He Definitely Rose from the Dead

Either Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, or he did not. It is either a fact that he did, or it is a fact that he did not.

To prove a statement of fact regarding an event that happened a long time ago, what is necessary is a strongly probable argument, an argument that overwhelms the opposite statement. For example: the statement “Julius Caesar existed” is certain, because it is much more highly probable that Julius Caesar existed than that he did not. The testimony establishing his existence is much stronger than any suggestion that this testimony is unreliable. Therefore, even though you or I have never laid eyes on Julius Caesar, we can say for sure that he did in fact exist.

What testimony establishes that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead? A great deal of testimony, in fact. Most of this testimony is in the New Testament.

Many historians misunderstand what the New Testament is. The New Testament is often categorized as a “religious text”–with no objective historical significance. Now, it is true that the primary author of the New Testament is God. But, in order to understand what God wants to tell us in these books, we must first understand them as human documents.

The New Testament is made up of books written by particular men at particular times. When these men give accounts of events, they provide historical sources, just like any other chronicles. They are to be believed or disbelieved according to the same standards of evidence as any other historical source. The faith teaches us that the human authors were inspired by God and therefore free from error. But is not necessary to believe this in order to conclude that Jesus certainly rose from the dead. It is simply a matter of appreciating what the human authors of the New Testament offer us as historical witnesses. Let’s consider them simply as men writing down accounts of what they saw and heard.

If we consider the human authors of the New Testament in this way, we are left with the following: There are very few events of ancient times that are recorded by as many different historical witnesses as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We have more written testimony about the resurrection of Jesus than we have about any of the Pharaohs of Egypt or many of the well-known historical figures of ancient Greece.

The question, then, is: The men who claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh after He died–were they lying? If a strong case can be made that they were, then their testimony should be disregarded. But in order to demonstrate that someone is lying, it is necessary to show that the liar has something to gain by his lie, because people lie in order to benefit in some way from the deception. Or, if they were not lying, were they simply all deluded?

In the case of the men who wrote that Jesus rose from the dead, there was no benefit to lying. If they were lying, their lie led them to suffer and die. Perhaps one or two people–or even an isolated group of a larger size–might be so deluded as to die for a lie. But the witnesses to the resurrection of Christ are so numerous and diverse–not an isolated cult, but a large group of people, some of whom never met each other–that the “group hysteria” argument is impossible. It simply makes no sense to propose that all these men were willing to suffer and die for something that they knew to be a lie. Therefore, the reasonable conclusion is: Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.

Now, this does not prove that Jesus is God, or that His resurrection means that we, too, have the hope of eternal life. These latter matters are truths of faith; they cannot be proved by historical argument. The ability to believe them is a gift from God.

But the fact that Christ rose from the dead certainly helps us to assent to the Catholic faith in its entirety. That Christ rose from the dead is very strong evidence that His claims about Himself are true: He is the Son of God Who has come to lead His people to heaven by gathering them into His Church.

More Bests

These are being retired. New ones above.

Best View of the City of Washington: Our Lady of Perpetual Help soccer field, 1600 Morris Rd. S.E.
Best Oil Painting of All Time: El Greco Resurrection
Best Late-night Newsman Ever: Ted Koppel
Best Hotel Lobby for Killing Time in Downtown Washington: Renaissance Hotel at Ninth and Eye Sts., N.W.
Best Church in greater Rome: St. Paul Outside the Walls
Best Thoroughgoing Bad-ss in NBA History: Darryl Dawkins
Best Comic Monologue during the closing credits of a movie: Paul Reiser in Diner

King Lear is King

For fifteen years I have unswervingly held that Richard II is Shakespeare’s best play. My reasoning was this:

1. There is not one wasted word in Richard II. Every line of every speech contributes to building up the tragedy.

2. No one has ever defended the idea that kings rule by divine right so beautifully as King Richard does.

3. Even though he comes out of the gate at the beginning of the play as an insufferable, self-deluded madman, Richard winds up winning your sympathy anyway. At first he seems to be fatally flawed by delusions of grandeur, but in fact his grand illusions turn out to be truly noble.

These are really solid reasons for thinking that Richard II is best, and there are more reasons which I could offer. But I have to admit that I was wrong. I was totally wrong. Richard II is not the best.

This change of heart has been building for a couple of years. King Lear has always intrigued me. Harold Bloom, a formidable commentator, does not hesitate to choose King Lear as the best. Two summers ago I finally started to get a real grip on the play, when I watched the 1974 Central Park performance, with Raul Julia as Edmund and James Earl Jones as King Lear.

As I drove down to the seashore for my day off yesterday, I listened to the Arkangel King Lear for the fourth time. It utterly crushed me. I will never be the same.

I have always thought that the opening scene of King Lear has even more drama than Alfred Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. And I would have freely acknowledged years ago that King Lear also does what Richard II does: makes you fall in love with a king who seems insane—who is insane—but who turns out to be the one who really understands things.

The storm scene on the heath, however, has finally conquered me altogether. Don’t get me wrong: it left me breathless before. King Lear raging against the forces of chaos and dissolution, with his Fool under his cloak, is more powerful than all of twentieth-century poetry and philosophy rolled-up together. But yesterday afternoon I felt for the first time the second-part of that scene’s one-two punch: just when you are in the grips of this existential reverie on human solitude, Shakespeare sneaks up and daggers your heart with Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, seeing his beloved father, who has unjustly condemned him.

I am not given to weeping. I have been accused on being machine-like, emotionally austere. I did not, in fact, weep in the car yesterday afternoon. But I was darn close.

Please allow me to reiterate that it has taken me years of effort to attain the appreciation of King Lear that I now have. (I am rather slow…) King Lear is not exactly easy to deal with. But it is worth it! It is worth it! King Lear is best.

Happy to beat these Saints

Santana Moss
Santana Moss

Things were not looking good when I pulled myself away from the t.v. which had been set up in the school auditorium for the Redskins fans in attendance at our parish picnic this afternoon. I had to scoot up to Old St. Mary’s on 5th St., N.W., to run through the ceremonies of the Old Mass with the priest who would be my helpful deacon and masterful guide, Msgr. Charles Pope. On the radio on the way up, Sonny and Sam were getting annoyed after the bad punt which Reggie Bush ran back for a touchdown.

0-2? It’s enough to make a guy blue.

I had to turn off the radio and go into the church. Msgr. Pope and I reviewed everything, and I was starting to get really nervous. The Old Mass is much more difficult to say than the new. Much. Don’t get me wrong: it is wonderful, edifying, prayerful, thoroughly worthwhile…but tricky, tricky business–at least the first time out.

Before I knew it, it was time for me to recollect myself in the sacristy, try to get my head together, put on my vestments, and say some desperate prayers. It had already been a pretty long and hot day, and I had 70 minutes of hard work for the Lord in front of me. It would be nice to get a little boost…

My cellphone quivered briefly in my pocket. Incoming text message from mom: “Rs 29-24. So cool.” Fourth-quarter comeback? Yeah, boy! God is good! Okay, put the cellphone away and put on your maniple.

Everything went okay with the Holy Mass, too. I messed-up a few things, but not so as most people would notice. The other saints helped me to do it right.

“They will look upon Him” (Zechariah 12:10)

Homily for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross

“As the serpent was lifted up in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

In the first reading we heard the account of what happened to the Israelites in the desert. The Lord Jesus referred to this episode in order to explain the mystery of salvation.

The journey the freed slaves had to make from Egypt to the Promised Land was long and hard. It was a trial. The Lord had promised His people that He would provide for them and get them to the land of milk and honey, but He did not “beam” them there like Scottie on the Starship Enterprise—they had to make the long and arduous pilgrimage.

In this way, the journey of the Israelites is an image of human life. God starts us out on the journey to heaven, and He accompanies us the whole way. But most of us have to persevere and bear up under the strain of traveling a long distance. We don’t get beamed-up to heaven until we finish the work the Lord gives us to do here, whatever it may be.

The Israelites did not bear up well under the strain. They grew tired and impatient with God’s plan. Therefore, they were subjected to the attack of poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites were bitten and died. The poison in these snakes is also an image for us: It represents the weakness of our human nature. The poison in us is our propensity to selfishness, pride, self-indulgence, cowardice, and malice. The snakes in the desert would have been harmless if they weren’t poisonous, just as our human nature would not be dangerous to us if Adam and Eve had never fallen. But as it is, our flesh does have poison in it. The poison can strike us and kill us spiritually, which is what happens when you or I commit a mortal sin.

As the Lord Jesus explained it, though, the imagery from the Old Testament reading does not end here by any means—thanks be to God. What did the Lord command Moses to do to heal His people who were poisoned? He ordered Moses to mount a bronze serpent on an upright pole for the people to gaze upon. But the serpent on the pole was not full of poison. It looked like the poisonous serpents which had stung the people. But the bronze serpent was itself perfectly pure and free of poison.

As the Lord Jesus explained to Nicodemus: The mounted bronze serpent–in the image of the poisonous beast but itself free from poison–is the image of the Son of Man sacrificed on the Cross. God hung on the Cross in the likeness of our sinful flesh, even though He was completely free from sin. Those who have looked upon Him without faith saw nothing but a criminal being executed in the notorious Roman way. But those who know Who the Crucified One truly is see something else: We see a perfectly pure and innocent man offering Himself to the Father on our behalf.

Dear brother, dear sister: you and I deserve to be on the cross. For forsaking the truth, for pouring contempt on the weak, for smiling at evil, for distracting ourselves from our duties, for running my brother down behind his back, for putting me, me, me in the center—for these and countless more faults, wrongs, and sins, you and I deserve agony and death. God owes us nothing; all we have is a gift. And we have not been grateful, submissive, and obedient like we should be.

But the man on the Cross was never ungrateful. He was never disobedient; He was never selfish. He was never petty or mean; He never lied or prevaricated—to anyone else or to Himself. He walked in this world with the gentleness of a doe, the deft strength of a lioness protecting her cubs, and the pure beauty of a lark singing.

There has never been one ounce of poison in the flesh of the Son of Man. On the contrary: His humanity oozes healthful medicine. When He walked the earth, it was as if His hands secreted aloes and balms that soothed every wound He touched. The same healing powers flow out from His heavenly Body which He makes present to us on the altar.

Christ made His pilgrimage on earth with perfect abandonment to the will of the Father. He preserved what the Israelites lost in the desert. God was leading them to the Promised Land, but their way there passed through the desert, and they ran out of trust. The Father was leading the Lord Jesus to the Promised Land, too. His way there passed through the Cross. He walked calmly to it. The Lord’s execution did not take Him unawares. He knew and accepted His mission with serenity from the beginning. He had come to suffer our punishment for us, so that we would not have to suffer it.

The purity and innocence of Christ’s obedience to the Father is reflected in the pure and innocent obedience of His saints. Today our Holy Father Pope Benedict has gone on pilgrimage to the place where St. Bernadette humbly and simply obeyed the orders of the heavenly Lady 150 years ago—Lourdes, France.

Pure water flows out from our Lady’s spring in the grotto there, water with the power to cleanse and heal. Lourdes water is an image, too—an image of the cleansing, invigorating spiritual water that flows from the Sacred Heart of the Crucified One. This spiritual water flows out onto all those who gaze upon Him in faith. Let us draw near to the holy altar of Calvary to bathe our souls.

May Hurricane Ike turn out to sea

This prayer worked pretty well last time. May our Lady intercede for her children again.

PRAYER TO OUR LADY OF PROMPT SUCCOR, Patroness of Louisiana

Our Lady of Prompt Succor, ever Virgin Mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, you are most powerful against the enemy of our salvation. The divine promise of a Redeemer was announced right after the sin of our first parents; and you, through your Divine Son, crushed the serpent’s head. Hasten, then, to our help and deliver us from the deceits of Satan. Intercede for us with Jesus that we may always accept God’s graces and be found faithful to Him in our particular states of life. As you once saved our beloved City from ravaging flames and our Country from an invading army, have pity on us and obtain for us protection from hurricanes and all other disasters. (silent pause for individual petitions). Assist us in the many trials which beset our path through life. Watch over the Church and the Pope as they uphold with total fidelity the purity of faith and morals against unremitting opposition. Be to us truly Our Lady of Prompt Succor now and especially at the hour of our death, that we may gain everlasting life through the merits of Jesus Christ Who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen. Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us.

Pope going to Lourdes

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict is in France, and tomorrow he will fly from Paris to Lourdes.  He will visit the sites of St. Bernadette’s life, including the tiny basement in which she lived with her family, and, of course, the grotto where our Lady appeared to her 150 years ago.  Then on Sunday, he will celebrate Holy Mass.

The Pope’s procession through the town of Lourdes will be tomorrow evening, France-time.  I imagine that EWTN will show it live starting 12:30 or so tomorrow afternoon  (If they don’t, I for one will be rather disappointed.)  Then the Mass is on Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m., France-time, which is enormously early here.  (EWTN will probably re-air it later in the day.)

Lourdes is just about the most beautiful, prayerful place I have ever been, and St. Bernadette is one of the most lovable of all the saints.  She had seen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the police and the mayor were against her and publicly dismissed her as a lunatic.  Meanwhile, well-meaning people lined up at the door to her family’s dank basement (usually used as a jail), hoping that Bernadette would bless their rosaries.  She refused, saying:  “What do they want me for?  Women don’t wear the stole.”

Her job was simply to communicate the message that the Lady gave her to communicate.  At the end of her brief and agonizing life, she wrote:  “Blessed be God for making me the stupidest girl in town, because if I were not, the Lady would not have appeared to me.”

The Benefit of the Doubt

St. Ignatius Loyola was a dandy knight and a courtier until he was seriously wounded in a battle. As he lay in bed recuperating, he read the life of Christ and some biographies of saints. He decided to renounce the world and to try to imitate the Lord Jesus in a life of poverty, chastity, and total obedience to God. St. Ignatius went from delusions of grandeur to extreme, almost frightening humility.

St. Ignatius is famous for his “Spiritual Exercises,” a month-long series of meditations which unite the person who makes them with Christ. In order for someone to do the Exercises, he or she needs a guide. The relationship between the person praying and the director is crucial for spiritual success. Profound trust is obviously necessary.

Because this relationship is so important, St. Ignatius spelled out how both parties should approach it. His teaching is a perfect guide for all of us in our dealings with other people:

“That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.” (paragraph 22 of the Spiritual Exercises)

It is much easier to want to do this than to do it, as we know. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt every time is a very demanding discipline. But isn’t it the way that the saints have seen things? Haven’t the saints always been accused of being naïve and obtuse, precisely because they refused to think ill of another person until there was unimpeachable objective evidence? The saints have lived in the so-called “dream world” in which other people always mean well.

At the end of the book of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius gives some practical rules for staying in communion with the Church. One of them is: “What seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.” (paragraph 365).

This extreme case of self-doubt obviously only applies in matters where the Church teaches a solemn doctrine. But the underlying theme is the same as in the rule for giving the benefit of the doubt to the other person. The underlying theme of St. Ignatius’ spiritual life is: I should be quick to doubt myself. My own conclusions must always be put to a rigorous test before I commit myself to them.

I do not claim to be any expert at this. I tend to assume that everyone thinks that I am a big fool, deluded and impossible to understand. In fact, only about 50% of the people I know think this.

Now, there is self-doubt and there is self-doubt. Humbly withholding judgment is good self-doubt. Perpetual fear and trembling is bad self-doubt. This perpetual fear and trembling pretty well describes my first five years as a priest. After all, the responsibilities are frightening, and my capacities are woefully limited. Someday the Lord will ask me to give an account for all the souls that have ever been under my care in any way, and if I have failed any of them, I will have to pay the price for my negligence.

I am not looking for pity here, though. I love being a priest, and in fact I do not tremble at all times. I know that if I do my duty, teach the truth with loving care, and do my best to be kind, then I can hope that I will get to heaven someday, and be with the people I have loved here on earth. Being a priest is fundamentally a matter of duty; the good Lord does not ask His priests to be mind-readers (believe it or not) or rock-stars, or even particularly good politicians. We are just supposed to pray all the time.

May the good Lord give me the grace to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to think that they are right until I know for sure that they are wrong, and to help them in any way I can.

The Spiritually Mediocre and the Wisdom of the Church

Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh

Studying the old Mass reminded me of something that the novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote around 1970. When the Mass was changed, he wrote some letters to the Cardinal Archbishop of London lamenting the novelities.

Waugh objected to the intense insistence on “building community spirit” in the 1970’s Church. He did not like the idea that you had to “participate actively” at the Holy Mass–showing up on time, singing along, shaking hands, etc. His point was: We are not all up to this. We are not all up to sitting in the front of the church. Some of us tend to slip in the back after the singing has already started, and we are not about to fuss with a hymnbook and “join in.” This is our Church, too. There has to be room in the Church of God for the people who sit in the back. The Church shows Her greatest wisdom by knowing how to deal with spiritual mediocrity.

The saints are obviously the ideal. We would all like to be holier; we all can be holier; may it please God that we will all be holier before too long. But in the meantime, the old-time Catholic religion knows how to deal with us. The Church is patient and kind enough never to give up on anyone. She is always there. She gently urges–without shouting and without making impossible demands. She whispers: Go to Confession, show up for Mass, start over.