Following Nature to Find God

The star which they saw in the East went before them
til it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

                                                                           Matthew 2:9–10

The sixth of January, the twelfth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the recognition of Jesus as the Great King by the gentiles in the persons of the  wise men is celebrated. The wise men, magi as the Greek calls them, came seeking a king.  And this the Angel Gabriel had promised to Mary:  “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob, and of His kingdom there will be no end”(Luke 1:33–34). The wise men had not come to discuss theology or to satisfy curiosity but to worship.   And their worship and their gifts represented the humble allegiance to truth of those we now call men of science, for the magi were the natural philosophers of the first century, men of the East, perhaps Persians, astronomers and perhaps astrologers, interested in understanding nature’s lessons, in this case, willing to follow a star, known to them as “His star,” the King’s star.  

It has ever been the intellectual habit of Christians to learn from nature.  We do not know much about Saint Paul’s education, beyond the fact that he studied with the great scholar Gamaliel in Jerusalem.   Then there is the hint in Romans 1, where he acknowledges his debt to the Greeks and to the Barbarians.   His debt to the Greeks is evident in his ability to quote the poets Epimenides and Aratus before the council of the Areopagus (Acts 17:28–29), as well as in his grasp of ideas such as the participation of Christians in Christ that might be shared with the Platonists and Stoics of his day.   Paul’s claim too, like that implicit in the magi’s journey, was that nature taught the most important thing, the existence and power of God; that nature, like the wise men’s star, would, if followed faithfully, lead us to our King.     

From Paul, through the great medievals, Aquinas and Bonaventure, to the nineteenth century, it has been the claim of Christian scholarship, and indeed of all Christian thought, that knowledge of nature would lead to God.  Perhaps this reached a popular apotheosis with the Romantic Poets of the nineteenth century.   And then, as though a door has been slammed in the face of the inquirer, it became philosophically unfashionable to see God’s mighty hand or the beauty of Christ’s face in nature.   Now it would not be easy to find a professional philosopher who  taught that St. Thomas’s Five Ways offered intellectually compelling reasons for belief in God.  

This is in some measure due to the circumstance that it is now the enemies of reason who define the reach of reason.  We owe to the eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume the observation that treatises on divinity contain no knowable truth while impressions derived from the senses, call them matters of fact, may be considered true,  and analytical statements, statements in which the predicate is contained in the subject (unicorns are one-horned animals), may be considered if not true at least logically valid.  It may be admitted that speaking of God’s existence under these canons of reason is impossible.  There can be no empirical proof, for while God may make himself known to Moses, and while Christ might appear to the apostles, these events, like Pentecost itself, are not empirically knowable since they are the experiences that while they may be compelling are the consequence of faith and as such are not universally available as evidence of God’s existence.   And as for logical proof of God’s existence, the first premise in a deductive argument must always be question-begging, assuming what it seeks to prove. 

       What this canon of the knowable omits is the kind of knowledge that may be called historical, that kind of argument in which thought, presiding over a field of facts and experiences, draws a conclusion.   Several of the classical arguments have this kind of form, most notably the argument from design, the observation, based on our experience of a world of great complexity in which things have purposes and patterns, that where there is order and design there is a designer.  We see that a nation is experiencing an unprecedented military buildup, which is coupled with threats and bellicose speech.  We may conclude that war is likely, or very likely.   War may or may not come, but in a pale analogy to Pascal’s wager, better safe than sorry, we are probably best advised to be prepared for war.   Probability is, as Newman counseled, the guide of life. We  experience, often through long years, an ordered world in which some things go wrong, but more go right.  By calling the wrong things wrong, we acknowledge that they do not belong to the order of reality.   From this preponderance of evidence we may conclude or be led to believe that the world moves under the providence of a loving and beneficent God.  This is not a formal philosophical argument any more than was Paul’s observation in the first chapter of Romans that from the creation of the world the unseen things of God, his divinity and power, are clearly perceived. 

       The Psalmist knew this:
              The heavens declare the glory of God
              And the firmament showeth his handiwork

       For Dante, “Nature is the art of God,” an idea persisting even amid the pantheistic theology of the Enlightenment, in Alexander Pope’s words:
              All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
              Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794), which remained an important collegiate text throughout the nineteenth century was the scholarly formulation of the common observation that the intricate regularity of nature attests the existence of its creator.  This idea is a perennial of human thought and imagination. That the glory of God my be perceived in the things that are made persisted into the foothills of modernity in sentimental ballads of the 1950s: 

              I believe above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard
              I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word
              Every time I hear a newborn baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky
              Then I know why I believe.

In the long run the only argument against the argument from design, the claim that there is no Great Designer, is naturalism, the assertion that nature is a self-explanatory  process.  And the only counter argument is wonder. Mankind, not educated to skepticism by the infernal knowingness of the fallen world, has always found nature, despite that side of things that is disordered,  wonderful and has moved in imagination to the conclusion that God is the Creator.  When told that the old proofs for the existence of God are invalid, pay no attention.   They are for the most part not formal deductions but common inferences.  Such knowledge is not of itself salvific, but it does provide the common insight that faith presupposes and without which faith cannot possess the human heart.  As Hebrews tells us, “Whoever would come to God must believe that he exists” (11:6).   

 Just how the wise men knew  that the star they followed was his star, the star of the great king,  is hidden in their science, but on they came o’er field and fountain, moor and mountain following the star, willing always to be led by nature to the King whom they had travelled far to worship. 

Thoughts on the Second Reading for Christmas Day

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, He has spoken to us through the Son,
whom He made heir of all things
and through whom He created the universe,
who is the refulgence of His glory,
the very imprint of His being,
and who sustains all things by His mighty word.

Hebrews 1:2–3

These words, in all their beauty and power describe the  glory of the child born in Bethlehem, who while he lay in Mary’s arms is the Word of the Father, the means through which creation exists, the refulgence of God’s glory, the very imprint of God’s being. The shepherds came from  the east not to satisfy curiosity or to discuss the theology; they sought the child but to lay their precious gifts before Him and to worship. And ever since, through long centuries, it has been the privilege of the apostolic mission to testify to the truth that the child born in Bethlehem, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, was not an ordinary child who through grace would come to share in the life of God, but that the child born of Mary in Bethlehem is indeed the one through whom God created the Universe, reflecting always God’s glory, sustaining the world as the eternal Word of God.   The child is He “Through whom He created the  Universe,” as John says, “All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made” (1:3).  He is the eternal Son of God, God’s very speech, existing from all eternity.  He was the one in the beginning, the Word through whom God spoke the Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep to bring, order, light, and the fulness of being, and who at this time and in this place, in the principate of Augustus, took human nature to himself, healing the chasm torn across creation when our first parents chose the serpent’s way.  And like the Magi we worship Him. 

That one displaying the refulgence of the Father was born into our world tells us something about that world in which we live and also tells us something about the son of God in His relation to our world.  First, it tells us that every piece of creation, from our bodies to the trees and sky, while these do not  share in the life of the Blessed Trinity–only the eternal Son is of one glorious substance with the Father—are each gifts of God, bearing the impress of His mighty hand, and in that way enjoying a derivative holiness.   This intuition of  God’s ownership and authorship is the warrant claimed by the romantic poets,  evident in Wordsworth’s “Lines composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (122–128):

                 This prayer I make, the heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
                 Through all the years of this our life, to lead
                 From joy to joy: for she can so inform
                 Knowing that Nature never did betray
                 The mind that is within us, so impress
                 With quietness and beauty, and so feed
                 With lofty thoughts.

This is what Gerard Manley Hopkins knew when he wrote that for all the irreverent damage men might do to God’s nature:

And for all this, nature is never spent:

          There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Poets echo with imagination the fact that Christ the Word is present in everything the human hand touches and in our hands themselves.   The worship of nature is one of those great mistakes that attests to a great truth gone awry, for the object of our worship must always be not the creature but the Creator.  Yet the fact of the presence of Christ in everything natural is a clue to how we should treat nature.  Because we see the beauty and order God has put in the world, while knowing that victory cannot be perfect until Christ returns, we should strive to overcome the natural evil that has plagued us since Eden, the fruits of sin issuing in death.  This is the work of priests, physicians, and teachers, always striving to replace disease and ignorance with holiness, health, and knowledge.   But beyond this is the necessity always to touch nature with love, not viewing the natural world as a scene of blank potentiality but as a work of Christ through whom all things were made.  His work is perfect, but humankind has the power to perfect creation guiding it toward the glory that lies within it, or to degrade it. Anyone reading this essay could catalogue those things that should never have been made.  So those with the power to make should ask, “Does what I’m about to do reflect the reality that everything belongs to God, given to humankind as a gift, bearing the stamp of His almighty hand, and should therefore be touched only with reverence.” 

And second,  seeing Christ in nature enables us to see Christ as He is.  As Saint Paul wrote, what can be known about God is evident, for 

          “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely His                eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that               have been made” (Romans 1:20).

And what we see in nature is the work of one possessed of all the power and gracious goodness of the Father.   Miracles in themselves, although they can be believed and their deep reasonableness appreciated,  cannot  be explained,  nor can the great mysteries of creation, salvation, and the new creation  be explained.  We do not know why Jesus heals this blind man and turns this water into wine,   but the predicate of every supernatural act of our Lord is the fact that  everything that exists was made by Him.  He is inside nature, and the laws and rules for nature that we confess are mere effective metaphors in comparison with the informing knowledge possessed by the Son.    This fact should warn every believer away from modern atheism, the work of Enlightenment philosophers, which includes among its founding principles the belief that nature is merely natural.

What is the Immaculate Conception?

But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.

                                         Luke 1:34–35

The place of Mary in God’s economy of salvation is anchored in the Gospel of Luke, in which the things Mary had hidden in her heart were made part of the revealed literature of the Church (Luke 2:19).   There is found the account of God’s sending the archangel Michael to Nazareth in Galilee to a virgin named Mary.   The angel’s message was “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall call His name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called a son of the most High, and the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32).  To the Virgin’s question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man.”, the angel replied.  “The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35)  Perhaps forty years after Luke wrote, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote to the Ephesians describing the three mysteries that defeated Satan:  Mary’s virginity, her childbearing, and the death of the Lord.   Nor did it when after forty years Saint Justin Martyr wrote that Mary had been a second Eve, which was further developed by Saint Irenaeus in his long Refutation of Gnosticism in 185.   Sacred Scripture declared Jesus to be “in every respect tempted as we are yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), but the question of the origin of His sinless humanity did not come up.

Devotion to the Virgin flourished in the Middle Ages, and then, in the theologically thick thirteenth century, the question came to the fore.  Given that Jesus was without sin,  Jesus’ humanity, His flesh and blood, His very nature as man taken from the Virgin, how could it be that she,  substantially an ordinary human, was able to give the Lord His sinless human nature.   The answer given is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed late in time, in 1854 by Pius IX, a teaching that is only secondarily about the birth of Christ but is principally about the birth of Mary.    It is the answer to the question of the origin of the perfect and sin-free human nature that God took to Himself from the Blessed Virgin Mary when Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit.   It was and will remain the position of theologians that the Virgin Mary was conceived as was and would be every daughter of Eve, a truth which the dogma as proclaimed by Pius IX would not deny. Mary’s spotless purity—for that is what immaculate means—was not inherited from her parents, whom the Church has considered saints on their own grounds, but was a gift to Mary, grounded in her place as the mother of Jesus, who at the moment of her conception  was preserved from the stain of original sin by the merits of the cross of Christ foreseen.    

So with the Immaculate Conception, when Mary, prepared for her role from all eternity, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God was making a new and perfect beginning.  It is hard to know which is most praiseworthy, the condescension of God the Holy Spirit in the gift of the Savior, or the majesty and glory evident in God’s calling and preparing the Virgin Mary, which He accomplished by vouchsafing her the relief from the stain of original sin that her Son would purchase for her on the cross.    

So it happened in the fullness of time that  God began anew, founding His kingdom of the New Heart with the most fundamental of human actions, which lifted out of the context of human folly and failure that scars every human act, He blessed with a great miracle, withholding from the conceiving of the Blessed Virgin in Judea in the years of Augustus the fatal stain implanted by the drama in the garden, when, having chosen the serpent’s way, mankind would ever bear the mark of death decreed by God. So the blessed Virgin received at her conception the fullness of the great gift every baptized person receives in part, for although something of the stain of original sin must be borne by every Christian, through  the gift of water and the Spirit the root of original sin is cut in us giving the hope that its effects may be withered by grace until at last, with the Blessed Virgin, we too will see the Father’s face.   And the angel of the Apocalypse said, “Behold. I make all  things new” (Revelation 21:5).

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is one of that family of bodily, homely, utterly essential  teachings in which the Church has long rejoiced, beginning with the resurrection of Christ’s body and ours, including the gift of Christ’s body and blood, and the veneration of the relics of the saints.  Although  doubted by great doctors such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas,  the dogma  of the immaculate conception is the essential ground of the second great Marian dogma, the  teaching that because Mary did not bear the stain of original sin, she did not die as we must but simply fell asleep, to be taken bodily into the presence of her Son, which teaching was made a part of the faith by Pius XII in 1950.   

It is always important to remember that she is who we are called to be.  We are given the great gift of sharing in the life of Chirist, but no devotion or piety can make us of one substance with the Father.  Although the Church has always accorded her the highest degree of devotion, and although all ages have, with the angel,  called her blessed, Mary’s vocation was not to become divine,   but through the gift of her Son to live the perfectly human life, the first since Eve and Adam  to be born free of the ancient curse, accepting  in faith and love the will of the Father, and foreshadowing the promise that belongs to us all.

The Third Servant’s Story

Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said
“Master, I knew you were a demanding person;

harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.”
”His master said to him in reply, “You wicked, lazy servant!
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him 
and give it to the one with ten. 

For to everyone who has,

more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,

where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
                                                                  
                                                                         Matthew 25:24–30

 

The parables of Christ, being works of divine genius, are always deceptively simple while in fact they are complex.  The lines above, quoted from the Parable of the Talents, presuppose two principles important to the life of the soul.   The first is that we live in a moral  world that is always in motion; our souls are always either growing in grace, closer day by day to Jesus, or they are diminishing in spiritual strength, falling  away, however subtly, from their divine destiny.  To him that hath, more will be added.  From those who lack, what little they have will be taken away (Matthew 13:2).   This is a rule of the life of the soul that every Christian will verify.  Christianity is a religion, a way that binds and forms, and as a religion it must be practiced day by day.  When Satan, ever active, manages to introduce the tiniest bit of spiritual lethargy, when our prayers seem dry and pointless, when he cajoles us into giving them up for just one day,  he inaugurates a process that if not with the help of grace arrested will lead to destruction.  On the other hand, when our hearts are full of the charity that binds us to Christ, prayer and good works seem easy and fulfilling and we long to be drawn closer to Jesus.   

The spiritual world we inhabit is always in motion; we are moving closer to the Presence and the Vision or away from that divinely appointed destiny.    There is no pleasant plateau: failure to grow, if not amended, means death to the soul.  This is illustrated by the story of the third servant.  The first two servants had taken custody of the master’s money and put it at interest, making increase for the Master.   The unfortunate who had received but one talent and who being fearful had hidden it, was called by his Lord, “You wicked, lazy servant,” and was bound and cast into prison. And when he tried to return the one talent  to his master, it was refused, with the command that it be given to the more provident first servant.   

The second great premise of the Parable of the Talents is the truth that the successful life is an adventure in all its aspects, spiritually fundamentally, but also in the other aspects of life on earth.  Spiritually, as a Christian one places his life in the hands of a Lord whose perfect divine sonship is often not affirmed, not only by secularists, but sometimes even within the Church; the believer hopes for the return of Jesus from the sky, like the lightning flashing from East to West (Matthew 24:27, Luke 17:24), to bring this age of grace to a perfection and a close even when great scholars such as Schweitzer proclaim this a false hope; you give your time, time that always seems in short supply, to liturgy, the worship and work of Christian people, prayer and good works.   On any grounds other than grace-given faith this is to adventure into an illusion.  

And this gift of self to the truth the world calls illusion has an analogy in the management of the goods of this world.  It was with good reason that Jesus chose the management of money as the activity illustrative of the adventure of faith.  In this adventure the third servant, the one given only one talent, failed miserably.  He should have invested his money at interest so that on the Master’s return the Master should have found an increase.  But the third servant buried the money he had been given in the ground because he was afraid, knowing that his Lord was a  hard master.  His fate was to lose even the one talent he had been given and to be cast into outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.   The good life, the Christian life, is an adventure, and to prescind from the adventure in favor of security either in things spiritual or things material and economic is to court ruin.  

In this regard the spiritual and the worldly are so closely interlinked that one will not flourish without the other.  The third servant having chosen security rather than the adventure of life is open to the political fact called socialism, the system in which the adventure of life, as well as its pains, are subsumed into a blanket of community security.  There is no mystery in the fact that, granting the necessity that the political community help those who cannot help themselves, where universal material security prevails, Christianity dies, for one cannot have the habit of choosing the security that guaranteed comfort encourages over the adventure of life without cutting the root of the spiritual life, itself rooted in wonder and faith,.   Where your treasure is, there your heart will be; where your security is, there your heart will be (Matthew 6:21).   

Finally the character of the good Lord as displayed in this parable should be noted.  He is a hard man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not plant.  His justice is not the reciprocal justice between individuals, not what moral philosophers call commutative justice, not a reciprocal exchange of goods, but  justice that is as high, as holy, and as hidden as His mercy is unfathomably, to us unreasonably, great yet never disparaging of His just character.  This is a side of the divine nature as it is revealed to us that is now not often canvassed.   It illustrates the truth that life is a gift too great to be wasted without consequence, a morally dangerous game in which no provision is made for sitting it out on the sidelines.  Having given us one good life, the Lord wants it back not merely as it was received but with interest, the flaws with which it was necessarily born amended, its weaknesses turned into strengths, its moral ignorance turned into spiritual knowledge, our love of self transformed into love for Him and for those others He also loves with a deep and indefeasible love, our fellow pilgrims.   

 

Are you Ready?

The bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But He said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.’
                            Mt. 25:11 – 13

Many yeas ago, stretched across a treacherous hairpin turn on Highway 30 in Mountainous Middle Tennessee there was a sign, suspended from a cable stretching across the chasm, that, as I remember it, proclaimed “Jesus is coming; be ready!” Then I brushed its message aside as representative of a rough, untutored religion. It took several decades for me to see that the message on the crude sign was of life-saving importance.

       It is certainly true that the early Church lived in the daily expectation of the return of Jesus, like the lightning flashing from east to West. Their universal cry was, “Come, Lord Jesus.” It is also true that when months and years passed there was confusion and disappointment. The Apostle Peter addressed those who asked, “Where is the promise of His coming, for things 2 have gone on as they have since the fathers fell asleep?” The community in which the Gospel of John was written, thinking that their Beloved Disciple would live until Jesus’ return, was much disturbed when that disciple died without Christ’s descent from the sky (John 21:22-23). Saint Peter addressed this concern when he wrote in his second letter that Jesus had delayed His return because the Lord God wanted many to come to repentance (3:4). The gift of salvation was not only for the citizens of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Galilee, nor was it for those blessed few who lived in the days of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, but was for all times and all places. On the teaching of Peter and the other apostles Jesus had founded a Church, and ekklēsia into which the citizens of all times and all nations would be called. Jesus’ last command had been that His disciples go into all the world and teach all nation, baptizing them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He would be with the apostolic mission until the end of the age.

       Jesus did not, however tell His followers when this age of grace might end with His triumphant return. What He did tell us is that it might be at any moment, at any second. So the parables in Matthew 13 are intended to permit uncertainty and that uncertainty is intended to inspire us to see each day as a gift and as an opportunity, the gift of another day in which to live for the Lord and an opportunity to attempt that perfection in grace toward which He calls us. The meaning of the parable of the unwise wedding guests is clear. Come to the wedding feast of the Lamb before the door is closed. That the door will be closed is certain. It will on a day certain in God’s providence close across the progress of our journey on earth so that we will be among that blessed company He will bring with Him when He returns bringing all the saints with Him (First Thessalonians 4:16). Or it may be that with these eyes of earth we will see the Lord descending with a shout.

       Of course many, some faithful at Mass, will believe none of this, because they are, sad to say, atheists. They do not believe that the telos, the end and perfecting of everything in creation, is not a political arrangement, not some utopia, but, self-evidently, that the highest of all creatures is a person, and that person Jesus Son of God, Son of Mary in whom all things subsist. And without Him nothing was made that was made. The gospel of Jesus Christ is of course an invitation to share in ideas, but is more deeply and significantly an invitation to share in Christ’s person, a fact which countless Christians experience but an experience that is difficult to describe, incorporation into a person suggests realities that are not easily assimilated by day to day experience. Perhaps we do have some intimations. There will be people in our lives whose minds we will know so well that we know what their thoughts will be on any particular issue. There are those whose pain we do feel and in whose happiness we do share. But incorporation into Jesus is much more because it is a more than natural, a supernatural relationship that exists within the communion of saints. This is what Jesus means when He prays to the Father that His disciples “may all be one . . . I in them and you in me, that they may be perfect in one.” And what Paul means when he says, “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ,” Paul says in Galatians, “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:7) and in Colossians 3:10–12: “You have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

       Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread he shall live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” Those standing by asked the obvious question: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” To this Jesus replies, “Truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you 4 shall not have life in you.” And then in the night in which He was betrayed He took bread and broke it and said, “This is my body which is given for you.” We are given life by sharing in His life. Words like participation and incorporation stretch thought and imagination but they are essential to the Biblical and theological attempt to insist that history means Jesus and those who live in Him and with Him. He it is “in whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities or powers, all things were created by Him and in Him (Colossians 1:15-16).

       So the person Christians will meet at the end is the person in whom we now live. He has given us His person, His body and His blood, His flesh and His life. We do not wait to receive eternal life until that happy day. The root of that life is already in us, planted there by our baptism, nourished by His presence in the Eucharist. But there is this. We must be ready for the wedding feast, for although baptized and fed we may still be outside a locked door if we do not guard the immeasurably great gifts of His presence in us and our lives in Him.

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