Rediscovering the “Plot” of Sacred Scripture Is Essential to Evangelization

One of the most significant losses in the modern era is that the biblical narrative is no longer in the hearts and minds of most people. Scripture is the history of the human family, told in story form by God Himself. He tells us how and why we were made and why, as well as what happened to make things the way they are today. Why do we experience infinite longing though we live in a finite world? Why do we struggle with sin? How can we be rescued from sin and death? How can we find true satisfaction? The biblical narrative answers all these questions and more.

The biblical story or narrative mediates reality to us in a memorable way. God, like any good father, tells us our story and asks us to pass it on to our own children. To know our story is to understand ourselves in relation to God, the world, and others.

And what a story it is! It has more passion, conflict, and drama than any great epic. Although it has been called “the greatest story ever told,” most people no longer know the details of the story. As a result, they are detached from the reality the story mediates. Many are adrift in a world of little meaning—or competing “meanings”—with no way to sort it all out. They have few answers to the most basic questions about the meaning of life, the role and meaning of suffering, our ultimate destiny, and so forth. Without the story, life loses its meaning.

As an example of the widespread loss of the biblical narrative, I’d like to relate an experience I had a few years ago. I was talking to a group of Catholic seventh graders and at one point referred to Adam and Eve. As our discussion progressed it became clear that they did not really know who Adam and Eve were or what they had done. One young man piped up and asked, “Aren’t they in the Bible or something?” No one could come up with anything remotely specific. I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and change the instruction at every grade level to a “back to basics” approach emphasizing the biblical narrative.

How has this loss of the narrative happened? Some argue that the Church stopped telling the story. If you have poor preaching and poor catechesis, pretty soon no one knows the story anymore. I don’t doubt there is some truth to this, but it hardly seems likely that “the Church” just decided one day to stop telling the story. Rather, what seems to have happened is that we stopped telling the story effectively. I believe that we lost touch with the “plot” of Sacred Scripture and because of this were no longer able to present the story in a compelling way.

What exactly is a plot? The plot in a story is the focal point to which all the events and characters relate. It is like the hub of a wheel around which everything else revolves. If it is to be engaging, a plot involves some sort of conflict or problem that must be resolved. This holds our interest as we wonder how the problem will be resolved. If in the first scene in the story everything is fine, and in scene two everything is fine, and in scene three everything is still fine, people start tuning out. It is the conflict, problem, or negative development that renders the plot interesting. Plots usually have five stages:

1. Exposition – In this stage we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the story.

2. Rising Action (Conflict) – This is the portion in which the conflict or problem that is focus of the story is introduced and developed.

3. Climax – This is the turning point of the story. The conflict has reached its acme and the tension is nearly unbearable. Here there is often an epic struggle, physical or otherwise, frequently involving a heroic figure or some striking event, in which the central conflict is addressed.

4. Falling Action – During this stage, events occur that will help to fully resolve the central conflict, and we see the effects of the climax on the characters and on proceeding events.

5. Resolution – This is the final portion of the story. The main conflict has been largely resolved and any “loose ends” are tied up. We learn of the final outcome for the main characters, which often involves either a return to normalcy or the attainment of some higher state than existed previously. The reader often experiences emotional catharsis at this point, as the tension/anxiety has dissipated.

Let’s identify these stages in Sacred Scripture:

Exposition God created Man as an act of love and made him to live in union with his God. In the beginning, Adam and Eve accepted this love and experienced a garden paradise. The heart of their happiness was to know the Lord and walk with Him in a loving and trusting relationship.

Rising Action/ConflictMan, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart. He willfully rejected God, who had given him everything, by listening to an evil tempter who had given him nothing. Adam rebelled against God and refused to be under His loving authority and care. This led to a complete unraveling of everything. Paradise vanished and Adam and Eve experienced the disintegration of their innermost being.

Confused, ashamed, angry, accusatory, and embarrassed, they withdraw into hiding and cover up. They can no longer tolerate the presence and glory of God, who still loves them, and must now live apart from Him. God makes an initial promise to one day bring healing but when He will do so is not clear. This is the initial conflict or negative development that defines the plot and rivets our attention.

How will this tragic development be resolved? Will Adam and Eve turn back to God? Will they ever be able to experience peace in His presence again? How will Adam and Eve recover from their self-inflicted wounds? A great love story between humanity and God has soured. Will our lovers ever reunite? Will paradise reopen again? When will God act? How?

Things go from bad to worse: Adam and Eve’s rebelliousness is passed on to their children, as we see when Cain kills his brother Abel. Wickedness multiplies so rapidly that God must act. First, He humbles mankind by confusing the spoken languages at Babel. Later, He brings the flood, practically starting all over again.

In a sudden plot development, God chooses Abram and his descendants to set the stage for a final conflict with His opponent, the devil, and to restore Man. Through a series of covenants and actions, God prepares a people to receive the great Savior, who will resolve this terrible problem. First, however, God must take this chosen people through a series of powerful purifications so that at least some of them can be made humble enough to receive the cure and be healed. God purifies them through slavery in Egypt, a terrifying but glorious freedom ride through the desert, the giving of the Law, and the settlement in the Promised Land.

They are still rebellious, however, and more drastic purifications are necessary: invasions by Assyrians and Babylonians, exile, and then return to their land. Throughout, God sends prophets to rebuke and console them. The conflicts and waiting are been continuously escalating.

Climax – The curtain rises, and we see a small backwater town of perhaps 300 people called Nazareth. An angel, dispatched from God, greets a humble virgin named Mary. God’s plan to save His people begins unfolding not with a king or a military commander but with Mary of Nazareth. It’s a great paradox but a fitting one. Whereas Eve had said no, Mary—the new Eve—says yes. Mary’s “fiat” opens the door to our Savior, our God-hero, wonderful counselor, Father forever, and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). He is named Jesus for He would save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21).

After living in obscurity for thirty years in Nazareth, Jesus steps forth into public ministry. For three He announces the gospel and summons the human family to faith and trust.

Then, in a crucial and epic battle between God and the devil, Jesus mounts a cross and defeats the devil at his own game. By dying He destroys death! The devil seems victorious, but on the third day our Savior and God-hero, Jesus, casts off death like a garment. Forty days later, He ascends and reopens the gates of paradise.

Falling Action – Now that the epic battle has been won, Jesus sends out apostles to announce the Good News of His victory over sin and death. His apostles go forth with this message: the long reign of sin is over; through grace it is possible to live a transformed life, one no longer dominated by sin, anger, resentment, fear, bitterness, greed, lust, and hatred but by love, mercy, joy, serenity, confidence, holiness, chastity, and self-control. A new world has been opened. Up ahead lie open the gates of paradise.

Resolution God has resolved the terrible consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve, just as He promised. Things do not just return to normal, however. They return to “super-normal,” for the paradise that God now offers is not an earthly one but a heavenly one. Its happiness is not merely natural; it is supernatural. We, the reader, experience the catharsis of knowing that God is faithful and that He has saved us from this present evil age.

Notice that the plot hinges on a crucial negative development: sin. Without that there is nothing compelling about the story. This is how the Church failed to hand on the narrative effectively: by downplaying the negative development necessary to make it interesting.

About fifty years ago there seems to have been a conscious effort on the part of the Church to move away from talking vigorously about sin. It was said that we should be more “positive” because you can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar. Crucifixes (too negative!) were removed from Churches and replaced with crosses featuring “Resurrection Jesus.” Thinking our numbers would increase if we were a “kinder, gentler Church,” we set aside the key element of the plot. The story now was that everything is pretty much fine and just about everyone will go to Heaven. In the end, all we had to say was “God loves you.”

Our narrative no longer made a lot sense. The Church became increasingly irrelevant. If I’m really OK, why should I go to Mass? Why receive the sacraments? Why pray? Why call on God at all? If I’m fine, why do I need a savior? Who needs Jesus, God, or religion? And then there were the obvious critiques: Church is boring; the Bible is boring. Well, sure, a story without a well-developed plot is boring. In fact, if it is poorly developed enough, I might just stop reading the book or walk out of the movie—and that is just what people have done. Fewer than one-fourth of Catholics today attend Mass regularly.

To the majority of people, even Catholics, the story is irrelevant and uncompelling. Why? Because we jettisoned the “negative development” that makes a good plot. Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.

Most people no longer “get” the story because the whole point has been lost. People don’t usually remember stories that are boring or make little sense to them.

So it is that I found myself in a class of Catholic seventh graders who had barely heard of Adam and Eve.

It’s time to rediscover the central element of the “plot” of Sacred Scripture: sin. It’s time to talk about it, creatively, in a compelling way. In so doing we will once again set forth a riveting story and help people to rediscover the greatest story ever told.

Note: I originally published a version of this article about nine years ago in “Homiletic and Pastoral Review.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Rediscovering the “Plot” of Sacred Scripture is Essential to Evangelization

Practical Principles for Proclaiming the Kingdom

In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus gives a number of practical principles for those who would proclaim the Kingdom. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

I. Serious – The text says, At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

The Lord describes here a very serious situation. There is an abundant harvest, but there are few willing to work at it. Consider the harvest in our own day. Look at the whole human race and think about how many don’t yet know the Lord. There are over 7 billion people on the planet; 1.1 billion are Catholics (many of them lukewarm) and about 750 million are other Christians. This means that more than 2/3 of people on this planet don’t know and worship the Lord Jesus. Here in the U.S., 75% of Catholics don’t even go to Mass.

There are many people today who shrug at this, presuming it’s no big deal because nearly everyone will be saved anyway. Never mind that Jesus said the opposite quite explicitly: many if not most are heading down the road of loss and damnation (e.g. Matt 7:13; Luke 13:24). This myopic presumption and false optimism is unbiblical and, frankly, slothful.

The Second Vatican Council has this to say:

Those can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention (Lumen Gentium 16).

Note that the council Fathers say that very often people are deceived by the Evil One. Did you notice those words, “very often”? The great mass of “ignorant” humanity is not walking into Heaven. Rather, they are deceived and have let themselves be deceived.

Jesus himself said, This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).

Yes, the need is urgent. We need to be serious about this. There are many even among our own families and friends who have left the practice of the faith and who are somewhere on the continuum from indifference to outright hostility toward the Holy Faith. We must work to restore them to the Church and to the Lord; otherwise, they are likely to be lost.

Scripture also speaks of many who walk in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed (Eph 4:17-19).

There is work to do, and we must get serious about it. Sadly, too many have not. The decline of the West has happened on our watch. Too many have thought that evangelization is a job for someone else. Welcome to what the silence of the saints has produced.

Note, too, that while this translation says, ask the Lord of the Harvest, the Greek is more emphatic and personal. The Greek word is δεήθητε (deethete, from deomai), which means to beg as if binding oneself. In other words, we are so urgent in this request that we are willing to involve our very self in the solution. This is not a problem just for the Lord or for other people; it is so serious that I am willing to go myself! Do you feel this way about evangelization? It’s time to get serious; many are being lost!

II. Sobriety – The text says, Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.

We must be cognizant that we are being sent into a word that is hostile to the faith. We should not despair or be dismissive of this hostility; we must be sober and clear about it.

Yes, there is an enemy. He is organized, influential, and powerful. Nevertheless, we are not counseled to fear, but to sobriety. We must be aware, but unafraid. Scripture says,

      • And this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world (1 John 4:3 -4).
      • Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (Ps 23:4-5).
      • But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).
      • For the accuser (Satan) of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night (Rev 12:10).

Therefore, we must be sober without being afraid or discouraged. There is an enemy and the conflict is real, but the victory is already ours.

And old song says,

Harder yet may be the fight,
Right may often yield to might,
Wickedness awhile may reign,
Satan’s cause may seem to gain;
There is a God that rules above,
With hand of power and heart of love,
If I am right He’ll fight my battle,
I shall have peace some day.

III. Serenity – The text says, Into whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this household.” If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. … Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, “The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.” Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.

Note how the Lord counsels us to shake off the dust in the face of rejection. We ought not to take it personally. We ought to remember that it is Jesus they are rejecting, not us. Further, we ought to be serene in the knowledge that just because someone is angry at us, it does not mean that we have done anything wrong.

Yes, we are to be serene and secure in the truth of the message and not consumed with how people react. We need not be strident or argumentative, we don’t have to raise our voices, we don’t need to be fearful, angry, or resentful. All we need to do is to preach the truth serenely and leave the judgment up to God.

IV. Simplicity – The text says, Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.

One of the things that keeps many of us from fully preaching the Kingdom is that we are encumber by so many things and so many activities. The Lord tells us to travel light, for then we shall be unencumbered, available, and free. Too often today, spiritual truths are neglected and crowded out by worldly concerns. Parents will make sure to get their kids to the soccer game, but Sunday school and Mass are neglected. Likewise, many of us are too wealthy, too invested in this world. As a result, we are not free to preach because we feel we have too much to lose.

The Lord calls us to simplicity in three areas:

        • Purse – The Lord says to carry no moneybag. Riches root us in this world and make us slaves of its ways. Riches are bondage; poverty (freedom from greed) is a kind of freedom, because those who are poorer have less to lose. Scripture says, But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
        • Possessions – The Lord says to carry no sack, no extra sandals. We are encouraged to resist the tendency to accumulate possessions. These things weigh us down. On account of them we are forever caught up with acquiring the latest fashions, the most recent upgrades, and the most deluxe models. And then all this stuff requires insurance and maintenance. Too much stuff roots us in the world and distracts us from more essential things. Too much stuff, will wear you out. Don’t carry around too much stuff. The Lord advises: travel light; simplify. Scripture says, Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it (Proverbs 15:16).
        • People – The text says to greet no one along the way. We have to admit that some folks in our life do not help us in our Christian walk or duty. Instead, they hinder us, tempt us, or simply get us to focus on foolish and passing things. In the Gospel passage, the Lord has something for the seventy-two to do and He wants them to get there and do it. This is not a time to stop along the way and chat with every passerby. The same is true for us. We ought to be careful of the company we keep and ponder if our friends and acquaintances help us or hinder us in our task of proclaiming the Kingdom. Scripture warns, Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). And again, I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men … I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor 5:9).

Thus the Lord counsels us to travel light, to simplify. Our many possessions weigh us down and make life difficult. Look at the opulence of today, yet notice all the stress. Simplify; travel light. Also, avoid complicating and compromising relationships.

V. Stability – The Lord says, Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another.

In other words, find out where home is, where the Lord wants you, and then stay there. Stop all this modern running around. Develop in-depth relationships and stability. In the old days, long-term relationships served as the basis for the communication of the truths of the faith, not just between individuals, but across generations and in close-knit communities. In today’s mobile society, things tend to be more shallow.

The Lord counsels that we stay close to home, that we frequent holy places. We ought to do everything we can to find stability and roots. It is in stable contexts and deep roots, deep relationships, that the Gospel is best preached. Many parents today seldom have dinner with their children. Indeed, with all the running around there is little time left to teach or preach the faith!

Scripture warns,

      • She is loud and wayward, for her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market (Proverbs 7:11-12).
      • Like a bird that strays from its nest, is a man who strays from his home (Proverbs 27:8)

VI. Sensitivity – Jesus says, Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”
Be gracious and kind. Simple human kindness and a gracious demeanor go a long way toward opening doors for the Gospel. Eat what is set before you. In other words, wherever possible reverence the local culture; build on common ground; find and affirm what is right. Don’t just be the critic. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Sure there are ways we can be gracious. Little kindnesses are long remembered and pave the way for trust and openness.

That the sick should be cured is clear in itself. But in a more extended sense, we see how kindness, patience, and understanding are also healing. We must speak the truth, but we must learn to speak it in love, not merely in confrontation or harsh criticism.

Simple kindness and sensitivity are counseled here: eat what is set before you.

VII. Soul Saving Joy – The text says, The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to ‘tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

They have the joy of success that day. There will be other days of rejection and even martyrdom. That’s why Jesus counsels us to have a deeper source of joy: merely that they have been called and have their names written in Heaven.

There is no greater evidence to the truth of our faith than joyful and transformed Christians. Mother Theresa said, “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Thus the Lord counsels that we cultivate joy at what He is doing for us, how He is delivering us and giving us power over the demons in our life. There is no greater joy than to remember what the Lord has done for us, that He has saved us and written our names in Heaven. Yes, remember! Have so present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful, joyful, and different! This is soul-saving joy, a joy that will save your soul and the souls of others as well.

Here, then, are seven principles for proclaiming the Kingdom. Now let’s get serious; there’s work to be done; many are being lost. It’s time to cast our nets!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Practical Principles for Proclaiming the Kingdom

On the Sufferings of St. Paul and the Price of the Gospel

As we turn in this week of Easter to the Acts of Paul section of the Acts of the Apostles, we do well to ponder the kinds of sufferings the apostles endured to announce the gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine such suffering. How many Catholics today can even bear to rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not speak the truth because we’re afraid of getting a raised eyebrow?

All but one of the first apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. It is argued that 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs, two others died in exile, and only one died in his bed.

We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

As a tribute to them and to the early Church, I present here a catalogue of sorts of St. Paul’s sufferings. We know the most about Paul’s trials, but surely many others also suffered. As you read through what he endured, remember the many others as well. When discomfited by a mere inconvenience or a minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.

In this first passage, God announced Paul’s sufferings to Ananias:

For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).

Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:

  • We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
  • in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
  • in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-20).
  • Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not,] the offense of the cross has ceased (Galatians 5:11).
  • Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me (2 Timothy 3:10-11).
  • And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
  • And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
  • You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … (Galatians 4:13).
  • From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:7).
  • I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart (Romans 9:1-2).
  • Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles might hear it. So, I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:10-17).
  • For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Lest you think that St. Paul exaggerated in his descriptions, consider the following occurrences documented by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:

  • Fellow Jews plot to kill Paul in Damascus and he must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape (Acts 9:23).
  • Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, so he must flee to Caesarea (Acts 9:29).
  • Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
  • Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, Paul flees to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5).
  • He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
  • Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
  • He is arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
  • Paul is ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi (Acts 16:39).
  • Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, Paul must be secreted away to Beroea (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
  • Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
  • He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
  • Paul is apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
  • He is opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him (Acts 19:23-41).
  • Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
  • He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
  • Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
  • He barely escapes being scourged (Acts 22:24-29).
  • Paul is rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-10).
  • Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him (Acts 23:12-22).
  • Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
  • He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
  • Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
  • He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).

Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.

Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. At every Mass, remember that the Creed we profess was written in the blood of martyrs.

The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy tribute to St. Paul and the suffering of the early Christians:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Sufferings of St. Paul and the Price of the Gospel

Picture This! A Reminder About Evangelization in a Commercial

evangelizationThe commercial below reminds us of an important insight for evangelization. It features a barber shop where business is slow. Things pick up quickly, however, when they begin to post photos of recent customers sporting their new haircuts. The pictures showcase the good results of a haircut and bring “getting a haircut” from the world of abstraction, ideas, and possibilities, into the world of visual reality. In effect, they’re saying, “Here’s what happens when you come into our shop!”

For us who would evangelize, it is not enough simply to present teachings and ideas. We must provide to others a real picture of salvation in Christ. Even if through our words we can get people to acknowledge that the Lord has saved them and can transform them, they might still respond, “Well that sounds good, but how do I know it’s true?” That is when we must be able to say, “Just look at me!”

In other words, having an evangelization committee, displaying a rack of pamphlets, or offering a class is not enough. We must be witnesses of what the Lord has done for us and showcase what He can still do for others. We must be able to say, “Picture this!”

You Are Witnesses of These Things – A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Risen Christ Appears to Apostles, Duccio (1308-11)

This Sunday’s Gospel speaks to the necessity of becoming witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection Jesus. It begins with the necessary foundation of the Church’s proclamation: The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon! (Luke 24:34) This solemn declaration forms the doctrinal certitude of the resurrection. On this foundation of the truth, the personal witness of every Catholic must be built. In this gospel we see how the Lord confirms His resurrection through the teaching authority of the Church, confirms the apostles in its truth, clarifies their faith, and then commissions them to be witnesses. Let’s see how the Lord does this.

I. The Certainty of the Resurrection And [the disciples from Emmaus] rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, the news began to circulate that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the apostles. They dismissed reports from both women and men. Several women, including Mary Magdalene, had seen Jesus alive. St. John had seen the empty tomb and had “believed.” And though Luke does not mention it here, Mark records that when the disciples returning from Emmaus first sent word they had seen Jesus, they too were at first disbelieved (Mk 16:13).

As we pick up the story that evening, there is a sudden change, a declaration by the apostles that the Lord has truly risen!

What causes this change? After the early evening report from the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk. According to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34), the risen Lord then appeared to Peter privately, prior to making Himself known to any of the other apostles. Peter reports Jesus’ appearance to the others and it is at this point that the resurrection moves from being doubted to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded as follows: The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

Did the women’s and the laymen’s declarations mean nothing? Of course not. Indeed, the Lord later upbraids the apostles for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance, especially given that He had said He would rise on the third day. Even to this day the Lord often presents apparitions of Mary, the saints, or Himself to the faithful. The clergy must carefully discern such actions, not quickly believing or disbelieving them. However, no apparition or devotion (e.g., the Divine Mercy Chaplet) can become official teaching of the Universal Church until the Church, in union with Peter’s successor, rules it worthy of belief.

This is even more the case with a dogma like the resurrection. It becomes an official teaching when proclaimed so by Peter and his successors. Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, sees an ecclesiological dimension to Peter’s special role in causing the resurrection to go from being merely attested to being “true indeed.”

… This indication of names [Cephas and then the Twelve], … reveals the very foundation of the Church’s faith. On the one hand “the Twelve” remain the actual foundation stone of the Church, the permanent point of reference. On the other hand, the special task given to Peter is underlined here. … Peter’s special witnessing role is confirmation of his commission to be the rock on which the Church is built. … So, the resurrection account flows naturally into ecclesiology. … and it shapes the nascent Church [Jesus of Nazareth Vol 2., pp. 259-260].

So, the resurrection is now officially declared by the Church; it is certain and true. Faith is a way of knowing. Our faith in the Church as stated in the Creed (I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church) leads us to the certain knowledge of the resurrection by the Church’s dogmatic declaration: The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

However, even though the faith is a communal and official declaration of the Church through the College of Apostles with Peter as its head, it cannot remain simply this. Faith must reach every member on a personal level. It is not enough for us to say, “Peter says …,” or “The Church says …,” or “Scripture says …,” or “My mother says …” We must also be able to add our own voice to the witness of the Church. We must be able to say, “Jesus is risen; it is true! What the Church has always taught, I, too, have experienced. All her teachings and doctrines, all that the Lord has taught and revealed is true because in the laboratory of my own life I have tested them and found them to be true!”

Thus, we must stay with these disciples in their journey to experience the proclamation of the Church: “The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!”

II. The Contact with the Resurrection – While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

The truth, if we will lay hold of it, is consoling and freeing. Jesus, in the truth of His resurrected glory, stands before them and says, “Shalom,” peace. While the truth does liberate and bring peace, a journey is usually necessary to realize and accept this. Before we can receive the gift of truth, we must often accept the conflict that it introduces into our life.

As we all know, the truth can startle and even upset; it can break conventions and challenge what we know and think. The apostles are at first startled. It is one thing to hear and accept that the Lord is risen, that He has appeared to Peter, but it is another thing to be personally confronted with the truth.

It is one thing for them to believe with the Church and say, “The Lord is truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” But it is another for them to personally experience this. It breaks through everything they have ever known. Their belief is no longer abstract; it is no longer merely communal. Now they are personally in contact with the reality of it.

So, too, for us on our journey to deeper faith. It is a faith declared by the Church, but a faith that we must come to know and experience personally. Thanks be to God that the Lord is willing to help us to do so. For He does not simply shatter our notions. Rather, He helps us to “connect the dots” between His truth and what we already know.

III. The Clarification of the Resurrection – Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them. He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.

The truth can often startle us; it can challenge what we know and think. For this reason, some avoid it or resist it, at least initially.

But the Lord, in His mercy, often sends us assurances. He helps us to “connect the dots” between what challenges us and what we already know, between what is new and what is ancient and attested to. Truth has a unity; greater truths build on lesser ones. God prepares us in stages for the full truth. Jesus once said to the apostles, I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:12-13).

Thus, in this Gospel the Lord sets forth a kind of continuity and clarification for them. Through various methods He shows them that though gloriously risen and transformed, He who stands before them now is also the same Jesus who walked with them days before. He shows them His hands and side to indicate that He was indeed the one they saw crucified. He bids them to touch Him and see that He is not a ghost. He eats to console them and to show them that He still has fellowship with them among the living; He is no shimmering apparition from another realm. Finally, He opens their minds to the understanding of Scripture, so that they may know that all that happened is not some radical break with or tearing up of God’s plan. Rather, it is a fulfillment of all that was written, all that was prophesied.

What seems new and different is in fact in line with, in continuity with, all that has gone before. This is the new Passover that opens the way to the true, more glorious and eternal Promised Land of Heaven. This is not failure; it is fulfillment. This is not rejection of the Old Covenant; it is the ratification of it and the transposition of it to a higher and more glorious level than ever before. Moses gave them manna, but Jesus gives Himself as the true bread from Heaven. Moses gave them water, but Jesus changed water into wine and wine into His saving blood. The blood of the Passover lamb staved off a death that would come later, but the Blood of the True Lamb cancels the second death of Hell.

This is clarification. Jesus is helping them to “connect the dots” between what they have known and this startling new reality: that He has overcome torture and death. It is really He, though as the resurrection accounts indicate, He is transformed. He has not merely taken up His former life; He has elevated it to a new and mysterious level. He has a humanity that is not only risen from the dead, but is glorified. His Lordship and glory shows through as never before. He can appear and disappear at will and is able, it would seem, to alter his appearance.

So here is a truth to which we must journey: Jesus is not a mere Rabbi or ethical teacher from the ancient world; He is the Lord. He is our brother and yet also our Lord. He raised our humanity from the dead but glorified it as well. He lives at a new level, and we who are baptized into His death also rise with Him to a new and higher life (Rom 6:4). Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17).

In our journey to what is new, the Lord does not destroy what is behind, what He has done. He takes it up, fulfills it, and elevates it. His truth builds, and while what is new challenges us, it does not destroy or cancel our reason or what we have already come to know as true (if in fact it was true).

It is for us to cooperate with His grace and personally lay hold of the truth declared by the Church. The Lord does this in a way that respects our intellect and our sense of the faith. In this way our conflicts are gradually overcome. Our faith is deepened and though communal, also becomes more personal. Now we are ready to become witnesses to the Church’s unchanging declaration, “The Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” and to every other teaching that flows from this.

IV. Commissioning of the Resurrection – And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

What is a witness? Well, it is not someone who merely repeats what others have seen and heard; it is one who testifies to what he himself has seen and heard. The apostles, having contacted personally the certain truth of the resurrection proclaimed by the Church and having had it clarified for them, are now ready to go forth as witnesses. Bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, and parents must move beyond merely repeating formulas, precious and necessary thought they are (please, do not go out and invent your own religion!). That Jesus is risen from the dead is certain and true because the Church solemnly proclaims it: “He is risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

Next must come that moment when we allow the Lord to stand before us and affirm what He proclaims through the Church. Having this contact, we must allow Him to clarify it and then commission us to go forth as His witnesses. As witnesses, we can and must say, “The Church says that He is risen. The Scriptures say that He is risen. And I say to you that He is risen.” You are witnesses of these things.

Are you?

The Biblical Roots of the Assumption of Mary

While the actual event of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is not recorded in the Scriptures, there is a biblical basis for the teaching that, considered as a whole, confirms Catholic teaching as both fitting and in keeping with biblical principles. Let’s ponder this feast in stages:

The Assumption Explained To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into Heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into Heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to Heaven, as is the case with the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation); rather, Mary was taken up, soul and body, after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body, neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today, Mary was taken up, body and soul, into Heaven.

The Assumption Exemplified – While Mary’s Assumption is not described in Scripture, several other “assumptions” are; thus the concept itself has a biblical basis. The actual event of the Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are “assumptions” recorded in the Scriptures and thus the concept is biblical.

EnochEnoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God (Hebrews 11:5).

ElijahAnd as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven … And he was seen no more (2 Kings 2:11).

Moses – Some say that because the location of Moses’ grave is not known, he too was taken up into Heaven. We read in Monday’s first reading at daily Mass: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say that his body was taken up, and if it was, it occurred after death and burial. The Book of Jude hints at this: But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses … (Jude 1:9). Some further credibility is lent to the view of Moses being assumed by the fact that he appears with Elijah in the account of the Transfiguration. Some of the Church Fathers also held this opinion. Further, there is a Jewish work from the 6th century A.D. entitled The Assumption of Moses. In the end, though, the assumption of Moses is not officially held by the Church.

The Assumption Evidenced (John Sees Mary in Heaven) There is one other scriptural account that may provide evidence of Mary’s whereabouts. Today’s second reading, a passage from the Book of Revelation, features John’s description of his sighting of the ark of God:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads …. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev 11:19 – 12:5).

The woman in the passage is clearly Mary, since the child is obviously Jesus (although she also likely represents Israel and Mother Zion). And where is Mary seen? In Heaven. Some argue that this does not necessarily indicate that her body is in Heaven; they say that it might be referring only to her soul. However, the physical description of her seems rather strong to support such a view.

Others believe that because John mentions the ark and then continues on to describe Mary (the woman clothed with the son), that he is in fact still describing the ark. (I have written on this elsewhere: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant.) If Mary is the ark described, then she is clearly in Heaven.

So, the Bible, while not specifically recording Mary’s Assumption, does present other assumptions, thus showing it to be a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in Heaven seems at least hinted at, if not directly described, in the Book of Revelation.

The Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case, what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition; the memory of Mary’s Assumption goes back as far as we can remember.

The Assumption Extended to Us The Feast of the Assumption is of theological interest and provides matter for biblical reflection, but eventually these questions are bound to arise: So what? How does what happened to Mary affect my life? What does it mean for me? The answers are bound up in nearly every Marian doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary will also happen to us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into the world, we bear Him in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of His indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless (immaculate), so too will we one day be sinless with God in Heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in His need, so do we care for Him in the poor, suffering, needy, and afflicted. Finally, as Mary was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven, so too will we be there one day, body and soul.

After our death and subsequent purification, our soul goes to Heaven; our body, though, lies in an earthly tomb. But one day, when the trumpet shall sound, our body will rise and be joined to our soul.

For we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … Thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:51-57).

So our bodies shall rise; they shall be assumed and joined to our soul.

Improved model! An older woman once said to me, upon hearing that her body would rise, “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes, indeed; me too! I want a full head of hair, a slim build, and knees that work! I want an upgrade from this old, general issue model to a luxury edition. In fact, God will do that. Scripture says,

  • He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body (Phil 3:21).
  • But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body …. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power …. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor 15:35-49).
  • I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another’s (Job 19:25-27).

The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in His own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift too.

The following song is an African-American spiritual and describes that “great gettin’ up morning” when our bodies will rise. If we have been faithful, our bodies will rise to glory!

I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgement (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming …. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted …. Blow your trumpet Gabriel …. Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people …. Tell them to come to the judgement …. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.

Picture this! A Reminder about Evangelization in a Commercial

evangelization

evangelizationThe commercial below reminds us of an important insight for evangelization. It features a barber shop where business is slow. Things pick up quickly, however, when they begin to post photos of recent customers sporting their new haircuts. The pictures showcase the good results of a haircut and bring “getting a haircut” from the world of abstraction, ideas, and possibilities, into the world of visual reality. In effect, they’re saying, “Here is what happens when you come to our shop!”

For us who would evangelize, it is not enough to present teachings and ideas. We must provide a real picture of salvation in Christ to others. Even if through our words we can get people to acknowledge that the Lord has saved them and can transform them, they might still respond, “Well that sounds good, but how do I know it’s true?” And that is when we have to be able to say, “Just look at me!”

In other words, having an evangelization committee, displaying a rack of pamphlets, or offering a class is not enough. We have to be witnesses of what the Lord has done for us and showcase what He can still do for others. We must be able to say, “Picture this!”

The Evangelical Quality of Joy, As Seen in an Animated Short Film

joyAll of us have wounds and imperfections. Some of us make do, even living joyfully in spite of them. Others of us brood or withdraw.

An old saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln goes, “Most folks are about as happy as they decide to be.”

An old Stephen Foster classic, “Some Folks,” goes as follows:

Some folks like to sigh,
Some folks do, some folks do;
Others long to die,
But that’s not me nor you.

Chorus:    

Long live the merry, merry heart
That laughs by night and day
Like the Queen of Mirth,
No matter what some folks say.

Some folks get gray hairs
Some folks do, some folks do;
Brooding o’er their cares
But that’s not me nor you.

Yes, happiness is an inside job. We tend to think it depends on externals, but usually it doesn’t.

Consider the video below. A young boy is injured but in a way that is only revealed near the end. He appears withdrawn and almost coldly cruel.

Enter a dog, who is also injured. And yet the dog is indomitable, joyful, and engaging despite his injury. He almost seems unaware of it. The dog is persistently joyful, eventually winning the young boy over with his exuberance.

What about us? Are we joyful Christians? Are we indomitable in the face of trials? Or are we bitter, withdrawn, joyless, and cynical?

Just remember that joy has a way of winning souls. Decide to be happy in Christ.