Our Lady vs. the Gnostics and Pelagians

The Angel Gabriel from heaven came. He came to Our Lady on March 25. But we couldn’t have Annunciation Day on Palm Sunday. Or during Holy Week, or the Easter Octave. So this year, Mary will give birth on December 25, after only 8 ½ months.

At the Annunciation, the holy Incarnation occurred. Actually, calling the mystery the “holy” Incarnation is redundant, since “Incarnation” means God becoming man, and God is Holiness Itself, of course.

After she conceived the Lord in her womb, the Blessed Mother traveled to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin, and she sang her canticle, the Magnificat. Mary called herself a lowly servant upon whom the Lord had looked with favor, showing the strength of His arm and scattering the proud in their conceit.

Pride gets in the way of our friendship with God. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has identified two forms of pride that lead to heresy. And he asks us to examine our consciences for these dangers.

Gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics called themselves Christians. But they didn’t really believe in the Incarnation or the Church. Instead, they held to what they regarded as their own privileged knowledge of God.

gaudete et exsultateI think this heresy does indeed continue to lurk all over the place. Many people put their own ideas ahead of the teachings of Scripture and the Church.

For instance, statements like: “God is greater than any religion, since religion is something that human beings do.” Okay, true enough. But how about this: “God is greater than that idea—the idea that God is greater than any human religion.” After all, God is in fact so awesomely great and transcendent that He became a man and practiced religion Himself. The religion of Jesus is the true religion, because it is not just a human religion, but is also the work of God.

Pelagianism. The ancient Pelagians thought that they could perfect themselves through their own efforts. They called themselves Christians because they regarded Jesus as their great example. But the Pelagians refused to confront the fundamental fact about human salvation. They refused to acknowledge: without Christ’s grace; without God giving His justice and goodness to us, even though we did not deserve it–we would have no hope. The Pelagians would not acknowledge the utter neediness of the human situation. Therefore they could not really rejoice in the gift that God has given us by sending His Son.

Again I think our Holy Father is absolutely right that this heresy lurks everywhere today: wherever human egos put themselves in the place of God, Who lovingly places on our shoulders not a burden of servitude, but the sweet and gentle yoke of His Son Jesus.

Let’s contemplate Our Lady singing her Magnificat. The angel had demanded that she have faith beyond the limits of human conception. Her prospects for a comfortable life had gotten thrown out the window. The entire course of history would turn on the life of the fruit of her womb. And she would have to go along for the ride, without having any idea ahead of time how it would all unfold.

Yet she sang with solemn, exuberant joy—not about herself, but about the good, merciful Lord. God had drawn her closer to Himself than any human being ever; He had made her the queen of His saints. And she had the rough-and-ready humility to take a mother’s delight in it.

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The Faith

Resurrection tapestry Vatican Museums

We know that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, because it is a verifiable fact of human history.

Let’s look at it this way. When we read the Scriptures during Holy Week, we encounter a number of unfamiliar names. Malchus, the Temple guard who lost an ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon the Cyrenian, who helped Jesus on the way to Golgatha. Clopas, the husband of one of the women at the foot of the cross. Salome, who came to the tomb.

We might wonder why these names appear in the gospels. They appear without explanation. We hardly know anything at all about these individuals; to us they are “just names.” Why did the gospel writers throw those names in?

Simple explanation. Because the gospel writers knew them. St. Mark knew Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome. St. John knew Malchus. The gospel writers knew them personally. And the people for whom the gospel writers took the trouble to write their books—they knew Malchus, Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome, too.

So St. Mark and St. John didn’t explain who Malchus, Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome were for the same reason that I wouldn’t need to explain to you [the English-speaking people of St. Joseph’s parish, Martinsville, Virginia] who Bob Humkey, or John and Joseph Nguyen, are. You already know who they are. See what I mean?

The Holy Gospels put us right in the middle of the original Church–the living, breathing social network of the first Christians. The number of people who saw Jesus after He rose from the dead—not small. Five hundred plus. The number of ancient documents bearing witness to the widespread accounts of His appearances—not a small number of documents. The twenty-seven most reliable ones make up a familiar volume, namely…the New Testament. And there are many other documents attesting to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.

st-peters-sunriseAncient history is not a science in which anything can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But an honest historian of the ancient world would readily acknowledge: The evidence for the fact that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead vastly outweighs any evidence to the contrary. To make the case that He did rise, you can refer to these many documents. To make the case that He didn’t, you need a vivid imagination for conspiracy theories in order to explain away these documents.

So the man rose from the dead. Fact.

What we believe—what we hold by the divine gift of faith—is this: Jesus’ rising from the dead has something to do with us. What makes us Christians is: believing that the mystery of why we exist gets resolved by the fact that this man rose from the dead.

We believe that the mysterious power Who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, and brought us forth into the light of day, and fills our lungs with air, and spreads the stars in the sky for us at night—God. We believe that He has revealed His plan. Namely, that Jesus’ eternal life would be our eternal life. That is our faith.

The New Testament, therefore, offers us two things at the same time. 1) An impressive collection of historical records from the ancient world. 2) The account of how our family began.

A reasonable person can’t doubt that it happened. What we believe, by the grace of God, is that when it happened, it happened to us.

 

The Dead Body

The Body of Christ Dead in the Tomb Hans Holbein

They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with spices, according to the Jewish burial custom. They laid Jesus in the tomb. (John 19:40, 42)

God willed to be laid in a tomb. Sacred Scripture refers to the wounded dead body, taken down from the cross, as “Jesus.” They laid Jesus in the tomb.

We know what happened then. And what didn’t happen.

What happened: Jesus’ body lay quietly in the tomb Friday evening, Friday night, and Saturday. His soul visited the saints of the Old Covenant, who languished in the realm of the dead. Then, during the night, before dawn on Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead, bodily.

What didn’t happen, thank God: Nobody read the poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye that goes, “Don’t stand at my grave and weep, because I am a thousand winds the blow and diamond flints of snow.” No one burned Jesus’ body to ashes. No one put the ashes in an urn on the mantelpiece, or sifted them into necklace pendants and charm bracelets, or scattered them at the beach.

vitruvian-man

The Lord had said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” He spoke of the Temple of His body.

Back in the twentieth century, we had one problem, when it came to funerals. The 20th-century atheist did not believe that the human soul lived on after bodily death. We Christians had to remind the world that our souls are immortal, and the death of the body does not mean the final end of life.

Now, in the 21st century, we have a different problem when people die. The 21st-century pagan does not respect the beauty and integrity of the human body. We Christians have to remind the world that our bodies will rise again.

Our limbs and sinews and musculature; our ribcages, kneecaps, and little fingers; our teeth and glands and earlobes—God formed it all with His masterful hands. He regards the whole thing—head to toe—as immeasurably precious.

As He faced imminent death, did the Lord Jesus take comfort in the idea that His “spirit” would live on in peoples’ memories? Did He regard His teaching and good example as some kind of ‘legacy’ that would endure through the generations?

Hardly. Human memories don’t last very long. If our hope for life beyond death rests solely on the fickle memories of our fellow man, then immortality doesn’t really amount to much.

Nor did the Lord imagine Himself getting absorbed into some kind of cosmic unity when He died. He did not say:

I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight
I am the soft star-shine of the night.

No. Christ gave practical instructions. He said to His disciples: “After I have risen from the dead, I will go before you into Galilee.”

Our Christian reverence for the bodies of the dead began on Good Friday. We read in the Church decree which establishes how Christian funerals should be conducted:

By means of funeral rites, the Church, as a tender mother, not only commends the dead to God but also raises high the hope of Her children and gives witness to Her faith in the future resurrection of all those baptized into Christ.

They lovingly laid Him in the tomb. We Christians do not cast the body aside and then delude ourselves, imagining some kind of purely spiritual triumph over death. No. Christ rose in His body. We believe in the resurrection of the body.

Dos Reyes

Christ mandatum footwashing Holy Thursday

Vemos a Cristo humilde, a los pies de Sus apóstoles. El es nuestro maestro, nuestro Señor, nuestro rey. Entonces, hay que contrastarle al otro rey en aquel entonces, César, el emperador romano.

César reinó sobre el mundo con una magnificiencia como la de un dios. Conquistó a los enemigos y distribuyó sus pertenencias. César tuvo poder–el poder de obligar con armas y castigos atroces. También tuvo belleza física–en la forma de ropa extravagante y obras de arte y arquitectura. Y tuvo placeres–banquetes de la mesa y todos los placeres sensuales.

César ofreció a la gente un constante desfile de entretenimiento en los circos. Ofreció comodidad, placer para los ojos, un estómago lleno, una mente que no se preocupa de dudas misteriosas. Teniendo a César como rey significaba una vida sencilla y testaruda—vida de sumisión, subsistencia, diversión, y de sueño. Con César de rey, siempre hay algo en la tele y una botana que comer. Y no tengo que preocuparme por el significado de la vida.

Por otra parte: Cristo, el Rey humilde. No promete ni un poder terrenal, ni placeres sensuales, ni tranquilidad, ni la euforia brumosa del constante entretenimiento. De veras nos promete en vez una vida dificil— de largas vigilias con los cinturones apretados, siempre lavando los pies de los demás. El nos ofrece una vida de batallas incesantes en contra de nuestras propias inclinaciones malas—y ser malentendidos, poco apreciados, castigados por hacer bien, y odiados por amar la verdad.

Caesar AugustusCristo Rey nos ofrece a Sus seguidores esta vida difícil—difícil y hermosa, y llena de amor verdadero.

Viendo Jesús humilde, a los pies de sus apóstoles, entendemos que no podemos servir a Dios y a la codicia. No podemos vivir por las satisfacciones de este mundo. Este mundo no nos puede ofrecer un hogar verdadero. Solo estamos de pasada. Tenemos nuestra ciudadanía en otro lugar, donde reina el Rey humilde.

Cristo nos da los ojos espirituales para ver más allá de las nubes del cielo. El Reino que deseamos nos espera; Cristo se ha llevado su trono allá. Ahí no hay cobertura celular. No se lo necesita. Todo es bello y verdadero; todo es luz y amor, donde reina Jesús.

Yo exijo todo, dice el Rey humilde. Abandona tus compromisos con una vida mundana. Hínchase, y vive para algo más.

Judas the Petty Thief

Thirty pieces of silver. How much value did those coins have? A safe estimate: $3,000.

A lot to have in your pocket at any given moment. But not much if you think long-term. We read in Scripture that Judas was a thief. But not a grand larcenist. A petty thief.

Did Judas ever really believe in Jesus? How could he not have? He traveled as one of the Lord’s intimate companions for years. He underwent the hardships of their itinerant life together. And Judas saw with his own eyes the wonders Jesus had worked. Healings, exorcisms, feeding the multitude, raising the dead. Judas must have believed, at least for a time, that Jesus is the saving Christ. At the Last Supper, Christ made Judas one of the original priests.

giotto judasBut at some point Judas had lost his faith. He stopped trusting in Jesus’ promises.

Let’s try to sympathize. Judas found himself confronted with a stark either/or, similar to the choice faced by the high priests at Jesus’ trial. Judas had to believe that this man was indeed the diving King of the universe, the Lord of Israel—even though he had no military plans and no apparent thought of any kind of political maneuvers whatsoever. Judas had to believe this man when He consecrated bread and wine as the new Passover sacrament, saying “This is My Body and Blood.”

Christ had drawn Judas so close that the petty larcenist did not have his usual recourse to half-measures. He couldn’t wait and see anymore. He either had to accept that this pilgrimage to Jerusalem would unfold as only the Master could foresee, with a goal that only the Master understood—that is, Judas had to walk beside Christ with total faith—or Judas had to bolt, start over, walk off—with as much cash in his pocket as he could lay his hands on.

Judas made the wrong choice. Yes, Christ demanded total faith during the last Passover pilgrimage to the holy city. But why wouldn’t we trust in Him like that? Why wouldn’t we let Him lead us through the dark mystery of death? Does it make more sense to walk away from this rabbi? Hardly.

Let’s choose to believe, and stay close, and accompany the Christ to the end.

25th Anniversary

Christ Sanhedrin

Lord Jesus was “put on trial,” after a fashion, by those members of the Sanhedrin willing to sit in judgment on Him in the middle of the night. They found Him guilty of blasphemy. [Spanish]

Are you the Son of God?  “I am.  And you will see me at the right hand of the Father, coming in glory.” (Mark 14:62)

The High Priest tore his tunic over these words. And he would have been right to do so, to execrate such blasphemy—had Jesus said something untrue. But it is true. The Nazarene will come in glory at the right hand of the Father. We will all see it, on the great and final day.

Jesus bore witness to the truth of Who He is. God. May we bear fearless witness to this truth, also. Let’s bear witness to it during the week to come. We will celebrate the most-sacred ceremonies of the year this week, the ceremonies that unfold the mysteries of Christ’s divine love. Thursday evening… Friday evening… then Saturday night.

Clovis Baptism St RemiSpeaking of witnesses to Christ: a week from now, we will have some new Catholics. Christ triumphed over the death that He suffered. The grace of His undying life comes to us in the sacraments. The Sacraments of Christian Initiation unite us with the Messiah Who conquered death. Baptism, Confirmation, First Holy Communion. We celebrate these sacraments with our adult catechumens and candidates at the Easter Vigil.

Holy Week means everything to all of us, of course. But for those of us who entered the Church as adults, this week has the additional significance of being our anniversary. Anyone who will keep a first anniversary as a Catholic this year? A second anniversary? A fifth? How about anyone who will celebrate any anniversary of joining the Church on Saturday night? Hands up, please.

It’s a big one for me. Twenty-five years. On Holy Saturday night, 1993, I became a Catholic. I was 22 years old then. Now I’m… So I have a working title for my memoirs. “Growing Old a Catholic.”

May the Lord give us all a prayerful Holy Week. May He fill us with His graces, unto eternal life.

Jesus’ Crime, Revisited

Last week we talked about Jesus’ “crime.” Blasphemy. The Catechism has a section that helps us understand the context, the choice that Jesus’ Jewish judges faced. Either believe in the Incarnation, or condemn this man for blasphemy.

temple-wallCould they have believed? Yes, it would have required enormous openness and humility. But the Lord did not demand blind faith. As we hear Him point out in today’s gospel reading, He had “done the Father’s works.” Works of love, of life; works that began to build a kingdom of complete honesty and justice.

In fact, I think we can say that everything Christ said and did during His pilgrimage had one thing in common. All His miracles, His sublime style of life, His doctrine—even including His harsh denunciations of religious dishonesty—it all had one common center: God wills a good, wholesome, fruitful future for His children. God loves with a Father’s love, but without any of the limitations that human fathers have.

So, yes: For the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to have believed in the Incarnation–a tall order. It reminds me of when I visited the Western Wall, and one of the men there handing out yarmulkes yelled at me and said, “God is not a man!” But what was their alternative? To condemn this man? To death? As the Lord asked, “I have shown you good works. For which of them are you trying to stone me?” Great as the leap of faith would have been for the High Priests, wasn’t it harder to sentence to death a man who had never done anything but love? Love with total honesty and divine power.

The Sanhedrin’s choice not to believe in Christ—along with Judas’ abandonment of his faith in Him, of course—this reality brings us as close to the heart of the mystery of evil as we can get. That defection from the hopeful, spontaneous childlike faith of the children of Israel; that fall into a cynicism and a smallness so constricted that it violently rejected as a culpable blasphemer the One Who had healed, fed, counseled, and lifted up the poor; that spitting on the kind face of the gentle Lamb, the Light of the world—that is the door into the unfathomable malice of Satan. The one who wills to thwart, to crush, to demean the life that God in His goodness has given to us human beings.

May we have the humility to recognize this malice in ourselves! My point here is exactly not to hold up Judas and the Sanhedrin as the bad people, whom we the good can condemn. No. I am doing my level best to demonstrate where it is in us that we find ourselves guilty for the death of the Christ. Where it is in us that we have failed to make the choice that the Sanhedrin could have, and should have, made. To believe in Christ, whole and entire.

Our faith is imperfect. That makes us guilty. May He forgive us! And help us to believe.

Abraham and a March-on-Washington Partnership

us-capitolGod established His alliance with Abraham and promised a wonderful future. Abraham’s faith in that future makes him our father in faith. He willingly left behind everything that was familiar to him, in order to obey God.

Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Christ. The Messiah fulfilled the promises God had made so many centuries before.

So: On the one hand, Abraham’s all-consuming faith, which freed him to pursue the mysterious future God had prepared. On the other hand, the reward of that faith.

Now, what is it? The reward of faith? What can we call it, other than life? The day of Christ = the day of Life. Not toilsome life as we know it now—ephemeral, fleeting, dangerous, burdened by one anxious care after another. No. The life of Christ crucified and risen is life liberated from all these diminishments. Life primordial; life full of promise; endlessly youthful life.

Which brings us to: the youthful spokespeople for this Saturday’s “March for Our Lives.” They paint an evocative picture in their speeches. Where would the lost friends and classmates be now, had they lived?

The students killed in Florida last month would be preparing for mid-term exams. The little children killed in Connecticut in 2012 would be in middle-school. The high-schoolers killed in Colorado back in 1999 would be parents themselves, with their own children in elementary or middle school.

unbornLife. A future. Doesn’t it seem utterly obvious that this March-for-Our-Lives rhetoric could also take into account the other young victims of unjust violence—the little ones who never lived to see the light of day at all?

I myself am just old enough not to have to number the classmates and confreres that I might have had. I was already 1½ by the time Roe v. Wade came down.

But everyone younger than me has to live with the Roe-v.-Wade ghosts. The victims of violence who might have been childhood friends, or co-workers in the first job, or the Mr. or Mrs. Right that you could never find.

Christ came to reward faith with life. Our Gospel is the Gospel of Life. Can’t we imagine a better day, if all the true advocates of life could unite? If we could stand up together for all the innocent victims of violence that could have–and should have–lived to see the sun rise this morning?

Happy Fathers’ Day

st-josephThe holy day of Lord Jesus’ foster father and our parish’s heavenly patron here in Martinsville, Va.

When St. Joseph breathed his last and died, with Jesus at his bedside, was that on March 19? Maybe not, since some ancient books say that Joseph died in July.

When St. Joseph heard the pleas of the starving people of Sicily a thousand years ago, and the saint’s intercession with God won a miraculous rainfall for the island—did the rains come on March 19? Maybe.

Regardless of how this particular day became St. Joseph’s Day, it is Fathers’ Day. In Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Bolivia, Honduras, Liechtenstein, and Andorra.

Baby Jesus did not spring from St. Joseph’s loins. But St. Joseph did save Jesus from Herod’s slaughter; did protect and care for Jesus’ mother; did teach Jesus how to speak, pray, work, and: how to follow the Law of Moses; how to ride a donkey and navigate the road of Palestine; how to show respect for others, how to live a steady life, how to walk uprightly before God.

Our dear Protestant brothers and sisters suspect us Catholics of some kind of funny business when we lavish our prayers and devotion on St. Joseph. After all, Holy Scripture does not record a single word that the man said. But let’s remember:

During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor. His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God… Jesus was obedient to his parents and he increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 531)

God Incarnate was famous for three years of His earthly pilgrimage. He was not famous for the other thirty. How could anyone claim to know Him, without rejoicing in the mystery of His “Hidden-ness” during all that time?

When Bl. Pope Paul VI visited Nazareth in 1964, he said:

The home of Nazareth is the school where we begin to understand the life of Jesus–the school of the Gospel. A lesson of silence.  A lesson on family life.  A lesson of work.