Monday, August 30, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: David and Solomon

When we reach the entrance of David, we enter another great turning point in salvation history. Just as the fear of Adam and Eve caused sin and death, the fear of the nations caused Israel foolishly to demand a King. As was noted, their first choice was a failure before God and even the people. God decides now to choose one “after His own heart” and finds the young David. What makes David’s entrance into history so powerful?

We must first note who has brought David into the scene. Most autocracies (as in the rule supremely by one) either worked through a direct succession of family members, or through their hand-picked successors (the early Roman Empire operated this way, where future Caesars were “adopted” into the family of the current ruler), or via coup d'├ętat.  At the time of his calling, David was neither of royal blood, or a hand-picked successor by Saul. He becomes a forerunner of Christ at this very anointing. He is anointed King not by the flesh (via royal blood), nor by the will of man (through the current sovereign’s desires or a coup), but of God.

He is also contrasted by Saul in the manner of the heart. When God gave the Israelites Saul, one could almost interpret it as “you want it, you’ll get it, and you will like it.” They were so hung up on external appearances (we wish to be like the nations), God gave them a king of grandiose external appearances, but little else. Just like their ancestors, they lusted after the external, and found it was nothing that they thought it would be.
Since David was God’s choice, God shows through His selection how all future Kings should act. God looks not on the externals, but the heart. Indeed, David was the least impressive of his brothers. Yet God chose David above his brothers, for God could see that David loved, and would always love God.

Also evident is the understanding of obedience in David that is superior to Saul. He understands that Saul is King, and he is not to attempt to supplant Saul. On the contrary, he offers himself into Saul’s service. He becomes a court musician, then soldier, then a great general of Saul’s army, carrying Saul’s wishes throughout the then growing kingdom of Israel. When Saul becomes jealous and seeks to have him killed, David does not seek revenge. This is taken to what could even be viewed a comical extreme when David takes something from Saul, simply to prove to him he could have killed him but chose not to. Later in his life when Saul dies, he slays the one who killed him.

Even more important is the attitude of David once he sins. The power of the King is a very intoxicating power, and eventually David succumbs to it. Desiring another man’s wife, now King David has an affair with her, and then sends her husband on a suicide mission so nobody can find out or take revenge. Once he realizes how gravely he has sinned, he does not attempt to do as Saul did in offering holocaust after holocaust. Rather, the sacrifice offered is David’s broken heart and body, pleading for forgiveness. Through these traits, despite some setbacks, the Kingdom of Israel flourished under David. The people of God were returning to their initial calling in the Garden of Eden, being stewards of all the Earth.

The Entrance of King Solomon

One of the problems we have noticed so far in salvation history is that while there are certainly righteous individuals, that righteousness seldom extends to those who come after them. In the eyes of the orthodox Jew of that time, one could not fault them for thinking this pattern would be broken. Solomon succeeded his father King David, and had dealt with all of the court intrigue that typically surrounds a young kingdom. He demonstrated great wisdom that the world traveled to see, and he built the magnificent Temple.

Through Solomon the world was learning about God. While politically he made many city-states his vassals, he also exposed them to the worship of the One True God. His influence was truly starting to expand throughout the entire region. Piece by piece he expanded his empire. We see here the initial call of Adam and Eve to rule all creation in God’s name.

Yet like his first parents, Solomon had a downfall. One could surmise that it was the pride of his first parents. Solomon was the wisest of his age, and one of the most powerful kings, accustomed to beauty wherever he went. So accustomed was he to this beauty, he began seeking it out everywhere, including within the women of pagan nations. This presented some obvious problems.

In Israel, only Yahweh was worshipped, only He was God. Yet the pagan women Solomon wed obviously still wanted to worship their own gods. Solomon felt he had to still marry them. These were political marriages, and he needed them to grow his stature. Even if divorce was acceptable as a concession, he could not divorce and lose his power. First, he built houses for his wife (then the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh), and we do know that worship of those pagan deities happened at these houses.

Like all good men, Solomon had a desire to please his wife. Yet unlike a good man, he did not know how to temper that desire with prudence. Most importantly, he did not lead his wife in serving God. In this instance, his sin was very much like that of Adam’s. Several Church Fathers placed on Adam not only the sin of eating of the fruit, but for allowing his wife to be seduced by the serpent, rather than being there to defend her.
From this small crack in the armor things began to shatter. Not content with just one wife, Solomon takes polygamy to an entire new level. He amasses for himself over 700 wives and 300 concubines. As time went on, his “concessions” to these women grew even more, until eventually pagan temples started appearing within Jerusalem itself. Solomon, he of great wisdom, had turned into a man of absolute perversion, sexually and religiously. Bad as things were, they were about to become much worse.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why The Incarnation Matters: The First King of Israel

This narrative continues in the days of Israel settling in the land once they conquered the region. The book of Judges tells us on several occasions “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Even after all they had seen, they persisted in their rebellion against God, and just as before, God still attempted to help them. This time, he raised judges, holy men and women who rose to prominence teaching the people the ways of God.

Yet the people still persisted in their rebellion “doing what was wicked in the sight of The Lord.” Eventually, they clamored for a King to rule over them, just as “the other nations” had a King to rule them. (1 Samuel 8:5). This was directly contrary to God’s plan. As we remember from Eden, God ruled over Adam and Eve, and they were to be brought into unity ruling creation with Him. The people instead wanted yet another barrier between them and God, in an attempt to be like everyone else. The other nations introduced habits that nearly destroyed them, and still they could not shake their influence. (Gone were the days that God walked and talked with Moses, though he was unable to see God face to face. Even longer gone are the days when God walked side by side with Adam and Eve in the garden!)

However, at this point salvation history reaches one of those irrevocable turning points. God decides to grant the people their request for a King. Yet through that royal line, the True King would come to this world.
The founding of the Kingdom, like all institutions, certainly went through some growing pains. The Israelis could not protest they were unaware however. (1 Samuel 8:10-21) They received this instantly in the person of King Saul. Almost immediately after his coronation, Saul strikes fear into the heart of the people, conscripting them into battle. Rather than being this great man of legend they assumed their King would be, the people quickly realized that Saul would be a tyrant. Yet, the kingdom would remain, and God would use this Kingdom to fulfill his glory.

While Saul’s reign was initially one of expanding the glory of God’s people, this very rapidly changed. He was no longer leading the people, but using them as tools for his own desires, such as when he barred people from eating until every one of his enemies was dead (1 Samuel 14), which almost causes his son, the hero of the battle to die.

It rapidly becomes evident that Saul, far from being a servant of the people, is more interested in holding onto his own power. When he defeats the Egyptians (and their client kingdom) in battle at God’s command, he decides to keep the spoils for himself, contrary to the direct command of God those spoils be destroyed. He attempts to take as hostages of stature, as the kings around him do.

One thing we must remember is that Saul’s decisions are entirely rational, and even defensible from a certain point of view. What he spared from the sword amongst the animals he sacrificed to God. With a court of hostages, Israel’s position would certainly be strengthened, allowing in his mind God’s glory to be spread across the land.

There is just one problem with this. God commanded Saul to do the direct opposite. This campaign of war was not about building up stature, but rather God exacting vengeance upon those who oppressed His people at every corner. It is here that Samuel provides a curious statement:

Does the Lord desire holocausts and victims, and not rather that the voice of the Lord should be obeyed? For obedience is better than sacrifices: and to hearken rather than to offer the fat or rams. Because it is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey. Forasmuch, therefore, as you have rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has also rejected you from being king. (1 Sam 15:22-23)

When one looks at the regulations of the sacrifices of the law in the Old Testament, to hear God say “obedience is better than sacrifices” sounds a bit confusing. Yet in this sentence is contained one of the central truths of our faith.

Why is obedience better than sacrifice? Obedience goes right to the heart of our nature as human beings and created persons. Since we are created, we are not the Creator. When we obey, we in our own little way reverse the sin of our first parents, who sinned through their disobedience. Sure, they had their reasons. Even more, they didn’t become gods upon eating of the tree. Yet all of this is irrelevant. Their first test was to acknowledge God as the Creator of their lives, and they failed that test.

Through disobedience comes every other kind of sin. In doing what he had done, Saul placed himself above everyone, including God. God had given him a Kingdom, and at that point he “thanked” God by doing the precise opposite of what he was supposed to do. After all, he had a mighty army, was a war hero, and the people behind him. Why not enjoy the privileges?

Saul realizes at this point he has done a grave wrong. He repents before God, but that repentance is not total. He seeks to maintain his power which God had given him. Samuel rejects this, and walks away. We may lose a bit of the impact of such a move in the historical manner the Bible records the event.

We must remember that the King was a Dominus, a master over all the land. In the East, there has been a long tradition of the ruler having absolute authority. So absolute was this authority, he was completely separated from the people. Indeed, to merely enter into the presence of the King without his blessing was to incur death. If you took your leave before being given permission to leave, this was also worthy of death. For Samuel to turn his back on Saul was an act of rejecting his authority as King. Saul had been accustomed now for years for people to give him that deference. When it was rejected, his anger kindled hotly, and he tore the garment of Samuel in attempting to stop him. In return, Samuel promises Saul that the kingdom will be torn from him with equal force.

Having been rejected by God, Saul decides to build up his own power base at this point. He becomes a full-fledged tyrant, willing to go to any lengths to hold onto his power, including engaging in sorcery, a violation of the greatest commandment of Israel! Even in spite of all this, God still remains faithful to His people. Rather than end the kingdom right there (which He would certainly be His right), a new king is groomed.

The people demanded a King, even after the warnings, so God is letting them have what they want. We have here another instance of God helping His people, even if they are sinful. Just as He provided clothing to Adam and Eve, God still will give them a King, but this time a righteous King.  The entrance of this heir apparent occurs in a most curious manner, yet much can be learned from it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why The Incarnation Matters: The Exodus and the Golden Calf

Continuing our previous installment, we are reminded of the fact that God’s love is boundless. He will save all creation for the sake of one man who seeks to do His will. We find further evidence of this in the person of Abram. Genesis 12 tells us that God calls him out of his homeland, to a place he does not know. Abram obeys this call, and one could see here the reverse of what those did at the tower. Rather than making a name for them, Abram allows God to make a name for him. God indeed changes his name to Abraham. Rather than offer abominable sacrifice within the temples reaching into the sky, Abraham erects an altar on the land and offers a sacrifice that was acceptable to God. While the languages of the nations were confused, the implication of a vast multitude united under Abraham is foretold, as his descendants would be “numerous as the stars of the sky.” Even if mankind sins grievously, for the sake of that one man, God will establish His plan through that individual.

Eventually, a covenant is formed with Abraham, the child of promise is born, and through his grandchildren the nation of Israel is born. Through the time of history, much happens to them, yet they are rescued and delivered from Egypt by Moses. Once again, all appears to be well with the people of God.  Yet once again, it would only seem that way. Once the Israelites are freed from Egypt, they begin their path to the land that God had promised Abraham. God, being faithful, seeks to fulfill His promise. Along the way, He once again establishes a covenant with the people. Just like the covenants with Abraham and Noah, God’s plan of salvation is slowly revealed. Unfortunately, due to our sins, the lists also become larger of that which we should not do. Man needed more and more reminders that he was not God, and those previous attempts proved to the contrary, ending in disaster.

By this time, the worship of God had advanced quite a bit from Enoch, to include great solemnity. For this reason, Moses goes to the top of the mountain to understand how to worship God as God wills. While he seeks to formulate the right worship of Yahweh, the people have something quite different in mind:

And the people seeing that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, gathering together against Aaron, said: Arise, make us gods, that may go before us: For as to this Moses, the man that brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has befallen him. And Aaron said to them: Take the golden earrings from the ears of your wives, and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me. And the people did what he had commanded, bringing the earrings to Aaron. And when he had received them, he fashioned them by founders' work, and made of them a molten calf. And they said: These are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and made proclamation by a crier's voice, saying: Tomorrow is the solemnity of the Lord. And rising in the morning, they offered holocausts, and peace victims, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. (Exodus 32:1-6)

We must unpack this most supreme of insults. We know from reading earlier in Exodus that God provided for their every need upon the journey. He made Himself known to them through the shekinah (glory cloud) and the giving of the law. He took care of their every need by giving them food when they were hungry (the manna from heaven) and water from the rock when they were thirsty. So that they know how to properly worship Him, He was in the very process of giving those instructions.

The people had different ideas. They grew afraid. Without Moses, they would not know how to serve God. (Think of how darkened man’s eyes have become to God by this point!) Rather than trusting in God (who would not allow His people to remain ignorant), they instead decided to once again, try and do things themselves. If one can detect a certain pattern in this series, this won’t end well. They decide to make for themselves a golden calf, and to worship the being as the god who rescued them.

We see once again man perverting by sin that which God had given them. The gold the people had, that gold very well may have been used for the service of Yahweh. Instead, it was used to set up something in opposition to God. The fact that an animal was chosen could be seen as an even further insult and rebellion against God. Originally, God had given man control and dominion over all the beasts of the earth. They were a creation, given to man. Man messes up the entire order. Not only does he pretend to make a created thing, but he then proclaims the created thing the creator! Even worse, this created thing resembles a beast of the earth, whom man was supposed to have dominion over! They were essentially celebrating their own prowess, worshipping their own ability in escaping Egypt.

This rebellion is even further inferred when Moses witnesses the golden calf and the people. Rather than worshipping the true God with solemnity, they worship a false idol drunk. Rather than offering sacrifice with reverence, they do so with irreverence. In short, not only are they engaging in idolatry, but they have completely lost the sense of anything sacred. Aaron, so disgusted by this (and realizing that maybe it was a horrible idea to originally build that calf!) orders the people engaging in such behavior stripped naked, as a symbol of their ultimate shame for what they have done. No wonder God wished to destroy the entire people!
Yet once again, there are innocents. Besides of course Moses, there are the sons of Levi, who refused to partake in the sacrilege. They in turn avenge the profanation by slaying those who partook of the idolatry. For the sake of those righteous individuals (and of their ancestors) Israel is preserved. Later, when the people again attempt to profane the worship of God (by sexualizing sacrifice, mixing the cult prostitutes of the nations with Israel) Phinehas slays the two engaged in the act, and God states his singular action saved Israel from judgment.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reflections on the Assumption of Our Lady

*Note:  This was something that I had written back in 2005 celebrating the Vigil of the Assumption.  In it, I provide some thoughts and reflections on the Assumption, and on the nature of Marian devotion in general.  Since I already had written this, I will "cheat" a little bit today with the liturgical commentary, and instead offer this.*

I am going to be doing something just a tad bit different in my reflections for today, "breaking from tradition" if you will. For this Sunday's liturgy there are two liturgies listed, one being the regular Sunday Mass, the 20th Sunday in Ordinary time, but there is also the Vigil of the Assumption. I believe it is quite fitting and proper to cover the vigil for today. This column will be a bit longer and meatier than most, but then again, days such as these are not normal days, but some of the most special in the Church.

First and foremost, why a vigil for this feast? It is a vigil because the celebration of this great mystery is so great, that simply one day is not enough. For we must also prepare ourselves for this glorious celebration, to bring us into the right and proper mood of celebrating the Assumption. It is a time of great rejoicing as we celebrate this moment in the life of our glorious Mother of God. For starters, what is the assumption?

Pope Pius XII of happy memory defined the following in his decree Munificentissimus Deus. While I may or may not give a commentary on the actual feast this Monday, I will be sending the work in it's entirety then for reflection. Here is what this Holy Pontiff had to say, certain parts being bolded for emphasis:

44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma:

that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.

46. In order that this, our definition of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven may be brought to the attention of the universal Church, we desire that this, our Apostolic Letter, should stand for perpetual remembrance, commanding that written copies of it, or even printed copies, signed by the hand of any public notary and bearing the seal of a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, should be accorded by all men the same reception they would give to this present letter, were it tendered or shown.

47. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

In short, this is not a belief which is optional for faithful Catholics. While one may dispute the frequency in which papal infallibility is exercised, it is without a doubt that it is rare for a dogma to be defined as forcefully and eloquently as this wise Pontiff did. So that the faithful can better understand these beliefs, the sacred liturgy contains much teaching in both the vigil and the actual feast, of which we shall cover in this reflection the former.

All honor to you, Mary! Today you were raised above the choirs of angels to lasting glory with Christ. (Introit)

To start this liturgy, we shout praise and honor to the Blessed Virgin for her Assumption. While there are numerous reasons for the Assumption which shall be covered here, one reason that cannot be overlooked is the Assumption's relation to us faithful Catholics. All throughout her life here on Earth, Mary was the perfect model for the faithful child of God. As the Church is composed of faithful children of God, Mary is its perfect model. As the Second Vatican Council stated in Lumen Gentium:

But while in the most holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she is without spot or wrinkle, the followers of Christ still strive to increase in holiness by conquering sin. And so they turn their eyes to Mary who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as the model of virtues. Piously meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church with reverence enters more intimately into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her Spouse. For Mary, who since her entry into salvation history unites in herself and re-echoes the greatest teachings of the faith as she is proclaimed and venerated, calls the faithful to her Son and His sacrifice and to the love of the Father. Seeking after the glory of Christ, the Church becomes more like her exalted Type, and continually progresses in faith, hope and charity, seeking and doing the will of God in all things. Hence the Church, in her apostolic work also, justly looks to her, who, conceived of the Holy Spirit, brought forth Christ, who was born of the Virgin that through the Church He may be born and may increase in the hearts of the faithful also. The Virgin in her own life lived an example of that maternal love, by which it behooves that all should be animated who cooperate in the apostolic mission of the Church for the regeneration of men.

Almighty God, you gave a humble virgin the privilege of being the mother of your Son, and crowned her with the glory of heaven. May the prayers of the Virgin Mary bring us to the salvation of Christ and raise us up to eternal life. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect)

If The Blessed Virgin is the Model of the Church, then what happens to the Blessed Virgin will likewise happen to us one day. For as she lived her life without any sin in serving the Father, so to will we one day serve the Father in heaven without sin. As she was taken into Heaven rewarding her glorious service to Christ, so to will we be rewarded. By a special grace from God, and it must be affirmed this grace is special and unique because of Mary's special and unique role in salvation history, these rewards were bestowed upon her first, but as a sign of the eventual reward all faithful children of God receive. When we meditate upon the life of the Blessed Virgin, we must always keep that goal in mind. As we reflect on the events of her life, and seek to emulate them, we do so in the hope of like her being taken to heaven at the end of our lives. The only difference being that while our bodies will be resurrected at the end, because of her absolute purity her body could not possibly have tasted the corruption of death we taste because of our sin.

Now for another "break with tradition" in my normal reflections. For the readings, I will follow most of the omissions the Revised Lectionary has for today, because in this sense, all they omitted was repetition, having little significance towards this feast day. The entire passage in question is 1 Chronicles 15:3-16:2.

Then David assembled all Israel in Jerusalem to bring the ark of the LORD to the place which he had prepared for it.

David also called together the sons of Aaron and the Levites. The Levites bore the ark of God on their shoulders with poles, as Moses had ordained according to the word of the LORD. David commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brethren as chanters, to play on musical instruments, harps, lyres, and cymbals, to make a loud sound of rejoicing. Thus David, the elders of Israel, and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with joy from the house of Obed-edom. While the Levites, with God's help, were bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD, seven bulls and seven rams were sacrificed. David was clothed in a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who carried the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah, the leader of the chant; David was also wearing a linen ephod. Thus all Israel brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD with joyful shouting, to the sound of horns, trumpets, and cymbals, and the music of harps and lyres. They brought in the ark of God and set it within the tent which David had pitched for it. Then they offered up holocausts and peace offerings to God. When David had finished offering up the holocausts and peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD,

It is here we get a peek at the liturgical life of our fathers in faith in Israel during the Old Covenant. As one can see, there is a great festival and celebration. As the Ark of the Covenant was coming to it's place the Lord had commanded, there is this great celebration, captured with immense detail by the Sacred Writer. We see sacrifices of peace and praise being offered, instruments of all kinds being played as the ark is carried in procession. What makes this ark so special? The ark was special for what it contained within, and what it represented.

First contained in the ark was the rod of Aaron the High Priest, signifying the power of the High Priest to offer sacrifice for the people of the Covenant to God. Also contained were the 10 commandments, the written word of God on stone to His people for how they were to live. Also contained in the ark was a fragment of manna, the heavenly bread which God gave to the Jews so they could be fed. The most important aspects of the Old Covenant were contained within this ark. Also, the ark was overshadowed by God's glory.

What importance does this have to the Blessed Virgin? One of the many titles attributed to our Lady is that of the Ark of the New Covenant. For as the original ark contained the rod of Aaron signifying the power of the High Priest, within the womb of our Lady was the eternal High priest Jesus Christ, who offered the sacrifice of Himself for the salvation of the people of the covenant. While the old contained the tablets of law written on stone, the Blessed Virgin had in her womb the Word of God incarnate, her Son Jesus Christ! As the old contained the bread of life which is manna, the womb of Mary contained the true bread of life, that of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It is this food that never perishes, and never ceases to be effective in feeding and nourishing the people of God. Likewise, in the Incarnation, the Blessed Virgin as well was overshadowed by the Glory of God.

The Holy Fathers of the Church when envisioning Mary's Entrance into her final place in heaven likewise imagined a surreal celebration. As David danced before the ark, so did the angels dance on this day of celebration. The Father of all faithful believers Abraham was overjoyed when his daughter in faith received this special privilege. If the celebration for the original ark was so sublime, how much more could the celebration of the true ark that which contained our Lord and Savior be? To even attempt to describe such an event with words probably does it an injustice, for one cannot imagine the scene of rejoicing.

And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: "Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (Second Reading, 1st Corinthians 15:54-58)

A popular Protestant objection to Catholicism's honor and devotion to the Blessed Mother is we make it out as if she needed no savior, hence Christ saved all faithful Christians with the exception of His Mother, whom because of being without sin needed no salvation. Let this be stated without reservation.  We in no sense deny that Mary needed a savior.  If anyone claims she did not, they are anathema.  Due to the extraordinary nature of the Incarnation, and the fact that the presence of God incarnate could not dwell within that which is corruptible, the merits of Christ's passion were applied to Mary in a singular and unique way in the Immaculate Conception. This in part fulfills the prophesy of Genesis 3:15, where enmity, complete and total opposition is placed between Satan and the mother of the Messiah. Therefore death and sin had no effect upon the Blessed Virgin. In her was the fruits of complete and total victory over sin. If we emulate her role of obedience to Christ, we can likewise have these same results. Inspired by this confidence, we should take Mary as our model. For Mary never rested in the work of the Lord, from caring for The Redeemer with perfect love as a child to the perfect love with which she united herself to her Son on the Cross. Let us follow Mary's example at the wedding feast, commanding all to "do whatever He tells you." As the Blessed Mother's work was not in vain, neither is ours.

While Jesus was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed." He replied, "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." (Gospel, Luke 11:27-28)

Another common objection particular to our separated brethren in rejecting our honor of Mary is this verse. So why are Catholics using it in our Gospel? As is so often, while some may think this verse speaks against the Virgin Mary, in reality it once again speaks highly of her. While our Lady is certainly special for being the Mother of God, it is in how she fulfilled that ministry that makes her especially blessed. While tradition tells us that Mary's parents, Sts. Anne and Joachim gave their daughter many riches, treating her as a Queen, Mary preferred simplicity and humility, referring to herself as the "handmaiden of the Lord." As Christ in humbling Himself became exalted, likewise His mother, as a model for Christians, she humbles herself. Here she is, higher than any mere mortal or angel, a life of glory, and rather than relish in that glory, she views herself a lowly servant of God's work. Likewise, our Lady is special as the Mother of God, for as a caring Mother, she completely followed the precepts of God in raising Christ in her duties. As the mother she always pointed people towards her beloved Son, who was their salvation. She is the handmaiden par excellence of the Lord, and while we honor her for many reasons, it is for this reason she deserves very special honor. As it is said Divine Grace, far from destroying life, transforms it to something higher, so did the grace the blessed virgin receive transform this lowly handmaiden into the illustrious Queen of Heaven.

Lord, receive this sacrifice of praise and peace in honor of the assumption of the Mother of God. May our offering bring us pardon and make our lives a thanksgiving to you. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen. (Secret/Prayer Over the Gifts)

While every time the Sacrifice of the Mass occurs the primary honor given is to God our Father, on these special days the saints and holy people whose feasts we commemorate are also honored. In honoring them, we honor the great work that God has caused and produced throughout their lives by His grace. Therefore, in honoring them, we give even more honor to God. Much more so when we honor the one He predestined from the beginning of time to be the Mother of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, God incarnate. As Mary lived her life always in thanksgiving to God, symbolized by her lovely prayer which we know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), likewise we should do the same. Any honor given to the Blessed Virgin serves three purposes. One, it ultimately honors God the Father for the work He carried out in her, it ultimately protects the dignity and sanctity of Christ, and finally, it calls us to emulate those actions of hers, so we may likewise find heaven and eternal life. On this vigil let us always remember these things. While devotion to Mary may vary greatly in the Catholic Church (whether it be the Rosary, Angelus, Magnificat, litanies, or various other prayers and devotions), the faithful Christian should always keep in mind every time they honor their Mother, they partake in the fulfillment of her prophesy "All Nations Shall Call Me Blessed." I apologize to my readers for this length, yet in all honesty, one cannot write enough about such sublime events of our Faith. Let us close with the Magnificat, taking the words of our Mother to heart and emulating what they teach.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden,
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why The Incarnation Matters: The Flood, The Tower, and Pride

When God barred man from the tree of life, some may find it ironic I view this ultimately an act of kindness. Why would denying man immortality be a good thing? As we will establish later, this is not the whole story. Yet it certainly is true that by his power, man’s life is limited. As we continue our examination of the Incarnation through Genesis, I believe we shall see why this cutting off was a good thing. Genesis 6 begins as follows:

And after that men began to be multiplied upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God seeing the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all which they chose. And God said: My spirit shall not remain in man for ever, because he is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. And God seeing that the wickedness of men was great on the earth, and that all the thought of their heart was bent upon evil at all times, it repented him that he had made man on the earth.

Here we come to the introduction of the Nephilim, men of inestimable cruelty and evil. There is some scholarly discussion over the origins. Some say they are the children of fallen angels who mated with earthly women. Others say the “sons of God” are the children of Seth and Enoch, who married the children of Cain, the wicked. Whatever the truth, we know that these offspring lived several centuries, nearly an entire millennium.

We tend to speak of the elderly as those possessing great knowledge and wisdom. In sports, a veteran near the end of his career passes along his seemingly boundless knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the game to the newer players. These men had 900 years to foster evil, and they became very good at it. One can only wonder: What if Hitler, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun had lived 900 years? We tend to view these as men in history with a boundless capacity for evil. Yet, we must confess, they were probably nothing compared to these men. So dangerous were they, God shortened the lifespan of humans because of it! Their evil had become so depraved; God was prepared to destroy the entire world and His most prized creation.

Yet even during all these times, God still attempts to call people to Himself. During this context is when a man named Enoch walked the earth. (If we follow the Genesis narrative, he would have been taken to heaven not long, in biblical terms, before the flood.) We are also told that during this time “Men began to call on the Lord.” What this means is not clear. Some state that a mass conversion to God began during Enoch’s time. Others view Enoch as the father of a structured liturgy, the solemnity of it all drawing people to God. Whatever the case, through Enoch, God calls people back to His original plan for them.

As we can see, they paid little attention. Yet apparently one man and his family did. The Scriptures tell us “But Noah found favor in the Lord.” Noah was the great-grandson of Enoch. He certainly would have followed in the ways of his famous ancestor. Through Noah God finds one who is answering the call He made. It could truly be said that for the sake of one man, God spared the world. Yet the great evil had to be dealt with. Knowing this (and that they would inevitably seek to once again rebel against heaven), God decides to send the deluge upon the earth, that Great Flood. For 40 days and 40 nights, there would be a torrential downpour upon the earth like had not been seen, nor would ever be seen again. We receive 5 inches of rain, and everyone panics because of potential flooding. This flood was enough to cover the entire earth, destroying almost all life on it, so grave was man’s sin.

Yet to make sure that the world could continue after the flood, God ordered Noah to build an ark for his family, and two of every living creature. This ark would sail upon the waters during the time of the flood, and from them, the entire world would be repopulated. Notice once again the assistance of God. Even when we were at the height of our wickedness, God does not give us what we fully deserve. He still seeks to help us. The washing of the world with water is seen then as a great blessing towards His people. Indeed, once the flood ends, God creates a covenant with Noah, and beings to re-establish that plan. Just as the first covenant had regulations, so does this one. We are not to eat at this time the blood of beasts with their flesh. If we are to eat, the blood must be drained first.

Once again, all seemed well on the earth. It could even be said, for that one moment, paradise in a sense was re-created. However, just like our first parents, there were those amongst the children of Noah who would try to ruin that which God has created.

As time went on, the sons of Noah began to repopulate the Earth following the flood. Eventually, they became a great multitude. Despite this great number, the Bible tells us “the Earth was of one tongue.” There seemed to be that unity which we were called for. With that unity and understanding, they began to make buildings, indeed to grow civilization. However, they did not remember the lessons of previous eras.

We now come to the story of Nimrod, whom most legends and traditions attribute to be the builder of the tower of Babel. As his power grew, the building continued. Eventually, the decision was made to build a tower (most likely a Babylonian ziggurat) higher than anything before that was built. So high, it would reach the heavens itself. What could have possessed our ancestors to do this? Once again, I would say fear mixed with pride.

They saw the terrible destructive power of the flood, and were greatly afraid. Yet just like Adam and Eve, their pride prevented them from repentance. In response, they began building for themselves, to protect themselves from the elements, despite God stating he would never destroy the Earth with a Great Flood again. They were unwilling to trust in him.

That the build was most likely a ziggurat could also shed some light. Many times priests of various religions used the top of the ziggurat to offer sacrifice, so that the flood waters would not reach them. In a certain sense, this could also be viewed as a prideful defiance towards God. It is almost as if the sinful man is telling God “your flood accomplishes nothing, you will not stop our sacrifices!” From this, the building becomes higher and higher. With this in mind, the Bible says:

And they said: Come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven; and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands.

In what many ancient Jews interpreted as an ultimate sign of rebellion against God, Nimrod (or whoever built the tower) was going to extend a shrine of pagan sacrifice to the heavens itself! We know that nothing impure can enter heaven, God would never allow it. Yet if the people of the world reached heaven with their abomination, they would die, and once again, creation would be wiped out. We must remember this context as God says:

Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. Come, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech.

Rather than destroy creation, God instead decided to confuse those languages. The alternative would have been our death. Even in our confusion, ideologies still spread throughout the world today attempting to do the same thing. We attempt to make ourselves as gods, and indeed rebel against the one true God. Yet there are things which inhibit the wicked designs of man. Since those designs are slowed down, we are once again given a chance to reflect on the fact that we need God.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sirach and "Turning your Eyes"

During my conversion, I always found great solace in the so-called “Wisdom” literature of the Old Testament. This literature is typically classified as the book of the Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Proverbs, The Wisdom of Solomon (Book of Wisdom, and the book of Jesus Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). In their reading, one finds great wisdom for how to live a life pleasing to God, especially in our relationships with others.
Sometimes, people find great fault with the texts. Of particular note is the phrase from Sirach:

Turn away your face from a woman dressed up, and gaze not about upon another's beauty. (Sirach 9:8)
Sometimes this is interpreted as “turn your eyes away from a shapely woman.” Scholars such as Christopher West have stated that to the one “maturity in purity” such statements are not binding:

As experience attests, the battle with lust remains fierce. For the man bound by lust, “Turn away your eyes” retains all its wisdom. Christ, however, “speaks in the context of human experience and simultaneously in the context of the work of salvation.” In the new ethos, these “two contexts are in a certain way superimposed upon and pervade one another.” [Reference from the 143rd address of Theology of the body, KMT] This means that, although we all experience lust, we can also experience a real transformation of our hearts through the salvation Christ offers us. As the Catechism teaches, in the “Sermon on the Mount…. The spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires, those inner movements that animate our lives.”

….The man whose heart has been transformed and vivified by the Spirit of the Lord need not merely “cope” with lust by turning his eyes away from a woman.” (West, Theology of the Body Explained, page 168.)

I believe there are two assertions in this text. One, that Sirach was only writing for the unregenerate. Two, that the regenerate is not bound by this advice. I further believe that the text of Sirach, combined with plain common sense, does not bear this interpretation out. If anything, such advice is playing with fire.

We must first establish the general context that causes Jesus Ben Sirach to write what he does. Sirach is writing during a time of great cultural upheaval. He wrote the book generally around the early second century B.C. This was a time of a great cultural clash within Israel. The Greeks, having conquered the Persian Empire, began a plan of Hellenization, the imposition of Greek culture, philosophy, and morals throughout the realms of the Diadochi (the generals who were Alexander the Greats successors.) Some of them pursued this policy liberally. Some pursued this very aggressively, such as what was happening in Egypt. Sirach wrote in the form of proverbs, common-sense ways to preserve the Jewish identity.

What does all this mean? Sirach was writing to the believing Jew. The believing Jew obviously viewed lust as a grave sin and are presumably not bound by lust. As a way of maintaining their identity as God’s people, he is writing ways in which to accomplish that. To say that this writing means nothing to the man “not bound by lust” is a grave mis-reading of the text.

This understanding is reinforced when we read the actual context of Sirach. In Chapter, it starts as follows:

Be not jealous over the wife of your bosom, lest she show in your regard the malice of a wicked lesson. Give not the power of your soul to a woman, lest she enter upon your strength, and you be confounded. Look not upon a woman that has a mind for many: lest you fall into her snares. Use not much the company of her that is a dancer, and hearken not to her, lest you perish by the force of her charms. Gaze not upon a maiden, lest her beauty be a stumbling block to you. Give not your soul to harlots in any point: lest you destroy yourself and your inheritance. Look not round about you in the ways of the city, nor wander up and down in the streets thereof. Turn away your face from a woman dressed up, and gaze not about upon another's beauty. For many have perished by the beauty of a woman, and hereby lust is enkindled as a fire. Every woman that is a harlot, shall be trodden upon as dung in the way. Many by admiring the beauty of another man's wife, have become reprobate, for her conversation burns as fire. Sit not at all with another man's wife, nor repose upon the bed with her: And strive not with her over wine, lest your heart decline towards her and by your blood you fall into destruction.

We see first and foremost that the “target audience” in this chapter is the married man. He is warning against the sin of adultery here clearly in the context. What is the best way to avoid adultery? Do not be jealous. Do not spend much time away from your wife. Do not spend time frequently in the company of other women. Most importantly, do not desire the beauty of another woman. To the devout Jew, to look upon another woman with lust was a grave sin. So much so, that if a Jew did it, he was not to sleep in the same bed with his wife. The only woman one should desire is your wife.

Is this wisdom applicable to the unmarried? Of course! Sirach is giving one of the best pieces of wisdom around: the externals are deceiving. While the body and external beauty are meant to be a representation of internal beauty, this is not always the case. Even if we are not bound by lust, we should still not be going out seeking physical beauty above all else. To do so is an invitation to be caught in a snare. The Greeks used many of these snares, especially with the flesh.

The Greek sexual more was far different than that of the Jew. The Greeks were very “carefree” in regards to their sexuality. Sex was very frequent. Men slept with women, men, boys, girls, just about anything they could get their hands on. The women many times dressed this part, heightening the sexual activity in their dress. Athletics were a very big thing for the Greeks, and they were frequently performed fully naked. To the Jew, this was an abomination. By not going out and seeking sexuality the way the Greeks did, this was another way of preserving their cultural and religious identity. Sex was sacred to the Jew. Treating it with the highest reverence was in order.

Why is this important? When we seek only the externals, we are missing out on who that person really is. One’s physical body does not define what one is. While the body can provide a mirror into the soul, such is ultimately an imperfect mirror, as the visible cannot fully explain the invisible.

I would like to relate a story that I believe bears this out. In a past relationship, we were vacationing in Spokane. At the time, a very immodestly dressed woman walked by. My girlfriend screamed “don’t look.” Being a guy, I looked. What I saw in no way incited lust, yet I still turned away my eyes. I turned away my eyes not out of being tempted, but out of sadness. I was sad that a woman completely misunderstood her body and who she was as a person. At the same time, I was no fool. Just because I didn’t feel any temptation, does not mean I should’ve kept looking at her. Sirach’s admonition held great wisdom. When you start focusing too much on physical beauty, a hunger can be awoken. That hunger is never satisfied. Someone is always better looking. If you are basing that relationship simply on how one looks, you will never be satisfied. I also did not want to give her that attention this woman was obviously craving by the way she dressed. I was stating a message. That message was “I desire far more in a woman than simply the externals. I desired the woman I loved, and she offers a lot more in her hidden modesty than you could ever offer in your very public immodesty.”

We forget today about the positive aspects of modesty and “turn away your eyes.” To the man bound by lust, this admonition has great wisdom. Yet the wisdom in this statement is even greater to the one bound by purity. We state in a positive fashion that we look for far more than simply this. We look for the human person, who is far more than a corporeal body. We gain custody of our eyes not only in avoiding sin, but choosing that which is right. We cannot forget this.

Monday, August 9, 2010

TOB and "Putting Faith to the Test"

Lately I have been reading with interest Dawn Eden’s Master’s thesis, a critique of the Theology of the Body as presented by Christopher West. I have found within these works a general affirmation of many of the concerns I have voiced about Christopher West in particular, and my criticisms of many interpretations of John Paul II’s works in general.

In short, my critique of them is much the same as my critique overall of most Catholic thought as a traditionalist. Many Catholic commentators today speak with an ignorance at best, an outright hostility at worst, towards the Church as it has existed before the Second Vatican Council. Their error is just like that of the traditionalist who declares Vatican II as breaking with dogmatic Catholic teaching. Today’s modern mind accepts that there has been a radical change, yet this was a good change. To them, the Church before Vatican II was either wrong or insensitive to many pressing questions of the Church.

Christopher West and many apologists carry this in their interpretation of Theology of the Body. Before TOB, the Church was hostile towards sex. Now, the Church finally understands sexuality. Comparing the Church to a teenager in puberty, West infers that the Church is just now beginning to understand the truth of sex. This would certainly come as news to the 2,000 years of Catholics who converted the sex crazed Greeks and Romans!

One classic example of this hermeneutic comes when discussing the issue of occasions of sin. Traditionally, the Church has taught that when one finds themselves in an occasion of sin, especially involving lust that comes from concupiscence (our inordinate desire towards sin), we are to avoid that occasion. Christopher West views this as lacking “mature purity.” For as he says in his book Theology of the Body Explained:

Trusting our own freedom to control concupiscence and to choose the good can be very threatening. It is much easier to distrust ourselves and hold our hearts in continual suspicion. But this is the antithesis of the meaning of life. We are called to set our eyes on Christ, get out of the boat, and walk on water. Many Christians, it seems, stay in the boat for fear of sinking if they were to get out. This may seem like a “safer” approach. … The truth of human life ... can only be found on the water amidst the wind and the waves—in the drama of putting faith to the test and learning to walk with our eyes set on the Lord (Page 274, revised edition)

I know what West and those like him are trying to do here. Placing their faith in the Resurrection, they boldly proclaim that Christ can transform our disordered desires towards that which is pure. No Catholic should disagree with this part. Yet is the best way to acquire this to look for it “on the water amidst the waves”? There is a certain ambiguity in this statement, and if one is not careful, I submit they are placing themselves in grave danger.

Should we look to “put our faith to the test?” The Scriptures would seem to tell a different story:

Then the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple, And said to him: If you be the Son of God, cast yourself down, for it is written: That he has given his angels charge over you, and in their hands shall they bear you up, lest perhaps you dash your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him: It is written again: You shall not tempt the Lord your God.

Of course, Christ was not in an occasion of sin here. Yet if Christ would refuse to put God to the test here, why should we in occasions of sin? Are we to go into these occasions, thinking “oh my purity is strong enough” and expect God to transform us? Is this not putting God to the test? What is to happen if we do not hearken to God transforming us? That is why the wise person never willingly places themselves in occasions of sin. He is conscious of his own nature to avoid them, knowing they are a weakness.

But what of Peter? When Christ asked Peter to walk on water, this again was not in the context of an occasion of sin. In the context, we see Christ’s disciples afraid of a ravaging storm. Christ appears and calms the storm. In their disbelief, Christ then states that this should not surprise them. Peter, then in his impetuosity, desires to walk on water. As he begins to walk on water, he becomes afraid, and begins drowning. Christ rebukes him for his lack of faith. The only way this would be made congruous would be to state that Christ places us in situations where lust is a real danger, demanding we overcome them. If that is what Mr. West and his ilk are saying, perhaps they should come out and say it. I think if that is what they said, most people would realize this for the wrong idea that it is.

I believe the Scriptures show a better way, and that better way is in the story of Elijah, as recounted in the first book of Kings, Chapter 19. In the context, Elijah has just won a great victory over the priests of Baal. When fire consumed his sacrifice, he proved Yahweh as the one true God, and all the priests of Baal were slaughtered by the people. The evil Jezebel becomes enraged at this action (for she was a devout follower of Baal), and causes Elijah to go into exile. Terrified for his life, he finds solace under a tree:

Then Elijah was afraid, and rising up, he went wherever he had a mind: and he came to Bersabee of Juda, and left his servant there, and he went forward, one day's journey into the desert. And when he was there, and sat under a juniper tree, he requested for his soul that he might die, and said: It is enough for me, Lord; take away my soul: for I am no better than my fathers. And he cast himself down, and slept in the shadow of the juniper tree: and behold an angel of the Lord touched him, and said to him: Arise and eat. He looked, and behold there was at his head a hearth cake, and a vessel of water: and he ate and drank, and he fell asleep again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said to him: Arise, eat: for you have yet a great way to go. And he arose, and ate and drank, and walked in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights, unto the mount of God, Horeb.

We see here that the great prophet’s soul was supremely troubled. So troubled was his soul, he wished death. While not necessarily an occasion of sin, this could certainly be analogous. God does not tell him to “test his faith” by returning to square off against Jezebel. Instead, he is nourished with heavenly food, and told to retreat into solitude, deep into Arabia. When he reached Arabia in this time of deep solace, God again appears to him. Telling him to take courage, God orders Elijah outside where he will see God’s presence. We then read:

And he said to him: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord: and behold the Lord passes, and a great and strong wind before the Lord, overthrowing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: but the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake: but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire: but the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, a whistling of a gentle air. And when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his mantle, and coming forth, stood in the entering in of the cave, and behold a voice unto him, saying: What do you here, Elias?

In this instance, Elijah found God’s presence in the “stillness” (as other translations have it.) The voice of God was not within the tumult and grandiose manifestations of the world at this point, but rather in that silence. The lesson from this is clear. When one is troubled, retreat into solitude, and listen for the stillness of the Holy Spirit to guide us. At that point, separated from all that troubles our soul (in the occasions of sin), we find the ability to truly transform ourselves! After receiving this strength in solitude, Elijah then continues on his mission. Ironically, that is not back into the same situation, but to anoint those who will execute God’s vengeance upon the house of Ahab.

To retreat from occasions of sin is not prudery, it is wisdom. There may be times when we are unable to retreat fully. In those instances, yes, we must trust in the Lord to guide us. Yet we should not constantly put ourselves in danger. While God will deliver from the lion’s den, this does not give us a license to go jump into the pit at our nearest zoo.

When one reads John Paul II, he teaches precisely this thought, in accordance with the traditional teachings of the Church regarding the occasions of sin:

For those who beseech the Father not to be tempted beyond their own strength and not to succumb to temptation, and for those who do not expose themselves to occasions of sin, being subjected to temptation does not mean that they have sinned; rather it is an opportunity for growing in fidelity and consistency through humility and watchfulness (Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Penitentia)

Note well what it is said by the Holy Father. He does not counsel “putting faith to the test” and “risking it” regarding occasions of sin. Rather, he praises those who seek to avoid such instances. However, there will still be temptation, even if we avoid those occasions of sin. At that point, temptation becomes a chance to grow in holiness. That holiness is not found in charging into the situation. It is found in being acutely aware of our weaknesses, and instead finding strength from God away from those situations, so that when we have to deal with those temptations (for they will find us), they are a chance to grow in faith and love of God.

For those who equate being sensible with prudery, such an interpretation is impossible. Yet I submit it is their interpretation which is not wise. This is not a game. Fortune favors the prudent even more than the brave.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: Original Sin and the Call Home

Having established the condemnation of the devil previously, we now turn to the ramifications of Original Sin for man. In that short moment of partaking of the forbidden tree, everything changes. Indeed, when reflecting on this story, one cannot help but feel a sense of great sadness by the actions of our previous parents. Genesis tells us the following about the condemnation of our first parents in human history, starting with Eve:

To the woman also he said: I will multiply your sorrows, and your conceptions: in sorrow shall you bring forth children, and you shall be under your husband's power, and he shall have dominion over you.
Just like with the devil, the precise opposite of what they hoped for is received. Eve used her persuasion to win over Adam in eating of the fruit. In a real sense, she gained authority over him. Now, that changes. In the state of nature now, things are reversed. Adam is a dominus over Eve, her master.

There are those who have used this teaching in Gensis to justify the harsh treatment and oppression of women in society. In doing so, they fail to realize that this result is a consequence of sin, not Divine Providence. As we shall see later, even if we suffer the results of this fall, God calls us beyond the fall. For now, that is all we will say about this. Yet remember this paragraph as we continue our series. To Adam, the consequences are just as dire and severe:

And to Adam he said: Because you have hearkened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded you, that you should not eat, cursed is the earth in your work: with labour and toil shall you eat thereof all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, and you shall eat the herbs of the earth. In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread till you return to the earth out of which you were taken: for dust you are, and into dust you shall return.

Some read this and think “Adam got off light.” If we have a proper understanding of Genesis, we know this not to be the case. We know from the creation account that even before Eve was formed, Adam was given dominion over every creature on Earth. He was also given dominion over the entire Garden of Eden and the agriculture of the Earth.

In response to sin, all of Adam’s authority is twisted upside down. Rather than having dominion over the Earth (in bringing forth fruit with little effort), the ground resists man’s attempts to grow food. Now we must work hard to get what we want, rather than it being given freely as a gift. In a certain sense, our authority over the land is eroded.

Most importantly, death enters the world on account of Adam’s sin. This right here shows that far from getting off light, the harshest of punishments were reserved for Adam, and occurred because of Adam. The man who was originally created to live forever and keep God’s garden would now be ejected from that garden, engage in back-breaking labor his entire life, and die. It is from here one could even develop a certain formation for the man being the “breadwinner” of the family. In a very real sense, man works as part of an apology to the woman for his actions. Had the first man not sinned, the situation would not be as it is today.

We must return briefly to the phrase “he will have dominion over you.” For the man, this is hardly a satisfactory situation. He always had a certain authority, being the first of creation of man. Yet just as his mastery over the ground and crops are twisted by sin, so will that authority over his wife. Rather than exist as one to protect her and lead, he must struggle with the inclination to dominate her, using her for his own ambitions. Far from giving happiness, this selfishness of the man makes a marriage and society as a whole worse. When he engages in the kind of authority that seeks to dominate a person, he gives into the disordered desires of the heart, a consequence of the fall.

For the purpose of building a narrative, I would like to skip forward just a bit. After cursing Adam and Eve, casting them from Eden, God declares:

And he said: Behold Adam has become as one of us, knowing good and evil: now therefore lest perhaps he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. And the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken. And he cast out Adam: and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
There are some who would say “see, he really did become as a god!” Yet one can see in here a rebuke of Adam’s pride. Far from having authority over good and evil, now evil has a strong hold over him. Out of concern for Adam does he banish him from the tree of life, not out of the threat Adam now poses! If Adam continued to eat of the tree of life, he would live forever, yet still have this disordered condition on account of sin. As human history will make all too clear, the desires of men will launch unbelievable perversities in their desire for power, but also out of fear for security.

Now if one leaves the story just here, things do indeed look pretty grim. Our first parents have been corrupted by sin, and driven from their original home. One may indeed think that the Manichean/Gnostic argument about the evil of the flesh is correct reading just this. Yet we know that this is hardly the story.

There are two instances that I believe refute this warped understanding of our flesh, and of our natures. First, God provides fig leaves to cover Adam and Eve. He knows that their tendencies towards lust and domination will be incredibly strong. He also knows that they, being corrupted by sin, would never choose (with all of the ramifications) the means to gain a full victory over concupiscence. (Such is impossible this side of the grave.) Yet He gives us remedies to this still. He offers fig leaves to cover ourselves as a way to avoid the temptation of lust, to be able to focus on the person for who they are, not what they can do for us.

The next way is through the birth of the family. There may indeed be those who claim that sex is evil or some animal desire. Left to our own devices, it most certainly is. Yet God uses these things of our nature for His own purpose in the birth of Cain. Don’t believe me? Read the beginning of Genesis 4. After Adam “knew” his wife, a son is born, and that son is obtained “through God.” Our God is not a God of evil. The command to be fruitful and multiply still exists, even after the entrance of sin into the world. Even the first moment after sin, God begins to call man back to himself. The same occurred with the birth of Abel.

Unfortunately, even the non-believer knows what happened next in the story of Cain and Abel. Yet having established what we had earlier, let us look at the story in a new light:

And it came to pass after many days, that Cain offered, of the fruits of the earth, gifts to the Lord. Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceeding angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to him: Why are you angry? And why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall you not receive? But if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? But the lust thereof shall be under you, and you shall have dominion over it. And Cain said to Abel his brother: Let us go forth abroad. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him.

Within these two men is contained in a very real sense all of humanity. On the one side, we have those who strive to control their passions and sinful natures like Abel. While they may never reach that perfect and total victory, they still realize that sin is deplorable, and seek to do well in avoiding it. Because of this desire and action to please God, He looks with favor upon the sacrifice of Abel.

Cain on the hand represents the worldly way of thinking, even in religion. Like his brother, he lives in a state of sin. Yet unlike Abel, he does not try to wage war against it. He essentially takes it as it comes. Since he is powerless to achieve that complete victory on his own, why bother? When told that there is another way to live his life, he takes it not as a loving correction. Wrath enters his heart alongside the jealousy he has. Just like today, the world persecutes those who seek to follow God; to overcome the domination sin has on them. They persecute because they understand it is possible, yet they refuse to give up that which they currently do. As a result of this, Cain murders his brother.

Horrendous as this act is, we must remember just as much the words of God to Cain, calling us to fight that dominion over sin. While we may have sinned, we are not to desire or accept sin’s master over us. Unfortunately, things will get a lot worse before people begin to pay attention to this lesson.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Are Traditionalists Closet Manicheans?

One of the best ways to win an argument is to paint your opponent not just wrong or misguided, but evil and heretical. It is a lot easier to attack the motives and the soul of an individual (which nobody can rightly judge) than it is to attack objective arguments and ideas (which can be judged by a strict standard.) I believe this is what we are seeing amongst many prominent defenders of certain interpretations of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

Recently, under the “theology of the body” section at the website Catholic Exchange, Christina King does precisely this. According to Miss King:

I was told by a priest that I was not allowed to wear pants because I was an attractive woman and to do so would lead men to sin. I had many of the women comment that I should not work and that I should not wear make-up or extensive jewelry as it adorns the body. I remember at one point when there was a discussion to restore an older church, most of the argumentation was by members appalled that the Institute was raising money to make fill it with beautiful things. No Gold, no statues! No paintings! It was remarked by many that these “things” take the attention away from Jesus and are all aesthetic beauty and sinful to spend money on. This reminds me of Caryll Houselanders book “The Reed of God” in which she says in her chapter “The word made flesh” that some have such a fear of the body that they even reject beautiful things in churches. This is all a part of the Manichean heresy and it is alive and well among conservative groups. To say that it is not alive and well in the Church today is ignorance. Yes, pornography is rampant in our culture; however, the knee jerk reaction of many conservative Catholics has been to run the other direction and so it seems the two extremes do in fact exist.

For the record, I belong to one of these “conservative” groups. (She is referring to those attending the extraordinary form of the Roman liturgy, the common term for them being “traditionalists.”) I cannot speak with any certainty if what she says is true (she provides absolutely no evidence for this, I especially doubt that traditionalists rejected adding adornments to their parish, since traditional churches are normally covered with statues, gold, etc. There needs to be more proof of this.) Yet there can be problems at times along these lines. Yet is this really a latent Manichaeism under the heart of Catholics? Or is this just another gratuitous swipe against traditionalists? (Which their crowd has made a cottage industry out of.) Or is the person simply way out of their league, having no clue what they speak on? Most of those who play the heretic card come from the third school. I intend to demonstrate that whatever she may feel, she is way out of her league, and should leave the leveling of heretical charges to where it belongs: The Magisterium.

First, let us give a little bit of a background on what Manichaeism is. The Manicheans followed their prophet Mani (one does not know his real name, the title means the illustrious and he became known as that.) The religion founded by Mani was a synthesis of a lot of the major religions of that timeframe, with some superficial Christian elements, that flourished throughout the East. Their theology was heavily dualistic. In other words, there were two “forces” (gods) in the world, a non-omnipotent god of light (good), and a force of darkness (evil.) Skipping some interesting cosmology that would make modern readers wonder what psychedelic drugs Mani was on, we get to the crux of the issue. Mankind was the creation of the evil power, the creation of demons, as part of their plan to rebel against the light. The “luminous being” (ironically called jesus, but a pantheistic concoction, not as we would understand it) made man see the truth, and they cursed their bodies, living a life of rigid discipline and self-denial, loathing their flesh. Matter and all creation on this planet were evil, and the just soul had to abstain from them as much as possible in freeing the light (the good spirit) from our evil bodies. They also opposed entirely marriage, because through marriage, the status quo of the imprisonment of good within flesh continued.

One need not be an expert on the traditionalist movement to understand it believes none of these things. Central to the entire traditionalist concept of church architecture is that matter is not evil, and churches should be adorned with the finest of the finest. Far from taking away from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it heightens it. It’s why we have such an emphasis on the location of the tabernacle in relation to the altar for example. Every Sunday the prologue to John’s Gospel is proclaimed, stressing the importance of the Incarnation and the goodness of human flesh, since our Lord took it. To say traditionalists frown on pro-creation, well, one has never been to a Latin Mass if they say that. The average family at your Latin Mass has been married for 6-7 years, and they have 5-6 children. Nor do they teach that their soul is good but their body evil, since many of the prayers of the liturgy asks for the health of soul and body. Both are transformed by the grace of the Eucharist.

This leaves us with one of two conclusions. One, the author is being deliberately dishonest. The second is more likely. She actually has really no clue what a Manichean is. She heard the word floated around, it has a nice evil ring to it, and her opponents can get tarred and feathered with it.

There are some who will attempt to say “well, their attitudes regarding modesty and sexuality are Manichean, since they are afraid to talk about sex!” Here they see a correlation, and imply traditionalists and Manicheans are identical. This is obviously a fallacy. Scrupulosity, regrettable as it is, is not heretical. The scrupulous individual does not deny an article of the Catholic faith.

Yet even if one has a balanced understanding of the faith, one can think that the current craze over sex, based on a false understanding of John Paul II, is taking things a little too far. The objections of many are not just prudish sensibilities; they are a natural reaction of pious souls when they say “something is not right.”

What about the complaint that when it comes to sexuality, we go to the "opposite extreme?"  Since no evidence was provided, again, it is tough to substantiate.  Yet I'm going to assume that since traditionalists are really big into modesty, and we tend not to talk about sexuality much.

To the first, one needs to distingiush between modesty and prudery.  Sure, there are those who dress modest simply out of "not wanting to entice men."  Yet to say all or even a majority of traditionalists are like that is a gross slander.

We are not primitive cultures, where everyone walks around naked.  As all civilizations grow in their ability to become civilized, they began to adorn themselves with clothing, an outward sign of an inward reality, of the dignity of the individual.  When I go to Mass, I wear a white button down, dress pants, and dress slacks.  I don't wear this to attract the attention of women (they really aren't getting much in that department!).  I wear it because they are amongst the best clothing I have.  Since the Sunday Mass is the most important part of my week, my clothing represents this.

Likewise, when a woman dresses modestly, she is not saying "I need to cover myself up, lest men lust after me."  At least she should not be saying just this.  Rather, she says "I am a woman, a creature of God, but I am more than just a physical body.  My choice of dress will show beauty, but also sophistication.  Elegance, but also simplicity."  Something that has the aim of raising the human person cannot in its very nature be Manichean.

Let us take the classic example “women should never wear pants.” I myself dated a girl with this worldview. I found it simplistic and wrong, yet that’s a far cry from Manichean. Far from stating matter was evil, they believe what they do because they want to emphasize the beauty in the difference between male and female. One might think they have an interesting way of going about it, but that’s different than stating they are a heretic.

Others will protest that we are prudes because we do not talk about sex enough.  I say we just do not view sex through the prism of absolutely everything in our life.  Men and women are not sexual animals.  They are social in nature.  There is more to society than sex.  Sex is also a great mystery.  Indeed, it is one of the highest of mysteries that ordinary individuals will partake in.  As a result, there is a certain reverence given to it.  I won't talk in-depth about sexuality with some random woman, not because I hate my body and view sex evil, but because I view thse things as of the highest nature, and in many cases words cannot do justice.  One can only visit my secular friends, who will watch my eyes roll when a sexual joke is made, or the topic is talked about too much.  Does this make me a Manichean?  Not if words have meaning!

Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s a lot sexier to label someone as a heretic than someone who is seeking to protect a good, yet you might disagree with the way they seek it. Leave these judgments to the Church when it comes to heresy. If you cannot substantiate your case without wild assertions, perhaps you need to examine if you ever had a strong case to begin with.

Monday, August 2, 2010

God is a Stalker and other nonsense from the TOB Congress

This past weekend, there was the first Theology of the Body Congress.  Being honest, if God is merciful, it will be the last.  Before I get into this further, I guess I should outline my basic thoughts on the Theology of the Body.

For those not in the know, The Theology of the Body (from now on, TOB) was a series of lessons given by Pope John Paul II given as the first major initiative of his pontificate.  He aimed at ultimately an adequate explanation and defense of the Churches ban on contraception in Humanae Vitae.  In the larger picture, he attempted to provide a Catholic answer to the sexual revolution, showing how modern society misuses and abuses the human body in the realm of sexuality, relationships, and marriage.  In doing so, he presented that which was ageless to a contemporary audience.  Some found it controversial, but most agreed that some valuable developments were contributed.

In the wake of TOB, an explosion of scholarship and interest regarding these matters manifested.  Some of it has been outstanding, providing understanding to Catholics in how they can overcome the evils of modern society, particularly in the sexual realm.  Other times, various speakers have confused the manner, sparking very heated debate amongst Catholics on the way to properly understand all of these manners.  

It is the contention of this author that a lot of these problems stem from a defect in the approach of these authors such as Christopher West, Dr. Janet Smith, etc.  They treat TOB as a break from previous Catholic teaching.  This is unmistakable.  They like the vain man Ecclesiastes speaks of, sees something and says "behold, this is new!"  This divorce from the greater Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition can lead to a lot of problems.  Some will counter that they get certain things right, and that provides immense benefit.

Of course they do, they are still giving Catholicism!  The truth is still the truth.  Yet when this truth is not sufficiently grounded in those 2,000 years of tradition, the truth is obscured.  They wade into waters they have no clue of, and many times, run into some rocks along the way.

With this in mind, we look at some of the statements members of the TOB Congress said through their twitter setup this weekend.  In doing so, they are doing a grave disservice to the Pope they so loved, and a grave disservice to the Catholic truth as a whole.

[Dr. Janet Smith:] The 1st thing we need to know is God is chasing us down like a lover. Every lover is a pathological stalker. God is a stalker. #TOBCongress via TweetDeck
 [Dr. Helen Alvare:] Sex ed programs need to focus on teaching young people "I am a gift" & "My fertility is a gift." These programs are successful. #TOBCongress via TweetDeck
[Father Roger Landry:] God the Holy Spirit has been poured into our heart to help us live out TOB. We need to be open to that. #TOBCongress 9:37 PM Jul 29th via TweetDeck  

Fr. [Thomas] Loya: TOB is not a big idea. It is THE big idea. #TOBCongress

Sr. Helena [Burns]: TOB is a locomotive: Lead, Follow or Get out of the way! #TOBCongress 1:12 PM Jul 30th via TweetDeck

Fr. Loya: For the last 500 yrs, we've been looking through a veil of unreality. #TOBCongress 1:05 PM Jul 30th via TweetDeck

[Fr. Loya, continued from above]: We have not really seen what the world looks like through true Catholic vision. JPII took away the veil to help us see! #TOBCongress 1:05 PM Jul 30th via TweetDeck  

[From Sr. Helena Burns' Twitter feed:] From TOB Congress: Y'all just have to get ALL the audio CDs! Every talk is fantastic! $199.00 610-696-7795 via web
To those who claim that TOB is a "locomotive", telling us to lead follow, or get out of the way, I offer what I will call "The Gandalf Defense."  I, and countless other faithful Catholics, have no intention of getting out of the way and letting such nonsense be spouted.  Neither shall we lead or follow.  To the extent we can, we will not allow such nonsense.

Note well my initial statement about how many of these people divorce themselves from Catholic tradition.  A classic example is the statement that for the last 500 years, the Church has essentially lacked realism, and that only TOB has brought that realism.  Now we go well beyond what John Paul II ever intended.  The irony is not lost on me that some of the defenders of what is supposed to be an "authentic" understanding of Catholicism have taken to arguing like modernists.  For the modernist, the darkest day in the Church was 500 years ago, during the Council of Trent.  At this point, the evil institutional Church supressed authentic Christianity and replaced it with a defunct religion.  George Sim Johnston described it as a Church of "spiritual training wheels."  Only with Vatican II, so the story goes, were we finally freed from the tyranny of religion.  The fact that they would use this line of argumentation tells a faithful Catholic all they need to know.

We then hear that the problem with sex education for Catholics in school is not that it is being taught (that which is the proper place of the parent and the parent alone), it's that we aren't teaching it enough!  Somewhere in their wisdom, they believe that we should be teaching to a bunch of hormonally charged individuals constant talk about sex, in the hopes of getting them not to have sex.  Why hasn't anyone thought of this approach before?  Oh wai..........

Then we come to what I view as the greatest whopper of them all.  Dr. Janet Smith describes God as a "pathological stalker."  We all use analogies to attempt to arrive at a deeper understanding.  There is a limit to these analogies.  This one was broken long ago.  Stalking implies prey.  Prey implies a predator.  If one stalks, they are ultimately terrorizing an individual.  Their "love", long perverted by sin, has now turned into an obsession, divorced from the very concept of being a gift to someone else.  Does this sound like something God would do to man?  Where is stalking "holy?"

There are those who attempt to appeal to such imagery as "The Hound of Heaven", which analogizes God to watching unseen man who is always trying to avoid Him.  There's a certain beauty in that understanding, but not in the context of stalking.  Instead, it is the God who seeks the return of His wayward children.  He pursues them, as a man pursues the one he wishes to marry.  Yet in the end, the person is free to accept or reject this proposal.  With stalking, such consent is irrelevant.  The person is stalked, even if they make a definitive rejection.

We need to be very careful when ascribing such analogies to God.  There are clear limits, and if one is not careful, ascribing human sentiments and actions towards that which is not human but the One True God is fraught with peril.  Yet this is also the crowd which ascribes the dipping of the Easter Candle as a giant phallus engaging in sexual activity.  The crowd which states that the bed of a husband and wife is the sacrificial Eucharistic altar.  They are way beyond such careful distinctions.

We seriously need a new understanding of TOB.  One that doesn't contain all of this nonsense, and is wedded to the great Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition of these manners.

H/T to the indispensable Dawn Eden, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite joys to read.