Second Sunday in Easter

Victory in Battle

And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

First John 5:1

 

Every person born into this world is born into the midst of battle that he is bound to lose, not because he lacks strengths of body or the power of reason but because his enemy is supernatural power and because he is himself a natural born traitor, marked in his heart by a sympathy for the enemy who would destroy him.   At baptism we or our sponsors for us change sides.  We renounce Satan and all his works and promise, with our born-bound allegiance to Satan obviated by the power of the cross, to serve God and His Christ.  By this act we have become the special object of Satan’s wrath.  Those who remain all unknowingly in his service he may leave alone, perhaps undisturbed in comfort, for he knows that although they may not do good in God’s service, they will keep their hearts to themselves alone and so will in the end be his.    But Satan believes that in the order of reality every son of Adam is his, and he will tirelessly pursue each baptized soul who through the sovereign mercy of God has crossed the lines into his enemy’s camp.    Just how many of these would-be traitors to Satan’s cause will escape his power is a mystery hidden in God’s omniscience, for as long as any soul is in this world there will be echoes of that earth-born allegiance to God’s adversary that may be fanned into rebellion.  But having once been born of water and the Spirit, the claim of the baptized soul upon the grace and goodness of Christ is absolute, and while freedom is such that even the elect may be deceived, those whom God has called across the enemy line he will make right and holy.   Each will have won the great victory, so that the evangelist John will write that the faith of Christians is the victory that overcomes the world.  

Overcoming the world is both the victory given Christians who are born anew through baptism and the project of a lifetime.    When John speaks theologically and hopefully of the victory that has been won by young and old who have overcome the evil one, he yet knows that the victory may be forgone for the road is not smooth.  It is this same John who says to those who have been anointed by the Holy Spirit, who have passed out of death to life, that while they abide in God they do not sin, that God’s very nature abides in them as God’s children;  John says that even these, if they say they do not sin both deceive themselves and make the Son of God a liar, standing as they do ever within the precincts of Satan’s wrath and ever under the necessity of the cleansing blood of Christ.  

          The sins John is describing in the opening verses of his first letter are those which belong to the biography of every Christian (I John 1:8-10) .  These are not sins that kill grace in the soul, that will not destroy the promise given at baptism or the faith that apprehends the promise.  The Church is to pray for those who have fallen into these sins, knowing that they are ours, knowing that because of such prayers these repentant souls will be given life.    Thus the Eucharist is usually begun with the common confession ending with the request that our brothers and sisters pray for us to the Lord Our God. But there are, says john, those sons that impair fatally that union with Christ which promises life, as we might now say not small sins born of ignorance or inadvertence, lacking deliberation, but sins of willful rebellion.  These are, John says, “sins unto death.”   John does not say that such sinners are eternally lost; the great apostle simply professes agnosticism before the anomaly that one who had been given the gifts he describes should commit such sins.     “I do not say that one is to pray for that, for one whose sin is mortal” (I John 5:16).  John offered no list.   The author of Hebrews wrote that if one apostatized who had lived the Christian life, who had been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift of the Eucharist, received the gift of the Holy spirit, tasted the goodness of the Scriptures, and known the supernatural hope of heaven, that one could not be restored (Hebrews 6:4).   This certainly was mortal sin.       

For almost two hundred years the Church seemingly remained silent about mortal sin, although what sin was, was it thought as well as action, could sins after baptism be forgiven, remained popular topics as was evidenced by the popular second century Shepherd of Hermas, in which these questions are canvassed hopefully but indecisively.  And there is a reading of the evidence which suggests that the power of the keys given in Matthew 16:19 remained dormant in the sense that not much appeal was made to it in the late first and second centuries.   Perhaps it was read not as referring to sins but to larger matters of precept and government of the Church.  Whatever the cause of this reticence, the possibility of the forgiveness of adultery, murder and apostasy was not much proposed until a great crisis of 215 at which time the Roman Bishop Callistus, to the scandal of Tertullian and Saint Hippolytus, claimed the ability to forgive such mortal sins.   Over time, through a process not to be documented here, the Church broke the silence of John regarding the forgiveness of sins unto death and claimed the power of the keys to forgive even the mortal sins of the truly penitent.  Perhaps this power was clarified, or more clearly recognized, after the Gospel of John, with the text (19:19) in which the Lord breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples, giving them the power to forgive sins, became part of the public literature of the cosmopolitan Church at mid-second- century.  The story of the development of the application of the apostolic power to secure victory over the world by forgiving soul-destroying sin is too long and complicated to be told here; suffice it to say that over time the mercy of such forgiveness became part of the life of the Church, sins being forgiven generously, often with only formal penances.  This power to forgive the guilt of sin, restoring the penitent to life in Christ, did not address the mystery of satisfaction, or the desire to make things right again, which made the reality of purgatory obvious for those who had in this life accepted the mercy and not done penance.      

The Evangelist John’s point is the great truth that faith,  its gift and practice, brings victory to the soul in a battle that is not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities in the heavenly places.   The extended footnote is then the fact that the battle is not won until our last day, that in the interval we will remain sinners who require the presence of Christ in prayer and the sacraments of the Church to have hope of winning out in the end, and that, John’s silence broken, there is even a cure for the mortal sins before the anomaly of which he stood silent.   

It is among the most tempting of follies that the world can become our friend.   When the Church is welcomed into culture, even when in the historical past it may seem to permeate and dominate that culture, the world is still an enemy, being now not outside but within.  The world is ever the precinct of the devil and of the domain of the flesh, of pride of life, of those lower appetites and those ‘higher’ spiritual failures, rebellion and the illusion of self-sufficiency, that seek to drag us back across the battle line and into Satan’s camp.                      

Easter Sunday 2018

Thoughts for Easter Sunday 2018

The Gift of Life

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

 I Corinthians 5:8

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

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

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

          But, thinking on, Job asked: 

          If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes.  Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee:  Thou wilt have a desire for the work of Thy hands (14:!4–15).     

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

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

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

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

          Of course to be a modern is to be troubled by the particularity of this question.  Saint Paul was not troubled with the abstract knowledge of the millions who lived beyond his tight Mediterranean world as are we who have daily knowledge of vast races and nations who do not believe or who believe in something other than the Son of God.  How God may use what is good in the intentions of those who do not know or believe perfectly, how He may understand their circumstances and limitations gently or narrowly is not part of our story.  But God is the God of the particular.  He does not know abstractions and medians.  He numbers the stars and gives them their names (Psalm 147:4). That He should have chosen one people, not because they were great, for they were not great, but because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:8), then one person, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word of his own Trinitarian life, to accomplish His will, is no more mysterious than that anything at all should exist.   And having caused a world and mankind to exist, that He who made it out of love, who has entered personally into the lives of His elect, would give His creation and His beloved over to death is truly incredible.   

Passion Sunday

On Being a Good Donkey

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, 
he sent two of his disciples and said to them, 
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it, 
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it.”

                                                                   Mark 11:1–10           

 

The colt the disciples found was not a horse but a young donkey, unbroken to the duty of carrying a burden on his back.      This donkey was not the only one of its kind to play a part in the Biblical story.  Numbers 22:1-31 recounts the attempt of the Midianite prince Balak to secure the blessing of the Prophet Baalam in the face of the impending invasion of his land by Israel, now freed from Egypt and on the march to Canaan.   Baalam’s indecisiveness in the face of this invitation leads the  Lord to send an angel to stand in the path, blocking the way to Moab.   Balaam did not see the angel but his donkey did, and so refuses to go forward on Baalam’s misguided mission.  Having urged his perceptive ass forward three times to no avail, Baalam then strikes the donkey, who protests, “What have I done to you , that you have struck me these three times?”  Baalam replies, “Because you have made sport of me.  I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.”   Baalam’s ass replied, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day?  Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?”  The Lord then intervenes: “Why have you struck your ass these three times?  Behold I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me and the ass saw me. . . . .  If she had not turned aside from me surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.”   

           Baalam and his talking ass were famous in Israel in apostolic times, so that Peter in his Second Letter compares the false prophets of his day to Baalam; “forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Baalam, the son of Peor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (II Peter 2:15–16).  And tradition has quite reasonably assigned the donkey a place in the story of Jesus’ birth.  The donkey is central to the image of the flight of the Holy Family, depicted so lovingly in Giotto’s fourteenth-century painting showing Mary mounted on a donkey holding Jesus, following Joseph into Egypt.   And tradition has further enriched the role of the donkey by locating him at the manger, medieval tradition flowering in Christmas music such as the 1865 carol by William Chatterton Dix: “Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?”   And in this text for Passion Sunday from Matthew a young donkey is given the honor of bearing the Lord into Jerusalem for the only popular acclaim He ever enjoyed, and if that acclaim was marred by irony—the crowd that shouted hosannas would soon turn on Jesus to demand His death—this was not the donkey’s fault.  The colt was commandeered, willingly as it happened, because Jesus had need of him.   Without the donkey there would have been no triumphal entry, no event that alerted the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the possibility that this Jesus might be so popular that civil unrest, even rebellion, might occur, no arrest, no cross, nor resurrection; the greatest story would not have been told in the way that it must have been told.

          “The Master has need of it” strikes the imagination awkwardly, but in order to work His holy will in the world Jesus had needed many things.   Without the six stone jars that the Virgin commanded be brought there would have been                                                                                                                                                                   no miracle at Cana (John 3:6).   The miracle of the feeding of five thousand could not have taken place without the five loaves and two fishes that Philip discovered (John 12:22).   Christ sent two of His disciples into Jerusalem to ask a householder, “Where is my guestroom where I am to eat my Passover?”  The Lord made bread and wine the means of His presence in the Church.  From the cross the Lord cried out for water (John 19:28).   He called the disciples because He needed them for the apostolic mission upon which He would send them as witnesses to His resurrection.   And in a yet deeper sense Jesus longs for souls.  One of the greatest of theologians, that fifth-century Dionysius of whose history we are ignorant, wrote that God through His excess of goodness yearns for mankind.  Christ is a shepherd who seeks us, “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 9:10).   Even Plato wrote in His Laws that God who is just cares for men.   

          It is a great mystery that this caring, the desire for the good of mankind, does not represent a want or a need or an insufficiency in the divine life, because in the community of the Blessed Trinity all truth is established, all love fulfilled, and all of time comprehended in a way that while it may be acknowledged is beyond human knowing.  God’s willingness to engage human reality from creation to redemption is an expression of the love that overflows from the joy that is the eternal fruition of all being in the begetting of the Son by the Father through the Love that is the Holy Spirit.    God’s willingness to know humanity from within, His omnipotent life expressed in an incarnate life of Jesus, seems to answer to our necessity but in the divine life it is the center of an ever-present reality, of a story whose beginning and end are known to the Story-Teller from the foundation of the world.    Jesus’ need for the colt, His calling the twelve, are moments in an eternal design within which for God there are no surprises.    But the drama and the glory of human life is our being called, as was the young colt, into the divine design whose end we do not know and which for us, is an open road.   The animal who warned Baalam was, as Saint Peter writes, a dumb ass who by divine agency spoke.   And one can at least hope that the colt, the untried donkey, who bore Jesus into Jerusalem, if he could not know as persons might know that he was bearing the Lord of glory, had at least the inchoate awareness that he was playing a starring role in God’s plan.   

          There is something in the very character of the donkey that portends a place in God’s scheme of things; he is little, lacking the intrinsic nobility of his cousin the horse, not the mount of a great warrior but a barer of burdens.   It was with insight that C. S. Lewis made the donkey Puzzle the animal hero of the Narnia stories, a role much different from that other Narnian hero, the valiant mouse Reepicheep, but the emblem of that patience and endurance and simplicity of soul without which we will not see God.   It is ours to imitate the donkey of Passion Sunday, doing with the freedom and good will that belongs to the human estate what the colt did in the way that nature always hears the voice of its Lord, bearing Him with us toward the cross that belongs to every life and rejoicing with Him in His defeat of death and gift of life unending with Him.        

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Thoughts on the First Reading

The days are coming, says the Lord, 
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel 
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand 
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; 
for they broke my covenant, 
and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant that I will make 
with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; 
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, 
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

                                                                   Jeremiah 31:31–34

 

The prophet Jeremiah knew that he lived at the end of an age.  The reign of good king Josiah (606–-598) was followed by the rule of his son Jehoiakim, himself politically ensnared and inept, vacillating between alliances with his powerful neighbors Egypt and Syria, presiding over a kingdom too weak to maintain its independence, with religion reduced to external observance. 

          These were not good days for prophets.  Jeremiah had begged off the job, arguing that he was too young and inexperienced to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:6-8).   It was always dangerous; Jesus would later make the persecution and murder of the prophets a characteristic of Israel (Matthew 5:12. 23:31).  Jeremiah’s prophecies had so irritated the chief priest that he had ordered Jeremiah “put in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the House of the Lord” (20:1-4).   Jeremiah complained bitterly that he had been deceived by the Lord.   He was commanded to proclaim violence and destruction, so that the words he spoke were a source of reproach and derision all the day long.   He had tried to be silent, but if he said, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” Jeremiah’s heart became a burning fire within so that he was weary with holding it in, and indeed he could not.  So he heard whispering on every side, “Denounce him! Let us denounce him! Say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall”(20:7–11).  It was a hard lot; indeed Jehoiakim had ordered the death of the prophet Uriah, a fate from which Jeremiah would be saved by the fortunate influence of a court official, Ahikam, who was friendly to him (26:20–23). Continue reading “Fifth Sunday in Lent”

Fourth Sunday in Lent

When God Lets Us Go

The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by His messengers because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, till the wrath of God rose against His people, till there was no remedy.  II Chronicles 36:15

 

The account from the Book of Chronicles tells the story of the final events in the pre-exilic history of Judah, after which in 586 the nation would be taken captive into Babylon.   The history of Israel account in the concluding chapters of Chronicles is a particularly grizzly tale of national apostasy, idolatry, and the rebellion of the kings.  After good king Hezekiah came Manasseh, who built altars to the hosts of heaven, listened to sorcerers and wizards, and burned his sons as an offering in the valley of Hinom.  The story ends with the faithlessness of Zedekiah, who, refusing to hear the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar.   God “stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord.  The leading priests and people likewise were exceeding unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations, and they polluted the house of the Lord which He had hallowed in Jerusalem” (Chronicles 36:11-14). Even then because He had compassion for the people and for His dwelling place, He “sent persistently to them by His messengers . . . but they kept despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, till the wrath of the Lord rose against His people.” So God sent Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans, and Israel went into slavery in a far land.       

           As it happens we have Jeremiah’s account of his prophecy to Zedekiah:  “It is I who, by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.  Now I have given this land to Nebuchadnezzar” (Jeremiah 27). Nebuchadnezzar was a notorious tyrant, a worshiper of false gods, but, like every circumstance of history, an instrument of God’s providence.    In His omnipotence and omniscience God had used circumstance to punish and chastise; when those He loves despise His words, He may withdraw for a time the hand of His blessing and give them over to evil. 

          It is possible to decline God’s message, to walk away from His commandments, as did Zedekiah and Israel.  In the New Testament the rich young ruler did just that.   He wanted to enter the kingdom, but when Jesus told him to sell his goods and give the money to the poor, he walked away (Matthew 19:21).  When the philosophers on the Areopagus heard Paul’s preaching of the resurrection some believed but some mocked, and others suggested politely that such a weighty matter should wait for another day (Acts 1:32-34). Continue reading “Fourth Sunday in Lent”

Third Sunday of Lent

Paul’s Gospel

Having been justified by faith, we have peace before God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand by faith.   And we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we boast in tribulations knowing that tribulation produces endurance and endurance character and character hope, which very hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  

Romans 5:1–4  

     This text is an inspired summary of means and meaning of salvation as Paul knew it and taught it in years 35–65 the politically terrible years of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.  The underlying image is of a petitioner seeking access to an imperial official whom we are not on our own merits and standing able to approach, but in Paul’s Letter to the Romans it is not Tiberius but the Eternal Majesty, in whose gift lies every good thing, including the possibility of sharing in the glory that belongs to Him alone, in whose presence we are not worthy to stand.

     To gain such access the petitioner must be justified, he must be right, but here the word is a passive voice meaning, “having been made right,” made worthy to enjoy the promises of Christ, the passive voice indicating that this is the work of God in us.  It is the presupposition of the use of the words justify and justification that there is a standard that God expects His sons and daughters to meet, a standard before which, as Paul writes later in this text, we stand helpless.   We know that this standard is more than the keeping of the old law, for the entire Sermon on the Mount teaches that its propositions are to be surpassed, and we know that this law-surpassing goodness is the gift given at Pentecost, the gift of the new heart formed by God’s own love. Continue reading “Third Sunday of Lent”

Thoughts on the Gospel

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

  Which Is Easier?

 “If you wish you can make me clean”
Mark 1:40

“Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk.’”
Matthew 9:5

Luke tells his readers that “many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha” (4:27) and in the time of Jesus they still were many.   That lepers would be healed was among the original promise of the kingdom, along with freedom to captives and sight to the blind (Matthew 10:8, 11:5, Luke 7:22).    It was one of a company of ten lepers whom Jesus healed who turned back to thank the healer (Luke 17:11–19).  Jesus was in the house of Simon the Leper when the woman came to pour precious ointment on the Lord’s head (Matthew 26:6).    Jesus had no fear of lepers, although their disease was fearsome, a wasting disease, caused as we now know, by bacteria that make the body visibly decay.  Leviticus commanded that lepers cry out “unclean” as they walked among other men and women, and that they live apart (Leviticus 13:45).   In the twelfth century there were two thousand hospitals for lepers in Europe, and lepers still carried a bell to warn of their approach.  

Often finally fatal, it made those afflicted repugnant.   When one sees a body horribly deformed from wounds or bearing the evidence of disease or born imperfect or with limbs falling away, although the second thought, the product of disciplined imagination, may acknowledge that the person must be treated with every respect, often    the first thought is to distance oneself from the painful sight.   In the worst case the person thus afflicted may be contagious; avoidance is intuitive.    Leprosy was a particularly disgusting disease, common in Palestine when Jesus taught.  Lepers were pariahs; that Jesus visited Simon’s house was a sign of His  love for the unlovely.  Continue reading “Thoughts on the Gospel”

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thoughts on the Reading

There is Hope for a Tree

 If a man die shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait
till my release should come.

Job 14:14

Near the end of their national existence Philo of Alexandria (BC 15–50AD) wrote treatises on philosophic topics in the way of Hellenistic Greek philosophers, but for most of their history Jewish thinkers avoided abstract questions about how we know the world and what its basic elements might be.  Jewish literary culture did however have a kind of writing called Wisdom literature that took up existential theological and ethical topics such as the situation of man in the world God had created and the meaning of finite existence.  The classic of the genre is the Book of Job, which goes beyond the usual terrain of Wisdom to be a kind of Gospel before the Gospels, recounting the conversion of the just man so that he becomes the man of humble and believing heart, but there were other books belonging to the genre, including the Book of Wisdom and Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, and along the way books such as Job and Ecclesiastes delve deep into the situation of man in whose heart God has put eternity yet not so that he can find out the beginning and the end (Ecclesiastes 3:1). (For more on Wisdom literature see Peter Kreeft’s Three Philosophies: Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs.)    

The fourth chapter of the book that bears his name finds Job world-weary because his days march on leading to nowhere, to nowhere but death, Sheol, that place of existence without hope.   Job is with the permission of God much afflicted in his body (Job 2:4–6). He is condemned to hear his three theological friends present version after version of the proto-Pharisaic claim that the righteous do not suffer, which by the lights of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar meant that suffering Job has sinned and is stubbornly refusing to confess his faults.  This unhappy condition provides background of Job’s complaint, an episodic outbreak of a frustration bordering on despair.  

Has not man hard service upon earth,
And are not his days like the days of a hireling who looks for his wage, 
So I am allotted months of emptiness, Continue reading “Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time”

Christmas

Thoughts on the Second Reading
 for
 Christmas Day at Dawn

“Enter in; be born in us today.” 
Phillips Brooks

When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of His mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom He richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by His grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

                                               Titus 3:4–7

Christmas has many meanings, each of which has its proper place.  It is a holiday, which means it is a holy day.  Poor secularists, the very language resists them.  Changing the greeting from Merry Christmas to Happy Holiday still leaves a word that has its origin at the altar, for holiday really means the holy day of Christmas, the great celebration of the Savior’s Birth; and analogously the reflective will know that moving from AD and BC to Before and After the Common Era still leaves the inquisitive soul wondering what there was about a certain day in the reign of Augustus that made the world number time anew.  

The meaning of Christmas can be obscured only with difficulty, for it means many good things.   It means profit at last for the stores and industries that persisted profitless through the long summer, waiting for the day after thanksgiving when the ledgers will move into the black, prompted by that human activity called shopping, which usually means at Christmas shopping pursued with asperity but also with a touch of charity.  It mean  a day off from work, always welcomed in a culture marked by the relentless rhythm of the machine, enjoyed even by those who may not attach any meaning to Christmas .   And who can miss the note of delight that makes those who do not worship Jesus give gifts and decorate their houses.    Continue reading “Christmas”

Third Sunday of Advent

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy.
I Thessalonians 5:23

Sometimes heavily theological things just sneak up on one, and so it is for this third Sunday in Advent.  In what is probably the earliest of Paul’s letters to survive, the apostle prayed that the Thessalonians might be made holy by the God of peace.  In that short prayer there are two grand assumptions.   The first is that the goal of life in Christ is holiness; the second that this work is accomplished in us by God, is proclaimed throughout Sacred Scripture; “You must be holy for I your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:2).  To be holy is to be set apart; as God is set apart from His creation, so Israel is set apart from the nations and their idolatry, so also the Church is set apart from the world.  Before the throne of God the four living animals, representative of all of animate nature, sing forever, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty.”   The offering at the Eucharist begins with the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.  Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The great prayer Our Lord gave His Church begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, let your name be held holy.” So Paul is teaching the Thessalonians and us that the end of life is to share in the life of God who is holy.

          In part God’s holiness is His otherness; what He is not, that He is not a creature and not to be worshipped under the image of anything on the earth, under the earth or in the sky above.  The existence of this Holy One, not a being but self-subsistent being Himself, who is conditioned by nothing on earth but who created every creature out of nothing through His will and is causing the existence of creatures moment by moment; who is personal and more than personal, and directs the ways of every person, who does not have justice but who is justice, who loves because He is love, and who will judge the world against the standard He has erected; be holy because I am holy.  His holiness is not an absence but a fullness, and having taught us that His beauty and His goodness are not of our conceiving, He assures us that as His gift these surpass what eye has seen or ear heard.  

         We are not holy in ourselves but we may become holy by participating in His holiness through our sharing in the life of Jesus Christ His son. The holiness He gives us is ours in fact, but it is not a thing but a relation, a gift of the companionship of God, which lives in the heart of the humble, and which, if it is not honored and nourished will turn dry, then hard, and then become a testimony against those who have presumed.   “Holy” is used rarely, if at all, of the living.  

          We achieve that participation not because we seek Him but because He seeks us and in seeking us gives us the desire to share His life and to do His will, which is the fruition of life in the Son who is consubstantial with the Father.  He makes us righteous and His sons and daughters in baptism.  Why every soul does not receive this gift is hidden in the particularity of a providence that chose Israel while neglecting the Greeks and Persians, and the destiny of those not, as far as  human eyes can see, enjoying this blessing must be left to Him.   Having justified us in baptism by His condescending charity through the sacrifice of Christ, His love does not let us go but through the sacraments, those holy-makers, makes us holy, that is, offered to God and called out of the world,  And this is, as Paul says, the work of God.

          In modernity this divinely revealed and accomplished pattern of our engagement with God is opposed by a noxious climate of ideas.   In an age that has lost interest in God, the temptation to see the principal work of the Church as the amelioration of human poverty and suffering tends to the derogation of Paul’s prayer that we must first be made holy to the Lord, whom we must first love before we touch the world, lest lacking charity, our works become as sounding brass and tinkling symbols, giving our goods and offering our bodies without the charity that makes then pleasing to God.

          Even more fundamentally damaging is the religious atheism that besets a still Christ-haunted world, a spirit unable to conceive that the world we know with its seemingly indefinite extension through galaxy after galaxy and its seeming persistence through ages upon ages is like a nut in the hand of the Almighty or a breath or vapor vanishing when morning comes.  And add to this debilitating blindness the insensitivity to things eternal that so easily allows the belief that the finality of life is the culture of comfort that dulls the taste for the adventure of the soul toward holiness which Paul commends, blotting out the light of heaven with the blue gaze of the electronic eye. And add the debilitating effect of a life of incessant noise and excitement, beside which the joys of sharing in the very life of God seems to a taste unaccustomed to the things of heaven to be a great bore.    The saints do not describe their journey toward holiness as vibrant, exciting, and innovative, but speak of peace, fulfillment, and sweetness.  

Paul adds to his words quoted in the superscript, “And may you entirely, spirt, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The life we live now in Christ is justified and perfected by its end, the return of Jesus.    For what life and indeed history mean is not an indeterminate process toward an unknown future but a Person.  Through whatever timefull meof companionship ans God repaired in nature the catastrophe of the fall, that process was perfect when God planted a garden in Eden.   The divine-human person who is at once the second Adam and the Son of God is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” in whom all things were created in heaven and earth .  .  .  .   He is before all things and in Him all things hold together. . . .  In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all things, whether in heaven or on earth, making peace by the blood of His cross.”  

           This same Jesus in whom the creation of all things exists, this Person, is He who will welcome those who have walked in His way, wiping the tears of life from their eyes. He is causing at this moment the existence of the world of minds and men and oaks and animals. As the celebration of the Birth of Christ approaches, be it remembered that the Child born in Bethlehem is of one substance with the holy, immortal God who made the star that announced His birth.