Monday, December 27, 2010

Can a believer agree with an atheist?

When one lives in a bubble of a particular faith, or of any mindset for that matter, it can quite easily happen that dialogue with those outside of that arena is limited if not absent. From one point of view, it is necessary and natural to congregate with those with whom one agrees. It is mutually beneficial, since the human being seeks like minded individuals who support one’s deepest convictions. Like attracts like is a natural law. The Church herself is a congregation of those who agree on the revelation of Jesus Christ once delivered to the apostles and handed down by and through the Church ever since. And for a variety of reasons, it is understandable that one may want to avoid conversations with those who are diametrically opposed to one’s deeply held beliefs.

On the other hand, when this is motivated by mere bias, fear or a sense of insecurity, there can be harmful effects, not least of which is a lessening of charity. Those who disagree are seen as enemies, rather than simply someone with a different point of view. I've experienced that animosity, from both sides.  But how would we find out which they are unless there is some opening up to a conversation? In sales, as I’ve learned, the best way to “bring someone around” to your point of view is to engage in conversation, asking open ended questions, and finding out what they truly think and believe before going for “the close”. Premature closing is bad in a number of situations. . .

I recently heard part of the “Tony Blair-Christopher Hitchens” debate on whether religion was a force for good in the world. Hitchens is dying of cancer, I think, and deserving of a level of compassion. But that doesn’t necessarily want me to ascribe to his atheism. His constant assault on Mother Teresa was shameful, to say the least and motivated by his hatred of all things religious. Of course, what he doesn’t know and may never appreciate is that it may have contributed to her holiness, as all Christians believe that persecution in any form can actually be God’s way of allowing a soul to be purified (to the degree that she needed it.). As I listened to what he had to say, I actually found myself agreeing with him on a number of points he made. The religion he described, held by not a few people, is rather disgusting, especially from a Catholic point of view. If I were to believe as he described religion, I would be the first to find it offensive. Fulton Sheen used to say there were millions of people who hated what they think is the Catholic Church. Very few really understand AND hate the Church.

Without going over every point he made, his description of, I’m assuming, Catholicism’s view of man as “created sick, and then ordered to be well” is a frightful criticism that should be leveled, if that were what the Church taught. God, according to his description, is “a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent, greedy for uncritical phrase [sic] from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original since [sic] with which it so tenderly gifted us in the first place.” Who would willingly join that kind of a club? Of course, his erroneous parody is of course ridiculous, and garnered quite a bit of laughter from the sympathetic audience, who voted overwhelmingly for him at the close of the debate. Of course, I’m not sure that Tony Blair is the best spokesman for the Catholic Church. While I did not hear the last parts of the debate, Mr. Blair’s efforts were more like a Rodney King “let’s all get along” argument, fitting for parliament, but not exactly text book Catholic apologetics.

So I would agree with Mr. Hitchens if that were the truth taught by the Church. Yucky stuff, believed by quite a few Christian sects. No thanks.

Sadly, the doctrine about original sin, to get to this point, is not about a corrupt human being made so by God. Catholicism always begins with creation as the foundation, a creation that is good, very good in the case of the human person. Original sin is not stain in the sense of mud on a clean sheet. It is at its core a lack of grace that God granted originally but lost by deliberate choice by Adam and Eve for themselves and their children. Original sin describes the human situation when free will is used badly. Why do we find it easy to sin, even when very young? I remember my first sin. I was five years old, or a bit younger, and clearly remembering lying to my mother about not feeling well, since I didn’t want to sit at the dinner table any more. I went downstairs, and said to myself, “I just lied to my mother.” It was strange even at the time. Why does a child act selfishly over his toys when a younger sibling or another child arrives on the scene? Is not the human being created for generosity and sharing? What gives? There is a weakness to human nature that is not found among animals, generally. That is an effect of the original loss of uplifting and sanctifying grace. It may be no actual sin at all, especially in the very young, but does not lead to a spirit of generosity. Death, of course, is another effect of that loss. Why is there death? Because we have lost touch with the Creator of Life. Is there another explanation? Is it merely natural? If so, why do human beings philosophize about death? Animals do not do that. Something more is involved.

As Saint Paul says, “the free gift is not like the offense” (Rm. 5:15). When we take in the entire picture of history, and eternity, we see that God created the world for a purpose, not for his own greedy, exigent need for ongoing praise, but for us. We damage the world, individually and collectively. The tragedies and monstrosities of human history, made possible by some religious and some non-religious people and groups, are not according the plan. Even if God enabled and allowed for wars in his name, He is always moving humanity towards a goal of peace, found in Jesus Christ who suffered at the hands of the religious and the secular. Most religious wars were fought more for political gain than religious advancement. Some have been just, in the face of unjust aggression; many have been wrapped in religion as a cloak, rather than a just motive. No sane believer would want his faith used as such a cloak. And one should note that the most massive destruction of human life took place not too long ago in Russia, Germany and China, not in the name of religion, but for the advancement of a secular agenda. Does that make secular concerns as a whole to be evil? Hardly. So, not to engage in a peeing contest over numbers, the point is that the Catholic faith provides an answer to the “why” of living, and the “what’s next” question as well.

There is more that could be addressed in Mr. Hitchens attack on religion in general, and perhaps I will at a later time, but why give him more air time? Only to use his widely influential remarks as an opportunity to proclaim what Christ and Christianity and Christmas especially are all about: bringing to tired and worn out souls a reason for being, and living and being-there for others, of being a force for good in an otherwise damaged world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Law of Attraction

When I first read about the Law of Attraction, in Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich, I have to admit that I was skeptical. Not deeply so, but I was not completely sold on it from one book. Then I began to read and hear more about it. Every modern self-help guru and motivational speaker mentions this law in one form or another. My big question was whether this was true and after some time, I have become a true believer.
Most of the self-help crowd talks about it in terms of money and wealth. Just go back to the title of Hill’s book. Of course, he wrote the book during the depths of the depression, and explains that his reason for doing so was to give encouragement to those who were suffering under the dire consequences of the then-current economic circumstances. His intention was not as base as the title may seem to some, and he uses examples from other areas of life to make his more profound point, that our thoughts, combined with powerful emotions, are creative and bring into our life what we focus on. From a theological point of view, some of Hill’s observations are questionable, but there is much there that rings quite true. The Law of Attraction as he and others describe it is one of those things.

As I’ve read and studied about how best to make a life worth living, my self-reflection has indicated that I have very much been living under this law, and that it is found in the Gospel in a multitude of ways. “The measure you give will be the measure you get.” “Do not judge, lest you be judged.” “As you sow, so shall you reap.” There are many other examples. The point is that we get back what we give, in one way or another. The corollary is also true: If we give nothing, we get nothing. Think of the man who refused to invest his one talent. To get personal, my own life has come to its present point very much because of the way I had been thinking and I literally created my state from attitudes and beliefs that have been a combination of both constructive and destructive. But there is a way to make things better.

Saint Paul makes thought the basis of a sound spiritual life as he encourages the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The very word for “conversion” or “repent” that Jesus uses in the Greek, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind. Jesus taught because He knows that our minds and thoughts are the key to authentic living in God’s truth. He used parables precisely to elicit an emotional response to accompany our thinking about what He taught. The story of the prodigal son is a brilliant example, if we return to it as if we were hearing it for the first time. A father’s compassion for wayward or stubborn sons is a theme that never loses its power to move one’s heart.

Many of the current gurus go off on some esoteric if not downright bizarre theories about the Law of Attraction, some of them not even remotely Christian. The fundamental truth is that it works, whether we want it to or not. What we can do is change what we focus on. On this, we all can agree. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Emmanuel -- God with us

     Have you noticed that Saint Matthew didn’t know about the ascension? Well, that’s ridiculous, since he was there, according to the other gospels. So, of course he knew about it. But he never mentions it. In fact, if you look carefully at the closing lines of his gospel, you will notice that Jesus speaks His final words, “Lo! I am with you always until the close of the age!” and then, that’s it. He doesn’t leave. But that’s the point that Saint Matthew wants to convey. Jesus remains with His Church. Matthew is simply conveying the point that he made in the beginning of his gospel.

     When the angel comes to Joseph in the dream, after telling him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, he states that “his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means, God with us.” Throughout his gospel he describes the Lord as present to the people to whom He preaches and whom He heals. He is already present at the moment Joseph comes into the picture (in Matthew’s gospel). He is there for the Magi. He shows up at the Jordan to be baptized by John. He arrives in Galilee of the Gentiles as the Light to those in darkness. The same idea continues throughout the gospel, Jesus present to the sick and infirm, to the poor and those who seek.

     That Matthew does not describe the Ascension of Jesus is his way of demonstrating an unstated element of the faith: Jesus is still here, and will always be here. Most of our difficulties come from thinking the Lord is absent, far away or inaccessible. Either we are weak in believing that He is here for us and with us, or we would rather not have Him here, since we are aware of our own lack of conformity to His will. Either way, we cannot escape the Lord. There is no place where we could hide from Him. But if we are truly dedicated to being His followers, then neither weakness of faith nor moral sickness can keep us from Him who is and will always be God with us, Emmanuel. And that’s the beauty of Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Retreat before being fired upon. . . .

I found this story online.  Quite amazing that the Red CROSS would find Christmas embarrassing.  When will the "cross" be removed?

Saint Nicholas, pray for us!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Striking at Error

The assault on Christmas is widespread. Christians need to accept the fundamental fact that until the end of time there will always be those who oppose the message of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are surprised by such attacks, we are missing the point. Many of the people who should have embraced Jesus while He lived on earth rejected Him. “He came unto His own creation and His own received Him not.” It’s not a difficult logical, or philosophical, or religious matter to understand that there are those who embrace Jesus and those who reject Him.

In the early 4th century, the priest Arius (why are the most dangerous heresies started or maintained by priests?) denied the divinity of Jesus. Arius’ position was that Jesus was a great creature, a noble creature, the best of creatures, but still, a creature, a “post-God” fashioning by the eternal God. His ideas spread like wildfire. Across the Eastern Church, his theology took off and dragged a multitude of believing Christians into his error. Whole sections of the Church became Arian, with persecutions abounding depending on which group was in charge in any given area.

At the Council of Nicaea, called by Emperor Constantine, the matter was debated and eventually “solved” by the issuance of the Nicaean Creed, proclaiming Jesus to be “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten, not made; consubstantial to the Father.” No ambiguity there. My favorite story from that council has to do with Saint Nicholas of Myra, in modern day Turkey. He is credited with maintaining the full Christian faith in the divinity of Christ in his diocese. Known eventually as Santa Claus, St. Nicholas was a model Bishop, in true teaching and in pastoral charity. While at the council, as Arius was expostulating on his heresy, Bishop Nicholas could take it no longer, hearing his Lord defamed. He rose from his seat, crossed the council floor, and slapped Arius across the face. “Ho-ho-ho! Arius, you’ve been a naughty boy!” Whack!

While Nicholas was subsequently imprisoned for his action, and stripped of his episcopal insignia, it was a slap heard round the world. Arius was condemned, and his teaching rejected. Saint Nicholas, by the way, saw a vision of the Blessed Mother with the Child Jesus while in his cell. They returned to him his insignia because of his love for them.

Unfortunately, Arius’ heresy had taken root in the minds of many and can be credited with being one of the contributing factors to the rise and growth of Islam. Where the divinity of Jesus is left in doubt, any upstart can start claiming a more “direct” line to God.

I would hope that the Spirit that enlivened Saint Nicholas to keep the faith, and to strike out at error, will be within all who believe in Jesus Christ. Why be timid when such a great matter as the central doctrine of the faith is under attack? While violence may not be the best approach, a determined defense and a devoted offense must be part of the game.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tear Down and Destroy; Build and Plant

In his letter to Eustochium, written in 384 A.D., Saint Jerome relates an experience he had while on his way to Jerusalem, to live a life of penance. He had given up his family and the life to which he had been accustomed in Rome. A terrible fever came upon him, wasting away his very flesh. In the midst of this fever, he had a vision of his judgment before Christ. He fell before the throne of the Judge, and the following exchange took place: “Asked who and what I was I replied: "I am a Christian." But He who presided said: "Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'" He was then scourged for his impiety, finally benefiting from the prayers of those who attended to the throne. He was returned to awareness, and abandoned his addiction to pagan writings. Such a drastic act may not be necessary for every Christian, even if it was for him. The point is that Christ must be central to one’s thoughts and divine revelation must be THE source of knowledge about salvation.

It is highly unlikely that many today are addicted to Cicero. In fact, I would venture to say that there are quite a few people who disdain his writings, since his works are often used in intermediate Latin classes for translation purposes. But there is a temptation to turn to what is not of Christ, even what is against Christ, as a source of knowledge and guidance for moral living. Such a temptation can be very subtle, as it was for Jerome. We could take a survey of any number of Christian writers and ask if what they write and teach is based upon the Spirit of Christ or comes from some non-Christian philosophy. This is not to criticize the legitimate use of other philosophies to grow in knowledge of the truth. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, made great use of the writings of Aristotle to explain the rational underpinnings of Christian moral living.

But trends in thought come and go over time. Or, as Mark Twain once quipped, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Whether or not Twain really said that doesn’t matter. It’s true. One repeating philosophy that is too stubborn to die is cynicism. Having been versed in this thinking process for quite awhile, I have firsthand experience in its attributes and effects. Diogenes lived during the time of Alexander the Great, who once said that if he were not Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Strange idea, considering that Diogenes lived in a giant tub in the middle of town, and engaged in ipsation in public, stating that it would be wonderful if hunger could be likewise satisfied by rubbing the stomach. But apart from his moral turpitude, he had a keen eye for hypocrisy and with biting sarcasm attacked it regularly. The very word “cynicism” comes from the Greek word for “dog”, since the purveyors of this philosophy barked at the world and those who pretended to be something. The famous story goes that he walked about in midday with a lantern, looking for an honest man. To be honest, apart from the ipsation, his approach has some merit. Jesus Himself laid bare the foolishness and hypocrisy of his contemporaries; indeed, of hypocrites all over time.

But there is a difference between the cynic and the follower of Christ. The cynic sees hypocrisy and is quick to point out inconsistencies, errors and stupidity. But the heart of the cynic is ultimately self-serving and lacks charity. There is no “kind eye” in the head of the cynic. He sets up a world view that is often precise in its measurements, but empty of compassion. Fulton Sheen once wrote that the cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Condemnation comes easily to the cynic, and may be right, but the dividing wall of separation, destroyed by Jesus, remains in the heart of the cynic. As important as it is to seek to remove pretense, and in charity it may be necessary to do so, Christ did so for the sake of salvation, even of those who opposed Him so vehemently. Did He not die for the whole nation of Israel, and the world, including those who killed Him? Even those who “kill” Him today by sin and error and malice?

The cynic seeks to expose folly, but does not then help the exposed to come to true knowledge. As a cynic, we can look upon those who do not live well or who act according to error as fools, malcontents and “beneath” us, but what good does it do ultimately? How do we balance the discovery and repudiation of error with the firm desire of Christ that all men be saved? Even the fools! It is a tough line. It all depends on what we are truly looking at: the foolishness or the person? A good doctor, especially the Divine Physician, is truly interested in taking away what corrupts and destroys, but labors intensely to maintain what is good and healthy and capable of refinement.

Being jaded, another form of cynicism, is like looking at life through a peephole. We can only see one facet of life and miss out on so much. I’ve been cynical and spent time with not a few cynics. From personal experience, there is a narrow mindedness that neglects what is good and wholesome in others. The tragedy of such a mindset is that it turns itself on the practitioner and causes an inner damage that can only be called a dangerous loss of charity, towards oneself and others.

Christ was ever ready to tear down and destroy, in the best tradition of Jeremiah, but He was also about building up and planting, continuing the same thread of prophetic mission. Diogenes wanted to find an honest man, thinking himself, perhaps, to be the only one who truly was. Christ found honest men, who were simple fishermen, as ordinary as any other in history. They had a host of faults and imperfections, which Jesus worked to purge from their souls. He didn’t condemn them for their weaknesses, but took their burden upon Himself and transformed these men into apostles and vessels of grace. His piercing glance cut through the foolishness and hypocrisy of His own disciples and revealed the true inner nature of those who would be the foundation of His Church. He does the same for us, but never out of spite or contempt. He only wants us to be pure in His sight, and when He finds impurity of whatever kind, He removes it if we are willing let Him.

  And when we stand before Christ, may we not hear Him say, "Thou liest, thou are a follower of Diogenes, and not of Christ.  For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable

    A friend inquired about the pharisees and sadduccees, and it led me to write the following, in answer the particular question.

     Part of Jesus' mission was to "comfort the afflicted" and to "afflict the comfortable". The pharisees had a history of real religious piety, and were the descendants of those who rejected the Greek influences on Judaism, but to a fault as time wore on. They got themselves into a position of self-righteousness based upon outward religious observance, losing sight of the substance of the Law, namely, mercy and faith. Not all of them, certainly, and Jesus had friends who were pharisees. His purpose, among others, was to disclose that mercy, such as "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." And as in the passage where he cures a woman of her 18 year infirmity, on a Sabbath, but the synagogue leader objects and starts naming the law, "There are other days to be cured, come then, and not on the Sabbath." Ridiculous. A miracle takes place, and he cannot see it, or appreciate it. Lots of people like that today, focussing on the law (either in the secular sense or the religious. . .). St. Paul had great struggles with this thinking, to the point of being abused and beaten and stoned. His insistence that righteousness comes from faith in Christ was abhorrent to those who, for one, found Jesus too much (and killed him, by the way) and were sadly stuck in their addiction to legality. You've known people like that, so attuned to what's "right" that they forget to have compassion or kindness. People suffered in their consciences because of the scrupulosity of the pharisees. I might add much of my struggles have been from a too severe conversion that lacked compassion on myself. Eventually, things explode, or one turns into a tyrant, to himself or others. Better to have a kind eye, in other words, but also one that opposes the way some make themselves better than others and look down on them. That is, a kind eye towards those abused by the powerful, to the point of opposing the powerful. Hence the deliberate humiliation of Jesus on the cross, to show that being so and suffering so may be a sign of greatness (for sure in His case!).

The sadduccees had their good points, and were devoted, as a class, to the priestly office and rituals of the Law. They had become, unfortunately, likewise blind to the higher elements of the Torah, indeed, only accepting the legal and ritualistic elements, good as they were, yet lacking in something. Sadducees generally did not even accept the prophets, who often blasted mere ritual, "Does God drink the blood of goats? If I were hungry, I would not tell you. Your sacrifices are loathsome to me." and such things. To a priest, offering bloody sacrifices as a way of life, those are fighting words. So, when Jesus cleanses the temple, and talks about it being cast down, and himself being able to "raise it in three days", you can imagine the shock to their system. It was one of the major points of condemnation they used at his (show) trial. His attitude of apparent disrespect was a crime in their eyes. But, of course, He was trying to shake them out of their sullen view of humanity. This is why, when He answers their question about the resurrection, He refers to Moses' conversation with the Lord at the burning bush, showing that such a belief is central to the most basic, Hebrew faith, right there at the call of Moses, and not from some "esoteric" prophet. The pharisees, of course, approved of His answer, and they were all quiet.

As for being drawn to Jesus, this is testimony of His powerful personality and His self-assured declarations. There was a magnetic quality to His person, and no one could just ignore Him.

In Acts, 6:7, as Luke describes the growth of the Church, he says, "and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jersualem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." This small notation is often lost on those who read Acts, and it explains some of the struggles of the early Church. Imagine the priests, who were keepers of the rituals of the Temple, hearing that food was only food, and not central to salvation. Heck, the Maccabees era was almost all about obedience to the dietary laws of Israel's Law, or at least a lot about it. A whole family of seven brothers was executed with their mother for not eating pork! Thank God for Jesus when you're eating a pork barbecue sandwich. But anyway, these men (and their families) were drawn to the "New Way" in a remarkable fashion, finding the faith to be liberating. What they had been worshiping had come close to them, and not put away behind a curtain any longer. The Letter to the Hebrews brings all of this together, as it explains that Jesus is the place where as well as the Person in whom we meet the here-to-fore remote God. How awesome is that? He's not found by ritualism for its own sake, nor is He remote and commanding obedience for obedience's sake. He's near to us and "personified" in Jesus Christ. It doesn't matter what food you eat, or what your background or your racial make-up is. The heart of His salvific plan has come to completion and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. His friendship and closeness take away the veil, if we have eyes to see.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

They took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus

In a marvelous article in the American Spectator (which can be found here:, Angelo Codevilla, writes of the contrast and conflict between the ruling class in the United States and what he calls the “country class”. There is no need here to summarize his article. Suffice it to say, I believe he is spot on as he describes the hegemony of those who have or desire power in the United States versus the two-thirds of the people who are a class unto themselves, holding such far-fetched ideas such as the importance of faith, traditional marriage, the rule of law and a strong national defense. While he notes that the country class is quite varied in its racial, religious and even political make-up, there are certain characteristics they hold in common. This made me reflect upon the various groups who appear in the Gospels.

Each of the Gospel writers had their own particular reasons for producing their work. That is, there was an existential reason for relating the words and deeds of Jesus as they did. Each writer was the head or part of a particular church with its own needs and experiences. St. Luke begins his account by making his purpose explicit: “That you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:4). Of course, the main reason they all wrote their Gospels was to proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ. The Church “has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1).” (Dei Verbum, 19) Jesus really did and taught what the Gospels contain, up to and including His resurrection.

One thing we can garner from a careful reading of the Gospels is the cultural situation that existed in the time of Jesus. There was an assortment of groups, both political and religious, with which Jesus interacted. We find a similar divide between the ruling class in Israel and the people, the country class who felt that Jesus was indeed the Savior for whom they had been waiting. The Pharisees were, as stated above, lay authorities of the law and self-appointed deciders of true piety and authentic Judaism. The Sadducees were of the priestly class who ruled by virtue of their ancestry. The Herodians, who barely show up in any of the Gospels, were basically politically aligned with King Herod. The Zealots, one of whom became an apostle, were fiercely nationalistic, looking to overthrow Roman domination, by violence if necessary. (I find it interesting that Simon the Zealot is the only apostle never to have his words recorded by the Gospel writers.) Members of these groups rarely found themselves willingly agreeing with Jesus, and they found common ground in their hatred for Him. His goal of uniting the people of Israel was not based upon finding a consensus of belief among these groups, but rather of revealing and manifesting the truth which He personified, literally. They were to conform to Him, or else. The “or else” being His crucifixion and their loss of salvation. “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” (Mt. 21:43). Even Herod and Pilate became friends in the very act of rejecting Jesus. (Lk. 23:12).

These leaders and ruling class groups conspired against Jesus in secret precisely because the country class, the people, had come to believe that He was the Messiah. “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people.” (Mt. 26:5). The decision to bring Jesus to Pilate for crucifixion was so that the people, seeing their “Messiah” put to death in such a horrific and scandalous manner, would lose their faith in him and return to them. How could the Savior of Israel, expected to be a conquering hero, be humiliated and executed? The people awoke on Friday morning to see the one they had proclaimed as “Son of David” bound and condemned to death. The scandal was too much for them, and they joined the chorus, “Away with him! Crucify him!” They would, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, rediscover their nascent faith when the apostles began to preach.

The ruling class of modern American life is not unlike those who opposed Jesus during His public ministry. There are self-appointed religious ideologues who decide what is real faith and piety, now found in a belief in such things as global warming, evolution and various dietary restrictions. There are lawyers who do injustice under cover of law and the high priests of education who promote their own and dictate to the mass of humanity how they will act and think. There are, finally, the politically dominant who seek power at the expense of those they are bound to serve. Truth is the victim in this system, except for the wonderful potential of the country class to object in large numbers, and vote that way. For now, anyway.

It would be an error of oversimplification, at best, to consider the recent elections as a national commitment to Christ and His truth. Would that it were so! We have only to consider the election of 2008. The “messiah” of that election was certainly not real, though he won over a large enough number of the “country class” to win. But there is still some hope that those who seek the truth and yearn for the rule of law under the Constitution can make some real changes. It is a battle that will not end soon, unless the end of all comes soon. My hope and prayers is that those who have received a mandate from the people will bear in mind their obligation to the truth. Power is a dangerous thing and has a way of dimming one’s eyes to reality. And there is no real salvation in politics, and the Constitution is not about eternal life. The job of the Christian in this crazy world is to do his or her best to transform the world by the faith and truth that is Christ. We may not achieve the final victory in politics, but by remaining true to our commitment to the truth, we will certainly win the victory of our own conscience.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit." Mt. 27:50

Popular piety, new and old, oftentimes portrays Jesus in an almost whimpering attitude as He makes His way from Gethsemane to Calvary. It is quite understandable when we read of the "Suffering Servant" bearing the sins of the world, beaten and abused by blow and spittle, scourge and thorny crown. And who has not been moved to pity while meditating on the stations of the cross, wherein the Lord falls three times beneath His cross? I feel and think that such a portrayal misses out on some key elements of the passion narrative and of the sense of Who Christ really was and is.

Consider the aforementioned "Suffering Servant" canticles from Isaiah, for a starter. Certainly the "Fifth Evangelist" paints an image of Christ beaten, bruised and bloody, His very humanity effaced by the blows He bears for our transgressions. Yet, think of the passage again, as from Isaiah 50:6-7. "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame." There is majesty in Christ while being spit upon and abused. He "sets his face like flint". I imagine from this that those who slapped and beat Christ were astonished at his resilience and his determination to look them in the eye while they did their deeds. Perhaps it partially explains why the Jewish leaders covered his face. That gaze would have penetrated deep within them. "Where can I hide from your face?" From what I know of humanity and of bullies in general, the serene yet intense look of Christ would have enraged them all the more. He refused to feel ashamed at their taunts and abuse. Showing him downcast and almost in a state of self-pity leaves out the manliness of His character in the midst of torture.

Even while on the way to the cross, Jesus shows His presence of mind, warning the women of Jerusalem to weep for themselves. Sometimes this passage is described as Him consoling them for their grief, yet there is something more prophetic here (in the traditional sense of the term): He is shaking them from their formal act of piety, as sincere as it was, to a more profound penitence on behalf of their own salvation and that of their people. "Weep not for me, but for yourselves!" Not too consoling, from a certain point of view. It should be noted that these women were not the group of ladies who accompanied Him from Galilee, but residents of the City of Jerusalem; probably nice people, but likely a part of the culture of perfunctory religious piety that remained only on the surface. Christ's words were merciful and consoling only in the sense that waking someone up from religious torpor is merciful. Then again, the most merciful form of consolation since it can lead to true repentance! I wonder if some of them walked away saying, "Why, I never!"

And again, even on the cross, Jesus maintains His equanimity of soul. His cry of abandonment, (as terrifying as it is when one considers it comes from the Divine Son, eternally united with the Father in Godhood) is the beginning of one of those most hopeful and daring songs of praise found in the Book of Psalms. In fact, the psalm contains not only references to the details of the crucifixion, but an amazing proclamation of the ultimate victory being won in that very suffering.

Now crucifixion was one of the most painful, humiliating and shameful deaths for a person to undergo, and more so in the case of Christ. Part of its pain lay in the fact that the crucified was unable to exhale, once the weight of his body prevented his diaphragm from raising the lungs. Hence, the Romans would break the legs of the crucified to hasten death, since he would be unable to lift himself up to exhale. Even given the ability to lift oneself up to let out a breath, speaking would have been most difficult. Ask anyone who has run to his limit and needs to catch his breath before trying to speak. Run of a few flights of stairs and try to talk without "taking a moment". Yet, Jesus not only spoke, but was lucid in all of his statements.

Then there is the final breath. Even in Mel Gibson's "The Passion", the final breath is portrayed rather weakly, though dramatically. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all say that Jesus either cried out in a loud voice or uttered a loud cry. John's Gospel simply states, "When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." As peaceful as this passing is, let's remember how the Spirit came down upon the Apostles, with a loud, rushing wind shaking the house, followed tongues of flame. Death is not a natural event, in the sense that the human soul is so intimately united to the body that the individual is one. Christ was truly human. When the soul leaves the body, there is a violence associated with it, no matter how peacefully one may appear to die.

Further, we should consider what took place when Jesus finally "yielded up his spirit": "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs were opened." So dramatic was the event that even the hardened Roman soldiers were terrified at the earthquake and made the first profession of faith in the crucified Lord: Truly this was the Son of God!"

We know from Scripture and Tradition that the soul of Jesus went down among the dead to preach to them. Dante describes the gates of hell smashed by the entrance of Christ. I allow my imagination to envision Jesus lifting Himself up to take in a final breath, drawing all the sins of the world into His body and then with that loud cry, plunging purposefully into the shades of hades. Earth was not capable of containing Him and shuddered violently at His descent. He is the conquering hero, not the whimpering cast off. The power of that moment caused ripples of energy and grace and power to flow into the very fiber of the universe, from the belly of the earth to the heights of heaven.

There can be a tendency to view Jesus so meek that His tremendous strength of personality gets lost. The manliness of Christ is a model of strength in the face of disillusionment, betrayal and apparent failure, right up to the moment of death. His was not the way of quiet, selfish introspection, but of determined intensity in the service of His mission. He walked among us, a true man among men who was attractive to so many because of His firm resolve and His enduring strength of character. How tiring it is to think of Him so ethereally portrayed walking about sissy-like and, sadly, effeminate. Christ was no dreamer, smiling sweetly like a model social worker. He soothed wounds and healed hearts by gentle strength, but strength nonetheless.

The next time you think of Him in His suffering and are tempted to think of "Poor Jesus", remember that He chose a true poverty to enrich us, first by blasting away our indifference and softness of conscience, revealing our wounds, sometimes with violence, and then grasping us by the hand to raise us up with Himself. It is no minor feat to jump from earth to heaven. We could more easily hop to the moon and beyond. It takes a divine hand, made truly human and strong enough to raise even the dead.