We present a little compendium of our recent homilies about it:
On every page of every letter of St. Paul preserved in the New Testament, we can feel the tension between the fact of his physical removal from his audience and his desire to share what he has with them.
He loves the written word, because it allows him to communicate across the vast Mediterranean. But he hates it, because he would prefer to be there. In most of his letters, St. Paul writes to people he knows well, people he loves, people he would still be with—were it not for the inexorable impulse from above which keeps him moving to spread the kingdom of Christ.
Like all the “books” of the New Testament, St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the inadequacy of written words to convey the Gospel. I & II Corinthians, the canonical gospels, the entire New Testament: really just a beautiful shadow of the immeasurably more beautiful reality to which all these documents testify.
So: our passage from the first reading at Holy Mass today…
The context: I am writing to you again because I wrote before, and yet you still carry on like non-Christians. Yes, my letters have authority. But the real “letter” I want to write is: you Corinthians.
You, acting like members of Jesus’ Body, like redeemed children of eternity. That is the only letter I really want to “write,” and would that I could write it by standing there among you and teaching you in person!
Does St. Paul go on to compare himself to Moses, to the pre-eminent prophet who spoke face-to-face with God and returned to the children of Israel with skin blazing with divine glory? Yes, the Apostle does presume to compare himself to Moses. But only because Christ is Christ. Because Christ is God reconciling to Himself all the sinners who have broken Moses’ holy law.
If Moses’ face shone—if the face of the man who saw God inscribe the Law of justice, in words, shone—then how much more will the face of the Apostle of Christ shine? Christ Who is Justice and Who gives justice to the unjust. Christ the one and altogether true Word of divine love, Who makes all other words sound like gongs and clanging cymbals.
St. Paul wrote with a fire and a zeal, with a sympathy and an insight, that few writers could claim to possess. After all, he wrote as a chosen Apostle of the divine Redeemer, a messenger of Revelation.
But St. Paul would prefer not to write with words on paper. He would prefer face-to-face. Face-to-face with his audience to teach them about coming face-to-face God.
God has visited His people. (Luke 7:16)
God was pleased to reveal His Son. (Galatians 1:15-16)
You may recall that we left a particular question hanging last week. Yes: Almighty God exists. Yes: He has the prerogative of initiating and sustaining a personal relationship with us, by revealing Himself to us. If He exercises this prerogative, then religion ceases to be something that human beings make up. It begins to be a matter of obedience.
For the past month, we have been considering the question: Who do we really trust?
In almost all cases, we do right to insist on some proof of reliability whenever someone tries to claim our attention and credence. But when God speaks, it’s different. The Word of God carries its own proof. God does not mislead; He does not lie. We trust implicitly everything that God says, because God says it. The truth of anything He says dwarfs our minds. If its truth is not clear to us now, it will be eventually. We trust God more than we trust ourselves.
So, in honor of this Year of Faith, let’s clarify this one important point: When we profess our Catholic faith, we do not simply say, ‘God exists.’ In fact, we can deduce that God exists, because it’s the only solidly reasonable explanation for where everything came from.
Far be it from us presumptuously to speculate about the prerogatives that Almighty God has. As we concluded last week, He reigns supreme. His transcendence cannot be doubted. We certainly cannot tell Him His business.
But: we can, and we must, humbly acknowledge certain prerogatives which God indubitably has. We know He has them, because He has, in fact, exercised them.
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.
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?
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.
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.
On the Mediterranean coast, north of the Holy Land, the Phoenicians worshiped the goddess we usually call Venus.
King Solomon, as we read, fell under the sway of a Phoenician woman. He betrayed his god, the God of Israel, the source of all true wisdom.
Then, as we read, the God of Israel visited Phoenicia. The Wisdom of God calmly walked into Venus’ territory. And another Phoenician woman forsook the pagan goddess and believed in Him. She entrusted the well-being of her possessed daughter to the Holy One of Israel, the Christ.
He came to conquer the demons. He came to deliver us from the shadow of evil, false worship, sin. He came to open up the door of truth.
The truth is: God Almighty, the one and only, loves everyone. He wills everyone’s eternal salvation–by the practice of true religion, the religion Jesus Christ brought to the world.
Let’s humble ourselves, entrust our prayers to Christ–like the second Phoenician woman did—and offer the one genuinely worthy sacrifice to God: Jesus Christ, and ourselves united with Him.
God made us in a particular way. He endowed us with some agonizingly exquisite qualities, the qualities that make us who we are. We human persons make the rest of the animal kingdom, the rest of the material universe, look…kind of, well, limited.
Four things about us human beings:
1. We long to know the unknowable infinite power behind everything we see.
2. We eagerly desire uprightness and justice; we desperately want things to be right.
3. We feel impelled to live in a worthy, beautiful way, difficult as it may be to do so.
4. We want the friendship, not just of each other, but of God Himself.
For more than two centuries now, ideologues of a certain stripe have been sounding the death knell of the “primitive superstition” known as religion. But we human beings incorrigibly persist. It appears that we cannot be reformed. We will seek God one way or another. We will not abandon our ancient four-pronged religious quest: to know, to please, to imitate, and to befriend the great Other.