Thoughts on the Gospel for Epiphany

His Star

             We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.                                                                  Matthew 2:2

         He determines the number of the stars; He giveth them all their names. Psalm 146:4

The stars shone in their watches and
were glad;
He called them, and they said
“Here we are!”
They shone with gladness for Him
who made them.
Baruch 3:34

The wisemen from the East could not have found the newborn king had not the heavens, His star,  led them to the stable in Bethlehem. Various naturalistic attempts have been made to identify His star, none quite convincing.   For the Greeks and Romans the heavens were a place of divinity and mystery, from which the gods might speak, and central to this view was the conviction that nature, stars being nature’s crown, were alive, as in the texts superscript.  For Plato the stars were visible gods. For the Hebrews they were angels, as with the angels of the Churches in Revelation. When probes went into the heavens it was reported that the stars were flaming rocks. That of course is what they are made of, but this observation offers no more satisfactory definition than would a biological description of any person, his height and weight, the composition of his flesh and  bones, tell who that person is that breathes and loves and hopes. So perhaps the Hebrews and the Greeks were right; the stars may be angelic presences. 

            In any event Scripture testifies that nature is alive, and it was essential that the birth of Jesus be announced by His star.  For given the truth that all things were made by the Word, that all things exist in Him, the story would not have been true had nature not confessed Christ in the presence of His star. The nearly universal intuition that nature should acknowledge its creator lies behind the quite non-canonical inclusion of the ox and donkey looking adoringly at the Christ child.  

We know the beasts only as silent, but we also know that this silence will be broken.  For in the age to come nature will sing; the ox. the eagle, the man-like animal, and the lion, all will sing endlessly, day and night,  “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory” (Revelation 4:9). And in that day, when nature is healed of the curse brought upon it by sin, says bishop  Papias of Hierapolis, each vine shall have a thousand clusters, and in each cluster ten thousand grapes. “And when any of the saints shall have taken hold of a cluster, another shall cry, ‘I am a better cluster; take me, bless the Lord through me.’” 

The last three psalms, 148–150, have as their subject the praise nature gives to God, 

                Praise Him, sun and moon,
                          Praise Him all you shining stars!
                Praise Him, you highest heavens
                           And you waters above the heavens.
                Let them praise the name of the Lord (148:3-4)

           And even when nature is silent it witnesses God’s glory:

                The heavens are telling the glory of God;
                          And the firmament proclaims His handiwork.
                Day to day pours forth speech,
                            And night to night declares knowledge.
                There is no speech, nor are there words;
                            Their voice is not heard
                Yet their voice goes out through the earth,
                            And their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:3-4).

           So beautiful is nature, so impressive  its regularity, so compelling its fecundity, so immediate and pressing is its presence upon us and in us, that men have always been tempted to worship nature.   The present form of that worship is not a formal idolatry such as Jeremiah condemned when he prophesied that at the last day the bones of those who have worshipped sun and moon would be brought out of their tombs and spread before the host of heaven “which they have sought and worshipped; they shall not be gathered or buried, they shall be as dung on the face of the ground” (8:2).  

          In the post-modern world, it is rather the naturalism of the philosophers that while it does not burn incense to the sun and moon, commits idolatry by considering nature as we find it to be the sum and source of reality while taking lightly or even purposefully neglecting the universal testimony that nature itself attests to supernature.   As Paul says, we have evidence enough; God’s “eternal power and deity has been perceived in the things that have been made.” Those who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling man” he abandons to their own willfulness, and finally, having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, they finally “worship and serve the creature rather than the creator” (Romans 1:20-23).  A philosopher or scientist who considers nature as we find it the sum of reality, who thereby worships the creature, need not journey to Stonehenge at the winter solstice to worship nature. By presenting what we can see and touch as the self-referential sum of reality he is no less an idolater, unwitting though his worship be, than the ancient Hebrews who made offerings to the moon.   

          Whoever the Magi were they were wise; whatever their sources and methods, they knew that nature spoke and they listened.  So they saw His star in the east and followed it until it shone above the stable in which lay Him through whom the worlds were made.

Thoughts on the Christmas Season

Finding the Twenty-Fifth

Christmas has twelve days, counting Christmas Day as the first and ending just short of the Feast of the Epiphany on January sixth.  In the   traditional Roman rite the season of Christmas is longer, lasting until  Lent. But the twelve days, and especially Christmas day, is a time of gift-giving and happiness.  Yet the apostles as they heralded the good news across the Roman world did not begin their proclamation with the story of the baby in the manger, worshipped by shepherds and kings.  They spoke to the condition of the audience to whom they had been sent, men under the wrath of God, living outside God’s will and presence, destined for failure to achieve their divinely-willed destiny.  The apostles began with the cross, with Christ’s death for the remission of sins and with a new life of discipline and sacrifice. Paul is clear that the salvation of mankind began when Jesus was born of a woman, born under the law, but he does not tell us her name (Galatians 4:4).

By the end of the first Christian century there had grown up an alternative interpretation of the Savior, with many, infected perhaps by the Hellenistic presupposition that the body was doomed to meaningless distinction and the soul by nature kin to the divine, denying that Christ had come in the flesh, insisting that Jesus was somehow a theophany.  Notice of this heresy occurs as early as the first letter of John, who denounces those who say that Christ had not come in the flesh (I John 4:2–3, II John 7–9).   This is an early chapter in the battle  for the humanity of Jesus, like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:5).    Irenaeus, in a long book written bout 185, called these deniers gnostics, knowers or intellectuals, among whom salvation was not to be achieved by repentance and regeneration through the Holy Spirit but by the ecstatic appropriation of a world system in which creation itself was ultimately an illusion while salvation consisted of a kind of self-knowledge.   

The battle lines once drawn, Gnostics were bound to deny even the reality of Christ’s death, which is surely the reason the Gospel of John is careful to depict the Beloved Disciple standing by the cross so as to see  blood and water flow from the side of the dying Savior (John 18:35, I John 5:8).   At some date unknown, the question of Christ’s birth  would surely have arisen.  For gnostics there may have been no specific time when the heavenly Savior descended into the redeemed souls of the enlightened, but this would have been a fair question:  If Jesus was born like any other man, when and where did this birth take place?   There might then have ensued an intense interest in the life of Christ before He began to teach.  What was His childhood like; where was He born, and to whom.    It would be now that Mary might begin to tell of the things she had previously hidden in her heart, of the angel’s salutation, the visits of the shepherds and the wisemen, of the time when she and Joseph had lost their son because He was listening to the doctors in the temple (Luke 2:19, 51).   And naturally the question of the day of Jesus’ birth would arise in the public forum of apology and counter-apology.  

Mary’s account and Joseph’s would influence the writing of Luke (1:56–2:52), and  perhaps also Matthew (1:18–2:23).  Saint Ignatius, writing about 110, probably knew the story of the star that shone over the stable (Ephesians 19).   Saint Irenaeus had discerned the importance of Mary in the economy of salvation.   But there was still no recorded certainty of the date of the Lord’s birth.   Perhaps Saint Hippolytus knew December twenty-fifth, but scholars warn that this date for the nativity, inserted in a manuscript of 204, may be a later interpolation.   The Feast of the Resurrection was celebrated early, for every Sunday was a commemoration of the Resurrection, the promise with which the apostolic mission led.  At least there was controversy about it in the pontificate of Victor of Rome (189–98), who threatened, ineffectively, to excommunicate all of Asia because they stubbornly preferred the date form the Jewish calendar to the Roman custom that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday (Eusebius, Church History, 5.14).   

While there are earlier references to the birth  of Christ on December twenty-fifth, there is no document citing that day as the Feast of the Nativity until 354, when a calendar or almanac made  by a famous illustrator Filocalus for the Roman nobleman Valentinus contained the casual note that December twenty-fifth is the feast of the Nativity.  At some time in the past the Church had found Christ’s birthdate and made it a great celebration.

Subsequently there has ensued much speculation as to why we know this date or why December twenty-fifth was chosen.  The simplest explanation is that the Blessed Virgin, who knew the angelic salutation, the flight into Egypt, the visits of the shepherds and wisemen, also knew the date of her Son’s birth, which knowledge at the right time passed into the memory of the Church.  There is also the thought that Christianity, with its assimilative power, may have taken over the Roman festival called Saturnalia, a period of merriment and gift-exchanging that took place between 17 and 23 December.  Slaves were allowed a temporary liberty to do as they chose; masters waited on their servants at a table  There was a general atmosphere of freedom that made the philosopher Porphyry reflect that the festival foreshadowed the freedom that awaited immortal souls. And in addition, December twenty-first was the winter solstice, after which the days would grow longer, signaling the conquest of darkness by the unconquerable sun.  Certainly it was true that the Church had a history of displacing certain Roman festivals with Christian celebrations.   To cite one example, the feast of Lupercalia, celebrated in early February, involved the (unusual) sacrifice of a goat and a dog, whose blood would be smeared on the Luperci, who then would run a race. The Lupercalia was still celebrated in 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned it and substituted the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.  As a noted scholar remarked, the relation among these Christmas-time festivals, the Christian Feast of the Nativity, the winter solstice, and Saturnalia “has not been established.”

And there is this to be observed.  Doubt that Christians remembered the day of Jesus’ birth, even granting that such knowledge may not have been  important until the controversy with the Gnostics made the details of Jesus’ biography significant, is an attitude fathered on the legend of antique incompetence by the progressive myth read backwards.  For reasons unknown, perhaps due to the persisting renaissance pride that we are better than our forebears, much contemporary scholarship builds upon an unenunciated ‘progressive’ presupposition that Christians in the first century were ‘primitive’ in the sense  that they were uncertain of the day on which they were born and more open to historical confusions and ignorant superstition than moderns, many of whom believe that life on earth will become impossible due to global warning within eleven years and not a few of whom believe that socialism, which reliably enslaves, is the path toward true freedom.  

             This  misplaced pride in our present knowledge and willful ignorance of the past is the darkest side of the myth of progress.  If between 1900 and the present we have in imagination progressed x, projecting the inevitable progression backward, as what must be regression, to the first century in increments of x must leave the first century in Stygian darkness. In fact many dates from the past are forgotten, but some are remembered, and the citizens of the Age of Augustus were no less capable of remembering than we.   It is just possible that when the Church looked, it found that the correct date was December twenty-fifth. The Blessed Virgin Mary certainly remembered the day when Jesus was born in the stable in the little town of Bethlehem.

Thoughts for the Feast of Christ the King

 He is before all things,
and in Him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through Him to reconcile all things for Him,
making peace by the blood of His cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

Colossians 1:16

 

In His divine humanity Christ is one of us but without sin.  In His cosmic divinity, while remaining incarnate, He is present in the heart of the Father even while in every moment of time He is the word through whom the worlds were made.  He is present personally in the Eucharist, and by His living and present power He is present throughout creation. He is present in the scientist’s true formula and the philosopher’s right reason.   His glory shines wherever there is beauty, the beauty of a human face or of Mozart or of Bernini or of a summer’s day, wherever there is charity or any virtue.  He is particularly present where evil is being borne and temptation resisted.
            It is a great scandal to Satan’s cosmopolitan mind that in a world full of so many peoples, so many ideas, so many loyalties, it is Jesus alone who is the image of the invisible God.  In Him, in the Word, all things hold together. He has no competitors, and this in part because whatever is true of human experience lives in Him. Whatever is true in humanism, in Islam, in Judaism, exists in Him, while if any of these pretend to universality or even sufficiency, they become idolatries, false gods.   There may be some truth in everything, but nothing is true but Christ. 

 It is the grand illusion of the human race that we are the sole and active agents in creation and in our destiny, when in effect we share a borrowed power, and exist moment by moment by the will of another.  It is by His gift that we live and move. In Him all things hold together. He is the cause of causality, the source of just individuation, the perfection of every perfect thing insofar as it is perfect.     

And without Him all things fall apart.  While He cannot be driven from creation and He wills not to stop the beating heart even as it rebels. But the divinely willed stability of nature provides no morally neutral ground. For where Christ is,  while through His will and power e=mc2 and the Pythagorean their will remain stable, there will also be in a world that neglects Christ and His truth the incessant importunings of Satan, hidden at first in equivocation, self-esteem, and pride, but increasingly unveiled in souls who do not cleave to Christ, until blinded and unknowingly those souls abandon the good and become victims and agents of evil.   

It is the persistent lie of the world that Christ is an optional enrichment, one among many alternatives.  It is the claim of those He sent that He is the way and the truth and that none comes to God by any way other than Christ and His cross.     True, the modern world proposes its alternatives to the scandal of Christ. Beginning with the dispiriting lie that humankind is not only good but unflawed, the proposal is that we must develop a community of natural kindness. This is the humanitarian religion whose victory Newman foresaw in his Biglietto Speech of 1879.  This new religion was developed through Modernism and the New Theology of the Edwardian era, until it became the presupposition of religion in the 1960s. It proposes to obviate the pain of life and in the attempt to do so destroys life’s adventure. Its political form is socialism, its philosophy is cynicism and despair of the truth, its religion modernism, which directs imagination away from God and toward the melioration of the human condition.  Winston Churchill described it as “the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.”   

Secularism, this-age-ism, may take many forms, but like Christianity secularism has its revealed principles, and while it has a philosophy and an economic policy, in its origin and for its power it depends upon faith that this world is what is, all  that is. A secular world is one that cries out for government solutions as a faithless people find the vicissitudes of freedom unmanageable. Then it is easy to put one’s faith in Big Brother, and then follows the belief ; that mankind, having failed to become brotherly and disinterested under the influence of Christ, after a long and painful tutelage under an absolute authorianism, their natural goodness finally revealed,  may become virtuous according to the Socialist pattern; and that there is a race of men, vastly different from the ordinary sinners depicted in the daily newspaper as they are carried off for peculation, abuse, and prevarication, and the common consequences of lust and greed; a race justly capable of planning the future, assigning employments, and distributing resources, to whom the development of a future without risk, pain, or fear may be confidently assigned.  Then, having been unwilling to bow the knee at the name of Jesus, every back will bend beneath the knout and the whip that invariably accompany the expropriation, murder, and torture that is required to establish the humanitarian state. It is a painful truism that since the great example of Israel’s Babylonian captivity, those who will not have God will be taken into slavery.     

Interestingly enough, one may see from the governments that dominate in much of Asia and some of the Caribbean and South American states, that these regimes are established by fear and violence.  Not so the reign of Christ, which in its origin is the kingdom of the heart, which is founded in the mystery of freedom, and which seems to lie defenseless not only before these socialist authoritarianisms but in the face of the moral decay of the great democracies that live in the delusion that one may have justice and freedom without God.   In a very practical way their polities share the principles of Castro and Xi: history is not moving toward the return of Christ but toward the comfortable, pain-free life, a life that summarizes human possibility, which is made available by the state.   

In this situation in which Christ has no army, in which the corporate witness of the Church is weak and confused, the only weapon at hand is the weapon that was available to Christians in the age of Nero, Decius, and Diocletian, their lives.  There are countless lives that by their unwavering faith and exemplary charity testify to the power of Christ. These may be hidden, but there are also heroes, those who dare to receive a family of children as determined by God rather than by reproductive technology.  And there is still individual heroism. One thinks of the priest who dared to deny the body and blood of Jesus to a politician who publicly defends the destruction of little children. And there was this week the Chinese bishop who fled rather than witness to the lawfulness of the official Church. And not long ago a highly placed official made a public speech at a religiously-founded university not noted for unwavering witness in which He denounced the deconstruction of values native to Christianity.  He and his words were condemned as divisive. Christianity is always divisive and is always resented by the secular order which longs for secular peace among a population undisturbed by any idea that rises above the historical horizon. These in their different ways were the witnesses Jesus commanded when He said: you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  

Such witnesses have special importance when the magisterial Church is in disarray, afraid to preach the unique necessity of Jesus—nobody has to believe it but Christian witness hurts feelings, with some notable exceptions lacking the courage to stand up to the sexual revolution, coopted in its humanitarian concerns by the secularists, unclear on the point that holiness is the one thing necessary.  Jesus told us that He had come to bring not peace but the sword, and while we know that the peace He does not promise is secular peace and that the sword is the sword of the Spirit, Christ will always have His army of witnesses, unto the ends of the earth.



Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Gift of Work

 

Brothers, you know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
we worked, so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.

II Thessalonians 3:6-12

 

It is a matter of consummate interest and importance that before Adam fell, he was put in the Garden and told by  his Creator to till it and keep it. From the beginning, it was God’s plan that the earth required the perfecting hand of man.   Although later the earth would be cursed because of man’s complicity in the great rebellion, work itself was holy, having a specific object, to bring forth from the soil the bread by which mankind lives, which bread in its highest use would become the body of the Lord.  Sin makes the ground resist the human hand, but work itself is a gift commanded at the dawn of creation.  

Until the day of our grandfathers, while there would be workers with words, priests and teachers, and also men of just violence, soldiers, tilling the soil would be the common vocation. Now work is likely to involve neither the plow nor the scythe, but the electronic screen through which all that is in the world flows into mind and imagination. 

Paul’s situation is one in which some do not work while living off the charity of others, perhaps believing that the apostolic order of common property remembered in Acts and effective in the days of Pentecost was permanent (Acts:2:44, 4;32). It may have been easy to fall into this way of life in a community of Christians who were daily expecting the Lord’s return, making the pursuit of duty and profit  redundant. Paul’s point is that work, producing one’s own food, orders the soul rightly, whereas sloth, the vice of laziness should not be found among Christians, leading as it does to moral and hence finally to civil chaos.. In support of this admonition, Paul offers his own example, the example of a life spent not only in apostolic labor that repeatedly brought him into distress and great labor but also a life spent practicing the craft at which he was a master, tentmaking, so that his maintenance was never a charge on the Churches he served (Acts 3:18).  It was a tender point. Paul pointed with some pique to the fact that he and Barnabas were the only apostles who had foregone the support they might justly have claimed and which others enjoyed (I Corinthians 9:3–7).    

Work usually means doing, and so it is a verb, but there is also a noun, the Latin opus, used with reference to something created with forethought and imagination.    We will say that Beethoven’s Opus 53 is Sonata Number 21 in C Major, a work complete in itself, as perfect as its composer could make it.   Paul is seeing his life as an opus, a finished work when he writes the beautiful passage that begins, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.  Therefore there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (II Timothy 4:7). And in that way every life can be an opus, not simply a labor. 

The key to a life that is a perfected work is discovering a vocation, from the Latin noun vocatus and the verb voco,  or calling. For many this will mean  accepting the shape of necessity as the will of God,  a life of labor dictated by circumstance, which must then be transformed often by labor into an opus. This possibility is among the blessings of a world now often freed from labor on the land and cast into a cauldron of possibility.   A person now twenty may become if not anything at least a great number of things, and in a world in which we no longer inherit our vocation from our father, and are often not bound by necessity, this means the danger of possibility.   When the forms are dissolved, each person must as is said “Make up his own mind.”  

In this exercise of discerning a vocation there are no rules but there are considerations.  There is the possibility that God is calling you into His immediate service.  There are your responsibilities which must be consulted. Then there is the fact of your natural abilities, which are a guide.  And perhaps above all there is the fact of your interests. And out of this texture of projects and necessities the Christian will make a life that is his or her opus.  

At present work is more than usually frustrated  by various schemes that propose to take away that part of work that contributes to the pain of life; the monotony, the limitations on freedom.  It was part of the grand illusions of the sixties that we just might be able to invent a laborless world. Perhaps robots would do it all! Or automation.  This, these proposals, overlook the truth that work is not only good for the soul but essential to the good life. Our meaning is in forming our own opus, that finished work of  our lifetime, spent either in the factory or the office, that says well done.     

That opus will have many meanings and many levels;  imaginative, affective, economic, but the one level that will locate and give true value to the others is the moral meaning of every action of a lifetime.   Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that what our lives mean is to be found in what we do for others. This begins, as Paul says, by working with our hands and minds, by minding our own duties and not the business of others, taking care of ourselves and our families.  Paul has harsh words for those who fail in this, writing that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and I worse than an unbeliever” (I Timothy 4:8). This care for others ranges out from our own to touch the hungry, the stranger, and the naked with the divine charity.  To those who do these things, the Lord will say, “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). 

There are varieties of Christianity that doubt that our works matter in the face of the all-sufficient efficacy of faith.  To this it can only be said: These, these works, this are my life, taken together my opus, a work of your grace offered to you, O Christ.         

         

    

 

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

For His Glory

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

Ephesians 1:11-12

 

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

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

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feast of Saint John Baptist

The Feast of Saint John Baptist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. M. G. D.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Life Means a Person

 

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

 

Hebrews 9:13-15

 

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

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

The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity

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

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

Romans 8:16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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