There’s an old expression, seldom used today although I remember the old folks used it sometimes when I was young, “May you sleep the sleep of the just.” When my Great Aunt Polly used it, she meant simply, “May you sleep well.” But more richly and historically, the phrase speaks to a serenity that comes from having a quiet conscience, a conscience that is untroubled by the burden of unconfessed and unrepentant sin. A serene and clean conscience is an untroubled conscience, and thus we can sleep well and deeply.
Despite any claims that sinners have all the fun, the reality is that they really do not and cannot. Sin brings with it many burdens, among them a troubled conscience. Whatever efforts some make to try to suppress their consciences, deep down there is still that voice of God echoing in the heart of every person, the still, small voice of God, who has written his law into our hearts. Unrepentant sin and the bold, prideful attitude that insists on calling “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin, are not the ingredients of a serene conscience and do not permit the sleep of the just.
In addition to a troubled conscience and stress, sin also brings many other complications to life. For example,
- Intemperance and gluttony bring addiction and a whole host of problems that go with such addiction.
- Alcohol and drug addictions are surely legendary for the troubles they bring. But excess (gluttony) in relation to food also brings terrible struggles such as diabetes, hypertension, joint pain and arthritis, and a sluggish mind.
- Sins of lust bring many stressful and tragic situations into life such as sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS), abortion, divorce, and single motherhood.
- Fornicators and adulterers often pay, literally, for their sins through alimony, child support to different women, etc.
- The sin of vanity makes people slaves to the mirror and they become obsessed and worry constantly about what others think of them.
- Liars and deceivers live with the constant anxiety of being found out.
Yes, sin brings many stresses and crushing burdens. Much better, happier, and simpler is your life by resisting sin. It brings a serene conscience and the sleep of the just. A sinful life brings with it burdens, sleepless anxieties, and dissipation. Sin always promises happiness, but then sends the bill.
Pope St. Gregory the Great has some powerful words in this regard in his Pastoral Rule, especially regarding liars and deceivers. His references to the “insincere” are to those who lie, deceive, or live double lives:
The insincere are to be advised that they learn how heavy is the load of duplicity, which they sinfully bear. And because they fear being discovered, they always seek dishonest defenses and become agitated by fearful suspicions. But there is nothing that is safer for one’s defense and nothing easier than speaking the truth. For when one is forced to defend his deceit, his heart becomes wearied from the endeavor. Thus it is written, “The mischief of their lips overwhelms them!” (Psalm 140:9) … Because they refuse to live in sincerity, they will labor their whole life until death … always hiding what they are … struggling to excuse those sins that have already been made known … Let the insincere hear what is written: “Whoever walks in integrity, walks securely. But whoever takes crooked paths will be found out!” (Proverbs 10:9). (Pastoral Rule III.11)
Perhaps it is best to end with those words of St. Gregory and with this wish: may you sleep the sleep of the just!
How do you think of prayer? Is it another thing you “have to do” among many other things on your list? Or is prayer a time when you refrain from doing? Is prayer a requirement you regret or a rest you relish? What is prayer for you?
The danger in answering questions like these is that we may answer them the way we think they “should” be answered rather than in an honest way. Many struggle with prayer and experience it with a lot of negativity: boredom, distraction, drudgery, and so forth.
The fact is, prayer is tough. We are very sensory by nature and used to seeing and hearing the one to whom we speak. To encounter God in silence and without sight is unfamiliar, jarring, and challenging. Some use icons or pictures, some a prayer book; some pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But in the end, the eyes of the flesh cannot see, only the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith can. This is not only difficult, it is obnoxious to our flesh (i.e., sinful nature), which demands to see and hear on its own terms. And the flesh wages war on our spirit (cf Gal 5:17) and like a fidgeting child protests all throughout prayer.
Of course the best way to address this problem is with honesty. Without honesty we don’t really have a spiritual life. A true journey to God requires that all the masks come off, that all the little lies we like to tell ourselves and all the deceptions be set aside. Start with honesty.
Praying out of what is – When people tell me they have a hard time praying I say, “Then THAT is your prayer. Tell God how absolutely bored you are when you pray. Tell Him that you would rather do just about anything than pray to Him. Tell Him that when it occurs to you that you should pray, or when some crazy priest reminds you to pray, your heart sinks and you put it off and put it off. Tell God you hate praying … And do you know what you are doing as you tell Him all this? You are praying!”
Yes, this is prayer.
“But Father, but Father, I can’t talk to God like that!” “Why not?” I say. God already knows that this is how you feel. It’s a pretty silly thing to sit in front of God wearing a mask that He can see right through: but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). Five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than two hours of a prayer of rhetoric and “stained glass” themes that we don’t really mean. Pray honestly; talk to God about what is really going on.
The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible and it has God for its author. And notice how plain-spoken the psalms are.
Every emotion, every experience is grist for the prayer mill: joy, serenity, victory, thanksgiving, petition, anger (even anger at God!), rage, vengefulness, disappointment, loss, grief, fear, and despair. It’s all there and more. There are even psalms that ask God to harm or kill our enemy (69, 109, 137). Even the beautiful Psalm 139 ends with the request that God slay the wicked. But these are feelings we have from time to time and God wants us to talk to Him about them. If the Book of Psalms is a directive for prayer (and it is), then God wants us to speak to Him about everything, even the darkest and most sinful of things. Prayer is conversation with God. But it has to be honest.
And something starts to happen when we become really honest in prayer. Little by little, it becomes more relevant to us and we even start to like it a bit. Now don’t tell your flesh that! But your soul starts to breathe; it starts to exhale. When all the little self-imposed, unbiblical rules about prayer and all the things we’re “not supposed to say to God” get set aside, the soul enjoys freedom, and the honesty is refreshing.
And little by little, prayer becomes not so much another thing to do as it is a rest from all our doing. It is a time to rest, to exhale, to sigh, and to be refreshed by the simple act of being honest with someone who loves us and whom we are growing to love. Someone who, before ever a word is on our lips, knows it through and through (Psalm 139:4). Prayer is the freedom to be honest, to rest from the labor of wearing masks, and to be relieved of the restless anxiety about what others think or expect of us. Prayer is a sigh of truth, a rest from the contradictory demands of an often phony world.
Consider this description of prayer from St. Anselm:
Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God … (Proslogion, Chapter 1).
Yes, speak to God. Be honest. Tell Him what is really happening. If you need a manual to assist you, get a good Bible or copy of the psalms—one that gives a title or a brief sentence describing its content. Find one that suits you on this particular day and then read it, slowly. Before long, as the weeks and years tick by, you’ll find you are speaking on your own, in psalm-like honesty. Some of us even grow silent over the years, as words no longer seem necessary or even possible: cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).
And when words seem difficult to come by, just sigh. St. Augustine says, This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech (Letter 130, to Proba). It may seem a strange thing, but sighing is very relaxing, and much is released from the soul by it. I have often thought of Gregorian Chant as a musical sigh to God, and it brings me great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant there.
So pray. Pray honestly. If words are hard, just sigh or sit quietly. But pray. Watch and wait for the Lord. It’s not work, it’s rest.
There is another old hymn that speaks of the delights of true and honest prayer. It is the old classic, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Note its lyrics and then answer these questions: “Is this how you think of prayer? If not, why not?” What if your prayer were less “rule-bound” and more just time you spent apart from this dreary world and with God? Pray these words and ask for their reality:
The Gospel from today’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It is similar to Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents” from Sunday, but with certain significant differences and an ending so shocking that, when I read it at daily Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”
I’d like to take a look at it and ponder its shocking ending.
As I said, the parable is similar to the “Parable of the Talents” except that in this parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. Despite the fact that there are ten people, we only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account), two who show a profit and one who shows an angry and disdainful lack of profit.
Another significant difference is the weaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) into the story. Briefly stated, here are the lines of the parable, along with its shocking ending:
A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.” But when he returned after obtaining the kingship … [He said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28).
In analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries. The shocking verse “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.
The Fathers seem to say little (though perhaps you will correct me). I did find two references in the Catena Aurea. Augustine says of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. And Theophilus adds, Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.
Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value and even declare it to be historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Josephus indicates in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.
I must say, however, historically fulfilled or not, the triumphal and vengeful tone of Jesus still puzzles me. For if this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 AD, how do we account for Jesus’ tone here when just verses later He weeps over Jerusalem?
As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).
Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’ startling and “mean” words, Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me.
1. Jesus is speaking in the prophetic tradition - Prophets spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today have tried to tame and domesticate Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly, in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warns them that they will be sentenced to Hell unless they repent, and lays them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is what prophets do; they speak in this manner.
So, in speaking “mean” like this, Jesus is firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke in a similar manner. Thus, in understanding the words of Jesus that we are considering (“slay them in my presence”) we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us angry and even vengeful, are expected in the prophetic tradition from which He speaks; they are intentionally shocking. Their purpose is to provoke a response.
Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And while we ought not simply dismiss Jesus’ words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speach.
Hence they may not, in fact, portray an attitude of vengeance personally in Jesus’ heart but are to be understood as prophecy toward those who refuse to repent. They will die in their sins. And their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) will indeed lead to a terrible war wherein they will be slain, dying horribly.
2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all-or-nothing language in their manner of speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew Language contains far fewer comparative words than does English or many other languages. Comparative words are words such as more, less, greater, fewer, most, especially, and so forth. Hence, if an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he would say something like “I like chocolate and hate vanilla.” And by this he really means “I like chocolate more.” Thus, we see that Jesus says elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26). He does not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this is a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more and the most.
This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to speak in hyperbole (exaggeration) and to often couch things in all-or-nothing terms. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” does not mean literal hate, etc.
This linguistic background helps explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.
We ought to be careful, however, not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We in the modern West who speak English may love that our language has greater nuance. But sometimes we are so nuanced that we say little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end, even if purgatory intervenes, there is only Heaven or Hell.
The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner is not primitive per se, and it has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and what is just.
Thus, though Jesus words are harsh (part of the Hebraic way of speaking), they DO call the question. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Roma 6:23).
3. Jesus is speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem He is entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encounters are very rigid and have hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’ words must be understood as strong medicine.
One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you do not change your ways, you will die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this a poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is necessary and appropriate.
Jesus is dealing with hardened sinners here and so He speaks bluntly. They are headed for death and Hell and He tells them so.
Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times and are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who just need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to Hell.”
4. A final thought, a theory really, that some have advanced - According to this theory, Jesus is referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse His listeners of their fond thoughts of a new king. After the death of Herod the Great, Archelaus, his son, went to Rome to receive the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared in Rome before Caesar Augustus and opposed the request of Archelaus. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria, and later had those Jews who opposed him killed.
Kings are often despots – Since many Jews thought the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, since the people pined for a king, Jesus uses this fearsome parable and reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus is thus trying to disabuse them of the notion that He or anyone else should be their earthly king.
While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make such a narrow point. Jesus is not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Hence, even if this explanation may have partial historical context, the meaning would also need to extend beyond one incident in the ancient past.
Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts as well. Since the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent, perhaps you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers I could not find.
Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Good, refreshing honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.
And here’s Jesus in prophetic mode—no compromises.
I also thought today of doing a little post on the sins that cry to heaven for vengeance, since I was talking to a parishioner today who is suffering because his employer has not paid him for three weeks. His employer, a shipping agency, says this is due to “administrative difficulties.” He was angry (rightfully so) and getting desperate. I reminded him that withholding wages was a sin that cried to heaven and that God was angry. The rest of our conversation I’ll keep private.
With that painful situation in mind, and thinking about how the negligent sin of one affects another, it occurs to me offer a few lists of sins that may prove as helpful reminders to all of us in our struggle against it. Sometimes it helps to see sin in categories and to be able to “name the demons,” as an aid in combatting them. These are just a few helpful lists. There are others and I invite you to add to them. For the sake of brevity, I do not fully develop them all.
In keeping with the video below, consider these lists a kind of “Sin on Sale”—a clearance sale if you will. The lists below can be purchased separately or together in packages. All items are ALWAYS in stock; shipping and handling are free from the supplier. But do beware of the potential, and likely, side effects!
The sins that cry to heaven for vengeance: (CCC 1867)
- Murder (Gn 4:10)
- Sodomy (Gn 17:20-21)
- Oppression of the poor (Ex 2:23)
- Defrauding workers of their just wages (Jas 5:4)
Seven Deadly Sins: (more on these HERE)
- Pride – the sinful drive that distorts proper self-love so that we esteem our own self more than is proper
- Greed – the excessive and insatiable desire for more than is reasonable or proper
- Lust – the sinful drive that leads to excessive or inappropriate desires or thoughts of a sexual nature
- Anger – the sinful drive that leads to inordinate and unrestrained feelings of hatred and wrath
- Gluttony – the sinful drive to overindulge in, or over-consume anything (especially food and drink to the point of waste)
- Envy – sorrow or sadness at the goodness or excellence of another person because I think it makes me look bad or appear less excellent
- Sloth – the sinful drive that leads to sorrow or sadness at the good things God wants to do for me
Sins against the Holy Spirit:
- Obstinacy in sin
- Final impenitence
- Deliberate resistance to the known truth.
Sins against faith: (CCC 2088-2089)
- Hesitating doubt – delaying the overcoming of doubts, difficulties, or objections due to indifference or laziness
- Voluntary doubt – disregarding of the truth or on-going resistance to overcoming doubt
- Incredulity – willful refusal to assent to revealed truths of the faith
- Heresy – the choosing and overemphasizing of certain truths of the faith to the exclusion of others
- Schism – refusal of submission to the Pope or Catholic communion
- Apostasy – total repudiation of the Christian faith
Sins against God’s love: (CCC 2094)
- Sloth – sorrow or aversion at the good things God offers to the soul,
- Hatred of God – usually rooted in a prideful notion that refuses to be second to God.
Sins against the Honor that is Due to God: (CCC 2111-2117)
- Superstition – the elevation of certain practices such that they are regarded as more important or powerful than prayer or trust in God
- Idolatry – divinizing what is not God, false worship, holding creatures more precious than the one Creator who is God
- Divination – undertaking practices meant to disclose the future, e.g., horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, recourse to mediums, etc.
- Magic and spiritism – attempting to tame occult powers and place them at our service or to have power over others in this way
Sins of Irreligion: (CCC 2118-2128)
- Tempting God – putting God to the test
- Sacrilege – stealing sacred things, profaning sacraments or liturgical actions, desecrating or speaking irreverently of sacred persons, places, or things that are blessed or consecrated to God
- Simony – buying or selling spiritual things, seeking to profit from them merely because they are blessed
- Atheism – denying the existence of God, including the practical atheism of materialism and utopian notions that man can save himself
- Agnosticism – an indifference toward God that refrains from formally denying His existence
Sins against the name of God: (CCC 2142-2155)
- Promises – infidelity to promises or oaths made with God’s name
- Profanity – using God’s name in vain ways that do not respect its sacred character, (e.g., empty expressions like “Oh, my God!”)
- Blasphemy – speaking ill of God, trivializing, cursing, or ridiculing him. By extension, ridiculing sacred things or the Saints
- Swearing – calling God to witness in matters that are trivial. Also, swearing a false oath, or committing perjury when under oath
- Cursing – using God’s name to curse or call down evil on others
Sins against the Lord’s Day: (CCC 2185)
- Refusing the worship owed to God
- Refusing the joy proper to the Lord’s day
- Refusing the relaxation of mind and body commanded on the Lord’s day
- Refusing reasonable works of mercy proper to the Lord’s day
Sins Against life: (CCC 2268-2283)
- Intentional homicide – all unjust killing
- Acting with reckless disregard for the safety and life of oneself or others
Sins against Chastity: (CCC 2351-2357)
- Lust – willfully entertaining inordinate or disordered desires for sexual pleasure
- Homosexual activity
Sins of Injustice and theft: (CCC 2409ff)
- Deliberately keeping borrowed things
- Damaging the goods of others without restitution
- Paying unjust wages
- Forcing up prices
- Refusing to pay debts
- Work poorly done
- Tax evasion
- Excessive and wasteful practices
- Excessive and unnecessary exploitation of natural resources
- Refusing our legitimate obligations to the community
- Refusing our legitimate obligations to the poor
20 Works of the Flesh:
- Divisions (quarreling) (1 Cor 3:3)
- Adultery (Gal 5:19)
- Fornication (Gal 5:19)
- Uncleanness (impurity or sexual defilement) (Gal 5:19)
- Licentiousness (abuse of freedom) (Gal 5:19)
- Idolatry (Gal 5:19)
- Sorcery (φαρμακεία pharmakeia; to administer drugs for spells or contraceptive and abortifacient effects) (Gal 5:20)
- Hatred (Gal 5:20)
- Discord (Gal 5:20)
- Jealousy (Gal 5:20)
- Wrath (Gal 5:20)
- Selfishness (Gal 5:20)
- Dissension (Gal 5:20)
- Heresy (Gal 5:20)
- Envy (Gal 5:21)
- Murder (Gal 5:21)
- Drunkenness (Gal 5:21)
- Reveling (carousing) (Gal 5:21)
- Lust (Col 3:5)
- Concupiscence (evil desires) (Col 3:5)
40 Characteristics of the Ungodly, especially in the last days: (2 Tim 3:2-9; Romans 1:28-29)
- Lovers of themselves
- Disobedient to parents
- Without natural affection
- False accusers
- Without self control
- Fierce (brutal)
- Despisers of those who do good
- Lovers of pleasure more than God
- Having the form of Godliness but denying the power of it.
- Resistant to the truth
- Suppressing the truth
- Corrupt minds
- Foolish concerning the faith
- Without progress
- A base mind
- Futile in their thinking
- Possessed of darkened and senseless minds
- Celebratory of and practicing unnatural sexual relations
- Claiming to be wise but being fools
- Dishonoring their bodies
- Haters of God
- Inventors of evil
- Approving sin and those who practice it
- Under strong delusion (2 Thess 2:11)
- Blinded by the god of this age (2 Cor 4:4)
Need more items? Try here: Litany of Penance and Reparation
These are just a few helpful lists drawn from the Catechism, with reference also to the Catholic Source Book and other places.
So there it is, a clearance sale on sin. And now, here’s a word from our sponsor!
One of the events at last week’s meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was a first-hand summary of the Roman (extraordinary) Synod on the family by several bishops who attended. It would appear, as related by Archbishop Kurtz, that a certain expression emerged at the Synod that is meant to convey a kind of pastoral strategy. That phrase is the “art of accompaniment.” Of itself, the phrase both makes sense and has value. In life, we must all learn, individually and collectively, to walk with people, to accompany them on their journey, to find them where they are, hear their concerns, and (it is to be hoped) have some role in assisting them to walk better with Christ.
Of course it is that last point that is critical and makes me wonder if “the art of accompaniment” is a strong enough pastoral strategy for times like these when the world is so deeply confused and many in the Church are so vague about announcing the truth unambiguously. (I expressed similar concerns about another pastoral strategy emerging from the Synod, called “gradualism,” in an earlier blog post.) The phrase “art of accompaniment” sounds more like a carefully crafted “value-free” neutral strategy aimed more at listening than at teaching or exhorting. One hardly thinks, when hearing “the art of accompaniment,” of a heraldic, prophetic Church sounding the trumpet in Zion, or crying out with the voice of John the Baptist or Jesus, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is near!”
Surely accompaniment is an essential ingredient of any pastoral strategy. But, in a way, that goes without saying. Obviously one has to accompany another in order to teach or to have influence. Relationship of some sort is essential for there to be teaching or influence. But accompaniment for accompaniment’s sake is not really a pastoral strategy. Our goal cannot merely be to accompany; it must be to teach, to lead, and to change people’s lives through sanctifying them in the truth and with the Sacraments. The pastoral “duties” of the Church, and especially of her clergy, is to teach, govern, and sanctify, not merely to accompany. I am just not sure that the “art of accompaniment” captures this or is strong enough.
To be sure, Jesus DOES manifest accompaniment. The whole incarnation manifests accompaniment as does his “table-fellowship” in “eating and drinking with sinners.” But Jesus does not merely eat with sinners or become incarnate. He does that in order to lead, to proclaim, to teach, to govern, to sanctify, to summon to repentance, to bestow mercy to the penitent. An example, almost in picture form, of what Jesus does is in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. As the story opens, two disciples are walking in the wrong direction (away from Jerusalem). The text says,
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them … And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” (Lk 24:16-17)
So he does accompany them. But note that he is not there just to walk alongside them. He is there to lead them and convert them, literally by turning them around and back to Jerusalem and the Church, gathered. Hence, no sooner do they explain their sorrow and reveal their erroneous thinking, than Jesus says,
O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (LK 24:26-27).
Now if this is what is meant by the use of the phrase “the art of accompaniment,” fine. But I suspect it is not. Those who speak this phrase, or hear it, probably do not have in mind vigorous retort and clear unambiguous teaching, let alone phrases like “O foolish men …” Jesus, in this walk of accompaniment, unambiguously holds up the necessity of the Cross and insists that they come to see things differently. He makes his case vigorously. These men are in error and He tells them so. It is their error that is the cause not only of their sorrow, but also of their “traveling wrong.” Jesus isn’t so much accompanying here as He is leading; He is guiding; He is teaching, definitively.
Again, if the reader will pardon me, I am just not sure that those who use the phrase, “the art of accompaniment” mean most, if any of this. I pray, too, that the reader does not understand me to be questioning the good Archbishop Kurtz, whom I understand to be reporting the deliberations of the Synod. I have no idea where he stands on the wisdom (or not) of such a phrase or pastoral stance.
Why am I skeptical that such a phrase is either helpful or really sincere as a way of drawing souls to Christ and the truth of the Gospel? I guess it is context. We are NOT living in times when clear and decisive teaching are common among the clergy or other leaders in the Church (such as parents). Pulpits are far too silent. Clergy and parents are generally quite timid and unwilling to engage the controversial issues of our day with clear teaching and decisive refutation.
The last thing we need in this kind of pastoral climate is a vague pastoral strategy like “the art of accompaniment.” Really, what does this even mean? After we’ve started walking with folks (and who says we haven’t been), then what? Where are the calls to study the faith actively and vigorously, yet charitably defend it to a skeptical world? Don’t just accompany, teach! And though we need to listen to people’s objections and concerns, we also need to have an answer.
There is a time and a place to be “in listening mode.” But the problem today is that we have forgotten what “teaching mode” is, at least in its more active, urgent, edgy, and summoning sense. If the truth sets us free, and it does, then the truth is like medicine, and we should promote vigorously, insisting on its necessity. But, at least collectively, we sound more like salesmen uncertain and unconvinced of the medicine we promote. Our “teaching mode” is shy, suggestive, and even apologetic (in the weak sense of the word). Confident teaching is too rare today. In such a climate, the “art of accompaniment” becomes a silent or barely suggestive walk with another. They need and deserve more from Christ’s disciples and from His Church.
Analogy - If I go to the doctor with gangrene and the doctor says, “I affirm you, my brother. I am with you on your journey!” I’m gonna say, “Fine, Doc, that’s really nice. But affirmation and accompaniment are not what I need most. I need you to take my gangrene seriously and work actively to cure it before I lose my leg, or worse!” But too many clergy, and Christians in general, are mere back-slappers who promise prayers but really have little to say about the sins, errors, and lies that are the spiritual gangrene of our day.
Something in me prefers the more edgy advice of a radical, prophetic pastor named St. Paul, who charged Timothy and the rest of us clergy:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-4).
The past two Sundays have featured feasts (All Souls and the Feast of St John Lateran) that stepped out of the usual Sunday cycle. Thus, especially last week, we missed the November theme of the Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Nevertheless, here on the 33rd Sunday, we are back to the last things and are reminded that we will one day be called to account for our use of the gifts and resources God has given us.
But today’s readings do more than tell us we will have to account. They also set forth a virtue or counsel that helps us to use God’s gifts well. That virtue is the Fear of the Lord. It is a foundational disposition of the wise as opposed to one of the foolish. Scripture says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 9:10).
In today’s first reading, we hear, Charm is deceitful, beauty is fleeting, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Prov 23). And today’s Psalm says, Blessed are you who fear the Lord (Psalm 128:1).
The “Fear of the Lord” can be understood in a perfect and an imperfect way, but both are important. The imperfect fear (which most us us begin with and still need from time to time) is the fear of punishment and the loss of Heaven that comes to impenitent sinners. Jesus often appeals to this sort of fear in His preaching when He warns in vivid terms of the punishments that come to sinners both here and ultimately in Hell. This sort of fear, while imperfect, is necessary, especially for the spiritually immature (and all of us have our areas of immaturity). It is somewhat like the situation with a small child who needs punishment and threats of punishment in order to learn discipline and the consequences of bad behavior. But hopefully as children mature, we can begin to appeal to their reason and to their love for others as better and deeper motives for good behavior. Good preaching and teaching should not wholly neglect the appeal to imperfect fear since congregations contain people at many different stages. Jesus did not neglect this sort of appeal and neither should we.
However, just as we hope that we can appeal to higher motives in a child as he or she grows, so too in the spiritual life we hope to move toward a more perfect “Fear of the Lord.” To fear the Lord in this more mature sense does not mean merely to cringe with servile fear, with the fear of being crushed or destroyed. Rather, to fear the Lord in the more mature sense is to hold Him in awe, to reverence Him with a deep and abiding love and appreciation of Him as the source of all that we are and all that we have. It is a “fear,” a reverence, an awe rooted in love and appreciation. Since I love God and He is Abba to me, I fear offending Him by sin. I fear severing my relationship to Him by refusing His grace. Out of love, reverence, and a sense of awe, I fear giving any offense to Him who is Holy, is God, and is deserving of all my love.
With this background, we can look to a deeper teaching in the Gospel for today. At one level, the teaching is plain enough: we will all have to account for our use of the talents and resources God has given us. But on a deeper level, we are also taught the importance of attaining a mature fear of the Lord as the essential way of bearing the fruit that will be sought. There is a danger in remaining in only imperfect fear (which has its place and time in our life) since we risk developing resentment and avoidance if we refuse to grow toward a more perfect fear.
Let’s look at it with this perspective in mind and discover the differences between the two kinds of fear.
A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one– to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
Three men are given resources to use. Two succeed; one fails. Why the difference? Ultimately it is the difference between holy fear, love, and confidence on the one hand, and unholy fear and resentment on the other.
Consider the plan of the first two men, who succeed. They
- Receive Riches - One gets five Talents, the other two Talents, each according to his ability. While the “inequity” may offend modern notions, we can simply note the commentary in the Scripture itself. Each man had different abilities. And while some in our modern world may sniff at the different amounts, it is rather doubtful that any of these “enlightened” people, if they ran a business, would not give more resources to an industrious employee than to an average one. The fact is, God blesses some more abundantly than others due to their good use of gifts. The Lord teaches later and gives a fundamental rule: we must prove faithful in a few things to be ruler over many (Matt 25:23).
- Risk Reinvestment -Something in these two men makes them free to risk reinvesting the money. It is likely their relationship with the master. Implicitly, they see him as a reasonable man, someone who would applaud their industriousness. Though there is risk in reinvesting the money, they seem to see their master as reasonable and patient enough that, even if there were to be losses, he would not deal with them unmercifully. Thus they seem to experience the freedom and courage to step out and make use of the Talents entrusted to them. Notice the text says that they “immediately” went out and traded. Thus they are eager to work for their master and take risks on his behalf in order to please him.
- Render a Report – Upon the master’s return, they are called to render an account. The text depicts a kind of joy on their part as they report. He said, “Master, you gave me five (two) talents. See, I have made five (two) more.” There is a sensible enthusiasm for the opportunity and a joy for the harvest.
- Rise in the Ranks. And note that their presumptions of the master as a fair and reasonable man are affirmed in his response. Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy. Hence we see that the master is joyful and wants to share his joy with the servants. Further, he is willing to give them greater access to share in his blessings and joy based on their openness to trusting him and on having proved themselves trustworthy.
Thus at some level the two successful servants see the owner of the riches as a man they can deal with. They have a healthy respect for him but not an immature fear. They receive the funds gladly, and with that gratitude they set to work, motivated and enthusiastic.
Allow them to be portrait of a holy and more perfect “Fear of The Lord.” With this sort of Holy Fear, we love God and are enthusiastic to work for Him. We realize that He shares His blessings and is both reasonable and generous. Confident of His mercy (though not presumptive of it), we go to work in His vineyard. It is true that there are risks and temptation in the vineyard. But if we stumble or fail, we do not make light of our sin; we repent of it and are confident of God’s mercy. A mature fear of the Lord does not box us in or paralyze us. Rather, it reminds us of our boundaries and keeps us away from truly dangerous things that erode our talents. But because we love God, respecting His boundaries is a joyful thing for us and protects us from “unsafe investments.” Within the designated boundaries, there is both room to maneuver and safety from the thickets of sin. The mature fear of the Lord is joyful and encouraging, not something to cause cringing or hiding from God. Choose the fear of the Lord.
But the man who fails follows a different plan, a plan by which he
- is Fruitless – for he buries the treasure
- is Furious – for he says, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. He considers the owner a hard man. He also sees him as unjust by having others do his planting, etc. While the other two men in the parable see their work as an opportunity, he sees his work as slavery. Notice, too, the following subtlety: this man describes the talent as “your talent” whereas the other men say, “You gave me five (two) talents.” He sees himself as a slave while the other two see themselves as stewards.
- is Fearful – for he says he buried it out of fear. In this case, we see a cringing and servile fear, an immature and imperfect fear of the Lord, as distinguished from the more mature fear of the Lord toward which we must move to bear fruit. Note, too, that it is his image of the master that drives his fear.
- Forfeits – for it is clear that he wants nothing to do with the master. The owner therefore says, in effect, “Fine, if you don’t want to deal with me you don’t have to. I will take your talent and given it to the one with ten. And as for you, if you do not wish to be in my presence or deal with me, then consider yourself dismissed.”
So we see how the failed servant gives way to anger and resentment and indulges his immature fear that the owner is “out to get him,” that the deck is stacked against him. He is not grateful for the opportunity afforded him by the owner. But notice that these thoughts he has generate his feelings and actions. But are his thoughts true and unassailable? It is clear that the other two men do not see the master in this way. And we see, through their example, that the thoughts of the failed servant are in fact not true. The master is decent, just, and joyful. The failed servant should not necessarily believe everything he thinks; he should test his thoughts against reality.
To fear the Lord more perfectly is to hold him awe, rejoicing in His power and wisdom, accepting His authority as saving and helpful. And thus we yield an abundant harvest with His gifts.
Now look; if imperfect fear is all you have, go with it! Sadly, with today’s rampant secularism, there are many who live their lives as though they will never be called to account. They go on sinning, dismissive that they should have any fear of a judgment day. They are going to be surprised and unprepared for what they face.
So if you have even an imperfect fear of the Lord rooted in punishment, don’t cast it away! But for growth, seek more perfect fear, rooted in love and awe of God’s majesty and goodness. For if we remain in an imperfect fear that does not seek to grow in love, we risk falling into resentment and aversion and will not bear all the fruits the Lord seeks for us. This call for growth is what the Lord means when He teaches us through St. John,
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love (1 Jn 4:18).
The fear counseled against cannot be the perfect and mature fear of the Lord, which Scripture counsels frequently. Rather, it is the immature fear, the fear of punishment, that we are counseled to grow out of through deepening love of God.
Thus, the deeper teaching here is to grow in love, maturing in your fear of the Lord and reaping the abundant riches of a faithful servant and son or daughter of God.
The video below is a spoof on the Paul Revere story. It is said that Mr. Revere rode about at great personal risk warning as he rode, “The British are Coming!” Whatever historical debates occur about the veracity of the story as commonly told, one thing that is certain for us who have the Catholic Faith, is that it really did come to us at great personal risk including the shedding of substantial blood. Every time we recite the Creed in Church, sometimes too casually and thoughtlessly, remember that the martyrs died to give us that Creed. Our Holy Faith should never be taken lightly or treated as something of little significance.
In this video, Paul Revere is depicted as making a casual call, blithely noting that the British are coming. To him it seems more an interruption to things he’d rather be doing, such as playing Charades. And this, too, is a rather humorous picture of a sad fact about many believers, both clergy and lay, who have little intensity, and are content to do the minimum required, as if the faith is a sort of interruption to things they’d rather be doing. I pray this is not a picture of any of us!
As you enjoy this humorous video, remember the sacrifices that many made to bequeath the faith to you. Be willing to make the same sacrifices, if necessary, and to live the faith with intensity, making it the main focus of your life.
Every now and again in times like these, I think of the prophet Elijah, anxious and fretting in a cave, so depressed he could barely eat. He was fleeing from Queen Jezebel, who sought his life. As Elijah looked to his beloved Israel, he saw a rather discouraging portrait of fellow Jews who were either too confused or too fearful to resist the religion of the Baals required by Jezebel. He seems to have felt quite alone. Perhaps he was the last of those who held the true religion, or so he thought and felt. In the cave, Elijah pours out his lament:
And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Ki 19:9–10).
But God will have none of this despair or complaining, and says to Elijah:
And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have seven thousand in Israel, that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal, nor kissed him with the mouth” (1 Ki 19:15–18).
So there ARE others—a small remnant to be sure—but Elijah is not alone. A small remnant remains faithful and God will rebuild, working with them.
Thus Elijah is commanded not to give way to his discouragement, but rather to keep preaching and anoint leaders and a prophet who will keep preaching after him.
And here, then, is a lesson for all of us.
In times like these, it is hard not to feel like Elijah: deeply disappointed, even discouraged in our current cultural decline. How many of our countrymen and even fellow Catholics have bowed the knee to the Baals of our time and accepted the doctrines of demons? How many have been led astray by the Jezebels and the false religion of the Baals of our time, and have set aside the Cross and substituted the pillow of comfort and selfish desire? And thus now, like then, many are told to immolate their children, to kill the innocent through abortion (and call it choice or “women’s healthcare” or “reproductive freedom”). There is also widespread misunderstanding about marriage, widespread divorce, cohabitation, and fornication, children being born outside of holy matrimony, and wide approval for same-sex unions—even the open celebration of homosexual activity. All of this harms children immensely by shredding the family, the very institution that needs to be strong so as to raise them well.
Euthanasia is also back in the news, as a young woman (whose name will NOT be mentioned here) euthanized herself. Many lionize such actions as “heroic,” etc. But such actions are better seen as a cowardly refusal to embrace the Cross, and as an action that diminishes the dignity of all those who are suffering and dying. Such an action threatens the lives of the sick and dying by introducing expectations that they should follow the course of euthanasia.
So here we are today in a culture of death. We are marked, too, by widespread sexual confusion and promiscuity and an incapacity to see these problems for what they are: sin and rebellion. And, sadly, too many in the Church are bewitched, even among the clergy and Church hierarchy, who succumb to false compassion.
But lest we become like Elijah in the cave, discouraged and edging toward despair, we ought to hear again the words of God to Elijah: I have seven thousand in Israel, that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal.
God has a way of working with remnants in order to rebuild his Kingdom. Mysteriously, He allows a kind of pruning, a falling away of what He calls the cowards (e.g., Judges 7:3; Rev 21:8). But with those who are left, He can effect a great victory.
Consider that, at the foot of the cross, only one bishop, (i.e., one priest, one man) had the courage to be there. Only four or five women had such courage. But Jesus was there. And with a remnant, a mere fraction of followers, He won thorough to the end.
Are you praying with me? Stay firm; stay confident; do not despair. There are 7000 who have not bent the knee to the Baals of this age. And with a small group, the Lord can win through to the end. Are you among the 7000? Or do the Baals hold some of your allegiance? Where do you stand?
Elijah was reminded that he was not alone. As I hear of the faith of many of you readers, I remember, too, that I am not alone. As I hear the “Amens” in my congregation as I preach the Old Time Religion, I remember that I am not alone. There are many good souls still to be found. Seek them out; build alliances and stand ready to resist, to fight the coming and already-present onslaughts.
I am not sure of the ultimate fate of Western Culture (frankly, it doesn’t look good). I am not sure if these are the end times or just the end of an era. But of this I am sure: Jesus wins and so do all who will stand with Him and persevere to the end. Get up, Elijah. Go prophesy even if you get killed for it. Keep preaching till the last soul’s converted.
In the month of November, we remember the souls of the faithful departed and our obligation to pray for them. November and into the early part of Advent is also a part of the Church year during which we begin to ponder the last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In the northern hemisphere, the days grow shorter. In regions farther north, the once green trees and fields shed their lively green, and after the brief, golden gown of autumn, a kind of death overtakes the landscape. Life changes; we grow older, and one day we will die.
It is fitting at this time that we ponder the passing glory of things and set our gaze on Heaven, where joys will never end. There is a beautiful prayer in the Roman Missal that captures this disposition:
Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id disiderare quod promittis, ut, inter mundanas varietates, ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.
O God, who makes the minds of the faithful to be of one accord, grant to your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the changes of this world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are (21st Sunday of the year).
So here we are, well into November. Summer has passed and winter beckons. Ponder with me the fact that this world is passing. And I have a question to ask you:
How do you see death? Do you long to one day depart this life and go home to God? St. Paul wrote to the Philippians of his longing to leave this world and go to God. He was not suicidal; he just wanted to be with God:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit (Phil 1:20-23).
These days I am struck by the fact that almost no one speaks publicly of their longing to depart this life and be with God. I suspect it is because we live very comfortably, at least in the affluent West. Many of the daily hardships with which even our most recent ancestors struggled have been minimized or even eliminated. I suppose that when the struggles of this life are minimized, fewer people long to leave it and go to Heaven. They set their sights, hopes, and prayers on having things be better HERE. “O God, please give me better health, a better marriage, a financial blessing, a promotion at work, … ” In other words, “Make this world an even better place for me and I’ll be content to stay here, rather than longing to go to Heaven.”
Longing to be with God was more evident in the older prayers, many of which were written just a few generations ago. Consider, for example, the well known Salve Regina and note (especially in the words I have highlighted in bold) the longing to leave this world and be with God:
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope. To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To Thee do we send up our sighs, mourning, and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, Thine Eyes of Mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show us the Blessed Fruit of thy Womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
The prayer acknowledges in a very realistic and sober way that life here can be very difficult. Rather than ask for deliverance from all of it, for this world is an exile after all, the prayer simply expresses a longing to go to Heaven and be worthy to see Jesus. It is this longing that I sense is somewhat absent in our modern world, even among regular Churchgoers.
When was the last time you meditated on Heaven? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Heaven? I understand that we all have a natural fear and aversion to dying. But for a Christian, there should be a deepening thirst for God that begins to erode the fear and aversion to death. St. Francis praised God for Sister bodily death which no one can escape (Canticum Fratris Solis). And why not praise God for it? It is what ultimately brings us home.
As for me, I will say it: I long to leave this world one day and go home and be with God. I am not suicidal and I love what I do here. But I can’t wait to be with God. I don’t mind getting older because it means I’m closer to home. Another day’s journey and I’m so glad because I’m one day closer to home! In our youth-centered culture, people (especially women) are encouraged to be anxious about getting older. As for me, when I hit forty, I said, “Hallelujah, I’m halfway home (err … as far as I know)!” Now at 53, I rejoice even more. I’m glad to be getting older. God has made me wiser and He is preparing me to meet Him. I can’t wait!
Story - A couple of years ago a woman here in the parish walked into a meeting a few minutes late. It was obvious that she had been rushing to get there, and she entered quite out-of-breath. No sooner had she entered, than she fell headlong on the ground. She had died instantly of a heart attack. She was dead before she hit the ground. We rushed to revive her, but to no avail. God had called Wynette unto Himself. I remember saying at her funeral, “For us it was one of the worst days of our life, but for Wynette it was the greatest day of her life.” God, for whom she longed, had drawn her to Himself. She had died hurrying to God’s house and you know I just had to quote the old spiritual that says, O Lord, I done what you told me to do … unto that morning when the Lord said, “Hurry!”
Even a necessary stopover in Purgatory cannot eclipse the joy of the day we die. There will surely be the suffering that precedes our death. But deep in our hearts, if we are believers, must ring forth the word, “Soon!” An old spiritual says, “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, going home to live with God.”
So I ask you again, do you long for heaven? Do you long to depart this world and be with God? You say, “Yes, but first let me raise my kids!” I know, but do you rejoice as the years tick by and the goal becomes closer? Do you long to be with God?
I close with the words of Psalm 27:
One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD … My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me.
As you listen to this Spiritual, consider the harsh conditions endured by the slaves who wrote:
The sum total teaching of eschatology would seem to indicate that a number of things must first happen before the end: a comprehensive completion of the going out of the Gospel to all the nations, widespread acceptance by Israel that Christ is in fact the Messiah, the emergence of an antichrist figure who will deceive the nations, a final, intensive and unprecedented unleashing of evil, etc. (For more on this and for biblical references, see what I have written here: Some basics of eschatology.) And while some claim that many of these have already been accomplished, we do well to heed the caution of St. Paul, who says,
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess 2:1-4).
So, using the Spirit’s caution through St. Paul, we do well not to conclude too quickly that the end is close at hand, though Christ can surely come anyway “on a sudden.”
However, the same text from St. Paul does describe certain things that precede the end—things that are more clearly in place today.
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work … in those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:10-12).
Now we are clearly living in an age when strong delusion has come upon many. Indeed many seem deeply and profoundly confused as to the basic concepts of human sexuality, the existence of God, and the dignity of human life. Strong delusion is required for the human person to justify the killing of innocent children in the womb. Strong delusion is required for a human person to think that homosexual acts are natural, when any look at the design of the body profoundly indicates otherwise. Strong delusion is required for a human person to think that suicide is to be praised and is even “courageous.” Strong delusion is required for a person to look at a world that is so clearly designed and governed, and ascribe it all to mindless, blind, totally random mutation.
Indeed a strong delusion is upon many today. Elsewhere, St. Paul also says of those deluded in this way (especially in matters of homosexuality),
But they became vain in their thinking and their foolish minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:21,26-27).
So it is clear today that the initial requirements for the coming of the lawless one are increasingly in place. A strong delusion has come upon many that will usher in a rebellion and cause the lawless one to be widely accepted. For again, as St. Paul said above, for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first.
And the text speaks of the cause for this delusion. On a human level, the delusion and rebellion result from that fact that, as St. Paul says, they refused to love the truth and so be saved … [they] did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
So, yielding to their passions (pleasures), and preferring unrighteousness, they refused to love the truth. And do not be mistaken that this refusal is rooted merely in ignorance. No, God has written His truth in the heart of every human person; His voice echoes in the conscience of every human person. God has also written His truth in the book of creation. Therefore, St. Paul says elsewhere,
What may be known about God is plain to all, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that such people are without excuse (Rom 1:19-20).
Thus we are not typically dealing with ignorance. Rather, we are dealing with resistance and rejection. The delusion and rebellion of our times is the result of a preference for sinful pleasures and an active resistance to the truth written on the human heart and in creation. Many, many prefer the darkness of delusion to the light of truth.
Where are we now in an eschatological sense? It is arguable that we are in the midst of the rebellion and that in fact a strong delusion has come upon many, many people. It is this delusion and rebellion that foreshadows what will happen next: and the man of lawlessness will be revealed.
This does not mean that the lawless one or the antichrist will come next year. Some may argue that times of darkness have come and gone before. However, both the rapidity of the rebellion and the steep decline into deepening darkness present a strong argument for the fact that we, through human sinfulness, are laying the groundwork for the coming of the lawless one, whose unreasonable demands will only make “sense” to a people who have abandoned reason and the clarity of the true faith.
And what of the part of the text that says, “God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false”? Texts like this point to God’s permitting of such things due to his respect for our freedom. God is the primary cause of everything, in that He holds all things in existence and “facilitates” all that happens. The Bible and the ancient world were more comfortable in speaking to this reality of God’s primary causality. A text like this does not mean that God wishes or delights in delusion or rebellion. It means only that He does not withdraw existence from those who do what He detests, and as such He indirectly facilitates it. He does this for the sake of a greater good: our freedom, which is necessary for our love and faith.
So here we are in the midst of a time of rebellion and deep delusion, one that may be serious enough to usher in the final stages. Stay sober, my friends. I do not usually predict the end, but when I do, I look to texts like these, which show the outer bands of a coming storm.
There are times in the Church when we want to define something rather easily and simply so as to make it memorable and easy to grasp. But in so doing, we run the risk of doing harm to its deeper, richer, and more accurate meaning.
I wonder if we have not done this with the word “gospel.” Most of us have been trained to define the word “gospel” as “good news.” Clearly there is good news in the Gospels and, by extension, the whole of the New Testament. However, as we shall see, “good news” as a definition falls short of what the term actually means.
Further, in our current cultural setting, the way in which many hear the phrase “good news” also creates, I would argue, a false impression that all Scriptures are pleasant, happy, cheerful, consoling, and so forth. But the Scriptures are not all in this mode of “good.” Many of the Scriptures challenge, provoke, and even trouble and strike fear.
Yet, because “good news” has become an interpretive key of sorts, many thus filter what they see, hear, and preach of the Scriptures. If something does not come across as good news, does not fit into the template of being cheerful and consoling, it is either recast with a twisted interpretation, or it is sometimes wholly set aside. For example, the Lord Jesus often issues fierce messages against sin and unbelief, warns about judgment and Hell, and insists that we follow Him unreservedly, even if this means accepting the Cross, the hatred of the world, or the loss of relationship with certain family members. But because such logia of Jesus Himself do not fit the modern concept of “good news,” such strong statements are too easily set aside by many as not sounding like “the Jesus they know.”
Thus, the common definition of gospel as “good news” tends to be a poor template by which to understand the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It makes people averse to the harder sayings of Jesus, even dismissive of them. A woman once remarked to a priest I know who had preached on a difficult topic, “Now, Father, I come to Church expecting to hear something uplifting and encouragement from you. But I did not hear that today from you.”
What then is the fuller and richer understanding of the word “gospel”? Pope Benedict addressed this topic well in Volume I of Jesus of Nazareth:
“The Evangelists designate Jesus’ preaching with the Greek term Evangelion. But what does this term actually mean? The term has recently been translated as ‘good news.’ That sounds attractive, but it falls far short of the order of magnitude of what is actually meant by the word evangelion. This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world. The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful or pleasant . The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a changing of the world for the better. “When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk but reality…. the Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech – not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform. Mark speaks of the ‘Gospel of God,’ the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here it is the real Lord of the world – the Living God – who goes into action (Jesus of Nazareth Vol 1 pp. 46-47).
Therefore note some qualities of the term “gospel” and of the nature of God’s Word:
1. The term is not necessarily indicative of something pleasant or happy. It originally referred to the utterance of an emperor, even if the content was not particularly pleasant. For example an “evangelion” might announce an increase in taxes or the summoning of an army. In God’s Word, the Gospel might include promises of salvation, offers of forgiveness, and blessings. But it might also include the teachings on the need for repentance, on the requirement to take up a cross, on accepting that we may well be hated, and on the fact that judgment is looming.
2. The emphasis of the word “evangelion” was that it had authority behind it, authority capable of changing your life. Thus if the emperor announced that he was paving a nearby road, or raising taxes, or summoning men to arms, or declaring a holiday—whatever the message contained, you knew your life was going to change, perhaps dramatically, due to the emperor’s authority. With the Word of God, too, there is declared in the term “gospel,” the truth that when God speaks, His Word has the power to change your life, either by conferring great blessings, or by announcing more challenging things (such as the fact that the day of judgment is looming for us all, or that certain of our behaviors are not acceptable for membership in the Kingdom).
3. The Gospel is not merely noetic (informative); it is dynamic (transformative). God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Thus when God says “Be holy,” His words contain the actual power to effect what they announce, provided we receive them in faith.
4. The Gospel is no mere written word. The Gospel is Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. Therefore the Gospel saves all who receive it (Him) with faith and heed its warnings and teachings with the obedience of faith.
Thus, the term “gospel” means more than “good news.” And given our cultural setting and its presuppositions related to the word “good,” the notion that “gospel = good news” can be downright misleading. It is better and richer to understand the term “gospel” to refer to the life-changing and transformative utterance of God, which is able to save us if we obey its demands in faith. It is in fact Jesus Himself who is the Word made Flesh. Perhaps this is less memorable, but it is more true and less misleading.
In November, Catholics are encouraged to meditate on the “Last Things.” As you know, I write quite often on Hell. But I have written on Heaven, too. In this post I propose simply to set forth how much of our liturgy is a kind of dress rehearsal for Heaven.
Indeed, Catholics are often unaware just how biblical the Sacred Liturgy is. The design of our traditional churches; the use of candles, incense, and golden vessels; the postures of standing and kneeling; the altar; the singing of hymns; priests wearing albs and so forth are all depicted in the Scriptures. Some of these details were features of the ancient Jewish Temple, but most are reiterated in the Book of Revelation, which describes the liturgy of Heaven.
The liturgy here on earth is modeled after the liturgy in Heaven; that is why it is so serious to tamper with it. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy and focuses on a scroll or book that contains the meaning of life and the answers to all we seek. It also focuses on the Lamb of God, standing but with the marks of slaughter upon it. Does this not sound familiar? It is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
We do well to be aware of the biblical roots of the Sacred Liturgy, not only for our own edification but also as an answer to those Protestant Christians who have largely set aside these rituals and criticize our use of them. Many people consider our rituals to be empty and vain, “smells and bells.” Some consider austere liturgical environments devoid of much ritual to be “purer” and closer to the worship in “spirit and in truth” that Jesus spoke of in John 4.
To such criticisms we must insist that these rituals, properly understood, are mystical and deeply biblical. Further, they are elements of the heavenly liturgy since almost all of them are mentioned as aspects of the worship or liturgy that takes place in Heaven. In this light, it is a serious mistake to set them aside or have a dismissive attitude toward them.
With that in mind we ought to consider the biblical references to the most common elements of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. I have added my own occasional note in red.
- Rev 1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man. In traditional catholic parishes, there are six candles on the high altar and a seventh candle is brought out when the bishop is present.
- Rev 4:6 Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne.
- Rev 9:13 The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God.
- Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.
- Rev 4:1 and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald …
- Daniel 7:9 As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; … In the Sacred Liturgy, the chair of the priest is prominent. But, as he takes his seat, we are invited to see not Father Jones, but rather the Lord Himself presiding in our midst.
Priests (elders) in Albs -
- Rev 4:4 the elders sat, dressed in white garments …
Bishop’s miter, priest’s biretta –
- Rev 4:4, 10 With golden crowns on their heads … they cast down their crowns before the throne … In the Liturgy, the Bishop may only wear his miter at prescribed times. But when he goes to the altar he must cast aside his miter. The priest who wears the biretta in the Old Mass is instructed to tip his biretta at the mention of the Holy Name and to lay it aside entirely when he goes to the altar.
Focus on a scroll (book), The Liturgy of the Word -
- Rev 5: 1 And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” In the ancient world, books as we know them now had not been invented. Texts were written on long scrolls and rolled up.
Incense, Intercessory prayer -
- Rev 8:3 another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God …
- Rev 5:7 and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;
- Rev 5:8 And they sang a new hymn: Worthy are you O Lord to receive the scroll and break open its seals. For you were slain and with your blood you purchase for God men of every race and tongue, and those of every nation.
- Rev 14:1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads … and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
- Rev 15:3 And they (the multitude no one could count) sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages! Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy. All nations shall come and worship thee, for thy judgments have been revealed.”
Holy, Holy, Holy –
- Rev 4:8 and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
Prostration (Kneeling) -
- Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne …
- Rev 5:14 and the elders fell down and worshiped In today’s setting, there is seldom room for everyone to lie prostrate, flat on the ground. Kneeling developed as a practical solution to the lack of space, but it amounts to the same demeanor of humble adoration.
Lamb of God -
- Rev 5:6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain …
- Rev 5:11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
- Rev 5:14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!”
- Rev 8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (And you thought your priest paused too long after communion?)
- Rev 12:1 And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.
Happy are those called to His “supper” -
- Revelation 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, crying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; … And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
Golden vessels, vestments –
- Rev 1:12 And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
- Rev 1:13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest
- Rev 5:8 the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense
- Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, at the golden altar before the throne.
- Rev 15:16 The angels were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests.
- Rev 15:17 seven golden bowls
Stained Glass -
- Rev 21:10 [The heavenly city] had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, … The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. (The image of stained glass in our Church walls is hinted at here.)
Here is but a partial list, drawn only from the Book of Revelation. I invite you to add to it. You might also read The Lamb’s Supper, by Scott Hahn, and The Mass: A Biblical Prayer, by Fr. Peter Stravinskas.