Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Difficulties of "The Apologetic Mindset"

In the January issue of First Things, David Mills writes about the issue of apologetics. What he said has so far triggered quite a bit of discussion. He states the following:

I think Mark is right about this. Culture precedes apologetics—or maybe it would be more accurate to say apologetics only matters for the believer when it leads him to a greater comfort with or confidence in the culture that has formed and continues to form him, freeing him from doubts so that the culture can mold him more deeply. (Critical reflection on that culture and argument is the job of theology, and theology may, of course, suggest doubts. It’s complicated, as they say in movies.)

Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees might apply to many of us, cut rate Gnostics that we are, who assume—partly, perhaps, because we like to argue and think we’re good at it—that knowledge and particularly success in argument is the essence of the Faith. We could easily be found praying “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that poor guy over there with his holy cards, who wouldn’t know what to say to Richard Dawkins,” when he is having a lively and intimate conversation with Our Lord, His Mother, and several saints with whom we are not yet on speaking terms.

Pride goes before a fall, as Proverbs notes. Accepting an argument is not conviction, even when you think the argument final and conclusive. You may change your life or your life may be changed and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem so final and conclusive any more. We can all think of obvious cases when someone made a moral choice, usually sexual, that led him to reject beliefs he had believed with all his heart and mind, and should assume that we might be equally affected by choices more subtle and harder to see. That you can defend a doctrine now and win does not mean you will believe it tomorrow.
Anyone who has read my works over the years has known I have talked about a similar problem. I’m grateful to see this getting a far wider exposure. I’d like to return to this theme today.

I have never been an “anti-apologist.” I think the apologetics movement within Catholicism in the last 35 years is one of the most important trends in the Church in the 20th century. The apologetics movement has provided a valuable frontline defense against those who seek to attack the Church. St. Peter tells us that we must be able to give a reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15), and the apologetics movement is just one way of doing this.

That being said, there are some difficulties. Many Catholic apologists in this age of social networking and the blogosphere have long ago stopped writing about actual apologetics. They feel their expertise in apologetics (an expertise earned) makes them relevant on various other matters as well, some of which aren’t even remotely religious. (One could read Mark Shea’s rants on foreign affairs and “torture” and one realizes there’s really nothing pro or anti-Catholic about them, they are simply an attempt to use alleged Church teachings to mask his political beliefs.

This trend has proven quite disastrous when many of the apologists started wading into matters where Catholics of good will could take varying prudential stances. With a few notable exceptions, the apologetics movement had some of the harshest critics of those who were attached to the Latin Mass and various approaches to handling the faith. It wasn’t enough to accept Vatican II as a valid ecumenical council whose decrees are binding upon the faithful. It had to be “the highest form of thought the Church has ever had.” (To paraphrase Dave Armstrong in a dispute I had with him in the past.) To say that John Paul II did some good and some not so good things is indeed beyond the pale. If you don’t refer to him as “John Paul the Great”, it is evidence you are resisting the Holy Ghost. These are prudential matters that cannot be solved by the intellectual formulations of apologetics. Catholics of goodwill are free to take a variety of positions on these and countless other issues.

I think it goes without saying that many in the apologetics movement have well overstepped this boundary. Part of the problem is what I call the curse of “Career Catholicism.” For many of them, defending the faith is not just their vocation, but their occupation. They need to put food on the table through it for their families. The only problem with this is unless you are really good at what you do; you can only beat a dead horse so many times. If you’ve been writing apologetics at least once a week for 3 years, you’ve basically demonstrated all that is wrong with Protestantism. Yet your children still need to eat. So people start going into other areas they really have no business being in, but attempt to speak with the same level of authority. In the secular world, this is known as the mentality of “publish or perish.”

These issues, while problematic, can be easily managed. It simply requires a greater humility (never a bad thing) and knowing your limits. The problem I wish to outline next does real damage, and ties back into the point Mr. Mills made.

The mindset prominent amongst many apologists today is that of what I have derisively called “sola intellectua.” In this mindset, the Catholic Church is simply a proposition of intellectual formations. Provided one demonstrates an intellectual belief in a given doctrine or principle, that is the height of catholicity. This is obviously wrong. As Fulton Sheen famously said, “Catholics do not submit a dogma. They submit to a person, Jesus Christ.” The intellectualism problem infects all circles of Catholicism. One can see it particularly on display in the debates surrounding Christopher West. It is practically a belief of “sola fide” in Theology of the Body, and one will be cured from all the ills of this vale of tears.

This approach is in error because Jesus Christ engages more than just our intellects. Our reason and intellect are of great importance, but we cannot stop there. Jesus Christ engages us in every aspect of our life. Understanding the pedagogical mission of the Church might be great for a lecture or a thesis paper, but what does it tell you about living the everyday aspects of your faith? Not much.

These sorts of things have dropped to the wayside. Rather than placing apologetics against culture, we need to make sure that instead, the work of apologetics flows from the greater Catholic culture.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: The Confiteor

After expressing our hope in the Lord to forgive and restore us, the priest begins the Confiteor, or public confession of sin. Why do we do this still at the foot of the altar? In saying this confession, there is a reminder that we are entering Sacred Ground to offer sacrifice for our sins. One should never approach such a duty on a whim. Rather, we need to be fully conscious of our sins.

What makes this different from your standard confessions is the audience. The priest confesses his sins before the entire heavenly host. He states:

I confess to Almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren [when the servers recite it back, father is used] that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, [here the priest strikes his breast three times] through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault

Sadly, most of these invocations have been removed in the liturgical reform. (An option remains to include the Blessed Virgin.) Why do we mention these individuals by name? Put simply, outside of God, they should be amongst the most important individuals in our lives. I would like to talk briefly about them.

With Mary and John the Baptist, we have the premier witnesses of covenants. Christ stated that in his time, there was no man born of a woman greater than John the Baptist. (Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28) He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and was Christ’s herald. Through John the world learned the identity of Christ.

For the New Covenant, we mention God’s greatest creation in the Virgin Mary. Before the world was created, God had decreed that she would be the mother of God incarnate. Because of this role, she was preserved from the stain of sin during her conception. When she gave birth, her virginity remained, even during the moment of birth. She is the greatest advocate of the Church, her children. She demonstrated the way to fulfill the way of the Cross par excellence, for she remained at the foot of the Cross even until the end.

With St. Michael, we acknowledge his role as guardian of all Christians. The book of Daniel speaks at length of how St. Michael the Archangel is the one who defends the people of God. In the Apocalypse of St. John, it is St. Michael who wages war against the devil and casts him out of heaven. Yet he does nothing by his own power. Faced with the Devil, he only declared “The Lord rebuke you!”

Finally, we implore the intercession in particular of Sts. Peter and Paul. We implore their intercession because they were, in their particular ways, the two chiefs of the Apostles. St. Peter was the rock on which the Church was built, and St. Paul was the greatest of her early teachers and evangelists. Most importantly, they were the founders of the Church of Rome. The Gradual and Offertory for their feast day refers to them as ”principes super omnem terram”, princes over all the earth. If we belong to the Roman Rite, we belong to the specific Church they founded. If anything is to be done in our Church, it should be done in accordance with how they willed it.

Now there will be some who would get the false impression that by “confessing” our sins before these individuals, it is they who forgive sins alongside the Father. This however is a clear misunderstanding. For right after their witness is requested, the following appears:

Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and you brethren [or father] to pray for me to the Lord our God.

We see clearly from this text it is God who forgives our sins. We are simply asking that these chief witnesses of the Catholic Faith pray to God alongside us, interceding for us daily for that forgiveness granted by God. We ask John the Baptist to pray to the Lord he declared before the world for us, and remind us always of that confession of faith he made. We ask the Blessed amongst Women to pray for us with her powerful intercession before her Son, and most importantly that we always remember her command “do whatever he tells you.” We implore Saint Michael for his intercession and also to be led in God’s army by him as we ourselves wage in our own spiritual combat with the forces of darkness, as we wage against sin. We ask for Sts. Peter and Paul because of their special connection to us as Catholics of the Roman Rite, and that we not dishonor that Church they founded.

Let us never fail to seek the intercession of these most powerful witnesses of our faith.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: The Altar of God

After signing themselves in the name of the Trinity, the priest and servers begin the Mass.  The Mass starts with the proclamation of Introibo ad Altare Dei.  I will go unto the altar of God.  The servers respond "To God that giveth joy to my youth."

In this short exchange one could see the entirety of salvation history.  We rejected the joy that God gives in the Garden of Eden.  In varying degrees, that joy is rejected any time we sin.  We prefer the "joy" we provide for ourselves (which can never truly satisfy) rather than what God willed for us.

Christ came to change this situation.  Through His sacrifice, that joy is once again given to humanity.  Yet like before, we can choose to reject it.  Contained in that statement is our own reversal of the devil's original offer to our first parents.  While the world seeks their own desires and needs, we seek God's mercy.

Imploring that mercy, we ask to be judged according to that mercy.  This is done by the priest and servers alternating responses in Psalm 42:

Judge me O God, and dinstiguish my cause from the nation that is not holy, deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.

For Thou art God, my strength:  why hast Thou cast me off?  and why do i go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?

Send forth Thy light and Thy truth:  they have conducted me and brought me unto Thy holy hill, and into Thy tabernacles.

And I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth.

To Thee o God, my God, I will give praise upon the harp; why art thou sad, O my soul, and why dost thou disquiet me?

Hope in God, for I will give praise to Him:  the salvation of my countenance and my God.
What is requested is the sanctifying of the Church, a sanctification in the classic sense of the term.  When something was sanctified, it was set apart.  While everything else had multiple uses and functions, that which was sanctified was meant for one purpose, and one purpose only.  The priest in saying this prayer is reminded of the fact that his very vocation was meant for the offering of the Eucharist.  The faithful are reminded of their own priestly nature by baptism where their job is to offer their very existence to the Father.

Due to sin, we will stray from that vocation from time to time.  Yet when that happens, we must always remember our job as Catholics:  to approach the altar of God.  The true altar is the Cross.  Sometimes sacrifice is offered on the altar.  Sometimes, the sacrifice of a contrite heart is offered as we approach the altar.  Other times, it is a sacrifice of thanksgiving that is presented to the altar for the priest to offer.  One way or another, our job is at the Holy Cross.

To remind us of our sinful nature and our refusal to be mastered by it, a verse from Psalm 123 is then recited:

Our help is in the name of the Lord
Who made heaven and earth
Only through God's help can we expect to perform the job that is our calling, our vocation.  Only through God can we receive true joy that comes about from fulfilling what we were created for.  We are a people of the Cross, and only the Cross.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: The Sign of the Cross

During the 4th century, there was a Roman general by the name of Flavius Constantinus.  Like all powerful generals of his time, Constantinus had imperial ambitions.  Being one of the four rulers of the entire empire was not enough.  He desired to be sole Emperor.  As civil war (a very frequent occurrence in the Roman world) erupted, it is said this pagan general was visited in a dream by who he perceived to be a great Spirit.

That great Spirit identified Himself as Jesus of Nazareth, and instructed Constantinus to have a new standard for his troops to march under.  Shaped in what they would perceive to be a Cross, the general was told "in this sign shall you conquer."  He complied with the vision and prepared for battle, the troops marching under this new sign.  Despite being outnumbered (some reports say that his foe had double his forces), his forces won a decisive victory.  Constantinus entered Rome and became known from that day forth in the history books as the Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, and one of the greatest Caesars Rome ever had.

We may never know the truth of what happened that day.  Yet this story is instructive, for it provides I believe the attitude we should have as we approach the altar at Mass when it begins.  For we mark ourselves with that same sign as Mass begins.

As the priest enters the sanctuary, he goes to the foot of the altar.  Before even ascending the steps, he marks himself with the sign of the cross saying the words: "In Nomine Partis, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.  Amen."  In English, we know them as "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  While Constantine may have done this with aspirations of victory in physical combat, the priest (and all faithful) mark ourselves with this sign as we enter spiritual warfare.  We know that through the Holy Cross, the Devil was conquered.  We remind both ourselves and him of that fact when we begin the Mass.  It is during the Mass this conquering is made present to the world.

Through this sign we also indicate whom the Mass is offered to.  The Mass, and all of our lives, is meant to be offered to the Holy Trinity.  Each distinctive person of the Trinity plays a particular role in the Mass.  By signing ourselves by their name, we should call to mind those roles.  We call to mind the Father who created us and desired union with us.  We call to mind the Son who redeemed us when we rejected that offer of union.  Finally, we call to mind the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us through the merits of Christ's sacrifice and leads us on the path towards that union.  In that pledge, our dedication to the Three in One is renewed.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: Praying the Mass

Continuing in our series on the Extraordinary Form, I have attempted to outline several approaches that I feel are necessary for truly understanding the Mass.  A popular caricature of the Latin Mass is the priest speaking silently to himself while everyone just fumbles through their rosary beads during Mass.  That the faithful were at Mass could almost be viewed as irrelevant in such a scenario.

Like all caricatures, there is a hint of truth to them.  There are times when people will pray the Rosary during Mass in times past.  This is almost non-existent nowadays, but there is some benefit at times.  To associate with holy thoughts during the Sacrifice of Calvary is never a bad thing.  To meditate especially on the Sorrowful Mysteries during this event cannot be faulted.

Yet I believe Holy Mother Church calls us to something far greater.  This individual in such a scenario would be "praying at Mass."  St. Pius X called us to "pray the Mass."  He states:

The Holy Mass is a prayer itself, even the highest prayer that exists.  It is the Sacrifice, dedicated by our Redeemer at the Cross, and repeated every day on the Altar.  [1]  If you wish to hear mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart and mouth all that happens at the Altar.  Further, you must pray with the Priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him.  You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the Altar.  When acting in this way you have prayed Holy Mass.
We find in this quote the beauty of the Mass.  The Mass is not just the function of the priest and the servers at the altar.  If if is that way in our parish and in our hearts, we are doing it wrong.  Every person should be truly participating in the Mass.  How can one expect the grace of the Eucharist to be fruitful if received by a soul that is not fully involved with the Eucharistic sacrifice?

Many people have twisted this perfectly noble concept however.  To them, participation means "doing something" almost always in the vocal and emotive.  People are called to clap their hands, move around, play guitars and drums, and do just about everything in the mass as lay people except consecrate the hosts themselves. (Alas; The Holy Spirit places a check on our narcissism here thankfully.)  Yet this was not participation to St. Pius X.  For St. Pius, active participation implied an interior involvement manifested by the exterior.

Our souls can perceive the symbolism because our eyes follow the symbols.  Our souls perceive the wisdom of the words of the prayers because our intellects are focused on the words being said and desiring to learn from them.  The soul is lifted up to heaven through the smelling of the incense that rises to the heavens.  our souls taste the spiritual sweetness that is the Eucharist through the reception in our mouths.  And when these senses are not sufficient, faith elevates above them.

This is the beauty of the Catholic Mass.  The Church engages the entire body and soul of the Christian.  If our faith should teach us anything, it is that prayer occurs numerous ways.  Sometimes prayer involves saying words.  Sometimes pray involves doing actions.  And other times, prayer involves being completely passive and letting God do His work.  From this it follows is that it is the obligation of every Catholic to pray the prayer that is the Catholic Mass.  We may not be able to offer the Eucharist to the heavenly altar the way the priest can, but we can offer ourselves towards the Father, and the Cross purifies that offering of ours and makes it truly acceptable to God.

It is through this understanding that the motions of the Extraordinary Form make sense.  Whether we kneel, stand, sing, speak, stay silent, these are all part of the prayer the entire people of God offer to the Trinity that is the Catholic Mass.

The Extraordinary Form: Silence is Golden

When my girlfriend began attending the EF, she told me how the biggest "difference" for her was the inclusion of silence in the Mass.  With the Ordinary Form, silence depends on how reverent the Church is.  With the EF, that silence is built right into the Mass, and with very good reason.

"But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him" says the prophet Habakkuk.  Today we live in a world where this kind of thinking is anathema.  When you are in the presence of one you respect greatly, you defer to them.  You give them the honor that is due to them, and you would want nothing you do to detract from their rightful honor.  One could say that our current liturgical consciences are infected with this sickness.  We must always have some sort of noise going on at Mass, since we try to make ourselves the center of attention.  Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger said the following about the way modern man approaches the Mass and the Eucharist:

How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words!

There are those who will have things running simply as "background noise" for to sit in silence is abhorrent.  It is in silence that we truly "hear" our souls.  With no distraction, we will end up reflecting on ourselves and on those things around us.  We will recognize the pointlessness of so much minutiae.  Hopefully, we learn to listen to God in place of these disturbances.  Elijah did not perceive the presence of God until he perceived the "stillness" in the air.

Finally, silence is an affirmation of our human weakness in the sight of God's majesty.  Nothing we understand can fully comprehend the mysteries of God.  As Alice Von Hildebrand said of such instances "silent adoration is the only response." 

That silence at Mass is most profound during the canon of the Mass, where almost all of it is prayed in silence by the priest.  Such silence is meant to be a signal for us that something very important is transpiring.  Up until this point, the liturgy could be called a work of man.  At the consecration of the Eucharist, it becomes a work of the Holy Spirit.  Only through the Holy Spirit does the change in substance take place.  I could walk up to the altar and say those words all I want, but it would still remain just bread.  Only in the priest (who receives the Holy Spirit in a very particular manner to offer said sacrifice) can the consecration occur.  Even then, it is not the priest who is saying these words, but Jesus Christ acting through the priest.  (The Latin refers to it as in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.)

What could we possibly add to this with our noise?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: "Facing the Lord"

Outside of the use of Latin, one of the most striking differences in the Latin Mass is the orientation of the priest. In popular criticism, the priest “has his back turned to the people.” There are those who think that this creates a barrier between the priest and the congregation, and that the priest is even “hiding” what he is saying. Even those who recognize this as utter nonsense still I think fail to perceive the reasons for the priest facing the altar.

In the minds of eminent liturgical scholars like Msgr. Klaus Gamber and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), there was no change more damaging in the liturgical reform than the change in which the priest now faces the people from behind the altar. When one considers this, I believe one finds that this is not the ranting of reactionaries, but a very insightful and principled stand. There are numerous reasons the priest faces the direction he does in the Extraordinary Form. I would like to focus on a few.

One is no doubt symbolic. In many Churches, the altar was constructed facing the east. This was because the Scriptures describe Christ as returning from the East. As we face east, we anticipate the return of Our Lord. His descent during the consecration of the Eucharist is a shadow of his eventual return in full splendor and glory at the end of the age. The knowledge of this tradition and symbolism sadly faded in the consciences of many Catholics.

When we lost this knowledge, we began to lose our understanding as a people of the Resurrection. While the Mass is indeed the making present of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, that Cross means nothing without the empty tomb. St. Paul tells us that if Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is meaningless. Implied in the Resurrection is that we will also rise again. During the Mass, we add ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice. We join ourselves to the Cross, for without the cross nothing we do can be efficacious. Yet we also express our hope in this Resurrection by directing our attention to where Christ is expected to return.

Another way of describing this orientation would be to say we are “facing God.” In the EF and in the Roman tradition (this one going back many centuries), the tabernacle was front and center on the altar. Within the tabernacle Catholics profess is Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Let me emphasize this. Catholics believe that God Incarnate exists within the tabernacle: body, blood, soul and divinity.

When we converse, we view it a common courtesy to face the person. To look away would be to imply disrespect. Those who defend Mass facing the people will jump on this. Yet they fail to understand this one simple fact: The Mass is not addressed to man. It is addressed ultimately to God. We are witnessing in a miraculous way the offering of Christ to the Father that occurs outside of time. Since our King is present on the altar, He takes the position of prominence, not a man.

Finally, we may look at the orientation of the priest as a symbol of unity. Far from the priest “turning his back” on the people creating division, the orientation of the priest is a very powerful sign of unity. The priest is a sinner, just like the people in the pews. He as well must implore God’s mercy. Though he may take a place of prominence amongst those in that respective Church, he must do the same as we do. He humbly leads his faithful towards their encounter with God.

In a rich display of this symbolism, the priest addresses the congregation right before the canon of the Mass and says:

Orate fratres, et meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud Deum Patrem omnipotentem.
Pray Brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty

Right before the most important part of the Mass, the priest turns to the people and implores their aid. He is offering Mass for the benefit of the faithful, himself included, even if the faithful are just the altar servers. The priest begs our prayers and implores us to unite our sacrifices with that which he is prepared to offer. When the priest is always facing the people, this moment loses its significance. It becomes one moment amongst many.

One could multiply the times this rich symbolism is diluted by having Mass facing the people. No longer is God the center of attention, but His servant the priest. No longer is there that rich and true egalitarianism of the priest going in the same direction as the people. Instead, he becomes the focus of attention, which the people must gaze upon. In almost all cases, the tabernacle has been removed from the place of primacy that is deserved. Instead, it is placed normally off to the side, almost as an afterthought in the liturgy. The altar no longer becomes the throne of our Blessed Lord.

Have we not lost the sacrificial understanding of the Mass today? Do not many just view it as a mere meal, rather than the making present of the sacrifice by which we granted eternal salvation as a gift from the Father? Are we not more reliant than ever on there being a priest who does the Mass properly, since so many do not? Is there not a higher demand for the “creativity” of the priest, since after all he is now the center of attention?

The entire tone of the EF is set by this simple positioning in the beginning. Let us also set ourselves accordingly.

Understanding the Extraordinary Form: Introduction

As readers of this weblog are aware, Common Sense Catholicism really is a free-flowing project. I frequently take the blog into new projects and directions. Sometimes, this is because your not so humble correspondent has a very scattered mind. Other times, it is because I feel there really needs to be a better presentation of the faith from a wide variety of topics. The latter is the cause of this next project.

I’d like to talk about the Extraordinary Form (henceforth EF) of the Roman Liturgy, better known as the “Traditional Mass”, “The Latin Mass”, “Tridentine” Mass (for reasons I do not care to go into at the time I despise this term), and so on. In writing on this topic, I hope to correct an imbalance I perceive.

In traditionalist thought, there is plenty of type over why the Extraordinary Form is superior to the Ordinary Form. (Sometimes known as the Novus Ordo, Pauline Mass, Mass of Paul VI, etc.) Yet amongst modern minds, there is little energy spent on pointing out with precision why the EF is superior on it’s own merits. This is my goal. I will do so by going through the prayers used in the EF, and giving commentary on them.

Before we do that, I would like to point out a few noticeable differences Catholics will encounter when assisting at Mass in the EF.

Why the Incarnation Matters: The Fall of Judah

Immediately following the death of Hezekiah, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Kingdom of Judah was in great shape. The Kingdom of Samaria had ceased to exist. The Assyrians had been beaten back, and were beginning to crumble. When he finally passed, Hezekiah gave to his son a peaceful and one could even say flourishing Kingdom. Most importantly, the worship of the True God flourished under his reign. The young King Manasseh would also have the prophet Isaiah to guide him just as he guided his father.

All of these assumptions, while logical, ended up being tragically mistaken. Manasseh is now remembered as one of the worst kings in the Biblical record. Normally when the writer of Kings (whom many presume to be Jeremiah the Prophet) spoke of a wicked King, he speaks of their cruelty in as short of terms as possible, states they did “wicked in the sight of the Lord” and moves on. With Manasseh, he spends considerable time detailing what he did. This I believe would imply that even amongst bad kings (of which there were several) Manasseh outdid them by far:

  • Restore the High Places throughout Judah, eliminating the centrality of worship in Jerusalem according to the law.
  • Installed pagan altars within the temple, even in place of the altar where sacrifice to Yahweh was offered
  • Built a grove in his palace for the worship of idols
  • Offered his son as a human sacrifice to idols
  • Promoted heavy use of the occult (wizards, soothsayers, divniation, etc)
  • Built a giant idol in the court of the temple and commanded worship of it
  • Murdered those who supported his fathers reforms
  • Is traditionally held as the one who ordered the execution of the Prophet Isaiah, who died by being sawn in half
In the biblical accounts, Kings were condemned as “wicked” for far less. Because of these things, the Kingdom of Judah is sent on a course for which it will never recover. For because of his actions, the Kingdom of Judah would be destroyed. The first part of this involves the punishment of Manasseh directly. Assyria invades Judah (again), and this time they capture the King. We know from historical accounts that the Assyrians were particularly brutal towards Kings that they captured, and it can be implied that Manasseh was tortured grievously.

Eventually, Manasseh repents and begs for deliverance from the God he had done so much to profane. God accepts this repentance, and he is released from captivity and restored to the throne. The remainder of his rule is spent attempting to clean the mess he had propagated for decades. This did little in the end, since the people never turned their ways. Once he died (and he was buried in the same pagan grove he had installed in his own house), his son continued his father’s wicked reign, yet refused to repent.


Josiah’s reign is far different than his father or his grandfathers. At the young age of 16 (according to the biblical accounts) Josiah begins to worship God, and begins his program of reform. Most likely this was also the time he could assert the throne without (much) interference from regents. A decade later, he discovers the book of Deuteronomy and is stunned. Let us ponder that a bit.

One would think that even if they lacked the physical book, Jews should have known the laws prescribed in the book. One would think they would know about the Sabbath and all that entails. Even if they weren’t practiced perfectly throughout times, they were known. In the time of Hezekiah, these things were completely unknown to the King. An inference would be that the successive reigns of Manasseh and Amon were so thorough in their cleansing of the religion of God that there was almost no knowledge left of it. Even those who wanted to follow Yahweh would have had no little clue how.


Inspired by the law, Josiah undertakes a massive reform. Paganism is banned, the high places are destroyed, the prostitution cults are expelled from the Kingdom, and many festivals were celebrated for the first time in centuries during his reign, despite them being in the law as obligations to celebrate. He listened to the counsels of wise priests, and was greatly assisted by his strongest defender, the prophet Jeremiah.

Sadly, all he did was buy the Kingdom of Judah time. The regional situation was rapidly shifting, and successive Kings did away with almost all of Josiah’s reforms. Within 25 years, the Kingdom was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon.

I mention this history for the purposes of painting the general background of future installments. This is also mentioned to show the providence and mercy of God, paradoxical as it seems. As was the case all too often, sinful man chose to serve himself above God. Yet even with this situation, God provides a way for the people to turn to him. Whether it was righteous Kings or prophets, there would always be a way for the Jews to find their way back to God. This will be expanded upon later, as we begin to see the theology of the Incarnation start to take concrete form.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why the Incarnation Matters: "Whom You Knew Not"

After prophesying of the future universal Kingdom of Israel, Isaiah then gives a bit of insight as to how this Kingdom will come about. Ironically (or so it would seem!), some of these foundations are laid by a man outside of the nation of Israel. Isaiah declares:

Thus saith the Lord to my anointed Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken hold of, to subdue nations before his face, and to turn the backs of kings, and to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut. I will go before thee, and will humble the great ones of the earth: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and will burst the bars of iron. And I will give thee hidden treasures, and the concealed riches of secret places: that thou mayest know that I am the Lord who call thee by thy name, the God of Israel. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have made a likeness of thee, and thou hast not known me. I am the Lord, and there is none else: there is no God, besides me: I girded thee, and thou hast not known me:
The Cyrus mentioned is Cyrus the Great. He was the great Persian King who conquered the Babylonians, along with countless other Kingdoms. In doing so, he freed the Israelis from their exile, and sent them back to their native land to rebuild their temple. In Jewish Culture, he is the only gentile to be referred to as a Christ, an anointed one who delivers God’s people. What he did is not in dispute. Yet how did he pave the way for that future Kingdom. Most importantly, why should we care?

In the culture surrounding Israel at the time, the King was portrayed as divine, or at least the personal messenger of a divinity. The Persians practiced proskynesis. This was a system of submission as a way of placing the King above everyone else. Varying social ranks had to perform different acts of submission. The lower you got, the more one humbled themselves. For the lowest on the ladder, they were required to be completely prostrate before the King. The full title of Cyrus was King of Aryavrata, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the World. In shorthand, the Persian King was referred to as the King of Kings.

Even with all of this claimed authority, Yahweh claims that such a man is His anointed. In the choosing of these words, God is claiming authority over the reign of even foreign kingdoms. He is establishing Himself as the source of all ruling authority here. The idea that such a King would be pressed into the service of a foreign god would have seemed absurd. Yet Yahweh is proclaiming precisely this.

We can also gain much insight when we ponder the type of kingdom that Cyrus ruled over. To put it mildly, it was quite different than most Kingdoms of the past and future. Though an absolute monarch, he rarely dealt in the affairs of his subject. Instead, he relied on satraps, those who had pledged their service to him. They had a considerable amount of autonomy to run things as they saw fit. This was in remarkable contrast to the Babylonians, who ruled with an iron fist frequently their vassals.

On religious matters as well, Cyrus’ approach was far different than the previous great rulers of the region. Though divinity was inseparable from kingly authority, Cyrus followed a policy of religious tolerance. He frequently portrayed himself as the servant of local gods in propaganda to establish his rule. He allowed people to worship as they pleased, provided they kept in their prayers the Emperor (a shadow of this is seen in the book of Ezra). Most famously, he is known for the Edict of Restoration, the proclamation which gave the Jews the order to rebuild their temple and places of worship.

These policies gave the Jews a new lease on life. Returning from their exile (of which we will speak more of later), they were in a sense a purified remnant. They were allowed to practice their faith and develop their traditions in almost complete and total safety during Persian rule. The governor of Jerusalem was even the grandson of the last legitimate King of Judah. Without the actions of Cyrus, there would have been no Israel. We see God working behind the scenes, slowly laying the landscape for the Incarnation. The Incarnation literally was an act millennia in the making.