without a white robe was cast into outer darkness. 

The good news is that those called, any one of them, of us,  may be among the chosen,  which means living a life in Christ, how short or long one’s days, never leaving Him, and when one stumbles, asking for the grace of repentance and seeking forgiveness at the hands of those to whom Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.”       

Never too Late

“These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you. 
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 
Take what is yours and go. 
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? 
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? 
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

                                                       Matthew 20:12–16

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, like every parable, has many meanings.   One surely is to make the point that God’s mercy may be extended to us early or late, with the subsidiary thought that jealousy of those upon whom God most unaccountably, in human terms, has mercy is at all costs to be avoided.    The vineyard and the grace to call us into it belongs to God alone.   He  may do as He wills with His own. It is a characteristic of the Biblical account that while it is possible, as with the foolish wedding guests, to delay too long (Matthew 25:5), and while we are warned not presumptuously to ignore opportunity for repentance (Hebrews 3:15), the overarching theme of the Scriptures is God’s willingness to welcome us whenever we will come. 

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited Lord Marchmain, on the evidence given, had led the life of an apostate and a sinner.   Received into the Church on the occasion of his marriage, baptized, shriven, confirmed, it would seem that Lord Marchmain remained nominally a practicing member of the Church  for a decade or so.  Then came the war; he left his family never to return.   He finds his freedom and spends what must in narrative time be a decade in Venice with his mistress Cara.  Then another war, when Lord Marchmain returned home to Brideshead, his great country house, to die.  His eldest son, unintentionally officious but faithful, worries that his father will die unrepentant and urges him to see the parish priest, hoping that he will repent, come back to the Church, and die in a state of grace and hope.  Lord Marchmain refuses until the last minute, but then responds to the priest’s gentle importunings, coming late into the Lord’s vineyard by making with what seems to be his last breath, the sign of the cross, to the relief and gratitude of his family. And we are left to believe that the old marquis, the last, will see the face of God as surely as his daughter Celia, a soul filled with charity and good works.

Lord Marchmain is exemplary of a category of late repenants described poetically by Dante in the first three cantos of the Purgatorio.   Manfred was the natural son of the Emperor Frederick II, who legitimized him and made him regent during the reign of his half brother Conrad IV.  Manfred became king of Sicily, and a Ghibelline, or member of the anti-papal party, and was excommunicated twice.  If Dante’s picture  is right, Manfred was no better than Lord Marchmain.   Dying unconfessed,  Manfred says:

Horrible was the nature of my sins
                    But boundless mercy stretched out its arms
          To any man who comes in search of it.
                     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Church’s curse is not the final word,
                        For everlasting love may still return,
           If hope reveals the slightest hint of green.
   

In his final breath, as he lay dying of mortal wounds, Manfred triumphs; “I gave my soul to him who grants forgiveness willingly.” This slightest hint of green, like Lord Marchmain’s sign of the cross, is enough to bring Manfred  finally into the blessed vision of the Trinity.    True, in Dante’s account  Manfred will be required to wait in purgatory the space of his lifetime before entering the Presence, but soon he, and Lord Marchmain, will be home.

Neither Dante nor Evelyn Waugh is doing theology; both  are creating images of the late repentant framed against the background of the boundless mercy that stretches out its arms to anyone who comes in search of it.  Dante is expressing the truth that God is not bound by the sacraments.  He will have mercy upon who He will have mercy.  But what God is bound by is the necessity for repentance for our horrible sins.  Consistent with His blessed character and our freedom He will not invite into His kingdom anyone who would not be at home there. What must be is the unstinting giving up of ourselves to the mercy that stretches out its arms toward us.  

Surely the burden of this great parable is to give us hope for ourselves and for the world we know, which like the world in every age, is populated with those who stand idle in the marketplace, waiting for the invitation to enter the vineyard.   It is a common experience that the gift of faith received at baptism may not be realized at once or soon.  The Book of Acts records the occasion when Samaritan Christians, newly baptized in the name of Jesus, had not received the Holy Spirit, whose absence was supplied by the apostolic laying on of hands (16:8).  The very existence of the sacrament of confirmation suggests that those who are baptized still need the strengthening gift of the Holy Spirit.  And we are all familiar with those, perhaps ourselves, who seem to have no lively interest in the faith suddenly becoming faithful, taking up their cross, ceasing to watch idly on, and entering the vineyard.    God calls His own at different times and in different ways, whether at dawn, noon, or in the evening of life.   Manfred and Lord Marchmain came to grace and belief when the day was far spent and night fast coming on them, but return they did, and when they came the boundless mercy stretched out His arms to them. 

Forgive Anyhow

I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt. 
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.
                                                                          Matthew 18:34-35

One of the most certain axioms of the kingdom of the New Heart is Jesus’ command that we forgive to which is attached the glorious promise that if we do forgive we will be forgiven by Him whom we have offended.   It is given in the sentence following the great prayer:  “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”  The word for forgive used here means literally to “un-say,” to let it go, to blot it out.  A great and generous promise, to which is attached a great warning.  The lines quoted  above conclude the parable of the ungrateful servant, who, having been forgiven a great debt, turns upon his fellow servant with an unforgiving spirit and commands that he pay what he owes.  The unforgiving  servant, ungrateful for the generosity shown him, is given over by the Master to the torturers until he has paid in full.  

We know that the son of Man has authority to forgive sins, for it was to establish this power that he healed the paralytic, first forgiving him his sins, then    exercising power over the evil that afflicted the paralytic’s body to establish His authority to heal the sin-afflicted soul (Luke 5:17–23). Jesus answers the Pharisees’ assertion that only God can forgive sins with the fact; the paralytic has been healed, and with this question. “Which is easier, to forgive sins or to say, ‘Take up your bed and walk?’”  To forgive sins is to release from eternal death; to heal the body is to forestall for a time the payment all must make to God’s decree that the sons of Adam must die.  The great power of divine forgiveness, the only power in heaven and earth that can change our past, is always there waiting, one condition being that we forgive from the heart those who have wronged us.  The pattern of true sorrow is the contrition of the prodigal Son, who freely confessed, I have sinned before heaven and before you, my father, and I am not worthy to be called your son.   True repentance acknowledges God’s justice.  It also affects the healing of our souls, which  cannot be made fit for the company of angels and saints unless we confess our sins without excuse and ask God’s forgiveness, which is always quick and generous.  The love that forgives is always unfair.  We deserve death, but God, by the sacrifice of the cross lets our sins go.   And so we dare not hold grudges and deny forgiveness to those who have wronged us, even if they do not ask.   On the cross Jesus asked of his father:  Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).   One of our contemporaries, a great follower of Christ, put it this way: “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.”  

Perhaps now the great temptation for Christians is more political than personal.  What of the vast number who perhaps have not  wronged us personally but who have damaged the comity of our national community  and darkened our culture by urging principles that violate God’s law?   Government requires consent and consent presupposes discussion, even argument.  In the Roman republic there were the Optimates, those who stood for the best, and Populares, the popular party, and occasionally their differences led to political chaos.  One supposes that in fifth-century Gaul there was a pro-Goth party and a party consisting of die-hard Romans.   Mid-Victorian England was divided between the Liberals and the Tories.  These represented different political visions and were the source of heated rhetoric.   

Democracy, in a situation in which there are radically different ideas of the situation of persons in the moral universe and in the cosmos, fed by universal, inescapable  communication, brings into the world a new evil, unforeseen by the Fathers, a world in which Christians, faced with the destruction of a culture built upon the witness of the martyrs; is mocked and neglected find anger near at hand.  Private sins may now become public and outrageous.  There are now political parties that condone behavior that have no public regard for God’s law and who have taken up the position, repudiated in the first Christian document, that unborn children are disposable.   

  One answer as Christians confront these evils is that until these political sinners repent we are justified in disliking them, indeed hating them, because their proposals are hateful, easily confusing their persons with their deeds.  The evening news can now often be a near analogy to the  five minutes hate that was the religion of the Brave New world.  And this hatred can all unwittingly create a new slavery, as hatred always does.  Perhaps it is the case that the only Jews who are truly free from the incredible cruelty and murderousness of the National Socialists are those who have somehow forgiven them.   Perhaps it is true that only those who have forgiven the practitioners of infanticide, the subtle advocates of state slavery, the destroyers of souls,  are free of these evils, evils which because of its virulence  and violence so easily become an obsession, unintelligible and hateful to those who love Christ’s truth.   

These points made, it remains the radical responsibility of every Christian to remember the burden of Christ’s words and the example of the prodigal’s father, who while his son was yet at a distance saw him and had compassion.    God sees every sinner, no matter how far from home they or we may be, who may now or in the future be on the way and calls out to their hearts and has compassion which they may not know and may not recognize, hoping that they will ask.  God’s love for the unrepentant  wrongdoer and offender, goes before them, and God’s will for them is better than our sense of justice.

Perhaps we Christians have become a people of small vision and small hopes, content to pursue our path and say our prayers if only we can be left alone as we watch what once seemed a Christian culture disappear.   But this is not the great tradition that claims the world for Christ. Exercising inspired faith, Clement of Rome, writing about 85 or 90, when Roman Christians may have numbered a few thousands, although intensely interested in the rebellion in Corinth and narrowly focused on healing it, wrote against the larger canvass of his appreciation of God’s cosmic call to the elect of every nation, and his prayer, the great prayer that concludes his letter,  was not only for the faithful in Rome and Corinth, but for that innumerable  and unknown number whom God would call out of darkness into  his light.  “Thou art the helper of those in danger and the savior of those in despair, the creator and watcher over every spirit; thou didst multiply nations upon earth  and hast chosen out from them all those that love Thee. . . .  And Let all nations know Thee, that Thou art God alone.”  Every proponent of principles that violate God’s justice, everyone who had been unjust to us or knowingly violated God’s law, every official thief who wishes to appropriate unjustly what is not theirs,  is in the providence of God a candidate for the kingdom of the New heart.  Perhaps he or she will be among God’s elect.  Perhaps he will ask forgiveness.   Whether that will occur or when we do not know, but we know that we are not enemies, that we are to love them and pray that they may one day be our brothers in Christ.

Understanding with the Heart

There are seed that fall in good soil, who produce good fruit, yielding one hundred-fold, sixty, or thirty.  These are those who hear the word and understand it.   

                                                             Matthew 13:23

The parable of the sower is somewhat unusual because Jesus tells the disciples its meaning.  Its broad purpose is to explain the failure of the grace God has poured out on the earth and its inhabitants to produce universally faith, hope, love, and obedience, and in some the seed, understood, has produced fruit pleasing to God.    

Jesus gives three examples of failure, examples now familiar.   The seed that falls along the path is easily taken away by the birds because the one thus gifted has no understanding.   The seed that fell on rocky ground represents those who receive the word with joy but whose understanding is superficial; when their faith is tried, when the commands of Christ seem hard, these fall away.  The seed that falls among thorns  does not bear fruit because the one to whom it is entrusted is seduced by the cares of the world, delights in the good things of the world to the exclusion of faithfulness to Christ.  

Jesus also gives a single example of success.  These are  seed that fall in good soil, who produce good fruit , yielding one hundred-fold, sixty, or thirty.   They hear the word and understand it.  The good soil is the heart prepared by grace given and received, enabling the elect to understand  the Word.      

The verb beneath the word “understand”  is a compound of the prefix together or with and a verb that has many meanings.  Its use in Matthew must signal its importance, for, although it appears in other biblical texts, in the Gospels it is limited to parallel texts and to those describing the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ words.   Of  course Jesus spoke Aramaic, but we trust the Greek-speaker who recorded His words for the Graeco-Roman world to have used the verb translated as “understand“ accurately.  In any event we know that “to understand” is different from knowledge that signifies our recognition of the facts of the  matter, although it includes that recognition, but to understand the Word sown means something deeper.   Monsignor Knox and the Douay-Rheims and the Authorized Version translate “understand” as “understanding of the heart,” and RSV in another place as “hear and grasp.”  

The translators are telling us something important.  The word “heart” does not appear in either the Greek or Latin. The Greek for “grasp” is also missing from the text. Jesus is explaining that those  who failed to enter the Kingdom, although they heard did not take the Word into their hearts.   But there were those who  both heard and understood, who located Christ and His Gospel at the center of their lives, those who have grasped Jesus and His message, who make His person and His words the very principle of their thoughts and actions, bearing fruit for the Kingdom of the New Heart over which Christ now reigns as king.

           Jesus offers an explanation of the failure of those who hear but do not understand.   Christians are not permitted to say that Satan caused them to sin (James 1:13), but it is evident from Scripture that he never stops trying, and that with the cooperation of the human will, he may have his successes.  From the moment of the Incarnation, Satan has roamed the earth seeking to destroy the faith of the children of the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Revelation 12:17).  His principle method is obfuscation and studied neglect. It is he who sows weeds among the wheat that grows in the Church.  And the weeds will continue to grow because Jesus warns the zealous disciples that if they try to clear the field of weeds, in rooting up the weeds the wheat may be damaged.   And this means that the Kingdom in its historical manifestation as the Church will always be a mixed community consisting of some who have taken the Gospel to heart and some who hear but do not understand.   It is a mercy that only Christ knows who has understood with the heart and who has not; this will not be revealed until He comes again, until the book of life is opened at the end of the age. 

Meanwhile understanding the Good News planted in the human heart prompts many actions: belief, obedience, and above all love, love for God and love for our neighbors, for those we come upon as we walk the path that is our life.   Each of these has its own necessity.   Belief involves belief in the merciful acts of Jesus by which He bought our freedom with His death and resurrection.  But it involves more; each sentence in the Creed invites our belief, and we dare not prefer belief in one of Jesus’ actions to another.    For belief to be effective it must be what is called theological faith, belief that is ours not because we consider it suitable or even because we are grateful for it, but belief because the truths of our religion are expressions of the authority of God.   In an analogous way heart-understanding expresses itself in obedience.  Very often the yoke is easy and the burden light, but the day will come when conscience makes a claim that desire can follow only with difficulty and humility.  It is the evangelist John who reminds the ages that the sure sign of our love for Christ is our obedience to His commandments, of which the first is love of our brothers and sisters.  And as for love, it is the supernatural empowering gift that enables belief and obedience.    

What the Word in our hearts promotes may seem simple, but it is in reality deep.  Jesus commands us to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  And perfecting the Word understood in a life lived is made difficult by the fact that God is not unopposed in this world.  As Matthew 13:24–30 tells us, there is an enemy roaming the earth, seeking endlessly with demonic energy to snatch the Word from every life, sowing doubt, ever proclaiming the glory and the satisfactions of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life.”  In our present century Satan has an easy sell, for he moves among a people, perhaps even  Christian people, who have never taken Christ and His words into their hearts, who do not understand and who do not know that they do not  understand.  

Therefore to our duty to believe, to obey, and to love, there is added one more, the duty to witness.   You, said Jesus, are my witnesses to the ends of the earth.   Laying aside not the grace of conversational engagement but the fear of intruding upon others and the pusillanimity that cannot bear a challenge, refusing the stance that considers religion too private to have any place in the public square, the time has come to accept the scandal of the Gospel, that no one comes to the Father except through His Son Jesus, that men are appointed once to die and after that comes judgement, that God’s judgement is the ultimate source of meaning, that this same judgement rewards those who long to see the face of God and allows those who have not and will not understand the consequences of their neglect.

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

Newness

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

Visit www.lewistolkiensociety.org to find archived “Thoughts,” and for information about the activities of the Society.

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.