The Gifts of Wonder and Awe Are More Necessary Than Ever

There is a remarkable interaction with God in the Book of Exodus that shows the balance we must develop in how we understand and relate to Him. Many of us get the balance wrong by turning God into a doting grandfather figure or seeing Him as an angry despot just waiting for any misstep. Trivializing or domesticating God is the more common error today, but we ought not to underestimate the number of people who struggle to find in God a loving Father.

Therefore, consider the passage from Exodus. It begins with a description of God’s loving tenderness for Israel.

In the third month after their departure from the land of Egypt, on its first day, the Israelites came to the desert of Sinai. After the journey from Rephidim to the desert of Sinai, they pitched camp.

While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, Moses went up the mountain to God. Then the Lord called to him and said, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites” (Exodus 19:1-7).

Yes, they are a people dear to Him, His special possession, holy and set apart. The Lord did not just lead them out of Egypt; He carried them. Later, through Hosea, God spoke of His tender love in similar language: I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:4).

Yet, as God descends upon Mount Sinai, the Israelites do not experience a tender Father stopping to feed them; their reaction might better be described as terror.

Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. Trumpet blasts grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder.

When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, they all feared and trembled. So they took up a position much farther away and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we shall die.” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come to you only to test you and put his fear upon you, lest you should sin.” Still the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the cloud where God was (Exodus 19:15-20:18-21).

It was surely frightening for them. Yet recall that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced intimacy with God. Scripture spoke of God as walking in the garden in the breezy time of the day (Genesis 3:8). How different that experience was from the one described in Exodus! Had God changed? No, we had changed. On account of sin and its debilitating effects, the evening walks with God ended. After sinning, when Adam and Eve heard God walking, they hid from Him. Although created in the image of God, they could no longer endure His presence; almost as if in mercy, God let them live at a distance. So the Lord drove out the man and stationed cherubim on the east side of the Garden of Eden, along with a whirling sword of flame to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). Ever since, we have yearned to see God’s face (e.g., Ps 27:8). Yet Scripture warns, For who can look on the face of God and live? (Ex 33:20)

Only with the coming of Christ and His reparative grace could we ever hope to see the face of God again and walk with Him. Indeed, Christ did open the way to the Father. At the moment of His death, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mat 27:51). Jesus restored access to the Father. The Book of Hebrews says, Therefore, brothers, we now have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way opened for us through the veil of His flesh (Heb 10:19-20). As the Centurion pierced the veil of Christ’s flesh with a lance, the very heart of God was revealed. Through Jesus we will one day enter into the Holy of Holies in Heaven and forever behold God’s radiant and beautiful face. St. Paul says beautifully, And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image with ever-increasing glory. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

In all these texts there is for us a tension that must be held, a balance that must be found. There are some who are overly scrupulous and must often be reminded that God loves them—even likes them! God wants to save us and so loved us that he sent his only Son. More common, though, are those who too easily dismiss the reverence that is due to God. They have trivialized and domesticated God, forgetting that He dwells in “inapproachable” light such that none of us, in our current state of imperfection, can endure it. Their tendency is to reduce God to a doting grandfather, diminish Jesus to a harmless hippie, and think that the Holy Spirit exists only to console and affirm us. This made-up, “designer God” just happens to agree with everything they think and do. He never challenges, rebukes, or sets expectations of beyond what they already want.

Back in the day of “that old time religion,” making up and worshiping your own god was called idolatry. In these days of wordsmithing and euphemisms we prefer to speak of the “god within” or the “god of my own understanding.” The idea that God would reveal Himself on His own terms and expect us to respect who He is—this is contrary to the notion of the modern anthropocentric “god” whom we contrive. This manufactured god is not the God of the universe but rather a personal deity who serves only us—and “serve” is just the word, for this “god” is more of a butler does things for us and offers sage advice but asks nothing much in return except that we follow some vague ethic like empathy.

I exaggerate somewhat, but only a little. Even some Catholics find the biblical God—who punishes, warns of Hell, has set high standards, and expects better of us because of His grace—to be a God they can’t accept. If the real Jesus of Scripture were to step into a Catholic pulpit today, He would unsettle many with His talk of repentance, parables of warning, and assertions that if we do not have faith in Him, we will die in our sins. “Doesn’t he know that we’re a welcoming community? We don’t upset people by talking about sin and judgment! Who does this guy think he is?”

Yes, we have lost the balance that reveres God and takes Him seriously, while gratefully acknowledging His grace, mercy, and love for us. The real God has shown us mercy; He offers us grace because we need it, lots of it, if we are to stand a chance of being able to endure His presence.

Recall that even St. John, the beloved disciple, fell on his face before the glorified Lord Jesus (Rev 1:17). The heavenly Jesus He encountered was no hippie; He was and is the Lord of Glory. Of Him, John says,

He had a loud voice like a trumpet … He was One like the Son of Man, dressed in a long robe, with a golden sash around His chest. The hair of His head was white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. He held in His right hand seven stars, and a sharp double-edged sword came from His mouth. His face was like the sun shining at its brightest …. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come—the Almighty (Rev 1:12-16).

The same passage also says,

To Him who loves us and has released us from our sins by His blood, who has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and power forever and ever! Amen. (Rev 1:5-6).

Does your prayer and understanding of the Lord have this balance? Do you love Him and know that He loves you? Do you also revere Him and hold Him in awe? Do you rejoice in His saving love while also realizing the gratitude, worship, and praise you owe Him? Do you render to Him the obedience of faith and gratefully receive from Him the fruits of faith or do you view Him as merely a butler who serves you on your terms?

When you pray or go to Mass are you aware of the glory of being in His presence? Personal prayer can be a little less formal and impromptu, but do you ever just tremble in awe as you approach His Church and His presence? Do you ever kneel, stand, or even sit in His presence, saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”? Do you bring to Mass a joyful and grateful sacrifice of praise to God, who has been so good to you, or is Mass for you more an egocentric event at which you demand to be entertained? Is your parish a clubhouse, or a lighthouse? Is it a cruise ship or a battleship? Is God on the throne in your life or do you imagine him more as your butler, stepping and fetching for you?

The Lord Jesus has opened the way to the Father, but not to trivialize or domesticate Him. Rather, it is so that we can enter the narrow path that stretches on a thrilling journey toward wonder and awe, toward unspeakable joy and untold glories. Rejoice in God’s love for you, but let it be a joy that is wrapped in reverence, one that makes us fall down in awe before so great a God. Indeed, our God is an awesome God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gifts of Wonder and Awe Are More Necessary Than Ever

“And in the Morning Watch the Lord … Cast a Glance” – A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

There is an astonishing verse in the Exodus account, which is read this week in the Office of Readings. The Lord had parted the waters of the Red Sea with a strong eastern wind and the Israelites had just made the crossing with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

And in the morning watch, the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud, cast a glace on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic (Ex 14:24).

Just one look … that’s all it took! One can imagine many other ways that God could have stopped them: lightning, angelic forces, etc. Instead, He merely “cast a glance.”

Was it an angry glance? The text does not say. I would speculate that it was a look of love, for if God is love, how could it have been anything else?

Why, then, the panic among the Egyptian forces? Perhaps it was like the reaction of those accustomed to the darkness, who wince in pain when beautiful light shines. Love confronts and drives out hate the way light drives out darkness. Love is what it is; it cannot be something else. To those held bound by hatred, though, love is like kryptonite. Thus, the Egyptian army falls at the glance of God, panics at the weakness it experiences. Yes, love can be like kryptonite.

I propose that despite the panicked result, God’s glance was one of love. God does not change. Even when we speak of His wrath or anger, we are speaking more of our experience than of what is in God. God is love and so He looks with love. That we experience something other than love is a problem in us, not in God.

Indeed, sometimes we see the look but miss the love. In the Gospel of Mark is told the story of a rich young man who sought perfection but somewhat on his own terms. Jesus looked at him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). The young man saw the look and heard the words, but missed the love. As a result, he went away saddened.

And lest we reduce God’s look of love to one of mere sentimentality, we ought to recall that God’s look of love can also convict us and move us to repentance. Peter’s denial of the Lord is recounted in all four of the Gospels. Simon Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest warming himself by the fire; he had just denied knowing the Lord for the third time when the cock crowed. The Gospel of Luke recounts, The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Lk 22:61-62). Here was a look of love that caused pain, but it was a healing pain that led to repentance.

For those of us with deeper faith, we learn to count on the look, the glance of God, to save us. An old hymn says, “Though billows roll, He keeps my soul. My heav’nly Father watches over me.” Another says, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Yes, the glance of God may make you feel sad, or mad, or glad; but it is the look of love, always seeking to console us or to set us right and bring about healing.

I have a large icon of Christ in my room. In my opinion, what icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the look.” No matter where I move in the room, it seems that Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality, icons are windows into Heaven. Hence, this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ; it is an image that mediates His presence. When I look upon Him, I experience that He knows me. He is looking at me with a knowing, comprehensive look.

The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:13). Christ’s look in the icon in my room is not fearsome; it is serene and confident.

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. The following expression, or one like it, appears more than 25 times in the Gospel of Mark: And looking at them He said, …

Looking on Christ and allowing Him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus Himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:40). And in the First Letter of John we read, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

Keep looking to the Lord through the art that most moves you and especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Look at Him and let Him look at you. Be not dismayed as were the Egyptians of old. God is love and therefore His look is always one of love, no matter how we experience it.

The Lord is casting a glance at you right now. What do you see?

This video is a collection of clips from the movie The Passion of the Christ, set to music. It shows many of the looks of Jesus as well as some that come from us. Look for the “looks.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “And in the Morning Watch the Lord … Cast a Glance” – A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

balance-1475025_1920One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.

A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).

The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.

In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.

So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.

In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.

As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.

Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.

A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.

Balance or bust!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

The Gospel in Miniature

Most of us are familiar with this famous passage from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him might not perish but might have everlasting life (John 3:16). For many people it serves as a kind of mini-gospel.

There is something of that same quality in St. Paul’s beautiful summary of salvation and of the gospel message: For we were, by nature, children of wrath, like the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved (Ephesians 2:3-5).

There is a compact beauty to this text from Ephesians. It paints a beautiful picture of the love of God the Father for us despite our terrible condition: we are children of wrath and are dead in our sins. The breakthrough begins with two simple words: “But God ….” From there, love comes to the rescue.

Let’s examine some of the teachings in this mini-gospel, this summary of salvation.

The Condition of our Salvation Salvation presupposes there is something from which we must be saved. This brief text lists two fundamental conditions from which we must be snatched and saved: disaffection and death.

Disaffection – The text says, By nature, we were children of wrath. The word wrath seems to be a synonym for anger, but in the New Testament it points to an ongoing state of aversion to or disaffection with the holiness of God. Wrath speaks to our inability to endure the holiness of God in our present sinful state. Only the grace of God can adequately prepare us to endure the day of his coming and stand when he appears (Malachi 3:2).

The Greek word translated here as “wrath” is orgḗ, and it speaks to a settled anger or aversion arising from an ongoing or fixed opposition; it is different from a sudden outburst of anger. Wrath is a disposition that steadfastly opposes or recoils from someone or something that cannot be endured.

Experientially, “wrath” speaks to the utter incompatibility of the Lord’s holiness and our current condition. To speak of the wrath of God does not mean that God is angry. Rather, it speaks to our inability to endure the light of His truth and heat of His love. It is like a man who emerges from a dark room into the bright sunshine and finds the light of day too harsh to handle. The problem is not with the sunlight; it is internal to the man, who has become accustomed to the darkness. Nevertheless, he continues to protest that it is the light that is harsh. This is our human condition without grace. We simply cannot endure the light and heat of God, who is like a blazing sun of love and truth. Only Jesus Christ, by His grace, can prepare us to enter into the full presence of God.

Before Christ, we were children of wrath, like the rest. Even to the great and holy Moses, God had to say, You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live (Ex 33:20). Only Jesus can enable us to see the Father’s beautiful face.

Death – The text says that we were dead in our sins. Thus, this problem was not going to go away through any action of ours. A few more spiritual push-ups or alms for the poor were not going to be enough—or even possible—because we were dead in our sins. Dead people cannot do anything but lie there and be acted upon by others. It doesn’t get more serious than being dead in our sins. Only God, who is life and existence Himself, can resolve this for us.

The Cause of our Salvation – The text speaks to the primary cause of our salvation: But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us ….

To love is to will the good of the other. We who are human almost always have imperfect love. We love others, but we also expect to get something in return. If we don’t think we are getting enough back, we easily become resentful and may begin to withhold our love. God’s love, however, is perfect and gratuitous. All that God got back in return for loving us was the cross!

This is the beauty of the text: we are saved by God on account of the great love with which He loved us.

Why does God love us? Because God is love and that is what love does—it loves. Love is more than an emotion, something we feel—it is willing the good of the other. Loving does not always involve affirmation; at times it will involve rebuke and correction. Sin and error are never the good that God wills for us. Thus, even when he must punish us or allow us to endure tribulations, it is only for our greater good, that we come to wisdom, repentance, goodness, and truth.

Love and richness in mercy are also connected in this passage. Even our imperfect love for others brings forth an understanding and a compassion that makes us more patient and more willing to presume good faith on the part of those we love. Due to our imperfections, our mercy can err by excess or defect. We may grow overly angry with those we love and be more severe with them because the blows they inflict upon us are more painful. On the other hand, sometimes we are overly merciful to those we love, becoming too tolerant and overlooking serious issues. Thus, imperfect love and imperfect mercy are often our lot.

Of course, God is perfect love. While He is rich in mercy, His mercy is His willingness to suffer on our behalf, but not in a way that harms us or inhibits our freedom. That is why one of the great evils of our time is the preaching of mercy detached from necessary repentance. Repentance is the key that unlocks mercy. It is the door we freely open to God, admitting our need for mercy and allowing Him to apply its healing affects. His rich mercy is freely offered, not imposed.

As the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches, if we take one step by God’s grace, the Father takes two steps and starts running toward us. Yes, our Heavenly Father loves us and is rich in mercy, rejoicing in our return and summoning the angels and saints in Heaven to the celebratory feast!

Here, then, is the cause of our salvation: God’s great love for us and the richness of His mercy. We have but to say yes by turning the key of repentance and opening the door of our heart to His rich, necessary, freely-offered mercy.

The Cure of our Salvation The text says that God gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved.

We who were dead in our sins and who were children of wrath like the rest are brought back to life in Christ. Notice that it is in Christ that we are saved. That is to say, Jesus does not act upon us in a merely extrinsic way. Rather, He takes us to Himself and makes us members of His Body. He is the Life as well as the Way and the Truth. He incorporates us, makes us members of His body, so that we live in Him and through Him.

  • Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:27).
  • Are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in resurrection. … Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him (Romans 6:2-8).
  • Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him … so also the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me (Jn 6:54-55).

So, the Father gives us life in Christ not just by Christ. To be saved and no longer be dead in our sins, to live, is to be in union with Him. This is more than a juridical act, more than an imputed righteousness; it is a saving relationship and incorporation into Christ’s Body. Christ’s Body is no mere abstraction or allegory; it is the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. It is the living, active presence of Christ in the world (see Eph 5:23, Col 1:18, Eph 1:23, Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 12:22ff, inter al).

It by this grace that we are saved, but by what grace? By the grace of a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. The grace by which we are saved is Christ Himself and our incorporation into Him. It our remaining with Him through the relationship that is the grace of faith. He saves us by the rebirth and washing of baptism, strengthens us in the Sacrament of Confirmation, feeds us with His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, and heals our wounds in the Sacraments of Confession and Anointing of the Sick.

Here, then, is a kind of mini-Gospel or a summary of our salvation from St. Paul. It is beautiful and compact, worthy of a framed copy in a special place—or better yet, hanging on your refrigerator door.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gospel in Miniature

Why Did the Second Person of the Trinity, Rather Than the Father or the Holy Spirit, Become Incarnate?

Trinity Dome. Credit: J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

As we await the approaching Feast of Holy Christmas, we have been pondering some of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teachings on the Incarnation. Today we will consider why it was the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became incarnate.

Most people have never even thought of this question let alone sought to answer it. God could have chosen many different ways to save us; He chose to act as He did not because it was required but because it was fitting. It falls to us to ponder, using Scripture and our own reason, why His chosen way was fitting and what we can learn from this.

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas provides rich resources for us. I present below his teaching from the Summa Theologica (part III, question 3, article 8) in bold, italics; my poor commentary appears in plain red text. St. Thomas proposed four reasons as to why it was most fitting for the Son to become incarnate.

I. First, on the part of the union; for such as are similar are fittingly united. Now the Person of the Son, Who is the Word of God, has a certain common agreement with all creatures, because the word of the craftsman, i.e. his concept, is an exemplar likeness of whatever is made by him. Hence the Word of God, Who is His eternal concept, is the exemplar likeness of all creatures. … for the craftsman by the intelligible form of his art, whereby he fashioned his handiwork, restores it when it has fallen into ruin.

When the Father created all things, He uttered a Word (i.e., Let there be light). He creates through His Word (the Logos), and the Word of God is Christ. Therefore, in speaking creation into existence by the Logos, God impresses a kind of logike (logic) on all things.

In this way the Son, the Logos, has a “certain common agreement with all creatures,” who bear something of logic or likeness to Him. If this be so, then, as St. Thomas reasons, God the Father would best repair His creation by the same Word through whom He first created it.

II. Moreover … Man is perfected in wisdom (which is his proper perfection, as he is rational) by participating the Word of God, as the disciple is instructed by receiving the word of his master. Hence it is said (Sirach 1:5): “The Word of God on high is the fountain of wisdom.” And hence for the consummate perfection of man it was fitting that the very Word of God should be personally united to human nature.

While it is true that Original Sin affected our bodily integrity, perhaps our greatest wound was the darkening of our intellect, which was (and is) our greatest gift, the distinguishing characteristic between us and brute animals. So, it is especially fitting that the Word of God, who is also the Wisdom of God, should be joined to our nature and bring healing to us in this way.

St. Paul writes, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2). Even human words can instruct; all the more, then, can the Word of God made Flesh enlighten and heal us. This shows forth the fittingness that the Word—the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity—should become flesh.

III. The reason of this fitness [of the Second Person becoming flesh] may [also] be taken from the end of the union, which is … the heavenly inheritance, which is bestowed only on sons, according to Romans 8:17: “If sons, heirs also.” Hence it was fitting that by Him Who is the natural Son, men should share this likeness of sonship by adoption, as the Apostle says in the same chapter (Romans 8:29): “For whom He foreknew, He also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of His Son.”

In other words, because it is sons who inherit, it is fitting that He who is Son by nature should become incarnate. So shall we, conformed to His image as sons through our adoption and membership in His Body, also inherit the Kingdom and glory through the healing He effects in us.

IV. [Further], the reason for this fitness may be taken from the sin of our first parent, for which Incarnation supplied the remedy. For the first man sinned by seeking knowledge, as is plain from the words of the serpent, promising to man the knowledge of good and evil. Hence it was fitting that by the Word of true knowledge man might be led back to God, having wandered from God through an inordinate thirst for knowledge.

In grasping inordinately for the wrong kind of knowledge (the knowledge of evil) and in insisting on his own right to decide what was good and what was evil, Adam sinned. In and of itself, seeking knowledge is good; it was the object that was disordered (and thus forbidden). Because humans have this thirst to know (of itself good), all the more reason that God should offer us the true Word and Wisdom of God: the Son.

For the Word to become flesh is thus more fitting. In effect, God the Father says, “Let me offer you what you were really seeking but sought inordinately.” For this reason, the Son, who is the Word, who is Truth itself, becomes incarnate.

Forsaking Everything and Receiving More Besides

Church of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian. Photo credit: C. Pope

In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, we read this funny story about Peter that speaks to the paradox of losing one’s life only to find it more abundantly:

Peter began to say to Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:  houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:27-31).

Every priest knows well the paradox of these verses. Each of us gave up being the father of children and yet thousands call us Father. We gave up the bride of our dreams and yet have the most beautiful and perfect bride: the Church. She is indeed beautiful but has a long “honey do” list! As for buildings and land? We don’t have our own homes on a parcel of land, but we oversee multimillion-dollar buildings, often occupying an entire city block or a country acre.

Talk about receiving back a hundredfold! I don’t have a house of my own with a great room, but you ought to see the “great room” where I live! It seats 800 people and has a 35-foot ceiling of arches with a painted firmament with gold leaf stars; it has marble floors and a frescoed clerestory! You ought to see the windows, all works of stained-glass art. Yes, it is a glorious space, and at the center, the Lord of the universe is tabernacled under a glorious baldachino!

Every priest knows the richness of his life in terms of buildings and land, but above all in people—in family. Such is the paradox of losing one’s life only to find it even more richly.

I think that God has a certain sense of humor about this as well and must have Himself a good laugh as we begin to realize the paradox.

I remember once, back when I was considering the priesthood, it occurred to me with some relief that at least I wouldn’t have to worry about losing my job or keeping a roof over my family’s head. Hah! God must have had a good laugh over those thoughts. I had a chuckle myself as I signed checks a few years ago totaling more than $300,000 just to replace the roof on our school. Somehow, we survived just fine financially; next come the boilers and other big-ticket items. I just can’t avoid a smirk and an eye roll when I think back on my once-naïve notion of the financial ease of being a priest. What was I thinking? Becoming a priest added at least two zeros to my financial world and all the headaches (what Jesus calls persecutions) that come with such large numbers.

But God has been good to me, so very good. In losing my own personal family I gained God’s family. In setting aside something lesser, I obtained something greater, far greater than I could ever have imagined. I forsook the rich blessing of marriage and family only to be astonished at the even larger family that would be mine.

Somehow for all of us the paradox rings true. When we lose our life to this world in some way, God has even greater things waiting. My mother set aside the more lucrative salary of a public-school teacher in order to teach in a Catholic school, but by her own testimony she got back more than she ever gave up. I know another woman who left a six-figure salary to be a stay-at-home mother. The beautiful and holy title of Mom meant so much more to her than her former executive title.

In losing our life we find it. Yes, while the full impact of this will only be seen in Heaven, many of us experience this truth even in this life. St. Paul expressed the rich tapestry of the paradox best of all. Looking to his own life and the lives of those who accompanied him, he could only marvel as he said,

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6:8-10).

Yes, all is lost, but all is gained. Some is gained even right here in this world, as a kind of foretaste, but one day all will be gained beyond measure. Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:39). Yes, Lord, and we will find it in abundance! Thank you, Lord.

What is your story of losing your life to this world only to find it more abundantly in the Lord?

Marriage and family are wonderful gifts. That some are called to forsake them for the kingdom points to the depth of the sacrifice, but the return is priceless.

Important Reminder: God is more Powerful than Satan

In the work of deliverance ministry, one of the first obstacles to overcome in the afflicted soul is an exaggerated notion of the power of Satan and his demons. Often the troubled person is experiencing a time of crisis. Overwhelmed, he is often scared and sees only darkness. The power of the evil one seems very real, while the power of the angels, of grace, and of God Himself is discounted or all but forgotten.

There are some important truths that need to be reestablished in the faith life of those so afflicted:

  • God is more powerful than Satan.
  • Angels are more powerful than Satan.
  • The Word of God, the sacraments, and Christian blessings are more powerful than curses, hexes, or the lies of the evil one.
  • Satan is not all powerful; his power is limited.
  • Satan is not Not only is his knowledge limited, it is sometimes inaccurate.
  • Satan is a creature. Demons are creatures; they are beneath God and subject to His authority.

One must be restored to a trusting faith in the love of God and in His power and authority over all things. Deliverance ministry (to include the Rite of Major Exorcism) is not a magic pill; it is a journey in faith and faith is necessary for its fruitfulness.

Part of faith includes the rather difficult concept that God allows certain afflictions “for a season and for a reason.” God mysteriously allows some of His creatures, human and demonic, to afflict one another, but it is only to draw some greater good and ultimate glory from the sufferings (see 2 Cor 4:17). Faith embraces not only the power of God over demons but also His mysterious providence in allowing some degree of affliction in our lives. From the perspective of faith, Joseph was able to say to his brothers (who had acted wickedly toward him): You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, so that many would be saved (Gen 5:20).

In this essay, I want to focus on correcting exaggerated notions of Satan’s knowledge, power, and influence. This is not to say that we should have no concern whatsoever about the devil. Indeed, we should be sober. Daily, with confidence and with recourse to the assistance of God, we must stand against Satan’s evil temptations and torments:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5:8-11).

To be sober does not mean to unreasonably fearful of the devil or to forget God’s power and grace. Through strong faith we are to resist, to stand up again and again against Satan. To this end, it is helpful to understand that we can, by grace, stand against him, for God has set limits on Satan’s power, knowledge, and influence.

Let’s consider a few areas that illustrate some of the limitations of demons:

Demons are not omniscient.

To be omniscient means to know all things at all times, past, present, and future. This sort of knowledge pertains to God, but not to His creatures; and Satan and his demon minions are creatures. They are fallen angels. While intelligent, their intellects are darkened by sin as are ours (e.g., Romans 1:21-22).

We see this illustrated in Scripture. Satan has only gradual awareness of who Jesus is and that He has come. Jesus is born quietly in the small town of Bethlehem, in a kind of daring raid behind enemy lines. Satan seems aware of some sort of incursion, but is not certain as to where, or who it is. In the Epiphany account (Matthew 2:1-12), we see him seek information through his agent Herod. Even upon learning of the birthplace, he still does not know who. Herod takes a wild stab and orders the murder of all male children under the age of two (the Holy Innocents). Jesus and the Holy Family evade his grasp and slip away. This demonstrates the limits of Satan’s knowledge. He is aware of the incursion but ignorant of the details. Jesus, the Son of God, continues to live in Satan’s lair for thirty years and Satan does not know who or where He is.

In the narrative of the temptations in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), Satan seems to narrow in on Jesus and His identity. He still seems unsure, however, for he says, “If you are the Son of God …” (e.g., Matt 4:6). From this time forward it would seem that Satan has reached a conclusion as to the identity of Jesus and through his demons manifests that conclusion. Scripture reports, Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God” (Mk 3:11). Another time a demon cried out, I know who you are—the Holy One of God (Mk 1:24). There are other similar passages in Scripture (e.g., Mk 1:34, Luke 4:41).

We should not conclude that Satan had a comprehensive or flawless knowledge of Jesus and of the full plan of salvation. If Satan had had such complete knowledge, especially of the plan of God, he would not have inspired the crucifixion of Jesus, the very means by which he was defeated. Why play into the hands of your enemy if you know you are going to lose?

Hence, there is evidence that Satan eventually acquired a basic understanding of Jesus’ divinity and of His plan, but his knowledge was limited and likely somewhat flawed.

From this we can conclude that demons are not omniscient. They cannot know the future. They cannot read our minds. They cannot even interpret the present with perfect accuracy. However, demons have long observed human behavior; they can see more widely and know hidden things about the past and the present.

This breadth of knowledge is often evident in exorcisms, where demons show some ability to disclose hidden things of the present or past. They also lie and guess a lot; and anything they claim to know about the future is a lie because they cannot know anything about future events or outcomes.

Demons are smart but lack wisdom.

One of the most surprising things encountered by exorcists and those who work on their teams is that many demons behave in downright juvenile ways. They sneer, call people names, whine, and in many ways seem to be dumb as rocks; they often act like pre-teens.

There are certain higher ranks of demons who are fierce and loud. Others are capable of great subtlety and psychological manipulation. A great many of lower ranking demons, however, are boorish, narcissistic, and incapable of anything close to sophistication.

One explanation for this is that while intelligent, they lack wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is operative when one is in a state of grace. Without wisdom, demons have no way to organize their intelligence to its proper end.

Wisdom, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is a gift through which we know the deepest cause of all things: God. Out of this gift comes clear judgment of all things because we know their author, know something of His purposes, and can orient our behaviors toward our truest and highest goal, God Himself (see Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 45).

Without wisdom, human beings tend to “major in the minors.” They maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Their lives are often disorderly and foolhardy because they have lost the moorings of either their origin or their destination. They may be very smart or capable in certain specific (e.g., finance, football), but to what end? There is little to organize their life or prioritize matters.

Similar things must set up in demons as well. It seems hard for demons to develop a coherent strategy other than to sow chaos and elicit fear. There are lots of histrionics, diversions, and silly games, but little that displays anything other than a short-term strategy to disrupt, cause pain, and manifest irrational hatred.

Another explanation for the juvenile behavior of many demons is that sin darkens the intellect. The old saying, “sin makes you stupid” is likely operative here as well.

All this said, we should not presume that demons they are as dumb as they seem. Some of it may be an act to inspire pride during the deliverance session. Pride is the mortal enemy of any exorcist or deliverance team member. The surprisingly “dumb” behavior of demons, whether real or an act, makes most exorcisms more tedious than frightening.

Satan and demons are not all-powerful.

While at the current time the Lord permits a certain freedom of at least some demons to “roam the earth and patrol it” (Job 1:7), he also limits their power.

A remarkable passage of Scripture says,

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the Abyss, holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. And he threw him into the Abyss, shut it, and sealed it over him, so that he could not deceive the nations until the thousand years were complete. After that, he must be released for a brief period of time. (Rev. 20:1-3).

Most Catholic scholars and the Fathers of the Church interpret the “thousand years” in the passage above as a figurative long period of time rather than specifically 1000 years. They hold that this “thousand years” has already begun and is the time in which we now live, the current “Church age.” During this time, the gospel goes out to the nations, as it has been, and Satan’s power is limited to some degree.

Although Satan and demons are described as “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness,” this is more likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or move about is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, only that it is not unlimited. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!

It is said that St. John Vianney spoke of the devil as a chained dog. While it can bark and make a lot of noise, it can only bite if we get too close. Thus, Christians must remember that God mysteriously permits some influence of demons; He allows them to cause some harm, but their power is limited. They cannot directly kill, and it would seem that they cannot even fully control the very evil they set loose. This is evident in the way that the wicked often turn on one another. It can also be seen in the way that strong evils often usher in reforms. Consider, further, that the Church is still here preaching and teaching the same gospel after two millennia, while numerous evil regimes, empires, heresies, and corruptions have all come and gone. Although the gates (i.e., powers) of Hell have tried to prevail, they have failed due to Jesus’ promise of indefectibility for the Church as His Body and Bride (see Mat 16:18).

Demons are outnumbered.

While the exact number of demons and angels is unknown, Scripture hints at the fact that demons are outnumbered two to one:

And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns: and on his head seven diadems: And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth … (Rev 12:3-4).

It is likely that the “stars” referred to here are the angels. Satan is able to rally a third of them to his side and they became demons, some of whom roam the earth and others who are consigned already to Hell (see 2 Peter 2:4).

The good news is that for every angel that fell to become a demon, two did not and are thus able to serve God, assist us, and do good works.

These are important reminders for all of us, afflicted or not. There is a kind of theatric fear that too often exaggerates the powers of demons. Movies and other verbal and visual sources emphasize things to scare us and to deepen the drama of the movie or book. Satan and the work of demons should not be summarily dismissed. They are intelligent, crafty, and persistent. Our faith in the Lord must outweigh our fear of demons. We must grow in our faith that God has the power and capacity to both overcome evil on our behalf and to draw greater good from it when He chooses to permit it.

There is an old saying meant to shift our focus: Stop telling God how big your storm is and start telling your storm how big your God is. For deliverance and exorcism to have their fullest effect, confident and trusting faith must grow and exaggerated notions of the power of demons must give way. To all of us experiencing any trouble Jesus has this to say:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but have confidence; I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33).

Here is a classic commercial that emphasizes the “cheap parlor tricks” of demons, though in this case the cause is more natural than first appreciated by those here. Remember, the first goal of demons is to strike fear in us.

How Justice and Mercy are Alike with God

Many people today set mercy and justice in opposition to each other, but where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to the justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

Mercy that canceled the requirements of God’s justice and His law would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him; both are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the unrepentant and wicked.

The balance of orthodoxy holds that justice and mercy are alike with God.

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne: mercy and truth shall go before your face (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Yes, in God, justice and mercy meet.

https://youtu.be/XFj-3RHGkrY?t=2786