Starstruck: The Marveling of Job as He Looked to the Night Sky

blog-9-28The first reading for today (Wednesday of the 27th Week) says,

The LORD alone stretches out the heavens.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning
(Job 9:8-10).

Due to the light pollution common in our cities today, we urbanites really don’t have any idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about a hundred years ago, the night sky was illuminated by billions of points of light; it’s a breathtaking display many moderns have never experienced.

My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was nearly twenty years ago. I was visiting a priest friend in rural North Dakota. It was mid January, the very heart of winter. The sky was cloudless, the temperature was just below zero, and the humidity was very low (thus, no haze). We decided to take an evening walk. Only an occasional street lamp lit the ground. As we got farther away from the town, about half a mile, I looked up and could scarcely believe my eyes.

“What is that?” I asked, “Are those clouds coming in?”
“What do you mean?” asked my friend, “There are no clouds.”
“What is all that then?” I asked, gesturing upward with my arm.
He smiled and replied, “Those are stars. That’s the Milky Way.”

On the one hand I astounded by the sight, but at the same time I felt a tinge of anger that I’d been deprived of such a view all my life. Is that what the ancients saw every night? This is what inspired the psalmist to write, The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows forth the work of His hand … night unto night takes up the message (Ps 19:1ff). This is what God meant when he told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).

Frankly, where I live in Washington, D.C. I can count the stars. But the true night sky is astonishing in the number of stars it contains.

An old hymn says,

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim …

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale …
While all the stars that ‘round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round our dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

If there is ever a widespread power outage in the greater Washington area, I pray that it happens on a cloudless night. If it does, I will ask my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.

As Job beheld the stars and expressed his marvel, we moderns may think we know what he saw. But I have come to discover that most of us city dwellers really have little idea. The sky the ancients saw each night (and some in rural areas see even today) is more glorious than most of us could ever imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

Here are some pictures of the stars, set to an old Al Bowlly song:

The second half of the high-definition video below shows some wonderful views of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view, which displays nicely even on fairly large screens.

A Biblical Picture of Complacency and Its Tragic Results

blog-09-27The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass was a stunning and sobering analysis of the human tendency to be complacent. It also showed how this complacency is fueled by a series of denials that are listed in a tightly woven tapestry. Here is the passage, followed by some basic analysis.

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall!  Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.  They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with. (Amos 6:1.4-7).

The Diagnosis

The fundamental diagnosis is that many are complacent. To be complacent means to feel satisfied with the current state and to be disinclined to try to make things better. It is self-satisfaction accompanied by a lack of awareness of dangers or deficiencies. It is a kind of myopic condition in which one cannot see beyond one’s own situation to recognize the plight of others.

It is like the rich man who could not see beyond his feast to the starving Lazarus at his very door. Perhaps the meats where piled too high or the wine blurred his vision. All of this is a form of denial. Lazarus was still there even if the rich man couldn’t or wouldn’t see him.

And what of us? Is it possible that our possessions block our view as well? Are we possibly lost in the rooms of our 5,000 square foot homes? What does our life amount to? Do we spend most of our time and money pleasing ourselves? Are we rich in what matters to God or just in what pleases us? Are we aware of the sufferings of so many others? Though we cannot help everyone, whom do we help? Does the moral collapse of our country bother us?  What are we more upset about, that our children do not go to Mass or that our favorite sports team did not win? What makes us passionate and mournful, that 50 million children have been killed through abortion or that we didn’t get our own way in some matter?

Yes, woe be to the complacent. Woe be to those who life amounts to little more than pleasing themselves and living insular lives among their trinkets. Life has a funny way of closing in on them, for the world they ignore does not get better magically.

Indeed, no form of denial can ultimately last. The text announces woe because it does come eventually to the complacent; the ignored problems of others overflow into their insular world. Islands have a funny way of eroding when the tides of the sorrow of others rise.

The Drowsiness

Not only are they described as complacent, but as drowsy. They recline on couches and beds. They sleep through storms the way Jonah slept through the storm he had caused; the pagan sailors eventually had to rouse our Jewish prophet Jonah to “call on his God.”

Catholics today prefer to sleep though the ruinous storms in our culture. This, too, is denial. To be drowsy is to be sleepy and unware. All throughout our culture there is confusion, deception, and moral darkness. Many have fallen away from the faith and are in error and mortal sin.

Yet for most Catholics and most parishes it is “business as usual.” Spaghetti dinners, parish picnics, and raffles have their place, but in the midst of a great storm it is unforgiveable that we are not urgently seeking to save souls through clear instruction and unambiguous calls to repentance. Instead of being wide awake ourselves and summoning others to rise from their slumber, too often we resemble a sleeping giant or behave like the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, who slept while Christ was in agony.

Imagine, the Son of God was about to engage in the most pivotal battle of all human history and the apostles were asleep! Later, at the moment of crucifixion, all but one of them would hide. Things have not changed, my friends. Too many of us are asleep and are uninvolved in the crucial battle for souls.

The Decadence

The text says, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! The frugal and wise stewards of God’s gifts typically did not eat lambs and calves. Lambs were raised to be sheep so that their wool and milk could bless; only when they were older and nearing the end were they slaughtered for meat. Calves, too, were valuable and raised to be beasts of burden and perform other valuable functions; only when they were older and near the end of their useful life were they fattened and taken for meat. In those days, eating the meat of lambs and calves was a sign of waste and usually of decadence. The slaughter of young animals was only considered reasonable for the purpose of sacrifice to God.

Consider the insensitivity of decadence and waste; they are signs of grave excess. Yet this is quite common in our throwaway culture. And while many do strive to donate unneeded items and to recycle what can reasonably be recycled, so much is still wasted.

Consider, too, the root meaning of the word decadence: de (from, apart, or concerning) + cadere (to fall). The word describes how we figuratively trip over our excessive things. All this “stuff” preoccupies us and keep us from seeing beyond our trinkets and preoccupations to the wider world and what is going on. And here, too, is denial of our failure to see as we trip over our excesses.

The Distractions

The text says that they are improvising to the music of the harp. Permit such a text to mean that too often we pipe little tunes for ourselves, we distract ourselves with various distractions. “OK, so the euthanasia bill is being voted on next week. My son is shacked up with his girlfriend. None of my siblings attend Mass. But what’s on TV tonight? I wonder who’s posted on Facebook today?” We have distractions today that the ancients couldn’t have even dreamed of as they partook of their bread, circuses, and gladiatorial contests. All these distractions we have help us to ignore or deny the collapse and ruin around us.

The Drunkenness

Drinking wine from bowls! The ancient Greeks and Romans consumed food and drink so excessively that they would force themselves to vomit in order to be able to continue consuming. Lots of excess there! But most of our excess today in the realm of food and drink is for the purpose of anesthetizing ourselves.

Sobriety is painful in a sinful and fallen world. If we are sober we might actually know what is going on and feel some more responsibility. Because that is painful we embrace a sort of denial by medicating and tuning out. To be sober is to have a clear mind that is alert to what is going on. But being alert and aware can hurt—I might have to actually care about things, events, and people.

In a little wine there may be truth, but a lot of wine brings an altered reality, and many prefer it. It is part of the picture of complacency that one is tuned out and unware. It is easier to stare into the bottom of a glass than to look into the condition of others and soberly assess what is really going on. Bottoms up!

The “Doll Up”

The text says that they anoint themselves with the best oils; today, we us perfume, cologne, or aftershave. The notion is that to look good is better than to be good; it is just too much trouble to actually be good. The emphasis on appearances is just another way to deny or avoid confronting reality.

The Disconnect

All of this leads to the most central denial of all: They are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Historically this is a reference to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. For a brief time, the Southern Kingdom of Judah did embrace some reforms, having seen that the moral collapse of the North and her failure to heed the calls of the prophets for reform led to her demise. But the reforms were short-lived. Even acknowledging what destruction impenitence can bring, too many just to take to their couches. The clock is ticking toward destruction. “But never mind all that. What’s on TV tonight, and would you please bring me some more wine?”

The fact is, we should be greatly saddened by the moral collapse of our country. Many souls are being lost and hurtful errors are multiplying. The beatitude says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Mat 5:4). Who are those who mourn? They are those who see the awful state of many of God’s people: lost, confused, scattered, hurt, and on a path leading to Hell. Those who mourn are comforted (more literally, strengthened), to work earnestly for the salvation of souls.

Yet too many today do not mourn. Too many are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph. Few indeed will get off their couches to work to save souls and to spread the truth of the Gospel. The denial of the problem by now is too deep; their couches have claimed them.

The Destruction

The text says that the complacent will be the first to be driven into exile when the destructiveness of their ways sets in. Denial will no longer be possible as the couch is swept away in the coming storm. Denial of reality does not make it not exist. Judah, to whom this text was addressed, did collapse in 587 B.C. and the nobles led the parade into exile.

If we will not arise and drive back our enemies—Satan and his minions—if we deny that there is any problem, we will soon discover that reality has a strange way of being stubbornly there. It will either reach us here and now (if we are lucky) or on our judgment day (when repentance is no longer possible).

The Lord has painted a sobering but realistic portrait through Amos. Complacency and denial are very serious evils because of their capacity to lull us into ever deeper sleep. Be not deceived into continued moral slumber.

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:11-14).

Job and Suffering

Job's Tormentors' by William Blake
Job’s Tormentors’ by William Blake

We are beginning to read from the Book of Job in daily Mass. One of its core issues is the problem of suffering and why God allows it. If God is omnipotent and omniscient then how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a woman is raped, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?

The problem of evil cannot be answered simply; it is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says that “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Rom 8:28). But how this is often difficult for us to see. Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask why. And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many.

As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but few are forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability to even ask the right questions. In the end, though, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us and we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.

One of the most perplexing aspects of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America as a whole, there is much less suffering than in many other parts of the world. And even here, some go through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed while others suffer crippling disease, sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. And while a lot of our suffering comes from our own poor choices and/or lack of self-control, some of it seems unrelated. The most difficult suffering to accept is that inflicted on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no ill effects: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, those who exploit the poor or unsuspecting for their own gain exploited, etc.

Suffering is hard to explain simply or to merely accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. When interacting with those who are deeply disturbed by the problem of evil, a healthy dose of sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility will be more fruitful than forceful rebuttal.

A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. (Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.)

  1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Although we only get a brief glimpse of the Garden of Eden, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it and that Adam and Eve caused their entry, despite being warned that this would be the result of eating from the forbidden tree.
  2. Even in Eden the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked.
  3. In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there. We were made to love; love requires freedom; and freedom requires choice. The yes of love must permit of the no of sin. In our rebellious no both we and the world unraveled, ushering in death and chaos. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, the vast majority of it by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin—Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than to serve in the real paradise.
  4. The link between human freedom and evil/suffering also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But there is mystery here, too, for the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
  5. The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. There, God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit to test Job’s faith and strengthen it. In the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings; it is a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
  6. The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
  7. Does this mean that those who suffer more are in need of more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that greater glory is awaiting them. The Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but endure it with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
  8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal when many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exalted, when the rich will go away empty and poor be filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich and well-fed, unaccustomed to suffering. The only chance the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
  9. As to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering we caused by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.

I’m sure you can add to these points. Be careful with the problem of evil and suffering; there are mysterious dimensions that must be respected. The best approach in talking to others may be with an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with it. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but the answer appeals to reason. Justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a little. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would “pat” answers, which could alienate them.

Is There a “Dark Delight” in Prophets Who Foretell Doom? A Consideration of a Text from Ezekiel

Blog-08-09Today’s reading from daily Mass (Tuesday of the 19th Week of the Year) features an unusual image and a seemingly “dark delight.”

It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll which he unrolled before me. It was covered with writing front and back, and written on it was:  Lamentation and wailing and woe! He said to me: Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. … I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth (Ezekiel 2:10-3:3).

The reference to eating a scroll is likely allegorical. The direction to eat the scroll of God’s Word probably came while Ezekiel was in a prophetic state, a state of ecstasy during which prophets often received their message. But whether allegorical or literal, the point is that Ezekiel and all of us must allow the Word of God to enter us deeply and become part of our very substance. The Word of God needs to “stick to our ribs” (as I find ordinary food does so easily in my advancing age)!

But there remains a kind of “dark delight” for us to consider. The scroll Ezekiel ingests was said to consist of lamentation, wailing, and woe, yet Ezekiel says it was sweet to the taste.

Was Ezekiel delighting in the looming destruction of Jerusalem? Why would lamentation, wailing, and woe be sweet to the taste? Was Ezekiel delighting in the darkness? Was there an unholy vengeance at play here? What could be sweet about woe?

Perhaps an analogy will help us to understand what tasted “sweet” to Ezekiel. Consider a man with cancer. Because surgery is painful and costly, the first treatments attempted involve chemotherapy or radiation. Over time, it becomes increasingly clear that surgery will be required. The decision is to operate is made and a date is set. It is major surgery and thus will require a lengthy recovery period and significant physical therapy. As the date approaches, though the man laments the need for surgery and the likely pain to follow, a strange peace comes over him, even an eagerness to be done with it. Though lamentation, wailing, and woe are at hand, beyond that there will be healing. Thus with a kind of sweet joy, he experiences a strange relief as the surgery day arrives. He says to himself, in effect, “Bring it on! Let’s get this over and done with. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s time for this cancer to go, despite the cost.”

Perhaps this was Ezekiel’s experience of the sweetness of even a hard prophecy that would not only harm what and whom he loved, but would also afflict him with exile and the pain of loss. This had become necessary because the people were unrepentant and the injustices growing ever worse. Over and over again Ezekiel was told that the people were stubborn, that they did not listen, that their foreheads were brass and their necks were iron. Now it was time to lance the boil, to do the only thing left to bring about the needed healing and change. Yes, it was a lamentation and a woe, but it was necessary and the time had come. There was a “sweetness” in knowing that God would deal with the spiritual cancer accordingly and that injustice and sin were going to be dealt with.

Thus, it was not a “dark delight,” for the delight was not in the darkness or the pain itself, but in the end of injustice and sin. The sweetness was in the restoration of at least some sanity, health, and the beauty of truth.

Some of us who comment on the current condition of our culture and warn of coming judgment are accused of this sort of “dark delight.” Some have written me off, saying that they think that I want this to happen, that I want to see us all destroyed.

While I can’t speak for everyone who comments on the current state, I can say that I would prefer a quick and remarkable repentance that will save the nation and culture I love. I also know that lamentation and woe will make my own life much harder, even downright awful. My only “delight” in a chastisement is the healing that might follow for the generations to come. But I pray that I want what God wants. If patient waiting is His will then so be it. If dramatic chastisement (as in Ezekiel’s day) is His will then so be it. Do what you need to do, Lord.

I understand that some will see this as vindictive and even unpatriotic. Jesus and St. Stephen, who spoke of the coming destruction of the Temple, were also thought by some to “want” the destruction and even to be plotting to bring it about. Jesus wept over ancient Jerusalem and her coming destruction. He preferred her repentance but knew that it would not come (Jn 11:35). Thus, for Jesus (and surely for Stephen, too) there was no dark delight, but rather a gut-wrenching lament; they both ultimately paid dearly. I ask only for a heart made ever purer, a heart that weeps for sin (my own and that of all), a heart that seeks only the happiness and wholeness that comes from God’s vision for us.

What Does Jesus Mean When He Says That We Will Be Salted with Fire?

Spilled salt with salt shaker on wooden background

I was recently asked (through my Our Sunday Visitor column) about one of Jesus’ lesser known sayings. I would go into a little more detail in today’s post. Here is the passage:

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another (Mark 9:49-50).

Some argue that these were separate sayings that were just stitched together, but I think otherwise. The logic of the saying seems cogent and unified to me. I will begin with a few observations about salt in those times.

  1. Salt was valuable. Some people were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word “salary”).
  2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds (it helps heal afflictions of the skin). Newborn babies were washed with saltwater.
  3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration, salt was one of the most common ways of preserving meat and fish.
  4. Salt was connected with flavor. Salt adds spice to life; it brings out the flavor in food.
  5. Salt was an image for wisdom. Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).
  6. Salt was connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Lev 2:13). So the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”
  7. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “covenant of salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) The covenant of salt refers to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
  8. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread. There is a Latin saying attributed to Pliny the Elder (and Virgil, too), Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).

All of these things are caught up in Jesus’ use of salt as an image. Sadly, salt (a necessary ingredient for life) is today treated almost as a poison. But such thinking was not operative in ancient minds.

To apply the image of salt to the Christian life, we should see that the Christian is to purify, sanctify, and preserve this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is called to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.

And now we turn to Jesus’ words from Mark:

1. Everyone will be salted with fire. Two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same: purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. Fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver, separating it from the iron and other metals.

Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in its own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings those two images together, telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”

Indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of Heaven, nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire as effecting whatever purification has not taken place here on earth:

If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:15-15).

The Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire.”

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver (Mal 3:2-3).

Yes, we must all be salted with fire. We must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be), in Purgatory.

2. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? In other words, we have to let the salt of God’s grace have its effect or else we, who are to be salt for others, become flat, tasteless, and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).

What does it mean for salt to become tasteless? Today, we are not used to salt going flat, but salt in the ancient world was frequently less pure. It came from the sea and was admixed with other things. As it broke down, the salt could go flat or become bitter. In that case it was useless except as pavement.

The image is a powerful portrait of a Christian who has become debased, flat. The fall is steep: from a worthy, esteemed, necessary, and helpful place (like good salt) to ignoble pavement, trampled and unappreciated beneath the feet of people who should have been blessed with its flavor. Jesus says elsewhere, if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matt 5:13).

Alas, consider the sad condition of this world, made so because so many Catholics stepped back from being salt and light. Increasingly, the world is therefore hell bound and sin-soaked as never before.

The current contempt of the world for Christians—Catholics in particular—has indeed reduced us to less than pavement dust. We can lament the lack of appreciation for our faith, but a lot of it is due to our lack of saltiness. Salt gone flat is good for nothing, nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, this world thinks of us as flat and bitter to the taste.

We have a lot of work to do to recapture our role of adding spice and flavor to life. The good, the true, and the beautiful must be reintegrated into the lives of Catholics, who have too easily cast them aside.

Bishop Robert Barron speaks of 70s Catholicism as the era of “beige Catholicism,” when all the zest, color, edginess, and zeal of the Catholic faith was painted over and Catholics sought to blend in—even disappear. Today we are seeing the results of salt-gone-flat Catholicism. Little by little, we must recover our salt, our zest, our pep, and even our stinging quality. Flat Catholics are good for nothing.

If the salt will not be salt, there is no substitute for it. Jesus asks rhetorically, if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? There is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, then the world will be in darkness. If we will not be salt, then the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture has happened on our watch, when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.

3. Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. In other words, allow the salt, the purification, to have its effect. Only if we do this will we have peace with one another.

Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts; I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealously and greed and helps me to be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours nor do I resent you for having it. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love and to be kind, generous, and patient. In this way there is peace.

Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just as with any stinging medicine we must learn that although it is painful it is good for us. Yes, it brings peace; it ushers in shalom.

Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!

What Does It Mean When Scripture Says That God Hardens Certain Human Hearts?

Blog-06-27One of the more difficult biblical concepts to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh: before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). And there are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among his own people.

What are we to make of texts like these, which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or a hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when He has also said the following?

  1. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)
  2. God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, mysteries about God’s sovereignty and how it interacts with our freedom, the mysteries of time, and the mysteries of causality. As a mystery within mysteries, the question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution can be found in a blog post.

But some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” in simplistic ways or in ways that use one truth to cancel out other important truths that balance it. So please permit a modest summary of the ancient discussion.

I propose that we examine these sorts of texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin, it is important simply to list a few of the “hardening texts.” The following are not the only ones, but they provide a wide enough sample:

  1. The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).
  2. Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).
  3. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).
  4. He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).
  5. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (2 Thess 2:11).
  6. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).

I. The Context of ConnivanceIn properly assessing texts like these, we ought first to consider the contexts in which they were written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God “hardens the heart” come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. For seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to God, He determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one, and in a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense, there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened one, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.

In the case of Pharaoh (e.g., #1 and #2 above), although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; & 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God “cements the deal” as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above),  are  also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.

St. John Chrysostom – Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St John Chrysostom said, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (in a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St. Augustine – This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

In the text of 2 Thessalonians (# 5 above), God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie. While this verse speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished: They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved … so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10,12).

St. AugustineFrom a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).

St. John Damascus[God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

The texts from Romans 1 (e.g., # 6 above) speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred lust and idolatry (1:23-24). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So here, too, though it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. Again, God has “cemented the deal.” They do not want to serve Him and so God, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

Thus our first point in understanding the “hardening texts” is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, such that the state of the person’s hardness becomes permanent. God “cements the deal” and “causes” the person to walk in his own sinful ways since he has insisted on doing so.

II. The Mystery of Time – In understanding these “hardening texts” (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must strive to recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).

To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live have always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:5). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.

Hence when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening hearts, we must be careful not to think that He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life unfold like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not that He is trying to influence the outcome by “tripping them up.” He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny they have chosen.

Now be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as is the past. And even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than just accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, or double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to choose what I do. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free (Scripture teaches this) and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, such that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

The key point here is mystery. Striving to understand how, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

III. The Mystery of Causality – One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern worlds is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.

Up until the Renaissance, people thought that God was at the center of all things and they instinctively saw the hand of God in everything—even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) Thus the ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the “first cause” of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God than we are. In speaking like this, they were not being superstitious or primitive in their thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. They believed that God was the primary cause of all that existed.

Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

We need to understand that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, do not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither do they mean to say that God acts in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis is on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything.

After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually “escorted” to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to focusing on secondary causes (those related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. But these are actually secondary causes, because I cannot cause something to happen unless God first causes me.

Today, we have largely thrown primary causality overboard as a category. Even believers do this (unconsciously for the most part) and thus exhibit three related issues:

  1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.
  2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.
  3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as “primitive” and say, inappropriately, that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that occurrence. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part) and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and should shoulder the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, and pre-scientific age.

The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. Today, we handle causality very clumsily; we do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding the two in balance and speaking to both realities. Thus we are poor interpreters of the “hardening texts.”

IV. The Necessity of Humility – We are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more about the details than is proper for us, because, frankly, they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts outright, or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which St. Paul warns us about this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small, worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

Summary – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which God hardens the hearts of certain people. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper distinctions as to the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.

We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to interpreting such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, texts like these are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

This song says, “Be not angry any longer, Lord, and no more remember our iniquities. Behold and regard us; we are all your people!”

The Whole Gospel, Please – A Reflection on a Popular Gospel Verse

john316The Gospel proclaimed on Wednesday of this week included the familiar John 3:16. So familiar is this verse, that many hold up signs or have bumper stickers that simply say, “John 3:16.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life
(John 3:16).

It is indeed a beautiful verse, but I would argue that many use it inauthentically by pulling it out from its place within a longer passage. The fuller segment is John 3:16-21, which is as much a passage of warning as it is of consolation and assurance.

Here it is again, along with the remainder of that longer passage:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God
(John 3:16-21).

This fuller context has somewhat of a different tone. It sets forth a great drama in which our lives are cast. It amounts to sober assessment of the obtuseness of many human hearts and of the urgent need for us to decide well in life.

Those who merely quote the first verse run the risk of presenting this text as a kind of a freewheeling assurance that all is well and that salvation is largely in the bag, that judgment and condemnation are not a significant factor since “God so loved the world.” And while the concept of faith is included in this first verse, without the larger context the tendency is to soft-pedal the need for repentance and for the obedience of faith. In so doing, the true drama and sober teaching of the fuller text are lost.

The longer passage fleshes the message out and has a balance that the shortened text does not. Here is what Jesus is in effect saying, expressed in more modern language:

As I live, I and my Father do not desire that any should die in their sins or be lost. I have not currently come as your judge but as your savior. I will come one day as the judge of all, but now is a time of grace and mercy extended to you.

But you need to know that you have a decision to make, a decision that will determine where you will spend eternity.

So please listen to me! Open the door to me and let me draw you to the obedience of faith and the beauty of holiness. If you do this, light will dawn for you, for I am the Light and your life will grow ever brighter.

But if you will not repent and come to a lifesaving obedience of faith, your heart will begin to despise me and the light of my glory. You will become accustomed to the darkness and begin to consider the Light (which I am) to be obnoxious, harsh, judgmental, and even cruel. Yes, you will begin to hate me, for I am the Light. You will prefer the darkness because you love your sins more.

Come to your senses and don’t let this happen. You have a decision to make: for the light or for the darkness, for me or for the prince of this world, Satan. Be sober and understand the dramatic choice before you. Your salvation depends on your choice to come to obedient faith in me or to reject me.

And know this: on the day of your judgment, the verdict will not be rendered by me so much as by you. For by then, you will either love the Light or hate it. And I will not force you to live in a light you detest. You will be free to go your own way. It will not be I who reject you. It will be you who reject me.

Be sober. Don’t let this happen. Don’t marginalize or ignore me. Don’t prefer the world and its twisted values and passing pleasures. Your sins will make you hate the light and prefer the darkness. You have a decision to make.

This message is much more complex than that contained in the popular, abbreviated text known as John 3:16. God’s mercy is offered, but the final verdict will center on whether or not we accept it. This message may be less consoling but it is true nonetheless, and only the truth can set us free.

There is a tendency by many to pull out certain verses and isolate them from their context and from the fuller message of the Gospel. The full and authentic Gospel echoes the opening call of the Lord Jesus: “Repent and believe the Good News.”

So yes, John 3:16! But please continue reading. The whole Gospel, please!

 

What Is Meant by the “Sacrifice of Praise” in Scripture?

Corpus Christi

Please consider the following reflection more of a pastoral meditation than a formal exegesis. I do not seek here to compare every use of the phrase in the Scriptures but rather to ponder how we seem to have lost the connection of personal sacrifice to liturgy and worship. Scripture clearly connects them. Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture and then examine how we have strayed from the concept.

So Jesus … suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Heb 13:12-16).

The fundamental principle is that praise (or worship) is connected to sacrifice. Scripture notes this in many places, using expressions such as “a sacrifice of praise” and “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

On one level, Tradition insists that there be a connection to true worship of God and to living a holy life in charity to the poor.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:26-27).

Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver you. He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me. And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God (Psalm 50).

Thus, the first meaning of a “sacrifice of praise” is that our worship, our praise and thanksgiving, must flow from a heart that is obedient to God, generous to the poor, and unsullied by worldly affections. There is an intrinsic connection between worship and holiness. The greatest risks of worship and praise are that we think we can use it to “buy God off,” or that mere lip service in worship is sufficient. True worship should lead to integrity, such that we become more and more like the One we praise.

There is also some value in pondering the sacrificial nature of the act of worship/praise itself. This is surely the case for Christ, who as our High priest is also the victim. In the Old Covenant the priest and victim were distinct, but in the New Covenant they are one and the same. Jesus did not offer up some poor animal; He offered Himself. And so, too, for us, who are baptized into the priesthood of Jesus Christ as members of the royal priesthood of the baptized or who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood.

Simply put, our worship and praise does cost something—and it should. It takes some effort; there is a cost to worshiping God in the way He is worthy of. Though it is not easy, it is our obligation; it is something that can and ought to challenge us.

This obligation is underappreciated today, when too often the notion is that “going to Church” should entertain me, feed me, minister to me, and be relevant to me. The focus is on man and what pleases him or is sensible to him, rather than on God. Liturgy today seems far more about man than about God. Modern worship too easily resembles a closed circle in which we congratulate, entertain, and excessively reference one another. Either God is something of an afterthought, or it is presumed that He will be pleased simply by the fact that we are there regardless of what we actually do when there.

The first goal seems to be to please and “reach” the faithful. The faithful are seldom asked to make sacrifices of any sort. For indeed, worship that elevates may also challenge. The challenge might be in listening to the content of the sermon, or ancient language, or complex concepts, or something lasting more than a sound bite. Many Church leaders simply reject what challenges or requires sacrifice on the part of the faithful. Heaven forfend one might be required to attend patiently to the worship of God, or to consider things that are of a higher order than the merely banal, or to devote a little time and study!

If Mass must last no longer than 45 minutes, if sermons ought not challenge, if attending Mass on holy days is “too hard,” then where is the sacrifice? And what about tithing or sacrificial giving? Is the way we worship God merely what pleases me or us? Is the purpose of liturgical music to please and edify me or is it to praise God in a dignified way? Is the liturgy today really about God or is it more about us?

Such a non-sacrificial, misdirected notion of worship is certainly much on display in certain “mega-churches,” whose services resemble rock concerts and motivational talks more than a sacrifice of praise. But these notions have infected the Catholic setting, too, in the ways described above.

Worship should involve work. It is not merely an experience akin to going to a movie or concert and sitting in one’s seat being passively entertained or pleased. Some demands should be made of us beyond the collection plate. Higher things are less easily understood than the merely mundane, and to comprehend them we must be drawn out of our comfort zone and challenged.

I was not born loving either Bach fugues or the intricacies of renaissance polyphony. But, like fine wine, they have attained pride of place in my life—through the power of the liturgy (patiently prayed and experienced) to elevate my mind and personality to higher things. Further, in my earlier years, the joy of gospel music was not relevant to me; today it is. The sacrifice of praise is not, therefore, merely arduous and painful to no end. Like most sacrifices, it brings forth new life.

Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) recognized the strange development in the West of worship without sacrifice and called it one of the seven deadly sins of culture. In the West, “going to church” has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. And the attitude seems to be that if things don’t please me and cater to my tastes, I have a perfect right either to go somewhere else or to not go at all.

Where is the sacrifice of praise of which Scripture speaks?

Granted, parishes should strive for excellent liturgy and preaching. Every liturgical aspect should be done well, first and foremost because it is directed to God, who is worthy of our very best. But at the end of the day, no liturgy will be 100% pleasing to everyone. It is not the job of the liturgy to please the faithful. The purpose of the liturgy is to worship God fittingly. It is my task (and dignity) to offer a sacrifice of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Priest and victim are one and the same.

I will end by posing a few questions:

  1. Do we go to the Mass with the attitude “Peel me a grape” (i.e., please me), or ready to offer God a sacrifice of praise?
  2. Is our liturgy focused on God or merely on us?
  3. Do the liturgy and the clergy place proper demands on God’s faithful? Are the faithful willing to accept those demands?
  4. If you are a priest, whom do you hope to please on Sunday? Is it God or just your parishioners?
  5. Is God central in our liturgy today? How is He or is He not?
  6. Are we willing to accept that the primary purpose of the liturgy is not to please us or even to speak in ways relevant to us?
  7. What do you think it means for you to offer God a sacrifice of praise?

Psalm 116 offers a good description of the attitude we should bring to worship and the Liturgy:

LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds. To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And call upon the name of the LORD. I shall pay my vows to the LORD, in the presence of all His people … (Psalm 116:16-18).

Amen.