On the Ministry of Angels in Creation

The conclusion of the Book of Tobit  features the Archangel Raphael revealing himself to Tobit and others and explaining his ministry to them. This post I write is not a full angelology, it is just a grateful reflection for God, his angels and his creation. Book-length treatments are necessary for a good angelology. If you are looking for a readable, and brief account of angelology I might recommend The Angels and Their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church, by Cardinal Jean Danielou.

Let’s look at a brief excerpt of Archangel Raphael and ponder gratefully the ministry of the angels. Raphael says,

I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead….

God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” (Tobit 12:14-16)

This passage presents a description of how God interacts with his creation through the ministry of the angels. Notice how Raphael presented the prayers of Tobit and Sarah before God. More than this, the text implies that Raphael presented a record of the prayerfulness of the two and described Tobit’s good deeds. Thus, he stood before God more as a witness of their love and prayerfulness than as a mere conveyor of requests.

Why is this? Is God not omniscient? He is of course and therefore does not need the mediation of the angels, but He does seem to will it. It is common in both Scripture and doctrinal traditions to ascribe to the angels the work of mediation.

Angels in Scripture often speak for God and mediate His presence. At times, such as when Jacob wrestles with God, it is not clear whether it is an angel or God (Genesis 32:22-32); Abram greats three angels but calls them “Lord” (Genesis 18). At other times, it is clearly an angel that people such as Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), Tobit (Tobit 12), and Mary (Luke 1) encounter. These angles speak for God and mediate His presence but are not God. Throughout the Book of Revelation, angels are sent forth to mediate God’s justice. In many places in Scripture, we are told by the Lord heed the voice of the angels who are sent to guard and guide us.

In the sacred Liturgy the ministry of the angels in connecting our sacrifice to the true altar in heaven is spoken of (Roman canon) and the Book of Revelation describes how the heavenly and earthly liturgy is the work of angels and men. Angels bring the prayers of the saints before God, minister at the altar of incense, and so forth.

There are numerous other passages and teachings that I could present, let it suffice to say that God, though almighty, all-powerful, and omniscient, most often chooses to mediate His presence to creation through the work of the angels.

Perhaps an example may illustrate a likely reason. The laptop computer on which I am typing is not plugged directly into the wall outlet; its delicate circuitry cannot endure the 110-120 V. alternating current; it would blow out. Instead, an adaptor between the laptop and the wall outlet mediates, reducing the voltage to 19 V. direct current. Similarly, direct encounters with God may well be impossible for us on this side of the veil unless God hides His face or mediates His presence through the angels and/or the sacraments.

For us and for all of His creation, the ministry of the angels is a great mercy of God. Doctrinal traditions emphasize the ministry of the angels in mediating all of God’s providence. The highest angels minister in God’s Heaven, other ranks of angels minster the cosmos, and still other ranks minister here on earth. Nations, cities, local churches, and individuals have presiding angels. The Book of Revelation describes angels controlling winds and earthquakes as well as executing God’s justice and authority over history and events. Angels mediate God’s providence and sustenance throughout the whole of creation.

We seldom talk or even think this way today. Let’s look at another modern example. In explaining how a large passenger airplane rises off the runway, a scientist would speak of “lift” and “thrust.” The angle of the wing creates an area of lower air pressure above the wing and higher pressure beneath. Combine this with enough thrust to overcome gravity and you have the lift required for the plane to take off. However, a theologian from the Middle Ages might simply say that “the angels lift the plane.” In a certain sense both explanations are correct. If God sustains all of creation, and if He mediates His actions through the angels, it is not incorrect to say that “the angels lift the plane,” just as they serve God in all His creation. The theologian speaks to the metaphysical while the physicist speaks to the physical/material. The physicist speaks to efficient causality while the theologian speaks to final causality.

Yet there are many today, even among believers, who scoff at ascribing so much (or anything at all) to angels. To them one must point out that physics and mechanics alone cannot fully answer the legitimate questions that arise as we watch the plane take off into the sky. Science is good at answering mechanical questions and quantifying things such as force and lift, but it is not able to answer deeper questions such as why, from what, or for what ultimate reason things exist. Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Where does the order and intelligibility of the material world come from? How is the world sustained in a steady-enough state that we can interact with it reliably and depend upon its laws and order? In fact, why is there anything at all?

There are deeper realities to things than the mere mechanics. And many of the mechanics are not even fully explained or understood. Science, despite the use of numbers and formulas, still has not pierced all the physical mysteries of the plane’s vertical rise.

Perhaps the deepest mystery at the physical level is gravity. We can quantify this force, but its presence in the physical order is mysterious and even counterintuitive. Why do objects attract one another? And how does this attractive force work? Are there invisible strings that pull us toward the earth or other large bodies? What is it about gravity that affects time, as it seems that it does? There are not definitive answers. That gravity exists and can be measured is clear, but precisely what it is and how it works exactly is not clear.

Perhaps one day we will uncover gravity’s secrets, but this still does not satisfy our legitimate metaphysical questions. Simply scoffing at or being dismissive of the ministry and existence of angels (or demons, for that matter) does not do away with our questions. The existence of order, intelligibility, and predictability presents questions that cannot be sidestepped. Who or what ordered creation so that we can discover its order and its laws? If creation can speak to our intelligence by its intelligibility, what intelligence introduced it there to be discovered? If creation moves from simplicity to complexity (in seeming violation of the usual entropy of physical things), how do we explain this?

It will be granted that simply saying “the angels do this” amounts to a kind of “God of the gaps” argument (wherein every unknown thing is simply ascribed to God), but utterly dismissing the role of the angels (and ultimately the role of God) is to fall into the opposite error of scientism, which says that everything can and must be explained as merely the result of physical and mechanical causes. This cannot explain why things exist at all, nor can it speak to metaphysical concepts that are real but nonphysical such as justice, beauty, infinite longing, or our sense of good and evil.

God interacts with his creation. It is revealed to us that He does this most often, if not exclusively, through His angels. This is not to deny that the material order has observed laws and that chains of material causalities that can be measured and observed. The theological world would remind us to reverence all the orders of creation: physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual.

Blessed be God, who created all things through His Word, his Son Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17). Blessed, too, be the angels, who mediate God’s interaction with His creation and are His ministers. Blessed also is the created world, all that is in it from the tiniest parts of atoms to the greatest galaxies. Yes, blessed be God, all His angels and saints, and all that He has ordered and sustained. Blessed are we, who by God’s gift of our intellect, can observe and understand the beauty, order, and laws of God’s creation.

May you, O Lord keep us humble, and fill us with wonder and awe. Help us remember that Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1). Thank you for your angels. Keep us mindful that although they are hidden from our eyes, myriad angels mediate your presence to this world and are at work all about us in your creation and unto your highest heavens. May Raphael and all the angels witness to our prayers and actions before you and may they bring your graces to us swiftly. May the angels one day lead us to paradise.

Three Teachings on Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi affords us an opportunity to renew our understanding of the Holy Eucharist and Sacred Liturgy. It also helps us clarify certain errors that have crept into our thinking. Let’s look at the readings today under three headings: The Righteousness of our Worship, the Reality of our Worship, and Readiness of our Worship.

The Righteousness of our Worship – In the first reading today Moses has the faithful swear an oath:

Taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

Jesus too gives a solemn command at the Last Supper:

Take and eat, this is my Body… take and drink this is my Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant…do this is in memory of me.

He too seals the covenant, not with the blood of animals, but with his very own blood. We who would heed and do all that the Lord commands cannot skip out on Holy Communion and absent ourselves from the Sacrifice and Liturgy that is at the very heart of the New Covenant.

Too many people today think of Sunday worship in rather egocentric terms. They speak of “being fed.” But usually what they mean by this is that the preacher gave them an uplifting message in terms that please them and seem relevant to them, or that the choir sang well and there was good fellowship. These are all fine.

But the first and most essential reason that we are to show up on Sunday is to worship God, to give Him the thanks and adoration He is due. To worship is an act of justice and righteousness. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa does not put worship where we might expect it, (likely under Faith or Love). Rather he puts worship in his treatise on Justice. We owe God praise, gratitude and adoration. He is the source of every blessing, all that we call our own is really His, everything, quite literally every thing is his and generously shared by Him. God has been too good to us for us to shirk our duty to worship and obey him. Even our troubles work together for our good, if we trust God. To fail in our duty to worship God on his terms is to fail in righteousness and justice. When Jesus says, “Do this is remembrance of me,” we owe him obedience in this regard. Our faithful Sunday worship and regular and worthy reception of Holy Communion is our righteous worship and an act of Justice.

The Reality of our Worship – In the Gospel today Christ makes it clear that we are receiving him: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist is no mere symbol of Jesus. Sadly today, many Catholics, according to polls, have lost faith in the Eucharist, seeing it as only a symbol. But we do not partake of a symbol; the Eucharist is truly the Lord. Neither is it a “piece” of His flesh; it is Christ, living, glorified, whole and entire. Scripture attests to this in many places.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).

They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35).

For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:29).

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51).

This last passage is a profound theology of the Eucharist from Jesus Himself. He makes it clear that we are not to think of the Eucharist as symbolic.

As Jesus spoke the words saying that the bread was His flesh, the Jewish people grumbled in protest. Jesus did not seek to reassure them or to say that He was speaking only symbolically. Rather, He became even more adamant, shifting His choice of words from the polite form of eating, φάγητε (phagete, meaning to eat), to the impolite form, τρώγων (trogon, meaning to munch, gnaw, or chew).

So insistent was He that they grasp this, that He permitted most of them to leave, no longer following in His company due to this teaching (cf Jn 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for His graphic and “hard” teaching (Jn 6:60).

Today, He asks us, Do you also want to leave me? (Jn 6:67) We must give our answer each time we approach the altar and hear the words, “The Body of Christ.” It is at this time that we respond, “Amen,” as if to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

Would that people grasped that the Lord Himself is truly present in our Churches! Were that so, one would never be able to empty our parishes of those seeking to pray with the Lord. As it is, though, only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. This is more evidence of the “narrow road” and of how few there are who find it. Two thousand years ago, Jesus experienced that most left Him; many today continue to leave Him (or stand far away), either through indifference or false notions.

What father would not be alarmed if one of his children stopped eating? Consider, then, God’s alarm that many of us have stopped eating.

The Readiness of our Worship – Notice that in preparing for the Last Supper and First Mass, Jesus told two of his disciples to enter Jerusalem and look for an unusual thing, a man carrying a water jar. This was usually women’s work and thus a man doing so would stand out. They were to follow him, and: he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Now, this is for us a spiritual prescription for the inner room that is our soul:

    • It is to be large, a spacious place not cluttered with sin and worldly trinkets trappings and distractions. There is to be plenty of room for the Lord, who is the guest of our soul in Holy Communion!
    • It is to be furnished with holiness, justice, patience and love to receive so great a guest as Jesus!
    • It is to be ready. That is, it is to be clean, free of the filth of sin and fully apportioned unto the great liturgy about to occur in every Mass. The heart and mind are to be eagerly alert, awaiting in full readiness our divine Guest!

Of course, at the heart of this large upper room furnished and ready, is to be free of serious sin as St. Paul admonishes:

The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me….” Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:24-29)

Because of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states: Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385). For how can the upper room of our soul be spacious, furnished and ready if it is filled with sin? In my own parish we hear confessions before every Sunday Mass to ensure the faithful an opportunity to confess if necessary or simply out of devotion.  If we priests are to be sincere in promoting the worthy reception of Holy Communion, we must be generous in celebrating the Sacrament of Confession and the faithful must be zealous in seeking it when necessary.

Here then are three teachings and reminders about Holy Communion. May we be righteous in our observance, real in our understanding and ready in our souls!

 

 

Harrison Butker’s Commencement Address Is a Necessary Part of our National Conversation.

I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Whoopi Goldberg on a matter of cultural diversity. More on that in a minute. But most all of us have heard of the uproar regarding Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College. Of course he also has many supporters, of which I am one.

The negative reaction on the “woke” left is, sadly, more of the same “cancel calls” from those who so often shout, diversity, equity and and Inclusion. As is most often the case, they don’t really mean “DEI” for those who oppose their views. Theirs is a very qualified and limited diversity and inclusion.  It is one thing to oppose what Harrison Butker said, but it is another to demand he be sanctioned, fired, or severely fined. In effect, too many of the “woke” demand that he must not be allowed any access to the public square, the NFL or any public forum; he must be silenced.

Clearly his speech touched on many major “heated” issues such as abortion, euthanasia, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) , surrogacy and the  views of the LGBTQIA+ community. Most notably, according to negative reviews,  there is  his view that women have been ill-served by feminism’s  insistence of careerism over vocation  and that it was understandable that many young women want to embrace being a “homemaker,” mother and wife.  These views are not those that the woke left thinks should be tolerated or accepted as part of a “diverse” and inclusive landscape of ideas. With the very religious fervor they attribute to us, they demand a kind of “excommunication” of Butker, and those of us like him, from the community of “decent, open-minded” people.

Enter into the debate an unlikely opponent of all the demand for inquisition and excommunication. I was quite surprised to hear audio of Whoopi Goldberg, generally no fan of our side of the cultural aisle.  Consider what sounds almost like the voice of reason in her remarks on Harrison Butker.

I like when people say what they need to say. He’s at a Catholic college, he’s a staunch Catholic. These are his beliefs and he’s welcome to them. I don’t have to believe them, I don’t have to accept them, the ladies that were sitting in that audience don’t have to accept them.”

She continued,

“The same way we want respect when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee, we want to give respect to people whose ideas are different from ours,  because the man who says he wants to be president, You-Know-Who, he says the way to act is to take away people’s right to say how they feel. We don’t want to be that. We don’t want to be those people.”

Not sure that’s true of Mr. Trump or his followers, but, be that as it may, she expresses what we ought to hear from those who say they champion diversity and inclusion. Too often what we get is a kind of asymmetrical outrage from this group when their own views are challenged and moralistic demands for tolerance when it is about a matter with which they agree. Surely this is a human problem and tendency. But when your foundational platform and premise righteously claims diversity and tolerance for itself, the double-standard is highlighted. Ms. Goldberg is right when she says, “We don’t want to be those people.”

Those of us on the cultural right may be on the “outs” right now, but most of what we say was agreed upon by the vast majority of Americans even ten to twenty years ago. And while it is currently easy in our culture to scoff at us traditional Christians and Catholics, it might be good for the diversity/inclusion community to at least consider that many, if not most of these views emerge from our sincerely held religious  beliefs. Many widely and simplistically ascribe hate to us, along with arrogance. But what if it is humility that bids us to accept what we believe God clearly teaches, even at the cost of ridicule and outrage?

St. Paul summarized the biblical stance of the Christian faithful who often stand athwart the norms of worldly culture:

By open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)

So here is our task and witness. Christians, yes, even traditional Catholics, have the same right as any other group to be part of the national conversation. Our goal is to commend the Gospel message, with its entire moral vision to the conscience of every one, with the hope that we can reach some or all.

Harrison Butker and others like him want to see the world through the lens of the gospel. Others, sadly some of them even within the Church, claim our lens is smudged. But time will prove where truth and wisdom lie.

In the more than two millennia of the age of the Church, empire have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, epochs along with trends and fashionable views, even heresies and schisms have all come and gone. But here we still are, preaching from the same ancient truths of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. We can do no other and stay faithful to what we firmly believe God has revealed.

We cannot compel agreement, and all are free to agree or disagree. But calls to silence our message or cancel our access are un-American and can’t work anyway. Jesus said to the cancel culture leaders of his day who demanded he silence his disciples:

“I say to you that if these could be silenced, the very stones would cry out!” (Lk 19:40).

Yes, the Gospel will go forth. Even if Harrison Butker, or your current writer could be cancelled, there is no chaining of the Gospel (2 Tim 2:9). God loves the world too much to permit total darkness. His truth is marching on, and always.

In the days ahead I hope to make some comments on his remarks on clergy. He’s spot on and we need the kickstart.

 

I Have Come to Cast A Fire on the Earth – A Homily for Pentecost Sunday

What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the apostles, I have come to cast a fire on the earth (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, a transformative, refining, purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us. It is a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for fire. Because it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.

The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit.

I. The Portraits of the Spirit – The reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest.

Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.

This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).

Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man (not the animals): then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

So, the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam, but he lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.

Thus, we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.

Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts then says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

The Bible often speaks of God as fire or in fiery terms: Moses saw Him as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says,

The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).

Scriptures also call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3).

So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

God is also preparing us for judgment, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.

So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.

II. The Proclamation of the Spirit – You will notice that the Spirit came on them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no accident, for the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

So, behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds that have gathered.

Notice the transformation! Moments ago, these were frightened men huddled together in secrecy behind locked doors. Now, they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!

What about us? Too many Christians are silent, overcome by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or being unpopular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians gather in the “upper room” of the parish and are active—even leaders—but once outside the safe confines of the “upper room” they slip into what I call “secret agent” mode.

Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that. To the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less able to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, to burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing come naturally to us.

Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles. The people in the crowd spoke different languages, yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent on my eloquence alone but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubt-filled encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes obstacles we might think insurmountable.

III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the great commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).

How is the Lord going to do this?

Perhaps a picture will help to illustrate. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title “Holy Comforter.” Above the high altar is the following Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See the photo above of our high altar.)

The walls of my parish church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the stories of the lives of twenty saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) Over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.

This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not via “magic fairy dust.” It is in the fiery transformation of every Christian going forth to bring warmth and light to a cold, dark world. This is how the Lord casts fire upon the earth. This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth—in the lives of saints (and in your life)!

In the end, the great commission (Matt 28) is our first and most important job. No matter what else we do, we are to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. As individual Christians, we are a disgrace and not worthy of the name if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth but only through us. The spread of the gospel has been placed in your hands. It’s scary, isn’t it!

In my short time on this planet, I have seen it. Parishes that were once big and booming (and, frankly, sometimes arrogant) are now in decline; some are near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (Yes, I am talking to you.)

Enjoy the feast of Pentecost, but don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you. Then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a dark, cold world.

Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.

The video below features details from the clerestory of my parish, Holy Comforter in Washington, D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth through the lives of the saints (and through you, too). It is not magic; it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, so that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way that He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!

The song accompanying the video says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary …!”

 

Love Lifted Me: A Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!

This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”

If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.

I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:

A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.

B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.

C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!” More on this tomorrow from the Fathers of the Church.

II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.

But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.

III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:

A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.

B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.

C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).

We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.

D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.

Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.

What Does the Arrest of St. Paul at Philippi Teach a Sometimes-Timid Church?

In Acts, which we read in Eastertide the missionary journeys of St. Paul are set before us. Unfortunately, in important lines are cut out lectionary that describe why Sts. Paul and Silas were in jail. The whole story serves as a metaphor for the radical nature of true Christianity and explains why it so perturbs many in this world. The Christian faith, its message, and the transformation it can effect can be very unsettling to a world that literally and figuratively “banks on” sin. Let’s consider this lesser-known story of Paul and see what it ought to mean for us if we take the Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it. We pick up the story just after the baptism of Lydia, when Sts. Paul and Silas encounter a possessed slave girl, whom tradition sometimes calls “Pythonissa the Soothsayer.”

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).

Note the heart of the problem: St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon, has deprived her “owners” of the income they were deriving from her sad state. They were banking on her sad condition and profiting from her trouble. In the name and power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world and touched their pocketbooks. They see the Christian message as revolutionary, disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.

It is a threat not only to profit but to power. In having Paul arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well, indicating that Paul is not merely preaching some “strange new religion” but is advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word “customs” here in Greek is ἐθη (ethe) and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” Cicero, in De Legibus ii. 8,  wrote, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, they were strictly forbidden from publicly proclaiming new and unapproved deities, as this provided an occasion for dissension and controversy.

And, frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas were true enough. In the healing they brought about, they hindered profit. Further, they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears that is a religious proclamation, but to Roman ears it was a provocative and revolutionary statement. It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar was Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi. While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar, a higher King who demanded first loyalty: Jesus!

This is not the tame and domesticated proclamation of the faith that is so common today. This is not the faith that is trimmed to fit into worldly categories and to be tucked under political, philosophical, and moral preferences. This is the faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to the world’s priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas were a serious threat.

And what of us today? We have gone through a long period during which the faith could be lived quietly and generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and “getting along” were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in and be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic president back in 1960, we could say that we had finally made it and had been fully accepted. Finally we fit in.

Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days and there was a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. Now that we have finally “made it,” the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture seems to have faded away. At the same time, Western culture has also largely died. (Is it a coincidence?)

In recent years, so-called Catholic universities and other institutions have been caving in to pressure. They are affording marriage benefits to same-sex bedfellows and succumbing to the HHS mandates to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. This is sad, pathetic, wrong, and cowardly—hardly the revolutionary faith that got Paul arrested.

And now we are coming full circle. We must rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. And as we proclaim healing and profess an allegiance to something other than this world, we will become increasingly repugnant to the world around us.

Let’s consider more thoroughly the two offenses for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:

1. They ate into profits. Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her but profited her “owners.” In this world today there is a lot of trafficking in sin and addiction. Terrible demons afflict many people in the areas of sexuality, drugs,  and alcohol. But there’s a lot of money to be made. Sex sells. Hollywood movie producers, pornographers, purveyors of contraceptives, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex-slave industry feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol are big money-makers as well. Huge numbers of products are sold using the demon of fear that says things like, “You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re not healthy enough,” “You’re getting old,” “You don’t drive the right car,” “You haven’t impressed your friends enough,” “You need to buy our product right away so you’re not so pathetic.” And thus the demon of fear and low self-esteem is exploited along with the demon of greed.

But what would happen if the Church were to start preaching unabridged Christianity effectively? You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can find serenity in Christ so that you won’t need all that extra alcohol and those drugs. You can be set free from your enslavement to sex. You can take authority over your passions and discover the beauty of traditional marriage. What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?

Of course the answer is that we, like Paul, would be (and are) under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists since those are hot-button issues these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction, and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful (and for now our successes are meager) their profits may go away. Yes, we must be dealt with.

But we will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith, not the faith that is tailored and tucked under worldly priorities, not the faith that insists on being “realistic,” not the faith that makes endless apologies to the inevitable objections of the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and demons.

Paul and Silas didn’t end up in prison by preaching a watered-down, tamed moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl and in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits from sin.

2. They threatened power. Calling Jesus, “Lord,” was a revolutionary threat to incumbent power, which demands full loyalty. And thus today, many strive to make Catholics fit into neat little political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to fit into their narrow little categories and to march in lockstep with their party platform. Even many Catholics want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than to the Church and are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between a Church teaching and the party line, guess which one usually gives way!

But in the end, the Church will not fit into some neat and tidy political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.

And thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal; Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being kicked to the curb; our very right to religious liberty is being threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are slowly being removed and the number of lawsuits against Catholic institutions is increasing. And it will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty. The Church must refuse that loyalty.

Jesus is Lord; the government is not. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith He announces cannot be watered down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.

Tame, domesticated Christianity will not threaten or change this world. When Paul preached, the people rioted. Modern preaching too often incites only yawns and indifference.

What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary and hits the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world becomes increasingly secular, the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.

Are you ready?

A Directive for Church Leaders from the Acts of the Apostles

The readings at daily Mass are focused on the first Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas. They are very Catholic and too informative to let pass without comment. It presents a highly organized Church, possessing some of the structures we know today in full form. Granted, some of these structures are in seminal (seed) form, but they are there.

We will also notice qualities of the original kerygma that are at variance with what some modern thinkers declare should be the methodology of the Church. The soft, cross-less Christianity of many today, who replace the cross with a pillow and insist on merely inclusion and affirmation, is strangely absent in this early setting.

Let’s look at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 14:21-27) and see the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps are prescribed for our consideration. The Apostles went forth announcing, admonishing, appointing, and accounting.

I. Announcing – The text says, After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples …

Notice that happiness is linked to the harvest. Proclaiming the Good News, they yield a great harvest. As Catholics, we are not sent out to proclaim a mere list of duties. We are sent to proclaim the Gospel. And the Gospel is this: that God has loved the world and sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead has purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the rebellious obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed and sinful drives of this present evil age. Simply put, He has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.

We are sent to announce a new life, a life set free from the bondage of sin, rebellion, sensuality, greed, lust, domination, and revenge. We are sent to announce a life of joy, confidence, purity, chastity, generosity, and devotion to the truth rooted in love.

Yes, here is a joyful announcement rooted in the cry Anastasis (Resurrection)! The old order of sin is gone and a new life of freedom from sin is here!

Did everyone accept this as good news? No. Some, indeed many, were offended and sought to convict Christians as “disturbers of the peace.” Some don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out as such. They prefer bondage, sin, and darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.

But at the end of the day, we as Catholics announce what is intrinsically good news and we ought to start proclaiming it with joy. We must announce it joyfully, as something wonderful, freeing, and true rather than sounding like bitter, angry people who are just trying to win an argument.

II. Admonishing – The text says, They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Notice first that preaching (teaching) is a process. You don’t just preach or teach once and move on; you return and reiterate. They are retracing their steps back through towns that they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and then move on. They return and, as we shall see, they establish the Church.

Notice what they do:

1. Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples.
2. Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith.
3. Explain – They explain by saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s focus especially on the last the point. In effect, they announce and teach, “If you’re not willing to endure the cross, no crown will come your way. If you can’t stand a little disappointment sometimes, if you can’t stand being talked about sometimes, if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you, NO CROSS, NO CROWN.”

Yes, beware of cross-less Christianity. We do have good news to proclaim, but there is also the truth that we get to the resurrection and the glory through the Cross. There is a test in every testimony, a trial in every triumph. There are demands of discipleship, requirements for renewal, laws of love, and sufferings set forth for Saints.

Good preaching combines hardship and happiness in one message. It is a joy to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who endured hostility, hardship, and the horrors of the Cross but triumphed over all of it, showing that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He has caught the wise in their craftiness and shown that the thoughts of the wise of this world are futile (cf 1 Cor 3:20). He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (paradoxically) by the Cross (cf Col 2:15).

Thus, Saints Paul and Barnabas announce the Cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many today insist that the Church soft-pedal the Cross, saying that we should use “honey, not vinegar.” No can do. We joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the Cross and must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives as the way forward, which exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and calls good what God calls sinful.

Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality. This is 180 degrees out of phase with the Cross.

The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members, but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. Jesus announced the Cross without ambiguity, saying as He went out to die, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me (John 12:31-32).

So we announce the Cross not merely as suffering, but as life, power, and love. It is possible, by the power of the Cross, to live without sin, to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed. It is possible by the power of the Cross to learn to forgive and to live the truth in love.

And the world will hate us for this. But such hardships, such crosses are necessary preludes to the hallelujah of Heaven. The Church can do no less than to point to the Cross. The center of our faith is the Cross, not a pillow. The Cross is our only hope. Ave Crux! spes unica nostra!  (Hail O Cross! our only hope!)

Yes, the Church announces the Cross and admonishes a world obsessed with pleasure and passing, fake happiness.

III. Appointing – The text says, They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.

And thus we see the ordination of priest leaders in every place. “Priest” is just an English mispronunciation of “presbyter.” Paul and Barnabas did not simply go about vaguely preaching and then moving on. They established local churches with a structure of authority. The whole Pauline corpus of writings indicates a need to continue overseeing these local churches and to stay in touch with the priest leaders established to lead those churches.

Later, St. Paul spoke of the need for this structure in other texts, for example when he wrote to Titus,

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

This appointment was done through the laying on of hands and today is called ordination. It was a way of establishing order and office in the Church to make sure that the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This is why we call the Sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Note, too, that a critical task for leaders in the Church is to develop and train new leaders. Too many parishes depend on charismatic and gifted leaders and are left with a void rather than an ongoing ministry when those leaders die or must move on. This should not be so. Part of being a good leader is to train new leaders.

IV. Accounting – The text says, From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Note that Saints Paul and Barnabas are now returning to render an account of what they have done. Accountability is part of a healthy Church. Every priest should render an account to his bishop, and every bishop to his Metropolitan and to the Pope. Today’s ad limina visits of bishops to the Pope are the way this is done. Further, priests are accountable to their Ordinary through various mechanisms such as yearly reports and other meetings.

A further background to this text is that Paul and Barnabas are returning to Antioch because it was from there that they were sent forth by the local bishops and priests on this missionary task.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

St. Paul was not the “lone ranger” some think him to be. He was sent and was accountable. As we read elsewhere,

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days (Gal 1:15-18).

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain (Gal 2:1).

The preacher and teacher must be accountable: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).

And thus we see some paths for priests, preachers, teachers, and leaders. We must announce the Gospel as good news, with joy and confidence. We must admonish a world (and some Church members) obsessed with pleasures to embrace the Cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us. And we must be accountable to one another.

A nice, quick portrait of some healthy traits for the Church!