Sacred Tradition from the Beginning

The conclusion of Genesis narrates how the descendants of Abraham came to leave the Holy Land. In other words, it narrates how our people came to leave the land of Canaan after living there for three generations. One thing makes this particular people unique: we worship the God in Whom Abraham believed. And the conclusion of Genesis recounts this part of our history.

israel-mapIt all began with God revealing Himself to Abraham. Abraham learned something of God’s plans. Much mystery remained. But Abraham learned that the whole world would be blessed through his descendant. This divine revelation established an alliance between God and Abraham’s people.

And we can see in today’s reading at Holy Mass how this alliance continued as a sacred tradition. In other words, from the very beginning, our holy religion has been a matter of handing down divine revelation from one generation to the next.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob was himself the patriarch of a very large family. Jacob would not leave the Promised Land without sacrificing to the God of his father Isaac, Who is the God of Abraham.

We see from what happened that the alliance—the covenant between Abraham’s people and God—this does not preclude new things from happening. God spoke to Jacob at the southern boundary of the Holy Land. God told Jacob to go without fear into Egypt. Your going into Egypt will not break the alliance. In fact, doing so will strengthen it. Your going into Egypt is part of my plan for your people, for the people of Abraham. Thus the Lord directed Jacob at this fateful moment.

So a living sacred tradition does not atrophy a people. Rather, it allows us to move forward through history without losing ourselves in the great ebb and flow of time. Because we have inherited the holy tradition which God inaugurated by speaking to Abraham, we can greet everything that the present sends our way. But we will fall out of alliance with God, and lose ourselves in the process, if we do not always act in accord with the sacred tradition we have inherited.

As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it:

In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. (Dei Verbum 7)

So we rejoice to receive from our fathers the mystery of salvation that belongs to the Church. And because we keep faith with it, we have nothing to fear from whatever comes our way today. We do not face the present alone; we face the events of today as members of the ancient People of God.

Commonsensical Catholic Bible Thumping

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. In Gehenna, the worm does not die. (Mark 9:47-48)

Hmmm…If my hand causes me to sin… If my foot causes me to sin… If my eye causes me to sin… Cut it off. Pluck it out. Hmm…

Limping lefties with eye patches. If we did not read the holy and infallible Word of God with some kind of sober restraint, we would all have to make limping lefties with eye patches out of ourselves.

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God Reveals to His People

The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. (James 3:17)

As you hopefully recall, we have for a few weeks now concerned ourselves with this “wisdom from above,” the supernatural knowledge that we have received from God, Who has revealed Himself to us.

He has revealed Himself in order to save us, in order to give us peace. He has revealed Himself to the deepest part of every individual human heart, the part that responds with the self-abandonment of faith. And He has revealed Himself to a people, the People of God.

The Old Testament has a lot of pages, not all of which make for easy reading. One fact emerges from just about every page, however: God’s designs for fulfilling His loving will require the establishment of a holy community.

With whom did the Creator of heaven and earth make the ancient covenant? With the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a cohesive group, a collection of tribes, a nation, a people. The Bible contains books written by God and books written by Jews, and dang it! if they aren’t the same books.

In the fullness of time, God became a Jew and fulfilled all His mysterious and wonderful old Jewish books. He made a New Covenant by shedding His own Precious Blood for the entire human race. The new Israel, like the old one, lives as a people, as a group, as a holy nation. This new people also has holy books. The newer books are considerably fewer, shorter, and more readable than the old ones.

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Standing on the (written and unwritten) Word

As we have been discussing over the past few weeks, Almighty God has revealed Himself to us by a particular course of events. By words and deeds, which culminated in His personal appearance as a man, God has revealed the divine truth.

The truth that God is love, triune love. The truth that God conquers evil and brings good out of it. The truth that God wills the eternal salvation of every human being.

So the next thing we have to consider is this: God has spoken His Word in Christ. We want to stand on this Word of God, since it alone provides the foundation of truth. How do we do that? How do we stand on God’s Word?

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Opening our Ears, Eyes, and Minds

Ephphatha! (“Be opened!”) –Mark 7:34

How does God open our ears, our eyes, our minds to Himself?

It begins with reality, the existence of something rather than nothing. Nothing is what there would be, if God had not made all that is. Boring? Nothingness would be beyond boring. Super Bowl XXXV was boring. Nothingness would be immeasurably worse.

So: Clue Number One which we have received from God about Himself: The fact that anything exists at all.

But this is just the beginning of how God opens our ears, our eyes, our minds to Himself. The existence of reality, made by God—this actually gives rise to a question or two from us. Okay, Creator: You exist. You made everything. You deserve our praise and gratitude for Your magnificent work. Your infinite unseen power and beauty must be the source of all this. But, may we ask, Why? Why make this universe?

And while we are at this: Why make creatures that can do evil? Why make life so precarious? Why allow all the pain and suffering that we see all around us?

We don’t mean any disrespect when we put questions like this to the Almighty. We don’t necessarily expect answers. But the Lord can hardly begrudge us our honest questions. After all, He made us to be curious creatures. We long to know the truth. Which brings us to the next way in which God opens our ears, our eyes, our minds to Himself.

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Believing the Facts

What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the lord, our God, is to us? (Deuteronomy 4:7)

The Lord Jesus Christ brought true religion to the earth. Religion that ascends to God as He truly is. Religion that also penetrates into the center of our hearts, to our real selves.

True religion = Honest communication with the real God.

Christ Himself practiced this true religion. And Christ Himself is our only means—our only hope, our constant inspiration and guide—for practicing it ourselves.

In honor of the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, we have been considering some parallels between AD 33 and AD 2012. Here’s another:

The world at large seems to labor under a vague and paralyzing misapprehension. The misapprehension that God, the Almighty, the All-Good, the Father of all—the misapprehension that He cannot be known. The cruelly dispiriting misapprehension that He may or may not exist. The altogether confusing misapprehension that each of us is really on his or her own when it comes to learning God’s will for what I am supposed to do—and Good Luck! Because no one can really know that.

The pagan world; the world without Christ; the world into which the Apostles confidently strode forth; the world that waits for us, too: This world has a problem. Somehow or other, the most important thing that ever happened has managed to pass it by.

No wonder, really. The all-important thing happened very quietly. It happened in a little corner of the earth, in an obscure country the size of New Jersey.

Fighting wars to expand your empire, or maximizing your profits, or watching t.v., or playing video games on your smartphone—all these things can get pretty distracting. So it is hardly surprising that the world managed to snooze its way through the most important thing that ever happened.

But, world: Wake up, please! God has not left us to flail after Him blindly. The Lord has not left us to our own devices with the impossible task of trying to know Him without His help.

“Religion” can never be just a matter of us making stuff up, or just following the things that our more-creative forefathers made up. No. God wants us actually to know Him, as He actually is–personally, as a friend.

So He has revealed Himself to us! He has taken very dramatic steps so that we could know all about Him.

Now, admittedly: The steps He has taken to reveal Himself may not exactly be the steps that we think He should have taken. Maybe we think He should reveal Himself by shooting off some fireworks, or by tweeting regularly on His own Twitter feed, or by giving a speech on t.v. and talking to an empty chair.

But God has not done any of these. He has done what He has done.

As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it:

God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind. (Dei Verbum 6)

The talking heads of our contemporary world tend to use the terms “religion” and “faith” as if they referred solely to subjective personal experiences—experiences which bear no necessary relation to facts. According to this way of thinking, my ‘spirituality’ arises from my own unique circumstances. No one can judge the truth or falsity of my faith or my spirituality any more than they could judge my preference for a particular football team or fast-food restaurant as true or false. (Which, by the way, I like McDonalds.)

Anyway, this false contemporary understanding of religion and faith conforms perfectly with the idea that God is too busy, or too distracted, or too aloof, to take the trouble to make Himself known personally to the human race.

Now: Yes, the Catholic faith touches us at great personal, interior depth. There is something utterly unique about every individual person’s relationship with God. Nonetheless, while faith is more personal than anything else, at the same time it also engages us with an objective set of facts—indeed, the most compelling objective facts imaginable. We do not believe in our own experiences. We believe in Jesus Christ, a man who certainly walked the earth at a particular time, in a country about the size of New Jersey. We believe in particular things that happened, by which the truth of God has been revealed.

Our faith is fundamentally an act of submission to this truth, a truth that transcends our mental powers. We submit to a truth which we acknowledge as something more solid than anything else could ever be, a truth immeasurably more solid than our own feeble knowledge and insights.

We believe in Almighty God, Who has revealed Himself to mankind, by words and by deeds. In other words, we believe in Divine Revelation.

More on this over the next few weeks.