The Law of the Lord v. the laws of men

Our reading from Nehemiah today is the story of the day when the Israelites have been allowed to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Ezra the priest brings out the books of the law and reads from them. The Books of the Law told the Israelites how they should live if they wanted to be faithful to the God who gave them life. We read in the story today that “all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.” And, after the reading, “all the people, their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen! amen!’”

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Failing to Perfection

Good morning men! Our retreat theme is the virtuous man, or the man of virtue. And these words are deeply connected, as the root of the word virtue is the Latin word for “man” where we get words like “virility” in English. So a virtue is the excellence that an excellent man should manifest or demonstrate. So that is what we are aiming for. But we are all men here, so we know that sometimes we miss the mark. And I would like us to spend some time this morning talking about missing the mark.

Perfection is a word used in the Scriptures and by the Church that means “completed and in the form it was meant to be.” It’s not the same thing as flawless or unblemished. Perfection implies progress and refinement. And this morning we want to talk about progress toward being completed and in the form – being the man – we were made to be.

Together, we are going to talk about failing – missing the mark – and perfection – growing into our ideal self. And I hope to convince you that failing properly will actually help us become perfect. We are going to talk about Failing to Perfection.

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Catholic Thinking

Today, I want to introduce another important aspect of our Catholic Faith that distinguishes us from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters, and also from the pagan secular world. One can think of it as the “toolbox for thinking about things” or the analytical framework for philosophical inquiry and discussion.

This may not be your absolute favorite topic, but it is very important to our Faith and our Mission. In terms of our Faith, we can just reduce our defense of our faith to bumper sticker slogans like the one that said, “Jesus said it. I believe it. That settles it.” While that is funny, and it is true, it is not the basis for any productive discussion. And if we are to be the light of Christ, then we need to be able to be productive in our discussions about our faith. And this is where Catholic Thinking comes in. It is how we approach discussions and inquiries about really any intellectual curiosity. Some things cannot be explained but are only revealed, like the doctrine of the Trinity. But most of the things we believe have a rational or reasonable basis, even if we cannot fully explain them until we meet them in Heaven. And today we will start talking about how we should be thinking and how others we talk with might be thinking. That knowledge will help us be more productive in our conversations with others.

Civilization advances as it develops higher order thinking processes, and Western Civilization draws heavily from Ancient Greece. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were teachers of philosophy in Ancient Greece, and Socrates developed the method for discussing, and Plato and Aristotle each applied that method to come up with slightly different answers.

And there were other important ancient philosophers whose ideas are still relevant today. But we will start with Plato and Aristotle so you can see how a similar concept becomes different depending on how you approach it with your mind.

What we are talking about is how to categorize things and how we know what we know. All the big philosophers tackled that “how do we know?” question, and they came up with different answers. Some philosophies worked well with Christian doctrine, and others did not work so well. We will talk about them all.

First, let’s contrast Plato and Aristotle, who both came right after Socrates. The very simplistic – but it still works – contrast between Plato and Aristotle is how they chose a starting point. Plato started with perfection, and Aristotle started with what we could receive through our five senses. So, Plato was more abstract, and Aristotle was more empirical.

What that means for us is how one approaches the basic question of what something is. For Plato, it is the idea of the thing, which he called the Form. The Form is ultimately unknowable, as it is outside of time and space. From that abstract object he called a Form, he explains how the properties participate in the forms, so that the idea we have of “beautiful” or “black” are properties that participate in the ideal abstract Form Beautiful or Form Black. This is very esoteric, and it is loads of fun for people who like to think about thinking. When we are not interested in it, we call it “navel gazing” and we wonder why it could be in any way useful.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato on the question of what something is. He relied on what we can see, taste, hear, smell, and touch as confirming reality. He said that Things are real, and Things includes abstract things like “black” and “beautiful” but those are just as knowable as physical things like “chair” or “table.”

Aristotle said that Things have an essential aspect, which he called the substantial Form, and they have varied aspects like color, position, and so forth that help differentiate and describe the specific instance of the Thing. He called these the accidental Forms.

So, for Aristotle, there is such a real thing as a chair. It’s really real and not something that participates in an idea, as Plato would argue. For Aristotle, there is something essential that means “chair-ness,” that that something is the substance or Form of the Thing known as “chair.” Whatever it is that makes a chair a chair is the Substantial Form of a chair. And there are accidental forms of a chair that mean it is made of wood or of iron, that it was built with a back and arms or not, that it has four legs or five or six, and so forth through all the various ways one might experience the Thing known as “chair.”

Choosing which framework to think about things will have a major impact on how one examines the world of ideas and thoughts, and it may also have an impact on how one thinks about material things. If one goes the Platonic route, then fuzzy esoteric thoughts that are beyond our grasp are not objectionable but might mean they are better thoughts than the everyday things we can easily experience. If one goes the Aristotelian route, then there may be only one completely abstract Thing from which every other Thing exists. Since everything is real, and since we can trust our common sense and our physical senses for data input, the Aristotelian route implies that we could end up explaining almost every single thing we might consider. For the Platonic side, you have to get your arms around the reality that the real reality is outside our time and space and so we are severely limited in what we can presume to know completely. But we can confidently point to those Forms.

As we saw, Aristotle’s teacher was Plato, but Plato’s teacher was Socrates. And Socrates gave all of us a way to move mentally from something we know to be true – a premise – to a conclusion we can trust is true.

Socrates taught that the terms we use must be clear. We must know what the term means and what it does not mean. For example, when we say “animal” we know that “animal” is different from “vegetable” and we all know what we are talking about. When we say “human” means a “rational animal” we understand that the human is an animal but possessing a characteristic that essentially distinguishes him from all other animals, namely his reasoning ability, or his rationality. Once we all agree on the terms and they are clearly understood, then we can develop statements called premises. And those statements must be true. For example, if we know that Socrates is a human being, and we know that a human being is a rational animal, then we know we cannot say, “Socrates is a dog.” So, our premises must be true. Then we can develop sound arguments from true premises using clear terms to come to solid conclusions.

And there are two ways to come to a conclusion. One is from general statements that we can be sure are true because they come from sound arguments based on true premises using clear terms that are universal terms. For example, the classic deductive argument is:

  • All men are mortal.
  • I am a man.
  • Therefore, I am mortal.

The other approach is to draw from particulars and conclude a generality. This is based on collecting data and extrapolating from the data. This approach is called inductive reasoning and can only lead to probability rather than certainty. For example:

  • Every man I’ve ever known has died.
  • I am a man.
  • Therefore men are mortal.

As you can see, a lot of a good system of logic and logical thinking depends on defining terms. And that pulls us back to Plato and Aristotle, who agreed there were universal terms – Plato calling them Forms and Aristotle calling them Things – that were real and universal. Mortal means something and it always means the same thing and everyone understands what it means and it cannot be redefined as meaning something else.

This last point will come back around later, and it will help explain where we find ourselves today with redefinition of fundamental concepts like sex and marriage. I hope you can see how important it is to think about thinking. And Catholic thinking is not necessarily the predominant way of thinking. It once was, but it is no longer.

So, you can see how important it is to have a solid approach to thinking. And it is important to understand some other ways of thinking, so we can have productive conversations. If we are to be the light of Christ in the world, we have to have a decent sense of how others might think about thinking. Our way might be the best, but it’s not the only way.

Remember that Greek culture was the dominant culture in which the New Testament was established and the gospels and epistles were written. So there are some ways to read and understand Holy Scripture that might be understood differently by a Platonic thinker and an Aristotelian thinker.

For example, in St. Paul’s phrasing, one can understand certain lines as meaning Paul was a Platonic thinker. Now, that might really be a stretch, since Paul identifies himself as a follower of Gamiliel, who was a Jewish rabbi. But perhaps more important, it could mean that readers of Paul’s letter would understand his words differently than if they approached them from a Platonic mind.

We see dimly now as through a mirror really works for a Platonic person, as it suggests that there is a reality beyond our reality. And Paul is sort of saying that, isn’t he? Likewise, when he asks who will rescue me from this body of death, it could mean he saw the physical world as inferior to the ideals of the metaphysical world. That kind of thinking is directly contrary to the Jewish approach that God made the physical world and declared it “good.” But that kind of thinking was prevalent in the New Testament period, and it could lead to distortions like those heresies we discussed in previous sessions. So, Platonic understanding is not sufficient to capture the fullness of Christian theology, but it is profoundly attractive to those who would call themselves intellectuals and want to nterpret the Christian scriptures.

Typology also would be attractive to the Platonic mind. The Red Sea passage is certainly about some Israelites crossing the water safely, but it is more about participating in the ideal Form of baptism. Ideas become the reality, and material things are slightly lower in importance. Likewise with other types we see in Christian theology: Mary as the new Eve and Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant. Authentic Christian theology has a holistic understanding of these types, but you can see how a Platonist might be swayed to focus on what is intellectual and minimize what is physical in a pursuit of what is truly real.

And the early Church was certainly well represented with Platonic thinking, for that was the secular environment. It is this mindset that could lead people to Gnosticism, and it is this mindset that could lead people to dualism, like St. Augustine spending many years as a Manichee who considered the body as of no worth and the soul or spirit as the only thing that truly mattered because it was the only thing that was ultimately real. Passages like Romans 7:24 would look like confirmation of the Manichee view of reality.

Now the three Greeks we have mentioned were not the only schools of philosophical thought that had large numbers of followers. Two others that are important for us as Christians in the modern world were Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Epicurus taught that human beings should pursue happiness, which is the tranquility that comes from peace and an absence of fear. The Stoics, started by a Greek named Zeno in the 3rd century BC and promoted by the Roman named Seneca in the 1st century AD, taught that humans should seek to control their interior reaction to external events and find happiness by conforming themselves to the natural law that ruled where they found themselves.

The Epicureans and Stoics looked differently at the point of moral laws. For the Epicureans, they were judged according to their effectiveness in promoting human happiness. For the Stoics, they were judged on how well they comported with the general law of reason and nature that exists above and behind everything in the world.

The two schools differed on their relationship with the gods. Remember, these are pagan schools of philosophy, so they have multiple gods in their system. The Epicureans dismissed the importance of the gods, and the Stoics took the gods as a given.

Here is a nice table helping to highlight the points of disagreement between the Epicureans and the Stoics. Are virtues merely useful, or are they the highest goods? And what about pleasures? And how do the gods interact with us? And what about attempts to divine things that are above us?

Despite their many differences, the two schools shared a materialistic view. The focus of philosophy – and therefore life – should be us. It is humanity that occupies their inquiries. And another aspect that should be clear is they shared a utilitarian approach to life. After one has determined the most important thing in our lives – pleasure or virtue – then figure out the best way to get that thing.

These two schools began to draw a response from Christian philosophers and theologians as the Church matured. Much of what the Epicureans promoted was directly contrary to Christian teaching, but there was a great deal of the Stoic teaching that could at least be a beginning to a full Christian understanding of the world and our place in it. As you might have heard from another teacher in the parish – you can listen to her on Monday nights in Room 201/202 – the Christians explained there are more than the four cardinal virtues on which the Stoics built their system. The three theological virtues, and the infused cardinal virtues, offer a new framework for human behavior and human thought.

If you look around today, you can see elements of Epicureanism and Stoicism in our modern world. Many people today operate around the pursuit of happiness. It’s a key phrase in our country’s founding document, so perhaps Thomas Jefferson had a bit of Epicurus in him. Christians understand beatitude or blessedness is different from happiness, but our world is no longer predominantly Christian, is it? And that word “happiness” is perhaps a good reminder of the importance of clear and unambiguous terms, as Socrates taught.

There is a certain tone of Stoicism in how we are asked to respond to the coronavirus, if you think about it. We were asked to lock down and to mask up as a way of being virtuous. It was being kind to others. The virtue of kindness was limited to a materialistic view of the human person in this example, but we were told it was the greatest good for the greatest number. Many people think being stoic is nothing more than an ability to suck it up and get through the disappointments of life. Zeno and Seneca might argue it is much more complex than that, but you can see how self-control of Stoicism could get one started on the road to Christian self-denial and picking up our Cross to follow Jesus.

So all these schools of thought are important for Christians today. We cannot have a good conversation with another person if we cannot figure out where they are coming from. And we can no longer assume they share our Christian worldview. And it is inconsistent with gospel values to just write them off as crazy people, even if they write us off that way.

Next week, we will get into how Aristotle got to be so important, and how other schools of thought responded to that dominance of Christian thinking.

Today let us move forward to the high Middle Ages, which is the 1000s the 1300s. This is the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas. And it includes William of Ockham, who was a little bit after St Thomas. These are two important people because they represent two different approaches to the question of whether or not reality includes a real order.

So what do we mean by reality includes a real order? St. Thomas, building on the thought process of Aristotle, believed that one could trust common sense. And he believed that if one started with clear terms and true statements, one could come to a definitive conclusion from a sound argument. This is the deductive reasoning that we talked about previously. St. Thomas believed that the object of our intellect or our intelligence is reality itself. To put that another way, if we properly apply our brains and our intelligence, then we can come to know what really is. And we can trust it. And part of why we can trust it is because it’s orderly. It’s not random.

As a Christian soaked in Scripture, Thomas certainly could look back to the Hebrews of the Old Testament to see that one of their central claims against the pagans was that God made the universe, and he made it in an orderly way, and he made the world to be a place of order. The alternate explanation at the time was that there were many gods who capriciously did this and did that. The Hebrews rejected that understanding of the world because they knew there was only one God. And the creation story that begins our Bible is a story of a creator who makes an orderly world. It is only by human disobedience to the will of the creator that disorder entered the world.

So we can see that Thomas is using the Aristotelian framework and the Aristotelian approach to knowledge and thinking as he considers matters of theology. But in his discussion of matters of theology, he would always go back and ground his argument in Scripture. But there is some circularity to this isn’t there? Thomas assumes that logic is commonsensical. Thomas that things are real. And Thomas assumes that once you have identified a thing, if you think about it hard enough and are careful enough, you can be sure you are describing a universal thing. So you can see how important our thinking framework is to explaining the conclusions we reach.

Thomas also assumed that the reason we are using our human knowledge and our thinking ability is so that we can know what truly is. To put that another way, the object of human knowledge is objective reality. Remember that the subject is the person doing something and the object is the focus or target of the action. That means that objective reality is something that exists outside of any individual subject. For example, Thomas would say that a tree is a tree is a tree is a tree no matter how much you like it or do not like it. It just is. Its existence doesn’t depend on how you or I receive it.

William of Ockham came a few years after Thomas Aquinas. William rejected the idea of a universal thing. He said that there is no universal thing called a tree, but “tree” is just the name we give to this thing and we’ve agreed on it so that we can communicate. Instead of giving each individual tree a separate proper name, we grouped together for our own convenience under the one vague name “tree” all those things that resemble each other in certain ways like having trunks and branches and leaves. But in reality, argued, all trees are different and they are not the same and they’re not one in many which is what Universal means but only many. Do you see the inherent contradiction in this approach? If there’s no such thing as a universal then why do we all agree on what a tree is? But I didn’t bother William. Now, William shared with Thomas the trust in sense perception as the basis for knowledge. He departed from Thomas on the question of universals.

So you can see one fundamental difference between the approach used by Thomas and the approach used by William was whether or not the objective was your focus or the subjective was your focus. Thomas starts from the objective dimension of reality. He would say that a tree is a tree even if you can find countless variations on trees, it doesn’t take away from the universal reality of a tree. William would take the other side. He would say that you’re the one that decides to take the shortcut and call this tree and that tree in the other tree a tree, for your own convenience. And somehow your convenience overlaps with my convenience and everyone else’s convenience so we all use the word tree. But William would say ultimately, it’s our decision. And that reflects the shifting focus among intellectuals at the time from God at the center of our intellectual framework to Man at the center. This is also the time when men like Erasmus step forward with a new concept they call humanism. And humanism is just shifting the focus from God to Man. Culturally, this is also the time of the rise of the nation state. It’s around this time that people begin to identify themselves as French or English and so forth. It’s around this time that our modern languages begin to take shape, and Latin slowly recedes as the common language spoken by all intellectuals.

Now we are going to move forward a few hundred years in history to the age of the Enlightenment. But let’s just take a moment to think about Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who started the great rupture in Western Christianity. You can make a great case that he ended up where he did because he started with the bad philosophy of William of Ockham’s nominalism. Luther was very aware of his feelings, and he suffered emotionally as he considered his fallen, sinful, self. He felt this subjective dimension of reality so strongly, it overwhelmed him and he ended up being unable to be obedient to the Pope. So, a short answer to the question, “What was the cause of the Protestant Reformation?” could be, “Bad Philosophy.”

Rene Descartes is sometimes described as the first modern philosopher. He had a famous statement, “I think therefore I am,” which suggested that he was clearly not in the school of Saint Thomas. And Descartes said we should accept nothing as true which we do not clearly recognize to be so. He recognized that he was thinking, and he concluded he must exist if he can think.

The skepticism of Descartes was taken to a new level by English philosophers, John Locke and David Hume. They argued that the only thing that really matters is sensation – how we receive information through our five senses – because that is the only way we can know anything about nature. Neither Locke nor Hume believed in God, so nature and this world was that existed for them. At best, God was a remote Creator who had no involvement in the affairs of humanity.

For Hume, the object of human knowledge is our own ideas. There is nothing really interesting above or beyond what we can imagine. That becomes superstition and unscientific. And the only way to understand things is through our senses. Since our senses are individual, there are only particular sense-derived truths, so there is never a universal truth we can uncover by our senses alone.

Immanuel Kant followed Hume, but stressed the idea over the object. Even more than Hume, Kant insisted it all about us when it comes to knowing things. We, the knowing subject, determine the known object. We don’t meet reality, we define it.

You can see how the progression from the ancient and mediaeval world of thinking, where mankind found his place in God’s creation and considered everything from that perspective, to the modern world meant the human person became the main thing to think about and the limits of what the human person could conceive were those he could receive through his five senses. The modern world was – and is – very egocentric. God must make himself relevant to us, not the other way around.

The problem of modernism is the problem of relegating God to the back of the bus when in fact he made the bus, the road, and all the people and other things that travel on the road. But it is very seductive, and it became a serious problem for the Catholic Church as the world became more modern and less Christian.

Inside the Catholic Church, ever since the French Revolution, there has been a struggle between the forces of modernism and the forces of traditionalism. One response was to lock the doors tight against the new teachings and insist on memorizing the Summa and other Aquinas writings. Others tried to bring in things they saw happening in the Protestant denominations. And it would go back and forth. Those opposing forces showed up at the Second Vatican Council, and we see them in the Church today.

With that brief survey of intellectual history, we can now turn to the implications for us as we try to be the disciples of Christ in the world today. We should ponder for ourselves on the question of what do we know and what is the source and the object of knowing?

It’s very good to understand the perspective of the people we are talking to. It will inform us on how to preach the good news, and it will help us to know when our missionary activity is simply unlikely to bear any fruit. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he told his disciples to knock the dust off their sandals and go to the next town if their peace was not received.

And these realizations may leave you slightly bewildered. I remember in our diaconate formation program we had classes on preaching. The class was have a guy preach his homily and receive feedback from the teacher and the other guys. One classmate said that I spent a lot of my sermon telling the listener what he should do. And he did not think that was appropriate. And I wondered why else would anyone preach? And so two people of good will can end up looking at the other thinking that he’s crazy, just because we start from different intellectual frameworks.

What is the point of teaching or preaching? Is it to show the listener what truth, beauty, and goodness look like so they can pursue them? That’s probably what St. Thomas would say. Or is it to affirm them in their current situation? We’ve all experienced that kind of sermon at least a few times.

Is there a single truth, or is everything relative? Does everything depend on the individual human person’s ability to sense it, or can things be so even if nobody can touch them or see them? Does objective truth imply conflict?

I think the answer to these three questions is yes, yes, and yes. Yes, there is a single truth. It is Jesus Christ. Everything is relative to Him. Yes, things can be so even if nobody likes them or if nobody can see them. Heaven is real, but nobody has seen it. God’s justice is real, even if people do not like it. And yes, objective truth does imply conflict, for it never moves or changes so all movement toward it or away from it is movement on our part. Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but division. He said he is the way. If he is the way, then my way is either on his way or it is not on his way. That implies stress if not conflict because I tend to want to choose my way.

Those are my answers, but they are not everyone’s answers. I think my answers are rooted in the Bible and the unchanging teaching of the Church. But I live in a world that has no connection with the Bible or the Church, and so do you. We are missionaries to an unchurched people. We face wokeism, which is a combination of near-total ignorance and near-total certitude: they are dumb but do not know it. As the light of Christ, we must love our neighbor, even the woke ones, and out of love we must keep up conversation with our neighbor. We have to do this even when we see they are operating at the deficit of modernism: a godless egocentric framework for philosophy.

This is a tough job, but it is the job God called us to do. It is our path to sainthood, and it might involve some persecution. So get ready for holy battle.

The Model of the Holy Family

Yesterday we celebrated the Incarnation. It is also the Nativity of the Lord. It is a solemn celebration of the mystical reality that God became man, that God, who is the author of all creation, sent himself, his only son in human flesh, to live with us and share our earthly experience. And he came in human flesh finally to redeem us by his sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. So the celebration of Christmas is a celebration of our Heavenly Father’s love for his children.

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Family. Our God loves us so much that he gave us a model on how to live in the state of life that is common to all of us. All of us are somebody’s son or daughter, and so all of us are part of a family.

We all start as a member of a family, though some of us choose another state of life, such as the priesthood or religious life. And some of us lost the family state of life when we became an orphan or a widow or some other disruption in the traditional family arrangement.

In the Holy Family, we have a model for holiness in family life, even if our family has not always reflected that. In Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph, we have examples of what to strive for – as children of parents, as parents of children, and as spouses. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, give us models – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly – of what sonship or motherhood or fatherhood should look like, and we reflect on that today.

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Mary and the Incarnation

The teachings about Mary are ultimately about her Son, Jesus, and December is a great month, full of feasts, to bring our hearts and our minds to the utterly awesome — but difficult — teaching on the Incarnation. And, once we are thinking about the Christian claim that God became Man, there are derivative claims that require some more thinking. The relationship between Jesus and Mary is right at the top of that list. For Marian doctrines often point to the mystery of Jesus: that he is True God and True Man, that he has two natures, that he has two wills, and so much more.

So, let’s just be reminded of some important dates on the Christian calendar in the month of December:

  • Immaculate Conception – December 8
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe – December 12
  • The O Antiphons – December 17-23
  • The Nativity of Our Lord – December 25
  • Holy Family – Sunday after the Nativity
  • Holy Innocents – December 28

In the opening words of the Gospel of John, we read that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John’s gospel is known for its high Christology, which is another way of saying John keeps his listeners and readers aware of Jesus as truly God even as he recounts the stories of his human ministry. It is hard to read John’s gospel and not understand that Jesus is divine. And he makes sure of that right from the very first lines.

In the Creed we recite at Mass, we say, “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This statement of belief, for that’s what a Creed is, says and says again that Jesus was a human person and at the same time a divine person. The incarnation is the word we see describing that reality. Sometimes you will see the word “enfleshment” used as a synonym for incarnation. They mean the same thing.

In the great Christological hymn from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians we have quoted many times already, we read, “[He] emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

These three quotations show us a couple of things. They show us how Scripture and Tradition cooperate in communicating the good news of Jesus Christ. They show us how challenging this doctrine of the incarnation is, and how one might expect the faithful to struggle to understand what it is they are professing in the Creed.

In the passage from St. John, what do we mean by “the Word” and what do we mean by “became flesh?” In the passage from St. Paul, what do we mean by the phrase “being born in the likeness of men?” These terms can mean only one things, right? And yet we remember from the familiar passage in Genesis that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” So, one can fairly ask the question, “If we are made in the image and likeness of God and yet are clearly not God, then why would the same relationship not apply when we use the same phrasing about Jesus being born in the likeness of men?”

These are very good theological questions. They are truly “faith seeking understanding.” Different smart Christian thinkers around the Christian world came up with different understandings. This is not uncommon in scriptural study. We all read books from our subjective understanding of things, right? What is the book “Moby Dick” really about? And that is just a novel. How much more powerful, how much more dangerous, is subjective reading of Holy Scripture. That is why we as the Church find ourselves back with the Ethiopian official, needing someone to interpret the scriptures with true authority. And that is the job of the Church.

Remember that the first few hundred years of the early Church they were routinely persecuted and harassed, sometimes by banishment, sometimes by pogroms, sometimes sporadically, and there were different levels of oppression in different areas of the world. After the Emperor Constantine made Christianity lawful, there was time and room to come together in an ecumenical (worldwide) council to be guided by the Holy Spirit and determine the answers to these questions.

Errors

As we have mentioned in the past, these councils were called in response to one or more issues. The first councils really dealt with errors around the nature of Jesus. And Marian doctrines almost always relate to doctrines about Christ.

We know that the right answer about Jesus is what we say in the Creed. He is fully God and he is fully Man. But it is understandable that faithful Christians tended to pick one of those as dominant in order to make sense of things. Even those we declare these truths of the faith to be mysteries, we are always struggling with them and sometimes go too far and insist they fit in a mental box of our own construction. That is basically what happened, and the early Councils responded to those limitations set by certain factions of believers in the Church.

Docetism was the belief that Jesus was not fully human, but seemed to be so. It was promoted by  Serapion, Patron of Antioch at the end of the 2nd century, based on a non-canonical book called the Gospel of Peter. We can see that this line of thinking makes Jesus fully God but not fully human. It was rejected at the Council of Nicea in 325.

Arianism basically takes the other side, as it claims Jesus was not fully God, but distinct from the Father and begotten in time by the Father. The summary quote attributed to Arians is “there was a time when he was not.” Jesus was perhaps some kind of demigod — a term familiar to that Greek world from the writings of Plato — but he was not actually God. He was not of exactly the same substance as the Father. And the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 insisted that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. There was an effort to smooth the rough edges by saying “a similar substance” but the Fathers of the Council rejected that accommodation and insisted on the orthodox formulation. The creed we recite at Sunday Mass is the creed developed through these two councils.

Ecumenical Councils

Teachings on Jesus have a ripple effect, and they really affect teachings on Mary. The next serious issue faced by the Church was one of Mary’s titles. Remember that at this time, Greek is the universal language, so all our early councils were conducted in Greek and those Greek terms are still with us today.

There was a man from Antioch who was made patriarch of Constantinople, and his name was Nestorius. The Bishop of Constantinople was the court Bishop, since the seat of the Roman Empire at that time was Constantinople, not Rome. He brought with him from Antioch some ideas that did not resonate with the teachings familiar to the people of the capital city. Specifically, Nestorius was accused of teaching that Mary gave birth to the Christ, who then somehow grew into being God. Just as Moses was a man born of a woman before he was made by God the great lawgiver, Mary gave birth to the messiah,  (the Christ), not to God (theotokos).

The Council of Ephesus soundly rejected this idea. Mary was truly the bearer of God, she was the Mother of God. And I suppose if we could hear the emphasis in English we would say Mother of GOD.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe is Patroness of the Americas, so she is not just for Mexicans. But she appeared in Mexico fairly early in the Spanish period. She appeared to a Mexican native and spoke to him in the Aztec language.

The Virgin Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego and once more to his uncle, Juan Bernardino. The first apparition occurred at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac, which later became part of Villa de Guadalupe, in a suburb of Mexico City. The woman, speaking to Juan Diego in his native language, identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “mother of the very true deity”. She asked for a church to be erected at that site in her honor. Based on her words, Juan Diego then sought the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to tell him what had happened. Not unexpectedly, the Archbishop did not believe Diego. Later the same day, Juan Diego again saw the young woman (the second apparition), and she asked him to continue insisting.

The next day, Sunday, December 10, Juan Diego spoke to the Archbishop a second time. The latter instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill and to ask the woman for a truly acceptable, miraculous sign to prove her identity. Later that day, the third apparition occurred when Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac; encountering the same woman, he reported to her the Archbishop’s request for a sign, which she consented to provide on the next day (December 11).

By Monday, December 11, however, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, became ill, which obligated Juan Diego to attend to him. In the very early hours of Tuesday, December 12, Juan Bernardino’s condition having deteriorated overnight, Juan Diego journeyed to Tlatelolco to get a Catholic priest to hear Juan Bernardino’s confession and help minister to him on his deathbed.

To avoid being delayed by the Virgin and ashamed at having failed to meet her on Monday as agreed, Juan Diego chose another route around Tepeyac Hill, yet the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he was going (fourth apparition); Juan Diego explained what had happened and the Virgin gently chided him for not having asked her for her intercession. She assured him that Juan Bernardino had now recovered and told him to gather flowers from the summit of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in the cold of December. Juan Diego obeyed her instruction and he found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming there.

The Virgin arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak, and when Juan Diego opened his cloak later that day before Archbishop Zumárraga, the flowers fell to the floor, revealing on the fabric the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The next day, December 13, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered as the Virgin had assured him, and Juan Bernardino recounted that he also had seen her, at his bedside; that she had instructed him to inform the Archbishop of this apparition and of his miraculous cure; and that she had told him she desired to be known under the title of ‘Guadalupe’.

The Archbishop kept Juan Diego’s mantle, first in his private chapel and then in the church on public display, where it attracted great attention. On December 26, 1531, a procession formed to transfer the miraculous image back to Tepeyac Hill where it was installed in a small, hastily erected chapel. During this procession, the first miracle was performed when a native was mortally wounded in the neck by an arrow shot by accident during some stylized martial displays performed in honor of the Virgin. In great distress, the natives carried him before the Virgin’s image and pleaded for his life. Upon the arrow being withdrawn, the victim fully and immediately recovered.

O Antiphons

You can really enter into the Mary and Jesus connection of December if Evening Prayer is part of your prayer life. Evening Prayer is one of the two hinges of the Daily Office, and at Evening Prayer every night we recite Mary’s great hymn which is known by its first Latin word, the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel tells her she will be the mother of God.

When we recite the Magnificat, we have a little phrase we say before it, and that little phrase is called an “antiphon.” At Evening Prayer on the last seven days of Advent, we use a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in the Old Testament.

We should be familiar with these titles, since we have been singing the English hymn based on them all month: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is those antiphons set to music and in English.

O Sapientia (Wisdom)

O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence.

O Adonai (Lord)

O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him Your Law. Come and with an outstretched arm redeem us!

O Radix Iesse (O Root of Jesse)

O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay.

O clavis David (O Key of David)

O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and no one closes; You close and no one opens. Come, and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O Oriens (O Rising Dawn)

O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O Rex gentium (O King of the Gentiles)

O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save poor Man whom You fashioned out of clay.

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Saviour: Come, and save us, O Lord our God!

Holy Family

On the Sunday after Christmas — so we are in the Octave of Christmas — we celebrate the Holy Family. It is good for us to pray on the family existence Jeus had. He was fully human, like us, and he had an earthly Father and Mother who had the job every Father and Mother have: to take care of their children and raise them in the faith.

The stories we have from Scripture that relate to the Holy Family touch on these two obligations. They do what they are supposed to do to raise the child in the faith, just as today Moms and Dads work to have their children baptized and confirmed. And they learned things about their son along the way, just as we learn about our children and our parents as we move through family life.

Holy Innocents

That week of the Christmas Octave also touches on the cost of being associated with Jesus Christ: the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

The Magi visit Jerusalem to seek guidance as to where the king of the Jews has been born; King Herod directs them to Bethlehem and asks them to return to him and report, but they are warned in a dream and do not do so. The massacre is reported in Gospel of Matthew:

 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Matthew 2:16

This is followed by a reference to and quotation from the Book of Jeremiah: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18).

Incola Ego Sum

Incola ego sum, et apud te peregrinus. “Oh God, I am a stranger, and with you a wanderer.” This verse is from the end of Psalm 39, which was not our Psalm today, but it is an excellent way to begin the season of Advent.

Advent is about the coming of Christ. As we have been reading in the Scriptures for the past few weeks, he will come at the end of time in justice, when he will separate the sheep from the goats. He will gather unto himself those who love him, and those who do not love him he will cast into Gehenna. So Advent is a season to prepare ourselves for that moment at the end of time when Jesus comes in judgment.

Advent is also a season that prepares us for the coming of Christ in human form at Christmas. He came in mercy as a baby to share our human experience. Like us in every way except sin, he came as the Son of Man to take upon himself all our sins and redeem us. He, who is without sin, gave up his life so that we might die to sin.

Continue reading “Incola Ego Sum”

Two Sacraments for Protestants

Non-catholics traditionally only claim two sacraments: baptism and ‘the Lord’s Supper’ because they are the only two instituted by Jesus during his earthly ministry. Marriage existed before Jesus, and his miracle at Cana and his preaching on marriage only clarified and consecrated a pre-existing social institution. Something like that might be the explanation for eliminating Holy Matrimony. But, of course, baptism existed before Jesus permitted John to Baptise him. And Jesus touched many and healed them with his touch. And Jesus forgave sins, which scandalized the Jewish religious leaders. And, at the Last Supper, while he was instituting the Eucharist, Jesus was also instituting the priesthood. So, there seems plenty of Scriptural support for the seven sacraments. Perhaps this is just another thing for Catholics and Protestants to discuss as they seek to return to being the one described by Jesus in his Priestly Prayer to the Father in the Upper Room.

Sacraments of Service

Holy Orders is the means that Christ uses to provide the faithful with true shepherds after His own heart; this Sacrament imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible Sign, and is received only once, but in three degrees: deacon, priest, bishop. The Pope is both a bishop and the leader of all bishops; he is the successor to Saint Peter. By ordination, a bishop becomes a true successor to the first Apostles. The Second Vatican Council teaches that the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred by episcopal consecration, the high priesthood. By virtue of the Holy Spirit, bishops are true and authentic teachers of the faith. They are Christ’s vicars, and the pastoral care of the particular Church (diocese) is entrusted to them.

Priests are ordained to be assistants to the bishops, for they are ordained to be his co-workers, especially in the administration of the sacraments to the faithful. They are pastors of their parishes, overseeing them under the direction of the bishop but acting locally in much the same manner as the bishop does in the diocese. The height of their sacred office is the sacrifice of the Mass, where they act in persona Christi to make present again the unique sacrifice of Christ on the Cross at Calvary.

Deacons assist both bishops and priests; they are appointed to serve the bishop and the priests at the altar, and they serve the faithful in works of mercy, and they are the ordinary minister who proclaims the Gospel at Mass. Ordained persons have a role in the Church that is not given to the laity. Consecrated persons (monks and nuns) are non-ordained members of the laity.

Holy Matrimony is a Sacrament established by Jesus Christ for the benefit and salvation of the husband and wife, and their children. Marriage as a Sacrament differs from ordinary marriage; it is a true source of grace for the spouses, and unites husband and wife in a holy bond before God.True marriage is only between one man and one woman, and only death can break the bond of this Sacrament. Marital relations is a fundamental part of this Sacrament: “May marriage be honorable in every way, and may the marriage bed be immaculate.” (Heb 13:4).

Whereas in most sacraments the priest is the minister of the sacrament, in Holy Matrimony the bride and groom are the ministers. The priest or deacon is there to receive their consent on behalf of the Church.

Just as Holy Orders is a vocation in which the man responds to God’s call to serve his people in a special way, and in doing so he gives up some of the good things of this life, Holy Matrimony is a vocation in which the man and the woman respond to God’s call to serve their spouses in a special way: it is exclusive, and it is permanent, it is a total partnership of life, and they choose freely to enter into that partnership. They pledge before God to be open to life, which is certainly one meaning of the term, “fruitful.” But they are called to be fruitful in other ways, too.

They are called by God, and they are given the grace to be able to respond, to a life of self-sacrifice, of dying to self to glorify God. Most days, they are dying to self in little ways that bring harmony to the marriage, but that habit – once developed – can spread to every other aspect of their lives. Once they learn how to die to self as a husband or a wife, they can do the same as a son, a brother, a co-working, or a friend. The fruit of their witness is that the spirit of the Gospel flows through their daily lives and touches the lives of others.

In this way, they are the light of Christ in the secular world. Going to the grocery store, standing on the sidelines of the soccer game, their joy — rooted in their vocation of Holy Matrimony — can be the joy of the Gospel that a person with no relationship with Jesus might notice and inquire why they have it. Then can begin a conversation and perhaps a conversion.

Sacraments of Healing

We read from the letter of James about how anointing was already established by the time he wrote his letter — sometime in the first century. 

“Is anyone ill among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And a prayer of faith shall save the infirm, and the Lord shall alleviate him. And if he has sins, these shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15).

And we see in the healing miracles of Jesus that he used touch as part of it. That gift of healing was passed on to the Apostles, as we see Peter heal the sick in the Acts of the Apostles. In chapter 3, he is asked for alms by a lame man, and he heals him by calling on the name of Jesus. (Acts 3:6)

Anointing of the Sick anoints chronically ill, sick, injured, or dying persons, offering forgiveness from sin, abundant grace, and healing in body and soul. It came to be called Extreme Unction over the years because it was gradually reserved for those at the point of death. After the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See clarified that this sacramental rite was for those who are seriously ill.

Because there is in the sacrament a forgiveness of sins, only priests and bishops can celebrate it. Consider the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” When challenged by the Pharisees, he says, “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, pick up your mat and go.” (Mt 9:6, Mk 2:10, Lk 5:24) So, even in the sacrament of physical healing, the connection to sin, both actual sins and original sin, is inescapable. We do not contract cancer by our own actual sin, but our physical illness is a result of humanity’s spiritual illness that comes to us from Adam and Eve.

The sacrament of anointing the sick is different from the gift of miraculous healing. God gives that to individuals without regard to their status as clergy or lay, and it is just the power of the Holy Spirit working through his agents.

Viaticum is the traditional Last Rites. When someone is truly at the point of death, a priest will hear their confession, anoint them, and give them the Eucharist as preparation for the end of their natural life and their entry into the afterlife.

Confession is the way Catholics who have sinned grievously can be renewed and restored to a right relationship with God and neighbor. Grievous sins are also called mortal sins because they are serious enough to have separated us from God and his Church. They mean we are spiritually dead. We are back to the place we were before Baptism. Just as Baptism fixes original sin, Confession fixes actual sin.

It is called Confession because a necessary act in the Sacrament is the verbal, audible, confession of the sins for which the penitent is seeking absolution. It is called Reconciliation because it reconciles the penitent to God and the Church.

It involves satisfaction because every sin is a violation of justice, and justice demands recompense or satisfaction for the injury done through sin.

The story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah is a great way for us to think about these elements. What David did was at least threefold. He was not where he was supposed to be as a King for it was the time when kings go to war but he was lounging around the palace instead. He lusted after a beautiful woman he saw bathing, and he committed adultery by sleeping with her even though she was another man’s wife. Then he committed murder in an effort to cover his other crimes when he made sure Uriah was placed where the fighting was most fierce.

The second half of the story highlights elements of a good confession. When the prophet Nathan was sent by God to prick David’s conscience with a story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only sheep, David is contrite. He says “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan says that the “Lord has put away your sin.” There we see absolution. Then Nathan explains that David will spend the rest of his life on a war footing instead of enjoying peace, and the baby will become sick and die. There we see satisfaction. David knows that his sin against Uriah is ultimately a sin against God. But he did harm to not only God but also his neighbor, and so there must be satisfaction towards both God and neighbor.

The priest is the minister of the sacrament, receiving his authority from the Apostles who received it from Jesus. John recounts this in chapter 20, where not did he institute the Eucharist but also the priesthood. And Matthew includes the words Jesus spoke a week after his resurrection when he showed Thomas the wounds in hands and his side. When thinking about the minister, we should never lose sight of the sacrament. God is giving to us his sanctifying grace, and he is using the minister as mediator just as he used angels and prophets to send his word to his people throughout salvation history. When we are confessing our sins, we are confessing to God through his minister, and the minister knows he is just as much of a sinner as we are. But by the authority of his ordination, the minister (the priest) can give us what we seek: absolution of our sins and reconciliation with God and his Church.

At the end of the rite, the priest will invite the penitent to make an act of contrition. The traditional prayer is:

O my God,  I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.

In this prayer, we see the difference between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition, which is also called attrition. When we are sorry because we dread the loss of heaven or the pains of hell, we are imperfectly contrite. It is when we declare that the main offense is to have offended God that we are perfectly contrite. In Psalm 51, which David wrote after Nathan came to him about Bathsheba, it says, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight.” (Ps 51:4) David knows that he has sinned against Uriah by stealing his wife and then having him killed to cover up his other sins. But he knows the greater sin is against God. When we understand that every sin is an injustice to God, then we are already in a better state of contrition.

When the penitent goes into the confessional, he goes understanding that nothing he says will be shared by the priest. He, too, should respect the seal and reveal nothing. But the priest cannot reveal anything to any authority, and this includes hearing somebody confess to a murder. The priest might try to convince the penitent to confess to the police, but he cannot go himself and report what he heard. Any priest who breaks the seal can only receive absolution of that sin from the Holy Father.

Confession forgives any sins committed after Baptism. But if you are not repentant, then you are not forgiven. Only a Bishop or a priest can absolve sins in Confession. An actual mortal sin occurs when one does something that is seriously immoral, with full deliberation and knowledge. A Catholic who has committed a mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion until he has received absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation. To be forgiven, admit your sin in Confession, with true sorrow (regret for sin) and repentance (a turning away from sin, toward the love of God and neighbor). Confession restores the state of salvific grace lost by actual mortal sin.

Indulgences are the term we use to try and capture the mystical reality that the merits of Christ are infinite and were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin. And there is a holy exchange between the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant, as we see when we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us, and when we pray for the souls in Purgatory.

Indulgences are those occasions when the treasury of merits is opened to individual Christians for the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Since justice demands satisfaction for sins, the souls in purgatory are making satisfaction for the sins they committed even though those sins were forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation. When we get to Purgatory, we will be happy because we know we are going to Heaven, but we will be in Purgatory until we have wiped our account clean and are ready to be with Jesus in Heaven. Indulgences are somebody paying part of our tab with some of the merits of the Saints.

You can see how this beautiful sharing could become commercialized by an unscrupulous bishop who needed money and began to permit the exchange of money for indulgences. This is what upset Martin Luther, among other things.

Sacraments of Initiation

Baptism gets its name from the Greek verb to plunge into water, and that is one of the important things about a valid baptism – that it be natural and flowing water. We pour it over the persons’ head, or we put the baby down into the font, but there is always living water involved.

Deacons get to do a lot of baptisms, and in the rite there is a wonderful prayer to bless the water in the font, and that prayer reminds us of the many ways God gave a hint of the sacrament of baptism in stories from the Old Testament. From the creation story to Noah’s ark, and the crossing of the Red Sea and later the Jordan River, God used water as an image of life and freedom from slavery and entry into the promised land.

Baptism forgives all personal sin, takes away original sin, infuses sanctifying grace, and is necessary for salvation. Baptism imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible sign, which is why it can only be received validly once. There is no age restriction on when one can be baptized, from infant to adult. As the gateway into the Church, baptism is necessary to receive the other sacraments. The grace received by baptism may be lost by the commission of an actual mortal sin. So, baptism gives spiritual life, but grave sin leads to spiritual death. And, if we remember from our discussion about Original Sin, baptism is commonsensical: if original sin is true – how else are we to get back into right relationship if we are born outside it? Baptism is our death to sin and rising to new life in Christ, and we see that example clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus told his disciples to offer baptism to everyone; it was basically the last thing he said to them before ascending to his throne in heaven.

Early practice mostly involved adults but certainly infants were baptized. We hear that the house of Cornelius was baptized in the Acts of the Apostles, for example. The practice of baptism evolved after the end of persecutions toward infant baptism. Parents and godparents stand in for the child and make promises on its behalf.

Confirmation makes common sense if we believe the stories of Pentecost and personal conversion recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – Cornelius, St. Peter seeing the Holy Spirit fall on the pagans. That was one of the reasons why he understood Christianity was not just for Jews but for all people who sought to follow Christ. It imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible Sign, and so can only be received validly once. We have seen this with Baptism, and we will see it in other sacraments. Some, like confession and eucharist can be received more than once, but not all of them.

Confirmed persons are called to profess faith in Christ publicly, and to spread the Gospel message, in accord with the ability and circumstances of their life. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. 

To impart the sacrament of Confirmation, it is necessary to lay hands on the confirmandi. This is to impart the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And those gifts are what empowers the confirmed to live a public Christian life. It would be too much without the strengthening of the seal, and the root word for confirmation is strengthening. So, the confirmed Christian is now equipped to go out into the world and spread the love of Christ, to be one of his disciples.

There is a difference of practice between the Eastern and Western Churches in terms of how much time passes between baptism and confirmation. In the East, the priest is the ordinary minister for baptism and confirmation and those are done in a double sacrament in one rite. (And the baby receives first eucharist at the same liturgy.) In the west, the bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament of confirmation, and the practice of having the bishop travel around for confirmations grew out of this understanding. But he can grant the faculty to do confirmations to his priests and in Atlanta he has. That’s why you will see a bishop come to our parish for confirmation but you will also see our priests confirm adults at the Easter Vigil.

The Second Vatican Council declared the Mass to be the source and summit of our faith, and the Mass includes the liturgy of the eucharist as basically the second half of the Mass, from the Offertory through Holy Communion. So, when we talk about the sacrament of the Eucharist we are talking about two things: the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated host, and we are talking about Holy Communion when those who are in the right relationship with Jesus and his Church come and receive his body and blood into their bodies. Remember that when consecrated, the bread and wine of the holy Eucharist becomes literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ, such that all of Christ is present: His human nature and His Divine Nature, united in One Divine Person.

The liturgy of the eucharist is many-faceted, but the fundamental characteristic is it is a sacrifice. It is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. In a mysterious, sacramental, way, that sacrifice on the Cross is made present to us. We do what we do because Jesus told his apostles to do the memorial in remembrance of Him. Part of doing what he commanded is participating in this memorial action with our community.

The Eucharist, or the Real Presence, is just common sense if we believe the words of our Lord in Holy Scripture, or those of St. Paul. Catholics are not doing things that are not biblical despite some claims to the contrary. Acts 2:42 is an excellent summary of the Way of the Apostles and of what we are supposed to do as Christians today: “And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Our Mass is “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And here we are outside of Mass devoting ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching.

There is an excellent teaching series being held here at St. Catherine’s on Monday evenings that is examining the seven cardinal virtues and looking at saints whose lives exemplify those virtues. Justice is one of those virtues, and a definition we get from St. Thomas Aquinas is: “Therefore the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own.” So, what does one render to God? Since he is God and we are not, we offer worship and adoration to God. And the Mass is one of the public, communal, acts of worship and adoration.

I mentioned that Communion is reserved to those who are in right relation with God and his church. It may only be received by baptized Catholics who are not aware of any unconfessed actual mortal sins. It doesn’t work if we are in a state of mortal sin. That is the principal issue of being in right relation with God. But, it is also true that reception of this Sacrament is a sign of unity with other Catholics and with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Faith. So it is reserved to those who believe what the Church teaches to be true. Those who obstinately doubt or deny any of the required beliefs of the Catholic faith should not receive Communion. (cf. Canon Law 751, 1364).

You are probably aware of the habit of a few leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States to announce themselves proudly as Catholics while loudly and persistently supporting wider use of abortion. Abortion is prohibited, and it has been consistently since the first century of the Church, as demonstrated in something called the Didichae (the Teachings of the Apostles) that specifically said, “Practise no magic, sorcery, abortion, or infanticide” as the second teaching in the document. So, a self-professed Catholic who publicly disagrees with a core teaching of the Catholic Church should not be receiving Communion.