14 April 2017

The Corpus of God's Love

Recently, I read yet another online article criticizing Catholics (and presumably Orthodox and high-church Protestants) for their crucifixes: portraying the body (corpus) of Jesus on the cross, rather than an empty cross. The argument was the same as usual--don't Catholics know Jesus rose from the grave, they're worshiping statues, etc., etc.

Personally, I first encountered this opposition when I hung a crucifix (with corpus) in my evangelical Anglican seminary study room, and one colleague apparently felt compelled to comment. As these occasions recur, though, it seems to be having the opposite of the intended effect: I am finding myself increasingly grateful for the multitude of images of Jesus crucified one finds throughout the Catholic Church.

Of course, those who are knowledgeable about Catholicism don't level these sorts of accusations, as they are obviously misguided (not to mention condescending). In short, yes, Catholics are very aware that Jesus rose from the dead. Just a few points:
  • The highest, grandest liturgy of the year is the Easter Vigil, which ushers in the celebration of the Resurrection each year.
  • The Easter season lasts 50 full days--the longest season of the liturgical year (outside of Ordinary Time)--until Pentecost.
  • Every Sunday, which is a "mini-celebration" of the Resurrection, Catholics are required to go to Mass, on pain of mortal sin.
And in short, no, Catholics don't worship statues. Adoration and worship is reserved for God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--alone. But we do honor sacred images, just like a young woman might gaze lovingly at a picture of her father, a young man might kiss an image of his mother, and so forth.

More to the point, Saint Paul tells us in Romans 5:8 that God proves his love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, that is when Christ died for us. Jesus scourged, torn, bleeding, dying in agony--that is God's proof of his love.

Good Friday is insignificant and pitifully tragic without Easter Sunday. But Easter Sunday without Good Friday is much more dangerous. It has no hope of revealing to us the true nature of the compassion, mercy, love, or glory of God. It is merely a display of power without promise.

If we would know God's love, we must meditate on the cross...but not the empty cross. The cross occupied by the Son of God--innocent, yet condemned; God, yet dying--bleeding out salvation for the world. When we do that, wondrous things happen: the humility of God the Son becomes all the more captivating, our sin becomes all the more ugly, and only then does the Resurrection, all the more victorious, become truly for our sake.

10 May 2016

The Unconquerable Saint Damien

Turning 45 years old today, I am undeniably middle-aged. Birthdays and middle-age are good catalysts for taking stock of life, so to speak, but I have found that there are many balances upon which to weigh a life.

Two contrasting examples came across my virtual life today: amongst my emails was one with a quote from today's celebrated Catholic saint, Saint Damien de Veuster of Moloka'i; in my Twitter feed was William Ernest Henley's poem, Invictus.

First, the closing stanza of Invictus reads:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Now, compare that to the quote from St. Damien:

It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength necessary 
in this isolation of ours. Without the Blessed Sacrament 
a position like mine* would be unbearable. But, having Our Lord 
at my side, I continue always to be happy and content.

The scandalous claim of Christianity is that I am not the master of my fate, not the captain of my soul. In the paradoxical divine economy, in order to gain the life we are meant to lead, we must surrender it, relinquish it, allow the Messiah-King to usurp from us the throne of our autonomy.

May my second half of life find me ever more like St. Damien.

* Father Damien followed the call of God to live amongst and minister to a colony of people with leprosy on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i. He eventually contracted the disease, which led to his death. Read the story here.

25 March 2016

St. John Chrysostom on Good Friday

Today's second reading from the Office of Readings:

From the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop

The power of Christ’s blood

If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. Sacrifice a lamb without blemish, commanded Moses, and sprinkle its blood on your doors. If we were to ask him what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.

If you desire further proof of the power of this blood, remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side. The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

There flowed from his side water and blood. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

22 March 2016

And it was night.

A number of years ago, I was part of a week-long class on presenting a dramatized reading of Scripture. We got to pick the passage we wanted to present, and I selected John 9, the account of the healing of the man born blind.

One of Jesus' lines in the passage was always intriguing and a bit mysterious to me: We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night comes, when no one can work (John 9:4). While I wasn't totally "in the dark" about the implications, I admit to being a little puzzled. When, exactly, would night come when no one can work? Didn't Jesus, light of the world, promise to be with his Church always, to the very end of the age? Wasn't the Daystar himself to be eternally with us?

The obvious answer, I thought, was Jesus' death, burial, and descent into hell. For that is when the bridegroom was not with us. But I was only surmising.

The Gospel reading for Mass today, Tuesday of Holy Week, shed a confirmatory light on this. As I listened, it caught me in an entirely new way:

Reclining at table with his disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, “Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”...After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him. So Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”...So Judas took the morsel and left at once. And it was night.

And it was night. Not just a statement about time of day, but a jarring statement about the state of the cosmos.


The word "night" in the Gospel of John occurs infrequently, but in revealing fashion:

Nicodemus admitting at night that no one can work Jesus' works without God.
  • John 3:2 This man [Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him. [emphasis added]

Jesus echoing his statement in John 9, that walking in the night is useless.
  • John 11:10 But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.

Nicodemus again coming "at night"--when Jesus had died--to prepare his body for burial.
  • John 19:39 Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.

Peter and the other apostles unsuccessful in their work before seeing the Resurrected Christ (still in their night).

  • John 21:3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing.

Of course, the liturgy of the Sacred Triduum leads us to this as well, from the darkness of the vigil kept after the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, through the striking absence of candles (except at veneration of the Cross and distribution of Communion) on Good Friday of the Lord's Passion, to the utter darkness at the beginning of the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night.

Thanks be to God that the light of Christ banishes the darkness to enlighten and empower us to work his works--into the Eternal Day!

08 March 2016

Honoring the Most International Woman I Know

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day. I first encountered this phenomenon internationally--in Russia, in fact. According to the official International Women's Day website, this is a day to "Celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women." Given those parameters, I would be happy to comply by celebrating the most internationally achieved woman I know: the Blessed Virgin Mary, and noting just a few of her momentous achievements in being perfectly faithful to Almighty God.

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conversion of the Aztecs. Through Our Lady's appearance in 1531 to the humble (now Saint) Juan Diego, and through manifold symbols in the image she left on his tilma, 6,000,000 Aztecs converted to Christ over the course of just six or seven years. Not only did this mean a turn from pagan rituals that included a great number of human sacrifices, but it served to avert what would have been a very bloody war between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. Here are a few more details to fill in the story.

Our Lady of Victory, Saint Pius V, and the Battle of Lepanto. In 1571, a comparatively small naval fleet successfully defended Western Christendom against a much larger Turkish fleet, set on taking Rome and Vienna and establishing Turkish rule in the West. The day before the battle, Pope Pius ordered that the holy Rosary be prayed for victory by all the faithful throughout the West. The next day, the outnumbered, outgunned navies of the Pope, Spain and Venice emerged victorious. Read this story and other stories of the Rosary leading to victory here.

Our Lady of Lourdes and miraculous healings. In 1858, just four years after Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady appeared to (now Saint) Bernadette in Lourdes, France. In the apparition, Our Lady revealed herself as "the Immaculate Conception," and instructed Bernadette to drink from the fountain and bathe in it, upon which Bernadette found a small spring. A chapel was soon built and faithful people began coming in droves to experience a corporate devotion to Mary and to bathe in the spring. Over 60 healings have been recognized by a bishop as miraculous. For many more details, go here.

Our Lady of Pontmain and the Hope of France. As noted here, Our Lady's appearance in 1871 to four children in Pontmain, France, was the catalyst not only of deepening devotion to her, but also of the mysterious halting and later withdrawal of Prussian troops who had been advancing on the area during the Franco-Prussian war.

Our Lady of Fatima, Saint John Paul II, and the fall of Communism. In Our Lady's appearance to three Portuguese children in 1917, she instructed them to pray the Rosary for world peace, for the end of World War I, for sinners and for the conversion of Russia. Many people, Catholic or not, are aware of the important role that Pope John Paul II played in the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, his teachings and policies were considered so dangerous that the KGB were directed to halt their influence at any cost, including what resulted in a failed assassination attempt. In response, out of gratitude to Our Lady for sparing his life, Pope John Paul consecrated the USSR to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, invoking her prayers for the Communist nation. In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 8--the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Read more of the story here.

These, of course, are just a few of the ways our Blessed Mother has proven herself to be the model for all women--and indeed, all humanity. We have not even mentioned her roles in Kibeho, Rwanda; Akita, Japan; Lipa, Philippines; Knock, Ireland; Siluva, Lithuania; or many other international sites. May she continue her truly international mission of drawing people of every tribe, tongue, and nation to her Son!

03 November 2015

The Virtues of Eyelids

Amongst the things Jesus preached in that preeminent, if chillingly surgical, discourse we know as the Sermon on the Mount, is the line, If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell (Mt. 5:29). This line follows immediately after his admonition against looking at a woman lustfully. 

Though I have moved in a number of Christian circles of various stripes for a majority of my 44 years, I have yet to encounter even one monoptic Christ-follower. Even fundamentalists and biblical literalists seem to have backed off from the literal interpretation of this instruction (unless, of course, they never lust…but that is a matter for another day). And this is right and just, for Jesus does not instruct self-mutilation, but rather outlines in striking hyperbole the need to avoid occasions of sin. And yes, the eye can be a ready vehicle for sin to enter the body, as Jesus again points out later in the same Sermon (see Mt. 6:22-23).

While it is reasonably certain that we are not to take an ice-pick to the baby blues (or browns, or greens, or hazels, etc.), we can still mount a ready defense against the lust (or greed, or envy, or anger, etc.) of the eye: indeed, a physical defense. Eyes, you see, wonderful gift that they are, come equipped with lids. With truly minimal effort, we can stave off all sorts of optical occasions of offense…simply by closing our eyes. I duly intend to work at making this practice part of my spiritual discipline.

Closing one’s eyes in order to see? Yes. Much like silence being the prerequisite to hearing God’s voice, in true divine-economy fashion, opting for blindness readily becomes the vehicle for divinely given sight (see Jn. 9:39ff.).

25 March 2015

The Annunciation: a Marian Feast for Catholics and Protestants

Today, March 25, the Catholic Church across the world celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation--commemorating the time when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce to her that she would bear the Son of God to the world. As she gave her simple fiat, all of history, all of creation was altered forever.

While there still exists much uneasiness and division between Catholics and Protestants over views of Mary, the Annunciation is a celebration with a deeply Marian character that offers a place for conciliation between people of both Catholic and Protestant traditions. This is true for at least a few reasons:

1. The event it celebrates is explicitly biblical. Although Catholics would argue that other Marian feasts--such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption--are built on strong biblical foundations, Protestants are often suspicious, because the events these other feasts commemorate are not explicitly found in Scripture. Not so with the Annunciation--it is right there in Luke 1:26ff.

2. The focus is clearly Jesus. Again, Protestants tend to be reluctant to embrace some Catholic views on Mary because they seemingly detract from the focus on Jesus. (Perhaps the quintessential example of this would be the Catholic view of Mary as "Co-Redemptrix.") The Catholic Church clearly states that she believes what she does about Mary because of what she believes about Jesus (Catechism, #487), and this is clearly evident in the Annunciation--while Mary plays a central role, the focus of the narrative is the Incarnation of Jesus.

3. Mary plays a central role. While the focus of the Annunciation is the Incarnation of Jesus, it is also clear that Mary plays an indispensable role in the whole event. Catholics need not fear that Mary is a "throw-away" character or a random choice. Mary is clearly graced by God. She is "blessed among women." Her fiat is freely given. It is her blood that runs in Jesus' veins, her DNA in his cells.

4. Incarnation is key. While doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants abound, both see the Incarnation of God as the profoundly central teaching / mystery of the Christian faith. The Annunciation is the great feast of the Incarnation--the Word-made-flesh. Moreover, since nearly all Protestants celebrate the birth of Jesus, surely there can't be much opposition to commemorating his conception.

While Catholics might be hesitant to sit down at a feast in honor of Reformation Day (October 31) and Protestants might shy away from toasting the Blessed Virgin on the Assumption (August 15), it stands to reason that we can come together in prayer and celebration on this holy day.