Saturday, September 29, 2012

Resurrection & The New Moses

I have always found it curious that Matthew's Gospel omits Jesus' appearances in Jerusalem following His Resurrection and focus instead on Galilee.  When the women ran from his empty tomb to tell the apostles, "Jesus met them and said 'Hail!'  And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped Him.  Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me" (Mt.28:9-10).  No narrative of Jesus appearing to the Eleven in the Upper Room or on the road to Emmaus; Matthew simply continues: 
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw Him they worshiped Him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Mt.28:16-20)
What is Matthew up to?  He was clearly aware of prior appearances of Jesus to the Eleven (Jesus had directed them to a specific mountain in Galilee, something not part of His message to the women; so Jesus appeared to the Eleven while still in Jerusalem) and yet Matthew felt compelled to get to this mountain and Jesus "Great Commission."  Why?

I put that question to the Lord the other day.  I had just finished my re-reading of Matthew, recalled being puzzled by this before, and thought, "I'm just going to ask the primary author!"  (The beauty of reading Scripture is that the same Spirit Who inspired it lives within us!)  And as I simply began to think about Matthew and his Gospel, I recalled the significance of the mountain.  

I would suggest that it is the same Galilean mountain spoken of in Matthew 5:1, "Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain and when He sat down His disciples came to him.  And He opened His mouth and taught them ..."  The three chapters following that introduction make up the Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew reveals Jesus as the New Moses, completing and deepening the Law that Moses was given atop Mount Sinai.  Again and again we hear Jesus cite the Mosaic Law, "You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you ...," one example being "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt.5:27-28).  

I believe that Matthew places the emphasis on Jesus' Resurrection appearances in Galilee to drive home His identity as the prophesied New Moses (Deut.18:19-20), dispatching the New Law from His Galilean Sinai, "All authority in heaven and on earth given to Me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold I am with you always, to the end of the age."  Now that's a Gospel, that's "Good News"!  Amen?


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Our Father as a Template

The Our Father really is the perfect prayer.  How could it not be? It's straight from the lips of Jesus.  Because of that it can be used both as the straightforward prayer it as, as well as a template for a whole regimen of personal prayer.  We can fill each line with our own thanks and petitions.  Allow me to offer a few suggestions:

Our Father who art in heaven – praise the qualities of God of which you are most cognizant and thank him for favors and the many ways he has shown his care to you and your loved ones (family life, housing, friendships, employment ...)
Hallowed be thy name – pray for atheists, agnostics, and anyone you know who is not practicing his/her faith.
Thy kingdom come – intercede for the needs you hear on your national and local news.  Pray that abortion be outlawed and marriage respected.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – mention your family, friends, coworkers, and clergy.
Give us this day our daily bread – pray for your needs and those of the people around you.  Pray for the grace of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, to be active in you and your loved ones' lives.
Forgive us our trespasses – confess your sins and ask God’s forgiveness for others of whose sin you are aware.
As we forgive those who trespass against us – ask God for the grace to forgive, both for yourself and others who have been wronged.
And lead us not into temptation – petition God to help yourself and others in your weakest areas
But deliver us from evil – ask God to protect you and those in your family and community from the evils you fear

A shorter variation is to visualize the faces and situations that correspond to each petition as we recite the Our Father, asking Jesus and the Spirit to provide whatever has slipped our memory (Rom.8:26-27).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Salvation, Catholic Style

The New Testament is adamant that justification does not come through the Law of Moses. Baptism is our birth as sons and daughters “in the Son.” We start out as infants, but our Father has no intention of letting us remain infants for eternity (Ephesians 4:13; Hebrews 6:1). He looks forward, eagerly, to our growth and development. In the end we will be like Jesus – loving and pouring ourselves out to Him in the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:29). Faith propels us forward, moving us to not just listen to God’s word but to put it into practice (James 1:22-25). Catholics call this “sanctification” or the “ongoing process of justification” – recognizing birth and the subsequent process of growth as stages in one and the same Life.

Regardless of the terminology, the Apostle Paul has some important things to tell us about this process. First and foremost we have to get it through our heads that the actions we perform (you can call them deeds or works and they can be anything from time spent in prayer, to sharing our goods with less fortunate brothers and sisters, to caring for the sick or dying) are never ours alone – they are primarily the actions of Christ Jesus Himself. As Paul tells us in Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” or as the New American Bible translates it, “who begets in you any measure of desire or achievement” (2:12-23).

Jesus acting in us and through us is what we call the life of Grace.[1] All of His actions during His time on earth were expressions of Love for His Father, and as such they were performed in the Holy Spirit. When He acts in us the same is true; He is Loving the Father, in the Holy Spirit, through us (Galatians 2:20-21). We have already talked about how Jesus deepens our participation in His Life through the Sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. Talk about the greatest honor in the universe, we have been inserted into the Life of the God Who is Love!

In Jesus, by His Grace, we live in a way that pleases our Father.[2] And the Father, looking at us with eyes full of mercy and Love, regards these actions (or works, or deeds) as truly ours. But how can an action be simultaneously Jesus’ and ours? Let me offer an analogy.

Suppose you and your sister were standing at the top of a flight of steps when she lost her balance and began to fall. You reached out and grabbed her, pulling her back upright. In her gratefulness she planted a big kiss on your hand, saying, “I love this hand. Thanks for grabbing me.” Now that good deed took place because of the instrumentality of your hand; it extended toward her and grabbed onto her. The only way it could do that good deed though, was because it participated in your life and was under your direction. That action belonged totally to you – and totally to your hand, simultaneously.

And what I remind you of is that, as members of Jesus’ Body, we are His hands…and feet, mouth, etc., etc. The action originates in Jesus but is actualized in us, “For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). The idea to perform the work is Jesus’, the Love and Power to carry it out is the Holy Spirit pouring through us, but the action doesn’t take place without our “yes,” our cooperation. And God the Father is pleased by that cooperation – like any father looking at the work his child “helped” him accomplish (even though it required the father to exert more energy than had he just done it himself).
Not only does God the Father regard these works as ours and smile with pleasure, He goes even further and “rewards” us with progressively more of His Grace – until finally He places the crown of life on our heads.[3]

We “merit” this increase of Grace but not in the legal sense of God owing us a payment for our work. We merit in the same way a child who eats everything on his plate merits a second helping – the merit is founded on the Father’s Love for His children.[4] Such a progression can be seen in St. Paul’s journey. He could write to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. . .I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil.3:12,14); and then years later write to Timothy, “I am already on the point of being sacrificed…I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Paul had fully entered into Jesus’ offering to the Father. The refusal of our first parents to enter into the flow of Life going on within the Trinity, and the effects of that sin, are being undone even as you read this. It happened for Paul and it can for us too. If we enter fully into Jesus’ offering to the Father by both our obedience to God’s will and our perseverance through suffering, then we will also share in His resurrection (Philippians 2:8-9; 3:10).

We are meant to be branches living by the life of the Vine, parts of the Body of which Jesus is the Head. If our lives are not showing forth His Life, and progressively more so over the years, then there is a problem. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. . .I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away” (John 15:4,1-2). 

This is what the Epistle of James means when it says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:24,26). James was not teaching that we can earn initial justification (the gifts of faith and baptism); no, we have been made God’s children purely by His favor. What I am convinced he was teaching, and the Catholic Church continues to bear witness to, is the reality that justification is not only our unmerited incorporation into Jesus’ Sonship; justification is also the process of His lifestyle becoming ours. It is a process that has to be continued. Jesus didn’t pour Himself out to the Father just interiorly, or spiritually, one time at the beginning of His Life. He gave Himself in His flesh and blood, His words, thoughts and actions continually; and as parts of His Body, motivated and empowered by His Grace, we are called to do the same![5]
Speaking of the last day, the Lord was very specific about the criteria we will be judged on. Jesus will welcome the just with a word of thanks for their untold kindnesses to Him - kindnesses He received in lieu of His connection to all of humanity. He went on to describe how He will tell the wicked, those condemned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” to leave His sight - they had neglected and rejected Him (Matt.25:41). They in turn will ask, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to thee?”(Matt.25:44). Jesus will answer, “As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45). Jesus did not even mention our mental or verbal confessions of faith; by themselves they are inadequate. He wants our confession made in our flesh and bone, living as He lived; to do otherwise is to reject the Life He died to give us.

[1]For direction to several verses in the next two footnotes I owe thanks to Robert Sungenis’s How Can I Get to Heaven? The Bible’s Teaching on Salvation Made Easy to Understand, (Santa Barbara, California: Queenship Publishing Company, 1998).

Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”
2 Peter 1:3-4, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness …he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.
1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.”
Romans 12:6, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”
Ephesians 4:7, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
See Ephesians 1:11-12 in next footnote as well.

[2]Hebrews 13:20-21, “Now may the God of peace. . .equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.”
Ephesians 1:11-12, “In [Jesus], according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.”
Philippians 1:9-11, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God”
2 Corinthians 5:9-10, “So whether we are at home [in the body] or away, we make it our aim to please him.   For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.”
Romans 12:1, “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Philippians 4:18, “I have received. . .the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
1 Timothy 2:1,3, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men. . .this is good and it is acceptable to God our Savior”
Colossians 3:20, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”
1 John 3:21-22, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

[3] 2 Peter 1:3,5-8,10-11, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. . .make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ…Therefore, my brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
We see the Mystery of our cooperation with God’s Grace in Jesus’ “parable of the talents”also: A man went on a journey and entrusted differing sums of money to three of his servants. The first servant, receiving five talents (about five thousand dollars), invests them and makes five more. The second servant did likewise with the two talents he was given. The third servant, however, buried the one talent he had been entrusted with for fear of losing it. When the man returned to settle accounts he was enraged with servant #3,
“You wicked and slothful servant!. . .You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. [I’ll take the talent from you] and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 25:26-29).
[4] Hahn, Scott, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (San Francisco: Doubleday, 2001), pp.133-134.
[5] Galatians 5:4-6 “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law [of Moses]; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.”

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Can People Actually Go To Hell? "Hellz Yeah"

Sorry, but once the title was in my head I couldn't take a pass.  

During my first year in college, I volunteered to help with youth ministry to teens at the local parish.  I remember one of our first meetings when we just fielded any questions on the teens minds.  One of them was of course whether or not we still believed in hell.  One of the adults and the priest working with us jumped in with the statement, "The Church teaches that because people have free will, they have the ability to choose to live apart from God; and to do so eternally is the suffering we call Hell.  But the Church has never made a statement that it knew someone has 'gone to' Hell.  It is possible that all people make an act of repentance at that millisecond before death and are reconciled with God.  Hell could be empty."  I had not heard that theory of Hell potentially being empty; but I have in the years since, and more frequently as the years pass.

It could just be me, but doesn't it seem like most people no longer consider Hell a real possibility?  I notice, for instance, how when someone dies, we seem to immediately blurt out how the deceased "is in a better place," meaning heaven.  We seem to leap over the fact that our earthly lives will be judged and that God is going to ratify the decisions we have made to live in union with Him or apart from Him.

I certainly hope that all of the deceased reach heaven, but the words of Jesus and millennia of Christian "feeling" force me to hold my tongue.  (My "default position" is purgatory.)  When I receive news of someone's death I pray, "Lord, please cleanse them of all sin and take them to Yourself in heaven." If the person was publicly living at odds with Jesus' teaching in some way, I don't despair for his or her salvation but instead pray, "Lord, You are the Master of Time.  I pray now that in those seconds before death, your child was given the grace to reconcile with You.  Please take him/her to Yourself in Heaven."

Let me be clear:  I am not condemning anyone, but our Faith recognizes that there are actions, objectively speaking, that are so serious that if we knowingly engage in them, constitute a rejection of God and force His Life from our souls.  Jews and Christians have always called these actions sins - mortal, or deadly sins.  Listen to St. Paul in the New Testament, "do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived : Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor.6:9-10).  Can ignorance of the seriousness of these sins or addiction mitigate the damage to souls?  Yes, but what human being has the power to "read" another's soul and knows that to be the case?  All we are told definitively is that these actions are deadly.  We always have reason to hope for another's salvation, and should never give into despair; but it is equally wrong to presume upon another's salvation - as well as our own!  Hell - the agonizing, eternal separation of a disembodied soul from God - is a real and ever-present possibility for all of us.  It is a consequence of free will.

When we are unaware of harmful outcomes, we are less guarded in our actions, like the child who runs its hand over every surface in the kitchen - hot stove included.  Or perhaps we are aware that bad things sometimes happen to people who do "such and such," but I won't be one of them - like the man who does tricks on his motorcycle as he rides down the highway.  (Yes, we actually had a group of riders gather to do that in St. Louis two weekends back.  And there was an accident - huh, who could have foreseen that?)  Good parents educate their children about the dangers of hot surfaces, and good friends tell you that motorcycle stunts on a highway constitute an insufferably stupid risk.  A good God and loving human beings speak up about what actions lead to an eternity of misery.

Saying that we "believe" in Jesus, intellectually accept that He was God come in the flesh, is not the same as living in union with Him.  "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder ... Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:19, 17-18).  Jesus told a parable about the make-up of His Church and judgment:  
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son ... [The king] said to his servants, "The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find." So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, "How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?" The man was speechless.
Then the king told the attendants, "Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." For many are invited, but few are chosen."  (Mt.22:2,8-14)
The Book of Revelation also speaks of this wedding feast, telling us that Christ's people are dressed in "fine linen, bright and clean," representing "the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev.19:8). You can ask any husband and wife and they will tell you that authentic union is more than speaking the words, "I love you;"it is lived out in their flesh and bone, day after day.  Consider this episode from the gospels:
Someone asked Jesus, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ (Lk.13:23-25)
Similar words were recorded in Matthew, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mt.7:13-14).

In the past century the existence of Hell and of it being a possible end for us was reconfirmed in the private revelations at Fatima.  (The Church has approved the apparitions at Fatima, meaning that there is nothing in them contrary to the Faith received from Christ and the Apostles.)  Visionary Lucia Santos reported:
[The Blessed Mother] opened Her hands once more, as she had done the two previous months. The rays appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves ...  We then looked up at Our Lady, who said to us so kindly and so sadly, “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”
We are to love God with the heart of Mary, a heart that treasures Jesus above all, saying and living, "Be it done unto me according to thy word."

So, is there a Hell?  Yes.  Are there human beings experiencing it right now?  It is true that the Church has not made a definitive, dogmatic statement identifying any individual as suffering Hell; but the collected weight of Scripture, Tradition, and the sense of the faithful throughout time is "yes," there are souls experiencing that pain - and that if we die separated from God by unrepentant sin, that pain will be ours.  In 1988, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote the book Dare We Hope "That All Men May Be Saved"? He answered in the affirmative, that we may dare to hope.  It is amazing how quickly we seem to have moved from daring to hope to the downright conviction that all are.

Let me end with a sobering thought from C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell."