We Have No King But Jesus

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, established by Pope Pius XI of happy memory to remind us that, in all the vicissitudes of history, Jesus Christ is ruler of all. Considering that Pope Pius reigned during the rise of the modern totalitarian states of Italy, Germany, Spain, and Russia, no doubt he also wished to remind the faithful suffering under dictatorships that Jesus Christ, the King of kings, was their true master to whom their first allegiance was owed.

We in the twenty-first century don’t have a lot if experience with kingship, especially we Americans. It’s an idea out of storybooks and history (which, for most of us, means basically the same thing), not something we have ever really felt. That’s a shame, because I don’t think we can really understand Christianity without understanding the idea of Christ the King.

The King is a personal ruler; he is the father of his people, with all that implies. He is meant to dedicate his life to their welfare, to see that they are fed, clothed, educated, happy, and safe. Traditionally, kings led their armies in war, stood in judgement over wrongdoers, and presided at religious observances. In return, the people gave him their unflinching loyalty. A good king was a king the people were happy to obey, whom they loved dearly, and admired with a reverent awe.

There are, of course, many historical examples of good kings (St. Louis the IX of France, Alfred the Great of England, John III of Poland, etc). But I find the most emotionally resonant images of kingship are in fiction, particularly the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Faramir awakens to find Aragorn at his bedside:

Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?”

Faramir, a man of nobility, recognizes the king at once, loves him, and instantly places himself at his service, “For who would lie idle when the king has returned?” Service to the king, not out of fear, but out of love, is such a strong instinct in him that it draws him back even from the point of death. The scene makes allusion to another passage, this one in the Gospel of Matthew:

For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goeth, and to another, Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

The centurion’s position as a man within a hierarchy of authority gave him greater insight into Christ’s position as king than the Jews could have. At the moment, their image of kingship was either the foreign Emperor who had conquered them or his tyrannical puppet rulers. The centurion understood kingship and authority and it gave him faith that made even Jesus marvel.

C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves is an excellent and brilliant work, but I think it may be incomplete. I think there’s a fifth love which he missed; what we might call imperial love, or love of one’s superior. The love of a subject for his king, the soldier for the general, the student for his teacher, and so on (if I could write to him and ask, he probably would have said that it would go under affection, but I think it’s a distinct enough state to warrant its own essay). It is this love that came into Faramir’s eyes when he beheld his lord and this love that drives men to follow their commanders into hell. It is the love proper to the king. It is the one that says “My lord, you have but to command and it shall be done.” This love we should have for Our Lord, Christ the King in abundance.

During the American Revolution, of the rallying cries of the Patriot forces was “We have no king but Jesus!” The Feast of Christ the King is, I think, especially important in an election year. It reminds us that, whether we voted for the winner or the loser (and whatever we think of the winner), he is not really the one in charge. His authority is not his own, but is merely delegated, conditionally, from the one who guides the course of history according to His sovereign will.

For have but one King, our true King, who holds our fate in His hands, and to whom we owe absolute allegiance. We have no king but Jesus Christ.

Viva Christo Rey!

 

 

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Foundation Lines, or Why This World Matters to Christians

Ever have one of those moments where things just kind of ‘click’? Like, when you finally see the answer to a brainteaser you’ve been puzzling over for a half-an-hour and were just about to toss down the disposal. I had a moment like that the Sunday before last while listening to the Gospel reading.

It was the passage where Jesus is debating with the Sadducees, and they pose Him the hypothetical problem of a woman who has had seven equally legitimate husbands, none of whom have produced children, and whose wife will she be at the resurrection?

In answer, Jesus replies that, “The children of this world marry and give in marriage, but those who are found worthy to attain that other world and the resurrection neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in Heaven.” (Luke 20: 27-36).

Hearing that, we’d be tempted to see it as a slur against marriage: that marriage will no longer exist in Heaven, so it can’t be that important. Actually it’s quite the other way around: marriage, as we know it, won’t exist in Heaven, but that’s precisely why it’s so important here on Earth.

To explain this, I have to touch on a larger subject; Christians sometimes have trouble knowing what to think of this world. We know this is the “Valley of Tears” and the domain of the Evil One, but at the same time we’ve been told that our actions here are of paramount importance and that what happens here matters, and we know by natural law that we have to act as if the temporal things of this world were important. On one hand, we know that our eternal fate is infinitely more important than any temporal suffering, but on the other we know that we have a duty to defend ourselves and those we are responsible for. We know that God is the only true power and the only one deserving of our loyalty, yet we know that we have a duty to our country. We know that God will care for us, yet we have a duty to work for our own well-being.

Christians throughout history have treated the temporal as if it mattered, even if it mattered less than the eternal. How are we to reconcile this?

The answer is really very simple. Anyone who has studied drawing, for instance, knows that you begin with a rough sketch or foundation; you block out the shapes of the scene you want to draw, not filling the details and often with the knowledge that it’s really very different from what you have in mind. Then, once you get that right, you take a heavier pencil and begin drawing the real shapes over it; the lumpy oval is overlaid with hair, eyes, brow line, mouth, and so on to form the head; the cylinders are given muscular definition and clothing to form the arms, and the sort-of-square-type-things with circles are connected and drawn over to form the torso. Eventually, you have the complete drawing of a lovely young woman, which completely obscures your foundation lines. But if you hadn’t made those lines, or had done them badly, the picture would have turned out much differently, or not have been done at all.

Our life in this world consists of making foundation lines; the rough geometric shapes that will eventually be covered over by the true image of Himself that God wishes to created in each one of us. But we must get the lines right and the kinds of lines we draw will determine what kind of image is produced. This world is only the first phase; the rough sketch, the basic training. It is here we lay the foundation for who and what we will be in eternity.

16-face-drawing

That is why marriage, work, art, war, country, and so on are all so important, even though they will all fall away in the end; they are the shapes that will help to make up the image that God wishes to create. They will all come to nothing, not because they’re unimportant, but because they are only the rough outline of something infinitely more important, and the true thing that they are just an echo of will overlay them. Thus a courageous and loyal soldier won’t simply lay aside his arms and be free of war: he will take up new arms, ones that are far more awful than any on Earth, and enter into something that is more awesome and more glorious than any earthly war and stripped of the squalor, blood, and absurdity that make up the wars we know. The married couple will not abandon each other, but their relationship will become something new, more intense, and more glorious than any wedded bliss, and stripped of the selfishness and friction that may mar even the most perfect earthly marriage.

This is also one reason why our conduct in such things matters so much to God: if we can’t even do the basic shapes right, how is He supposed to turn us into the masterpieces He has in mind? With unfathomable generosity, He has allowed us to partake in our own creation, to make the rough sketches that He will turn into works of art, yet we constantly screw up even this small part, sometimes so badly that we ruin the picture entirely. If we can’t be trusted to manage even such small things as businesses and nations and battles and marriages, whose going to trust us with the unimaginable things of which these are nothing but faint, ill-done sketches?

We work for the good things in this present world, not because they are good in themselves, but because they are what we have been given to practice on, like the training dummies that martial artists use. If you can’t even stand up to a dummy with bits of wood sticking out of it, no one’s going to rely on you in an actual fight. Likewise, the things of this world are given us to practice on, and to manage them well is the task of our current life. So we love our country and defend it, not that it may replace God, but that by so doing we may learn to love God better and to defend His honor as Jesus did in the temple. We work, not that we don’t need God to take care of us, but that we may learn to participate in the great labor of creation. We marry and are given in marriage, not that such love may eclipse God, but that in loving our families so completely and unconditionally we may practice something akin to the love we will have for all in Heaven.

 

 

Why I Am a Catholic:

compassion

The Reasons:

I am tempted to answer as Walker Percy did: what else is there? The alternatives all seem to me grossly inadequate. This is true speaking both philosophically and historically: that is, both the competing worldviews and the alternative explanations for the figure of Christ.

Philosophically, I have never heard any good atheist answers to the argument from contingency (everything in our experience derives its being from another source and cannot sustain itself, but if that were true of everything, nothing would exist, so a self-contained, eternal, uncreated being must exist), or a good explanation for human morality (why we have the experience of “I ought” and “I ought not”), or for the experience of beauty (why do such disparate things as music, a woman’s face, a mountain, an ocean, a bird, a poem, and the night sky affect us in much the same way), or for the universality of religious belief among the cultures of mankind. In short, any purely materialistic belief system must be false because it runs contrary to the experience of mankind.

Agnosticism, the belief that man cannot possibly know the truth about God, seems to me irrational. If man came from God, then there must be, however faint, a likeness or kinship between God and man, meaning that God can, to an extent, be known by man. If not, then the agnostic has to come up with a workable explanation both why not and why all the millions of people who claimed to know God throughout history, including many of its best and brightest, were mistaken, but the agnostic is not. To say that man cannot possibly know God or know the truth (which is more or less the same thing) seems to me to be an attempt at evasion rather than a real cogent position. Besides, there’s no reason to believe we can’t know something until it has been definitively proven that we don’t.

First, I believe in God. It seems to me that our experience both of the world and of human nature can’t possibly be explained absent the divine. Such difficulties as arise of positing that God exists and is good (i.e. the problem of evil) seem to me to be only problems of perspective; when dealing with something infinitely far above us, it will of course seem as if there are contradictions, but having good reason to believe in God’s existence and goodness on other grounds we can trust that these are illusory. The problem of evil, therefore, can be accepted as a problem that is accounted for by the premise, much as the lack of stellar parallaxes was accepted as a problem that was accounted for once Newton’s laws provided a workable context for Kepler’s model of the solar system. We admit the problem exists, but say that it is due to a lack of knowledge rather than being a serious contradiction.

I believe that Jesus Christ was and is the second person of the Trinity, the only begotten Son of God, true God and true Man, come to Earth to bring the forgiveness of sins to mankind. Like with God, I don’t see a cogent explanation for the figure of Christ that does not accept His claim to be God. The event of the Resurrection is the insurmountable obstacle; either it happened, or it didn’t. If it did, Christ is who He says He is. If it didn’t, then an explanation is needed for how and why the event was faked in a manner convincing enough to successfully bring about the conversion of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, the witness of the Saints and the Church seem to me conclusive: if Christ was a fake or fable, He’s the most successful and effective fake in human history. Lives are noticeably improved by following Him. His followers do great good for the people around them and humanity in general. The saints are striking examples of human excellence in all its forms and are admired even by atheists.

People sometimes talk as if it were easy to explain away Jesus as a simple preacher who was divinized by his ignorant and/or conniving followers. Such explanations are pathetically inadequate (not to mention transparently false to facts) to explain the Christian phenomenon. As far as I can see, the only explanation that covers all the facts is the one that Christianity itself proposes: that Jesus was the Son of God and that He founded the Church to be His instrument on Earth and to bring His Word to all nations. This explanation accounts not only for all the good the Church has done, but also all the evil, as the Church is explicitly an institution made up of fallen human beings in need of God’s mercy and nothing in the Christian religion claims that those who follow Christ will never sin, make mistakes, or act out of ignorance. The Christian view accounts for the whole of the observed facts, while the non-Christian view only accounts for part of them.

This brings me to the fact that, as a Catholic, I find I can account for pretty much everything that comes my way. Not that I can explain everything, but I can see how it could be explained without resorting to either flat denial or contradiction. From social conditions to historical events to scientific discoveries to ghost stories, I can more-or-less see how everything has its place in the Catholic worldview. Yes, science too: no matter how far down physics explores, below the electron and into the deep sub-atomic, it can never touch religious faith. No matter how minutely you examine the wall of a house, no matter how deep into the architecture and structure of the beams and nails that make it up, you are never going to seriously affect the question of the architect’s identity. Exploring the structure of God’s creation strikes me as a very wonderful thing to do, but I find the idea that, in so doing, you can somehow disprove God’s existence to be ridiculous.

As a side note, when it comes to evolution I reject the natural selection model as laughably inadequate (though it may account for some things: no one ever said there had to be only a single engine), but I think whatever does drive evolution will prove to be as ‘scientific’ as anything else (i.e. there will be a clear trail of physical events leading one to another). The question doesn’t affect my faith one way or another.

Thus far I have not found a single really concrete fact or truth which openly contradicts my faith. In addition, I find most modern objections to Christianity are moral rather than philosophical or historical (the only grounds I think Christianity can adequately be attacked). That is, people object to it on the grounds that Christian belief forbids certain practices that the modern world considers sacred rights (mostly related to sex). Even if I didn’t personally object to the practices being so guarded, there would still be the problem that to find a belief inconvenient to your lifestyle does not prove that it is false, only that if it is true, your lifestyle is an improper one. To reject a belief system for no other reason than because you want to violate it seems to me insane.

The fact that Catholicism demands that I often act contrary to my own desires and inclinations I hold to be one of the proofs of its validity. A belief system that doesn’t place any demands on me beyond what is already in my mind or which flatters my own desires looks very much like a mere justification on my part.

Now all this is a reason why I am Christian. Why am I a Roman Catholic?

Once one accepts Christianity as true, I don’t think there can be a really cogent reason for being Protestant. The Protestant system is too new, having emerged in the 1500s, largely on account of an intellectual lightweight named Martin Luther and a more rigorous, but equally irrational theologian named John Calvin. Its chief precepts have no basis in the writings of the early Church Fathers and its sola scriptura doctrine is itself ascriptural and illogical (if scripture alone is authoritative, by what authority was scripture defined?). Moreover, most Protestant churches lack the structural characteristics that the Church had even in Biblical times, indicating that they lack any kind of continuity with the Church of the Apostles.

Once Protestantism is rejected, there remain the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches. Anglicanism is rejected at once both because of its shameful origins (a church that exists because a king wanted a divorce) and national character (by what possible reading of Scripture could a local monarch be given authority over the Church of Christ?). Perhaps it might have been possible to be Anglican when England ruled a quarter of the planet, lending a kind of universality to it, but even then it was obviously a national church. The Church of Christ must be a universal institution and can never be nationalized or subject to any human nation.

Of the three remaining, a similar problem emerges with the Copts and Orthodox; they are too localized and insular. Indeed, the Orthodox Church had its origins in a similar (though far less blatant) nationalist effort to the Anglican: the Emperor ruled from Constantinople, so Constantinople must be a great Holy See (though even so they remained in communion with Rome for many centuries, until some unfortunate incidents around the time of the Crusades). But in any case, neither the Orthodox nor the Copts have ever showed the kind of universality that the Romans have in sending missionaries to the far corners of the globe and exercising authority over Christians from innumerable different cultures. Though I would say that they both are branches of the true Church, just stubbornly independent ones.

Thus I think that, once one accepts the truth of God one must accept the truth of Christianity, and once one does that, one must be a Roman Catholic. I can conceive of one who is born into the faith remaining Orthodox or Coptic without contradiction, but other than that I can see no cogent reason for not being Catholic.

The Benefits

In addition to all of the above, the benefits of being Roman Catholic are, of course, excellent (as might be expected from the truth). The one I find most useful is that it shields you from the parochialism of modernity. In a field where one can profitably turn to advice written in the fifth, eighth, twelfth, or sixteenth century it is hard to conceive of the modern age as being the pinnacle of the human intellect it claims to be. The trap that so many contemporaries fall into of viewing our ancestors as either villains or children is eliminated for the faithful Catholic. The idea that, say, Richard Dawson is more intelligent than Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas simply because he happened to be born later is laughable.

The Catholic, assured that mankind is fallen and the world is a vale of tears, is typically defended against the lure of Utopia and the temptation to do anything and everything, however absurdly impractical, in an attempt to eliminate some great perennial evil. The idea of stealing from everyone to eliminate poverty, or of throwing away all weapons to eliminate war, is seen for the insanity it is. The answer to poverty is to give generously to the poor man and provide an opportunity for him to better himself. The answer to war is to win the one you’re fighting, show mercy to the conquered, and do your best to avert the next one. These things are not going to go away no matter what we do and attempts to eliminate them wholesale always have disastrous consequences (e.g. a concentrated effort by the world’s great powers to never have another war led directly to the most destructive war in human history).

Christianity is an incredibly open and varied religion. Barring sin, just about everything mankind can do can be turned to the glory of God. A Catholic can be a miner, a musician, a politician, a farmer, a soldier, a priest, a police officer, a writer, an artist, a businessman, a housewife, a beggar, an aristocrat, a scientist, a scholar, or a sailor without any kind of impediment to his faith. Every field of human endeavor is open to the Catholic as a means to give glory to God, and just about every one has done so. Every kind of personality can be turned to Christ, even very prickly and unpleasant ones (rudeness isn’t a sin). A Catholic can be irritable, blunt, and rude like, Hillare Belloc, or open, friendly, and charming like G.K. Chesterton. The Church accepts all kinds.

Because Christianity gives life a real end goal and some fairly straightforward criteria for meeting it: believe in Christ, receive the sacraments, confess your sins, forgive others, do your duty. Everything else is a matter of style. He who keeps the commandments can dispense with convention. As a Catholic I am far more free to be myself than I am as a millennial.

As a Catholic, I am free to apply the normal rules of skepticism, evidence, and belief to everything. For instance, I don’t have to accept the word of scientists as of gods because I know scientists are fallen men and that science itself is not the final word on reality. I can thumb my nose at the zeitgeist and declare that diversity is absurd, tolerance only a limited virtue, and that expecting someone not to have sex if they can’t handle the consequences is not a human rights violation. Once I have my faith in place, I am free to question everything, including the most cherished assumptions of the current age. That’s how I came to conclude that Imperialism was a legitimate form of foreign policy, that there is no fundamental difference between ‘homosexuality’ and any other form of temptation, and that the notion of equality is effectively meaningless when applied to human beings. These ideas run directly contrary to the surrounding culture, but because I know, through my faith, how limited that is I’m able to look beyond it and examine questions more (I hope) objectively.

So, the canard that religious dogma limits thought is almost the exact opposite of the truth: once religious dogma is in place, the mind has a scope to explore beyond the current climate of opinion and entertain ideas that would otherwise be unthinkable. Mere ‘open-mindedness’ only leads to conforming to ideas are in the air at the moment. Of all people the self-styled free-thinker is most a child of his own age.

A popular idea is that, freed from Christianity, one is freed from guilt. That’s not true. Freedom from Christianity allows a man to more effectively deaden his conscience to a particular beloved sin, but not to all. And if he does commit what he still regards as a sin, or if someone else does, then he finds that what he’s really been freed from is not guilt but forgiveness. The agonistic or the atheist has no mechanism to forgive the really sinful. He can excuse, but he can’t forgive. Hence the fanatical hatred of secularists, hedonists, communists, and so on for those they regard as evil. Their only recourse is to declare a sin not to be sinful, but that only takes you so far. As a Christian, I may count more things as being sinful than the average man, but I have a remedy for it. I can be unsparing in my assessment of myself because I know that anything I account as evil is not incurable or beyond forgiveness. In other words, a secularist can’t admit to being a bad person, because in his worldview there is no remedy for that. I can because I know Christ came to call sinners to repentance. Every time I go to Confession I wonder how non-Catholics can stand to live without it; I certainly couldn’t.

This, I think, is one of the things secularists really fail to understand; lacking a mechanism for forgiveness themselves, they assume that when a Christian says that something is sinful, they mean that a person who does this should be shunned and punished and destroyed (because that’s what the secularist thinks should happen). But the Christian thinks that a person who has sinned should repent and be forgiven, and that they will be much happier if they do. If I say homosexuality is sinful, I don’t mean that I hate and shun anyone who has committed that sin, only that I think they ought, for their own sakes, to repent and be forgiven for it. Christians don’t dismiss people as being unworthy of life or irredeemably evil: secularists do.

Catholicism is a wonderfully human religion. Surrounding the core, unchangeable dogmas is a whole wonderful palace of devotions, sacramentals, pious legends, history, folk practices, books, art, and so on. It gives you something to grab onto (literally), something to look at and enjoy while you praise God. It’s a religion that has weathered real life for two millennia and has the scuffs and scars of something that’s been used hard and endured. This isn’t something made up in a college classroom by ivory tower academics; it’s something that’s been out in the real world living, suffering, rejoicing, and fighting with real people for thousands of years. Its roots go all the way back to the beginning of recorded history with Abraham. It’s been tried and tested as thoroughly as any human institution or philosophy can be and has endured. In short, it works.

So, that’s the summary version of why I am Catholic. To summarize the summary, the reason I’m Catholic is because it’s true.

 

“Would Jesus have Fought in a War?” Well…

The “Do you think Jesus…” question crops up sometimes. It’s a standard argument for certain issues, especially ones involving violence. Of course, it’s a fallacious argument: Jesus is the supreme example of how man ought to live, but He Himself pointed out that there are different callings for different men (most notably in Matt. 19: 11-12), so the specific material details of His life aren’t necessarily meant to be taken as example. There are a lot of things Jesus never did and which I can’t picture Him doing (marrying, raising children, running a business, writing a book, etc.) which no reasonable person would claim to be immoral.

Regarding the specific question of war, there are two factors that would have made it unthinkable for Jesus to fight as a soldier in a war. The first was simply the practical matter that he was a Jew living in an occupied nation within the Roman Empire: military service would never have been an option for Him in any case.

Much more importantly, however, is this: a soldier, by definition, is a man fighting on behalf of something greater than himself. But there is nothing greater than Jesus, so he never could have been a soldier.

But this doesn’t apply to us. We do have many things greater than ourselves (most notably Christ Himself), so the objection of Jesus fighting a war doesn’t apply to His followers.

Did Jesus say or do anything that presents a hint as to whether his followers could be soldiers? Yes. In the first place, one of the few real people in Scripture that Jesus presents as an example to his followers is a Roman centurion (that is, real as opposed to presented as part of a parable). He’d hardly do that if being a soldier were a dishonorable profession. Nor is this man a former or repentant soldier. On the contrary, it is the soldier’s nature as a soldier that grants him the unprecedented insight into Jesus’s relation with the Father.

Expanding beyond Jesus to John the Baptist, when asked by Roman soldiers what they must do to be saved, John didn’t tell them to throw away their arms, but “do violence to no man and be content with your pay.” St. Augustine noted that, when he told them to be content with their pay, he forbade them not to be paid as soldiers.

But there is another, stronger example. When Jesus found the Temple being used as a marketplace, he reacted violently. He started knocking over tables and laying about himself with a whip. Here’s the example he sets us: Jesus doesn’t react violently on his own behalf, but on behalf of his father. When I said earlier that there was nothing greater than Jesus, I was excepting the Father (as Jesus and the Father are one).

I would like to add that I find it unlikely that, in thirty-three years of life, the incident in the temple was the only time Jesus acted out violently on his Father’s behalf. It’s the only clear description of such an event we have in Scripture (though taking the synoptics with John, it seems to have happened more than once), but considering how comparatively little of Jesus’s life and ministry we are told about (again, he lived thirty-three years and his public ministry took three years: the four Gospel’s combined could be dramatized in a moderately long film) it seems reasonable to think that this was not a one-off event, but rather apiece with how he behaved on other occasions.

The lesson, therefore, is that violence on our own behalf is wrong, but violence on behalf of something higher than ourselves may indeed be just and worthy. And that is the kind of violence that is the lot of the solider above all others. Therefore, though Jesus never was nor could have served as a soldier or fought in a war, it is not to be taken that Christians are thus forbidden from taking up arms, serving in the military, or waging war for a just cause.

Good Friday

Today, as everyone ought to know, is Good Friday. But many may not realize that it is also the Feast of the Annunciation. That is, today is not only the memorial of Christ’s death, but also of His conception.

This isn’t as much of a coincidence as you might think. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I have read that the dating of the Feast of the Annunciation was based on the date of Good Friday: that very early on there was a tradition that Good Friday had happened on March the 25th of that year. As there was also a Hebrew tradition that a great man died on the same day he was conceived, March the 25th was also assigned as the date for that feast. Then, on the principle of conception plus nine months equals birth, the feast of Christmas was dated to December 25th (it was not, as is often claimed, made to coincide with the pagan feast of Sol Invictus).

That means that, according to ancient tradition, this year’s Good Friday is an exact anniversary of the Crucifixion. Roughly one-thousand, nine-hundred, and eighty six years to the day from that one day and hour when Christ died for our sins.

Now, whether or not that is strictly accurate is interesting, but not really the point. If someone proved that Jesus could not have been crucified on March 25th, AD 30, because Pontius Pilate was on vacation in Cyprus that year, it wouldn’t make the least difference. The point isn’t what specific day or hour or year Jesus died, but that He died on a specific day, at a specific hour, in a specific year, within a fairly narrow stretch of time (AD 26-36, the years of Pilate’s governorship, being the limit). He didn’t die in some nebulous ‘long time ago,’ as some misguided modern people believe, but on a specific historical date that is linked, however distantly, with today. That is, the crucifixion and death of Jesus is a historical event; not a legendary or mythological one. The sun has risen and set a certain number of times since then. You could even, in principle, set a clock to count the number of hours and minutes and seconds since that day.

I remember in an interview with the BBC, Evelyn Waugh made a similar point about St. Helena: that whether the piece of wood she found and claimed as the True Cross really was the True Cross is open to dispute. The important thing, however, is the emphasis in Christian faith that, somewhere, there is or was an actual piece of wood, measuring a certain number of inches and weighing a certain amount, with a certain grain and certain markings upon it, from which the Son of God had hung and upon which He had died. The crucifixion isn’t a metaphor and it isn’t a myth: it’s a real, historical event. One day in the life of real men and women.

The Christian faith is not about legends or myths, but history. The whole system turns around these few days in the early years of the Roman Empire, during which the Son of God, who was one with the Father, died, was buried, and rose again to save men from our sins. These miraculous and world-changing events really happened on a certain day that was part of the great system of days of which this is one. The same continuous motion of the Earth that was occurring then is still going on. There are trees that grew then and are still growing now.

It is this immediacy; this sense of tangible reality that I think is vital for Christians to grasp and maintain. We must never fall into the trap of thinking of the life of Jesus as somehow more dubious or less real than, say, the life of George Washington, or even our own lives. We must remember constantly that these things really did happen in this same world in which we live and work and play and do everything else. Outside, we see the same sun that was put out when Christ died, and we breathe the same air with which He breathed His last. Perhaps it all happened on this very day, almost two-thousand years ago. Perhaps hit happened on another day or another year. But it happened, and we live in the same world and the same time in which Jesus walked and taught and died and rose again. Let us never forget that staggering fact.

Mass Readings: Second Sunday of Lent

Reading 1: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

He then said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” “O Lord GOD,” he asked, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He answered him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram stayed with them. As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces. It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

 

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14

  1. (1a) The Lord is my light and my salvation.
    The LORD is my light and my salvation;
    whom should I fear?
    The LORD is my life’s refuge;
    of whom should I be afraid?
    R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
    Hear, O LORD, the sound of my call;
    have pity on me, and answer me.
    Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks.
    R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
    Your presence, O LORD, I seek.
    Hide not your face from me;
    do not in anger repel your servant.
    You are my helper: cast me not off.
    R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
    I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
    in the land of the living.
    Wait for the LORD with courage;
    be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.
    R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.

Reading 2 Philippians 3:17—4:1

Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears,
conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord.
Gospel Luke 9:28-36

Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Comments:

People don’t change. The same basic choices and modes of living were the same in the first century as they are in the twenty-first. Only the surface of life changes as customs, opportunities, and world circumstances shift and metamorphose. Technology doesn’t change us, it only gives us new opportunities to reveal what is within our hearts. As far as that goes, nothing has changed.

I mention this because this week’s second reading sounded to me as if it could have been written today: as if St. Paul were an uncompromising blogger commenting on the state of western civilization as we careen ever more wildly to our destruction. I can just imagine him receiving the usual vitriol on Facebook or Twitter from social justice bullies lay into him for daring to say such things, leavened with the usual pious platitudes about how he’d catch more flies with honey, etc.

It doesn’t take much effort to apply these words to our world, where many “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.” The government uses insurance mandates to crackdown on nuns. New laws come into place forbidding Christians from practicing their faith in public or in their professional lives. Christians are almost universally reviled and mocked on television. Don’t believe me? Name the last positively portrayed, faithful Christian character on a mainstream television network. The only example I can think of is Daredevil, and he was on a Netflix miniseries. Now compare that to the number of positively portrayed homosexuals. Then consider that Christians make up roughly seventy-five percent of the population and homosexuals, at best, five percent. If Christians do appear, whether in television or the movies, they’ll generally be self-righteous assholes at best, fanatical monsters at worst.

Speaking of which, how about “their God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’” Sound familiar, anyone? Substitute ‘stomach’ with ‘loins’ (considering stomach here refers to appetite, that isn’t really a liberty) and I think you have a pretty fair portrayal of the modern secular world, which seems to me to be largely governed by appetite, specifically the desire for orgasms. Or, to allow a bit more dignity to it, to a desire for ‘self-realization’ or ‘self-discovery’ or some other selfish end or another (which typically amounts to the same thing). And doesn’t it take pride in this very fact? Hell, just think of ‘Gay Pride:’ the effort to claim your perversion as a badge of honor, or ‘slut walks’ where women take pride in their own degradation, or the hook-up culture and the macho pride of men in their ability to get women to sleep with them.

A large segment of our culture buys into this whole worldview, which worships appetite and glories in its indulgence. This includes many Christians. That’s no surprise: the spirit of the age is an infectious disease and it always affects a large majority of the Church to a greater or lesser degree. But St. Paul reminds us that we ought to resist this infection and rather conform our lives to Christ and to the Saints. “Join with others in being imitators of me…and observe those who thus conduct themselves.” The reality of being a Christian is that we are always, to one extent or another, at war with the world around us. Even in what we think of as the most Christian ages, those who sought to truly live their faith encountered resistance and persecution from those whose “minds were occupied with earthly things.” Again, the basic nature of human lives, and the choices we make, whether to focus on earthly things and to worship our own desires, or to seek for greater things and worship God, have never and will never change.

It is and always has been our duty to resist the temptation to join in with the spirit of the age and rather to strive for virtue and sanctity in our lives. And therefore, in this way let us stand firm in the Lord.

The Secret to what is Wrong with the Church Today

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I’ve always felt there was something…off about modern Catholicism. Something that made it seem timid and limp-wristed compared to how it had been in past ages. I’d read a lot of people who had agreed with me on that, and suggested various explanations, but none seemed quite to fit.

Then I read this article by Patrick Archibald and it all became clear. He hit the nail right on the head. I highly recommend you read the whole thing, but I’ll quote the passage where he lays it out most succinctly:

This simple, but pernicious change is at the heart of NuChurch.  Any Catholic from a century ago would understand that the love of God comes first and that love of neighbor, which derives from the first, is secondary.  But now man is first and the love of God is a secondary to loving man, instead of the other way around.  This is the grand inversion that is at the heart of NuChurch.

The grand inversion he refers to is of Christ’s first and second commandments:

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” -Matt. 22:36-40

The Church today, on the other hand, puts love of neighbor before love of God. She focuses so much on dialogue and getting along and ‘meeting people where they are’ that things like truth and God tend to get rather neglected. When love of neighbor is placed before love of God, it causes us to lack the courage of our convictions and are content to be just another religion. Because after all, the important thing is that we love our neighbor, which all too often (absent the absolute devotion to God) becomes simply getting along with our neighbor.

Once you see this inversion, you start to understand the infuriatingly bone-headed things Church leaders say about, oh, for instance, divorce or Islam or the death penalty or war or homosexuality. The Church is trying to get along with the world,  to ‘show love’ to everyone, but in the process she losses sight of the truth and of her duty to God because she’s put the concerns of men before God.

Just consider the fact that, in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the Priest faced Jesus in the Eucharist. In the modern liturgy, the Priest faces the congregation. You see? The focus has become on the people rather than on Christ.

Does all this mean I think the Church is apostate? No, of course not. It just means that I think she’s currently not doing her job very well. That happens. The thing is, though, she’ll never get back on track unless we realize what’s gone wrong and try to fix it. Most of us can’t fix it in the Church hierarchy, so our job is to fix it in our own lives. We have to put God first and man second. As the Council of Trent noted (quoted in Mr. Archibald’s article), love of neighbor has its limits: we love our neighbor as ourselves. Love of God has no limits because we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

So, now we see the problem, let us seek to go forth pleasing God rather than men.