Category Archives: Scripture

Take and Read

As a Bible-believing Christian I will confess to finding red-letter Bibles to be a paradox.  Paradoxical, not in their application—words that are written as coming directly from the mouth of Jesus have red text—but in their principle.  The implication being that these words and their red lettering should give us pause as we read them because these are really the word of God, spoken directly from the mouth of the Word of God made man.  Do the words of Jesus according to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John carry a heavier weight than the words of God contained in the letters of Paul or Peter?  The red letters might lead us to believe this to be true, but the truth is that both are equally acts of condescension by God to speak to us in a language we can understand.  It is the Word of God using the voice of man.  It is not just the red letters, but “all scripture [that] is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).  Perhaps the publishers of those Bibles can be forgiven for succumbing to a marketing ploy of sorts, but it also betrays a pitfall that many of us fall into in our use of Sacred Scripture.  Notice that I said use and not just read.  Why I used the former rather than the latter will become evident momentarily.

If we were to parse some of that red lettering, then something will become rather obvious to us.  When the Word of God speaks, things happen.  When He commands demons to depart, they leave.  When He commands storms to cease, everything is calm.  When He commands a crippled man to walk, he grows strong and walks.  He even commands the Apostles to “not be afraid” and fear exits.  To these we could multiply other examples throughout Scripture starting with God speaking creation into being in Genesis and ending with the creation of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation.  The Word of God is performative and while this power is earth shattering in the literal sense, it is hardly so in the figurative sense.  We already know this—after all this is what makes God, well, God.

What’s In it for You and Me?

Until, however, we go a step further and ask what difference this makes for you and for me.  For this, we have to call to mind two very important Scripture passages about Scripture itself.  First there is a passage from the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah in which the Sacred Author, operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-12).

This is God reminding us of the power of His speech.  But when exactly did He send forth these words of Scripture?  Was it back in the 6th Century BC when these words were likely written, or was it yesterday when we heard it as the first reading at Mass?  God is speaking from the eternal now so that His words speak to all times and places.  When you read these words and I read these words they are spoken to you and to me right here and right now.  In inspiring the author of Isaiah to put these words to sheepskin, God in His Providence knew exactly when and how you and I would encounter them.  He addressed them to you and me directly, not just in a generically but in a deeply personal sense.  Inspiration did not stop in the author but extends to each of the readers.  It is the Holy Spirit speaking directly to us.  This helps explain why we might read the same Scripture passage many times and “get something different out of it” each time.  Those words were spoken not just way back when, but here and now.  It is also why Scripture scholars usually struggle praying with the Scriptures—they read it only as a theology textbook and assume they have exhausted its meaning without plummeting the depths of its personal message.  They may read the Scriptures but fail to use them as God’s preferential means of communicating with us individually.

There is a concomitant passage to Isaiah in the New Testament that helps further illuminate the point.  In the Letter to the Hebrews the sacred author says that “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.  No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).  Sacred Scripture needs no red letter, nor is it a dead letter, but it is also much more than a read letter too.  Recall that when God speaks, things happen—even if that word is spoken to you and me in the Sacred Scripture.  When we read and meditate on these Scriptures we are changed, not just because we make great resolutions, but because God’s word changes us simply by being heard.  We can easily overlook this but we should expect it to happen.  As the Catechism puts it, “Still, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.’  If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures’” (CCC 108).

The Witness of the Saints

History is full of examples of saints who were changed simply by an encounter with God through the Scriptures.  The most famous example is St. Augustine.  He was a man who, after a long intellectual battle, found the Christian explanation of reality to be true.  Nevertheless he struggled with the moral demands, famously praying “Lord make me chaste, just not yet.”  One day Augustine was in a garden praying and he heard a voice telling him “Tolle Lege,” that is “Take and read.”  He understood it to mean the epistles of St. Paul that he had left in the house.  When he grasped the book and opened to a (seemingly) random page, his eyes fell upon Romans 13:12-14—“Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”  In that moment the saint found the moral strength to fully convert and live totally for the Lord.  God spoke, and Augustine was changed.

Augustine himself was moved by the example of another Scriptural convert, St. Anthony of the desert who one day heard the Gospel of the Rich Young Man and knew that it was addressed to him.  He sold everything, went into the desert, and was instrumental in preserving the Christian faith during the Diocletian persecution.  We could multiply the examples but the point is that these men saw the Scriptures as a medium of communication between God and themselves.  They ardently believed that the Scriptures held the power of God’s direct speech.  With such a cloud of witnesses, shouldn’t we do the same?

Our Jealous God

Public revelation was officially closed with the death of John the Apostle.  This does not preclude, from time to time, God raising up prophets, fashioned in the mold of the Jeremiah, Isaiah and Elijah, to help the People of God apply the contents of that revelation to their current times.  History is rife with them—St. Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Faustina to name a few.  The Spirit of Prophecy is a key component in the Mystical Body of Christ even in our own day.  Unfortunately, like the days of Israel of old, the spirit of false prophecy is always lurking at the door.  There will always be those who claim to speak on behalf of God and yet are lending their voices to the enemies of humanity.  It is to one of those groups that I address this post today—the self-styled prophets who claim “God does not care if…”

This spirit of false prophecy is ubiquitous, especially in our “YOLO” culture.  Who among us has not met one of these prophets?   They are quick to tell us, “God does not care if we go to Mass.” Or, “God does not care if we call Him the right name.”  They proclaim, “God does not care how we worship Him.”  And even remind us that “God does not care if you eat meat on Fridays.”  And “God does not care if you smoke weed.”  These are but a few of their prophetic utterances, but you get the point.  These Bizarro John the Baptists repeatedly reassure us that God loves us as long as we are good people and enable us all to relax a little bit, if for no other reason that we have found out that God has sanctioned our drug habit.  They are great prophets of, well, not exactly peace, but at least of “chilling out.”

God’s New Name

Just as Jonah was stopped in his tracks when his message was received, these luminous prophets are often thrown off when they are asked “how do you know God doesn’t care?’  Probing, you find that what they really mean is that if they were God, then they wouldn’t care.  God is really their prophet.  But it is not the audacity of their message that is the most distressing element, but instead the image of God that emerges if we are to worship “I CARE NOT” rather than “I AM WHO AM”.

All of us tend to chill out in our old age, and “I CARE NOT” is no different.  Given all the time of dealing with humanity, He has chilled.  At least that is what our prophets would have us believe.  But the image this God invokes is actually just as scary as the so-called “fire and brimstone” God they are trying to extinguish.  Their God may be laid back, but He is still merely a Divine Auditor concerned only with tallying up our actions.  He may not put as many things in the left-hand side of the ledger, but he still has his ledger.  Presenting him as mellow does nothing to remove this image.  It is a scarier image because we have no way, other than by listening to these prophets, to actually know which belongs in which column.  If “God doesn’t care” does that mean these are good actions then?  Or do we now have an indifferent column?  If he is mostly indifferent about what I do, then how do I even know he cares about me?  Most people will take the God who hates over the God who is indifferent—at least the former also loves.  Indifference and love, bumper stickers to the contrary, cannot coexist.  In trying to avoid sterile moralism, the Prophet of Indifference manages to castrate God Himself.

Why God Cares

These prophets can still challenge us however, even if it is by way of an end around.  They force us to ask the question why God even cares what we do.  As we probe we find that St. Thomas Aquinas asked the same question, framing it in terms of sin as an offense against God.  In Book 3 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Angelic Doctor says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.”  In other words, God cares so deeply about each one of us that He takes offense only when we do something that ultimately harms us.  And what are those things?  We call them sins, but they are essentially things that move us off the path that our nature and our supernatural calling has put us on.  There are some things that help us to advance towards this goal (we call these good), some things that stop us (venial sins) and some things that knock us off the path entirely so that we need His help to get back on the path (mortal sins).  In short, God not only cares what we do and don’t do, He says that He does so as a jealous lover.  He knows that giving ourselves to any other lover than Him ultimately ends in frustration that could be eternal.  But choosing Him as our love, we can love all those other things in Him.  “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33).  This is not to trivialize just how bad sin is—it is still an offense against Almighty God—but to place it within the context of a filial relationship rather than as Judge and defendant.  God, in all eternity, is Father but only with respect to creation is He judge.  It is of His nature to be Father and not to be Judge.  See, He does care what we call Him.

In his sermon entitled “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern to Christians,” Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us of the best weapon with which to combat these false prophets.  He says that Christians should not be taking up the sword in the manner of Elijah when he encountered the false prophets of his day, but instead to capture the spirit of mind that animated his actions.  Zeal, Newman says,

“consists in a strict attention to His commands—a scrupulousness, vigilance, heartiness, and punctuality, which bears with no reasoning or questioning about them—an intense thirst for the advancement of His glory—a shrinking from the pollution of sin and sinners—an indignation, nay impatience, at witnessing His honour insulted—a quickness of feeling when His name is mentioned, and a jealousy how it is mentioned—a fullness of purpose, an heroic determination to yield Him service at whatever sacrifice of personal feeling—an energetic resolve to push through all difficulties, were they as mountains, when His eye or hand but gives the sign—a carelessness of obloquy, or reproach, or persecution, a forgetfulness of friend and relative, nay, a hatred (so to say) of all that is naturally dear to us, when He says, ‘Follow me.’”

Let us go forth in this same spirit.

Christian Dignity

There is a certain logic and progression to the Catechism that reveals it to be more than a book of beliefs, but a map for the spiritual journey.  After delivering the content of what we believe (the creeds) and how we are empowered to believe it (the Sacraments), the Catechism examines what being a Christian looks like through an account of the moral life.   It begins with a quote that, at least at first glance, flies in the face of what most of us think of when we consider the moral life of a Christian.  It references a Christmas homily of St. Leo the Great in which the great pope exhorts Christians to “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (CCC 1691).  Of course it mentions “not sinning” but his reasoning for shunning sin strikes many of us as a little off.  He mentions nothing about breaking commandments or risking salvation but instead says sin is beneath our dignity as Christians.  In reading the signs of the times, the authors of the Catechism chose this particular quote because of both its timelessness and timeliness.  We live in an age of defensive Christianity and it is only by embracing our dignity as Christians that we can go on the offense once again.

This last sentence regarding widespread defensiveness bears an explanation.  There are certainly many Christians that live in a defensive stance against the world, trying to protect Christianity from outside influences.  Insofar as that is concerned, this is a good and necessary stance provided it is done with proper moderation.  What I mean by “defensive Christianity” has to do with the stance we take in our individual spiritual lives.  Most of us see a life of grace as one in which we are protected from evil.  Evidence the habit, even within Catholic circles, to focus on “being saved” and “getting to heaven.”  Both are important, but they represent a stunted view of the Christian life.  By placing the emphasis on our Christian dignity and off of merely being saved, we can fly towards Christian perfection and sanctification.


Although this may be slightly tangential, it is worth discussing the concept of dignity.  Many people insist that men and women have an inherent dignity because they are made in the “image and likeness of God.”  That is not entirely true.  Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are not.  Our dignity rests in the fact that we are made in the image of God.  That is, as creatures who have the spiritual powers of intellect and will, we surpass all of material creation in greatness.  This means that we are afforded a certain treatment that we call dignity.

Christian dignity is something more because it restores God’s likeness.   To “be like” God means we have a nature like His, or, more accurately since He is God, a share in His nature.  It is the “likeness of God” that was forfeit by our first parents and, thanks to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, is restored to us in Baptism.  Christian dignity then stems from our restored likeness to God or as St. Leo puts it “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature.”

Of course Pope St. Leo is just reminding of something that Pope St. Peter said in his second letter—“that you may become partakers of the Divine nature” (2Pt 1:3).  Catholics have always called this share in the Divine nature sanctifying grace.  But Catholics rarely reflect on the full impact that this has and what our being “born anew of the Spirit” (c.f. Jn 3:6-7) really means.  Because most assuredly if we did then, at least according to the Saintly Pontiff, it would be enough to keep us from forfeiting it through sin.

Reading the Scriptures with the Head and not just the Heart

One of the obstacles has to do with our approach to Scripture.  We can read it with sentimentality rather than taking it literally.  One might be excused with reading St. John’s letters this way when he says something like “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:1-2).  But one cannot ever read St. Paul in a sentimental manner.  When he says “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17) we should take our sonship quite literally.  This is a repeated theme throughout the New Testament and one of the keys to understanding what it means to be a Christian.  We are quite literally God’s children only because He has given of His own nature to us.  To be adopted by Him means not just that we were created by Him, but that as Father He recreated us by impressing His own nature on us.

There is more to this than simply realizing it.  He gave this gift to us not just as protection from sin (i.e. that we might be saved) but for us to make use of it.  Those in a state of grace are given a super-nature, one that enables them not just to “be like God” but to act like Him.  As the name implies, this supernatural power builds upon our natural power, or more accurately, it transforms and elevates it.  The more we use this super-nature, the more we become like God which only makes us the super-nature more (in theological terms we increase in sanctifying grace).  We become, as Jesus commanded us “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  Notice too how this clears up all the intellectual debates about faith and works and merits.  It is us using God’s nature that He was given us.

This also takes the emphasis off of “getting to heaven.”  Why?  Because we are already there.  Heaven is the place where God dwells and those who dwell with Him enjoy union with Him.  With the gift of sanctifying grace comes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (c.f. Romans 5:2-5).  God comes and takes up residence in our souls so that we may be united with Him.  Again, sentimentality blocks us from understanding what St. Paul means when he says we are “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19).  The Holy Spirit truly comes into our souls and dwells there.  With Him come the other two Divine Persons as they cannot be separated, even if their mode of presence is different (like the Incarnation).  That is why St. Paul says we have been given the “first fruits” of heaven through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:22-23).  It is still first-fruits so that the degree in which we will know God (faith versus the Beatific Vision) is different, but not in kind.  Divine grace truly contains the seeds of heaven, growing day by day.  Our focus should not be simply getting there, but acting like you are already there.  As St Theresa of Avila said, “it is heaven all the way to heaven.”

If all that I have said to this point is true, then why would we ever forfeit it for a momentary delight?  There are no “cheap thrills”; each is more expensive than we could possibly imagine.  We would be more foolish than Esau who failed to see his dignity as the first-born son and sold his birth right for a bowl of porridge (Gen 25:29-34).  This is Pope St. Leo’s crucial point—stop and recognize who you are now, Whose you are now; do you really want to throw that all away?  Recognize your dignity Christian.

A Truly Virgin Birth

Sometimes familiarity can be a catalyst for myopia, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the faith.  Christmas is no exception in this regard and offers an excellent opportunity to expand our sights by fixing them on some of the not-so obvious mysteries hidden with of Our Lord’s nativity.

In his customary manner, St. Matthew ends his account of the birth of Our Lord with an Old Testament proof-text to show how the prophets spoke specifically about Jesus.  Quoting Isiah 7:14, the Evangelist says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:24).  It is common for us to use this as Scriptural proof of the virgin birth of the Messiah, but unfortunately very little attention is paid to what this actually means.  More to the point, we often substitute our idea of the virginal birth with the idea of the virginal conception.  Both of course are true, but how is it that a virgin could give birth?

If we come at it from the perspective of the one who gave birth, clarity emerges.  For a belief in Our Lady’s perpetual virginity is really saying three things.  First, that she became pregnant with Our Lord without “knowing a man” (Lk 1:34).  Second, that Our Lady remained in this state after the birth of Our Lord.  These two are obvious, but it is the third that helps bring illumination—Our Lady remained a virgin “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (CCC 499).  Or, as the Council of Ephesus puts it: “After giving birth, nature knows not a virgin: but grace enhances her fruitfulness, and effects her motherhood, while in no way does it injure her virginity.”

The Miracle of Christ’s Birth

In order to keep her virginity intact, Our Lord did not leave His Mother’s womb through the birth canal.  He would have been delivered in a miraculous manner, passing directly from her womb into the outside world.  Without getting overly bogged down in the biological details, we can still glean some particularly poignant aspects of the mystery.

As a first consequence of this, Tradition has always taught that Our Lady’s partus was completely devoid of pain.  This is more than an interesting fact, but carries with it a very deep corollary that Our Lord wished to establish from the beginning of His mission.  When Our Lord came into the world, He came to suffer so as to redeem us.  But He was unwilling to be the cause of any other unnecessary suffering.  As St. Thomas says, “But the mother’s pains in childbirth did not concern Christ, who came to atone for our sins. And therefore there was no need for His Mother to suffer in giving birth”(ST III, q. 35, a.6).  Our Lady would suffer because of her role as the New Eve, but only in the amount that was absolutely necessary.  Likewise, all those associated with Him (us) are guaranteed only to suffer when it is necessarily tied to His redemptive mission.  He did, and still does, refuse to “break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick” (Is 42:3).

Remaining on the more practical level, we can also see why this miraculous intervention might be necessary.  If Our Lady’s virginity remained physically intact, there can be no doubt as to the truth of the virginal conception.  This is also why it is reasonable to believe that Our Lady remained a virgin throughout her entire life.  While we do not get overly fixated on the biological details, the virginal birth is still a biological fact.

Virginity, properly understood though, is not just a biological fact.  It is a condition of the entire person and does not simply mean someone who has never had sex.  Our Lady is ever-virgin because she is all-pure, both body and soul.  Her body is as a sacrament revealing the state of her soul.  In order to affirm this Our Lord does not destroy the physical sign of her personal virginity.

As a point of clarification, we call it a miracle because it defies the laws of nature for a human body to pass under its own power from its mother’s womb.  This should be seen as distinct from Christ, while operating under the power of His resurrected body, had the power of subtlety, that is, the power to pass through physical objects.

The Miracle as a Sign

But we also refer to it as a miracle because, like all Christ’s miracles, it has great value as a sign.  The same infant that was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that is burial cloths, had just passed from the closed womb pointing to the time when He would pass from the tomb.

His birth also was to serve as a sign revealing the fullness of Our Lord’s person as true God and true man.  As St. Thomas says, “He mingled wondrous with lowly things. Wherefore, to show that His body was real, He was born of a woman. But in order to manifest His Godhead, He was born of a virgin, for ‘such a Birth befits a God,’ as Ambrose says in the Christmas hymn” (ST III, q28, art. 2, ad. 2).

The miracle also serves as a sign of our ultimate redemption.  Living in this post-lapsarian world, it is difficult to view creation as anything other than a closed system of corruption.  By passing through Our Lady’s womb, without leaving behind the natural traces of corruption, Our Lord was pointing ahead to the redemption of creation in the New Heavens and the New Earth where corruption is no longer possible.

Finally, Our Lord wanted to point each of us to the true joy of Christmas.  By taking something that is naturally painful and filling it with gladness, He was forever instituting Christmas as a day of great joy.  Merry Christmas everyone!

A Death Like His

For those who have spent any time in school, it is a universal experience.  On the cusp of final exams, you perform the “what’s the worst I can do and still get an A?” calculation.  Or if you don’t have an A, you’ll ask “what will my grade be if I get 100%?”.   Crunching the numbers, the study plan develops accordingly.  Outside of the academic arena this approach can get us in trouble—especially when we apply a similar pattern of thinking to life’s final exam, death.  We assume that if we have performed well during the semester of life, then death will be a breeze.  Not only does this attitude ignore the tremendous temptations that await us, but it fails to discern the truly Christian meaning of death, or more to the point, the meaning of life.  For a Christian the meaning of life is dying well.

When St. Paul was being held captive in Rome, he penned his great opus on joy to the Church in Philippi.  Written during his first imprisonment in Babylon (c.f. 1 Pt 5:13), the Apostle reflected upon his own approach to death.  But rather than performing the “end of semester calculus” he “forgets what lies behind straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:14).  In other words, St. Paul eschews the cruise control and sprints all the way through the finish line.

This attitude is antithetical to the spirit of the world which confronts death in one of two ways.  First there is the mode of distraction.  It looms in the back of our minds, but as something we will deal with later.  Meanwhile we come up with creative ways to avoid thinking about it.  As Pascal maintains, “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”  We know it is inevitable, but we hope it catches us by surprise and “peacefully”.  Second there is the wisdom of pop-psychology which summons us to “accept it.”  Paradoxically this type of acceptance is a denial.  Like its proverbial doppelganger, taxes, we simply treat it as something to be planned around and cheated.

Planning for Death

Scripture on the other hand tells us to plan for death.  As the Book of Sirach tells us, “Remember the Last Things and you will never sin” (Sir 7:36).  Biblically speaking, to remember is not simply to keep it in the back of our mind or to “accept it” but to make it a present reality.  Knowing you are going to die is one thing, knowing how you will die is quite another.  Very likely we have no knowledge of the external circumstances but we can rehearse the interior dispositions that will accompany our deaths.  Just as we plan fiscally for our deaths with life insurance and a will, we should plan physically by preparing our souls, making death a testament.

In order to hit the target, we must first distinguish what we are aiming at.  The goal is, as St. Paul tells the Romans, to be united to Christ in a “death like His” (Rom 6:5).  Our own death, not surprisingly, finds meaning in His Passion.  Like a lamb being led to slaughter, Our Lord was silent in His sufferings.  The only time that Christ lets out a cry of anguish during His Passion is at the moment of His death.  The agony of His death is so keen that He could not remain silent.  The cry of anguish was proceeded by His last words—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  That is, Christ the Priest, has made a definitive offering of the pain of death to the Father.  A “death like His” is one that has been offered to the Father.

Life is not really pass/fail.  We run through the finish line because in death we have something, perhaps our greatest something, to offer to the Father.  Death ceases to be a punishment and becomes a true offering of our lives to God.  Death, when offered in union with Christ, becomes the pathway to Life.  It is when we receive the fullest share in the priesthood of Christ and in turn conform ourselves more fully to Him as victim.  It is only at death that we can truly offer our life to God—no other person, even Christ Himself, can do that for us.

A Priestly Annointing for Death

To prepare us for the greatest of our priestly tasks, the Church “completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life…completing our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it” (CCC 1523) in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  This Sacrament, even though it is often touted as a Sacrament of Healing, is first and foremost a priestly anointing so that “the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC 1521).

A proper understanding of death as primarily a priestly occupation, enables the Christian, even when facing great bodily pains surrounding death, can remain spiritually joyful.  God loves a cheerful giver.  Unfortunately this aspect of death as a definitive offering has been lost to the prevailing culture.  We collectively accept the wine and myrrh thinking we can anesthetize death, depriving the person of their opportunity to give their life to God.  This is also why euthanasia is the very opposite of mercy, robbing the person of the only true gift they have to offer to God.

Seeing the Sacrament of the Anointing as an anointing for a good death also helps bring out another important facet of death.  The dying person often sees himself as a burden upon other people, especially his loved ones.  But the Church says that there is an Ecclesial grace attached to the Sacrament such that the “sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’  By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522).  By uniting themselves to Christ in a “death like His,” the sick man finds joy, able to say with St. Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col 1:24).  Far from being a burden, the sick actually lighten the burden on the other members of Christ body.

The great spiritual masters of the Church all speak of the art of dying well.  Like any art, it can only be done well when it is practiced and prepared for.  Remember death and you will do well in life.

What’s for Dinner?

In keeping with tradition, President Trump pardoned Drumstick, the thirty-six pound presidential turkey, yesterday and sent her to Gobblers Rest on the Virginia Tech campus.  Millions of other turkeys will not be so fortunate however adorning the tables of Americans tomorrow gathering for the Thanksgiving Day feast.  For a small, but increasing, number of those families, they will forgo the fowl because they are avowed vegans and vegetarians.  Included within this group are a number of Catholic intellectuals who have rejected their omnivorous ways by making a moral argument for vegetarianism, seeing it as an antidote to the culture of death.   Before the Lion of PETA lies down with Lamb of the National Right to Life, it is instructive to offer a Christian perspective on vegetarianism.

Animals and Their Use

In examining the order of nature, it is patently obvious that there is a hierarchy in which the perfect proceeds from the imperfect.  This hierarchy also resides in the use of things so that the imperfect exists for the use of the perfect.  The plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, animals make use of plants and man makes use of plants and animals.  Man is said then to have dominion over all of visible creation because, having reason and will, he is able to make use of all of it.

Revelation supports human reason in this regard as Genesis tells of God’s granting of dominion to mankind because he is created in God’s image (c.f. Gn 1:26-27).  But this is really a two-edged sword.  Dominion means not just that we have the capacity for using things, but also that there is a right and wrong way to use them.  With free will comes the capacity for the misuse of creatures.   So that the question is not really whether man has dominion over the animals but whether this dominion includes the right to eat them.

Thus when we reflect on the proper use of animals, we usually use the term “humane.”  Although it is an oft-used term, it is not oft-understood.  When we speak of the “humane” treatment of animals it does not mean that we treat them as if they were human.  Instead it refers to the truly human (i.e. moral) way of treating animals as living, sentient beings over which we have been given not just dominion but stewardship.  Humane treatment refers to the truly human way of using the animals.  This would mean that all traces of cruelty or causing unnecessary pain carry moral weight.  Put another way, we should avoid any all forms of abuse, which, of course,  always assumes there is a proper use.

The question also needs to be properly framed.  It is not really whether or not this use includes the death of the animal.  Just as the use of plants by animals may lead to the death of the plants, so too do higher animals prey on the lower.  There is no inherent reason then why the use of the animal by man cannot results in death.  Some make the argument for the moral necessity of vegetarianism based on the fact that we should not kill a living thing.  A moment’s reflection however allows us to see that virtually all of our food, including many things like wheat and fruits and vegetables, results from the death of something that was living (see Augustine’s City of God, Book 1, Ch.20 for further discussion on this).  No one truly objects because the plant matter, lacking sentience, does not have the capacity for pain.  To advance further we must look more closely at animal pain.


Every generation has its pet virtue and for our generation it is kindness.  Provided we “would never hurt a fly” we are deemed good people.  The great enemy of kindness is cruelty and its daughter pain.  Pain is the greatest evil.  But this is not entirely true.  Pain becomes an evil when it becomes an end in itself.  This is true in both humans and animals.  It can however serve as a means, provided it is minimized in carry out its purpose.  That purpose can be either corrective (like getting too close to a fire) or for growth.  Cruelty would not be to cause pain, but to cause it unnecessarily.  The power of sentience is not simply for feeling pleasure, but also allows for the feeling of pain.  This power is good and necessary for the creature to thrive.

The difference in humans and animals is the capacity, not to feel pain, but to suffer.  There must be an I to experience suffering or else it is merely a succession of pains without any real connection.  As CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain it is most accurate to say “pain is taking place in this animal” rather than “this animal is suffering.”  We should avoid saying things like “how would you like to be in a slaughterhouse?”  The experience of animals in that environment is very different from the suffering that would have gone on in a place like Auschwitz.  They may be in pain in the slaughterhouse, but there is no suffering.  Any appeal to emotions based on an anthropomorphic comparison ultimately muddies the waters.

The causing of pain in other humans, always as a means, is licit provided the patient receives some benefit from it.  At first glance it would seem that animals would derive no benefit from the pain caused by humans.  When we view pain as means of moving a person towards perfection then we can see the parallel in animals.  The perfection of any creature consists in it achieving the end for which it was made.  Man was made for happiness (in the classical sense of becoming morally good) and animals were made for man.  If the pain that a man causes an animal is necessary for his own happiness and acts as a means to helping the animal reach the end for which it was made, namely the service of mankind, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

The Moral Case For Vegetarianism

All that has been said so far helps to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding the issue, but has yet to address whether a moral argument could be made for vegetarianism.  In the state of original innocence man was a vegetarian (c.f. Gn 1:29).  Man had dominion over the animals but did not use them for clothes or food (ST I, q.103, art. 1).  The animals obeyed man, that is, all animals were domesticated.  For his own disobedience man was punished by the disobedience of those creatures which should have been subjected to him and they became difficult to domesticate and often posed threats to his life.  Shortly thereafter the animals were used for clothing (Gn 3:20) and food (Gn 9:3).  In short, because of the frailty introduced to the human body as a result of the Fall, it became necessary to make use of the animals for warmth and nutrition.

Any argument that man “was originally a vegetarian” ultimately falls flat because we cannot return to our Edenic state.  With the Fall came irreparable damage to both body and soul of which animal flesh provides a partial remedy.  Furthermore, within Church tradition, fasting from meat has long been practiced as a means of mortification.  We are called to abstain from good things so that eating meat is a good thing and thus worthy of being sacrificed.  In short, any attempt to make a moral argument that eating meat is wrong ultimately falls flat.

Likewise making a connection to the culture of death is problematic.  It is not clear how using animals for food is directly connected or acts like a gateway drug for the culture of death unless you equivocate on the word death.  The culture of death is one that causes spiritual death.  How the killing of animals, when done in a humane way and not out of greed, leads to a culture of spiritual death is not immediately obvious.

All that being said, there is a manner in which vegetarianism can represent a morally praiseworthy act, that is by way of counsel and not obligation.  Because meat is a concession made by God because of man’s fallen condition, abstaining from meat can act as a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act.  This is why the Church has long obligated abstaining from meat specifically (as opposed to some other kind of food) during certain liturgical periods.  Permanently abstaining from meat, when done with this intention, becomes a powerful spiritual practice.  It also becomes an act of witness to both the world and to those in the Church who often neglect this practice.

For the omnivores among us—enjoy your meat this Thanksgiving Day with a clear conscience.  But make an offering of thanksgiving Friday by holding the leftovers until Saturday.  Herbivores, allow your vegetarianism to be a constant sign of the redemption won at so great a cost.  Truly, something to be thankful for.

Old Men and the Bible

“You don’t actually believe,” my Christian friend asked, “that Methuselah lived to be almost 970 years old, do you?  It’s been pretty much proven by biblical scholars in the last century that the ages shouldn’t be taken literally.  I had no idea you were a biblical literalist.”  Intrigued by the fact that it was “proven,” I asked what the proofs were.  He said there were two—those such that hold it to be a myth or literary device to speed up the story from Adam to the Flood and those who say the ancients reckoned the years differently, something akin to what we do with “dog years.”

These are not new questions to be sure.  In City of God, St. Augustine set out to defend the truth that we should interpret the ages of the Biblical Fathers literally.  Even in Augustine’s day there were those who tried the “dog-years” interpretation saying that the authors of Sacred Scripture reckoned years differently, 10 years for every actual year.  He refutes it by pointing out that if the calendar was “sped-up” then a year would last 36 days, with each month lasting 3 days.  The problem with this however is that there are very specific references to months and days in the text.  We are told that the waters began to recede “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month” (Gn 8:4).  Later we learn that Noah left the ark on the twenty-seventh day of the second month (Gn 8:14).  Between the two months there were at least 44 days, making the “dog-years” hypothesis untenable.  We can conclude with Augustine and all those who followed him that “[I]t is plain that the day then was what it now is, a space of four-and-twenty hours, determined by the lapse of day and night; the month then equal to the month now, which is defined by the rise and completion of one moon; the year then equal to the year now, which is completed by twelve lunar months, with the addition of five days and a fourth to adjust it with the course of the sun” (City of God, Book 15, Ch.14).

Likewise the “literary device” hypothesis is difficult to defend.  There is a genealogy that connects each of the persons listed directly.  Anyone who has attempted to trace their own genealogy knows that the two most important things are getting the years of birth and death correct and matching the child with the right parents.  So unless you are willing to concede that the people listed themselves were not real people, then you will have difficulty connecting the men and women listed except by accepting the time frame as well.  There is no reason that the Sacred Author would need to employ this as a literary device when it would be just as effective to summarize across generation the way it is done at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

The Problem of Methuselah

All that being said, we still have not overcome what I will call the “wink-wink” aspect.  According to the Guinness Book of World records, the “greatest fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122.”  That Methuselah lived to be 969 years old flies in the face of both experience, common sense and modern genetics.  Ironically enough, though, if we are willing to accept Divine Revelation as true (i.e. a literal interpretation of the ages) then we can use some of the principles of genetic mutations to offer a reasonable explanation.

In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we discussed how faith and reason intersect to offer an explanation of our beginnings from a single man and a single woman whom Tradition calls Adam and Eve.  Being the first of their kind they would necessarily represent humanity in its “purest” form.  That is, as the first human beings, they would be setting the genetic standard for what it means to be human.  Any so-called mutations in a creature that is the first of its kind represents not a mutation but a part of the baseline so to speak.  Mutations could only begin to occur in the second generation.  But these mutations (I am oversimplifying here to make a point) would not begin to express themselves in offspring until there was a “doubling” in that both parents had the mutation and passed it along to their offspring.  Given that the appearance of these mutations occur in random subjects, probability theory would suggest that it would take a long time for this doubling to occur, even if the population size is increasing exponentially.

At a certain point in time, a “shorter life” gene could have entered the gene pool and through a process of micro-evolution (especially if it was selective for another reason) became the more prominent.  Human beings had “evolved” such that they now lived for 80 years instead of 800.  The vegans among us might be quick to point out that everything was fine until they started eating meat (Gn 9:3), but I digress.  The point is that modern science can offer us a possible explanation as to how it happened.  It could have happened another way.  But, happen it did.  This is not a proof, but an explanation.  Revelation is a given.

Why Faith Needs These Questions and Answers

While this may be an interesting intellectual exercise that shows the overlap between faith and reason, that is not the point of this essay.  It is simply an example.  We should not be surprised that we cannot prove many things contained with divine revelation, especially those related to our pre-historic, that is those that happened before historical record, beginnings.  If we could discover them then we would not need revelation.  As Christians, we start with the Bible as a given and then proceed from there.  Like our friend St. Augustine, we believe and then understand.

We might treat these things as “acceptable fictions” that make for a nice story or simply look the other way, feeling a little absurd when they come up.  Both practices are ultimately damaging to our faith.  Which is more unbelievable—that men once lived hundreds of years or that God Himself took flesh, walked the face of the earth as one of us, suffered, died, was buried and on the third day rose again?  By examining revelation using other avenues of truth it not only strengthens our faith, but more importantly, it increases our awe at the most wonder-full truth of the Incarnation.  An incarnational religion ought to be animated by a desire to put flesh on the truths of the faith by scrutinizing them using the tools of reason.  Armed with the maxim that truth cannot contradict truth, the assurance that everything given to us through the fonts of Revelation is true, and a healthy dose of humility, we should not fear to use reason to challenge what we believe.  Questioning the truths of the Faith is not the same thing as questioning whether they are true.  The death of faith can come from at the hands of credulity just as easily as it can in the face of methodical doubt.  The Christian story is quite incredible and we should treat it as such.  Apologetics helps the apologizer just as much as his audience; be not afraid to shine the light of reason onto divine revelation.

Misogyny and Misbegotten Males: On the Creation of Woman

The account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis has often been labeled as the genesis of misogyny by feminists.  The opening account in the Bible has become for many the point where they close the book.  Therefore it behooves us to know how to respond to such a charge.  In so doing, we will, like Adam who found an unlikely “helpmate” in Eve, we will turn to what many would consider a more unlikely helpmate—St. Thomas Aquinas.

Using St. Thomas as a helper to dismiss the charge of misogyny require some explaining.  For many people this would be like asking David Duke to help defend proper race relations.  But there is good reason to turn to the Dumb Ox for help on this.  Too often skeptics will dismiss the entire corpus of his teaching because the Angelic Doctor is a “misogynist.”    Following the teachings of Aristotle, St. Thomas saw women as “misbegotten males.”

It bears mentioning however that if he was wrong about women, then this does not mean he was wrong about everything, or even anything else.  All this would prove is that he was not infallible and was capable of making mistakes.  Like all of us, he too was prone to unquestionably accept some of the prevailing views of his day.  To have a blind spot, does not make one blind.  Should the entire economic theory of Adam Smith be thrown out because “woman are emotional and men rational.”?  What about John Locke’s political theory because he justifies slavery?  Living in the glass house of a multitude of errors in our own day, we should be careful to throw stone.

St. Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of Misogyny?

This particular case is worth examining however because St. Thomas does not wholly swallow the prevailing viewpoint.  While he wrote about women (including his great esteem for Our Lady) in numerous places, he is usually, as mentioned above, accused of misogyny because of what he wrote in a single place when called woman a “misbegotten male.”

In seeking to examine the origin of woman, St. Thomas first asks should the woman have been made in that first production of things (ST I, q.92, art.1)?  He answers in the affirmative, but the first objection he mentions is that of the Philosopher, that is Aristotle:

“For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that ‘the female is a misbegotten male.’ But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.”

Note first that this he has listed as an objection to his own viewpoint.  Obviously it was not his own.  In his reply to this objection he shows why he does not agree completely with Aristotle.  It is worth citing the entire response in order to put the myth of his woman hating to rest.

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.”

Notice that he agrees with Aristotle about the “misbegotten” part, but only on a biological level.  The prevailing view of reproductive biology was that the sperm produced only male offspring, and that when this did not happen it was because something interfered with it.  But St. Thomas goes to some length to say that woman is not a mistake of any sort, but directly willed by God.  Men and women, in St. Thomas’ view, are equal in dignity, even if there are some accidental inferiorities (such as physical strength) between the two.  We shall return to this idea in a moment when we speak of Eve’s origin.

Eve and Adam’s Rib

In the second chapter of Genesis, speaks of the mysterious origins of man and woman.  The man, Adam, is made from the dust of the ground infused with a spirit.  The woman is “built” from the rib of the man.  (Gn 2:21-22).

Much of the creation account uses metaphorical or mythical language, but that does not mean it is entirely composed of metaphor.  In fact, the Church is quite insistent that we understand Eve being formed from the rib of Adam literally.   This is one of the three truths of man’s origins from revelation that the Church insists must be safeguarded from any encroachment by a Theory of Evolution.  Strictly speaking, if creatures are always evolving, there is always a relationship of inferior to superior.  If woman and man evolved from different individuals, evolution would lead them eventually away from each other.  Survival of the fittest would mean that one would necessarily become superior to the other.  But if they share one common origin, one common nature, then they will necessarily be equals.  By insisting that woman is taken from man, the Church is affirming this essential equality between man and woman; equal dignity such that any differences are not essential but only accidental.

This view is pretty much what we saw in St. Thomas’ explanation of why the understanding of woman as a misbegotten man is inadequate.  He goes on to further say that,

“It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man…to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither “use authority over man,” and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man’s contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet” (ST I, q.92, a. 3).

By removing the rib from Adam, God also would have exposed Adam’s heart to Eve, a truth that becomes clear when we examine the act of creation of the bride of the First Adam, with the bride of the Second Adam.  Just as Adam fell asleep and the raw material of his bride came from his side, so too when the Second Adam fell asleep that the raw material that God would form into His Bride came forth.

This exposure of Adam’s heart has not just a mystical meaning, but a natural one as well.  It is an expression of the truth that “it is not good that man should be alone.”  Pope St. John Paul II mentions this when he discusses the meaning of Adam’s rib during his catecheses on the Theology of the Body.  In naming the animals, man experiences what the Pope calls Original Solitude, in recognizing he is fundamentally alone among creation.  In the creation of Eve, he ecstatically experiences that he was made for another, that is, he was made to love—“this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!”  In other words, Eve being taken from the rib of Adam reveals that the two ways of being human somehow complete each other.  As John Paul II puts it, the rib reveals  masculinity and femininity as “two complementary dimensions…of self-consciousness and self-determination and, at the same time, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body” (TOB 11/21/79).  Adam’s recognition of Eve as somehow his equal and yet wholly other is a summons to love.

There is certainly a rich symbolism attached to the idea of Eve created from the rib of Adam, but must we really interpret it literally?  Literal interpretation affirms another very important, and very Catholic, principle related to God’s Providence.  God, being totally free, could have fashioned Eve in any manner He wanted.  But He chose this way not because it was a symbol, but because it was a sacrament.  It brought about and revealed the things that it symbolized—the unity, equality and love that each of the symbols we mentioned pointed to. All of creation including the human nature of Christ is meant to reveal God to us.  Therefore nothing that He has made can be taken at face value as “only this” or “only that.”  Everything that is, means something.  God does not need to use symbolic language because everything that He creates is in some sense a symbol.

The accusation of misogyny in the origins of man and woman is really an accusation of Christianity not being Christian.  Prior to the “evolution” of Christian culture, women were always viewed as somehow inferior to men.  It is only when Christianity became the prevailing worldview that the essential equality of men and women became the norm.  Now, revisionists would have us believe that the hand that fed us, actually poisoned us, by feeding us healthy food.  The account of the creation of Eve reveals the dignity of woman and is not misogynistic.



The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

Believing in Jesus

Every televised sporting event includes two things that are guaranteed to happen.  First, there will be beer commercials.  Second, at some point during the game, when panning the crowd, we will see a sign that says John 3:16.  It is perhaps the most recognizable verse in Sacred Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  It is in many ways a perfect summary of the Gospel containing both the importance and simplicity of the message.  Despite its simplicity, it has also become a source of confusion and contention for many Christians that centers around what it means to “believe in Him.”

As with many questions like this, it helps to begin with what it is not saying.  First, it is not saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Paraphrasing St. James, “even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19).  Jesus’ true identity is something worthy of belief, but only in the sense that we believe other historical realities.  They either happened or they didn’t.  Jesus either really rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven or He didn’t.  This is not to believe in Him but to believe about Him.  This is not what Jesus had in mind in addressing Nicodemus.

This is also not a call to believe in Jesus the philosopher or ethics professor.  This is often the way the world views Jesus and we inadvertently adopt this view to defend Christianity.    This is simply to believe Him.  Our Lord is not asking Nicodemus to become one of His pupils or to follow His moral code.  The invitation is for something deeper and more personal.  Instead we must treat Christianity as, Pope Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

What Christianity Is

In this, the Pope Emeritus captures the true meaning of what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, and by extension, us, to.  We do not believe in ideas, principles or philosophies.  We believe in another person.  In short Jesus is inviting us not to follow a way of life, but to enter into a love affair.  It is an invitation to trust.  Until we accept that this is the invitation, we will remain fixed in viewing our Christian life as a moral or philosophical journey.  Until we love Christ and not just Christianity we will not have the encounter we so deeply desire.

The doors of trust are opened when we come to realize that the “Word became flesh” for no other reason than because “God so loved the world,” that is every person in it.  It is no encounter with a man who died long ago and left us some teachings, but a man who is alive and waiting for me.  It is not a generic love for me, but a deeply personal love for me.  It is the assurance that Christ did not die for mankind, but that “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Like all relationships founded on trust, once the trust is in place, we are willing to do whatever Christ tells us.  Notice how Nicodemus keeps returning to Jesus throughout John’s Gospel so that his trusts grows to the point that he even defends him before the Sanhedrin. Once I know that He has only my best interest at heart, once I know the lengths He has gone to prove this and the power He has over all that can harm me, I will do whatever He says, no matter how crazy it seems, I will do it.

Even the devil knows how foundational this trust is.  Deep down, all sin is a matter of not trusting God enough.  “Maybe he doesn’t really have my best interest at heart…”  As the Catechism says “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397).  Jesus, I trust in You!

Faith and Works

Call it “works flowing from faith” or whatever you like, but it is summarized in one word trust.  The whole faith vs works controversy that separates Christianity is simply semantics.  It is about trust.  “Trust,” Our Lord says, “that I can save you” and you will be saved.  Trust not, and you are already condemned.  There is no other way to be saved.

We can readily see that this confusion over the word believe is related much like the confusion over the word faith.  That is why the Church has always made the distinction between the act of faith and the content of faith.  The act of faith is the trust that we have in God.  The more we trust, the greater our trust becomes.  The content of faith is what we believe.  In both senses we will use the word faith.  We have faith in the Person and so the content of what He has revealed, i.e the Faith, is altogether reliable.

While the act of faith is primary (in the sense that it is first in time), the content of faith is indispensable.  The content of faith, that is things like the Creed, are the reasons why we believe.  They are motives of credibility.

In his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton seems to capture the spirit of John 3:16 perfectly.  He writes of the world’s fascination with God’s Troubadour because of his love of nature and mankind, but his religion was always a stumbling block (especially the Stigmata).  Chesterton says the interpretive key for Francis is that “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being.  He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.  He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse.  He will do these things when he is in love.”

Why Many of the Jews Remained Veiled to Jesus

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul laments that the Jews of his day suffered ignorance regarding the identity of Christ because “their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:14-16).  One can imagine the Christians in Corinth struggling to understand how the Jewish people, steeped as they were in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, failed to see how all the prophecies find their fulfillment in Jesus.  The Corinthians are not alone in this, many of us often wonder how the Jews could miss this.

In his writings on the Antichrist, Blessed John Henry Newman has an extensive discussion on biblical prophecy in which he articulates an important principle: “It is not ordinarily the course of Divine Providence to interpret prophecy before the event.”  Newman is referring specifically to what the role of prophecy is in God’s plan.  Although prophecy is often (but not always) directed towards some future contingency, this does not mean that it is akin to being able to clearly predict what is going to happen.  If it were simply to tell everyone what is going to happen in the future, then it would seem that it should be marked by clarity.  Instead we find that prophecies are often obscure.  Prophecy, rather than being primarily for prediction, instead has the purpose of building up the body of believers (c.f 1Cor 12:10).  Its obscurity makes it impossible for those who lack the illumination from the same Spirit that inspired the prophecy to understand it.  With the gift of hindsight and illumination, it seems to us that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are very clear.  But we need only see how much help the first Christians needed (the road to Emmaus and Matthew’s explicit mentioning of which actions fulfilled which prophecies) to see just how difficult this was.  It is only when Our Lord comes to sweep away the clouds of obscurity by opening their minds to the Scriptures that they understood it (Lk 24:45).

There is another practical reason as well that made it particularly difficult and it has to do with the nature of the Messiah.  All too often we over-generalize and say “the Jews were expecting a political Messiah and Jesus came to usher in a different kind of kingdom.”  In an age where we make everything political this offers a clean explanation.  Most of the Jews were expecting that the Messianic Age would follow right on the heels of the Messiah (c.f. Acts 1:6) and when that didn’t happen it shattered many people’s expectations.  But to label their expectations as “political” does not quite capture what they meant.

The difficulty and the obscurity came in trying to somehow reconcile these different views.  We know that they are all true, but one can imagine how difficult it would be to wed them together yourself.  What often happened is that different schools opened up in which one chose only one of them at the expense of the others.  We are often very jealous of our ideas so that once they are challenged we reject everything that doesn’t agree.

Broadly speaking there were six different sets of prophecies concerning the future Messiah:

  • New Adam—based upon the promise in Gn 3:15 of the Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the Serpent and a promise of a restoration of Eden (Is 11:1-10, Ezekiel 36:33-38)
  • New Moses—based upon Moses’ prophecy that God will raise up a “prophet like me” (Dt 18:1-17). In this way the Jews were awaiting a New Exodus into a New Promised Land, a theme I have written about previously.
  • Son of David, “Son of God”—this is most clearly laid out in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about their understanding of the opening verses of Ps 110 when Our Lord asks them about the nature of the Messiah as David’s offspring(c.f. Mt 22:41-46).
  • Son of Man—the Messiah is described by Daniel as “one like a son of man” who comes not from the earth but “with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13-15).
  • Suffering Servant—Daniel prophesies that the Messiah will be “cut off” or put to death as an atonement for sin, reconciling it with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Jesus reconciles this with the previous one by saying “the Son of Man came to serve, not be served and give Himself as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
  • Priest of the Order of Melchizedek—this Priest will be a “priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:1-4), offering the same sacrifice as the Davidic kings did (2Sam 6:13-17).

Although we might easily reconcile these different views of the Messiah now, it was a tremendous challenge for the early Christians and their Jewish counterparts.  It was especially difficult to   The Book of Hebrews, written around 65 AD was composed mainly as a reference for tying all of these strains together.

The final obstacle for the Jews was the Crucifixion.  Although there are some very obvious parallels between the Passover Lamb and Our Lord (e.g. timing, “not a bone shall be broken”, etc), the Crucifixion itself could be an insurmountable obstacle.  It was for the punishment of criminals and would have appeared to be nothing like a sacrifice.  To all appearances, Jesus was a failure and a blasphemer.  Except for one small thing.  He actually called His shot this night before.  What makes the Crucifixion recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before. It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning. He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice.  It was God Incarnate Who did all those things prior to the event.  Not only does the Crucifixion give meaning to the Eucharist, it is the Institution of the Eucharist by which Our Lord assigns meaning to His death on the Cross.

How Much Did Mary Know?

One of the most popular Christmas songs this past year was Mary Did You Know.  While the lyrics of the song may not be theologically sound, the song asks a most important question for us to meditate upon on this Feast of the Annunciation: What did Mary know when she consented to the angel?

In asking whether Mary knows that the Son she was soon to deliver, would one day be her Deliverer, the lyrics gloss over the Immaculate Conception.  Through a singular grace, Our Lady was redeemed pre-emptively her Son from the Fall.  But the Immaculate Conception is also important in answering the question because of its effects.  Our Lady was untouched by Original Sin and any of its effects.  Ignorance, properly speaking, is a lack of knowledge of something that one should know and is an effect of the Fall.  Our Lady, immune to this effect, would have lived her life in what, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange describes as, a “dark brightness, the darkness arising not from human error and ignorance, but from the very transcendence of the light itself.”  In other words, she would have known all things that were humanly knowable at the time about the mystery of the Messiah and the Incarnation.  Many of the Church Fathers thought she also was given a plentitude of infused knowledge that was directly related to the Incarnation.  Either way, she would have known more about the Mystery of the Messiah than the most learned of the Jewish scholars.  The rest would have remained in the darkness of faith.

How Mary Knew

For certain, Mary would have known all the prophecies of the Old Testament.  She would have known that the 70 weeks of years prophesied by Daniel were expiring in her day.  She would have understood that the Suffering Servant prophecies in Isaiah referred to the Messiah.  She would have known that the child she was to carry was both her Savior and her God.  There was no doubt in her mind as to the identity of the Child she was to conceive.  As Fulton Sheen says, “Mary’s mind was filled with the thought of Divinity in the stable.”

Rather than being surprised by the content of the message of the Angel at the Annunciation, instead she is surprised that St. Gabriel was speaking to her.  She did not know her mission prior to it being revealed, but once it is revealed to her she is fearful.  She is fearful because she knows what it means for her.  Like her husband Joseph, she believed in God’s Redemption through the Messiah, but because of her profound humility thought herself unfit to fulfill any role in it.  She knows her own nothingness and yet has no doubts that “nothing is impossible for God.”

Two Examples Among Many

We can point to two instances among many that show her specific knowledge of the mission of her Son.  The first is so subtle, that we can easily miss it.

When Our Lord is born, Mary wraps Him in swaddling clothing and lays Him in a manger.  At first glance this seems so common place that we even wonder why it was included in the account.  But then we realize that most mothers would not have placed their children in a hard manger with straw.  Instead, they would most certainly have kept the child comfortable by holding him.  But Our Lady knows her Son’s mission and that each and every act of suffering is redemptive.  There is never a time when He is not the Messiah, but there is a time when because of normal human limitations, He relies upon His Mother to complete His mission.  For her part Mary must always put the mission first, even though she could easily remedy His pain.  Her suffering at seeing Him suffer, not just on the Cross, but even in the manger, merited her the title of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The second “moment” is at Cana.  Here the connection with the Fall, Adam and Eve and redemption with the New Adam and the New Eve is made most explicit.  But notice that it is Mary who initiates Our Lord’s public ministry.  It is as if He once again asks her if she is willing to go with Him to His hour.  The Annunciation and the Miracle at Cana are inexorably linked.

Mary’s Freedom and Knowledge

There is also a more fitting reason Mary must have known what was to transpire.  The Angel Gabriel comes to Our Lady not with a demand, but with a request.  God has sent him because He seeks Mary’s cooperation.  He will not initiate salvation without her say-so.  It is God’s “dependence” on Mary and her unique role in His saving mission that has earned her the title of co-redemptrix.

Eve may have had no choice in becoming the mother of all the living, but the New Eve would have a choice.  God wanted a free cooperator.  The will as a blind faculty can only choose based on knowledge.  As knowledge grows, the freedom with which we act increases.  If Mary’s fiat was total, then her knowledge must have been as well.

God could have defeated sin in the beginning by limiting human freedom.  Given He chose the greater good of human freedom, why would He circumvent it when finally defeating sin?  Instead He secured salvation through a supreme act of human freedom. If Eve freely and with full knowledge cooperated in mankind’s downfall, then the New Eve would untie the knot freely and with full knowledge.

This is not to say that Mary did not need faith.  She did not know everything and she had to make an act of faith in order to jump from seeing that what God “does to me” (Lk 1:38) is really the thing that the “Almighty does for me” (Lk 1:49).   Nor was it all Mary—although it was a free act, she who was “full grace” cooperated fully with it.  Mary needed both faith and grace, but God did not want to pull the wool over her eyes.

“Mary, did you know?”  Yes, she most certainly did.

Sola Scriptura and Logic

Halloween marked the 499th Anniversary since Martin Luther fired the first theological shot of the Protestant Revolution by presenting the Bishop with his Ninety-Five theses.  Since then, Christians have remained divided, even among those that would identify themselves as Protestants.  But one thing that they all agree upon is that the Bible is the sole rule of faith.  Many Protestants are quite vocal in their opposition to the Church on this one point.  For example, Pastor John Piper recently posted to his website,, an interview he gave in which he addresses the following question from a listener named Dan:

“Dear Pastor John, several of my Evangelical friends have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years. One key issue has been over whether the Bible is our sole rule of faith. After reviewing some of the Catholic arguments, I’ve come to appreciate their persuasive force. As I’ve engaged Protestants, however, I have not yet found an equally persuasive defense of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Pastor John, I was wondering if you could please help persuade me.”

Dan had to be somewhat disappointed by Pastor John’s first response because it is one that appears in one form or another anytime the subject is broached.

“If the Bible is God’s word, by definition no human authority or human institution can serve alongside the Bible with equal authority. Neither the pope nor any human counsel or any scholar or priest or pastor or human tradition has the authority of the Bible if it is God’s word. And it is.

Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 14:38 that the authority of those in the church must always give an account to the Scriptures, not themselves. That is the first response.”

When confronted with this or similar arguments, the Catholic will almost always respond with 1 Tim 3:15, “the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”  What normally ensues is a back and forth of different passages with no ground gained on either side.  What I would like to suggest is that the Catholic take a different approach, one that is outlined in the opening chapter of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, beautifully.


Pastor John opens his response by saying “If the Bible is God’s word…”  As Catholics we would not dispute this.  However, as the rest of his response seems to indicate, he is assuming that God’s word is the Bible.  What I mean by this is that, like nearly all his Protestant brethren, Pastor John assumes that the Word of God and Sacred Scripture are the same thing; that Sacred Scripture somehow exhausted all God has to say.

Anyone who carefully reads the Prologue to John’s Gospel will reject this.  John speaks of the “word of God” in various ways.  He is eternal, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  God’s Word took “flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) in the Person of Jesus Christ.  His word has been expressed through creation—“the world came to be through him” (John 1:10).  Turning to other books we find that His Word has been expressed “in partial and various ways through the Prophets” (Hebrews 1:1) and through angels (Acts 7:35).  His Word is expressed through the word preached by the Apostles (Mk 16:15).  We could multiply the examples, but what should become clear is that Pastor John and friends are making not so much a theological error, but a logical one.

When we use any two terms, they may equivocal, univocal or analogical.  Equivocal terms are those that have completely unrelated meanings (such as a river bank and a bank where we store our money).  In contrast to this we may use them univocally where the two terms express the same essential meaning.  Between these two poles there is also the opportunity to express the set of terms as having an analogical relationship.  An analogy is where you take two things which are different, but have a certain proportionality to them.  We use analogies with the hope of gaining knowledge of the latter which you don’t know by looking at how it is like a thing you do know.  For example, when we say that “Pastor John is good” and “God is good” we don’t mean exactly the same thing.  But we can gain a knowledge of God’s goodness which we don’t know fully by looking at Pastor John’s goodness which we do.

The Protestant error consists in using the terms “Word of God” and “the Bible” univocally, rather than analogically.  Each of the places we find the “Word of God” expressed throughout salvation history represent degrees or proportions.  The Word of God is eternal and yet is always expressed to man through a limited human language.  This is even the case with the Word Made Flesh.  Our Lord is the fullest expression of the Eternal Word, but not the Eternal Word expressed fully.  Pope Benedict XVI expresses it succinctly when he says that, “[A]lthough the word of God precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (Verbum Domini, 17).


The Word of God has always been mediated through the words of men through the working of the Holy Spirit.  In this way, we can see that all the ways in which God spoke are analogates of the Word Made Flesh.  It is always the Divine Word spoken using human instrumentality.  That is why you cannot pit human authority against God the way that Pastor John attempts to do.  Men who speak the Word of God, speak with the same authority, because the authority comes from God Himself Whose Word is spoken.

This is where Pastor John and many of his Protestant brethren set up Catholic strawmen only to knock them down.  No Catholic believes, nor does the Church teach, that the Pope or any man is above the Word of God.  The Church, as the Body of Christ extended through time, is like Christ’s earthly body, at the service of the Word.  Like Christ’s Incarnated Body, the Church also can speak the Word of God.  To think that the Word of God only is spoken in a book is to deny that it is living and active.

Protestantism doesn’t just differ in its view of authority but in what it means to be a disciple.  Pastor John and many of his friends believe Christians are a “people of the Book.”  But Christians are “people of the Word of God” that is incarnate and living (VD, 7).  It is living because He is alive and has never ceased speaking through the Holy Spirit.  He did not dwell among us temporarily but “with you always, until the end of the ages” (Mt 28:20).  The Incarnation did not cease with His Ascension, He simply took on a new body with a new voice on Pentecost.  It is not mere men who speak in the Church, but mere men whom Christ uses as His voice (c.f Lk 10:16).  He may have nothing new to reveal, but He still speaks.

Before closing, I want to mention briefly a hidden danger of a sect of Christianity that defines itself the way Protestantism does.  Protestantism is obviously broad, but it is essentially defined as “not Catholic.”  With this comes not only a tendency to protest all things Catholic, but it also leads to a giant blind spot that causes one not to actually take the time to learn what it is that Catholics believe.  Pastor John’s second paragraph is a good example.

Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

There is a self-refuting quality about this argument.  On the one hand, he says that no ecclesial office has an authority equal to that of the Bible, but then mentions that pastors and teachers are “not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”  What are apostles other than ecclesial officers (1 Cor 12:28)?  He is describing what Catholics actually believe.  We already believe that public revelation is closed but must still be handed on (or in Latin tradere from which we get the word Tradition).  Therefore, we believe that Scripture and Tradition, both of which are guarded and handed on, “form one sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, II, 10).

St. James and Apostolic Succession

There are any number of reasons why non-Catholic Christians say they are not Catholic that range from the Church’s emphasis on Mary and the Saints to the Eucharist.  But in truth, they really only boil down to one and that is apostolic succession.  Regardless of one’s specific issue, if the authority of the Church is established then everything else will naturally fall into place.  Struggling with the Immaculate Conception?  Start with the given that the Church can and has spoken definitively on it and the personal objections will soon dissolve.  If we believe then we will understand.  As St. Augustine found out, it is nearly impossible to go the other way—to understand your way into believing.  As Catholics then we should seek to establish a firm understanding of Apostolic Succession so as to help our non-Catholic friends to enjoy the fullness of the Truth that Christ is offering to all mankind through the Apostolic Church.

A closer look at St. James, the saint whose feast we celebrate today, can be instructive in this regard.  One of the “Sons of Thunder” and brother of the Beloved Disciple John, James the Son of Zebedee was the first Apostle to wear the martyr’s crown.  As Acts 12:2 tells us, he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD.  A common objection to the belief in Apostolic Succession centers on him.  The claim is made that if there truly is Apostolic Succession, then why didn’t the Church appoint another Apostle to take his place?

Recall that shortly after the Ascension, the Apostles gathered to appoint another man to the vacant office of Apostle occasioned by Judas’ death.  God had ordained that just like the Israel of Old, the New Israel the Church would be constituted by twelve heads.  Therefore at its birth on Pentecost, there must be twelve Apostles.  However this does not mean that it would always have these twelve heads, only that they would serve as its foundation (Eph 2:20).  So to think that there would be Apostles present in every age of the Church is like thinking that the twelve sons of Israel would somehow live on forever.

The error really comes from a misunderstanding of what Apostolic Succession actually means.  When Our Lord instituted the office of Apostle (which literally means “one who is sent”), He constituted it as both itinerant and ubiquitous.  They were to go about from town to town to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Gospel.  This means that each of the Apostles sought to go into a particular region, preach the Gospel and instruct certain reliable neophytes so that they could be ordained to carry on a set of fixed tasks that were necessary for the daily life of the community.  In particular that meant administering Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist (as well as the other Sacraments), transmitting and guarding the teachings of the Apostles to the whole community and serving as administrators of the temporal affairs of the local ecclesial community.  To do this, the Apostles would anoint certain men as Bishops and in anointing them, bestow the same powers they were given by Christ upon the ordained.  Because they had the full power of the priesthood given to the Apostles, these Bishops could also ordain other Bishops as well as Presbyters (what we call Priests) and Deacons to assist them.

St. Clement of Rome summarizes what the Apostles sought to accomplish best:

“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier…. Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.” (Epistle to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [80 AD])

But the Apostles were not in the business of ordaining other Apostles.  It is very clear from the story of Matthias that it is not Peter per se that appoints Matthias, but God Himself (Acts 1:24-26).  Likewise, it was God, Who, once the Church began to scatter from Jerusalem and into the Gentile world, appointed St. Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2:8).  As his letters to Timothy illustrate, Paul had the full measure of Apostolic power including the power of episcopacy.  Timothy however was never an Apostle, only a Bishop.

St. James icon

As an aside, St. Paul is chosen as a thirteenth Apostle in order to show that the New Israel includes a tribe that was not included in the Old Israel, namely the Gentiles.  Once again we see an example of how God is both telling a continuous story with Israel and the Church, yet has “made all things new” (Rev 21:5) in the Church.

Therefore, we must understand that contained within the office of Apostle is the power of episcopacy.  But this obviously is not the full measure of the Apostolic office.  It is the power of episcopacy that the Apostles handed on and it is this power that we are referring to when we use the term Apostolic Succession.  St. James was fully an Apostle, even if he never exercised his episcopal power on a local Church the way that some of the other Apostles did.  He did not need to in order to be an Apostle.

God never intended for the office of Apostle to endure until the end of time.  But he did intend for certain powers contained within their office to be passed on, including the power of episcopacy.  This same power resides only within the Episcopal College of the Catholic Church, with the Pope as its head.

Holding onto Jesus

Throughout the centuries, much ink has been spent by biblical scholars commenting on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in John Chapter 20.  In particular, many have sought an explanation for verse 17 where Jesus says to Mary that she should “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” A number of possible interpretations present themselves and are worth examining.

An immediate question that arises is why Our Lord does not allow Mary Magdalene to touch Him, but when He encounters Thomas in the Upper Room, He allows him to touch Him?  One possible explanation relates to the way that a burnt offering was made to the Lord.  In the Old Testament, the priest must offer the whole lamb and burn it on the altar.  The offering was not acceptable to the Lord until it had risen to the Him as a pleasing odor.  Until the burnt offering was fully consumed and had ascended to God, it was only a priest who could touch it.  Likewise, it is Jesus who is the lamb that serves as a burnt offering to the Father and until He ascends to the Father, it is only a priest who can handle Him.  This of course relates to the fact that Jesus instituted a new priesthood in the Apostles.

It seems though that this particular difficulty is one that has been raised solely by biblical commentators.  This was probably not the intent of the author however.  The verbs that John uses in the two encounters are different, even if they are translated in English in the same way.  He uses haptō, which is translated as “cling” or “hold” in verse 17 and uses pherein and ballein in verse 27 for “examine” and “probe”.  Once we see that it was probably not the intent of the author to contrast the two encounters, two other possibilities present themselves.

First, it has been suggested that since the Greek imperative is used, we should translate it as: “Stop touching me!”  Essentially Jesus is telling Mary to stop clinging onto Him because He will go back to the Father in a short time and wants to meet with the disciples as often as is possible before that happens.  She should go and fulfill her vocation as Apostle to the Apostles by running and telling them the good news in haste.  Based upon Mary’s actions, this seems to be the way she understood what Jesus was saying.

Jesus appearance to ST. Mary Magdalene

Perhaps the more compelling explanation is the one that is suggested by Pope Benedict in the second installment of Jesus of Nazareth(p. 285).  Once Mary recognizes Our Lord she thinks that this is the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus gave during the Final Discourse when He said, “I shall see you again, and your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you” (John 16:22).  The reader (and probably Magdalene herself) is surprised by Jesus’ response not to cling to Him.  Our Lord is telling her that the earlier way of relating to the earthly Jesus, who was her “Rabboni” (“dear Rabbi”), is no longer possible.  She is the first to experience what St. Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  In essence, Jesus in telling her not to cling to Him is telling her that His permanent presence is no longer by way of appearance.  Now it is by way of the gift of the Holy Spirit that will come only after He ascends to the Father.

What makes this explanation particularly plausible is the fact that even though she saw the angels and the burial clothes, did not understand what Jesus meant when He spoke about His resurrection.  Certainly she is not alone, as Peter also looked in the tomb and did not come to belief.  It is interesting however that there was something about the condition of the tomb that led the Beloved Disciple to believe.  What Peter and Mary both overlook, but what John saw had something to do with the burial clothes themselves.

First, it should have been obvious that the presence of the burial clothes should have been an indication that the body had not been stolen from the tomb.  If Christ’s body had been stolen either by grave robbers or the disciples (as they had been accused of doing), they would not have removed the wrappings.  The myrrh and aloes would have essentially acted like glue so that the clothes could not be quickly removed.  The tomb was guarded and they would have needed to work fast and would have taken both the body and the clothes together.

The reason John gives the details about the burial clothes the way He does is because it clearly supported the truth of the Resurrection.  The Greek participle that is translated as “lying there” seems to suggest that the clothes were flattened in such a manner that the body had passed through them without being unrolled.  It is this fact, namely that the clothes were intact and not unrolled, that led John to fully believe in the Resurrection.

Like everything that John wrote, He is wont to point out the deeper meaning of all of Jesus’ actions.  By leaving the clothes behind, Jesus is pointing to the uniqueness of the Resurrection.  In the story of Lazarus, we see him emerge from the tomb with the clothes because he will need them again when he dies.  Jesus on the other hand leaves them behind because He will not use them again.   As St. Paul says, “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again.”

This ultimately is the lesson that St. Mary Magdalene still teaches us—the newness of life that was at the heart of the mission of the Son.  Although His relationship with the Father (“I ascend to My Father…”) is qualitatively different from our relationship with the Father (“…and your Father), nevertheless He is offering us a share in His natural Sonship.  This newness of life is as adopted sons and daughters of God.  Unlike our human experience of adoption where the adopted child is only a legal offspring of the father and does not share his blood, Jesus gives us His Body and Blood so that we might have the very Blood of God running through our veins.  St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

Jesus and the Telephone Game

I once met with a prominent atheist and I asked him what it was that ultimately led to his conversion to atheism.  Naturally inquisitive, he had grown up in a marginally Catholic home and had found that nearly all of his questions as a child went unanswered.  He left home for a Methodist college known for its top basketball program and took a course in Scripture hoping to have some of his questions answered.  Instead he found that the professor was simply a “Scripture Scholar” who applied the Historical Critical Method to everything he taught and ended up destroying what little faith the man had.  One of the things he taught him was how unreliable the Gospels actually were.  He would compare the way the Bible’s accounts of Jesus were passed on with the children’s telephone game in which the children whisper a message from one person to another.  The message is corrupted and everyone has a good laugh in the end.  This analogy is applied so often that it bears a deeper look.

In order to avoid setting up a straw man, we will begin by looking at what one of the better known Scripture scholars, Professor Bart Ehrman, has to say about this:

“You are probably familiar with the old birthday party game “telephone.” A group of kids sits in a circle, the first tells a brief story to the one sitting next to her, who tells it to the next, and to the next, and so on, until it comes back full circle to the one who started it. Invariably, the story has changed so much in the process of retelling that everyone gets a good laugh. Imagine this same activity taking place, not in a solitary living room with ten kids on one afternoon, but over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across), with thousands of participants—from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts—some of whom have to translate the stories into different languages” (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd Edition p.47).

In order to see why this is a faulty analogy, we must briefly look at the message.  The Gospel (not the books but the actual message) was an absolutely life-altering message.  If what was being said about the man Jesus of Nazareth was actually true then it would change the lives of everyone who heard it.  This is far different from the message of the telephone game which is really just a random (and sometimes deliberately confusing) one.  The magnitude of the message would lead to you wanting to hear it again and again to make sure you got it right.  In the telephone game you cannot ask for the message a second time.  Finally, the Gospel was not whispered in the ear, but preached out loud so that there is a social corrective as well.

While the argument suffers from the fallacy of a faulty analogy, there is a part of it that may in fact be true.  The reliability of the message depends completely on the reliability of the messenger.  Ehrman’s argument (and even the analogy itself) hinges on the lack of reliability of the messenger:

“It does not appear that the authors of the early Gospels were eyewitnesses to the events that they narrate. But they must have gotten their stories from somewhere. Indeed, one of them acknowledges that he has heard stories about Jesus and read earlier accounts (Luke 1:1–4). In the opinion of most New Testament scholars, it is possible that in addition to preserving genuine historical recollections about what Jesus actually said and did, these authors also narrated stories that had been modified, or even invented, in the process of retelling” (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd Edition p.47).

Dr. Brant Pitre in his new book, The Case for Jesus, presents a well-researched argument against this that I present in summary below.  Although it seems like common sense, it bears mentioning that there were three stages in the writing of the Gospels.  First there is the life and teaching of Jesus to His disciples.  These disciples were not just students of Jesus, but like most disciples of Jewish rabbis sought to collect the dust from their Master’s feet because they were following Him so closely.  They spent every day for three years with Him.  They spent 40-grace filled days with Him after the Resurrection.  After Pentecost, the second phase began, namely their preaching of the Gospel.

This preaching was done by these same disciples, the ones who were with Him from the beginning.  They were not merely sharing incidental memories from their time with Him but instead like all preachers their message was rehearsed and rehashed.  In other words, we do not need to worry about their memory slipping them because they were constantly preaching the same message that would eventually be written down.

Francis whisper

These same preachers also acted as a corrective to the message as it spread.  This is the genius of the Church and its role in protecting the content of Revelation.  We find examples of this throughout Acts of the Apostles when it is the Church who sends out the non-Apostolic preachers.  Even St. Paul himself went to the Apostles in order to vet his message (Gal 1:18).  St. John also writes his letters as a means of correcting those Gnostics who had twisted and distorted the message.

A further aspect of this becomes clear when we ask an important question: why did Jesus only appear to certain people after the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:8)?  Couldn’t He have just appeared to all of the Jewish leaders and Pilate?  )?  It would seem that He would want to appear to a multitude in order to prove His words were true.  Instead, He appeared to only those who He deemed to be reliable witnesses.  He chose those (and we believe He also equipped) who were most qualified to spread the message.  This cannot be overlooked because each of these men ultimately gave their lives because they knew that the Resurrection was real.  They had no real fear of death because they had witnessed Jesus rise from the dead.

This is why it matters that it is these same witnesses who are responsible for the third stage, the actual writing of the Gospel texts.  The argument that the Apostles were ignorant fishermen and thus incapable of writing is not historically accurate.  First, not all of them were fishermen and certainly one of them, namely the former tax collector, would have been literate (especially in Greek).  It should not be surprising that of the 11 remaining Apostles then that Matthew wrote a Gospel.  Secondly, we need to make the distinction between author and writer.  While John may not have been able to write (Acts 4:13 seems to suggest this), this does not mean that he could not have used a scribe.  We have good reason based on their relationship that Mark wrote his Gospel based on the preaching of Peter (1Pt 5:12-13).  Likewise Luke knew many eyewitnesses including the Mother of the Lord.

There is historical evidence as well that does not support the telephone game hypothesis.  One of the most basic rules for studying biblical manuscripts is that you go back to the earliest and best copies and see what they say.  All of the early manuscripts attribute them to the same authors that we do today.  We find not a single copy that is attributed to someone else.  Likewise there is unanimity among the Church Fathers as to the authors.

It bears mentioning as well that the amount of time that passed between the writing of the Gospels and Pentecost is not as long as some scholars will try to say it was.  We know from extra-biblical sources that the destruction of the Temple occurred in August of 70AD.  This is important because the Synoptic Gospels contain accounts of Jesus prophesying its demise.  Matthew (Mt 24:20) and Mark (Mk 13:18) both portray Jesus as telling the disciples to pray that it not come in Winter which only makes sense if it had not already happened (since it happened in late Summer).  Luke also contains a warning not to “enter into the city” (Lk 21:21).  One would logically ask why if it had already been destroyed this warning would be necessary.

Furthermore we know that Luke wrote Acts after his Gospel (Acts 1:1).  Given that he ends the book with Paul’s arrival in Rome and makes no mention of his martyrdom, it is reasonable to assume that it was written sometime between 62-68 AD.  His Gospel, would have needed to been completed then sometime before 62 AD, less than 30 years after the Ascension.

Unfortunately, my atheist companion is not alone in having had his faith destroyed in the face of faulty scholarship led animated by bad logic.  Many of us are afraid to use historical research to support our faith because of the fate of many Scripture scholars today.  If we do not learn the historical facts surrounding our faith then that faith will ultimately be supplanted in many hearts—truth cannot contradict truth.

Shining the Light into the Dark Passages

I recently saw an advertisement in our local newspaper that told me that a local appliance shop was having the “Sale of the Century” the next day.  I huddled the family into the car and drove down early the next morning expecting it to be extremely crowded.  When I got there a half an hour early and nobody was there yet, I began to wonder how anyone could afford to miss out on the “Sale of the Century”.  Most of us won’t see the 22nd Century so there will never be a sale like this again, right?  Well we all know that is not how the advertisement is meant to be read.  It is not meant to be taken literally, but is simply a way to say that they were having a big sale.  Unfortunately, most people do not use the same approach when reading Sacred Scripture.  They do not read it in the context in which it was written.

One such case came to me recently when someone recently pointed out to me the existence of web site that “is designed to spread the vicious truth about the Bible.”  This web site intends to debunk God’s existence by pointing out all the atrocities that He seems to encourage in Sacred Scripture.  This seems to be a common argument against Christianity so it is worth looking at this question in depth.

To begin, one must ask where they are getting their standard of right and wrong, just and unjust when they complain about the violence of God, especially in the Old Testament.  Look at from the perspective of history, putting entire cities under the ban, human sacrifice, slavery and gross inequality between the sexes were all commonplace throughout the ancient world.  It is only when Christianity begins to take root that these things are seen as evils and in truly Christian cultures they have all but disappeared.  In other words, the authors of and those of their ilk are using Christian standards by which to judge the Bible. If that is not ironic enough, it turns out that rather than debunking the Bible, they are actually proving something quite to the contrary.

In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Mission of the Church, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the question of the so-called “Dark Passages” of Scripture by reminding the Faithful that context is everything.  He says that

Continue reading Shining the Light into the Dark Passages

Peering into the Darkness

In a previous post, it was mentioned how invaluable the idea of Covenant was for a true understanding of Scripture.  It serves as a unifying principle that unlocks the overall purpose of God’s revelation through Sacred Scripture.  A thorough examination of Scripture in its individual parts however presents a number of challenges.  First and foremost, there are those passages that appear to be contradictions like the Lord being “the great king over all gods” (Psalm 95:3) while maintaining the fact that “God is one” (Romans 3:30).  Complicating matters further, there are some rather dark passages where God appears to will evil.  Both of these types of Scripture are often used as ammunition against Christians in order to “debunk” the Bible.  Joseph Ratzinger devoted much of his scholarly life attempting to address this very issue.  His work culminated during his papacy with his 2010 Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini where he cautions that “it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic” (Verbum Domini (VD), 42).  He provides the faithful with two very important principles that can help them navigate through these difficult passages.

First it is necessary to mention the intended audience for Scripture.  The Fathers of the Church thought Scripture could only be rightly understood from within the “heart of the Church.”  What they meant by this is that the book only makes sense in light of the gift of supernatural faith.  Faith is absolutely necessary to understand the Scriptures.  St. Augustine found the Scriptures utterly absurd until St. Ambrose stirred up faith in him by his preaching.  He came to understand once he first believed (see the beautiful passage in Confessions VI, Ch.4).  The Bible is a specialist’s book.  A man without faith has as much chance of understanding it as I do reading a nuclear engineering text.  I might grasp parts of it, but to truly understand I would need training in nuclear engineering.  Faith is the “qualification” for a proper understanding of Scripture.

This may come as a surprise to many but Scripture itself offers us an example.  The Ethiopian Eunuch is a man of good will who greatly wants to understand the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah.  But until “someone instructs” him, he remains in the dark (Acts 8:26-40).  St. Paul tells Timothy that while “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” this only applies to the “one who belongs to God” (2 Tim3:16-17).  This is because the Scriptures were and still are primarily liturgical books.  This is how we came to adopt the term “New Testament” to refer to the Scriptures of the Covenant of Christ.  Again Scripture itself witnesses to this.  When the words “New Testament” appear in the text itself, it is always within a liturgical and sacrificial framework (see 2Cor 3:6, 1Tim 3:8-13, Hebrews 8, 9:15,12:24).  This is not to imply that there should be no personal reading of Scripture only that Scripture is the book that is proclaimed to the People who gather for the Sacred Liturgy (as an aside, Scott Hahn has an excellent book that follows this line of argument more deeply called Consuming the Word).

Once we concede that faith is absolutely necessary, then Pope Emeritus Benedict’s principles naturally follow.  The first hermeneutical (a fancy theological term that means “biblical interpretation”) technique is the concept of Divine Pedagogy.  What this means is that “God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance” (VD, 42).  The Judeo-Christian God is one who is actively involved in guiding mankind.  Compared to the  Koran which was allegedly dictated directly to Muhammad because it is an eternal book, the books of the Bible “bear the impression of a history that (God) has been guiding” (Benedict XVI God and the World).

In the Summa (ST II-II, q.2, a.3), St. Thomas also refers to this hermeneutic of divine pedagogy by likening the state of Israel in the OT to spiritual childhood.  God reveals aspects of Himself that are perfectly adapted to their needs and their ability to receive it.  Rather than revealing all there is to know about Himself at once, he does so by a certain gradualism that meets them where they are and then brings them along.  In so doing He meets them within the historical period in which they are living.  They are surrounded by polytheists who have gods like the sun and moon that demand human sacrifice.  He reveals Himself as the One Who created the sun and moon in the Creation account in Genesis.  He shows Abraham very explicitly that He is not a God who demands human sacrifice when He commands him not to lay a hand on Isaac.  That could not be known unless He brought Abraham to the cusp and rejected his sacrifice and revealed to him that He would provide the Lamb instead.

All of Scripture is meant to progressively reveal God, until in the “fullness of time” He fully reveals Himself in Jesus Christ.  To try and “judge” God in the Old Testament is stacking the deck.  We are using the principles of His full revelation to show that these partial revelations were wrong.  It is like a theologian criticizing the use of the clover as a teaching tool for the Trinity.  It works well for 6 and 7 year olds, but it was never intended to be a pedagogical tool for 26 year olds.  It is assumed that it is extremely limited in its application.

Pope Benedict reading the Bible

The point is that it makes no sense to call the God of the Old Testament violent or capricious.  All the gods were.  The only reason why anyone knows that gods should not be that way is because the God of Jesus Christ revealed it to them.  The way He does this however does not happen by simply giving a list of differences between Him and the other gods.  No one would believe Him.  Instead He must begin by taking what Israel knows of “gods” and show them how He is not like those gods.  But He does this through actual historical events.  He allows certain errors to persist for a time like any good teacher does because the student is not ready for all the details yet.  Once they get the student to a certain point they will reveal all to them, but this takes maturity and experience in the student.   This plan is summarized beautifully by Augustine in the City of God:

“The education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible. This object was kept so clearly in view, that, even in the period when temporal rewards were promised, the one God was presented as the object of worship, that men might not acknowledge any other than the true Creator and Lord of the spirit, even in connection with the earthly blessings of this transitory life…It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons, and the earthly necessaries of this transitory life, which are contemptible in comparison with eternal blessings, in order that the desire even of these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things.”(Book X, Ch.14)

Pope Benedict also enunciates a second important principle when he says that “[W]henever our awareness of its inspiration grows weak, we risk reading Scripture as an object of historical curiosity and not as the work of the Holy Spirit in which we can hear the Lord himself speak and recognize his presence in history” (VD, 19).  His point is that we need to not only admit the Scriptures are inspired but also to attempt to unpack this mystery.

In Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council document on Divine Revelation defines inspiration in the following way:

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

This leaves inspiration as a mystery by which God inspired Scripture and at the same time the human authors were still free in the process. But because it is a mystery we may understand it better if we talk about what inspiration doesn’t mean.

First of all inspiration does not mean that God was merely an assistant in the process.   He actively caused and inspired those men to write what He willed them to write. What was written in Scripture is there because God wanted it there.  Much in the same way as when we write with a pencil, we are the cause of the writing even though the pencil is the actual instrument.

Second, God did not act as a copyeditor in the process.  When St. Paul was done writing he did not go to God and ask him to review it and make any necessary corrections.

Thirdly, the human authors of Scripture were not mere scribes, passive recipients of revelation. God did not merely whisper in their ears and they merely transcribe what they heard.  God “made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (DV 11).

When St. Thomas addresses prophecy in the Summa (ST II-II q 171) he includes all the authors of Sacred Scripture.  He defines “inspiration” as an outside influence of the Holy Spirit which raises the mind above its ordinary level and endows it with greater intellectual vigor.  What it does is to prepare the author to receive a revelation from God.  Scripture is said to be inspired because God prepared the authors to receive a revelation from Him.

If we examine the Latin word auctor, which we translate as author, we can see that attributing authorship to God means something more than author in the literary sense that we normally use it.  Blessed John Henry Newman says that properly speaking,  auctor means “originator” or “primary cause” rather than in a strict literary sense “author.” This makes the distinction between inspiration and revelation is important because God can be the originator of Scripture without every idea therein being His.  This does not mean that he was the originator in the sense that He merely got the ball rolling but He is still intimately involved in the entire process.

What happens is that God may infuse what is to be revealed into the mind of the Sacred Author, but the Sacred Author must still use his own words to describe it.  No amount of words can fully explain an idea, but can only do so in a limited manner and from a certain perspective.  This is how man too is said to be an author—he is using his own words (conditioned by his culture, his own understanding, even his own conscience) to explain what God revealed to him.  This means we must always know this background information if we are to interpret Scripture fully.  A favorite verse of those opposed to the “Violent God” of the Old Testament is Psalm 137:9 which reads “Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock.”   Inspiration prepared the Sacred Author to receive the revelation that there is always a need to oppose a paganism that is opposed to God, but how the human author actually expresses this is going to be conditioned on his own understanding of what should be done to oppose paganism.  The person of faith will naturally know this because they have been given the “abbreviated Word” of Christ Himself.  The man of no faith will be left scratching his head, but if he is going to “judge” the morality of Scripture then he had better take inspiration into account.

Idols and the Supreme Court

In the minds of many people, the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was inevitable. What comes next in many Christians’ minds is the four horseman of the apocalypse as God pours His chastisement upon our country.  But what if the decision itself is the chastisement?  While this may sound strange initially, anyone who reads the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to Romans will find that God often chastises mankind for their sins by turning them over to them.

Here is what St. Paul says specifically,

“The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them.  Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper. They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:18-32)

If we follow what St. Paul is saying, we can trace four steps in the degradation of man.

Step One: Idolatry

He says that it all begins with idolatry—“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator.” The turn is away from God to material reality in some way.

Pope Francis has spoken often about the danger of idolatry in today’s world and has challenged all of us to examine ourselves regularly to see the idols in our lives.  Anything that we put in the place of God is an idol.  However, I think there is an idolatry that is unique to Americans of which we are now reaping the fruit—equality.

When Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America he found that for Americans, “equality is their idol.” While this drive for equality “excites men to wish all to be powerful and honored” and “tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great” there is always a danger lurking, namely that “there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom” (Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 3).

But isn’t equality a good thing?  How can Tocqueville call it an idol?  Aren’t we all equal in the eyes of God?  Certainly we are all equal in dignity, but the fact of the matter is that equality is a man-made legal fiction.  God, for His part, has made everything with varying degrees of perfection.  We are not all equal in God’s eyes.  He has made each of us to be perfect in one particular way, but not in all ways, much less for us to be equally perfect in all things.  We bring glory to God by achieving this perfection.  Whether we achieve this perfection or not does not change our value in God’s eyes—we are all still individually worth dying for.  But to try and change this important aspect of reality is to set ourselves up as God.  In other words, the fixation to create equality where there isn’t one is an attempt on man’s part to usurp God.  The gross manner in which it has been enforced from above in our country in particular has forged it into an idol.  Tocqueville identified it almost 200 years ago and it is no less true today.

CS Lewis encapsulates the idolatrous nature of equality in his book That Hideous Strength in a dialogue between Jane and the Director.

Jane: “I thought love meant equality.”

Director: “Ah, equality! Yes; we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed, because we are fallen. Just as we wear clothes for the same reason. But the naked body should be there underneath the clothes. Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.”

Jane: “I always thought that was just what it was. I thought it was in their souls that people were equal.”

Director: “You were mistaken; that is the last place where they are equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes- that is very well. Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food.”

Think of all the ways in which we attempt to create equality where there isn’t.  We try to make men and women identical.  We award trophies to everyone.  We attempt to make the rich poorer and the poor richer by governmental fiat.  Now we have said all loves are equal—“love is love”—and has been recognized as such by the highest court in the Land.


Step Two: Sexual Immorality

What follows from idolatry according to St. Paul?  It is sexual immorality, namely “God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.”

The move from God to material reality as its god leads a God-sized void in man’s heart. He turns to the closest thing that offers what he longs for with God (interpersonal communion), namely sex. It starts as the “old fashioned” kind, namely fornication. But for Americans it is pays homage to the idol of equality. Based on the false notion of equality of men and women, we have attempted to make women into men through the wholesale promotion of contraception.

Men could always, for the most part, have sex without consequences. If men and women are equal then women should be able to do that as well. To make this possible, chemical contraception came on the scene. Now men and women could engage freely in all the sexual activity they wanted. To make this even more possible, we should have our government provide the means to securing these pills. But there is a hidden assumption in the promotion of chemical contraception.  The assumption is this.  Women are inferior to men and so in order to be seen as equal they must either have a surgery or take a pill.  Now I personally don’t believe this for one minute, but I grieve for the millions of women who have never questioned this assumption that they are making.

Step Three: Sexual Perversion

In step three in the descent of man, God hands them over to even “more degraded passions.”  Not satisfied with unlimited sex, we must turn up the volume and get more disordered and depraved.  Thus homosexuality becomes more widespread.  In the name of equality, society must “give approval to those who practice them” through its laws. After all if a heterosexual couple can engage in an act they have deliberately rendered unfruitful, why can’t two people engage in an act that is by nature unfruitful? They are equal, especially when they love each other.

Step Four: Societal Chaos

Once it has been given the governmental seal of approval, God’s final punishment is to “hand them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper.” What follows is societal chaos, “[T]hey are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” God may not have forced Americans to drink this chalice to the dregs, but we can see signs of it all around.

The purpose of writing all this however is not to be a prophet of gloom, but to suggest a path out of this. If one listens to the arguments surrounding Gay marriage you find that they are irrational. This is only more obvious when one reads the Obergefell v. Hodges majority opinion. This is because one of the punishments is that “their minds are darkened”, as in not able to reason clearly. Sin makes us all stupid. To continue to engage in argument as the main point of attack is fruitless, especially if we view all of this as God handing us over to the idol of equality.

If we want to be free from the punishments of the sin of idolatry we must repent of that sin. What I am proposing is for Christians across the United States to fast on July 4th as an act of Penance for the sin of idolatry. Only by repenting of that sin can we break the cycle of chastisement. Just as Our Master did, we as the Body of Christ, have the role to perform acts of Reparation to God for the sins of mankind. We can voluntarily fast now, or we can offer reparation later when the effects of the legalization of Gay marriage are felt keenly by all Christians. It might require both

Will you join me? If so, I would like you each to invite five other people to offer a fast of some sort this Saturday. Imagine the effect on our culture we could have by offering our “bodies as a spiritual sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), especially on Independence Day and First Saturday. Our Lady, Queen of the Americas, pray for us.

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.


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.

John 6 and the New Manna

There is an expression among biblical scholars that we would all do well to remember: “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof-text.”  The point that they are making is that we must always be on guard when reading and meditating upon Scripture to be sure to understand the context in which it is written.  As Catholics we read John 6 as a proof-text for the Eucharist (which it is) but John includes this chapter in his gospel for a deeper reason than merely introducing the Real Presence of the Eucharist.  As the Church offers us this chapter this week in the Daily Liturgy, it is instructive to examine some of the background.

While it is true that many first century Jews were looking for a political messiah, to paint with a broad brush and say all were waiting for this type of Messiah is not true.  Most were awaiting a new Exodus.  For the Jews, the Passover and the Exodus were (and still are) the central events of their faith because they represented God’s definitive action and future promise to save them.  This would have been readily known by the Jewish Christians in John’s Community and is an important interpretive key for understanding John’s Gospel as a whole and John 6 specifically.

Jesus makes reference to the new Exodus most clearly when He is asked point-blank by the disciples of John the Baptist whether He is the Messiah.   He responds by making reference to one of Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the new exodus—“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Mt 11:4-5)

In the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah were to speaking to Jesus about His “exodus which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem”—this gives us an essential clue to when the new exodus would be fulfilled: during Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem.

This new Exodus could be summarized in four key events:

(1) The New Moses—see Dt 18:15-18 where Moses promises a “prophet like me.”   This is a theme throughout John’s Gospel, the most obvious of which is the Woman at the Well where she mentions that she has found “the Prophet.”

(2) “Cut” a New Covenant—the making of the first Sinai Covenant involved a heavenly meal like when Moses and the elders feast in the presence of God—“They beheld God and ate and drank” (Ex 24:11).  The promise of the New Covenant comes in Jeremiah 31:31-33.  Jesus’ fulfillment of it (with its accompanying meal) is done at the Last Supper (Luke 17:14-20) but not consummated until the Cross (John 19:30).

(3) The New Temple—This one is the most obvious from John’s Gospel.  One can see Micah 4:1-2 for the prophecy.  The Cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’ sign that He will fulfill this (rather than chastising Him for cleansing the Temple, the Jews merely ask “what sign do you give us for this?”).  Another significant text that factors into our discussion is Mt 12:1-8 when Jesus says, “Something greater than the Temple is here.”

(4) The New Promised Land—See Is 60:21.  There is more detail on this as well, but for the sake of our discussion we can set this aside.

Any Jew would have known that if there was a new exodus then there must also be a new Passover.  If Jesus saw Himself as inaugurating a new exodus then He would have seen the need to provide food for the journey.  What is often forgotten or overlooked is the fact that not only did manna come from heaven but flesh came from heaven in the evening as well.  If the first Moses gave Israel manna, then it was expected that the second would as well.  The people clearly expect this as well as John 6:22-34 shows.

Another key question is how is God worshipped once the new exodus begins?

Although many Christians are familiar with the animal sacrifice of the Old Testament, there were actually two types of sacrifices performed in the Old Testament.  The first is the bloody animal sacrifice and the second was an “unbloody “sacrifice which consisted of bread and wine.

This second offering is a sacrifice of thanksgiving (the Greek word is Eucharistia) that was offered every Sabbath day (see Lev 24:5-7).  This was a perpetual sacrifice that was to be offered “forever” since it belongs to the Melchizedekian priesthood (see Gn 12, Ps 110, Hebrews 5-8 in which this priesthood is applied to Christ).  It is only the bloody sacrifice for sin that ceased when the Lamb of God was offered “once for all.” A first century Jew would have been well aware of the weekly offering of the Bread of the Presence.

Clearly then the Bread of the Presence (or showbread as some translations [KJV, NAB] call it) was a sacrifice (see Ez 41:21-22 where there is an altar and incense which are obvious accompaniments of sacrifice), but what did the Jews believe about the Bread itself—why was it called the “Bread of the Presence” or more accurately in Hebrew “the bread of the face (panim)”?

During the three main Jewish feasts (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), Jewish men were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to “appear before the face of the Lord God (panim), the God of Israel” (Exodus 34:23; 23:17).  If we turn to extra-biblical sources of the time (Babylonian Talmud for example) we find that the priests would raise the bread of the Presence before the people at the festivals and tell them “Behold God’s love for you.” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahoth 29A).

Now it may be granted neither the Old Testament nor the extra-biblical sources tell us whether the Jews viewed the Bread of the Presence as merely a symbol or the actual face of God.  Either way it is important that we come away with the two main points – that it was a sacrifice and (at least) a symbol of God’s Presence.

If we go to any of the Last Supper accounts, we see Jesus equating the Bread and Wine with Himself.  As Christians, we have heard this so often that we do not give it a second thought.  But this is really strange language unless the idea of bread and wine representing a person is not a foreign concept.  With this Old Testament background, we see now why the Apostles have no questions at the Last Supper when Jesus did this.

Feeding 5000

With our first Century Jewish Christian lenses cleaned off, we commence at the beginning of John 6.  We find that the Passover is near.  This is a hint to the reader that Jesus’ sign is intimately tied up with the Passover and that His actions and discourse will give a new and greater meaning to it.  After the miraculous feeding of the multitude, we then find Jesus “parting the waters,” so to speak, and crossing the sea.  Immediately the reader is thinking, “Passover, miraculous bread, walking on water, this must have something to do with the new Exodus.”  Lo and behold, we find that when the people catch up to Jesus they raise the topic of Moses.  “Could this be the new Moses?” is what they are thinking.

Some key verses for us to reflect on:

John 6:25—Jesus asks the crowd why they are truly seeking Him.  Is it because they saw a miracle in the multiplying of the loaves or because they really saw a sign?  It turns out that it was the latter because they make mention of Moses.  But the Manna from Heaven ceased and would perish at the end of the day.  Some people misread this and think that the people just like the idea of getting a free meal.  But these people are seeking the new manna because they want to be a part of the new exodus.  The people want the bread of God that lasts always and not the old manna which perished at the end of the day.

John 6:35—This is the first half of the discourse that serves as an invitation to faith.  Here we find Jesus first introducing the idea of Him as the Bread of Life.  This is meant both as an invitation for the people to come to Jesus and believe in Him for salvation.  But the people do not ask why He has called Himself bread (not such a strange concept given what was said above regarding the Bread of the Presence) but instead how He could be from Heaven.

John 6:48—This is the second half of the discourse in which Jesus is no longer speaking symbolically as He was in verses 35-47.  Instead He repeats several times that the Jews must eat His body and drink His blood.  Again this is not what they question, however.  Instead what they question is how He can give His body to eat.   It seems pretty straightforward in Jn 6:55 that Jesus is saying that His flesh and blood are real food and only those that eat them abide in Him.

John 6:58-59—This is the crux of the issue and proof that Jesus is not speaking symbolically.  He says that the Bread that He gives is the fulfillment of the manna from Heaven.  Remember, this was one of the things that they were awaiting as a result of the messianic age.  What exactly was the first manna?

It was the supernatural “bread of angels” (Ps 78:25) come from Heaven.  The question that one must answer then is this – if the first manna was supernatural bread from Heaven, how could it’s fulfillment that Jesus is bringing about just be a symbol?  In other words, the old manna would be greater than the new if the new manna is just a symbol.  If Jesus was speaking symbolically here, this would be the one and only place in salvation history laid out in the Bible in which the Old Testament prefiguration is something that is greater than the New Testament fulfillment.

“A Hard Saying”—Again the stumbling block for the Jews was not so much that they had to eat his body and drink His blood, but how this could be possible.  Jesus’ response says that it will only make sense when the “Son of Man ascends to where He was before.”   “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.”  What this means is that it is His resurrected (and ascended) flesh that they will eat and not His earthly flesh.  It is His spiritual body that comes under the appearance of Bread and Wine (see Luke 24:35).