Temptation is a universal human experience. And because it’s so directly associated with sin, many too easily equate being tempted with sinning. But temptation is not the same as sin. If it were, how could the Scriptures say to us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are and yet was without sin? (Heb 4:15) Hence, the simple experience of temptation is not sin. It is true, however, that our past indulgence in sin can make us more susceptible to temptation.
However, properly understood, temptation is a form of suffering—even a kind of martyrdom—that the faithful must endure, and through it bear witness to the abiding and surpassing power of God’s grace.
Yes, temptation is a form of suffering that we must endure daily. Too many people, however, feel guilty merely for being tempted. Perhaps they think they are already sinning simply because the thought of sin comes to mind. To be sure, temptation does speak to our desires and hence presents what at least seems to be a pleasurable prospect. It would not be temptation if it did not have this quality. We are not tempted by something odious or by something that has no pleasurable dimension. Nevertheless, feeling tempted is not a sin. And thus in temptation the Christian should not think of himself or herself as somehow displeasing to God. Rather, we should remember that God is our helper, someone to whom we should turn in times of temptation. We should not feel ashamed or afraid of running to God and asking for His deliverance.
In a reading from last week’s Office, St. Ambrose quite eloquently spoke to the martyrdom of temptation. I’d like to present some excerpts from his writing (in bold italics) and make some comments of my own (in red).
As there are many kinds of persecution, so there are many kinds of martyrdom. Every day you are a witness to Christ:
- You were tempted by the spirit of fornication, but feared the coming judgment of Christ and did not want your purity of mind and body to be defiled: you are a martyr for Christ. Yes, for you reverently feared God and considered the judgment of wrath that comes upon fornicators. You loved God’s rewards more than passing pleasures!
- You were tempted by the spirit of avarice to seize the property of a child and violate the rights of a defenseless widow, but remembered God’s law and saw your duty to give help, not act unjustly: you are a witness to Christ. Christ wants witnesses like this to stand ready, as Scripture says: Do justice for the orphan and defend the widow. And here again, you considered God’s love for the poor and that remembered that giving alms covers a multitude of sins (Lk 11:41). God dismisses those who did not feed, clothe, or give assistance to the poor into everlasting flames (Matt 25:31ff). And thus, like a martyr, you resisted the pull of greed gave until it cost you.
- You were tempted by the spirit of pride but saw the poor and the needy and looked with loving compassion on them, and loved humility rather than arrogance: you are a witness to Christ. What is more, your witness was not in word only but also in deed. Yes, you considered that we are all blind beggars before God and that the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us (Lk 6:38). You considered that the merciful will be shown mercy (Mat 5:7) and that merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).
How many hidden martyrs there are, bearing witness to Christ each day and acknowledging Jesus as the Lord! … Be faithful and courageous when you are persecuted within … in those unseen persecutions there are kings and governors, judges with terrible power. You have an example in the temptation endured by the Lord. Indeed, temptations are a kind of persecution, and the proper response to persecution is willing martyrdom.
In another place we read: Do not let sin be king in your mortal body (Romans 6:12). You see the kings before whom you are made to stand, those who sit in judgment over sinners … There are as many kings as there are sins and vices; it is before these kings that we are led and before these we stand. These kings have their thrones in many hearts. Sinful temptations seek to rule our hearts like despots. But do not fear even the many kings arrayed about you. Stand before them with courage, even unto death. For though they can destroy your body, they cannot destroy your soul or take your spiritual freedom unless you let them. What is the worst they can do? Kill you? But this is pathetic, for then you go home victorious to Christ. Resist these domineering kings (of temptation), even unto death. For in dying faithfully you are born to eternal life!
But if anyone acknowledges Christ, he immediately makes a prisoner of this kind of king and casts him down from the throne of his own heart. How shall the devil maintain his throne in one who builds a throne for Christ in his heart? Amen. As servants of Christ, we escape slavery to the kings of the world, to the flesh, and to the devil.
From a commentary on Psalm 118 by Saint Ambrose, bishop
(Sermo 20, 47-50; CSEL 62, 467-469)
And thus we see that temptation is a form of suffering, even of martyrdom, if we engage in battle and refused to be mastered. Our martyrdom makes us witnesses to the surpassing value of what God offers as compared to the trinkets and passing pleasures of this world.
Temptation is a form of suffering, but to endure it brings us a share in the crown of martyrs. As St. Paul beautifully said near the end of his life,
For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Ti 4:6–8).
Do not be ashamed of your temptations; do not be fearful that on account of them you have already sinned or that God is displeased. Rather, see them as a summons to battle and to glorious martyrdom. Let it not be said of you, In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).
In every temptation, hear the battle cry. Take to the field manfully and resist. Win through to the victory and remember the glory of the martyrs, whose company, through temptation, you are able to join.
The past three Sundays have featured intense and shocking parables about our readiness, our fruitfulness, and our decision to accept and enter the Kingdom of God or not. The Lord has used the image of a vineyard into which workers are dispatched at different times of the day but who have different attitudes about what is due to them at the end of the day; or a vineyard into which two sons are sent, one going and the other not; or a vineyard in which are numerous wicked tenants who refuse to render rightful fruits and who abuse and kill those sent to call for the harvest, even the landowner’s very own son.
The parables are shocking and speak to the great and dramatic decision to which we are all summoned: will we accept the Kingdom of God, entering into to it and accepting its terms, or not? It is a decision on which your destiny (and that of those you love) depends. And Jesus is not playing around; He lays out the drama in stark and shocking ways. Jesus is not the harmless hippie or the mild-mannered Messiah that many today have recast Him to be. He is the Great Prophet, the very Son of God and Lord who authoritatively stands before us and says, “Decide.”
This Sunday’s gospel is perhaps the most shocking and dramatic of all. The Lord Jesus issues another urgent summons to the Kingdom. As with past Sundays, there is the warning of hellish destruction in the refusal of the Kingdom. But this view must be balanced with the vision of a seeking Lord who wants to fill His banquet and will not stop urging until the end. You might say that the theme of this gospel is “Party or Perish!”
Lets look at the gospel in five stages.
I. RICH REPAST - The text says, The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast. Of course the king is God the Father and the wedding feast is the wedding feast of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. On one level, the wedding feast is the invitation to faith in general. But more biblically, the wedding feast is the wedding feast of the Lamb, described in the Book of Revelation (19:7-9). Hence it is also the Liturgy of Heaven, which we share in through the Mass.
What a wonderful image of the Kingdom: a wedding feast! Most Jewish people of that time looked forward to weddings all year long. Weddings were usually timed (in an agricultural setting) between planting and harvest, when things were slower. Weddings often lasted for days and were among the most enjoyable things a Jewish person could imagine. There was feasting, family, and great joy in what God was doing. And consider the unimaginable joy and honor of being invited to a wedding hosted by a king!
Yes, these were powerful images for the ancient Jews of the Kingdom. A wedding! And the wedding of a King’s son, at that! The joy, the celebration, the feasting, the magnificence, the splendor, the beautiful bride, the handsome groom, the love, the unity; yes, the Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.
Who would not want to come? And today we may well ask, “If this is Heaven, who does not want to go?” And yet, as we shall see, the invitation is rejected by many!
II. RUDE REJECTION! - The text says, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those invited: Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”‘ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.
Why? Here is a real twist to the story, an unexpected development. Why the rejection of the king’s offer? And in our time, why the rejection of what God offers? Are these people crazy? In effect, Jesus explains their rejection in a twofold way: worldliness and wickedness.
Some of those rejecting the invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven do so for worldly reasons. Jesus describes them as going “one to his farm, another to his business.” In other words, the things of the world, though not evil in themselves, have these people preoccupied. They are too busy to accept the invitation; their priorities and passions are elsewhere.
They think, “Weddings are nice, but money is nicer. Yes, you see, God and religion have their place, but they don’t pay the bills.” The goal of the worldly is this world and what it offers, not God or the things awaiting them in Heaven. Things like prayer, holiness, Scripture, and the Sacraments don’t provide obvious material blessings to the worldly minded. Hence, such things are low on their priority list. St Paul speaks of people whose god is their belly and who have their mind set on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19).
So off they go, one to his farm, another to his business; one to watch football, another to detail his car; one to sleep in, another to play golf; one to make money, another to spend it lavishly at the mall.
Others of those rejecting the kingdom do so out of some degree of wickedness. Jesus speaks of how they abuse those who invite them, even killing some of the servants (prophets, apostles, evangelizers). Why this anger?
Many reject the kingdom of God because it is not convenient to their moral lives. Many of them rightly understand that in order to enter the wedding feast of the Kingdom, they will be required to be “properly dressed,” and this will be seen below. But of course “proper dress” here refers not to clothes, but to holiness and righteousness, to living the moral vision of the Kingdom.
Hence the invitation to the wedding feast of the Kingdom incites anger in some, because it casts a judgment on some of their behaviors; it tweaks their consciences. A great deal of the hostility directed toward God, Scripture, Jesus, the Church, and her servants who speak God’s truth is explained by the fact that, deep down, the hostile know that what is proclaimed is true.
Or, if their minds have become very darkened and their hearts hardened by sin, they simply hate being told what to do; they hate any suggestion that what they are doing is wrong. Being told to live chastely, or to forgive, or to be more generous to the poor, or to welcome new life (even when there are deformities), or that there are priorities higher than money, sex, career, and worldly access—all of this is obnoxious to those who have become hardened in sinful choices or sinful patterns of one sort or another. Hence the world often treats God and those who speak of Him with contempt. In certain places and at certain times, some are even martyred.
Of course for many who reject the Kingdom there are multiple reasons. But Jesus focuses on these two broad categories, under which a lot of those reasons fall.
III. RESULTING RUIN. The text says, The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. As in last week’s gospel, we have here a stunning and shocking detail to the story that is, to some extent, mysterious to us. How can such a violent punishment be squared with the vision of a God who loves us?
It is not an easy thing to answer. But to respond by pretending it is not taught or that this will never happen is to reject the loving urgency with which Jesus speaks. He is not simply using scare tactics or hyperbole; He is teaching us what is true for our salvation.
Historically this destruction happened to ancient Israel in 70AD, forty years after Jesus’ resurrection. After having extended the invitation for a long forty years, God finally accepts the “No” of the invited guests (in this case the Ancient Jews, corporately speaking). Their “No” became definitive and led to their national ruin and the end of the temple.
It is the same for us. For as long as we live, the Lord invites us all to accept His kingdom . And if we are slow to respond, He repeats His offer again and again. But in the end, if we don’t want to have the Kingdom of God we don’t have to have it. And at death our choice is fixed. And if our answer is “No,” our ruin is sure, for outside the kingdom, now rejected, there is nothing but ruin. You and I will either accept the invitation to live in the Kingdom of God and by its values or we will reject it and make “other arrangements.” And those other arrangements are ruinous.
But be sure of this: God wants to save everyone (cf Ez 18:23, 32, 33:1; 1 Tim 2:4, among others). If Hell exists, it is only because of God’s respect for our freedom to chose. And mind you there are not a mere few who reject the Kingdom. Those who reject it live demonstrating that they do not want a thing to do with many of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven: chastity, forgiveness, love of enemies, generosity to the poor, detachment from the world, and so forth. And God will not force them to accept these things nor to be surrounded by those who live them perfectly in Heaven. They are free to make other arrangements and to build their eternal home elsewhere. And compared to Heaven, everything else is a smoldering ruin.
IV. RELENTLESS RESOLVE - The text says, Then he said to his servants, “The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” When some reject the invitation, God merely widens the net. He wants his Son’s wedding feast full. Hence, God is resolved to keep inviting and extending the invitation. Here is an extravagant God, one who does not give up. If rejected, He just keeps calling.
V. REMAINING REQUIREMENT – The text says, The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?” But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Many are invited, but few are chosen.“
And here, then, is a warning even for those of us who do accept the invitation and enter the kingdom: we must wear the proper wedding garment.
As we have already remarked, the garment here is not one of cloth but one of righteousness. And this righteousness in which we are to be clothed can come only from God. God supplies the garment. The book of Revelation says that the saints were each given a white robe to wear (Rev 6:10). The text also speaks of the Church in a corporate sense as being clothed in righteousness: Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7-8). Hence righteousness is imaged by clothing, and that clothing is given by God. At our baptism, the priest describes our white robe as an outward sign of our dignity. It is a robe that we are to bring unstained to the judgment seat of Christ. At our funeral, too, the white pall placed upon the casket recalls the white robe of righteousness given to us by God.
Scripture speaks elsewhere about our righteousness as a kind of provided clothing we “put on”:
- Rom 13:12 Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
- Rom 13:14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
- Eph 4:23 And be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
- Eph 6:11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
- Eph 6:14 Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.
- Col 3:10 You have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
- Col 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
- 1 Thess 5:8 But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
Hence, when the king comes upon a man “not properly dressed,” the man is confronted. And, saying not one word in reply, he is cast out. But recall two things. First, this is not about a dress code, it is about a code of holiness. The clothes are symbolic of righteousness. Second, remember that the garment is provided. We have no righteousness of our own but only what God gives us. Hence the refusal to wear the clothes is not about poverty or ignorance of the rules. It is an outright refusal to accept the values of the Kingdom of God and to “wear” them as a gift from God.
Scripture says of Heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Rev 21:27). Scripture also warns us, without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14b). And an old Spiritual says, None can walk up there, but the pure in heart. Consider that Heaven would not BE Heaven if sin and unrighteousness were allowed to commingle there.
Now only God can make us pure enough to enter Heaven and He offers this gift of purity to everyone. Yet not everyone chooses to accept the garment of righteousness He offers; not all will agree to undergo the purification necessary to enter Heaven.
The Lord concludes by saying that many are called but few are chosen. Indeed the Lord calls many (likely, all). But far fewer are chosen, for they themselves choose not to accept the offer of the Kingdom and the garment of righteousness. God thus ratifies their choice by choosing them not.
Some final notes:
Understand the urgency with which Jesus speaks and teaches. Our choices have consequences and at some point our choices become fixed. Further, at that point, God will ratify what we have chosen. Notions of judgment, fixed choices, and Hell may be obnoxious to some in the modern world, and surely these teachings are sobering and even frightening. We may have legitimate questions as to how to square Hell with God’s mercy. Nonetheless, judgment, the finality of our choices, and the reality of Hell are all still taught despite our objections or questions. And they are taught by the Lord Jesus who loves us. No one loves you more than Jesus Christ, and yet no one spoke of Hell more than Jesus Christ did.
It is as if the Lord is solemnly urging us to be sober and serious about our spiritual destiny and about the spiritual condition of those whom we love. If nothing else, hear the Lord’s urgency in this vivid parable, told in shocking detail. Realize that it is told in love and heed its message.
A final picture. In Luke 15, the Lord told the parable of the Prodigal Son. The sinful son returned to his father, who, being joyful and moved, threw a great feast. But the other son sulked and refused to enter the feast. Incredibly, his father came out and pleaded with him to enter the feast. “We must rejoice!” he said. And, strangely, the parable ends there. We are not told if the sulking son ever enters. The story does not end because you must finish it. You are the son. So is your spouse, your children, your friends. What is your answer? Will you learn to forgive and accept all the values of the Kingdom, or will you stand outside? What is your answer? What are you doing to help ensure the proper answer from your spouse, children, brothers, sisters, and friends? What is your answer? What is theirs? The Father is pleading for us to enter the feast. What is your answer?
This song says, I got a robe, you got a robe, all God’s children got a robe. When I get to heaven gonna put on my robe and go wear it all over God’s Heaven. Heaven, (Everybody talking ’bout Heaven ain’t a goin’ there), Heaven, gonna walk all over God’s Heaven.
There was a moment in Peter’s life when he faced a choice to focus on either the storm or the Lord. It is in the memorable Gospel story in which Peter was walking on the water toward Jesus. As the Gospel recounts,
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink (Mt 14:30).
It is so difficult for us. We seem wired for the negative, wired to be anxious, doubtful, on the alert for any danger. It takes great faith to keep our sights focused on the Lord, who alone can save us and will save us if we trust in Him. But too easily the world, the flesh, and the devil seek to steal our serenity and snatch from us our ability to see God. And losing that ability, whether through careless neglect or weakness, we are overwhelmed by the fears of the world that loom large. SO often our loss of the sight of God has us frantically running about wondering what to do. Scripture says,
For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength. But this you did not will. “No,” you said, “Upon horses we will flee.” Very well, you shall flee! “Upon swift steeds we will ride.” Very well, but not as swift as your pursuers! (Is 30:15–17)
Scripture further warns,
- For you have forgotten the God of your salvation, and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge (Is 17:10).
- You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth (Dt 32:18–19).
- But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel (Ps 106:13).
Indeed, do not forget the works of the Lord!
I thought of these things as I watched this little cartoon. It features an astronaut of sorts. He is in a threatening place, alone in orbit high above the earth. But he has a picture of his beloved, likely his wife, and this consoles him. He struggles to keep his eyes on his beloved as his fears grow. He loses his connection with her as the warning bells sound and he rushes about in a panic. Finally, his fears wholly snatch his beloved from his sight and his fears overwhelm him.
And this is a picture of us, too, who so easily allow our fears to sever our connections with our Father in Heaven. How quickly our fears, elicited by the world, the flesh, and the devil, snatch away our connection with God. And then our fears loom large, overwhelming us.
Do not forget the works of the Lord!
We are seeing in Rome a rather unusual unfolding of the Synod, wherein cardinals and bishops with very different points of view are airing those differences quite publicly. Even prior to the Synod there was the publication of various competing books.
To be fair to the bishops and cardinals, it would seem that Pope Francis himself has largely encouraged this. It is more typical at synods for the sparring and debates to take place more privately, and press conferences usually just issue summaries of things discussed. Time will tell of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of such public airings, but if the permission for frank discussion may extend to a lowly parish priest, I will say that it concerns me greatly. It is never pretty to see how the sausage is made and some who are less familiar with the internal debates may well be discouraged, while others will be inappropriately heartened. Again, though, to be fair, vigorous debates in Church Synods and Councils extend all the way back to the first one described in Acts 15.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, what I think about the matter of Holy Communion to those in invalid matrimonial states and other irregular situations is no secret. I simply cannot see how it is possible for us to extend Holy Communion to Catholics living in invalid marriages unless they are willing to live as brother and sister. Rather than restate all the reasons, I’ll just refer you to earlier posts I wrote: HERE and HERE.
And while the pastoral solution of living as brother and sister may not seem a “pastoral” or reasonable solution to many, it does remain a solution if Holy Communion is sought. Of course it is not a perfect solution. There is still the possibility of scandal, since not everyone will know or understand that an individual who is coming forward is not sexually intimate with his or her current “spouse” from a second union. But if celibacy is generally known as a possibility, others could presume good will and a large degree of scandal could be avoided.
I was speaking of this matter recently on the phone with someone (not a parishioner) and she scoffed at the notion of asking celibacy of people in these situations. She shifted the terms and asked me somewhat rhetorically,
How can you go on denying something as important as Holy Communion to people just because they are in what you consider a bad marriage?
I told her that I would answer her question if she would answer mine:
How is it that many have come to regard having sexual intimacy as more important or necessary than receiving Holy Communion?
I went on to add:
While Holy Communion is important (and I surely think that it is), I wonder why the people you describe as seeing it as so important wouldn’t choose to live celibately in order to be able to receive our Lord. You suggest I’m being cruel by denying it, but it isn’t really I who is making the choice here. The choice is really theirs. I am not the master of the Eucharist; I am His servant. Given Jesus’ description of second marriages as adulterous (Matt 19), and Paul’s clear warning against receiving Communion in an ongoing state of serious sin (1 Cor 11), it doesn’t seem that I have any choice. The choice is and remains theirs: either to so value Holy Communion and intimacy with the Lord that they are willing to forego sexual intimacy, or to seek solutions in the annulment process, or to continue refraining from Holy Communion.
Though I was being accused of somehow denying Holy Communion, I am not really doing any such thing. I celebrate Holy Communion every day for God’s faithful who are not impeded to receive. If they are somehow impeded, I will do what I can to help them overcome this impediment. If at the end of the process there can be no way to address the impediments, then the choice returns to them: live celibately and receive Communion, or choose not to and refrain from Communion. I am not denying anyone Communion; some choose to exclude themselves.
I realize that some people are in difficult and complex situations, but I cannot simply overrule the Lord or what He said to St. Paul. At the end of the day there is a choice for those who desperately seek Communion but are in second unions. That choice is celibacy. I realize that this is difficult and some conclude that this would be unjust to the second “spouse.” But it is ultimately their choice, not mine. I am respectful of the fact that some do not think they can reasonably choose to live celibately in their second union. However, it is not fair to say that just because other avenues have been exhausted, those in these situations have absolutely no choice. They do. It is difficult, but it is their choice to make.
It is sad that the Synod on the family has seemingly become a synod on divorce. I do hope and pray that some discussion is being had about the grace of living according to the Lord’s plan for matrimony and family. Surely the agenda will expand!
I, perhaps like you, have to see folks I love and care about through some difficult periods in their lives. One neighbor and parishioner just lost her eight-year-old daughter to cancer. A number of parishioners are seeking work and praying daily for it, but no work offers seem to be forthcoming. Still others cry out for relief from any number of different crosses. I, too, have lots of things for which I pray and sometimes I get discouraged or even angry when God seems to say, “No,” or “Wait.”
One thing I have surely learned about true prayer is that I have to be humble—very humble. The Scriptures say, we do not know how to pray as we ought (Romans 8:26). Many other translations of this text say even more emphatically, We do not know what we ought to pray for. Yes, it is true, and yet we are often so sure of what is best for us or best for others. But what we find is that our desired outcome is not necessarily the best outcome. And this insight requires of us great humility. We see so little and understand even less. When we ask for some particular outcome, and it is not wrong to do so, we need to ask humbly. We must recognize that God alone knows the best answer and when to answer. This is humility.
There is an old teaching that basically says that although many think of prayer as trying to get God to do your will, true prayer is trying to understand what God’s will is and then doing it. I heard an African-American preacher put it this way:
You got a lotta people that talk about naming and claiming, and calling and hauling … But there’s just something about saying, “THY will be done!” that we’ve forgot.
It’s not wrong to ask. The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). But we do need to ask with great humility because, truth be told, we don’t really know what is best. James and John came to Jesus one day seeking high positions in the new “administration” (Kingdom). Jesus said to them, You don’t know what you are asking (Mk 10:38). And the truth is, we don’t.
So ask, but ask humbly. St. Augustine writes beautifully on this matter in his letter to Proba:
Paul himself was not exempt from such ignorance … To prevent him from becoming puffed up over the greatness of the revelations that had been given to him, he was given … a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, he asked the Lord three times to take it away from him … even such a great saint’s prayer had to be refused: “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness” (2 Cor 12:7-9).
So when we are suffering afflictions that might be doing us either good or harm, [we ought to remember that] we do not to know how to pray as we ought. [B]ecause they are hard to endure and painful, because they are contrary to our nature (which is weak) we, like all mankind, pray to have our afflictions taken from us. [But], we owe this much respect to the Lord our God, that if he does not take our afflictions away, we should not consider ourselves ignored and neglected. But [rather, we] should hope to gain some greater good through the patient acceptance of suffering. For His power is at its best in our weakness.
These words are written so that we should not be proud of ourselves … when we ask for something it would be better for us not to get; and also that we should not become utterly dejected if we are not given what we ask for, despairing of God’s mercy towards us. [I]t might be that what we have been asking for could have brought us some still greater affliction, or it could completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity. In such cases, it is clear that we cannot know how to pray as we ought.
Hence if anything happens contrary to our prayer [request], we ought to bear the disappointment patiently, give thanks to God, and be sure that it was better for God’s will to be done than our own.
The Mediator himself has given us an example of this. When he had prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by,” he transformed the human will that was in him because he had assumed human nature and added: “Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” Thus, truly, By the obedience of one man many have been made righteous (Rom 5:19).
(St Augustine Letter to Proba (Ep 130 14.25ff)
This song reminds us that the answer to our prayers is often caught up in the paradox of the Cross:
Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court not to take up numerous state appeals regarding same-sex unions pretty much signals that the secular redefinition is here to stay. This is really no surprise given the rather deep confusion about sexuality and marriage in our culture. The polygamists and any number of other groups demanding recognition for their aberrant notions of marriage are sure to follow with all due haste. And what is to stop them, legally, at this point? The word “marriage” is now largely meaningless since, if marriage can mean anything, marriage means nothing, in the linguistic sense. At my parish, we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and are retooling our documents with this new designation wherever possible.
While Jesus did not directly address the issue of same-sex “marriage” (since such a bizarre notion would not even have occurred to anyone in the Jewish world of his day), he did address the notion of illicit or unchaste unions. He did this in the “Matthean exception” (Matt 19 and Matt 5). While Jesus forbade divorce, He set aside or excluded certain unions that were illicit or unchaste and indicated that these were not unions to which one should cling. In effect, He said that they are not marriages at all so the term “divorce” does not apply to them and they should be set aside.
Consider the text from Matthew 19. Let me first present the text itself and then provide some background and interpretation. (I am using the Catholic NABRE translation.)
[Jesus said], I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery (Matt 19:9).
The RSV (Catholic Edition) translates the passage this way: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.
Now the phrases, “unless the marriage is unlawful” and “except for unchastity,” are translations of the Greek phrase μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ (me epi porneia). The usual meaning of the word porneia is “fornication” (i.e., sex between two unmarried people). However, depending on the context, porneia can also refer to other forms of sexual contact that are illicit or irregular by biblical standards. For example, many Greek lexicons (e.g., Strongs and Thayer & Smith) define porneia broadly as “illicit sexual intercourse” and then go on to define porneia to include fornication, homosexual activity, lesbian activity, sexual intercourse with animals, sexual intercourse with close relatives (as spelled out in Leviticus 18), or sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman. Protestants tend to include adultery in the definition of porneia more so than do Catholics. The reason that Catholics in general do not is that there is another Greek word specifically for adultery: μοιχᾶται (moichatai). Therefore we do not consider adultery to be grounds for divorce based on either Matt 19 or Matt 5.
So, fundamentally, porneia most often means fornication (pre-marital sex) but can mean other illicit things as well.
Why then does Jesus utter this “exception” to the otherwise air-tight prohibition of divorce? The answer would seem to lie in the influence of certain Gentile notions, which the Lord wanted to be clear to exclude, at least in the settings Matthew recalled. The Gentile world was a very sexually confused—even depraved—world. All sorts of strange sexual practices were tolerated and even tied into some of the pagan religious practices. Gentile notions of marriage were often at wide variance with Jewish ones. Gentiles often called “marriage” what Judeo-Christians would call incest. There were also difficulties encountered with homosexual behavior and other sexual liaisons that the Christian Church could not and would not recognize as legitimate or anything but sinful. (The most thorough discussion of this background can be found in the Navarre Biblical Commentary.)
So, in effect, Jesus is declaring that certain so-called marriages that featured porneia (some form of illicit sexual union) were not marriages at all, and that His forbiddance of divorce should not be seen as applying to these illicit unions. The implication is that since such unions were not considered marriage at all, one could and should leave them without being guilty of divorce. The bottom line is this: there was a defined understanding of marriage that Jesus insisted upon, and He freely declared that just because someone called something a “marriage” didn’t make it a marriage.
Many today want to redefine marriage into something other than one man and one women in a fruitful (child-bearing) relationship until death do them part. I have little doubt, based on biblical evidence alone, that Jesus would declare such unions as “not marriages at all,” since He clearly set aside certain unions of His day by calling them unlawful, or more specifically, unchaste.
To those who would argue that Jesus did not specifically mention homosexual unions, I would point out, as already noted, that the term porneia can and does include all forms of illicit sexual unions: incest, fornication, and homosexual acts. Hence His use of the word here does include an exclusion of unions based on this form of unchastity.
As an aside, many today argue that Jesus never explicitly mentioned homosexual acts (though I’d like to point out that also didn’t explicitly say “Don’t beat your wife,” either) and they seek to conclude from His “silence” that He therefore would approve of homosexual acts. But of course Jesus does address the sinfulness of homosexual acts—through His appointed spokesmen, the Apostles, to whom He said, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). The New Testament teachings of the apostles, who speak for Jesus, clearly describe homosexual acts as sinful (e.g., Rom 1:18ff, 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:8-11) and contrary to nature (paraphysin – Romans 1:26).
Hence, the term porneia (here understood widely as unchastity) surely does include homosexual acts (as any Greek dictionary will affirm). In the Matthean exception or exclusion, Jesus thus sets aside unchaste or illicit unions since they are not true marriages at all. Divorce does not apply to them and such unions should be discontinued since they are unchaste.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).
And thus the Holy Spirit, speaking through St. Paul, says that the ungodly suppress a truth that is plain and available to the human intellect, namely that God exists and is to be honored and thanked. Our capacity to perceive the existence of God is activated by the evidence of God’s power and divinity that is itself perceivable in creation. Hence, to choose to live in an ungodly (atheist) stance is not natural to us, but must be acquired through suppression of the truth and the evidence.
Since this suppression requires effort and an overriding of truth and evidence naturally available to us through our reason, those who engage in this suppression are, as the text says, without excuse. The term suppress is a present active participle in the Greek (κατεχόντων (katechonton), literally “suppressing.” Hence the text implies that atheism requires an ongoing effort to maintain the suppression.
Now of course none of this would mean a thing to an atheist, since I am quoting a sacred text. However, for us who believe, Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. In other words, it tells us what is really going on. Atheists are suppressing the truth in an ongoing way. The reference to their “wickedness” need not be taken to mean that all, or even many atheists are living wicked lives in a comprehensive sense. Rather, it can simply mean that the suppression of the truth of God’s existence and the evidence for it in creation is itself a sin, a form of wickedness. As such, atheism is not seen by Scripture merely as evidence of bad luck, poor upbringing, or ignorance. Atheism is sinful because it resists what we are naturally equipped to do: perceive God’s existence. And this resistance is described as on ongoing, sinful state since the verb form used is a participle, indicating ongoing action.
A recent article at Science 2.0, describes some recent studies on the capacity of the human mind to perceive and ponder the metaphysical. The term “metaphysical” refers to concepts and realities that are beyond (meta) the physical world. Hence, concepts and realities such as justice, fairness, mercy, and so forth are not seen under a microscope but as real concepts that we not only debate, but which can both cause war and launch great humanitarian acts. Radical materialists deny metaphysics anywhere in the definable world. However, truly radical materialists are very rare, partly because it is so unnatural for humans to “think” this way, or to suppress the truth of metaphysical reality, which so clearly affects us.
I’d like to highlight excerpts of the article in the usual way, using black, bold italics, and include my own remarks in plain, red text. I do not vouch for the credibility of the Science 2.0 site, and I limit my comments simply to what is written in the column. But even if the science of studying this topic is nascent and is disputed by some, it nevertheless remains interesting that some in the field are beginning to discuss whether the human person is naturally wired to perceive and ponder the metaphysical. The full article is here: Atheism Unnatural?
Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged … We are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas” …
And this is just what Fulton Sheen once observed: atheism is unnatural to us and is acquired only through effort. There is also reference here to a kind of “meta-narrative” about justice, to which all human beings seem oriented no matter the culture or the era. We have a sense of justice, of right and wrong. I recently featured an article describing the discovery by brain researchers that this sense is apparent even in the youngest children. You can read that article here: Even the youngest children know right and wrong
While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present … In the US, only 20 per cent of people have no religious affiliation, but of these, only one in ten say they are atheists. The majority are “nothing in particular” according to figures published in New Scientist …
And this makes sense, since the rejection of God does not necessarily imply a wholesale rejection of the metaphysical, as is proposed by the radical adherents of “scientism.” Scientism is the claim that the physical sciences can and do explain the whole of reality, that there is nothing beyond the physical.
Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person … the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work …
This is what I referred to above as a meta-narrative, which is essentially the set of archetypal stories that illustrate the basic human longing for justice and truth, and the triumph of what is good and true. This is a consistent theme in every culture and in every epoch of recorded human history. It is a remarkably consistent theme that points to its being placed in the human heart and soul, not merely as a learned preference but as an infused attraction to what is good, true, beautiful, and just. Biologists and anthropologists may wish to attribute this merely to a learned biological mechanism that helps survival. But the question still remains as to how the physical can produce the metaphysical. Further, it seems puzzling that this would be a necessary adaptation for survival, since none of the other animals seem to need a meta-narrative, or archetypal stories assuring final triumph of justice, in order to survive.
But if a belief in cosmic justice is natural and deeply rooted, the question arises: where does atheism fit in? Albert Einstein, who had a life-long fascination with metaphysics, believed atheism came from a mistaken belief that harmful superstition and a general belief in religious or mystical experience were the same thing.
In other words, atheism arose as a response to spiritual extremism and unbalanced or inaccurate notions of God and faith. But they overcorrected by dismissing good faith along with bad or flawed notions.
But as higher levels of education spread, will … atheism sweep the field, as some atheism campaigners suggest? Some specialists feel this is unlikely … The need for periods of contemplative calm in churches or temples or other places devoted to the ineffable and inexplicable will remain. They appear to be part of who we are as humans.
Yes, it is unlikely that we will outgrow what is a fundamental human trait. Faith is not a lack of education; it is a fundamental human quality that may at times go in wrong directions intellectually, but which is innately correct and essential to who and what we are: spiritual as well as corporeal persons.
When looking at trends, there’s also population growth to consider. Western countries are moving away from the standard family model, and tend to obsess over topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion on demand. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, in practice they are associated with shrinking populations …
Africans and South Asians, on the other hand, are generally religious and retain the traditional model of multi-child families—which may be old-fashioned from a Western point of view, but it’s a model powerfully sanctioned by the evolutionary urge to extend the gene pool.
The power of the womb and the noticeable dying of the culture of death and selfish decadence; faith will out!
“It’s clearly the case that the future will involve an increase in religious populations and a decrease in scepticism,” says Steve Jones, a professor in genetics at University College London, speaking at the Hay Festival in the UK recently … Bad news for pro-atheism campaigners.
Indeed, I frequently get atheists, and also some non-Catholics, who predict the demise of the Catholic Church. I always respond to them that they must not have not read history. In the 2000 years of the Church, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, theories, heresies, trends, and fads have all sparked and then faded. But the Church is still here. Many have predicted our death, and to quote Chesterton, “We have buried every one of our undertakers.” Where is Caesar, where is Napoleon, where is Stalin, where is the USSR? They are gone, but we are here. I do not write this triumphantly; the Church is ever in need of reform and our numbers may rise and fall, but by the Lord’s promise, the power of Hell will not prevail over His everlasting Kingdom, the Church.
Here’s a hymn by John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Firmly I Believe and Truly”
Among the issues that stand out in yesterday’s (Sunday) Gospel about the vineyard, is the wild and strange overreaction by the tenant farmers to the idea that the landowner was owed anything in terms of the fruits of the harvest. Notice that they beat, stone, and even kill the servants sent to collect the owner’s portion. They do the same with a second wave and then even end up killing the landowner’s son!
And this is not a mere story. It was borne out time and time again in Israel’s history in the shameful rejection, hatred, imprisonment, and killing of the prophets. It was about to culminate in the astonishing killing of God’s own Son! The text of yesterday’s parable said, They seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him (Matt 21:40). And as the Book of Hebrews affirms of the ancient Jews, and also of us, So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured (Heb 13:12-13).
And down through history the human family has repeated this pattern: killing those sent to preach the gospel to us, holding up God’s own Son for contempt, and even committing murder in the killing of members of His body who are forced to die “outside the camp.” They are ostracized for the mere preaching of the gospel and for calling for the fruits that befit the righteousness of those made in the image and likeness of God.
What is wrong with us? Why this special and outrageous hatred for God and His very reasonable request that we bear fruits that are suited for creatures made in His image and likeness?
Some will say that it is just the human tendency to dislike rules and limits. But honestly, most of us like rules just fine in most other contexts. If anything our modern American scene is dominated by an increasing demand for rules and laws.
Look at all the campaigns against smoking, drunk driving, sexual harassment, unfair hiring and labor practices, abrogation of civil rights. Now there is even demand for rules about the calorie, salt, and sugar content of our food! The parade of demands for new laws has been almost endless. Not all these laws are bad, but they DO illustrate Chesterton’s comment that when we break the big laws we do not get less law; we get lots of small laws. So, cast aside a big law like honesty, or mutual respect, or justice and you get ten thousand little laws.
And we not only tolerate these laws, we demand them, even as we complain that government is too big and intrusive. We still want more laws, more protection—more, more, more.
Look also at the American obsession with sports, football in particular. As I write this post, many Americans are glued to their TV screens and quite literally fixated on a bag full of air being moved up and down a field. And the game is FULL of rules. There are boundaries, lines of scrimmage, 25-second clocks, etc. The players dare not cross the lines or let the clock run out. There are dozens of fouls that stop the game, disputes that must be decided by appeal to rules. Most of the game is rules. And not only do we like this, but we become downright indignant if the referee or line judge misses a violation by the “other team.”
So I am not so sure that it is merely our tendency to dislike law. It will be admitted that most do grumble about too many laws, but at the end of the day, no one wants to get rid of a law that protects him or his interests.
But there is a special anger that seems to get excited in many people, especially today, whenever the law in question is thought to be religiously based. Suddenly an almost visceral reaction sets up in many. And the same people who demand the outright banning of smoking (but strangely favor legalized marijuana use) are crying out in anger, “Get your rosaries off my ovaries and your Bible out of my bedroom.” Almost anything at all can be discussed in the public schools. Our children are being exposed to some pretty awful and strange stuff, but if you even think about mentioning Jesus, lawsuits are threatened and bitter anger is exhibited by increasing numbers.
Why this strange anger, this overkill, this hostility way out of proportion to the very reasonable and salutary influence of faith and religion in the public square?
Some will argue that things like smoking and civil rights are public matters, but sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc. are private matters. But they are not. The act of sexual intimacy may occur in a private setting (and I hope this continues to be the case) but the results are anything but private. The results can have very public effects: the birth of children, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, higher divorce rates, single motherhood, children without fathers, poverty, pornography, sexual addiction, and so on. All of these are very public matters and problems that few people are willing to discuss as the very real effects of our so-called private acts.
Marriage, too, is a very public act. The LGBTQIA interest groups affirm that in demanding public recognition for their false “marriages.” The fight over marriage shows just how public and central it is to our culture. If the LGBTQIA interest groups really believed that sex was private and marriage was private then why would they demand public recognition and even affirmation of their behaviors?
Likewise, euthanasia devalues the lives of the suffering, the dying, the handicapped, and others who are increasingly seen as taking up “too many” resources. And instead of respecting their struggle and admiring their strength, we suggest they be eased out the door sooner rather than later.
And to those who want abortion to be private, it must simply and firmly be said that the death of 50 million fellow Americans cannot be considered a private matter. Their blood is crying out from the soil of this land and we will answer for what we have done to them “legally.”
So enough of this talk of “private” matters. We who live in community with one another must understand that even our private behaviors have many public effects.
But we are back to the central mystery of why there is such a special venom against the Lord and His Church. The tenants of the vineyard and their wildly outrageous anger at the landowner are a picture painted by the Lord of our human condition. And in our fallen condition we seem, at least collectively, to have a special hostility and rebellion towards God.
The biblical answer to the reason for the hostility comes down to one fundamental word: flesh. The biblical phrase “the flesh” (ho sarx) is not per se a reference to our physical bodies. It is a reference to our fallen condition of hostility and enmity towards God. The flesh is that part of us that doesn’t want to have a thing to do with God. It is that part of us that is hostile to God, that doesn’t like to be told what to do, that bristles at even reasonable limits on our behavior. It is that oddly obtuse part of us that, when told not to do something, wants to do it all the more. It is that strange and self-destructive streak that desires intensely even things that we know are bad—very bad—for us.
It began in the garden when Satan hissed at Eve, Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’? (Gen 3:1) Eve rightly answered that God only forbade eating from the one tree. But Satan pressed his case and insisted that God has no right to set ANY limits on us and that we have the right to be gods and should not let God “keep us down.” Satan thus portrayed God as an opponent of human flourishing, as an enemy of self-actualization. It was a direct appeal to human pride, and Adam and Eve bought into it. And pride has been our biggest problem ever since. It has many ugly siblings as well: rebellion, resentment, fear, and anger directed against God.
Fundamentally this is what St. Paul means when he speaks of the flesh. There is indeed a special hostility directed towards God and the things most identified with Him.
There are several forms of this hostility and aversion to the legitimate demands of God.
1. There are those who cannot (yet) take it upon themselves to directly hate or resist God. Thus they use what their own minds consider proxies (substitutes) such as the Church. It is easier for them to say that the Church is evil, corrupt, out-of-touch, sinful, full of hypocrites, etc., than it is to say that about God. But in so doing, they must set aside the biblical insistence that the Church and Christ are one body and that Christ cannot be had without His body, the Church.
And even if there are legitimate things about the Church that are less than desirable, the real anger isn’t about those things. It is our unyielding insistence on the sacredness of life, of the body, of marriage, and of sexuality (all things Christ and His apostles taught) that really angers them. Things like crusades and inquisitions are not the real issues; discrediting and hating the Church are the real goals. No attempts to explain or contextualize these largely symbolic issues will have any effect because they are not the real point. Hating and vilifying the Church, as a kind of proxy for God, is the real goal, the real need. Christ and His Church are ultimately one.
And all this they do as a substitute for hating God directly. But separating Christ from His body, the Church, is ultimately a lie.
2. There are those who move beyond the Church to the Scriptures and direct their venom there. The book is either outdated or to be discredited since it contains passages about genocide or “supports” slavery. Never mind that the same book shows God leading His people away from savage warfare in stages, or that the slavery of the biblical world was fundamentally different from the slavery of colonial times. Again, that is not really the point. The point is to use unfair and non-contextual attacks to undermine the source itself. The book is bad, hateful, and has to go.
Even within some Christian denominations there has been an attempt to set aside large portions of the clear moral law by the subterfuge that “God is Love” and surely wants people to be happy and fulfilled. Therefore Jesus must not have meant what He (plainly) said in forbidding divorce and remarriage and in warning of Hell, greed, lust, dissention, factions, the refusal to believe, and so forth. In their own mitigated way, they, too, stab at the heart of Jesus and His message. Here, too, is a basic and sinful rejection of God, rooted in the flesh that will not be told what to do.
3. Yet another group adopts the “designer God” phenomenon. Instead of directly attacking God as He has revealed Himself, this group simply redesigns Him to suit their fancy. In this way they don’t have to attack Him (or her or it). Sometimes called the “god-within” movement, this group creates a god of their own understanding, a god who just so happens to agree with everything they think. He (or she or it) affirms them, never raises His (or her or its) voice, would never judge, and is really cool with anything they want to do.
This used to be called idolatry. But that word seems so “harsh” and since the designer god would never be harsh, the word doesn’t “fit.” There are vast numbers today who think they have a perfect right to invent their own “designer” god.
This prideful rejection of the true God is cloaked in the soft clothes of niceness and in phrases like “I’m spiritual, not religious.” But at the end of the day, all this talk is just a way to avoid admitting their sinful rejection of the true God. Maybe they are even lying to themselves. But whatever the intention, it is what it is: the rejection of the True God who has revealed Himself quite clearly in Sacred Tradition and Scripture. He has to go! The designer god has to take His place. Though cloaked in niceness, it is still ugly pride and an angry rejection by the flesh.
4. Finally, there are those who cast aside all euphemisms and all attempts to disguise their outright rejection, even hatred, of God and the things of God. More than mere atheists, these people are really better described as anti-theists. God must go; the Bible and religious “myths” must go; the Church must go. Walls (laws) must be erected to contain the spread of religion, which is thought to be worse than a disease.
To them, religion (not sin) is the cause of almost all human suffering, war, ignorance, hatred, bigotry, etc. They do not see the Church just as a misguided institution, but as a terrible enemy that must be vanquished. The anger of these anti-theists is at times quite exceptional.
Likewise there is similar anger coming from many who are deeply mired in the sexual confusion of these times.
I have surely felt the wrath of many of them through this blog, many who have what seems to be a strange fear of me and of the Church. I often ask, “Why do you care what I or the Church says, thinks, or teaches? If we are so irrelevant, if we are fading away, why are you so afraid of us? If am just some dude who is deluded, and if my God is just some imaginary friend, why such anger from you? Why such apparent fear? What’s that all about?”
Part of the answer, I think, is that deep down they know we’re right. So do the dissenters from any number of our teachings know that deep down that we are right. This, I believe, lends the “over-the-top” quality to their anger.
But the other deeper answer has to be simply “the flesh,” that deep drive of pride against God. We may try to cloak it and substitute it with other proxies as detailed above, but deep inside all of us is a very rebellious streak that must be mastered through God’s grace, the Sacraments, and the truth of His word. Sadly, we live in a world that increasingly encourages, fuels, and even celebrates this rebellion.
But no amount of celebration can make this rebellion any less ugly than it is. It is ultimately a rejection of the plan of God for our salvation, wholeness, and holiness. To remain in rebellion can bring only ruin. God will do whatever He can to save us. As yesterday’s first reading said, What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? (Is 5:6)
But if we finally refuse, and we indulge the flesh, there will come a moment when God hands us over to our willful rebellion, whether individually or collectively. And thus the same passage says,
Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! … it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it. The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry! (Is 5:5-7)
Pray that the moment when God hands us over does not come. But evidence is mounting that things are now coming to that point in the decadent West. When our collective rejection of God and His kingdom reaches a certain point, God will say, “Your will be done, I will interfere no longer.”
For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
Here are some pictures from a time before the revolution—not a perfect time, but a time when faith still had a voice. The sung text is Ne irascaris Domine (Palestrina) and translates the psalm, Be not angry, O Lord, and remember our iniquity no more. Behold, we are all your people. Your holy city has become a wilderness. Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem has been made desolate.
There is an urgency and clarity about today’s Gospel that is often lacking in modern Christians, including the clergy. In this Gospel, the message is urgent, provocative, and clear: there is a day of judgment coming for every one of us and we simply must be ready. The message is a sobering one for a modern world that is often dismissive of judgment and certainly of Hell. Yet Jesus says clearly that the Kingdom of God can be taken from us for our refusal to accept its fruits in our life.
Parables used by Jesus to teach on judgment and the reality of Hell are often quite vivid, even shocking in their harsh imagery. They are certainly not stories for the easily offended. And they are also difficult to take for those who have tried to refashion Jesus into a pleasant, affirming sort of fellow rather than the uncompromising prophet and Lord that He is.
No one spoke of Hell more often than Jesus did. Attempting to reconcile these bluntly presented teachings with the God who loves us so, points to the deeper mysteries of justice and mercy and their interaction with human freedom. But this point must be clear: no one loves us more than Jesus does and yet no one spoke of Hell and its certainty more often than Jesus did. No one warned us of judgment and its inescapable consequences more often than did Jesus. Out of love for us, Jesus speaks of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. As one who loves us, He wants none of us to be lost. So He warns us; He speaks the truth in love.
Historically, this parable had meaning for the ancient Jews that had already come to pass. God had established and cared for his vine, Israel. He gave them every blessing, having led them out of slavery and established them in the Promised Land. Yet searching for the fruits of righteousness he found little. Then, sending many prophets to warn and call forth those fruits, the prophets were persecuted, rejected, and even murdered. Finally, God sent His Son, but He too was murdered. There comes forth a sentence: He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times … Therefore, I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. By 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed; the Temple was never to be rebuilt.
The Jewish people are not singled out in the Scriptures, for we all, like them, are a vineyard, and if we are not careful, their story will be our own story. We, like the ancients, have a decision to make. Either we accept the offer of the Kingdom and thereby yield to the Lord’s work and bring forth a harvest, or we face judgment for the fact that we have chosen to reject the offer of the Kingdom. God will not force us to accept His Kingship or His Kingdom. We have a choice to make and that choice will be at the heart of the judgment we will face.
Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel and apply it to the vineyard of our lives.
I. THE SOWING – The text says, There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
Note the care and providence of the landowner (God) who has given each of us life and every kind of grace. The image of the vineyard indicates that we have the capacity to bear fruit. This signifies the many gifts, talents, and abilities that we have been given by God.
The hedge calls to mind the protection of His grace and mercy. Though the world can be a tempting place, God has put a hedge of protection around us that is sufficient to keep us safe from serious sin, if we accept its power.
But note, too, that a hedge implies limits. And thus God’s protective graces, though sufficient, mean that we must live within limits, within the hedge that keeps the wild animals of temptation from devouring the fruits of our vine.
The tower is symbolic of the Church, which stands guard like a watchman warning of dangers to us who live within the boundaries of the hedge. And the tower (the Church) is also standing forth as a sign of contradiction to the hostile world outside, which seeks to devour the fruit of the vineyard.
That the landowner leases the the vineyard is a reminder that we are not our own; we have been purchased at great cost. God and God alone created all these things we call our own. We are but stewards, even of our very lives. We belong to God and must render an account and show forth fruits as we shall next see.
But this point must be emphasized: God has given us great care; He has given us His grace, His mercy, His very self. As the text from Isaiah says, What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? God loves us and does not want us to be lost. He gives us every grace and mercy we need to make it. The Lord says, As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11) This must be emphasized before we grumble too quickly about the subsequent judgment that comes. God offers every possible grace to save us. It is up to us to accept or reject the help.
II. THE SEEKING - The text says, When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
There come moments in our lives when God looks for fruits. Remember that He is the owner and the fruits are rightfully His. He has done everything to bring forth the fruit and now deserves to see the produce of His grace in the vineyard of our life, which is His own.
And what fruits does the Lord seek? The values and fruits of the Kingdom: faith, justice, mercy, peace, forgiveness, chastity, faithfulness, generosity, love of the poor, love of one’s family and friends, even love of one’s enemy, kindness, truth, sincerity, courage to speak the truth and witness to the faith, and an evangelical spirit.
Note, too, that the text says he sends servants to obtain the produce. Here also is evidence of God’s mercy. Historically, God’s “servants” were the prophets. And God sent the prophets not only to bring forth the harvest of justice, but also to remind, clarify, and apply God’s Word and warn sinners. God patiently sent many generations of prophets to help Israel.
It is the same for us. God sends us many prophets to remind, clarify, apply, and warn. Perhaps they are priests or religious, parents, catechists, teachers, or role models. But they are all part of God’s plan to warn us to bear fruit and to help call forth and obtain some of those very fruits for God. Each in his own way says, as St. Paul did in today’s second reading, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (Phil 4:8-9).
Yes, God seeks fruits, and rightfully so. And He sends His servants, the prophets, to help call them forth in us.
III. THE SINNING – The text says, But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Thus, despite all God has done by sending His servants, the prophets, the tenants reject them all, and with increasing vehemence. Their hearts grow harder. The landowner (God) even goes so far to demonstrate his love and his will to save, that he sends his own son. But they drag him outside the vineyard and kill him. Yes, Jesus died outside the city gates, murdered for seeking the fruit of faith from the tenants of the vineyard.
And what of us? There are too many who reject God’s prophets. They do so with growing vehemence and abusive treatment. Many today despise the Church, despise the Scriptures, despise fathers, mothers, friends, and Christians in general who seek to clarify and apply God’s Word and to warn of the need to be ready. It is quite possible that, for any of us, repeated resistance can cause a hardening of the heart to set in. In the end, there are some, in fact many according to Jesus, who effectively kill the life of God within them and utterly reject the Kingdom of God and its values. They do not want to live lives that show forth forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies, chastity, justice, love of the poor, generosity, kindness, and witness to the Lord and the truth.
We ought to be very sober as there are many, many today who are like this. Some have merely drifted away and are indifferent. (Some, we must say, have been hurt or are struggling to believe, but at least they remain open.) Still others are passionate in their hatred for the Church, Scripture, and anything to do with God, and they explicitly reject many, if not most of the kingdom values listed above. We must be urgent to continue in our attempt to reach them, as we shall see.
IV. THE SENTENCE - The text says, What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes? They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’ Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.
Here then is the sentence: if you don’t want the Kingdom, you don’t have to have it. At one level, it would seem to us that everyone wants the Kingdom, i.e., everyone who has any faith in God at all wants to go to Heaven. But what is Heaven? It is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. It is not just a place of our making. It is that place where the will of God, where the Kingdom’s values are in full flower. But as we have seen, there are many who do not want to live chastely, do not want to forgive, do not want to be generous to and love the poor, do not want God or anyone else at the center, do not want to worship God.
Self exclusion - Having rejected the Kingdom’s values, and having rejected the prophets who warned them, many simply exclude themselves from the Kingdom. God will not force the Kingdom on anyone. If you don’t want it, even after God’s grace and mercy and His pleading through the prophets, you don’t have to have it. It will be taken from you and given to those who do want it and appreciate its help.
The existence of Hell is rooted essentially in God’s respect for our freedom, for we have been called to love. But love must be free, not compelled. Hence, Hell has to be. It is the “alternative arrangement” that others make for themselves in their rejection of the Kingdom of God. At some point, God calls the question, and at death our decision is forever fixed.
Yes, Hell and the judgment that precedes it, are clearly taught here and in many other places by Jesus (e.g., Matt 23:33; Lk 16:23; Mk 43:47; Matt 5:29; Matt 10:28; Matt 18:9; Matt 5:22; Matt 11:23; Matt 7:23; Matt 25:41; Mk 9:48; Luke 13:23; Rev 22:15; and many, many more). This is taught by a Lord who loves us and wants to save us, but who is also well aware of our stubborn and stiff-necked ways.
What is a healthy response to this teaching? To work earnestly for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own. Nothing has so destroyed evangelization and missionary activity as the modern notion that everyone goes to Heaven. Nothing has so destroyed any zeal for the moral life or hunger for the Sacraments, prayer, and Scripture. And nothing is so contrary to Scripture as the dismissal of Hell and the notion that all are going to Heaven.
But rather than panic or despair, we ought to get to work and be more urgent in our quest to win souls for Christ. Who is it that the Lord wants you to work with to draw back to Him? Pray and ask Him, “Who, Lord?” The Lord does not want any to be lost. But, as of old, He still sends His prophets (this means you) to draw back anyone who will listen. Will you work for the Lord? Will you work for souls? For there is a day of judgment looming and we must be made ready for it by the Lord. Will you be urgent about it, for yourself and others?
Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Roure
This video features the words of an old spiritual: Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last. I made this video more than a year ago and in it there is a picture of Fr. John Corapi preaching. Since I made it long before his recent “troubles,” please do not attribute any implication from me by its inclusion; it is simply indicative of the “age” of the video.
God gives, and has given, many gifts. One of the great gifts he gave me in the past was the gift of our family dogs. On the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, it is interesting to ponder what he would have thought about dogs. Domesticated dogs are a rather modern phenomenon and it is quite likely that in Francis’ time dogs were considered more feral and even vicious pack animals that ran wild.
Scripture says little about dogs and when it does it is never flattering. Most of the references make one think of wild dogs who ran in packs. Psalm 22:16 says, “Many dogs have surrounded me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me.” Or again from Philippians 3:2, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers.” But in recent centuries we have really taken dogs into our hearts and through training and animal husbandry converted their pack loyalty into a kind of friendship and an image of almost unconditional “love.”
Yes, they have been a great gift to me. Such loyalty, such unconditional “love.” There were times in my life when everyone was disgusted with me; even I was disgusted with me. But even on days like that my dog would still run to greet me and curl up next to me; they are such wonderful, “forgiving,” and uncomplicated creatures.
And they have much to teach us. Likely you have seen this list, but it is always worth another read.
THINGS YOU CAN LEARN FROM DOGS
- Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
- Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
- When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
- Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
- Take naps and stretch before rising.
- Run, romp, and play daily.
- Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
- Be loyal.
- If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
- When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.
- Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
- Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
- When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
- No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout … run right back and make friends.
- Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.
All these are simple but profound lessons, lived without words and with a simple integrity. Yes, dogs are very special.
Prince, our eighty-pound Dalmatian, was the dog of my youth (see picture, upper right). He had the energy and strength of a horse and was a commanding presence in our backyard as he laid down the law with squirrels and other would-be intruders. Prince loved to go for car rides. When we took him for a walk, it was really he who walked us, so powerful was his pull. He also ran five miles a day with my father.
A remarkable thing about Prince was that he could smile. When we would return home, he’d run to the door, furiously wagging his tail and with the cheeks of his muzzle pulled back and his head shaking back and forth. People who saw it for the first time couldn’t believe it; he was actually smiling. It seems to be a unique gift of some Dalmatians and Collies.
Prince was also quite a dreamer. He’d lie on the floor near the sofa and doze off to sleep. Soon enough his legs would start moving, and he’d start huffing and even barking as he dreamed. No doubt he was in the midst of a great chase.
In his last two years Prince began to decline and this gave me my first close lesson in aging and death. Gradually, the majestic dog grew crippled and struggled even to walk. I learned to give him aspirin and that helped him for a while. But there came a time when his walking grew rare and finally his kidneys failed. We knew we had to let him go.
My father was a gifted poet (if I do say so myself), and some of his finest works were composed upon the death of our dogs. It was his way of grieving their loss. Here is what he wrote of Prince as he recalled their long runs together and the sad moment when Prince had to be put down:
We were solitary, old friend, you and I.
In the sun and rain we tramped together
And walked and ran the miles;
A hundred phantoms caught you
In scent and sound;
You raced to ancient summonses
That led the pack across the wild
In joyful bound:
You tried to tell me.
I listened, but could only hear
Your barking in the wind,
And see the eager paws
Trace out your gladness in the ground.
When I returned from being gone,
You greeted me with the abandon of your kind,
In leaps and yelps and wags,
Telling me you loved me
And not knowing why,
Yet knowing that I loved you, too,
And had missed you,
Even as I do now
That death’s deep slumberings
Have had their toll,
Since I held you in my arms,
And you looked at me
And said goodbye. (Charles Evans Pope, 1982)
Next came Missy (pictured at left), a stray who adopted us. She had been abused and so had a timidity that was endearing even as it was troubling. She loved to look out the window of our house and would loudly announce to any passing dogs that she worked here and that they should get on along. She, too, loved car rides and romping for hours in the yard or in the nearby field. She was a tender little dog who seemed traumatized when we left the house and joyous when we returned. She loved to snuggle close and really stole my parents hearts. Of her, my father wrote upon her death,
I thought that I saw you,
But you were gone, dear;
The yard was empty then,
The brown of your fur lost
on the green of May.
In memory’s shade
You snuggle next to me,
My little love, again. (Charles Evans Pope, 1998)
Finally there was Molly, a border collie and a dog who perfectly illustrated that happiness is an inside job. She seemed content with whatever happened. She even seemed happy when she went to the kennel to stay while my parents travelled. She was happy to go and happy to come home. My father said that her motto was “Whatever happens is just great for Molly.” She was just always happy, full of energy, never giving a day of trouble; she was the perfect dog for my parents in their old age. She outlived them both and died about a year after my father passed.
Even in death Molly was charmed. She had been diagnosed with liver cancer, but never seemed to be in any pain. The very day she died, she had romped about in the yard and come in to sleep in her own little bed. Molly died while she was napping. Of her, my father wrote,
You are down,
You are up;
In jumps and traces
In secret places,
You have really
Struck a nerve,
The house with verve,
You are clever
You’re a bounder,
But our very
Favorite hounder. (Charles Evans Pope, 2000)
Thank you, Lord, for the gift of our pets, those special animals designed by you to be our close companions. Thank you for the gifts of Prince, Missy, and Molly. In recent years, you’ve given me my cats, too: Tupac, Gracie-Girl, Ellen Bayne, Jerry McGuire, Benedict, and now Jenny-June and Daniel. I don’t know if animals can love, Lord, but I sure do feel your love through them and I thank you and praise you for the quiet, simple lessons you have taught me through them. May you be praised, O Lord.
The pictures in this post are my own.
Here’s a wonderful video of a very smart and helpful Jack Russell Terrier:
And who can forget Faith, the walking dog, who manifests that handicaps can be overcome?
The movie “Left Behind” opens today. And while, in a secular culture dismissive of any consequences for unbelief, we can rejoice in any salutary reminders, it is unfortunate that the reminder is riddled with questionable theology and dubious biblical interpreation.
In certain (but not all) Protestant circles, and especially among the Evangelicals, there is a strong and often vivid preoccupation with signs of the Second Coming of Christ. Many of the notions that get expressed are either erroneous or extreme. Some of these erroneous notions are rooted in a misunderstanding of the various scriptural genres. Some are rooted in reading certain Scriptures in isolation from the wider context of the whole of Scripture. And some are rooted in reading one text and disregarding others that balance it.
The Catholic approach to the end times (eschatology) is perhaps less thrilling and provocative. It does not generate “Left Behind” movie series or cause people to sell their houses and gather on hillsides waiting for the announced end. It is more methodical and seeks to balance a lot of notions that often hold certain truths in tension.
I thought it perhaps a worthy goal to set forth certain principles of eschatology from a Catholic point of view, since the movie “Left Behind” is bound to generate questions among fellow Catholics. Most of the teachings offered in this post are drawn straight from the Catechism and the Scriptures. What I offer here I do not propose to call a complete eschatology, only a sketch of basic principles rooted right in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
While we cannot know the exact time of His Coming, nevertheless we can be watchful for things that both remind us and signal us to His approach. These signs give indications only. The presence of such texts cannot be seen to overrule that He will come “on a sudden” and that many will be caught unawares.
Here are some notes from the Catechism (the blue and red texts are my own). I have made the Scripture quotes live by way of hypertext so you can click right over and read them.
1. “Soon + Sudden” – Since the Ascension, Christ’s coming in glory has been imminent (Rev 22:20), even though “it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority”(Acts 1:7). This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are “delayed” (Mat 24:44; 1 Thes 5:2; 2 Thes 2:3-12). (CCC # 673).
Of all the points the Catechism makes, this one sets the tone of balance that must, most surely, be maintained. On the one hand, Christ says, “I am coming soon” and that His coming could be both sudden and without warning.
Yet this truth must be held in tension with other truths that set forth certain signs and things that must be accomplished first. And these things are not easily or quickly accomplished. This is further developed in point # 2, which follows.
2. Suspended - The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by “all Israel” (Romans 11:20-26; Mat 23:39), for “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” in their “unbelief” (Romans 11:20-26) toward Jesus. St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3:19-21). St. Paul echoes him, “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Rom 11:15) The “full inclusion” of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of “the full number of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:12), will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, in which “God may be all in all” (Eph 4:13; 1 Cor 15:27-28). (CCC # 674)
This going forth of the Gospel to all the nations and the acceptance of Christ by the Jews would seem to be matters that would take some time.
Has the Gospel really reached all the nations? Have the full number of Gentiles come in and are they serving God and repenting in sufficient numbers? Perhaps so, one may argue. And yet, on a planet of seven billion people, fewer than one-third are Christians. But on the other hand, there are very few places in the world where there is no Christian presence.
And what is meant by the “full number” of Gentiles? That number is hidden from us and is surely debated.
And has the “hardening” that has come upon Israel been lifted? This too is debated and, despite certain movements of “Messianic Jews,” it does not seem that the hardening has been lifted in any wide sort of way or that Jesus has been recognized by “all Israel.”
3. Suffering and Sedition - Before Christ’s second coming, the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (Luke 18:8; Mt 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of His Messiah come in the flesh (2 Thess 2:4-12; 1 Thess 5:2-3; 1 Jn 2:18-22). (CCC # 675)
Clearly, many of these troubles have afflicted the Church in every age. There has always been persecution. Many have fallen away, sometimes in large numbers, most into schism, but some into unbelief. There have been times, too, during which it can be argued that the love of many has grown cold.
And yet, clearly, in the times in which we live, these are very severe problems and they have grown to envelop most of the planet. But God only knows when these signs will be present in a definitive way rather than merely present prefiguratively. However, there is no real basis for a rapture of the Church prior to the final crisis. Indeed, the biblical narrative seems quite clear that the end of times will be a time of test and purification for the Church, not something from which we are exempt.
4. Secular Utopianism Rejected – The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the attempt is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism (CCC # 676).
Yes many in human history, but especially in modern times, have advanced the notion that a secular utopia could be ushered in by human effort, and by submitting oneself to a government, worldly power, or charismatic figure to do so.
Many repressive regimes and movements (often typified by powerful or charismatic leaders) of the last century claimed the power to usher in such a utopia. The sad legacy of the 20th Century shows how tragic, bloody, and repressive such attempts have been.
The Church also rejects religious forms of this, which hold that prior to the Second Coming of Christ a period of 1000 years is set aside during which Christ will reign on earth or in which the Church will somehow attain a total victory prior to Christ’s Second Coming. This will be developed more in the final point below.
5. Second Coming follows a final unleashing of evil - The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (Rev 19:1-9). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (Rev 13:1ff; Rev 20:7-9; Rev 21:2-4). God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (CCC # 677).
Hence, a final and intense unleashing is envisaged by Scripture and the Church. And this final and cosmic conflict will usher in the great triumph and the Last Judgment. This unleashing of the full power of the Devil in the very end is mysterious and difficult to understand, but it is clearly set forth in Scripture, perhaps as a final test for the Church, perhaps as a definitive demonstration of the power of God. Notice again that there is no teaching of “rapture” wherein the Church is spared this final trial. Just as Christ was not spared his crucifixion, neither is His mystical body, the Church, spared a final passover into glory.
Balance! Now please note that while we may wish to focus on one or two points above, each of the five points must be held in balance. In one sense all these signs have been present in the Church’s history, yet not in the definitive and final sense.
Thus, while these are signs that do in fact signal and accompany and usher in the last things, exactly when and how they come together in a definitive sense cannot be known by us. Were that the case, Christ’s clear words that He will come at an hour we do not expect (cf Mat 24:44) and that no one knows the day or hour (cf Matt 24:36), would be violated.
The key point is to hold all five principles in balance, and to accept the tension of knowing signs but not the knowing the definitive time or fulfillment of them.
Most errors in eschatology proceed from a lack of balance and a failure to appreciate that the final age in which we live is steeped in mysteries and meanings known fully only by God. Time itself is mysterious, as are the deeper meanings of events and human history. The Lord, while giving us a framework that reminds of us His coming and signaling us in a merciful way to remember, has insisted that it is not for us to know the times or the seasons fixed by the Father, let alone the day or hour.
Humility, prayerful vigilance, readiness through obedience and the gift of holiness, along with an eager, longing heart for the Kingdom in all its glory are our best posture.
Avoid doing lots of mathematical calculations here. The Catholic approach may not be the stuff of movies and bestsellers, but it is the balanced and trusting faith to which we are summoned.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen. (Rev 22:20-21). And again, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men; but what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience (2 Cor 5:10-11).
At the end of the day, the true “preoccupation” we have ought to be with our judgment, wherein nothing will be hidden and all the masks we like to wear are stripped away. Even our most idle words will be part of that judgment. Here is something that should concern us and which is both certain and near: our own particular judgment, of which scripture says, It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27).
Just for some fun, and also for a creative reminder, here is a little video I put together over a year ago.
Jesus affirms the truth that we have guardian angels: See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father (Mat 18:10). On the Feast of the Guardian Angels, we consider the beautiful truth that God assigns each of us an angel to have special care for us; it is a sign of His very specific love for each of us as an individual. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has much to say on angels. Here are just a few verses:
The whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels … In her liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God … From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God (CCC #s 334-336 selectae).
All this said, it is important to recall that to some extent we have sentimentalized the role of the angels in current times, and have drifted from the biblical testimony regarding them. I would like to propose a few corrective ideas to balance the sentimental notions we may have. I do not say that sentiment is wrong, just that it needs to be balanced by the deep respect we ought to have for the angels.
1. Angels have no bodies - They are not human and never have been human. Human beings never become angels or “earn wings.” Angels are persons, but persons of pure spirit. Hence they have no designation as either male or female. Since we have to envision them somehow, though, it is not wrong that we portray them with masculine or feminine qualities. But it is important to remember that they transcend any such distinction.
2. Angels are vast in number - The prophet Daniel was granted a vision of Heaven and said of God, gloriously enthroned, A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him (Dan 7:10). A hundred million angels! Of course these were only the angels Daniel could see, and it is really just another way of saying that their number is vast, beyond counting.
3. Angels are ranked hierarchically - The term “choir” of angels denotes not a musical group, but rather a rank. Tradition gleans, from both Scripture and custom, nine ranks (or choirs) of angels in three groups of three ranks each: Seraphim, cherubim, and thrones remain closest to God and serve primarily in Heaven itself (and among them the seraphim are closest to God’s throne (Is 6:1-7)). Dominions, virtues, and powers exert various governing powers; they organize the angels and the cosmos (to include nature) and they hold the power of the evil one in check. And finally principalities, archangels, and angels are those most directly involved with humanity; they also act as intermediaries between us, God, and Heaven.
4. Biblically, angels are not the rather fluffy, charming creatures that modern portraits often depict - In the Bible, angels are depicted as awesome and powerful agents of God. Many times the appearance of an angel struck fear in the one who saw him (cf Judg 6:22; Lk 1:11; Lk 1:29; Lk 2:9; Acts 10:3; Rev. 22:8).
- Angels are often described in the Bible in warlike terms: they are called a host (the biblical word for army), they wage war on behalf of God and His people (e.g. Ex 14:19; Ex 33:2; Nm 22:23; Ps 35:5; Is 37:36; Rev 12:7).
- While they are said to have wings (e.g. Ex 25:20; 1 Kings 6:24; inter al), recall that they do not have physical bodies so the wings are an image or symbol of their swiftness.
- They are also mentioned at times as being like fire (Ex. 3:2; Rev 10:1).
- And what about those cute little “cherubs” we have in our art, those cute, baby-faced angels with wings and no body? Well, read about the real cherubim in Ezekiel 10. They are fearsome, awesome creatures, powerful and swift servants of God and more than capable of putting God’s enemies to flight.
- And this is my main point: angels are not the sentimental, syrupy, cute creatures we have often recast them to be. They are awesome, wonderful, powerful servants of God. They are His messengers and they manifest His glory. They bear forth the power and majesty of God and are to be respected immensely. They are surely also our helpers and, by God’s command, act on our behalf.
5. What then is our proper reaction to the great gift of the angels and in particular to our guardian angel? Sentimental thought may have its place, but what God especially commands of us toward our angel is obedience. Read what God said in the Book of Exodus:
Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him (Ex 23:21).
So our fundamental task is to hear and heed the voice of our angel. How, you might ask do we hear the voice of our guardian angel? I would suggest to you that we most clearly hear the voice of our angel in our conscience. Deep down, we hear God’s voice; we know what is true and what is false. In terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. I am convinced that our conscience interacts with our guardian angel. Now be careful: we like to try to rationalize what we do, to explain away our bad behavior, to make excuses. But in the end, deep down inside, we know whether what we are doing is right or wrong. I am sure it is our angel who testifies to the truth and informs our conscience.
God’s command is clear: listen to and heed this voice. Respect this angel whom God has given to you, not so much with sentimental odes, but with sober obedience.
6. Finally, and perhaps controversially, as I have noted on this blog before, though we often think of angels in “choirs” singing, there is no scriptural verse that I have ever read that actually describes them as singing. Even in the classic Christmas scene in which we depict angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” the text actually says that they SAY it, not that they sing it (cf Luke 2:14, in which the verb used is λεγόντων (legouton) = saying). If you can find a Scripture text that describes the angels as singing, please share it. But I’ve looked for years and can’t find a single one. It’s not a big point, and I am aware that some get almost annoyed by my mentioning this, since it seems almost instinctive to us that angels DO sing! My point here is simply to report the silence (not denial) of Scripture on this common notion. Perhaps singing is a special gift given only to the human person.