Do You Fear the Right Thing? A Meditation on the Story of Chicken Little

In the wake of the COVID-19 explosion of fear, we do well to begin reflecting on fear. Fear is a complex passion. On the one hand, there are things that we ought to fear such as grave physical and spiritual dangers. The fear of being near the edge of a cliff might well save our life. The fear of serious sin and the punishment we might experience or the offense to God (who loves us) is both appropriate and holy. Sadly, more people lack this holy fear rooted in the possible loss of what is most precious to us: our eternal life with God.

There are also things we fear that we should not, and things that we fear more than we should. These sorts of fears are usually rooted in our disordered and inordinate affections.

A disordered affection is a love for something that is sinful. We ought not to love it at all, but we do; this causes us to fear anyone or anything that interferes with accessing and enjoying what is fundamentally sinful.

An inordinate affection is a love for something that is good in itself, but the love we have for it is too great. Loving it too much causes us to fear the loss of it more than we should. Many things in this world are lawful pleasures, but we come to love them too much. We love things more than people, and both things and people more than God. This is all out of order. We are to use things, love people, and worship God. Too often, though, we use people, love things, and forget about God.

There is also the great struggle that many have called the “sin of human respect,” wherein we fear people more than we fear God and seek to please people more than to please God. When we fall prey to this, we are willing to do sinful things in order to ingratiate ourselves to other human beings, fearing and revering them more than we do God.

Fear is a necessary passion for us, but too often our fears are misplaced and inordinate. Our fears are easily manipulated by Satan and the world.

A major area for spiritual growth is knowing what and whom to fear. Apart from God we will seldom get this answer right. We are easy prey for the devil and the world to draw us into all sorts of inordinate and even foolish fears.

Because a story can often have an impact that mere discourse cannot, I would like to illustrate this teaching with a well-known children’s story.

The story is the basis for two phrases in common use. Most are familiar with them, but some have never read (or have forgotten) the story from which they come. The first is “The sky is falling!” and the second is “Chicken Little” (used as a description of a person).

Both these phrases come from the children’s story Chicken Little. It is a story that speaks to the need to be careful about what we fear and what we do not fear. For indeed, one of the traps of Satan is to get us to focus on what we ought not to fear, or on what is secondary, so that we do not focus on what we should fear, or on what is more important. Aristotle, citing Socrates, said that courage is the virtue of knowing what to fear and what not to fear.

Please take the time to read this story completely. It may seem tedious to us modern folks with limited attention spans, but its conclusion is made more powerful by the litany of details. Please share it with your children as well.

Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head.
It scared her so much she trembled all over.
She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out.
“Help! Help!” she cried. “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king!”
So she ran in great fright to tell the king.

Along the way she met Henny Penny.
“Where are you going, Chicken Little?” Henny Penny asked.

“Oh, help!” Chicken Little cried. “The sky is falling!”
“How do you know?” asked Henny Penny.
“Oh! I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears,
and part of it fell on my head!”
“This is terrible, just terrible!” Henny Penny clucked. “We’d better run.”

So they both ran away as fast as they could. Soon they met Ducky Lucky. “Where are you going, Chicken Little and Henny Penny?” he asked.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We’re going to tell the king!” they cried. “How do you know?” asked Ducky Lucky.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Ducky Lucky quacked. “We’d better run!” So they all ran down the road as fast as they could.

Soon they met Goosey Loosey waddling along the roadside.
“Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and Ducky Lucky,” called Goosey Loosey. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?”
“We’re running for our lives!” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” clucked Henny Penny. “And we’re running to tell the king!” quacked Ducky Lucky.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Goosey Loosey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Goodness!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “Then I’d better run with you.”

And they all ran in a great fright across a meadow. Before long they met Turkey Lurkey strutting back and forth. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey,” he called. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?” “Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little. “We’re running for our lives!” clucked Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “And we’re running to tell the king!” squawked Goosey Loosey.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Oh dear! I always suspected the sky would fall someday,” Turkey Lurkey gobbled. “I’d better run with you.”

So they all ran with all their might, until they met the fox, Foxy Loxy. “Well, well,” said Foxy Loxy. “Where are you rushing on such a fine day?”
“Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. “It’s not a fine day at all. The sky is falling, and we’re running to tell the king!” “How do you know the sky is falling?” said Foxy Loxy.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “I see,” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.”

So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him the sky was falling.

Notice how fearing the wrong thing, and fearing it to excess, blinded them to what was more truly to be feared, what was more truly a threat. Here lies a doorway for the devil. He incites us to fear lesser things like unpopularity, loss of money, poor health, the loss of worldly trinkets, the next election, global warming, persecution, and worldly setbacks, so that we do not fear Judgment Day and the possibility of Hell.

The day of destiny is closing in, but never mind that! The sky is falling: the wrong political party is in power; the planet is overheating; the economy is about to collapse COVID-19 everywhere! You might lose your home to a storm; people might not think you are pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. Be afraid; be very afraid! You don’t have time to pray and ask God to get you ready for Judgment Day because you are too busy being afraid that eating food X may cause cancer, or that people may be laughing at you because of the five or ten pounds you gained last Christmas, or that the Yellowstone Caldera may blow at any time.

I will not tell you that the aforementioned concerns have no merit, only that they have less merit than what most people never think about or fear: where they are going to spend eternity. Chicken Little and her friends were easy prey for Foxy Loxy because they were obsessed with lesser things and ignored more dangerous (and obvious in this case) things like a fox!

Yes, “Foxy Loxy” has you worried about smaller and passing things. Now you are easy prey. It will take but a moment for him to lead you astray and have you for dinner!

Make sure you fear the right thing. God has a plan to simplify our lives. We are to fear Him and be sober about getting ready, with His help, for the certain-to-come Day of Judgment. If we fear Him, we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else.

Bishop Robert Barron has observed that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are insurance buildings. Fear “looms large” in our culture, but no insurance company can insure you against the only certain threat you face: Judgment Day. Only God can do that.

The sky may or may not be falling. (Personally, I doubt 80% of the media’s fearmongering.) But Judgment Day surely is looming. Foxy Loxy (Satan) is waiting for you. Will he get you? Will your fear of the Lord help you to avoid falling prey to his deceptions?

 

What Will Our Resurrected Bodies Be Like?

When I gave a talk recently at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the subject of the Second Coming, I was I asked to describe what our resurrected bodies will be like. Here is an article I wrote a few years back that details some aspects of our resurrected bodies:

St Paul writes to the Philippians of the glory that our currently lowly bodies will one day enjoy:

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:19).

I once spoke with an older woman who wasn’t all that pleased to hear that her body was going to rise and be joined again to her soul. “Oh, Father, you don’t mean this old decrepit body, do you? If my body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!”

I think most of us can relate to the desire that our current body be improved. And it surely will be. Notice that the passage above says that our lowly (weak, diseased, and often overweight) bodies will be changed and will reflect the glory of the resurrected body of Jesus. Yes, this old general issue clunker is going to be upgraded to a luxury model; I’m headed for first class.

When we recall the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), we ought to consider for a moment what Scripture and Tradition have to say about what our resurrected bodies will be like.

Now an important starting point in discussing this matter is a little humility. The fact is, a lot of what I am going to say here is speculation—but it is not wild speculation; it is rooted in Scripture. However, Scripture is describing things that are somewhat mysterious and difficult to reduce to words. Further, Scripture does not always provide as much detail as we might like. Sometimes we are left to infer qualities of the resurrected body based only on scriptural texts whose main purpose is something else (the resurrection of Jesus). For example, in one passage Jesus is described as appearing and disappearing at will in a room with locked doors. The point of the text is to tell us that He appeared, not necessarily to convey that the resurrected body has something we have come to call “agility” (see below). The text does not elaborate further, so we are left to note things about Jesus’ resurrected body and then apply them to our own. It is not wrong to do this, for Paul above says that our resurrected bodies will have qualities that conform to Jesus’ resurrected body. But the point is that the biblical texts do not elaborate on this or other qualities in a detailed manner and so we are left to speculate and make inferences.

St. John the Apostle expresses some of the humility we should bring to this discussion:

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be like. But We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2).

I do not interpret John to mean that we know nothing, for if that were the case he would negate other Scriptures. Rather, I interpret him to mean that we do not fully grasp the meaning of what we are discussing, and that much of it is mysterious. Some things are known and revealed but much more is unknown and far beyond what we have yet experienced.

With the need for humility in mind, let’s consider some of what we might be able to say of the qualities of a resurrected body. Perhaps it is well that we start with the most thorough passage in the New Testament on this subject and then list the seven traditional qualities of a resurrected body.

St. Paul writes of the resurrected body in First Corinthians:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body …. The splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another …. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man …. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:35-55 selectae)

Using this and other passages we can distinguish the seven traditional qualities of a resurrected body. Here we will allow our source to be St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. For each quality I’ve included a link to the corresponding section of the Summa.

1. Identity The very same body that falls in death will rise to be glorified; we will not get a different body. St. Thomas says, For we cannot call it resurrection unless the soul return to the same body, since resurrection is a second rising, and the same thing rises that falls: wherefore resurrection regards the body which after death falls rather than the soul which after death lives. And consequently if it be not the same body which the soul resumes, it will not be a resurrection, but rather the assuming of a new body (Suppl. Q 79.1).

This does not mean that the body will necessarily be identical in every way. As St. Paul says, our current bodies are like the seed. A seed does not have all the fully developed qualities of the mature plant, but it does have them in seed form. Similarly, our current body is linked to our resurrected body causally and essentially, though not all the qualities of the resurrected body are currently operative. St. Thomas goes on to say, A comparison does not apply to every particular, but to some. For in the sowing of grain, the grain sown and the grain that is born thereof are neither identical, nor of the same condition, since it was first sown without a husk, yet is born with one: and the body will rise again identically the same, but of a different condition, since it was mortal and will rise in immortality. (Ibid).

Scripture attests that the same body that dies will also rise. Job said, And after my flesh has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another (Job 19:26-27). And to the Apostles, shocked at His resurrection, Jesus said, Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have (Luke 24:39).

Hence the same body rises and so there is continuity. But there is also development and a shining forth of a new glory and of capabilities that our bodies do not currently enjoy.

2. IntegrityWe will retain all of the parts of our current bodies. This means every physical part of our body, even the less noble parts (e.g., intestines). It is clear from the Gospel that Jesus ate, even after the resurrection. He ate a fish while in their company (Luke 24:43). He also ate with the disciples in Emmaus (Luke 24:30). He ate breakfast with them at the lake shore (Jn 21:12). Hence it follows that even less noble parts of our body will rise, for eating and digestion are still functions of a resurrected body. St. Thomas argues (I think rightly) that food will not be necessary to the resurrected body (Suppl. 81.4), but it is clearly possible to eat, for Christ demonstrated it.

St. Thomas reasons that every aspect of our bodies will rise since the soul is the form of the body. That is, the body has the faculties it has due to some aspect of the soul. The soul has something to say and hence the body has the capacity to talk and write and engage in other forms of communication. The soul has the capacity to do detailed work and hence the body has complex faculties such as delicate and nimble fingers, arms and so forth, to carry out this work. Now body is thus apt for the capacities of the soul, though now imperfectly, but then even more perfectly. (cf Summa Suppl. Q. 80.1).

On some level it seems we should keep our speculation within limits. The Summa goes into matters that I think are highly speculative; you can read some of these speculations by clicking on the link above. Personally I think we should refrain from trying to ask questions such as whether hair and nails will grow or what bodily fluids will still be necessary and why. For example: Will latrines be needed in Heaven or will food be perfectly absorbed and nothing wasted? We just have to stop at a certain point and say that we just have no business knowing this sort of thing and it is purely speculative to discuss it. The bottom line is that the body shall rise, whole and complete. Its functions will be perfected and will be perfectly appropriate for the soul. But as for the intimate details, we ought to realize that humility is our best posture.

3. QualityWhat about age, gender, and other physical characteristics? Our bodies will be youthful and will retain our original gender. Youthful here does not necessarily mean 21 years old. In the Philippians text that began this post, Paul says that our glorified bodies will be conformed to Christ’s glorified body. Jesus’ body rose at the age of 30-33 years. Elsewhere, St. Paul exhorts Christians to persevere: Until we all meet into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13). Hence it would seem that Christ’s resurrected body is the perfect age.

St Augustine also speculates that because Christ rose again of youthful age (about 30), others also will rise again of a youthful age (cf De Civ. Dei xxii).

St. Thomas further notes, Man will rise again without any defect of human nature, because as God founded human nature without a defect, even so will He restore it without defect. Now human nature has a twofold defect. First, because it has not yet attained to its ultimate perfection. Secondly, because it has already gone back from its ultimate perfection. The first defect is found in children, the second in the aged: and consequently in each of these human nature will be brought by the resurrection to the state of its ultimate perfection which is in the youthful age, at which the movement of growth terminates, and from which the movement of decrease begins (Suppl. Q. 81.1).

Further, since gender is part of human perfection, all will rise according to their current gender. Other qualities such as height and hair color will also be retained, it would seem, since this diversity is part of man’s perfection.

Here, too, we have to realize that merely picturing Jesus as a 33-year-old man is not sufficient. All of the resurrection appearances make it clear that though still recognizable, His appearance was somehow changed—and this is a mystery. Further, the heavenly description of Jesus is far from simple to decode in manners of age and appearance:

and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (Rev 1:12-18).

Hence we must avoid oversimplifications when we speak of how our resurrected bodies will appear. We cannot simply project current human realities into Heaven and think that we understand what a resurrected body will look like in terms of age, stature, and other physical qualities. Those qualities are there but they are expressed at a higher level.

4. ImpassabilityWe will be immune from death and pain. Scripture states this clearly:

The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality (1 Cor 15:52-53).

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev 21:4).

St. Thomas goes on at some length in the Summa, and you can read this by clicking on the link above.

5. SubtletyOur bodies will be free from the things that restrain them now. Subtlety refers to the capacity of the resurrected body to be completely conformed to the capacities of the soul. St. Thomas says of this quality, the term “subtlety” has been transferred to those bodies which are most perfectly subject to their form, and are most fully perfected thereby…. For just as a subtle thing is said to be penetrative, for the reason that it reaches to the inmost part of a thing, so is an intellect said to be subtle because it reaches to the insight of the intrinsic principles and the hidden natural properties of a thing. In like manner a person is said to have subtle sight, because he is able to perceive by sight things of the smallest size: and the same applies to the other senses. Accordingly, people have differed by ascribing subtlety to the glorified bodies in different ways (Suppl. Q. 83.1).

In other words, the body is perfected because the soul is perfected. The resurrected body is fully conformed to the soul. In my current lowly body, though I may wish to go to Vienna in a few moments to hear an opera, my body cannot pull that off. My current body cannot instantly be somewhere else on the planet. I have to exert effort and expend time to get there. After the resurrection, Jesus could appear and disappear in a room despite the closed doors; he could simply be where he wanted instantly. Before his resurrection he had to take long physical journeys (cf John 19:20, 26). This quality is very closely related to agility, which we consider next.

6. Agility – We will have complete freedom of movement. Our souls will direct our bodies without hindrance. St. Thomas says, The glorified body will be altogether subject to the glorified soul, so that not only will there be nothing in it to resist the will of the spirit … from the glorified soul there will flow into the body a certain perfection, whereby it will become adapted to that subjection … Now the soul is united to body not only as its form, but also as its mover; and in both ways the glorified body must be most perfectly subject to the glorified soul. We have already referred Jesus’ ability, in His glorified body, to be anywhere at once, unhindered by things such as locked doors. Consider these other description of the agility of the resurrected body:

  1. As they talked [on the road to Emmaus] and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them (Luke 24:15).
  2. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, and he disappeared from their sight (Luke 24:31).
  3. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36).

7. ClarityThe glory of our souls will be visible in our bodies. We will be beautiful and radiant. It is written in the Scriptures:

The just shall shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43).

The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds (Wisdom 3:7).

The body in sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory (1 Cor 15:43).

From Fear to Faith on Easter Morning

One option for Easter Sunday morning’s Mass is from the Gospel of John (20:1-8). (I have written before on the Matthean Gospel option (here)). Like most of the resurrection accounts, John’s version paints a portrait of a journey that some of the early disciples have to make: out of fear and into faith. It shows the need to experience the resurrection and then come to understand it more deeply. While the Gospel account begins with Mary Magdalene, the focus quickly shifts to St. John; let’s study his journey.

I. Reaction Mode – The text begins by describing everyone as being in reaction mode, quite literally running about in a panic! On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”

The text describes the opening moments as “still dark.” John is likely trying to do more than tell us the time of day. The deeper point is that there is still a darkness that envelops everyone’s mind.  The darkness makes it difficult for us to see; our fears and sorrows can blind us.

Mary Magdalene sees direct evidence of the resurrection but presumes the worst: that grave robbers have snatched the Lord’s body! It doesn’t even occur to her to remember that Jesus had said that He would rise on the third day and that this was that very third day. She goes immediately into reaction mode instead of reflection mode. Her mind jumps to the worst conclusion; by reacting and failing to reflect, she looks right at the blessing and sees a curse.

We also tend to do this. We look at our life and see only the burdens instead of the blessings.

  1. I clutch my blanket and growl when the alarm goes off instead of thinking, “Thank you, Lord, that I can hear; there are many who are deaf. Thank you that I have the strength to rise; there are many who do not.”
  2. Even though the first hour of the day may be hectic: socks are lost, toast is burned, tempers are short, and the children are loud; we ought to be thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for my family; there are many who are lonely.”
  3. We can even be thankful for the taxes we pay because it means we’re employed, for the clothes that fit a little too snugly because it means we have enough to eat, for the heating bill because it means we are warm, for the weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day because it means we have been productive.

Every day millions of things go right and only a handful go wrong. What will we focus on? Will we look right at the signs of our blessings and call them burdens or will we thank the Lord? Do we live lives that are reactive and negative or do we live reflectively, remembering that the Lord says that even our burdens are gifts in strange packages? And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Do we know this, or are we like the disciples on that early morning when it was still dark, looking right at the blessings but drawing only negative conclusions, reacting and failing to reflect?

II. Recovery mode – The text goes on to describe a certain subtle move from reaction to reflection. So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.

Mary Magdalene’s anxiety is contagious. She comes running to the disciples, all out of breath, and says that “they” (whoever “they” are) have taken the Lord (she speaks of Him as a corpse) and “we” (she and the other women who were with her) don’t know where they put Him (again, she speaks of Him as an inanimate corpse). Mary’s panic triggers that same reaction in the disciples. Now they’re all running! The mad dash to the tomb has begun.

Notice, though, that they are hurrying so that they can verify the grave robbery, not the resurrection. Like Mary, they didn’t take the time to reflect and perhaps remember that the Lord had said He would rise on the third day and that this was the third day. Instead, they also panic, rushing forth to try to confirm their worst fears.

But note a subtlety: John runs faster than Peter. Some scholars say it indicates merely that John was the younger man. I would argue, however, that it signals hope. The Holy Spirit, speaking through John, is not likely interested in passing things like youth. Some of the Fathers of the Church see a greater truth at work in the love and mystical tradition that John symbolizes. He was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the disciple who knew and experienced that love of God. Love often sees what knowledge and authority can only appreciate and later affirm. Love gets there first.

There is a different verse in Scripture that I believe explains John’s strength (manifested in his speed):

But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Is 40:31).

Perhaps John runs faster because he begins to move from reaction to reflection and remembrance. When you run quickly it’s hard to talk, so you tend to recede alone into your thoughts. There is something about love that enlightens, that recalls what the beloved has said. Perhaps John begins to think, to reflect and consider these things:

  1. Didn’t Jesus say He’d rise three days later and isn’t this that day?
  2. Didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel?
  3. Didn’t He deliver Noah from the flood?
  4. Didn’t He deliver Joseph from the hands of his brothers and from the deep dungeon?
  5. Didn’t He deliver Moses and the people from Egypt?
  6. Didn’t He deliver David from Goliath and Saul?
  7. Didn’t He deliver Jonah from the whale?
  8. Didn’t He deliver Queen Esther and the people from wicked men?
  9. Didn’t He deliver Susanna from her false accusers?
  10. Didn’t He deliver Judith from Holofernes?
  11. Didn’t Jesus raise the dead?
  12. Didn’t God promise to deliver the just from all their trials?
  13. As for me, I know that my redeemer liveth!

Something started to happen inside John. I have it on the best of authority that he began to sing this song in his heart as he ran:

“I don’t feel no ways tired. Come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”

Yes, John is in recovery now. He has moved from reaction to reflection. He is starting to regain his faith.

The text says that John looked in and saw the burial cloths, but waited for Peter. Mystics and lovers may get there first, but the Church has a Magisterium that must be respected, too.

III. Reassessment mode – In life we must often reassess our initial reactions as further evidence comes in. Peter and John must take a fresh look at the evidence from their own perspective. The text says, When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths [lying] there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.

Mary Magdalene’s assessment was that grave robbers must have struck, but the evidence for that seems weak. Grave robbers typically sought the fine linens in which the dead were buried. Yet here are the linens while the body is gone. If they were going to take the body, why not also take the valuable grave linens? The Greek text describes the clothes as κείμενα (keimena)—lying stretched out in place, in order. It is almost as if the clothes simply “deflated” in place when the body they covered disappeared. Finally, the most expensive cloth of all, the σουδάριον (soudarion), lies folded (rolled up, in some translations) in a separate place. Grave robbers would not leave the most valuable things behind. And surely, even if for some strange reason they wanted the body rather than the linens, they would not have bothered to carefully unwrap and fold things, leaving them all stretched out in an orderly way. Robbers work quickly; they snatch things and leave disarray in their wake.

Life is like this: you can’t simply accept the first interpretation of things. Every reporter knows that “in the fog of war” the first reports are often wrong. We have to be careful not to jump to conclusions just because someone else is worried about something. Sometimes we need to take a fresh look at the evidence and interpret it as people of faith and hope, as men and women who know that although God may test us He will not forsake us.

John is now looking at the same evidence that Mary Magdalene did, but his faith and hope give him a different vision. His capacity to move beyond fearful reaction to faithful reflection is changing the picture.

We know little of the reaction of Peter or Mary Magdalene at this point; the focus is on John. And the focus is on you. What do you see in life? Do you see grave robbers, or are you willing to reconsider and move from knee-jerk fear to reflective faith?

Does your resurrection faith make you ready to reassess the bad news you receive and look for blessings, even in crosses?

IV. Resurrection Mode – Somewhat cryptically, the text now focuses on the reaction and mindset of St. John. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

On one level the text says that St. John saw and believed. Does this mean merely that he now believed Mary Magdalene’s story that the body was gone? As is almost always the case with John’s Gospel, there is both a plain meaning and a deeper one. The text says that he ἐπίστευσεν (episteusen); he “believed.” The verb here is in the aorist tense, a tense that generally portrays a situation as simple or undivided, that is, as having a perfective (completed) aspect. In other words, something has come to fruition in him.

Yet the text also seems to qualify, saying, they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. It is as if to say that John came to believe that Jesus had risen but had not yet come to fully understand all the scriptural connections and how this had to be. He only knew in his heart by love and through this evidence that Jesus was risen. Deeper understanding would have to come later.

For our purposes, let us observe that St. John has gone from fear to faith. He has not yet seen Jesus alive, but he believes based on the evidence and on what his own heart and mind tell him.

At this moment John is like us. He has not seen but he believes. Neither have we seen, but we believe. John would see him alive soon enough and so will we!

We may not have an advanced degree in Scripture, but through love we too can know that He lives. Why and how? Because of the same evidence:

  1. The grave clothes of my old life are strewn before me.
  2. I am rising to new life.
  3. I am experiencing greater victory over sin.
  4. Old sins and my old Adam are being put to death.
  5. The life of the new Adam, Christ, is coming alive.
  6. I am being set free and have hope and confidence, new life and new gifts.
  7. I have increasing gratitude, courage, and a deep peace that tells me that everything is all right.
  8. The grave clothes of my old way of life lie stretched out before me and I now wear a new robe of righteousness.
  9. I am not what I want to be but I am not what I used to be.

So we, like John, see. We do not see the risen Lord—not yet anyway, but we see the evidence and we believe.

St. John leaves this scene as a believer. His faith may not be the fully perfected faith that it will become, but he does believe. John has gone from fear to faith, from reaction to reflection, from panic to peace.

What was the Lord Doing on Thursday of Holy Week?

According to the Synoptic Gospels, sundown of Holy Thursday ushered in the Passover. Later on this evening, the Lord will celebrate the Passover meal with His disciples. We ought to be mindful that the unleavened bread Jesus will take in His hands is called “the bread of affliction.” Scripture says, You shall eat [the Passover] with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt (Dt 16:3).

Indeed, this is an evening of affliction for Jesus. Much transpires at the Last Supper that is emblematic of our human foibles and sinful tendencies, but thanks be to God, He takes this “bread of affliction” we dish out to Him and lifts it to the glory of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

Before being too critical of the Twelve, remember that we can be like them in many ways. Keep that in mind as you read through the commentary below; A large part of what I’ve written about the apostles applies to us as well. Indeed, they are we and we are they; and the Lord loved all of us to the end.

So on Holy Thursday let’s examine the sequence of events. It illustrates pretty well why the Lord had to die for us. We will see how earnest the Lord is about this Last Supper, how He enters it with an intense love for His disciples and a desire that they heed what He is trying to teach them. We shall also see, however, that they show forth a disastrous inattentiveness and a terrible lack of concern for the Lord.

COMING CLOUDS Jesus knows that His hour has come; this will be His last meal. Judas has already conspired and been paid to hand Him over. Scripture says, Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come. He always loved those who were his own, and now he would show them the depths of his love. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over (John 13:1). Thus, in the gathering storm Jesus plans His last meal, which will also be the first Holy Mass. He sent two of His disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us” (Mark 14:13-15).

CARING CONCERN This last supper is obviously important to Jesus. Luke records these heartfelt words: And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16). Yes, this will be a very special moment for Jesus.

COSTLY COMMUNION – Jesus, reclining at table, will now celebrate the Holy Eucharist for the first time—but it is to be a costly communion. He has already lost many disciples because of what He taught on the Eucharist (cf John 6:50ff). After the consecration at this Last Supper/first Mass, Jesus looks into the cup at His own blood, soon to be shed, and distributes His own body, soon to be handed over. This is no mere ritual for Him. Every priest before Jesus has offered a sacrifice distinct from himself (usually an animal, sometimes a libation), but Jesus the great High Priest will offer Himself.

COLLABORATIVE CONDESCENSION – During the meal Jesus rises and then stoops to wash the disciples’ feet. He instructs them to see in this action a model for those who would collaborate with Him in any future ministry. John records it this way: He rose from the supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded (John 13:5).

Jesus then teaches the disciples: Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13:12-15). Just moments from now, we will see them demonstrate a complete disregard for what Jesus has just tried to teach them.

CALLOUS CRIME Back at table after having taught them that they must wash one another’s feet, Jesus suddenly becomes troubled in spirit and says, I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me (John 13:21). This causes a commotion among the apostles, who begin to ask, “Who can it be?” As the anxiety builds, Simon Peter motions to John and says, “Ask Him which one He means.” Leaning back against Jesus, John asks Him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus responds, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly” Jesus told him (John 13:24-30).

CONFOUNDING COMPETITION As Judas takes the morsel of bread and heads out into the night, no one even tries to stop him! Despite the fact that Jesus has clearly identified His betrayer, no one rises to block the door or even utters a word of protest. Why not? Luke supplies the answer: A dispute arose among them as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest (Luke 22:24). They should be concerned about Jesus’ welfare but instead they argue about which of them is the greatest.

How confounding! How awful! Yet is that not our history? Too often we are more concerned with our own welfare or status than with any suffering in the Body of Christ. So much that is critical remains unattended to because of this. Jesus has just finished teaching the apostles to wash one another’s feet, and the next thing you know, they’re arguing as to who among them is the greatest. Jesus patiently reminds them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:25-27). Meanwhile, due to their egotistical response, Judas has escaped into the night.

CAUSTIC CONTENTIOUSNESS Jesus continues to teach at the Last Supper. He surely wants to impress upon them His final instruction. How He must long for them to listen carefully and to internalize what He is teaching! Instead, all He gets are arguments. Both Thomas and Phillip rebuke Him. John records this outrage:

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him (Jn 14:1-8).

Thomas rebukes the Lord by saying, in effect, “We have no idea where you’re going; when will you show us the way?” Jesus answers, but Philip will have none of this promise to see the Father and boldly says, “Lord, show us the Father, and then we shall be satisfied.” Jesus, likely saddened by this, says to him, Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:8-9) Jesus’ own apostles are being argumentative and contentious. They are caustic and seem to rebuke Him.

COMICAL CREDIBILITY GAP Undeterred, Jesus embarks on a lengthy discourse (recorded by John) that has come to be called the priestly prayer of Jesus. At the end of it, the apostles—perhaps ironically, perhaps with sincerity—remark, Now at last you are speaking plainly, not in any figure. Now we know that you know all things, and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God (John 16:29-30). However, Jesus knows that their praise is hollow and will not withstand the test.

There is a quite a lack of credibility in what the apostles say; it is almost comical. Jesus replies to them, Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone (John 16:31-32). Peter protests, saying, Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away (Matthew 26:33). Here is another almost comic lack of credibility: [Jesus says to Peter,] Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times. [Still insistent, Peter replies,] “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples (Matthew 26:34-35). Well, you know the story, and you know that only John made it to the cross.

CLUELESS CATNAP They finally reach the garden and the foot of the Mount of Olives. Jesus says to Peter, James, and John: My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me (Mat 26:38). They seem oblivious to His suffering, though, and doze off. Attempts to arouse them are unsuccessful; they sleep on.

Here we are at the pivotal moment of all human history and the first clergy of the Church are sound asleep. (Things have not changed, my friends.) Indeed, many are in a state of moral, spiritual, and emotional sleep as Christ still suffers throughout the world and is conspired against. Jesus says,

Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand” (Mat 26:45-46).

COMPASSIONATE CONSTANCY Jesus went on and died for the likes of them and all of us. I wonder if He had this Last Supper in mind when He said to the Father, Forgive them, they know not what they do. It is almost as if He is saying, “They have absolutely no idea what they are doing or thinking, so have mercy on them, Father.”

What a grim picture the Last Supper paints of us! It’s a disaster, really, but the glory of the story and the saving grace is this: The Lord Jesus Christ went to the cross regardless. Seeing this terrible portrait, can we really doubt the Lord’s love for us?

May your Holy Thursday be blessed. Never forget what Jesus endured!

 

What Was the Lord Doing on Wednesday of Holy Week?

Two momentous days have passed: On Monday there was the cleansing of the Temple and the laments over Jerusalem’s lack of faith; Tuesday featured exhaustive teachings by Jesus and interrogations by His opponents.

Today, Wednesday, it would seem that Jesus stays in Bethany. According to Matthew’s Gospel, the day begins with an ominous warning:

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1-2).

The scene then shifts across the Kidron valley, where we “overhear” this conversation:

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:3-5).

It is interesting that they say, “not during the festival,” because according to the Synoptic Gospels that is exactly when it ended up happening. This serves as a reminder that things unfold according to the Lord’s authority. Nothing is out of His control. No one takes the Jesus’ life; He lays it down freely. Even if one considers the Johannine tradition, which uses a different Jewish calendar to date the Passover (one day later), this all takes place right in the thick of the Passover. Why? Because the Lord is fulfilling Passover. The priests and elders can plan all they want, but God is in control.

The Lord Jesus and the Twelve likely spent a quiet sort of day and it is now later in the afternoon. Matthew’s Gospel places Jesus in Bethany, at the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6-7). According to Luke (7:36), Simon was a Pharisee. His leprosy was in remission and he had been readmitted to the community. Could he have been one of the lepers Jesus cured? We do not know. The story here is complex; there are significant differences among the various Gospel accounts. Matthew records it as follows:

A woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:7-13).

The act of anointing Jesus may have happened more than once; in the four accounts of it there are differences in both the details and the timeframes.

Luke presents this story (or a similar one) much earlier in his Gospel (Chapter 7). In his account it is Jesus’ feet not His head that are anointed. Further, Luke portrays Simon in a bad light.

Mark and Matthew place the incident on Wednesday of Holy Week, but report that it is those at the dinner (likely the apostles) who take offense at the anointing.

John’s Gospel places this event six days before Passover, but at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In John’s account it is Mary who anoints the Lord (His feet, not His head) and Judas alone who takes offense.

For our purposes on this Wednesday of Holy Week, it is enough to note that Jesus sets the meaning of this woman’s action as anointing His body for burial. Jesus is clearly moved by her act of devotion and insight.

Jesus does not slight the poor in His response, but He teaches that the worship of God and obedience to His truth are higher goods than even the care of the poor. Serving the poor is not to be set in opposition to serving God. They are related, but God always comes first. For example, one cannot skip sacred worship on Sunday simply to serve the poor (except in a grave and urgent situation); serving the poor is not a substitute for worship. The worship of God comes first and is meant to fuel our charitable and just works. Further, set in the light of the looming passion, the dying One takes precedence over the poor ones.

One of the Twelve, Judas, has become increasingly disaffected. He has not been featured prominently among the Twelve; mention of him in the Gospels is minimal. Now he emerges, as if from the shadows, to betray Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all seem to place Judas’ plans to betray Jesus as set into motion at some point on this day. The Gospel of Matthew recounts,

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over (Matt 26:14-16).

Why did he do it? There were storm clouds gathering for Judas, by which he may have opened the door to Satan. Scripture reveals that he was a thief, stealing from the common money bag (Jn 12:6). Jesus also hints that Judas was grieved by the Bread of Life discourse, which led many to abandon Jesus when He insisted that they must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Jesus said, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot … (Jn 6:70-71).

We can only guess at Judas’ motivations. The most likely explanation is that he was disillusion when Jesus did not measure up to the common Jewish conception of the Messiah as a revolutionary warrior who would overthrow Roman power and reestablish the Kingdom of David. Judas may have been a member of the Zealot Party or at least influenced by them in this regard. Zealots are seldom interested in hearing of their own need for personal healing and repentance, let alone the call to love their enemies. This is obviously only speculative; Judas’ motivations remain to a large degree shrouded in the mystery of iniquity.

Yes, Judas betrayed Jesus for money—a significant amount—but compared to his salvation and his soul, it was but “a mess of pottage for his birthright” (see Gen 25:34). What will it profit a man that he should gain the whole world and lose his soul? (Mk 8:36)

The widespread belief that Judas might be in Heaven may be just a tad optimistic. The Church does not declare that any particular person is in Hell, however Jesus said the following about Judas: The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born. (Matt 26:24). It is hard to imagine Jesus saying this of any human person who ultimately makes it to Heaven.

The more likely biblical judgment on Judas is that he died in sin, despairing of God’s mercy on His terms. One is free to hope for a different outcome for Judas, but while the story of Judas and his possible repentance does generate some sympathy in many people today, the judgment belongs to God.

It is the saddest story never told: The repentance of Judas and his restoration by Jesus. Think of all the churches that were never built: “The Church of St. Judas, Penitent.” Think of the feast day never celebrated: “The Repentance of Judas.”

Judas goes his way, freely. God did not force him to play this role. He only knew what Judas would do beforehand and based His plans on Judas’ free choice.

Thus ends this Wednesday of Holy Week. It was a calmer day, a day spent among friends, yet a day on which Satan entered one man, who set a betrayal in motion. The storm clouds gather.

The Anatomy of Sin in the Story of Susanna

The first reading from Monday’s Mass (Monday of the 5th Week of Lent) is the story of Susanna, an extraordinary moral tale from the Book of Daniel. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly, it is missing from Protestant bibles, which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel. It is not well-known among Catholics, either, because it is only read once each year, at a weekday Mass.

The story is of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, who is married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden, two older men who have hidden themselves there try to seduce her. When Susanna rebuffs their brazen overture, they threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in the garden if she does not submit to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through with their threat, even demanding that she be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue; through crafty interrogation he exposes their lie. The story is a small masterpiece; if you have never read it, I recommend you do so.

In the course of this engaging tale is a lesson on the anatomy of a sin. In a remarkable description, the story describes three sources from which their sin springs. The text says, They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources in turn.

1. They suppressed their consciences.What is the conscience? The Catechism puts it in this way: Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1776). In effect, while the conscience is a judgment of the intellect, the conscience interacts with the voice of God within us. God has written His Law in the heart of every human person.

We have a basic understanding of right and wrong; we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (e.g., the following of certain rituals or feasts days), but in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic, innate grasp of right and wrong (synderesis). We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity; we also know that things such as the murder of the innocent, promiscuity, and theft are wrong. For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing and we know that we know what we are doing.

Notice that the text says that they “suppressed their consciences.” Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily mind will do is to try to suppress our conscience.

The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies, and distortions to try to reassure ourselves that something is really OK—something that deep down inside we know is not OK.

We also accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:1-3).

Suppressing one’s conscience takes quite a bit of effort, and I would argue that one cannot ever do it completely. In fact, the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is not only a substantial effort, but also very fragile. This helps to explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know that we are right. Often, even the slightest appeal to the conscience awakens its voice, causing an eruption of fear and anger.

So this is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly without facing the deep psychological pain of significant guilt, the men in the story suppress the conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain.

2… they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven … – In order to sustain the rationalizations and sophistry necessary to suppress the conscience, one must distance oneself from the very source of conscience: God Himself.

One way to do this is to drift away from God through neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God, and association with the Church, which speaks for God. As time goes own, this drifting may increase and the refusal to repent become more adamant. Drifting can finally lead to absence, which often manifests as outright hostility to anything religious or biblical.

Another way that some avert their eyes from Heaven is by redefining God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a “designer God,” who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care whether or not I go to church, or if I shack up with my girlfriend.” On being shown Scripture contrary to their distorted notions, they often respond that St. Paul had “hang-ups” or that the Bible was written in primitive times.

Culturally, the refusal to look heavenward is manifest in the increasing hostility to the Catholic Christian faith. Demands that anything even remotely connected to the faith be removed from the public square are becoming increasingly strident. According to radical secularists, prayer in public, nativity sets, Church bells, any reference to Jesus or Scripture, etc. must all be removed; they refuse to turn their eyes heavenward or even have anything around that reminds them to do so.

The cumulative effect is that many people are no longer looking to Heaven or to God. Having suppressed their consciences, they now demand a public square absent any reference to God. Still others reinvent a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is to isolate and insulate the self from God and what He reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing the conscience.

3… and did not keep in mind just judgment. Finally let’s throw in a little presumption that dismisses the consequences of evil acts. This, of course, is one of the biggest sins of our current age. There are countless people, even among Catholics in the pews and Catholic clergy, who seem to deny that they will ever have to answer to God for what they have done. This is completely contrary to Scripture, which insists that we will indeed answer one day to God for our actions.

This final stage is meant to eliminate the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. At this stage, the sinner has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and in eliminating a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin.

However, even after suppressing the conscience and refusing Heaven’s influence, some fear still remains. Now, an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of His holiness, which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of Hell, which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and thus holds that there is no judgment to be faced. Regardless of how he does it, the sinner must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Here, then is the anatomy of a sin. Having suppressed the conscience, having muted the voice of God to the extent possible and removed oneself from Heaven’s influence, and finally having denied that any negative consequences will ensue, one feels freer to sin. It is as though one has taken a number of stiff drinks to anesthetized oneself sufficiently to proceed.

Guess what, though, the pain is still there, deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Despite all the attempts to insulate himself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows that what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing that pricks his conscience causes unease. Increasingly, he resorts to anger, projection, name-calling, and/or ridiculing of anyone or anything that awaken his conscience. Sin is in full bloom now; repentance seems increasingly difficult and unlikely. Only the prayers and fasting of others for his sake will likely spring him loose from his deep moral sleep. Pray for the conversion of sinners!

A More Awful Thing – Jesus’ Lament on the Culture of Death as He Is on His Way to the Cross

8th-stationIn the Stations of the Cross Jesus says a rather extraordinary thing. He addresses it to the women who have gathered to lament Him:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, “Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.” At that time people will say to the mountains, “Fall upon us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:28-31)

As awful as the crucifixion would be, as mightily sinful as it was for us to have condemned the Lord, Jesus says that something worse is coming, something even more awful. What was He talking about? Is it a prophecy for our times?

When we read any biblical text, we should ask three questions: What did it mean then? What does it mean now? What does it mean for me? Too often today an almost exclusive focus is placed on the historical meaning of a text. While this is interesting it is also important to apply the text to our own times and to our own self. This is usually the goal of good preaching. Let’s look at this passage with all three questions in mind.

1. What did it mean then? Jesus had often spoken of a great destruction soon to come upon Jerusalem for her lack of belief. He did this primarily in the Olivet Discourse, which is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 24:1-51; Mk 13:1-37; Lk 21:5-36). Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies, nation will rise against nation, the temple will be destroyed and there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again (Mat 24:21). Many misinterpret this discourse as referring to the end of the world, but Jesus is clearly referring to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (which in fact took place in 70 A.D.) (cf Matt 24:2-4; Mark 13:2-5; Luk 21:5-7). In many ways, the Jewish war with the Romans was one of the bloodiest and most awful wars ever fought. Josephus indicates that 1.2 million Jews lost their lives in this devastating war. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was thrown down, never to be rebuilt.

Jesus seems to be saying to the women, “Women of Jerusalem, though you weep for me in my suffering, be aware that something far worse will come upon you and your children. It will be so awful that people will actually call those who died ‘blessed’ and those who never existed ‘lucky.’ It will be so awful that people will long for death.”

He then refers to green wood and dry wood, in a sentence that basically means, “If I, who am innocent, meet this fate of crucifixion, what will be in store for the guilty?”

Hence, what this passage meant then was that Jesus was summoning the women to prayer, to a deep and mournful prayer that would call people to conversion. Otherwise, difficult days would lie ahead.

2. What does it mean now? Jesus spoke not only to his times but to ages yet unborn. His words fit our times like a glove. For indeed these are times when many say, “Blessed are the wombs that have borne no children. Blessed are the wombs that bear fewer children. Blessed are those who practice contraception. Blessed are the surgically sterilized.”  In other words, Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, the breast that never nursed. Throughout the Western world, birth rates have plummeted; in some countries they are dangerously low. Some Western Christian nations and societies are practicing contraception and inflicting abortion to the extent that they are approaching a point of no return. Years of fear-mongering about overpopulation, extolling the virtues of contraception, and preferring the single life to marriage and family has led to a dramatic shift in the attitudes of many Westerners toward children, who are now seen as more a burden than a blessing. Sterility and barrenness were considered a terrible curse until quite recently. But in what Pope John Paul II termed a “culture of death,” many have come to say “Blessed are the barren.” And although nations such as Germany, France, and Italy are practically begging their citizens to have more children (even providing tax incentives) it seems that most Western Christians can’t be bothered with such things as marriage and family.

In addition, many in the radical environmentalist movement today see humanity as a great scourge on the planet and would seem to prefer that “the mountains fall on us and the hills cover us.” There are bumper stickers that say, “Earth First.” There is a show on The History Channel fantasizes about “Life after Humans” (actually, it’s a rather creative show).

In looking forward to our times, perhaps Jesus’ words to the women would be: “Women of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for your descendants. For the days are actually coming when people will say ‘Blessed are the barren.’ The days are actually coming when people will prefer not to have children at all or at least to have as few as possible. The days are actually coming when children will be aborted in the womb and the ability to do this will be called a ‘right,’ when women in difficult situations will be taken to abortionists by people who they are doing something good. The days are actually coming when depression, self-loathing, hopelessness, and misplaced priorities will so consume your descendants that they will prefer nonexistence to existence, when death will become a kind of ‘therapy’ through abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and stem-cell research. Yes, dear women, prayerful weeping may push off these grievous times for a while, but the days are coming when these things shall come to pass. For if you think things are bad now when the wood is green, what will happen when the wood becomes dry?”

You may think that the picture I paint with those words is a bit extreme. But there is a stunning quality to Jesus’ words as He warns these women of very difficult days ahead. They are just as stunning in our times. Though our historical moment is different, it actually seems to be a more literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words!

3. What does it mean for me? Now do you really think I am going to do your work for you? It remains for each of us to answer this question for him/herself. What do we weep about? Do we weep about things that really matter or merely over worldly losses—things that will be lost anyway? What kind of a world are we bequeathing to our children? Do we love life? Is new life a sign of hope for us or is it a burden? Do we speak prophetically about the culture of death? Do we encourage marriage and praise childbearing? Do we help young parents through some of the difficulties of raising children? The Lord surely has many more of these personal questions for us. Ponder the text slowly and consider what the Lord might be saying to you.

As a child, I remember being taught in school to fear overpopulation; we were told that the Earth would soon run out of room. The video below is a clip from “The Mark of Gideon,” a 1969 episode of Star Trek that showcases the overpopulation anxiety of the time. In this episode, Captain Kirk is abducted by Ambassador Hodin of the germ-free, overpopulated planet, Gideon. Hodin has a plan to use Kirk to introduce a deadly virus (which Kirk carries but to which he is immune) to Gideon in order to reduce the population. Kirk exhorts Hodin to instead encourage the population to use contraceptives and sterilization. The segment goes on to paint the inhabitants’ love for life as somewhat pathetic. Kirk even gets angry when they demonstrate respect for life from conception until natural death.

 

On Angels and Demons

I have been doing a project for the St. Michael Center for Spiritual Renewal.  In this case it was to make two videos on Angels and Demons. The videos needed to be close to thirty minutes, and thus I had to leave a lot of material out. However, five years ago I presented three lectures of 90 minutes each that permitted me to expand and offer more information. In case it can be helpful to you I am offering the two videos I just completed along with links to the talks and some written material I have produced here on the blog over the years.

Lectures:

Angels and Demons, Lecture 1

Angels and Demons, Lecture 2

Angels and Demons, Lecture 3

And here is a compendium of articles I have written here over the years:

Articles on Angels: Click Here

Articles on Demons and related matters Click Here