Let’s Circumcise “Religious Freedom”

Before we get too excited about jumping on the “Ross Douthat Speaks My Mind!” bandwagon, let’s consider the flip side of the essay he published yesterday.

First of all: Yes. Who could disagree with his points…

1. A thesis in favor of sexual libertinism underlies current goverment attempts to compel religions to abandon their religion.

(We have to abandon our religion by paying for other people’s contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations; German Jews have to abandon their religion by waiting till their boys grow up before circumcizing them; certain chicken joints have to abandon their religion by giving the all-the-cool-people-are-doing-it thumbs-up to ‘gay marriage’…)

2. Why don’t the government agents in question just admit what they really want to accomplish–and quit pretending that they believe in religious freedom, when in fact they obviously don’t? They have their agenda; it makes sense to them; let them just say it, including the (currently unspoken) part: “Your religion is evil because it deprives people of the sexual freedom to which they have a right. Your evilness has no rights. You must be compelled to abandon it. You must concede that everyone has the right to sodomy/fruitless sex at will.”

Okay. Good point, Mr. Douthat. I agree. Truth would be served better if those trying to compel us just admitted all this.

BUT, amigos: I think this knife cuts with both edges. Let advocates of artificial contraception and sodomy speak honestly regarding what they favor.

But let us do likewise. The Lord did not consecrate us as apostles of ‘religious freedom.’ He consecrated us as apostles of His Gospel.

We do not propose “religious freedom.” We propose chastity; we propose that Catholics and non-Catholics alike should abide by our teachings regarding human sexuality. We propose that the one true God has revealed Himself in one Christ, Who founded one Church.

Douthat has it altogether right: The strife we face arises from particular disputed points of morality. Let the other side engage the disputed points forthrightly. But let us engage them forthrightly, too, and not play the lame religious-freedom “victim card.”

If we don’t believe that we are right on the issues themselves, then what are we doing? Why would anyone want to join a church that only asks for space to have a subculture where we ourselves follow our teachings in the privacy of our own ghetto?

The teachings of the Catholic Church are the way to freedom, life, and salvation for every human being. That’s our position. And if we suffer for holding it, it is also our position that such suffering helps our cause more than anything else ever could.

BUT: What about using whatever arguments are politically expedient, in order to save our institutions, which serve so many people?

Okay. If a court case making religious-freedom arguments keeps a hospital from having to close or sell itself to the highest non-Catholic bidder, I am all for it.

But can we sacrifice our mission to propose the imitation of Christ as the true way of life for man–can we sacrifice this, for the sake of political expediency? We happen to have perfectly good and convincing arguments to support all our positions, and none of these arguments require an appeal to the great nebula called “religious freedom.”

Why don’t we just make those arguments? That way, we would actually play to win, rather than just playing defense, hoping for a scoreless tie. (And it would also take us off the hook for defending the practice of cutting the penises of screaming little boys. Let the mohels defend that.)

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The Sacred Liturgy: Local Yokels and Jesus Christ

Okay. Let’s see who has been paying attention. On Sundays so far this year, we have been reading from the Gospel according to Saint …? Mark. Amen.

True or false: The gospel of Mark is the lengthiest, wordiest, most long-winded gospel.

Amen! False. St. Mark wrote the briefest, tersest, most to-the-point gospel. So brief that it does not take an entire year of Sundays to read it. It doesn’t even take a full eleven months of Sundays.

We have an extra month to work with here. We have the golden opportunity to read one of the most pivotal, one of the most fascinating, one of the most illuminating chapters of the entire Bible. This particular chapter also happens to be wicked long—69 verses.

So today we start reading… John 6! Amen.

All four evangelists recount the Baptism of Christ, and all four narrate Holy Week and Easter. Other than that, there is only one episode in the Lord’s life that all four gospels recount, namely…The Feeding of the 5,000!

Not a co-incidence. The Lord revealed His divine intentions on the hillside that evening. God became man in order miraculously to feed the hungry of every time and place, including us. He did some things which have produced the stunningly wonderful effect of providing us with nourishment for immortality. Let us pause to consider what He did, as the Fathers gathered at the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago paused to consider it:

Continue reading “The Sacred Liturgy: Local Yokels and Jesus Christ”

Understanding the Word of the Kingdom. And not.

“The word of the kingdom.”

The Kingdom of God is at hand. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done. The kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God has come to you.

So spake the Son of God. And He tells us: You will bear fruit if you receive the word of the kingdom and understand it.

Understand it. Okay. Sure. No problem. 2 + 2 = 4, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Easy.

Right?

Well, no. If understanding the word of the kingdom means grasping the whole business fully. “Yeah, I’ve got this. The kingdom of God looks just like…umm…ahhh…”

But: Yes, it is easy, if “understanding the word of the kingdom” means:

God speaks. He says His kingdom comes. He speaks true and wills nothing but the best. His kingdom must be awesome and glorious, more so than my meager powers can imagine. He’s asking me to believe in it. I would be a fool not to, because this is God we’re talking about.

I understand that the kingdom in question belongs to God. Not to Robert Griffin III or Mariah Carey or David Cameron.

Therefore, I clearly have no business thinking that I can altogether understand the kingdom of God right now. I could understand the Kingdom of Elton John, and it would not do too much for me. But the kingdom of God? I understand perfectly well that I cannot understand it.

I think that is precisely the kind of non-understanding understanding that the Lord wants.

…PS. Long-time, faithful readers will recall that this ridiculous little weblog began life as a venue for me to jump up and down (verbally) after Team USA won the basketball gold in Beijing.

Four years later: Let’s get fired up again, people!

The Great Project of God’s Grandparents

The great project of life: to avoid attachments to things other than God, so that we keep our eyes open for Him.

The Lord promised Abraham a great inheritance. The Lord espoused the nation of Israel to Himself. As we read, most of God’s people fell away from Him, became preoccupied with things other than Him, got attached to non-divine stuff, faithlessly chasing fleeting distractions.

Fresco of Joachim and Ann by Giotto
But some held on. Some clung to faith. Among the descendants of Abraham, a few always continued the great project of life, which Abraham himself had followed to the end. They believed the promises, and they looked forward to their fulfillment. The faithful remnant of Israel quietly kept the history of the chosen nation moving forward. They married and raised children in little sanctuaries of faith.

Among these nondescript, quiet, prayerful Israelites, the Lord chose two to be His own grandparents. Their flesh and blood would be His flesh and blood. Through their marital embrace, the Lord formed a new Eve to be His Mother. She herself would give birth to God, Anne and Joachim’s grandchild. This immaculate daughter of Israel conceived her child not through natural copulation, but by her nation’s most magnificent and all-encompassing act of faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

…“Blessed are your ears, because they hear. Many prophets and righteous people longed to hear what you hear,” the Lord Jesus says to us.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. How? Because God is good. And because Sts. Joachim and Anne pursued the great project of life to the end, and taught their beautiful daughter to do the same.

God first. Faith first. And the promises come true.

The Divine Waiter

The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. (Matthew 20:28)

A good waiter loses himself in attending to the pleasure of the one he serves. The waiter watches; he anticipates. The skillful waiter attunes himself to his business so deftly that he himself vanishes. He produces results like an invisible man. Glasses don’t go empty; they get filled without anyone noticing. Time to eat? The food sits in front of you. When everyone’s finished, the plates are gone. Crumbs on the table vanish.

The Son of Man came not to sit at table and feast, with His servants waiting on Him. He came to be the waiter. He came to wait at our table.

Christ revealed the truth about God. The Almighty operates like the ultimate invisible waiter. Air to breathe? Sun in the sky? Roof over your head? He keeps the glasses full, and we don’t even see Him. Need a friend? An open door? He takes care of it.

None of this—the cosmos: the sky, the mountains, food, created beauty—none of it is an implement of service for Him. He had perfect happiness before there even was an earth. He offers us everything, without any thought of gaining anything for Himself. He already had it all. All of this is Him serving us.

And how did He reveal this invisible truth? The Creator came as a man to do not His own will, but the will of the One Who sent Him. The Son came not to luxuriate, but to suffer. He came not for His own benefit, but for ours.

Where did the Son of God, the manservant of the human race—where did He find His peace? “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am straitened until it is accomplished.” He found peace only on the Cross. He found peace only in offering Himself for us, in fulfillment of the Father’s plan for the reconciliation of His wayward children.

Now, we could never presume to imitate all of Almighty God’s consummate table-waiting skills. He waits on us better than we could ever wait on anyone else.

But we can take a cue from what He says and from how He does things. And, if we want to be of service as apostles of the Son of Man, trained and sent to serve our brothers and sisters in the world—if we want this, we can learn something from what a serving man is called.

A waiter. If we would serve well, we need first of all to have enough patience to stand and wait. We watch carefully, so as to see clearly what the brother or sister needs. Then we can take care of it quietly, invisibly.

Beautiful Reasonable Unreasonableness

King Lear—the character in the play of the same name—does not make a good first impression. He demands grandiloquent love-speeches from his daughters. When the one honest girl among them refuses to depart from moderation in her address, the rash king disowns her and banishes her from the realm. Then the tragedy that will claim his life—not to mention pretty much every other character’s life, too—begins.

But, although we hardly like the king after this first scene (he banishes his most stalwart knight, too, for telling him the truth, in the same scene), the violently flawed hero winds up making more sense than anyone else by the time the play is over. This fact explains why I adore “King Lear” and would worship it as my god—if it were not for the fact that I worship the actual God.

King Lear demands love, the sweet affection of his daughters—to whom he gave life and (we gather) a lavishly kind upbringing. Now his powers weaken with age. He has loved without measure, giving away all, even foolishly giving away the very governance of his kingdom. He asks—he demands—that he be loved in return, loved without measure: without a calculus of usefulness, without an analysis of whether or not his demands really “ought” to be accommodated. I’m your father. I say I travel with a train of 100 knights. Ergo, you will accommodate 100 knights when I come to visit you, and you will smile and kiss me when I walk in.

Continue reading “Beautiful Reasonable Unreasonableness”

Fifty-Year-Old Electric Moment

When He saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and He began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Fifty years ago this fall, the bishops of the world met together in St. Peter’s Basilica. The first session of the Second Vatican Council. The Council Fathers began by praying, of course. Then they issued a statement to the world, to explain what they were doing. In their “Message to Humanity,” the Pope and Bishops cited a passage from the gospel. Namely, the passage we just heard–about the compassion of the Lord for the poor human sheep without a shepherd.

Now, of course none of us are “old.” But maybe some of us can remember back fifty years. Fifty years might seem like a long time. But not when you “think in centuries,” like the Church does. And spiritual gifts like the Second Vatican Council do not come along very often. Like maybe once every hundred years, on average. Twenty-one ecumenical councils so far, as the 21st century begins.

“He began to teach them many things.”

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Numbers, Hosea, and the Non-Contradictory Contradiction of Sabbath Sacrifice

The Pharisees accused Christ’s disciples of breaking the Sabbath by “reaping” grain on the day of rest.

The Lord’s rebuttal makes two points. The second point follows what might at first seem like an odd, if not self-contradictory, line of reasoning. The conclusion exonerates the disciples completely. They are innocent men.

The Lord first establishes their innocence on the basis of their being hungry. According to the precedent of King David himself, hunger trumped legal considerations.

Christ could have left it at that. St. Mark, in fact, only recorded this first point which the Lord made. But Matthew gives us the second point, the one that seems so mystifying.

The Law of Moses not only allows, but in fact requires priests in the Temple to double their labor on the day of rest, since an extra sacrifice is ordered for the Sabbath.

Then Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea. The Lord declares that He does not desire the sacrifice of burnt offerings.

Okay.

But we can resolve this apparent contradiction by the other assertion that Christ made: “There is something greater than the Temple here.”

In the Temple, priests offered sacrifices to please God. Jews who loved God made pilgrimages to the Temple and offered animals to the priests to sacrifice. To say you are greater than the Temple is to say that you yourself constitute a pleasing offering to God.

A presumptuous thing to say? Certainly would be presumptuous for any humble sinner to say this. Would that I could claim to be a Temple where a pleasing sacrifice is offered to God! But, alas, I am selfish and disobedient, so my soul does not emit a pleasing aroma to heaven.

But the innocent Lamb, Who was never anything other than a Temple of perfect love and obedience, Who offered at every moment of His pilgrim life the sacrifice of undivided devotion: He could claim to be greater than the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Lord did not, in fact, contradict Himself in this second point. God desires mercy. Whose mercy? Well, first and foremost, His own. Mercy begins with God. He was the first to be aggrieved, so He must be the first to forgive. In fact, even before the first act of injustice, the Creator had already shown His infinite mercy by making us out of nothing for no benefit of His, but only for our benefit.

This infinite mercy of God is the perfect sacrifice of His Son. The Son offered Himself on the cross, in an odor of infinite sweetness, not for His sake, but for ours.

We sinners have no worthy sacrifice of our own to offer. We do much better to worry about begging pardon of those we have aggrieved and forgiving and forgetting the offenses we have suffered.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no more Temple, no more priests, no more holy bread, and no more Lord’s Day. No. The Temple is in heaven–and here on earth, wherever people believe in Jesus. The priests offer Christ’s Body and Blood, which is the bread by which we live forever. And the Lord’s Day is the eternal Sabbath that will never end.

Living the Cardfree Life

“Your dead shall live; their corpses shall rise,” declares the prophet Isaiah unto the Lord.

We echo the words of the prophet whenever we profess our holy faith. We say, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead.”

Speaking of which: Summertime can offer us a little extra leisure.

What a perfect opportunity to work on memorizing the new English translation of the Creed!

We can “get off the card,” so to speak.

Break the card habit. Get the Sunday-morning card monkey off our backs. Start living a card-free life. At least at Mass.

A clean, card-free Mass: that’s a healthier Mass.

So let’s spend some summer leisure time working on it. A few reps every day, right before the morning sit-ups and push-ups. Before we know it, we will be impressing all our friends at church with our fluid recitation of the Creed, utterly cardless!

Staff in an Old Man’s Hand

“Father, You have revealed the great mystery to the simple-hearted,” exults the Lord Jesus.

As we gather from reading part of the tenth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord does not take kindly to our self-aggrandizing pride. “Shall the axe boast against him who hews with it?” Or, as the prophet puts it in the 45th chapter: “Woe to anyone who contends with his Maker…Shall the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’”

The tool in the hand of the one who wields it: A perennial analogy in the sayings of prophets and saints. St. Ignatius Loyola, captain of the most successful international organization of the 16th century, wrote that he wanted only to be a “staff in an old man’s hand”—the ‘old man’ being God, of course. Blessed Mother Theresa, captain of one of the most successful international organizations of the 20th century, wrote that she lived solely as “a little bit of pencil with which God wrote.”

Seems to me that this analogy has two salient aspects. One: The task cannot be accomplished without the tool. Every grade-schooler knows that you cannot pass a test without a pencil. You might know all the answers in your mind. But if you can’t write them down? F. Or, as my sixth-grade teacher liked to threaten us: F-. “I will give you an F minus if you don’t find a pencil in 15 seconds!”

So the tool must operate in order for success to be achieved. But: The second salient aspect of the perennial analogy. The one who wields the tool conceives the overall plan and executes it according to his design.

Pencils don’t pass tests. Lumps of clay do not make bowls with their own hands. Walking sticks do not climb mountains. Axes do not build houses. And individual human beings do not control the unfolding of divine Providence.

The great mystery that gladdens the hearts of the child-like: God is God, and I am not. I have a task, which God has given me to do. But it is not my job to run the world.

Or, to put it another famous way: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change for the better the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.