Category Archives: Redemption

Spreading Hope

 

During a September series between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, Giants’ rightfielder Hunter Pence wore a necklace that contained the cremains of a devoted Dodgers’ fan, after the Dodgers refused the request to have the man’s daughter spread his ashes on the field.  The plea was one of many that the Dodgers and the rest of the MLB teams receive and routinely refuse yearly.  There is an ongoing campaign to develop a compromise of sorts in that the teams could allow on certain days a small amount of a person’s ashes to be spread on the field.  Setting aside the pragmatic reasoning, this decision ultimately represents an act of charity toward the dead and their loved ones.

The Book of Tobit reveals God’s pleasure in Tobit’s dogged persistence in burying the dead (Tobit 14:14) and it has long been considered a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition.  Understanding why God looks favorably upon this act however can help us to see the reason the Church insists that cremated remains not be scattered.

Spreading Faith

Christians have long seen death not as annihilation nor as the releasing of the soul from its incarceration in the body, but as having a fundamental positive meaning.  By being united to Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism, the believer sees his own death in Christ as the pathway to a share in His glorious resurrection.  Like the resurrection of the Lord, the Christian’s is a bodily resurrection.  Our temporal bodies become as a seed of the body that will rise in glory (c.f. 1Cor 15:42-44).

This motivation helps to reveal the meaning of Christian burial.  If we really believe that our resurrected bodies are found in seed form in our earthly bodies, then our actions ought to reveal this.  Seeds must be buried and die so that new life may spring forth.   Christian burial is a sign of this; a sacrament that point to this reality.

Historically, pagans practiced funeral rites that included cremation, reflecting the widespread belief that there was no resurrection of the body.  Even when the pagans did practice burial (based on the belief that only when their bodies were buried could the soul rest), the Christians still buried their separately from the pagans because of the great difference in their understanding of the future resurrection.  It was this connection between paganism (and later certain secret societies and cults) and cremation that led the Church to remove it as an option for the faithful.

Considering some of the practical difficulties of burial in modern times (mostly exorbitant costs and decreasing space) the Church relaxed some of her restrictions on cremation when the new code of Canon Law was released in 1983.  Burial because of its nature as a sign remains the preferred method, but unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian beliefs (i.e. a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body) then it is permitted when necessary (Canon 1176.3).  Cremation can testify to the omnipotence of God in raising up the deceased body to new life and therefore “in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (Piam et constantem, 5 July 1963).

The cremated remains of the person should always “be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose…” (Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of Ashes in the Case of Cremation, CDF, 2016).  This means that the ashes should never be scattered or preserved as mementos or pieces of jewelry.   To do any of these things would be testimony of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.

Based on what has been said so far, one might be willing to concede that the prohibition on scattering ashes should be binding on Christians, but what about non-Christians?  In other words, what if the man whose remains Hunter Pence wore didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body?  How is insisting on his burial an act of charity to both he and his family?

Of particular mention as well is that whether or not someone believes in the resurrection of the body has no bearing on whether it is true.  It may be an article of faith but it is an article of true faith, and so we as Christians have an obligation to do all that we can to bear witness to this truth.  Burial or interment also constitutes an act of charity to the dead as well.  For the dead it creates a “monument” that serves as a reminder to the living to pray for the deceased.  It assures that they will not be forgotten.  One whose ashes have been scattered will soon be forgotten, perhaps not by their immediate loved ones, but to subsequent generations they will be as one blotted out.  By not spreading ashes, we are spreading hope.

Spreading Charity

This highlights the intrinsic connection between the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead.  This is perhaps the “easiest” of all works of mercy but also the most often neglected.  To pray for the dead is a great act of charity especially considering that only Catholics do it.  Very likely that man whose remains were worn by the Giants’ outfielder and many others like him have no one to pray for him.  We may have no way of knowing how the person has been judged, but we always trust that God’s mercy is more powerful than any man’s sins.  And so we pray and by praying, ironically enough, repair the harm done by our own sins, reducing our own time in Purgatory.  Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Many of the souls in Purgatory spend more time there than they should for want of having someone to pray for them.  Therefore the Church Militant devotes a whole month of special focus to relieving their suffering and offers a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls during the week of Nov 2-Nov 8 each year.  By way of reminder, one can obtain a plenary indulgence (one per day), when in a state of grace and with a complete detachment from sin, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Pope and go to Confession within 20 days before or after the act (one Confession can cover all 7 days, but the other acts must be done daily).  One can gain this particular indulgence by, in addition to the above conditions, devoutly visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed, even if the prayer is only mental.

A partial indulgence for the Souls in Purgatory can be obtained when the Requiem aeternam is prayed. This can be prayed all year, but should be especially prayed during the month of November:

Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

 

 

Making Supermen

A friend of mine often wears what he calls his “favorite conversation starter” t-shirt.  It features a bunch of Marvel and DC superheroes sitting on top of a building listening to Jesus regale “and that is how I saved the world.”  This clever t-shirt is a conversation starter indeed, but not for the reason that you might think.  For most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the story of how Jesus saved mankind.  What they do not understand is how Jesus saves individual men.  It is this distinction between the universal and the particular, between all men and each man, that has both evangelical and ecumenical implications.  It is towards this distinction that we need to turn our gaze, not only to grasp it intellectually, but to embrace it more fully with our hearts.

The logic of the Word pitching His tent among us is twofold: atonement and redemption.  He came to return to the Father all the external glory that was lost through mankind’s offense.  But He did not just leave mankind in travail, but also redeemed us.  This is how He saved the world.  But not all members of the human race are redeemed so that simply being a member of the human race is not sufficient.  There is still the question as to how you and I enter into the orbit of the redeemed.  In Protestant parlance, the question is how does Jesus become my personal Lord and Savior?

How You and I Are Saved

The obvious, and somewhat simple answer, is faith.  Although the answer is simple, all too often we equivocate on the word faith and do not truly grasp what it means.  Faith, in the broadest sense, means to believe.  According to St. Augustine believing means to give assent to something one is still considering because one does not have a finished vision of the truth.  That is, rational inquiry into the object is not yet complete and therefore the person’s assent is not in the reason but in the will.  One trusts the Source and therefore proceeds as if the object has been sufficiently proven.

Faith is not complete until it has an object.  It is not enough to say “I believe” but one must say what he believes in.  To say that one has faith in Christ, he must believe that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  That is the man trusts that all Christ did and said was true and that his act of redemption was sufficient to overcome his slavery to sin and power of death to hold him.

So far, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian would agree.  Faith is necessary for salvation but it may not be sufficient.  Faith in Christ could exist prior to His appearance.  This is the faith of the father of the Old Testament, “the faith of Abraham which was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).  Faith by itself is not tied to the historical appearance of the Son of Man per se.  In other words, faith’s object remains blurred until it is bound to the Passion of Christ.

To bring the power that flows from the Passion of Christ, that is our personal possession of His act of redemption, into focus requires something further.  As Aquinas puts it, “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments, but in different ways; because the link that comes from faith is produced by an act of the soul whereas the link that comes from the sacraments, is produced by making use of exterior things” (ST III, q.62 a.6).  The sacramental system is joined to faith so that there is not just a psychic connection between the believer and Christ but also a physical one.

Just as the physical encounter that St. Thomas the Apostle (and all the witnesses to His resurrection) had with the risen Christ that strengthened his faith, so too with the physical encounter with the Risen Lord in the Sacraments strengthens our own.  That is the Sacraments do not diminish our faith but greatly supplement it.  Aquinas says that the Sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith for three reasons.  First is because of our nature as spirit/matter composite.  Faith, as an act of the soul, is strengthened by acts of the body.  Second, our slavery to material things can only be remedied by a material thing that contains spiritual power to heal.  Finally, because man finds in them a true bodily exercise that works for salvation (ST III q.61, a 1).

The Sacraments and the Link to the Incarnation

These same three reasons can also be given for why God should appear before men.  As the “image of the invisible God” Our Lord comes only because of our needs.  The Sacramental system is seen most properly as an extension of the Incarnation.  Those who reject it, tend towards Gnosticism, that is, seeing themselves saved based on some secret knowledge they have been given.  They reject the notion that material objects can be instrumental causes of grace just as the Gnostics rejected the Incarnation, thinking that the human body of Christ could not be an instrumental cause of saving grace.   A sacramental system free view of salvation is an over-spiritualized salvation—one that is both theologically and practically unlivable.

This is why my friend’s t-shirt is so compelling—not because Christ is the greatest superhero but because it leads to a deeper truth.  Christ does not merely offer us redemption nor make us super-spirits like angels, but into supermen.  Faith unites us to Him, the Sacraments incorporate us into His life making us into something wholly other (or holy) than we are.

 

Our Lady of Fatima and the First Saturday Devotion

In the popular devotion of the Church, Saturday has long been a day set aside to honor the Blessed Mother.  It was the 8th Century Benedictine monk and Carolingian liturgical reformer, St. Alcuin, who first composed Votive Masses to honor Our Lady on Saturday.  These masses were so popular among the faithful, that they eventually became accepted into the Missal as the Common of the Virgin Mary.

It was no accident however that Alcuin chose Saturday, for there are deep theological reasons for doing so.  The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy  explains that Saturday is set chosen as a memorial of the Blessed Virgin as “a remembrance of the maternal example and discipleship of the Blessed Virgin Mary who, strengthened by faith and hope, on that great Saturday on which Our Lord lay in the tomb, was the only one of the disciples to hold vigil in expectation of the Lord’s resurrection; it is a prelude and introduction to the celebration of Sunday, the weekly memorial of the Resurrection of Christ; it is a sign that the ‘Virgin Mary is continuously present and operative in the life of the Church.’”

This devotion to Our Lady has been sorely tried in recent centuries, beginning with the Protestant Revolution.  Rather than being met with indifference, she was treated with contempt.  It was within this setting that a practice of receiving Communion in reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary arose.  This devotion spread, catching the attention of Pope St. Pius X who attached an indulgence to the practice in 1904.  This practice was expanded when on June 13,1912 he offered additional indulgences for “All the Faithful who, on the first Saturday or first Sunday of twelve consecutive months, devote some time to vocal or mental prayer in honor of the Immaculate Virgin in Her conception gain, on each of these days, a plenary indulgence. Conditions: Confession, Communion, and prayers for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiff.”

Fatima

Five years to the day, Our Lady appeared to the Fatima visionaries, showing them the Immaculate Heart surrounded with thorns.  Sr. Lucia would later say that she understood that the vision was “was the Immaculate Heart of Mary, outraged by the sins of humanity, which demanded Reparation.” It was also during this appearance that Our Lady told the children that Jesus wished to “establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.” Our Lady promised Lucia that she would return to explain the practice of the first five Saturdays.

Fast forward eight years and Lucia is now a postulant in a convent in Pontevedra, Spain.  Our Lady appeared to her and said “Look, my daughter. My Heart is surrounded with thorns that ungrateful men pierce unceasingly with their blasphemies and ingratitude. You, at least, try to console me and announce that for all those, who for five consecutive first Saturdays, confess, receive Holy Communion, pray the Holy Rosary and accompany me for15 minutes by meditating the mysteries of the Holy Rosary with the intention to do reparation, I promise to assist them at the hour of death with the graces needed for salvation.

About a year later, she was taking out the trash when she encounters a little child.  She told the child to pray a Hail Mary which He refused to do.  So, she tells him to go to the Church and ask the Heavenly Mother for the Child Jesus.  When the child returns, she asks him if he did what she said to which He replied “And have you spread through the world what the heavenly Mother requested of you?”  She replied, knowing it was Our Lord, that she had met many difficulties in spreading the devotion.  He told her to rely on His grace and to “have compassion for your Mother’s Heart. It is surrounded with thorns that ungrateful men pierce at each moment, and there is no one who does acts of reparation to remove them.”

Our Blessed Lord appeared once again to now Sister Lucia on May 29, 1930. He explained that the devotion involved five consecutive first Saturday because it was five kinds of offenses and blasphemies against the Immaculate Heart of Mary that required reparation, namely: blasphemies against her Immaculate Conception, against her perpetual virginity, against the divine and spiritual maternity of Mary, blasphemies involving the rejection and dishonoring of her images, and the neglect of implanting in the hearts of children a knowledge and love of this Immaculate Mother.  Mary had asked Jesus for this to forgive those who “had the misfortune of offending her.”

Why does it Matter?

Why do all these details matter?  Because we are now closing in on the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries in Fatima.  The world has changed in ways the Fatima visionaries could hardly have conceived.  But many of the advances that have been made have left us less human.  Our Lady appeared in order to warn us of this and offered us a remedy to protect us from ourselves—“Penance, penance, penance.”  Many within the Church has chosen to focus on the consecration of Russia as the primary message, but it seems to me that any debate on whether that has actually been accomplished (Sr. Lucia herself said it had) misses the point when we fail to implement the simple call to do Penance.

Our Lady’s instructions are a reminder to all the Faithful of the communal dimension of sin and our obligation to make reparation. Christ came for no other reason than to make reparation.  A Christian is meant to continue His work throughout time and space.  Sure, He could have done the work Himself had He so willed, but He did not will.  Sure, His participation and ours differ immeasurably but He asked for our participation in it when He called upon us to take up our Cross.  We cannot be Christians while at the same time striving to live a comfortable life.  Christians must act redemptively by consciously making acts of reparation, not just for our sins but for the sins of others.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, provided we are willing to act like other Christs.  Our Lady’s very specific instructions to Sr. Lucia offers us a concrete means to make this happen.  She is ever the spiritual mother teaching us.  Can we not give to her Son, the First Five Saturdays in honor of His holy Mother?

Why Many Could be Lost

In his encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio, St. John Paul II remarked that the number of those who do not belong to the Church had nearly doubled since the close of the Second Vatican Council.  While this presents a tremendous opportunity for bringing souls to Christ, the Church has been somewhat hamstrung in making wide-scale evangelization a reality.  This is because actions follow from beliefs.  Since the close of the Council, many people in the Church have come to believe in Universalism; that is the belief that all men will be saved.  A traditional motivation for preaching the Gospel has always been that there are men whose salvation is in jeopardy.  Once this motivation is taking away the urgency of missionary activity dies with it.

In addressing the falsehood of Universalism, it is important to understand what the Church means (and also doesn’t) mean when she says that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  This affirmation comes from the fact that the Church is by its very nature as His Body linked with Christ Himself.  The Council makes this link clear in the unequivocal words that there is “‘one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim. 2:45), ‘neither is there salvation in any other’(Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him…”(Ad Gentes, 7).

In a world that is drinking from a relativistic fountain, this is often thought to be very intolerant so we need to be clear in what is being said.  First, this is not saying that a person necessarily has to be a member of the Church to be saved, only that it is because of the merits of Christ that He deposited in the Church that they will be saved.  Second, there is the level of personal knowledge and culpability.  Certainly “they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” (CCC 846).  This also means that “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience.   Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (Lumen Gentium, 16).

It is a verbal sleight of hand associated with this paragraph that has allowed Universalism to creep in.  Many have read into the possibility that one might achieve eternal salvation to mean that it is probable or even definite.  But the true “spirit” of the Council seems to agree with St. Thomas’ assessment that the majority of non-Christians are lost when she proclaims that:

“…often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.  Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair.” (LG 16, emphasis added).

Returning back to the first part of Paragraph 16, we find that the Council gave four conditions for the non-Christian to possibly be saved.  First, there must be no culpability for their ignorance.  Second they should be seeking God with a sincere heart.  Third, they must be “moved by grace” to live in accordance with God’s will as they know it.  Finally, they must receive whatever “good or truth” that is contained in their religion.

All Dogs in Heaven

When confronted with this, the usual response is a question—“what about the person on some deserted island who never even heard of Christ?”  St. Thomas addressed this question of invincible ignorance (i.e. ignorance that could not be overcome) by an appeal to Divine Providence based on the revealed truth that “God wills all men to be saved” (1Tim 2:4).  He says that,

“it pertains to divine providence to furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that on his part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone so brought up followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the faith to him as he sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).”

As a necessary tangent, it seems we need to somehow reconcile the fact that St. Paul tells Timothy that “God wills all men to be saved” and yet Scripture also tells us of at least two people who are lost (while the Church has never engaged in negative canonizations declaring a particular person in hell, Scriptures tells us that the false prophet of Rev 20:10 ends up in hell and seems to suggest that Judas is reprobated.  Matthew26:24 and John 6:70, 17:2 could hardly be true were he among the blessed.).  St. Thomas makes the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will to make this understandable.  Antecedent will is what He wills for a thing in isolation by considering only the individual parts of His plan (a single person) and not the entire plan (all people).  In order to achieve the good, there must also be consideration of the circumstances.  This is the consequent will.  To make this clear, St. Thomas gives the example of a just judge who antecedently wills all men to live but consequently wills the murderer to be executed.  The judge not only evaluates the murderer as an individual absolutely but looks to the good of the whole of which all share.  So then, in His antecedent will, God wills to save all men, but in his consequent will He wills to save only some while permitting others to be damned.

The interlocutor seems to be asking about the deserted man’s salvation, but we should not despair of his salvation, but our own for not preaching the Gospel to him.  This is because all too often we do not believe that the Gospel is really Good News.  Those who hear it and conform their lives to it are better off not just in the next world, but even now.  Eternal life doesn’t begin at death, but now.  Christ is the answer to man’s deepest longings and aspirations and true disciples know that a life without Christ is a life that is incomplete.  So it is a supreme act of charity and a sacred duty to go out and meet the desires of all men with the liberating truth of the Gospel in its fullness.  By depriving others of the truth of Christ’s enduring presence in the Church, we are depriving them of the graces (through Baptism and Confession) that are necessary for salvation.  Men are not damned for Original Sin, but for those sins by which they are culpable.  There is only one place where those sins can infallibly forgiven and eternal life given and restored—the Church.  To the extent that we believe this, we will be missionaries.  In this way we can see that in the Church’s history missionary drive has always been a sign of the vitality of the faith of the members of the Church.

What’s in a Name?

One of the biggest challenges for parents to be is selecting a name for their child.  A whole library has been written on selecting the perfect name with advice ranging from selecting the name you would want to represent you if you were starting out your life today to naming them after your favorite city.  Choosing a name is mostly about what the parents happen to like.  A name ends up being a mere convention that distinguishes one person from another.  This is in direct contrast to the ancient world, where the name was believed to shape the destiny of the person.  Judging by the fact that among the Top Ten names for boys and girls born in 2014 included names like Mason (which means “one who works with stone”) and Mia (“rebellious”), one would assume that this is no longer the case.  But unless we reacquaint ourselves with this idea, we may not grasp that “everyone’s name is sacred” because it is found on the “lips” of God when He calls each of us by name (see CCC 2158).  To help see this more clearly, it is helpful to look at the great importance Sacred Scripture places on names.

The Catechism says that the name is an “icon of the person” (CCC 2158).  What this means is that knowing a person’s name gives you access to the person and opens the door to a personal relationship with them.  Knowing a person’s name carries the power of the person with it.  In essence it gives you a power over the other person because you can invoke their power.

The best example of this principle is found when Jacob wrestled with the angel (Gn 32:22-31).  After “grappling with God” Jacob receives a new name (Israel) and asks the angel for his name.  The angel refuses to give Israel his name but instead blesses him.    This is because Jacob could have no power over the angel, including invoking him at another time.

In general, mankind cannot have power over the angelic world and so we should learn the lesson of Jacob and not seek the name of angels.  Adam was given the power to know the name of all material creatures (see Gen 2:20) but not the angels.  While Sacred Scripture reveals the names of three Archangels—Michael, Gabriel and Raphael—we should never give our Guardian Angels names.  Instead the Church tells us in a 1984 CDF document, bearing the signature of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, that we should only invoke them by their title (i.e. Guardian Angel).  In response to those that encourage us to ask our guardian angel for his name, the future Pontiff says the names of our guardian angels are unknowable and we should never invoke them under a specific name because of the danger it poses.  He says it is dangerous because one can never know whether it is a good angel or a bad angel that is responding to you.  In fact, because a blessed angel would never disobey God’s dictates through the Church of which they are members, you can guarantee that the name you received either came from your imagination or from a demon.  By invoking that “revealed” name, you may be inviting the demonic.  This is also what makes the social media hyped “Charlie-Charlie Challenge” so dangerous.

This notion of a name giving power over another is still recognized today.  This is why people in the “service” industry wear name tags.  It allows the customer to call upon the person to supply them with what they need.  It is also why many people naturally recoil having a name tag on in a social setting.  It assumes a relationship with everyone else who sees it that does not yet exist.  It is also why some people are constantly “name-dropping”—it is meant to somehow reveal that they share in the power or celebrity of the person they are naming (whether they actually do or not).

Scripture also shows how a name reveals the person in its treatment of those whose names it records and those it obliterates.  Notice how at the beginning of the Book of Exodus (which has the Hebrew title “The Book of Names”) it lists the names of the Patriarchs of Israel and mentions how Pharaoh did not know Joseph.  Given Joseph’s role in preserving Egypt during the famine it is not likely that Pharaoh did not know about him.  Instead it shows a refusal to recognize him and attempts to blot out his name from history.  It is actually the opposite that happens.  While the book tells the names of the midwives responsible for saving the children of Israel, it never mentions Pharaoh’s name as a form of judgment against him.  It is meant to show that his name is blotted out from the book of life (see Exodus 32:33).  It also explains why John never mentions the name of the anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation even though he clearly had his name revealed to him (Rev 13:18).  He too shall be blotted out of the Book of Life.

With this in mind, we begin to see why the Commandment was given not to take the Lord’s name in vain.  In revealing His name to Moses, God not only revealed Himself personally, but also gave the speaker a share in His power.  Moses is the first man in Salvation History to perform miracles because He was able to invoke the name of God.  To call upon the name of the Lord is to somehow make Him present.

hebrew ten commandments

I am convinced that this it is the Second Commandment that is the one that is most often broken.  Certainly this occurs when the name of God is used as part of a curse, but more commonly when we “say” our prayers without reflecting on what we have done by calling upon Him.  He has given us the power to call upon Him anywhere, anytime and He will come.  Unfortunately we are often too dull of heart to realize how awesome a gift this is—Almighty God comes to me sitting down to pray simply by calling His name.

To use God’s name in vain is to say it and then essentially ignore Him.  If we are driven by love then we ought to take this Commandment seriously and stay away from movies and music that use His name in vain.  Likewise when we encounter someone who regularly says OMG and GD we should not idly stand by.  We may not always be in a position to fraternally correct them but we can certainly make sure that He is not called upon in vain by adding “Blessed be His Name.”

The reverence that Israel had for the name of God was what ultimately led to the charge of blasphemy against Our Lord.  To use His name not only invoked His presence but because of the nature of His name made the speaker equivalent to Him.  Because God’s name contains the first person singular (“I AM” or “I AM WHO AM”) to even say His name was to say you are Him.  That is why there should never be any confusion as to whether Jesus knew He was God.  No faithful Jew would have said that name otherwise.

Names are also associated with a change in mission.  When God gives Abram a mission, He gives Him the name Abraham to identify him with his mission (“father of many”).  When Simon identifies Jesus as God, he is called Cephas to identify him as the rock upon which the new Israel will be built (as compared to the pillar of stone where Jacob received his new mission and name—Gn 35:10).  In this way names are viewed as sacraments—tangible signs of the mission of the person.

This sacramental quality of names is most obvious in the case of Jesus.  The Catechism captures this well in the section on Prayer sayin, “…The divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: ‘Jesus,’ ‘YHWH saves.’  The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies…”( CCC 2666).

Let us call upon the name of the Lord and be saved!

Living Between the Ascension and Pentecost

One of the great gifts that the Church gives us is the Liturgical Calendar. Its purpose is not only to remind us of the marvelous plan of salvation, but also for us to be present in each of the saving mysteries of Christ.  With this in mind, the Church is inviting us during this time to go to the Upper Room with Our Lady and the Apostles and to await the Gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  During the Church’s first Novena from the Ascension to Pentecost, the Apostles must have found themselves reflecting deeply on the mystery of Our Lord’s Ascension and why it was  necessary for Him to go so that He could send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7).  While we join them in prayer, it is expedient that we too meditate on this necessity.

To begin, it is helpful to point out that when Our Lord says it is of necessity He does not mean that both He and the Holy Spirit could not both be present on the earth at the same time.  It is not as if it would create some rift in the space-time continuum to have two Persons of the Blessed Trinity present on earth–especially since They have a single Divine nature.  This means that when one of the Persons of the Trinity acts outside the Trinity, it is all three that act.  It is necessary in the sense that it was a means by which Christ could more fully reveal the Godhead and our relationship with God in Heaven.

To see how this is so, we should recall that the Torah (see Leviticus 1-7) required five main types of sacrifices—the cereal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the burnt offering.  It was the last one—the burnt offering that was meant to be a sign of Christ’s offering on the Cross.  In the holocaust or ascending sacrifice (see Lev 1:3-7, 6:8-13) the animal was drained of its blood and the pieces of the carcass were laid upon the altar hearth from which it ascended to God in the form of smoke.  Unlike any of the other sacrifices, no part of it was given to the worshipper.  Instead it was considered a total gift to the Lord and was fully consumed in the fire.  Its effect was atonement for sin.

ascension

Christ’s ascension then is the completion of His sacrifice on Calvary in which He was both Priest and Victim.  This helps to explain why Christ does not allow Mary to touch Him when she meets Him on the day of the Resurrection because He had “not yet ascended” (Jn 20:17).  His offering for sin was not yet complete.  A first Century Jew reading John’s Gospel would have recognized in Jesus’ saying that He considered Himself as a holocaust offering for atonement.

But saying that Christ had to ascend because He was completing the ritual of the Burnt Offering is like putting the cart before the horse.  The Burnt Offering described in the Torah required the whole sacrifice to rise in smoke because Christ was to ascend into Heaven, not the other way around.  Instead there was a deeper reason.

To understand this deeper reason, it is necessary to grasp a basic understanding of Trinitarian theology.  When we speak of a “personal” God we mean specifically that God has (more accurately, He is) a rational nature.  This means that He has both an intellect and a will.  Because He is a pure Spirit both of these powers of intellect and will must be operative at all times.  This means from all eternity He is knowing and loving.  What is it that God knows?  He knows Himself perfectly.

One of the perfections is existence.  So in order to have perfect knowledge of a person that person must actually exist.  This becomes clear if we look at an analogy.  You may have knowledge of your dream lover, but if that lover is not a real flesh and blood person then they are not perfect.  They must actually exist as real person.  So in order for God’s knowledge of Himself to be perfect, He must exist as a distinct Person.  This Person is the Son or Word.

Likewise with the divine Will whose object is love.  The measure of love is to be fruitful and the perfect love between the Father and the Son bears the Fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Why does this deep theology matter?  Isn’t it all just speculation of what is otherwise a mystery?  In a way, yes, there is some speculation involved in any explanation of the mystery of the Trinity.  But it is this life that we are being invited into when St. Peter says we are to become “partakers of the divine life” (2Peter 1:4).  The blessed in heaven will spend their time not merely looking at God, but actually participating in the life of God.  Heaven is not “resting in peace” in the way we tend to think of it, but is extremely active living in the life of God.  But this is not just reserved to heaven.  Those who have sanctifying grace in their souls participate in the life of God now.  That is what sanctifying grace is—a participation in the life of God.  This understanding of the life of the Trinity has effect on our life in the here and now.  Eternal life begins at Baptism and those who persevere to the end merely have the veil removed.

How is it that we participate in the life of God?  We enter into the life of God by “putting on Christ” (Romans 13:14).  In essence, we participate in Christ’s “place” in His communion with the Father.  This is what it means when St. Paul says we are “in Christ” (c.f. Gal 3:27).

Now the link between the Ascension and Pentecost becomes clearer.  The Son, in keeping His human nature for all eternity, has brought human nature directly into the life of the Trinity.  By ascending to the Father, Jesus reveals that mankind now has the capacity to share in the divine Nature.  This is how He lives forever to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).

What happens when mankind has a direct communion with the Father?  The fruit of this communion leads to the Holy Spirit.  It is of the very nature of God from all eternity that the union between the Father and the Son yields the Holy Spirit.  If mankind is caught up in this through the Son’s human nature, then the Holy Spirit comes to mankind.  Without this communion, the Holy Spirit cannot come (John 16:7).  Pentecost is a direct result of the Ascension.

To conclude I want to return to the difficult verse regarding Our Lord’s admonition to Mary Magdalene not to touch Him because it helps to bring to light a necessary distinction.  Our Lord tells her that He is “going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).  The point is that while we participate in the life of the Trinity, we do not become God.  It is not as if we are substituted for the Son.  There remains a distinction between His relationship with the Father (“my Father”) and ours (“your Father).  He “participates” in God by Nature, we only participate by grace.  As long as we maintain this distinction, we are able to pull back the veil ever so slightly.  Certainly it enables us to better understand Our Lord’s words and the causal relationship between the Ascension and Pentecost.

Knowing the Enemy

One of the more glaring omissions of the Passion accounts in the Gospels is that no attempt to explore the motives behind Judas’ betrayal is made.  This has led to much speculation throughout the years imputing to him various motives such as greed, envy or even impatience that Our Lord was not acting quickly enough in claiming his Messianic throne.  The danger of trying to impute a motive is that we will actually miss the reason why the Evangelists only refer to him as the “betrayer” (Luke 22:3).  St. John captures the reason explicitly when he says that “After he took the morsel, Satan entered him” (John 13:27). The Sacred Writers want us to realize that it was not Judas nor the Sanhedrin nor even the Romans that ultimately hatched the plan to kill Jesus—it was Satan and his minions. Our Lord recognized this and pointed it out when He tells the Jews that they “belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires” (John 8:44). As the Church prepares to enter into Our Lord’s most intense battle against our Enemy we are reminded that in order to fight we must know about him and his tendencies. As Sun Tzu says in the Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Examining his history, we can better understand his motives.  Just how did Lucifer become the Satan?  For many it seems that the angels were created in “heaven” with God and therefore it would have been impossible for them to sin.  This is an example of how important it is that we properly define our terms, especially given the propensity in English to reduce the number of terms when they only refer to subtle differences (the word love is a classic example).  Properly speaking, the angels, although pure spirits, are not by nature heavenly creatures.  Instead we should refer to them as naturally “Celestial” creatures.  By making this distinction, we are able to reserve the word “heavenly” for those creatures who have the vision of God and see Him as He is (1 John 3:2) rather than in His reflections in creation.  No creature naturally has this vision, it can only be granted to those who have sanctifying grace.  Communion can only happen between two equals so that in order to have communion with God (i.e. heaven or as Augustine refers to it in the Confessions “The Heaven of heavens”), He must infuse His life in us.  Only angels and men (who are made in God’s image) have the capacity to receive this divine life, but they must receive it and freely persevere in it.

Like the first man and woman, the angels were also created endowed with sanctifying grace so that they might have the capacity to be saved.  And like Adam and Eve they also were required to undergo a period of probation to test whether they could persevere in that grace.  This period of probation included some test in which they could freely choose between good and evil.  Although they did not yet have the Beatific Vision, they lived in something like a celestial Garden of Eden.  This Garden included sanctifying grace (i.e. God walking in their Garden in the coolness of day) and an experience of being exposed to the danger of committing sin.  Those confirmed in grace were then granted the vision of God.  The rest, were cast out of the celestial Garden.

Three questions naturally arise from this.  First is what was it that actually caused “Satan to fall from heaven like lightning” (Lk 10:18)?  It was most certainly pride of some sort as the book of Isaiah testifies:

“How did you come to fall from the heavens, Daystar, son of Dawn? How did you come to be thrown to the ground, you who enslaved the nations? You who used to think to yourself, ‘I will climb up to the heavens; and higher than the stars of God I will set my throne. I will sit on the Mount of Assembly in the recesses of the north. I will climb to the top of the thunderclouds, I will rival the Most High.’ What! Now you have fallen to hell, to the very bottom of the abyss!” (Is 14:12-15).

As to the exact nature of the sin we are left only to the theological speculation of the Church Fathers.  Most say that it is directly related to the plan of the Incarnation and the angels’ service of mankind.  The Fathers apply the words which the rebellious Israel speaks to its God, “I will not serve” (Jeremiah 2:20) to the fallen angels.  Some Saints (like St. Louis de Montfort) have also speculated that their fall was related more specifically to the eventual role of Mary as Queen of Heaven.  This might also explain why Satan targets Eve, a type of Mary, directly.  So while his first sin was pride, the devil’s second sin was envy.  Once he realized he could not truly usurp God, he decided to turn his wrath on mankind so that he could gain pleasure in God’s loss.  Interestingly enough we see the same thing happen in man—Adam sins through pride and then Cain kills Abel through envy.  This is a familiar pattern in all of us—“pride comes before the fall” and then once truth sets in and we realize we are not God, we envy others for having what we do not have.

The second question is when the angels were created.  The book of Job tells us that they were created before the foundation of the world: “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). This fits with St. Augustine’s explanation of the creation of light on the first day of as referring to the creation and testing of the angels. The light refers to the angels themselves and the separation of the light from the darkness (after judging that the light was good) refers to the casting out of the demons (Augustine’s commentary on Gn 1:4 in City of God, Bk. 11, Ch 19).  At the very least we know that the devil is already fallen when Adam and Eve encounter him in the Garden.

Garden Fall Sistine

If the devil had fallen, why did God allow him to enter the Garden to tempt Adam and Eve? Wasn’t he forever cast into hell? The Book of Hebrews gives us a clue to the answer when the Sacred Author refers to the role of angels. He says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14).

The role of the angels in God’s eternal plan is to minister to mankind. God’s plan is never thwarted so that even the devil and his minions still serve to aid “those who are to obtain salvation.”  For those who are in Christ, it is temptation and suffering that leads to growth in merit through which they obtain their salvation. The evil spirits merely become means by which God brings this about. Remember that mankind’s fall in the Garden, although caused by the lies of the evil one, is ultimately the cause of the Incarnation which is the source of man’s salvation. The choice for the angels, fallen and blessed, is the same choice that we have as well—do God’s will or do God’s will.

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

NOTE: A number of you have emailed me with questions and I would encourage you to continue to do that. In fact this entry is the result of two people asking the same exact question yesterday. I want to encourage you all to also use the Comment section on each post as well. My vision for this web site is that it is one where there is some engagement between the readers and the readers and me. Please don’t be shy about commenting!

 

 

Putting the Horse Before the Cart

Quick quiz:  what two characters of the Passion are named in each of the daily Gospel readings that the Church uses in the Liturgy during Holy Week?  The first is obvious—Our Lord.  The second may not be as obvious.  Each account this week chronicles the actions of Judas Iscariot.  Obviously the Church wants us to spend some time meditating upon the role that Jesus’ betrayer played in the Passion and Death of Our Lord.  What usually emerges when most of us do this is a vague feeling that somehow Judas got a raw deal.  It seems that someone had to betray Jesus to get the ball rolling and that Judas was the unlucky someone whom God chose.  After all, wasn’t it prophesied that Jesus would be betrayed by a friend for 30 pieces of silver?

When Peter withdraws his sword to fight for Jesus in the Garden, Our Lord halts him saying, “But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?” (Mt 26:54). This seems to imply that because the Scriptures said that Jesus must be betrayed then He was somehow bound to suffer His Passion. But this view actually puts the cart before the horse. Jesus was not bound in any way by the prophecies of the Old Testament. The prophecies of the Old Testament were bound by how God chose to carry out man’s redemption. God revealed to the prophets of the Old Testament how He would suffer only because He actually suffered in those ways. The betrayal by Judas was only prophesied because Judas did freely choose to betray Jesus. God is infinite in His knowledge and knows all things that happen or could possibly happen. He is omnipotent and therefore not in any way bound by our free decisions. He uses those free will decisions as a means to carry out his intended ends just like we use natural laws like friction to stop our cars. In other words, it was a free act by Judas that led to Our Lord’s death and neither Judas nor Jesus were somehow bound because it was predicted to transpire the way that it did.

Putting the horse before the cart is perhaps one of the most under-utilized theological principles. It is at the heart of the theology of Pope St. John Paul II and it was the point of emphasis of the first words from his pen as Pope: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the center of… history.” (Redemptor Hominis, 1). Everything prior to the Incarnation happened so as to ready man for the coming of Christ. Adam failed to run to the Tree of Life in the Garden when he was threatened with death because Jesus would not fail to cling to the Tree of Life which is the Cross. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac his son only because the Son of God would be sacrificed. God asked for the Passover sacrifices of the Old Testament only because His Son would sacrifice Himself on the Cross. Even the obscure rules of the Old Testaments such as the prohibition of drinking the blood of animals was because we would drink the blood of Christ, the True Sacrifice.

Once we remove any necessity of the Passion and Death of Christ on God’s part, then we can begin to see the sheer goodness and gratuity of God. Saying “God is love” is not meant to be merely a poetic way of saying “He is a really good God.” In fact, satisfaction for sin was not even necessary. St Thomas, citing Psalm 51:6 (“Against you, you alone have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done”), reminds us that God could have willed to free man without any satisfaction because it was Himself alone that was offended .  Unlike a human judge who is subordinate to the common good of the community, God has no superior to which He is beholden.  Therefore, He could offer mercy without in any way offending justice.

Christ on the Cross_Dali

In addition to love and mercy, the Cross also reveals God’s wisdom.  While it was entirely up to God how He would redeem man, the Cross, according to St. Thomas, is the most suitable way to bring about man’s salvation because of what it reveals about God’s relationship with mankind.  Primarily, because by Christ’s passion man knows how much God loves him, he is thereby incited to love God in return. There is no other reason for the Cross than to reveal the depths of God’s love for man.

But there is always the temptation to apply Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross to ourselves in the abstract. We take the words of St. Paul in Col 2:20, “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me, and substitute the word “us” for “me.” But it is this conviction that fueled everything St. Paul did and said. Once he came to this realization on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from his eyes and he was never the same. This is what it means to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. Once I am completely convicted that Christ did that for me personally, once I am completely convicted that God loves me and not just “us,” everything changes. This is why we as Catholics should be so adamant about having Crucifixes all around us. We are in no way denying that Christ is risen. We have crucifixes for the same reason that married people have photos of their weddings—we want to be reminded how much we are loved and how committed our Lover is. Holy Week is a most excellent time to spend gazing at the Crucifix and reminding myself how much I am loved and how committed Jesus is to me. I close with a story that I heard a number of years ago of just how powerful this exercise can be.

There was a group of boys in France who were hanging out in front of a Catholic church during the last days of Lent. They saw a bunch of going in and standing in line, waiting to enter a closet. Each person would enter, come out a few minutes later and then come out and pray. Curious about what was happening they asked and found out that confessions were going on.

They decided to have a little fun and send one of the boys into the confessional and make up a crazy story to try and fool the priest. A young Jewish boy volunteered to go in and immediately started telling his concocted story. The priest, realizing what he was doing, assigned the boy a penance for wasting the priest’s time. His penance was to go into the front of the Church, stand in front of the Crucifix, look at it and repeat these words ten times: “You did that for me and I don’t give a damn!” Figuring he would play along fully with the joke the boy did as he was told. He looked up at Crucifix and started he started to repeating the words. “You did that for me and I don’t give a damn!” After a few times however the words started coming out differently: “You did that for me? And I don’t give a damn?” Finally, he fell to his knees and his words became simply: “You did that for me?”

This boy’s name was Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was received into the Church the following Easter and eventually became Cardinal Archbishop Lustiger.

Preaching the Bad News

CS Lewis once said that in order to preach the Gospel to modern man, “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis– in itself very bad news– before it can win a hearing for the cure.”  His point is that the Good News of the Gospel must first be understood in its proper context.  Unless we first develop a proper understanding of the bad news we will easily miss just how amazing the Good News really is.  Therefore to gain a grasp on the fullness of the redemption we have received, we must return to the Beginning to examine the “happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”

In each of the two creation accounts found in Genesis, the greatness of man’s vocation is captured when God gives him dominion over all the earth (Gn 1:28-30) and when He gives to man the commandment to “till and keep” the Garden (Gn 2:16-17).  Man is made as absolute master of his domain.  This dominion is conditional on keeping the single commandment he was given.  This is in recognition that Yahweh is his Lord.  Once the devil enters the scene and tempts Adam and Eve to sin all of this changes.  It is the nature of this change that needs to be looked at more closely.  Many people miss the meaning and are left scratching their heads when confronted with the problem of evil even after Our Lord’s saving act on the Cross.

To simply say that Adam, as the head of all mankind, forfeited sanctifying grace and left man in a fallen state somewhat oversimplifies things.  The problem was not only interior for man.  Once Adam and Eve believed the lie of the devil, the Father of Lies replaced God as master.  In falling under the yoke of this new master, mankind ceded dominion over all visible creation (including their own flesh) to the Serpent and he became the “Prince of this World” (Jn 14:30).  Driven by envy (Wisdom 2:24), this newfound dominion enabled Satan to unleash his wrath on man by means of this world.  God limits his power immediately by putting the Serpent on his belly, but He does not fully reverse what was done.  Instead He reveals Himself as a deliverer by promising that by His power mankind will prevail (Gn 3:14-15).  The bad news is immediately follow by the promise of the Good News (or the Protoevangelium as the Fathers called it).  Mankind starts with one enemy (the devil), ends up with three (the devil, the flesh and the world), and is promised the seed of the woman that will enable him to conquer all three.

14172-the-brazen-serpent-michelangelo-buonarroti

 

This distinction is important because it enables us to see what God did in the Incarnation for what it truly is—a rescue mission.  This is why the central event in Jewish history is the Exodus.  It reveals God as the God Who always comes through.  And they anticipated that He would once again come through in a definitive way and many recognized this in Christ.  This is why He is so often compared to Moses—the man whom God used to rescue them from Egypt.  This is also why when Jesus meets Moses and Elijah on the Transfiguration Mount they speak to him of His Exodus (Lk 9:30).  Jesus was to lead the New Exodus.

If we do not grasp this aspect of the Incarnation then we will end up with a distorted image of God.  To say that Christ “died for my sins” is absolutely true.  But unless we see Christ’s death as “ransoming captive Israel,” we will inevitably paint God as somehow angry because He needs someone to punish.  It is not the punishment that reveals the God “who so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16) but the fact that the “Son of man also came…to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).  The Greek word for ransom is Lytron which literally mean “redemption price.”   This price was paid for the release of captives by family members and it was the oldest brother as the family representative who was responsible to make the payment.  It is Jesus, “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18) that pays mankind’s ransom from the devil.  He pays it with His own flesh.  But “because it was not possible for Him to be held by [death]” the new Adam became mankind’s new representative accomplishing what the Old Adam could not do.

Seeing Christ as our representative and not as our penal substitute also greatly clarifies why there is still suffering (i.e. the punishment for our sin) in this world.  If He is our representative then we must participate.  We participate most perfectly through the Mass, but also to the degree that our own crosses participate in the Cross of Christ.  This is the way that St. Paul understood his own redemption when he told the Colossians that he “rejoiced in his sufferings because they complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).  Christ’s representative sacrifice was perfect, what is lacking is our participation (as an aside, this idea of “vicarious representation” is a recurrent theme in the theology of Pope Benedict if you want to learn more).

This also reveals the great power and goodness of God.  He has taken the power of the devil (suffering and death) and made it the means of salvation.  The devil is still prince of this world but for those who share in Christ’s resurrected life through baptism his weapons become a source of sanctification and redemption. Only a God who is all good and all powerful can turn evil around and bring good from it.

This idea of using the weapons of the devil is also found in the Exodus story.  When the people begin to grumble, God allows the serpents to come among the people and bite them.  He commands Moses to make a bronze serpent so that all who were bitten might look upon it and live.  The serpents who were a source of death, become a source of life for the Israelites (Num 21:4-9) just as when the “Son of Man is lifted up” all those who gaze upon Him will overcome the sting of the devil.  Therefore, as Lent comes to a close, we would all benefit from meditation upon the Exodus story.  It is not merely a story that tells what happened to the Jews long ago, it is our story.  It is that same God who comes to save us and we are His people awaiting entrance into the Promised Land.