Tag Archives: Jesus

Reflection: September 11

The following reflection is an adaption of one that I composed five years ago on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  I have kept much of what I said five years ago, adjusting some phrases here, adding some thoughts there.  For the most part, however, I have mostly the same thoughts.  It isn’t typical of my reflections, but I feel that readers here will get a lot out of it.

Fourteen years ago.  Fourteen long years ago, an entire lifetime away.  Literally a lifetime.  I teach freshmen in high school, some of whom were not alive fourteen years ago.  I think, often enough, that 2001 was only a short time ago.  Then I think of today’s date, and what happened fourteen years ago, and realize that it was an eternity.

Fourteen years ago.

I was a sophomore in high school, Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA, where I currently teach (cool, right?).  Arlington is just outside of Washington DC, and a lot of the students in my school lived close to the city.  I lived in Maryland and would ride a bus every day, cutting through the city to get to school.

I remember where I was when I first heard the news.  I was sitting in Theology class.  I don’t remember much from that Theology class, but I do remember that it was during second period.  During second period, a voice came over the loud speaker and said, in a very serious voice, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.  That was all they told us.

Oh, I thought, that’s sad for that pilot.  At that point, I thought a personal plane had crashed into the building.  Why are they announcing it?  Maybe it was a relative of a student.  We said a prayer.  I moved on.  I wished I had paid more attention, so that I could remember better what happened that day.  Even though it was only been a short time ago, everything about that day is a blur.  The events that day from second period to the end of school are mixed up and unclear.

Warren H. Carroll said that historians are “the guardians of memory.”  I fancy myself a historian, but when it comes to my own life, I’m a failed one.

All that said, I will try to remember.

By third period, we had confirmation that it was an airliner, not some personal plane, that had crashed, and that there were two reported crashes.  By fourth period, we were watching the news in class, catching a glimpse of endless smoke pouring out of the buildings.  I had never heard of the World Trade Center before that day, and now it was everything.  My little world now seemed to revolve around it.  Every so often, a child was called to go home.  One by one, the classes dwindled.  Schoolwork?  Some of the teachers thought about it, but gave in, and turned on the TVs.  We were slaves to the news reports.  We soon heard about the attack on the Pentagon.  That added a new level of disturbance because we were about eight miles away, not hundreds of miles away in another state.  We sat in class and watched the screen.  Down the first tower fell.  Down it went, as if it were nothing more than a stack of cards.  It fell so quick, so effortlessly.

Through all of this, I had only a vague understanding of what was happening.  I couldn’t shake Pearl Harbor out of my mind.  I knew now how my grandparents had felt, hearing the reports of that attack.  I knew what it was like to witness an America tragedy, to experience the unsure horror of it all.

I remained at school the entire day, then traveled home on the school bus, weaving our way through the chaotic traffic. When I finally got home, I hugged my mom and little sister (it was, after all, her birthday).  We left the news on the rest of the day.  By evening we saw the bombs dropping, we heard President George W. Bush address the nation, and we hoped that everything would be better soon.

And here we are today.  My generation has been defined by that day.  The so-called “Millennium Generation includes all those who were born between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1990s, old enough to witness the 9/11 attacks first hand.  That is our legacy.  I am defined by that day of horror.  And it is true.  Look at the world around us; look at popular culture, at politics, at religion, at international relations.  The events of 9/11 have scared these realms.  Nowhere is safe.  Men have made careers based on the events which unfolded that day.  I’m not referring to our soldiers, though anyone in the military since 9/11 in some way owes their career to the attacks.  I am referring to more vocal men.

Look at the world of Pop Culture.  In movies, we see the career of Michael Moore, director of quite possibly the most influential documentary in recent years, 2002’s Bowling for Columbine.  More has revitalized his career because of the 9/11 attacks. Bowling for Columbine briefly connects the violence that day with the violence in this country’s recent history.  Moore’s follow up film, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), focuses on the attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, particularly by connecting President Bush’s family and Osama bin Laden’s family. It became the highest grossing documentary ever, and has cemented Moore as the documentary filmmaker for the liberal world.  He is loved by some, hated by many, but unless he completely bombs at the box office (his most recently released film, Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), grossed over $14 million domestically), he will continue his rather successful career.

Likewise, the music world has become saturated with anti-President Bush songs, as well as pro-America soldier songs (the latter mostly found on country music stations).  The human struggle in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks bled into the natural disaster which was Hurricane Katrina.  Both were blamed on President Bush and his policies.  One need only listen to the American Idiot album by Green Day or Minutes to Midnight by Linkin Park, to give two examples, to see such anger against the former president.  Would such hatred have arisen without the attacks on the Towers?

Many books and countless news articles have appeared, all because of the attacks and the history afterwards.  It has become the standard, it seems, to hold Bush’s policies following the attacks as wrong, and indeed one should not praise everything he did.  But the anger, the outrage which has persisted these last fourteen years paints America as a country against herself.  Having traveled to Europe, I know that, like us, Europeans get the vast majority of their view of America from popular culture.  Who are Americans?  We are the violent, pill popping, sex crazed monsters which infect movie and television screens.  We are closer to Hell than anyone in Heaven.  This is our national portrait.

But that is not us.  As the true history of our country these last fourteen years shows us, in the soldiers who have fought and died in the Middle East, in the men who have seriously taken charge when the road became rough, in those who remained faithful despite having seen their faith despised, we are not those monsters who inhabit our movies and TVs.  We are better than that.  We are the country that stood against our attackers and fought back.  We are the country that said NO to another force of evil.  We are the country that turned the tragedy of 9/11 into a glimmer of hope.  While we may not have done it as gracefully as one could, we did it.

So it does seem appropriate, then, that such an important event, my generation’s Vietnam, would define us as a nation.  We are strong, we are brave, and we are charitable.  As much as men deny Christ, He informs us, making us the nation we are today.

We run the risk, as any devout Christian can see, of ruining our country.  Many hold it is already ruined, and maybe they are right.  I’m more optimistic.  I think we can have a cultural revolution, a transformation away from the cancer of sin which plagues our country.  It will not happen in a day, nor even in a year.  It will not happen without prayer and fasting, without rejecting that which has become a hallmark of American in the media.  We must seek to fix the broken, rather than setting the broken up as the new normal.  When we are forced to profess our Faith in the shadows, we must produce more spiritual light.  When we are shouted down by hatred, we must sing of Christ love that much louder.  A war wages for America, but it isn’t one of bullets and soldiers, but one of hearts and minds, one of the soul rather than the body.  This blog, in all humility, is my attempt to join that fight for souls.

I am of the Millennium Generation.  I proclaim Christ crucified to a world shaped from the ashes of New York City and Washington D.C.  I use the tools of this world, of my generation, and turn to my brothers and sisters, stretch out my hands and beg for their help.  No man fights alone.  To quote the Christian song “In Christ Alone,”

In Christ alone my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;

This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My Comforter, my All in All,

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

May those who died fourteen years ago today rest in peace.  Amen.

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Question: Why did God become a man?

I’ll get back to the reflections on Laudato Si next week.  This week, I want to answer a reader’s question.  It’s been a while since we looked at a Q&A. 

Ironic, since that’s the original purpose of the blog. . . . 

Anyway, so Marcy asks, “Why would God decide to come to us as one particular gender? It seems like such limiting form for an omnipotent and infinite being. And why male? Assuming heavenly omnipotence, why would he/she/it do something that would make many of his human creations feel so left out, disconnected, disenfranchised, and second-class, especially if said being could know all things and see how such a choice would be used against women? (Or anyone who wasn’t a white male.) (And don’t tell me about virgins and mothers. It doesn’t help.)”

Above: The Sinless One helps the Sinner.

There’s a lot in this question, much of which neither I nor any other human being can answer, since it requires knowing the mind of God.  But I have a feeling that Marcy doesn’t want me to just write “I have no idea” and leave it at that.  So I’ll do my best. 

Let’s first look at the gender of God.  God is pure spirit, meaning He does not have a physical body.  As such, He does not, properly speaking, have a gender, since one’s gender is linked to one’s physical body.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “God transcends the human distinction between the sexes.  He is neither man nor woman: He is God.  He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although He is their origin and standard” (CCC 239).  So God is beyond male and female.   

So why did he reveal Himself as male?  Why not female? 

Remember something very crucial, something too many people who read the Bible forget: God did not give His Revelation to the modern world.  I don’t mean, of course, that He does not speak to us, for He speaks to all ages through His inspired Word.  What I mean is this: the Bible itself was written in a specific historical time by specific historical people.  God spoke to/through these people, and He used images that they would understand.  That does not make what they wrote wrong or anything like that, any more than a parent’s attempt to explain something complicated to a child makes the parent’s explanation wrong.  We all do that, using metaphors to explain what we know, but others don’t understand. 

We see this in the creation story.  It wouldn’t have helped the Israelites understand God’s role in creating if the creation story began, “In the beginning, God formed hydrogen atoms and compressed them into a tiny bundle of atomic energy.  Don’t worry about what atoms are; you won’t be able to detect them for another three thousand years.  And thus the atomic cloud expanded, and the atoms mixed and crashed into each other to form other atoms” and so on and so forth.  It’s hard to understand even today, and we HAVE the technology and science to understand.  In fact, I’m pretty sure my explanation here is lacking in some crucial detail, but hopefully you, kind readers, will move past my poor understanding of astrophysics and see this crucial theological point: God teaches to our level of understanding.  This includes when He teaches about Himself. 

In the ancient world, it was understood that the male of an animal (people included) gave life through sexual intercourse.  To use sort-of philosophical lingo, the woman was a passive receptor to the man’s active fertilization.  Remember that mammalian eggs were not discovered until 1827, and human eggs were not discovered until a century afterwards.  For the majority of human existence, people thought that the seed of the man gave life to the woman’s dormant womb.  Hence the strange phrase “sprung from your loins,” referring to a child of a man.  You see this ancient sexual image in the creation account.  God injects life into the passive world through His Word.  John Paul II draws out this point in one of his reflections which makes up his Theology of the Body (specifically the one on September 12, 1979), noting that Genesis 1 uses terms like “separated” or “placed” when speaking of inanimate objects, but uses the terms “created” and “blessed” when discussing the creation of animals and man.  When God creates living things, He gives them life in a unique way, different from the rest of creation. 

In the ancient world, that makes Him the Father, the source of all life.  In fact, the ancient Israelites called God Father for that exact reason, since He was the source of all that is.  It wasn’t until Christ came that we learned that God is Father in a completely different way: His divine paternity did not begin with His creating time, but rather is from all eternity as the Father of the Divine Son (see CCC 238-242 for a detailed discussion of this point). 

So God revealed Himself as the source of all creation, as Father.  However, He did not limit Himself to only masculine terminology.  We see God compared to a mother several times in the Old Testament.  In Deuteronomy 32:18 we read how Moses reprimanded the Israelites for rejecting God: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you / You forgot the God who gave you birth.”  This quote shows the creative paternity of God (begetting is typically a paternal term in the Old Testament) and an interesting maternal aspect of God, one where God gives birth to the Israelites too; in a sense, it is a double reference to the Israelite’s dependence on God as a son would be dependent on his parents.  The Old Testament prophets likewise draw out the image of God as a mother, usually in reference to animals (Hosea 13:8, in reference to those who embraced pagan worship, reads “I will attack them like a bear robbed of its young, and tear their hearts from their breast; I will devour them on the spot like a lion, as though a wild beast were to rend them”) or to mothers of newborns (Isaiah 49:15 has the important comparison between a neglectful mother and God, that even if mothers forget their babies, or the child in their wombs, God will not forget us, and Isaiah 66:13 sees God comparing Himself to a comforting mother). 

Keep in mind, just as with the references to God’s paternity, we don’t have God saying, “I’m a woman” just as we don’t have Him saying, “I’m a man.”  Also keep in mind that God isn’t saying to the Israelites, “I am a mother,” but is rather saying, “I’m like a mother.”  These are metaphors and analogies.  Analogies are not the same thing as equivocations.  God isn’t equating Himself with a mother goddess, but He is comparing His love to a love which any human can understand, that of a loving mother. 

The best example of Christ comparing Himself to a mother is in the famous passage in Luke 13:34 (the equivalent is found in Matthew 23:37):

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!

Above: Don’t mess with Mama Hen!

Again, we see the image of God as a caring mother who would do great things for the Israelites if they would only follow Him.  But since they won’t, “Behold, your house will be abandoned” (Luke 13:34). 

So God revealed Himself using primarily masculine terms and images, but He also used feminine metaphors to explain other aspects of His divine love. 

So why did God choose to be incarnated as a man instead of a woman, or in a particular gender at all?  The phrasing of Marcy’s question has two alternatives to Christ being incarnated as a man.  On the one hand, Christ could have instead been incarnated as a woman, and such an incarnation could have allayed some of the sexism that has reappeared throughout human history, scandalously among Christians; on the other hand, Christ could have been incarnated as a hermaphrodite, a man-woman, and would theoretically have been “free” from gender roles, more indicative of God’s genderlessness, as discussed above.  Wouldn’t either of those have been better ideas, in the long term? 

Here’s where I stir the controversial gender pot.  From what I can tell, Christ’s Incarnation as a male was not a divine coin flip (“Ok, heads I come as a man, tails as a woman; flip the coin, Gabriel”).  God became a man, not just any human, as an essential aspect of the Incarnation.  I will give three reasons. 

The first reason involves creation.  Remember the point we made about fatherhood in the ancient world seen as the cause of life, planting the seed in the fertile woman.  Now, we know that you need a woman as much as a man to have a baby, but as pointed above, as far as the creation of the world is concerned, only one source was needed: God.  God made everything out of nothing (hence the earlier biblical language of God as father and mother, even though God has no passiveness in Him), so He is the only source of creation. 

We need to keep this in mind when discussing Christ.  Christ’s coming is a new creation.  He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:3).  These phrases are reminiscent of the creating Father from Genesis.  In coming Christ does not create a new physical world.  Rather, He gives us new spiritual life.  He is the source of that life, just as God is the source of life in the original creation.  To emphasize this connection, it was more appropriate for God to be incarnated as a man.

The second reason is the historical context of the Incarnation, “the fullness of time” in St. Paul’s words to the Galatians (Gal. 4:4).  Christians reflecting on the historical context of the Incarnation, from earlier writers like St. Paul and St. Augustine, to modern writers like Warren H. Carroll and Brennan Pursell, note that the time of Christ’s Incarnation was really a great moment for God to become man.  The known world was “at peace” in the Pax Romana of Caesar Augustus; Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had fertilized the intellectual world with discussions of existence, truth, and the immaterial world, ideas that had been spread through the conquests of Alexander the Great; Hebrew priests prayed and sought purification in preparation for the coming Messiah, understanding that soon the prophecies of Daniel and Malachi were coming true.  These three cultures, the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, paved the way for the coming of Christ, and provided the historical context for the Incarnation. 

This historical context provides a key to why God became incarnate as a man.  Few would argue against the fact that the early Roman Empire was a man’s world.  In fact, one of the reasons some Romans avoided Christianity was because Christians taught that men and women were to be treated with equal respect.  For the Hebrews, the testimony of women was often dismissed in court.  These two points are crucial for understanding why God came as a man.  If He had come as a woman, both the Romans and the Hebrews would have rejected His (Her) preaching out of hand, simply based on gender.  By coming as a man, Christ gives weight to his teaching, touching the hearts of those who otherwise would not listen.  Crowds of thousands gather to listen to Him speak; they wouldn’t gather if He had been a She.  In a similar way, Christ as a hermaphrodite might have done more harm than good, as such a figure would not command respect, perhaps less than a female Christ would.

Why did He come as a man?  To get His Gospel spread throughout the world so that everyone could be saved, especially the marginalized women of antiquity.  The love of Christ extends to all men and women.   

The third reason involves the coming of the Messiah, as far as the Israelites were concerned.  The Messiah was to come as a fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the Davidic kings of old.  God promised David that his kingdom would last forever (see 2 Samuel 7); the Messiah would be the heir of David’s throne, a son of David.  Likewise, the Messiah was expected, somehow, to right the wrongs of Israel.  Christ did this in an extraordinary way, by taking on the role of the New Adam (see Romans 5), atoning for Original Sin just as Adam was responsible for causing Original Sin (if you ever come across someone who blames Eve for the Eden issue, tell them to read the WHOLE Bible.  Even though Eve was partly to blame for disobeying God, Adam ALWAYS carries the most weight for the sin). 

The masculine aspect of Christ’s Incarnation did not stop Christ from using women as his evangelists.  One needs to look no further than Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well (John 4) and how she evangelized her entire village.  We can see among Christ’s early followers a lot of women, albeit not among the Twelve Apostles, but certainly among those who helped with the early Church and who listened to Jesus (remember the story of Martha and Mary?  I wrote more about that earlierOf course, there is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who holds a place in the Church higher than any other saint. 

The most basic answer to all of this, to why God came as a man, and why we refer to God in masculine pronouns and titles, is that God wanted it that way.  Remember something so crucial, so neglected in our day: we are not God.  While we can theorize what could have happened, or why something happened one way versus another way, we have to keep in mind that things happen for a reason.  God came as a man for a reason.  Perhaps His reasons were none of the ones listed above, and my entire post has been a poor attempt on the part of a finite man to rationalize the actions of the infinite God. 

One final point.  This whole question centers on the issue of God limiting Himself in the Incarnation to one gender.  In a sense, this issue falls into a classic idiom, missing the forest for the trees.  Yes, by coming as one gender or another, God limited the physical body of the Incarnate Word.  However, we must remember that the Incarnation itself was God, in a sense, limiting Himself.  As that early Christian hymn recorded in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians states, Jesus Christ,

though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. 

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness;

and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself,

becoming obedient to death,

even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

and bestowed on him the name

that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that

Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:6-11)

The Incarnation shows the deep humility of God, for in emptying Himself of His divine splendor, by coming as one of us, He allows us to come to Him in a way we could not before.  Adam sinned by trying to make himself a god.  God rectifies what he did by making Himself man, with all his physical limits. 

I hope this long answer actually answers your question, Marcy.  If not, feel free to refine your question in the comment box below.  Actually, everyone else, be sure to comment on the post with questions and thoughts, to further the discussion. 

For Further Reading:

Brumley, Mark “Does the Bible Support the Feminist God/Dess?”  https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/jp2tb2.htm

John Paul II, “Biblical Account of Creation Analyzed” Delivered 12 September 1979.  https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/jp2tb2.htm

I also go more into the nature of God in my second Reflection on the first part of the Creed.  

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A Quick Update

It’s been a rather busy. . . several months since the last real post.  Sorry about that.

I feel like I apologize too often, since Apologetics isn’t about apologizing.  😀

If you’re interested, I was recently published on Catholic Exchange’s website.  Go check them out.  They love some traffic and I would love my readers to help them out.  Also, you’ll probably find SOMETHING there you’d like to read (they cover everything and anything Catholic).  Its a good resource too.

Anyway, here’s the link to the reflection I wrote.  It was a reflection that I originally wrote for the boys senior retreat at the high school where I teach.  Due to time restraints, I wasn’t able to give the reflection then.  Fast forward a couple months, and I still had the reflection, still ungiven.  So I polished it up, added a couple ideas here and there, and had by beautiful and fantastic wife read over it (she’s my go-to editor).  Then I shopped around, and Catholic Exchange said they would publish it.  And so, TA-DA!

As Lent draws to a close, take time to reflect on what Christ has done in your life and how he has prepared the way for you salvation.  Now is as good a time as ever to read or re-read the stories from salvation history.  Now is a very appropriate time, to paraphrase St. Paul.

And as always, send in your questions.

God bless,

Matthew B. Rose

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Reflection: Christmas is Coming

CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!!

Admit it.  Even grumpy, anti-Christian atheists deep down love Christmas.  There’s just something beautiful and joyful about this time of year.  Songs, lights, smiles, gifts, love, all swirling around the greatest event of human history (the Incarnation of our Lord) like a snow shower.  It is precisely this joy, this expectation of Christmas that fuels the season of Advent.

But Advent is a season of penance, of confessing our sins and fixing our lives.  It’s like Lent, but shorter.  Brevity, of course, does not mean less important, especially with liturgical seasons.  Just as we prepare for Easter by prayer and fasting, so also we prepare for Christmas by a similar method of prayer and fasting.

But isn’t penance and fasting, like, the opposite of joy?

NOPE!

Ever made someone feel bad?  I don’t just mean hurt the person’s feelings.  I mean really made the person so upset that he (or she) didn’t want to talk to you, as if you were nothing to each other.  Remember that feeling of separation, that gulf between you and the other?  If you truly cherish that person, you will do pretty  much anything for him/her.  You would beg him (or her) to welcome you back into his/her life, make “I’m sorry” your personal refrain, even giving up something you love for the sake of the reunion.  So it is with Advent.  We have separated ourselves from God by our sins and our selfishness.  We have done worse things to God than to any of our friends or spouses or anyone else we know.  But He comes to us.  He wants us to meet Him.  He comes through the liturgical seasons, and with great joy we await His second coming by celebrating His first arrival.  There is a joy in the expectation, and just as there is that hint of joy, that hope for celebration in reconciling with a loved one, so also there is a more complete joy in our preparation for Christmas.

Want to delve more into this joyful season of Advent and Christmas?  Scott Hahn, one of the greatest American Catholic writers and speakers, has a new book out, Joy to the World, which delves into the Christmas story and how we can draw deeper into the Christmas mystery.

It’s part scholarly analysis, part meditation on the stories and heroes of that first Christmas.  I watched a recent interview with Dr. Hahn on EWTN Live wherein he emphasizes this idea of joy in waiting for Christ, this joy in preparing for Christmas through Advent.  Give the book a whirl and, if you want, buy it (or any of his books!).  It’s on my Christmas list.

And if you have any questions about anything, send them along.

Happy Advent!

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Updates and Apologies

First the Apology.  I’m sorry that it has been so long since I’ve posted last.  It has been a very busy 2014.  I hope and pray that everyone has been having a fruitful Lent.

 

First, some personal news.  Part of the reason I’ve been away from the blog is that my wife is pregnant with our first child (she is due on Good Friday) and I’ve been going with her to birthing classes, doctor’s appointments, and helping her at home.  She’s my editor, so when she’s busy, posts don’t get edited (ones like this one are posted without her reading it first, so you should almost expect errors in here).  Don’t worry though.  I’ll have a post up before the end of the month.

 

The other reasons I’ve been lax in posting  are not as exciting as a baby, but they are still pretty exciting.  A friend of mine has started an online Catholic magazine called Know, Love, and Serve Magazine.  I’ve become a regular columnist for the site.  Two parts of a series I’m writing about authority in the Church are already on the website.  There’s some other good stuff there, so check it out!

 

Also, a recent story of mine was posted on Catholiclane.com.  This isn’t the first creative work the site has posted of mine, and hopefully it won’t be the last.  I have also submitted the story to Tuscany Press for its annual Tuscany Prize.

 

I was also a recent guest for an episode of At the Movies with the Roomies, a podcast co-hosted by my cousin Robert Hay Jr.  The episode dealt with Biblical movies and it sparked a pretty good conversation.   Give it a listen, when you get the chance.

 

Finally, I have also been volunteering as an audio editor with the Institute of Catholic Culture.   I’m currently working on editing a talk on the Book of Lamentations.

 

So there you have it, a short, link-heavy list of my 2014 so far.  As always, please send in your questions.

 

God bless!

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Reflection: Come, Redeemer of the Earth

Today is the feast of St. Ambrose, a Doctor of the Church.  His is an exciting life included a whirlwind conversion (from catechumen to bishop in one week), a confrontation with the Roman Emperor Theodosis, and writing some of the Church’s most beautiful reflections on Christ, often in response to Arian heretics.  Ambrose was also the composer of several awesome prayers and hymns, including the subject of this post, “Veni, Redemptor Gentium,” more commonly heard today as the Advent song “Savior of the Nations Come.”  “Savior of the Nations Come” is a sort of third-generation translation from Ambrose’s Latin original.  Martin Luther (of Protestant Revolution fame) translated it into German from Latin (“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”). The German  was translated into English by William Reynolds in the mid-1800s.  It remains a staple in Lutheran Advent liturgies today, and is also included in various traditional Catholic hymnals.  

 

I first heard the song a few years ago while teaching at a Catholic parish school in Maryland.  It stayed with me, and I decided that I wanted to find the original Ambrosian verses.  I did, and later translated them from Latin into English on my first blog, Ibidem.  

 

I am republishing the translation here, for your reflection.  I have included Ambrose’s original Latin, as well as my verse translation.  I have tried to keep up a rhyme scheme, but loose it every so often.  

 

I pray that, this Advent, we might all draw closer to the Savior of the World.  

 

LATIN

Veni, redemptor gentium,

ostende partum Virginis;

miretur omne saeculum:

talis decet partus Deum.

Non ex virili semine,

sed mystico spiramine

Verbum Dei factum est caro

fructusque ventris floruit.

Alvus tumescit Virginis,

claustrum pudoris permanet,

vexilla virtutum micant,

versatur in templo Deus.

Procedat e thalamo suo,

pudoris aula regia,

geminae gigas substantiae

alacris ut currat viam.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,

carnis tropaeo cingere,

infirma nostri corporis

virtute firmans perpeti.

 

Praesepe iam fulget tuum

lumenque nox spirat novum,

quod nulla nox interpolet

fideque iugi luceat.

 

Sit, Christe, rex piissime,

tibi Patrique gloria

cum Spiritu Paraclito,

in sempiterna saecula. Amen.

 

 

ENGLISH

Come now, Redeemer of the Earth,

Reveal to us the Virgin’s birth;

Every age is thus amazed:

so fit a birth our God has made.

 

Not though a man’s conception,

But by mystic exhalation

The Word of God is thus made flesh

And in a womb, fruit prosperous.

 

Virgin’s womb so soon expanded,

Her monkish modesty defended,

The banner of the angels fluttered,

In this temple God thus abided.

 

She proceeded from her chamber,

Modest palace of the queen mother,

A giant thus with natures two

Eager to run his course right through.

 

Equal to the eternal Father,

Girded in the fleshy armor,

In the weakness of our bodies

Strength in all the virtues lasting.

 

Now your crib still shines as bright

And newer light blows in the night,

for no night can falsify

what faithful faith can clarify.

 

Thus, Christ, most faithful king,

To you and the Father, glory we sing,

With the Spirit, the Paraclete,

In eternal eternity, complete. AMEN!

 

 

For Further Reading: 

 

John P. Bequette, “St. Ambrose of Milan” – Article about St. Ambrose and his importance in the Church.

 

http://www.hymnary.org/hymn/PsH/336 – Provides a fascinating history of the song and those who have translated it, as well as the musical notation used for it.

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Question: God of the Old vs. God of the New?

And we’re back!

Sheila (who blogs at http://agiftuniverse.blogspot.com/) asks: “Why is the God of the Old Testament so different from the God of the New? One minute it’s the flood, fire and brimstone, and the next it’s ‘God does not desire the death of the wicked.’ One minute it’s ‘sacrifice these animals in this way,’ and the next it’s ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”

This is a question which troubled the Church in the early days.  It boils down to the apparent contradiction between the harshness of God in the Old Testament and the gentleness and love of Jesus in the New Testament.  Jesus is supposed to be God, right?  Well, then why does He pretty much contradict what God said to the Israelites?

There are three basic ways of approaching this question.

The first is that the Old Testament and the New Testament tell the story of two different gods, one harsh and evil (that would be the Old Testament) and one good (Jesus in the New Testament).  This was the belief of the Gnostics, whom we’ve discussed before.  Typical monotheists don’t like the idea of having two co-eternal, equally powerful deities, one pure good, the other pure evil.  Besides, Gnostics had a whole bunch of other beliefs that made their argument rather unpleasant.  As discussed in the post on Gnostics and my reflections on the phrase “I believe in one God” from the Creed, belief in multiple gods doesn’t work.  So we don’t have two gods fighting.

The second idea is worse than the first.  There isn’t agreement between the two parts of the Bible on the most important point, that of the nature of God.  How, then, can we trust the Bible?  We can’t.  Therefore, it’s a bunch of [insert preferred insulting word].  While we’re at it, we can’t even know if God exists.  He must not, since if God did exist, and was good, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.  God must be made up.

Clearly this idea has problems too, the main one being that it rejects the existence of God.  While we don’t have time to get into the arguments for the existence of God, let’s leave it at this: Something can’t come from nothing.  This is discussed in greater detail in my earlier post on belief in God, mentioned above.  Its one thing to read the Bible and decide that God is mean, cruel, and terrifying; it’s another to claim it is entirely made up.  Many of the arguments that Jews and Christians invented God stem from the arguers preconceived ideas that all religions are inventions of people.  The widespread use of this argument is surprising, since it’s hard to argue using a source (the Bible) that the arguer has claimed to be unreliable.

But there is a better way. . .

The third idea is that maybe, just maybe, we need to look at the Bible as a WHOLE, searching for points of continuity rather than disunity.  When that happens, a remarkable image appears.  God is not a vicious “god monster,” as one atheist wrote; rather, He is a loving parent, a loving Father, wanting the best for His children.

Let’s start with the Old Testament.

We first meet God in the first verse of Genesis, the first book in the Bible: “In the beginning, when God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).  God is Creator, and in the course of creation makes everything good.  The first Creation account uses the statement “God saw that it was good” as a refrain, showing that ALL of creation, mankind especially, is good.  Thus God creates everything.  Why did He create?  Not because He was lonely, but out of love, for it is better to exist than not exist.  In that sense, because He created all things and is the origin of all that is good and whole, God is called Father.

The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of God as Father to the human race.  Like any father, God faces rebellious children.  This rebellion started with Adam and Eve, the first humans, who rejected God’s instruction to avoid eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (on a related, though not strictly theological note, the comedian Bill Cosby has a hilarious standup routine where he compares the Fall of Adam and Eve to “brain-damaged” children).  From then on, God had to play that most unfortunate role of parents: Disciplinarian.  Now, I don’t have children yet, but I do teach them (or at least teenagers, who are sometimes more childish than children), and I hate having to be the disciplinarian.  You tell students to do something, and to avoid doing this other thing, and before you know, they have done the very thing you told them not to do, and have somehow forgotten what they were supposed to do.  So it was with the people of God.

Trace the story of Salvation History and you can see this.  Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and have two sons: Cain and Abel.  Both are supposed to offer sacrifice to God, and they do, but Cain’s is half-hearted; without giving his heart to God, his sacrifice is moot.  When God prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s (Abel was righteous, and therefore gave his best to God), Cain kills Abel.  He is exiled from the family, and he starts his own, each generation separating themselves more and more from God, eventually becoming the “men” mentioned in Genesis prior to Noah’s Flood (Gen. 6:1-4).  Meanwhile, God’s blessing bestowed upon Adam at creation is passed down to Seth (born after Abel’s murder), from whom Noah is born.  Noah listens to God, while the rest of mankind doesn’t (Genesis notes regarding the men of that time: “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”), and as a result God wipes out the rest of the human race.  It was not out of some evilness on God’s part that he wiped out everyone but Noah.  The other people of that age were so evil that they had no room in their hearts for God, for any goodness.  Hence Noah and his family are spared.  The often used metaphor of cutting off limbs to prevent the spread of disease is apt here: in order to save mankind, Noah and his family needed to be protected from the evil that infected man.

Such was God’s plan.  But, as is often the case with God and men, God’s will is contingent (for more on this, see Dr. William Marshner’s lecture series on Predestination from the Institute of Catholic Culture), and man fallen human nature rejects what God had planned.  No sooner had Noah and his family descended from the ark than sin appears again in mankind’s story.  A drunken, passed out Noah is unable to prevent his son Ham from having relations with Noah’s wife (Ham’s mother).  The biblical phrase “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen. 9:22) refers to this sin (see Leviticus 18).  A curse comes down not only on Ham but on Ham’s son, Canaan, who would be the fruit of the incestuous relationship.  Why the curse on the son?  Often in the Old Testament, when some curse falls upon the descendent of an evil person while the evil person gets off free, there is more to the curse.  Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo at the Institute of Catholic Culture explains in an audio lecture that Ham, by having sexual relations with his mother, shows that he was trying to take over the family, for in those days one took control of a family or kingdom by having relations with the mother.  Ham, as the youngest of the sons, would not hold a place of authority in the family.  He wanted to control Noah and the whole family, and his son Canaan would allow him to do just that.  The curse that made Canaan the slave of the other brothers ruined Ham’s hopes to rule.

Similar stories abound throughout the Old Testament.  Whenever the Lord establishes a chain of command or sets up some regulations, people rebel or try to usurp the authority of the legitimate leaders.  Why the elaborate laws of Leviticus?  The Israelites had been led out of Egypt, and therefore shown the power of God over the false gods of the Egyptians.  But when Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, the people got impatient and had Aaron, Moses’ brother, set up a golden calf for them, their attempt to continue the Egyptian pagan worship they had partaken of while slaves in Egypt.  As a result, the original laws and plans that God had given Moses were nixed, and thus God gave the Israelites the ENTIRE book of Leviticus.  Everything is specified, particularly how the people are to worship, how they are to live, how they are to interact with each other.  There is nothing, NOTHING, left out, or at least nothing that the Israelites might need.  Hence the heavy burden of the Law the Israelites bore throughout their history.  Yet even with these rules, the people managed to mess things up.  Hence the “wrath of God” flaring up every once in a while.

Again, think like a parent.  God laid out the rules for the Israelites, but they couldn’t listen, so he clarified it, and clarified it, and clarified it.  Soon there were hundreds of laws, and still the people turned from God.  Even the priests and scribes began abusing their position among the people.  It was why God spoke through prophets, condemning the empty sacrifices and prayers of the priests, who were more concerned with outward rituals than internal devotion.  Jesus frequently quoted these passages.  In fact, most references to the merciful, loving God from the New Testament are connected with Old Testament prophecies.  “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” though spoken by Jesus to the Pharisees who complained about Jesus dining with sinners, comes from the prophet Hosea.  The New Testament passage follows the calling of Matthew by Jesus.  Our Lord says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).  We should follow our Lord’s instructions.  The prophecy in Hosea reads as follows:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have slain them by the words of my mouth,

and my judgment goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,

the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.

But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;

there they dealt faithlessly with me.  (Hosea 6:5-7)

The story of Salvation History is as follows:

1)  God lovingly gathers His people to Him, and makes a covenant with them.

2)  The people follow God for a while, until they get distracted like Doug the dog from Up.  They usually start worshipping some false god, usually influenced by their pagan neighbors, and there are usually women involved.

3)  God sends/allows some horrible thing to happen to His people (natural disasters/enslavement/conquest by an enemy).

4)  God sends a prophet, calling the people to repent.

5)  The people cry out to God, saying they are sorry for their sins (or they reject the prophet, often beating or killing him).

6)  God lovingly gathers His people to Him, and makes a covenant with them (or, if they rejected the prophet, worse things happen to them.  Do you know what happened to the lost tribes of Israel?)

Viewing the Old Testament from this perspective changes everything.  No longer is it a chronicle of a wrathful god against an innocent people.  It is a story of a loving Father who time and again offers His hand to His children, only for them to run away.  But when the children find themselves in danger, in pain, or trapped by evil, they call out to their Father, and He answers and helps them.  It is our story too.

Now look at the New Testament.  How does the story of Jesus fit with the story of the Old Testament?  It’s not a mystery; Jesus explains it in a parable:

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”  He answered them, “I also will ask you a question; now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?”  And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say, `Why did you not believe him?’  But if we say, `From men,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.”  So they answered that they did not know whence it was.  And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

            And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country for a long while.  When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, that they should give him some of the fruit of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent another servant; him also they beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent yet a third; this one they wounded and cast out.  Then the owner of the vineyard said, `What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him.’  But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.’  And they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.”

            When they heard this, they said, “God forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

`The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’?

Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him.”  The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people; for they perceived that he had told this parable against them.  (Luke 20:1-19)

Jesus, of course, is the Son.  What’s more shocking is that the people listening to the parable KNOW that Jesus is the Son.  Jesus ends the parable by saying, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them [the tenants]?  He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.”  In other words, God will give the blessing, the special place of the Israelites as the chosen people of God, to all the nations, rather than the Israelites.  The scribes and priests know this is what Jesus means, for they respond, “God forbid!”  But they do what Jesus prophesied anyway.  Did they recognize that they were fulfilling the prophecies of the death of the Messiah?  The Scriptures do not say, though we can imagine many a heavy heart the night of Good Friday as more than one mouth uttered, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

The Bible is all one story.  God’s wrath and Jesus’ love are the same, just as a parent who punishes does so out of love, for the benefit of the child.  How will the child know that what he has done is wrong if he is not told so, or punished when he has done wrong?  So also with the Israelites.

So also with us.

The difference between God’s portrayal in the Old Testament and His portrayal in the New is one of perspective.  Frequently the Old Testament tells the story of God having to punish His unruly children.  The New Testament provides a view of Him reaching out His hand to us, so that we can take the hand of Jesus and walk with Him into eternal life.  Recall what Adam and Eve would do before the Fall.  They would walk with God.  When Adam heard God walking in the garden after Adam had sinned, he hid.  There is a story from the Eastern Church fathers that, when Christ went down to bring from Hell (not Hell proper, but what is sometimes called the “Limbo of the Just”) the Old Testament heroic men and women who had been waiting for their chance to enter Heaven, Adam was the first to meet Christ.  Adam, the story goes, heard the footsteps of Our Lord, recognized them as the footsteps from the garden, and rather than hiding, ran to meet his Lord, to walk with Him again.

A story, yes, but a beautiful one.  We too should run to Him, so we too can walk with our Lord.

Now, Sheila, this is only a brief look at this question.  Unfathomable numbers of words address this issue in much greater detail, and with much more finesse.  Hopefully I have at least turned you in the right direction.

For more information:

Carnazzo, Sabatino.  “Swords and Serpents: A Study of Salvation History.” – Describes the whole Bible as one big book (in just 6 hours!).  Shows how God has worked throughout Salvation History.

________.  “Genesis: In the Beginning.” – In-depth examination of the book of Genesis, with particular attention paid to the first few chapters of the book.

Carroll, Warren H. A History of Christendom.  Volume I.  The Founding of Christendom.  Front Royal, VA: ChristendomCollege Press, 1985. – Traces God’s hand in human history, drawing from Biblical and pagan histories, from Genesis through the ascension of Constantine to the Roman imperial throne.

Catholic Answers Live, April 11, 2011 (with Timothy Gray) – Radio show, the first half of the show deals directly with this topic.

Marshner, William.  “Are You Saved? The Catholic Doctrine of Predestination” – Discusses the details of God’s will in history and in our lives and how our choices can affect God’s contingent will.

Olson, Carl E., “The ‘Angry God’ and the ‘Loving God’: Can We Reconcile How God is Portrayed in the Old and New Testaments?”  Catholic Answers Vol. 27, No. 2 (May/June 2013), p. 12–14. – Pages refer to the print edition (online edition also available).  Includes a short discussion of the classic example of “Angry God,” that of the war against the Canaanites.

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Question: The Dating of Christmas and Easter

The Date of Christmas

“Adoration of the Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst

This second part was, originally, to follow closely behind its predecessor, but circumstances beyond my control, and my tendency to over-research, delayed this post’s creation for far too long.  My original hope had been to have it online by the end of the Christmas season.  Lent is here, so I guess it will have to serve your Lenten meditations.

Oh well.

In the first of these two posts, we dealt with Marcy’s question: “Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”  I hoped to show that such pagan celebrations arise in Christian traditions because the Church, when preaching the Faith to these pagan peoples, incorporated what was useful into the life of the Church, creating an authentic culture.  In this second post, we will deal with her question involving the dating of Christmas: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that? Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?”

The question assumes one commonly held belief concerning Christmas: the birth of Christ actually occurred during the spring.  Several pieces of evidence are put forward to support this.  The key one is that Luke’s Gospel reports that shepherds who were “in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Luke 2: 8).  The obvious implication is that the area around Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth, would be too cold in late December for shepherds to be watching their sheep at night.  Christ must have been born during a warmer time (maybe Spring or Autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, the harvest feast for the Jews), and thus December 25 is wrong.  The date, the theory continues, was chosen, like the Christmas tree and Yule logs, to incorporate pagan celebrations into the newly formed Christian Faith, a way of making new converts feel more at home.  That is the reason why the Church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December, away from its real date.

Often repeated, such evidence is, and with each repetition it sounds that much more convincing.  However, we should not be so quick to throw out the traditional date of Christmas.  There is evidence in favor of it, as well as against it.

First, let’s address the whole shepherd issue.  Does the presence of shepherds and sheep remove the possibility of a December Christmas?  Taylor Marshall, a professor and chancellor at FisherMoreCollege [http://www.fishermore.edu/] in Texas, notes that “Bethlehem is situated at the latitude of 31.7,” a latitude with “rather comfortable” outside temperature in December (Marshall, 52).  A quick glance at the weather nowadays in Bethlehem (January 2013) has a nighttime temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, not balmy, but bearable.  At the same time, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “Authorities moreover differ as to whether shepherds could or would keep flocks exposed during the nights of the rainy season” (Martindale, “Christmas”).  The issue of shepherding in the winter thus remains open.  We cannot reject the December dating of Christmas because of a shepherd-based argument.

The second argument against the dating of Christmas in December is the claim that Christians simply put Christmas in December to coincide with one of several pagan festivals: the festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice (the festival ran through middle/late December), or the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti, a celebration of the Unconquered Sun’s Birth (held on December 25).  The Christian Church, in an attempt to bring in more pagan converts, acquired these older pagan feasts, and thus made Christ’s birthday coincide with these festivals.

Is there evidence for such an acquisition?

Again, Dr. Taylor Marshall goes through a truly scholastic (in the original sense of the term) discussion of these points.  Regarding the winter solstice, he notes that the dates recorded for the celebrations (sometime between December 17 and December 22) do not coincide with the date for Christmas.  Now, this counterargument seems dismissive, but, then again, the connection between the winter solstice and Christmas is one of temporal approximation; there doesn’t seem to be any theological or spiritual connection between the coming of winter and the arrival of Christ.  If anything, springtime would be a better symbol, rather than the winter solstice, for the arrival of Christ, the life for the world.

The connection between Christmas and the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti is likewise tenuous.  Though there was a pre-Christian tradition of sun worship in Ancient Rome, the festival in honor of the Natalis Solis Invicti do not predate the celebration of Christmas in December.  The earliest references to the Natalis Solis Invicti occur during the reign of Emperor Aurelian.  Aurelian established the celebration in AD 274 with the intention of unifying various pagan rituals, possibly in reaction to increased Christian activity in the mid-3rd century.  Contemporary Christians did not seek to connect the date of Christmas to the festival.  Only in the 12th century does one find scholars connecting pagan festivals and Christmas, often with the explicit purpose of dissuading people from celebrating Christ’s birth.  On the contrary, many Church Fathers refer to the celebration of Christmas on December 25, whereas March 25 was given the date not only of the Annunciation, and therefore Christ’s Incarnation, but also the date of His crucifixion.

The argument over whether Christ was born in the spring versus the winter does not seem a part of the early Christian Church.  A more pressing debate in the early Church, it seems, was not if Christmas belonged in the spring, but rather if Christmas was on December 25 or January 6 (the Western half of the Church solved this problem in typical joyous fashion: 12 days of Christmas, from December 25 through January 6).

As far as Easter is concerned, much debate raged over when it should be celebrated.  What time of year was never an issue; all four Gospels are very clear in putting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in the context of the Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  This answers the first part of Marcy’s question: Easter is so intrinsically linked with the feast of Passover (which, in turn, is based on the vernal equinox and the cycle of full moons) that to deviate from that context might diminish the importance of the feast.  All Christians, since the beginning, saw in the feast of Passover a precursor of Christ’s Passover from death into life through His resurrection.  On all of that, Christians agree.

The controversy, rather, was over what day of the week to celebrate this greatest of feasts.

Two camps emerged in the first centuries following the end of Roman persecution (because, of course, when one is worried for his or her life, one doesn’t quibble over when to celebrate Church feasts).  One camp said that Christians should celebrate Easter three days after the Jewish celebration of Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which this celebration fell.  The other major camp held that the Church should celebrate Easter near the time of Passover, but on a Sunday, in commemoration of how Christ rose on the “first day of the week.”  This controversy went through several phases during the first millennium of Christendom.  Popes and Church councils would decree, eventually, that Easter was to be always celebrated on Sunday, though not without some heavy debates (the last big debate over this issue arose at the Synod of Whitby, England, in 663; Wilfrid, a British cleric who sided with the Sunday date for Easter, by that time the official decision from Rome, persuaded the contingent of Irish monks to celebrate Easter on Sunday by invoking the Irish fidelity to the Holy See).

So there you go.  I hope that cleared up everything, or if it didn’t, just let me know.

Happy Lent!

For Further Reading:

Marshall, Taylor.  The Eternal City: Rome & and Origins of Catholic Christianity.  Dallas, TX: St. John Press, 2012. – Defends outright the traditional dating of Christmas.

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 3.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013. Available at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm.

McGowan, Andrew.  “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Biblical Archaeology Review, n. d.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/Christmas.asp.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – See especially Part II, Chapter 5 (“Sacred Time”) which has a fascinating look at the history of setting the dates for Easter and Christmas.

Thurston, Herbert.  “Easter Controversy.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 5.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm.

Tighe, William J.  “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v.

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Question: How was Joseph and Mary’s Marriage valid?

Just in time for Advent, here’s a post about the Holy Family.

Nicole asks: “How was Joseph and Mary’s marriage valid since it was virginal?”

A lot of people have dealt with this exact question.  In fact, it may be the most dealt with question I’ve answered on this blog so far.  I could fill up the rest of this post with links to other Catholic blogs and websites, video and audio sites, all answering the question, all saying the same thing.

Simple answer: yes.  Of course.  Validity in sacraments deals with whether or not the sacrament really happened.  A valid marriage basically means that, yes, the couple is really married.  Such was the case with Mary and Joseph.

The more elaborate answer (because, let’s face it, who really wants a simple answer) is one which can be found in the writings of that giant of the faith, St. Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas deals with this question directly (Part III, Question 29, article 2, or III, Q. 29, art. 2) in a relatively short discussion.  His “I answer that,” wherein he normally gives the full answer to the question posed, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection.  Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God. For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Mat. 1:20): “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”: on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.”

But as to the second perfection which is attained by the marriage act, if this be referred to carnal intercourse, by which children are begotten; thus this marriage was not consummated. Wherefore Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: “Be not surprised that Scripture calls Mary a wife. The fact of her marriage is declared, not to insinuate the loss of virginity, but to witness to the reality of the union.”  Nevertheless, this marriage had the second perfection, as to upbringing of the child. Thus Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “All the nuptial blessings are fulfilled in the marriage of Christ’s parents, offspring, faith and sacrament. The offspring we know to have been the Lord Jesus; faith, for there was no adultery: sacrament, since there was no divorce. Carnal intercourse alone there was none.”

Make sense?  There are two parts to marriage: the giving of oneself to the other by way of the marital vows and the raising of children.  The exchange of vows makes the marriage valid, not the sexual union of the spouses.  In that sense, Aquinas says, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was valid.  But even though there was no sexual union between them (in the immediately prior question, Aquinas presents a defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary), the Holy Couple still performed the second part of marriage.  They raised Jesus, albeit not Joseph’s biological son, but still his legal son, as Jesus was born to Joseph’s legal wife (this last part is important, for it made Jesus a legal “Son of David” and therefore heir to the Davidic throne).  Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a real marriage.  In fact, their marriage was better than many marriages not only during our own time, but even at the time of Jesus.  As St. Augustine notes (Aquinas quotes him at the end), the only thing missing from their marriage was sexual intercourse, and since intercourse is not necessary for a real marriage, one can comfortably say that Joseph and Mary had a valid marriage.

Besides, we should remember that God is not bound by the rules concerning the sacraments.  He can work outside them, if He so chooses.  He can bring souls to Heaven outside of Baptism, for example.  Likewise, we can be sure that the marriage into which God was born was a true, valid one, and example to all who seek a pure, holy union.

Reflecting on the marriage of Joseph and Mary leads to much fruit.  I recommend it.  How Joseph must have felt, married to sinless Mary and foster father to the Son of God!  What father could brag of such a burden?  Likewise, when Christ speaks of true marriage, in His mind He must have turned to the holy example of Mary and Joseph.

We too should turn to their example.

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Reflection: Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry

“Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”

This simple and yet elegant phrase came from the lips of one of the greatest saints of the modern age: St. Pio of Pietrelcina, known better as Padre Pio.  A man of great wonders (his life was filled with miracles both physical and spiritual), he was also a spiritual guide to many great men and women, including the future Pope John Paul II.  He is an example of holiness tested under strain and pain, and he drew close to his Lord, and in drawing near to the fount of salvation, reached his Heavenly reward.

And so, we see his motto, his advice for success:  “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”  It sounds so simple.  Dangerously simple.  So simple that the first reaction is to brush off the advice, to see it as too simple to be of any use, or maybe too impossible in its simplicity.  We need signs, we need rituals.  We need offerings, and sacrifices, and motions and preachings.  And yes, we do.  We need all of that.

But above all, we need to pray and hope, and then not worry.

The phrase makes sense.  If we really pray to God, laying our needs at His feet, and really hope in His providence, assenting to His Will, then we shouldn’t worry.  We can only do so much; God takes care of the rest.

We often find ourselves worrying about many things.  We are all Martha sometimes.  You know the story (Luke 10:38–42).  Jesus was in the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, his good friends (this is the Lazarus that Jesus would later raise from the dead).  Jesus was teaching in the house, as was His way, and the disciples sat at His feet.  Among those at the Lord’s feet was Mary, who sat not just with the other disciples, but “beside the Lord,” showing a desire on Mary’s part to not only hear Jesus, but to draw close to Him.  Perhaps she had some question to ask of the Master, something that was bothering her.  He would help her, she knew, and she loved Him.  I speak not of romantic love.  I speak of that love that transcends romance, agape in the Greek.  Mary was laying herself at the Lord’s feet, both literally and symbolically.  We too, like Mary, must lay ourselves at the Lord’s feet, not literally lying down in our local church, but emptying ourselves before the Lord, so that He might take us and fill us with His love and grace.

There was also Martha, who apparently invited Jesus and the disciples into the house.  She was the hostess, and it was her job to make sure the Lord and His guests were comfortable.  There was food to be had, and mats to be laid out, and drinks to be poured, and a table to be set, and the floor to be swept, and this thing and that thing and you can almost imagine Martha going into a private room and yelling into a pillow.  Except you can’t imagine it, really, because that would have required Martha to take a break from her necessary work around the house, which she could not do because there sat the Master, the Lord.  She had to make things perfect.  No second chances.

She was, in a word, anxious.

All that work to do, and Mary wasn’t helping her.  Mary was just sitting at Jesus’ feet, not a care in the world.  Over to the congregation clicked Martha (if first century Palestinian women could click), and she, in a fit of frustration (for which she no doubt felt exceptionally embarrassed later), demanded that Jesus tell Mary to come help her.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40).  Luke, clearly in sympathy for the poor woman, notes carefully that Martha was “burdened with much serving.”  It’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation.  Luke is not saying Martha did the right thing; he is saying why she did what she did.

Here we can reflect on how we are like Martha.  I assume most of those reading this blog do good deeds (very few people adhere to Martin Luther’s belief that the best deed done by the best man with the best intentions is venially sinful).  We know that doing good is, well, a good thing to do.  Charity is part of the Christian life.  Did not Jesus help the poor, the sick, the crippled, the possessed, and the spiritually starving?  Did He not send out His Apostles to do good throughout the world?  He must understand how good our good deeds are, how righteous our desires are.  Martha was serving, as she was called to do.  She is all of us who do things for others.  The fact that she was “burdened” with the serving, however, is telling.  She may have started her good deed (opening her house to Jesus and His disciples) out of love, but now charity has become a burden.  Now she regrets her open arms.  Now she begins to think she cannot do the good needed of her.  She begins to doubt her own ability and even her willingness to continue her charity.  It bears more than a passing resemblance to a “dark night” of the soul, wherein a man or woman no longer feels the presence of God in response to his or her prayers.  God feels distant in such circumstances, and Martha no doubt felt that distance, even when Jesus was under her own roof.

So Martha asked the question, a question we could see ourselves asking: “God, why didn’t you let me get that job?  Why can’t my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend listen to me?  How am I supposed to pay off all this debt, Lord, and take care of my family?  What are you calling me to do with my life?  Why?”  We ask and ask the questions of God, expecting a straightforward answer.  We want booming thunder and the fire and wind, like some epic Cecil B. DeMille picture.  But we won’t get it, or at least not likely.  That’s not how God talks to us.  He speaks in the quiet, the stillness in which Elijah heard Him (1 Kings 19:11–13), and so He spoke to Martha (and to us) a line so quoted and so misunderstood:

“The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her’” (Luke 10: 41–42).

The Lord did not yell at Martha, or reprimand her for interrupting His teaching.  Nor did he smite her, as one might expect of one who stands before the power of God.  No, Christ spoke in a quiet voice.  Many people focus on how Jesus extolled Mary’s piety; few remember Martha.  Jesus did not tell her that she should never do the work she had done, serving and helping, performing works of charity, etc.  These are good things.  However, Martha had missed the point of the works.  The good one does should have as its end the glory of God, and we should seek through our good works to draw closer to God.  Mary drew as close as she could to Jesus, while Martha distanced herself, enveloping herself in worries rather than seeing the glory before her eyes.  She was so concerned with preparing for the Lord that she ignored Him when He came.  But there He was, in her house.  What had Christ told those who complained about His disciples’ tendency to party?  “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?”  Something similar could be said to Martha: Why do you struggle to prepare yourself for Christ when He is already with you?  Should you not embrace Him, and hear what He has to say?  In that sense, Mary chose the better part.  “It will not be taken from her” because she had drawn herself into life in Christ, which is life eternal.

Don’t worry like Martha.  Pray and hope like Mary.  It’s telling in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life that this story of Martha and Mary comes right after the parable of the Good Samaritan, which extols doing good deeds (as Martha was doing) and right before Jesus’ teaching concerning prayer (reflective of Mary’s spirituality).  The story of Martha and Mary stands as a bridge between these two events in Jesus’ life.  Prayer and hope should run through us like blood in our veins.  Worry?  No, instead pray and hope.  For as Christ said: “I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9–10).

God Bless!

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