Rare Jewel: Earth-Like Planets May Be Very Rare

As we conclude our mini-series on the Genesis accounts of creation and the fall, I would like to ponder God’s magnificent work. We are not here by accident; God has carefully arranged things so that we can exist and flourish. In this regard, I have written a good bit over the years about what is known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis.” Let’s review some of the basics of this hypothesis.

While most people, including most scientists, believe that there may be billions of inhabitable planets capable of sustaining complex life, the Rare Earth Hypothesis suggests that such a large number is overstated.

This is because there are not just a few things that come together to support life here on Earth—there are many. Here are some:

  1. Earth is at just the right distance from the Sun so that water is warm enough to melt, but not so hot as to boil and steam away into space. Water is also able, in this habitable zone (the so-called “Goldilocks” region), to both evaporate and condense at lower levels in the atmosphere, thus permitting a more even distribution of water, and the cycle of water over dry land known as precipitation.
  2. For suns to spawn Earth-like planets they must have sufficient “metallicity,” which is necessary for the formation of terrestrials rather than gaseous planets.
  3. Earth is in a “habitable zone” within the galaxy as well. Closer to the center of galaxies, radiation and the presence of wandering planetoids make life there unlikely.
  4. Earth exists in a disk-shaped spiral galaxy (the Milky Way) rather than in an elliptical (spheroid) galaxy. Spiral galaxies are thought to be the only type capable of supporting life.
  5. Earth’s orbit around the sun is an almost perfect circle rather than the more common “eccentric” (elongated) ellipse. Steep elliptical orbits take a planet relatively close to and then relatively far from the sun, with great consequences for warmth and light. Earth’s stable, nearly circular orbit around the sun keeps our distance from it relatively constant, and hence the amount heat and light does not vary tremendously.
  6. Two nearby “gas giants” (Jupiter and Saturn) attract and catch many wandering asteroids and comets and generally keep them from hitting Earth. The asteroid belts also keep a lot of flying rock in a stable orbit and away from us.
  7. Our molten core creates a magnetic field that holds the Van Allen radiation belts in place. These belts protect Earth from the most harmful rays of the sun.
  8. Earth’s volcanism plays a role in generating our atmosphere and in cycling rich minerals widely.
  9. Our sun is just the right kind of star, putting out a fairly steady amount of energy. Other types of stars are more variable in their output and this variance can utterly destroy life or cause it to be unsustainable due to the extremes caused.
  10. Earth’s fairly rapid rotation reduces the daily variation in temperature. It also makes photosynthesis viable because there is enough sunlight all over the planet.
  11. Earth’s axis is tilted just enough relative to its orbital plane to allow seasonal variations that help complex life but not so tilted as to make those variations too extreme.
  12. Our moon also has a good effect by causing tides that are just strong enough to permit tidal zones (a great breeding ground for diverse life) but not so severe as to destroy life by extreme tides.

There are many more items on the list (see the first video below), but allow these to suffice. The conditions that come together on this planet such that it is capable of sustaining complex life are complicated, remarkable, and some argue rare in the universe. The ability to support life here is the balance of many fascinating things. We cannot but be amazed at the complexity of life and the intricacies required for it to flourish here. It would appear that for complex life to be sustained, many factors must come together in just the right way. The sheer number of these factors sharply decreases the number of possible Earth-like planets, despite the billions of galaxies and stars.

All this background information leads us to a blog at discovermagazine.com: Earth-is-a-1-in-700 quintillion kind of place. (700 quintillion is 7 followed by 20 zeros!) The blog references a study by Astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Here are some excerpts:

Zackrisson’s work suggests an alternative to the commonly held assumption that planets similar to Earth must exist, based on the sheer number of planets out there …. Current estimates hold that there are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe containing about 10^18th stars, or a billion trillion …. Probability seems to dictate that Earth-twins are out there somewhere.

But according to Zackrisson … Earth’s existence presents a mild statistical anomaly in the multiplicity of planets …. Most of the worlds predicted … orbit stars with different compositions—an important factor in determining a planet’s characteristics. His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist …. Researchers are confident in the broader implications of their model: Earth is more than your garden-variety planet.

I write on this topic more in wonder and awe than anything else. Our faith does not require that we believe ourselves alone in the universe. God can, and even might have, created intelligent beings on other planets, beings with whom He interacts and whom He loves.

Neither should we too quickly assume that Earth is not a rare jewel. Statistically, it would seem that we and Earth are rare jewels. Humble amazement at all that it takes to sustain life on our planet is a proper stance at this stage of the evidence. The more we learn, the more it seems that the convergence of all the factors we enjoy on Earth is rare rather than commonplace. Consider well all that God and nature—sustained by God—have done so that you and I can exist. Be amazed; be very amazed!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Rare Jewel: Earth-like Planets May Be Very Rare

Does God Approve the Abuse of Women?

One of the darker passages in Scripture comes just after the fall of Adam and Eve. Announcing the consequences that they have ushered in, God says to Eve,

I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children; yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master (Gen 3:16).

The Hebrew word מָשַׁל (mashal) means “to have dominion, reign, or ruling power over another.” The New Jerusalem Bible (the most widely used Catholic Bible outside the U.S.) translates this final phrase this way: and he will dominate you.

While the text is not absolutely clear, the mastery or dominance spoken of in Genesis does not seem to refer to benign headship by the husband, but rather a relationship marked by tension and easily open to abuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains the following commentary on this topic:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination (CCC # 400).

Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character (CCC # 1606).

According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust … Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them (CCC #1607-1608).

In calling Genesis 3:16 a dark passage I merely call to attention to the concern of some that God seems to approve of this domination, that abuse and exploitation by men is meant to be women’s lot, by God’s will.

I do not agree with this interpretation; not everything reported or described in the Bible is approved. Eve’s experience is the result of Original Sin and the poisonous climate it introduced. While God reports the effect and even connects himself to it by way of primary causality, He spends the rest of Scripture addressing and healing the sin and its effects.

Thus, the thought that this passage gives even tacit approval to the abuse of women cannot stand. Some in the past may have invoked it to excuse abusive behavior, and most of the criticism of the passage is based on the possibility of such a misinterpretation.

That said, I have seen the passage strangely and sadly fulfilled in a small number of women I have counseled who suffer from physical and/or emotional abuse by husbands or boyfriends yet remain with them or repeatedly return to them. In this, there is a kind of fulfillment of the text that a woman’s desire will be for her man, but he will (abusively) dominate her. (There are, of course, many other potential factors such as low self-esteem, poor family role models, and financial pressures.)

There is a fine line between passion and anger, between a man who is a virile go-getter and one who turns on a dime to rage and abuse. Powerful men are attractive to some women, but some powerful men are also overly aggressive and hot-tempered. Their strength and their struggle are closely related. Many women know this intuitively, even if they have not consciously worked it all out. What they like in their man is closely related to what they hate and/or suffer from.

So, I am not so sure that every woman who returns to an abuser is simply lacking in self- esteem or is trapped in some way. Some return knowing exactly what they are doing, despite counsel to the contrary; their reasons are caught up in the complicated intersections described above.

I am not reporting this behavior with approval. I am simply observing it and trying to understand it. Like most of you, I would counsel a woman who is being physically abused to stay away unless and until the man has received help to ensure an end to his sinful behavior. Some women in such situations do not, however, and I cannot merely write them off as foolish for it.

Let us be clear: whatever the choice of the woman, to remain or to leave, the one who abuses is guilty of a great sin that the Scriptures cannot interpreted as approving in any way whatsoever.

All of this reminds me of a popular but dark song from 1978, when I was in high school: Jackson Browne’s “You Love the Thunder.” My interpretation of the lyrics is that the man singing is telling the woman that she likes his anger (thunder) and abuse (rain) because they’re worth it given what else he brings.

I remember being quite alarmed by the words and troubled that no one else seemed bothered. (I was and still am very attuned to lyrics, but most of my high school peers never seemed to pay much attention to them; they just liked the melodies.) The lyrics seem at best arrogant and at worst a celebration of anger and abuse.

Consider the darkness of these lyrics:

You love the thunder and you love the rain
What you see revealed within the anger is worth the pain
And before the lightning fades and you surrender
You’ve got a second to look at the dark side of the man

You love the thunder, you love the rain
You know your hunger, like you know your name
I know you wonder how you ever came
To be a woman in love with a man in search of the flame

Draw the shades and light the fire
For the night, it holds you and it calls your name
And just like your lover knows your desire
And the crazy longing that time will never tame …

These lyrics point to those sad words of Genesis: “… your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master,” but the song points to a Genesis 3:16 that is frozen in time, having made no progress out of the climate of sin. Jesus came to heal that and to restore God’s original plan for marriage in which a man clings to his wife in love and out of delight says, “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Loving the “thunder” and “rain” is not the way forward but the way backward.

So, no, God does not approve or affirm the abuse of women—or of men, for that matter. God points to it and then sets about healing it.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Does God Approve the Abuse of Women?

Let God Find You – As Seen in a Touching Christmas Commercial

It may seem odd to say, “Let God find you.” After all, God knows just where we are. But there is something very respectful about a God who, as Jesus says in the Book of Revelation, stands at the door and knocks.

Even back in the Garden of Eden, as sinful Adam and Eve hid, God walked through the garden and called, “Where are you?”

Yes, God waits until we let him find us, until we open the door of our heart where he knocks, or until we decide to come out of hiding.

But God does knock. He sends us prophets and speaks through creation and His Word to establish a connection with us. He seeks a connection. Let God find you. Open the gift of His offer.

Something of this dynamic occurred to me while watching the John Lewis Christmas commercial below. And while the roles seem reversed, the dynamic is the same. A little girl spies a lonely man on the moon and seeks to get his attention, to connect with him somehow. But the man seems lost in his loneliness. Through perseverance, she reaches him and the connection is opened.

Let God find you. Let Him connect with you this Christmas.

What Is the “Dark Energy” That Scientists Seek to Measure and Define?

In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was not static but was in fact expanding outward from some point of singularity. At first his fellow scientists ridiculed his theory, labeling it with the term “the big bang.” Even as late as the 1960s I remember being taught in school that the universe was eternal and fixed. That “settled science” has since given way to the current view that the universe is expanding outward—quite rapidly, in fact.

There is more, however: a mysterious factor called “dark energy” complicates things. If we think of the analogy of an exploding Fourth of July firework, we observe that its rapid outward expansion decelerates as the force of gravity slows and then finally halts its outward motion. Similarly, as our universe expands outward we would expect to see some slowing in the rate of its outward expansion as stars and galaxies exert their gravitational forces. However, measurements indicate that expansion is not slowing down; it’s speeding up. Many scientists attribute this to “dark energy.” It is called “dark” because it is poorly understood. Its effects can be observed, but what “it” is remains a “dark” or mysterious reality.

Hmm, the universe is speeding up as it expands. This is rather counterintuitive!

So, what is this dark energy that causes the universe to expand ever more rapidly?

I would like to propose an answer not from the physical sciences but from the realm of theology, speculative theology at that. As such, my answer does not dwell on material or efficient causality but rather on formal and final causality. (Material causality focuses on what is changed; efficient causality focuses on the way something is changed. Formal causality focuses on the active agent that causes the change; final causality focuses on the reason that this agent of change acts.)

The answer is love. God, who is love, created all things in love by the powerful effect of His love and Word diffusing outward. Love does not diminish but intensifies and multiplies as it is shared. Love is effusive of itself. It seeks to share and multiply. Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply in marital love. Yes, love expands and intensifies if it is offered and received generously.

In a finite world, we tend to think of everything in it as part of a zero-sum game. So, if I take something, there is less of it for you. Love is not that way. Hugs multiply when shared. A small act of kindness can have great effect, far beyond its initial limited scope. Knowledge is this way, too. We think that if we learn one thing, then the number of things to learn decreases; in fact, the questions simply multiply and grow more urgent.

As a picture of love, consider the Easter Vigil. From one small flame atop the Easter candle every other candle held by the faithful in the church is lit and shared, and yet the flame of the Easter candle is in no way diminished or dimmed. It is “a flame divided but undimmed.” As that light goes outward, the church brightens more rapidly as the light is shared by more and more people in the congregation. Yes, the speed at which the light (Christ) goes out increases as it is shared by more and more. This is a small picture of our universe.

This is why the universe expands more rapidly as it goes outward: Love, God’s love!

Please understand the humility and lightheartedness with which I offer this explanation. I speak as a “theologian” and look to formal and final causalities. I am under no illusion that the physical sciences can accept my answer; they deal primarily in material and efficient causality and must stay within those limits and work with those premises. Theology, however, based on revelation, can enter into formal and final causality.

To you who believe I have this message: Do not ever forget that everything you see in the abundance of the universe and in its astonishing size and speed is rooted in a creative act of love by God, who is love. You are not simply walking around in a machine; you are walking about in an act of love that is sustained by love.

Yes, love, that is the answer!

C=JL² This is the Metaphysical Math and Source of All Creation; It is the Grand Unified Theory

082814In my years as a priest, I have often had people ask me why God, who we say needs nothing and is fully content and joyful in Himself, created anything outside Himself. Does His act of creation indicate that He lacked something or that He needed others?

This is difficult for us humans to understand. To some degree that difficulty arises from us, who are often motivated most by need. We tend to project our own realities onto God. But need and incompleteness are not the only things that motivate.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas has a beautiful reflection on how and why God willed to create things outside Himself:

For natural things have a natural inclination not only towards their own proper good, to acquire it if not possessed, and, if possessed, to rest therein; but also to spread abroad their own good amongst others, so far as possible … to communicate as far as possible to others the good possessed; and especially does this pertain to the divine will, from which all perfection is derived in some kind of likeness. Hence, if natural things, in so far as they are perfect, communicate their good to others, much more does it appertain to the divine will to communicate by likeness its own good to others as much as possible … (Summa Ia, q.19, art 2).

As I read St Thomas I think of examples. For example a tree spreads it pollen for the sake of other trees and future trees. Flowers do the same and interact with bees and other insects. Elements interact with other elements to become compounds. Compounds become chemicals and so forth. An atom alone is very limited. Joined to other atoms, it can become a mighty structure. All this echoes something of the God who made it.

To be sure, it is true that God is able to savor the good that He is and to rest in it, to enjoy it fully. God can find complete satisfaction in the perfection of His own being, of His own glory.

But, as St. Thomas points out, even in us who are imperfect creatures, there is an aspect of our love and joy that wants to be effusive and diffusive, to radiate outward. It is not so much that love and joy are lacking something, but rather just the opposite—they overflow to others from us quite naturally. We do not share joy and love because we have to, but because we want to, and because they naturally shine forth.

When one is joyful, it is hard to hide it. Joy shows; it is effusive; it shines forth and naturally reaches others who will notice it and then immediately ask, “What are you smiling about? Why are you so happy?” Yes, those who are filled with joy and the experience of love seek naturally to share that with others. Someone who has heard good news or has experienced something wonderful can barely contain himself and immediately seeks to share it.

It is the same with love, though in more diverse and sometimes subtle ways. Love radiates; it motivates; it moves out and shines forth. Again, not because love is lacking, but more simply because that is what love does. It moves outward and bears fruit.

And so it is with God, who is Love. His love is not lacking something, but, as love, He radiates. He shines forth; He bears fruit. He delights in sharing. And He, whose nature is ‘to be’ who is existence itself, allows his love to radiate outward in a creation distinct from Him but proclaiming of his love and joy.

Behold! All creation is a shining forth God’s love and joy. See its immense size, its awesome diversity and fruitfulness—and then understand why the universe is expanding outward at such a rapid rate!

Scientists are looking for some grand unified theory, one simple principle or formula that explains everything. In a word, it is love. It is God, who is Love, and His joy rushing and radiating outward, bearing fruit and saying, “Come, share my joy!” People, and especially scientists, like formulas, so how about this one?

C=JL²

That is, Creation equals Joy times Love squared. Love, of course, is the constant; it is ever-abiding and never withheld. And yet it is mysteriously expanding outward. Why is love squared? I don’t know, but it makes the formula memorable! At the end of the day, God’s love is infinite. So then what is the square of infinity? Anyway it’s very big and it’s a constant.

Is God lacking something? No. Then why does He create? Because that’s what love does. But why then will it all end as Scripture says it will? It will not end in annihilation; it will “end” in a perfection that, though different, will be the fulfillment of all that is. Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself (cf Col 1:17), says at the end, “Behold I make all things new!” (Rev 21:5) And then will be fulfilled what St. Augustine said of what shall finally be for us and the Lord: Unus Chritus, amans seipsum (One Christ, loving Himself).

We are living in the love of God; yes, even those who reject it are living in His love.

The Story of Hosea and What It Teaches About God and Holy Matrimony

HoseaWe are currently reading from the Book of the Prophet Hosea at daily Mass. The story of the Prophet Hosea’s troubled marriage is a powerful testimony to two things: our own tendency to be unfaithful to God, but also of God’s passionate love for us. We do well to recall the story, especially given the “great debate” among some in the Church today over the question of divorce and remarriage. And while there are many painful stories of what some have had to endure in difficult marriages, remember that God is in a very painful marriage with His people—yes, very painful! God knows the pain of a difficult marriage and a difficult spouse. The story of Hosea depicts some of God’s grief and what He chooses to do about it.

The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy; we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some “fill in”:

  1. Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2).
  1. Together they have three children, each with a symbolic name: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers, for although they are born during the marriage, God later refers to them as children of harlotry.
  1. At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Gomer leaves Hosea for another lover and enters into an adulterous relationship. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea’s reaction, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well-documented.
  1. Hosea takes her back. After an unspecified period of time, God instructs Hosea, Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1). Now while the quoted text does not clearly specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back, Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
  1. Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase Gomer back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley (Hosea 3:2). The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and of all false lovers is not real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
  1. Prior to restoring her to any intimacy, a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you” (Hosea 3:3).

This story is both difficult and beautiful. Its purpose, as you likely know, is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. Its truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of the Lord, who has a bride—a people—who are unfaithful to Him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and we renewed them on many other occasions.

But all too often we casually “sleep with” other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies, or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God; others keep two or more beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.

And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride—and at quite a cost: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid dearly to draw us back to Him. And yet still we stray and often show little appreciation of His love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”

A deeper look into the story of Hosea reveals a view into the grieving heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as grieving, angry, and weighing out His options; but it also shows Him as loving and almost romantic. On one level, we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. Although God is said to be like this, He is not angry the way we are angry. He does not grieve the way we do; He is not romantic the way we are. Although we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor, we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieving, angry, loving, and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how He experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe Himself to us.

With this balanced caution, let’s take a look at excerpts from the second chapter of Hosea, in which God decodes the story of Hosea and applies it to us. He describes to us His grieving heart as well as His plan of action to win back His lover and bride.

  1. Thoughts of Divorce! Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. The text suggests that God is weighing His options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us readers, so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But as we will see, He will not do that. For although we break the covenant, He will not. Though we are unfaithful, God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
  1. The bitter charge against herLet her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts … “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank Him. We run after the world and after the powerful, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. They do not—it is God who does so. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We “sleep with” the world. We give credit to medicine, science, and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry, for we are enamored of secondary causes and not of God, who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda, and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is distressed by our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover. Is God a wounded and jealous lover? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is neither hurt nor angered by the way we are. And yet we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that although He is not passionate as we are, neither is He indifferent to our infidelity.
  1. Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. … I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers. … I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities. … I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense. … If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them. This text could be seen as describing God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God; we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
  1. The hoped-for resultThen she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” God’s intent was to bring His bride back to sanity, to bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever loved her and who can save her.
  1. Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked. See how God wants to get alone with His bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again His love for her in a kind of Marriage Encounter She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that when we die we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world: creature comforts, power, pride, misplaced priorities, and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart, and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this He restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
  1. Renewed CovenantI will make a covenant for them on that day. … I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. … and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!

Here, then, is the astonishing, undying, and pursuing love of God for His bride, the Church, and for each of us individually. After all our whoring and infidelity, we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As He commanded Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, God did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment He rendered was an indication of the high sacrifice He had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and He had to journey far and then carry us back.

I am not here to render a personal judgment on those who have struggled to save a marriage but were unable to do so. Rather, my purpose is to reach those who are currently struggling, striving to persevere, so that you realize that God knows your pain—he too experiences it from us, time and time again. Yet each day He renews His covenant with us and offers us mercy. If it helps to realize that God knows your pain, please understand that He does. In the words of the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

Where is the Dwelling of God?

The following old Hasidic story was related by the late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

“Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

Indeed, there is only one place in all of creation where God will not go without permission; that place is our own heart. Jesus says,

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20).

Yes, God knocks. He does not barge in. He is not rude or overwhelming; He knocks.

God fills all creation with His glory, but our heart has such an influence that if we do not admit Him there, we may well miss His presence elsewhere, including creation. Today there are some who deny God’s glory, which is so clearly manifest in creation. “No,” they say, “it’s all the result of random mutation, blind evolution. There’s nothing to see here, no one to see.”

If God is refused entry to our heart, our minds easily fall into vain reasoning. Of this St. Paul writes,

For what may be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and senseless hearts were darkened (Romans 1:19-21).

To those who admit God into their heart, who open the door, His glory is seen everywhere.

The spacious firmament on High
With all the blue, ethereal sky!
And spangled heavens a shining frame;
Their great original proclaim!

Another song says,

O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain
.

If we admit God into our heart, suddenly the world lights up with His glory. We become “mystics on the move.” The world is full of God’s glory, and reason alone can conclude the existence of a creator from observing the book of creation, but if we open the door of our heart to God we are struck with wonder and awe, and we see the glory of the Lord as never before and in an ever-deepening way.

Look up to the stars. There is more there than just suns, planets, galaxies, and the vacuum of space. There is a revelation of God’s glory and love, a revelation of God Himself in His handiwork. Consider the stars and planets; learn their proclamation:

Though they in solemn silence all
move round our dark terrestrial ball;
And though nor real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
forever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine!’

Does the Lord dwell in your heart? He will only dwell there to the degree you allow Him.

Let Him in and watch creation light up as never before. Yes, the world is full of God’s glory—do you see it?

The Enduring Love of God – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

The readings from Sunday Mass speak to us of our desperate condition and how God’s abiding love has not only set us free but has lifted us higher as well. God was not content to restore us to some earthly garden, paradise though it was. No, He so loved the world that He sent His Son, who opened Heaven itself for us and has given us a new, transformed, and eternal life.

Let’s look at some of the themes and ponder how God demonstrates His ardent love for us and persistently works to lift us higher. If there are any problems, they are not from God; they are from us.

I. ProblemsIn those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple.

Here we see our repeated infidelity, worldliness, and impurity. It is not as though we have had just a few bad moments; we have been consistently, persistently sinful. The cup of human wickedness never seems drained. This is what God has been dealing with in the long and often sad tale of human history.

Are there good chapters? Certainly, but any honest look at human history will reveal that there is something deeply flawed in human nature. We are living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Thrice fallen! This is what God is dealing with. Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

II. ProphetsEarly and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

God’s first attempt is to call us through the prophets and through His Word. Like any loving Father, He does not seek merely to punish, but to instruct. Perhaps we will hear and mend our ways.

Have we? Is the presence of God’s Word among us a saving remedy? Again, the answer is mixed, but in general, we have responded poorly.

To some extent Jesus’ call to love has led to greater healing in this world. The light of faith, which once informed the Western world, gave rise to, love for the poor, respect for human dignity, hospitals, the university system, and the scientific method. The barbarians of ancient Europe were given faith, and many of them found unity in the bosom of the Church, in more stable governments, and in respect for just law.

Unfortunately, too much of human history, even in the Christian era, has been marked by violence, war, lack of forgiveness, injustice, unchastity, and a lack of commitment to the truth of the Gospel.

Yet God continues to send His prophets in and through the Church. Can the world really say that St. John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI have not been prophets? How about Saint Teresa of Calcutta, St. Padre Pio, Venerable Fulton Sheen, C.S. Lewis, and countless others?

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

III. PunishmentsTheir enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.

Punishment is not God’s way of venting anger; He does not seek vengeance.

The purpose of punishment is to allow us to experience the effects of our sins in smaller ways so that something worse does not befall us. Thus the ancient Babylonians afflicted Israel, and God punished and purified His people.

God may well permit great suffering to come upon us, not to vent His anger but rather to summon us to repentance, lest something worse befall us, namely the eternal fires of Hell.

We humans are a difficult case. With the decline of the West one would think we’d have come to our senses by now. Our families are ruined, our birthrates have plummeted, our educational system is in steep decline, our economies are out of control, we have debts we cannot pay, and we seem incapable of chastity or of making commitments and keeping them. Yet we stubbornly persist in our path away from God and His gospel of truth and freedom.

Will we come to our senses or will we vanish like empires before us? That remains to be seen, but the Church will persist; though punished and pruned, she will endure.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

IV. PurposeAll this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”

Sin causes damage and that damage must be repaired. We must understand that sin is not just the breaking of abstract rules; it causes real harm.

The Christian term “reparation” refers to the repair that must be made for the damage caused by sin. The verse in today’s reading talks about healing the breach caused by sin.

While God never withholds His love, He must journey out onto the wayward paths we have taken in order to lead us back. This is a work of God’s, not just a wave of His hand, not just a legal declaration.

We have done more than disobey a legal precept; we have strayed far away and a journey of reparation must be made. The Lord Himself will shepherd us back!

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

V. Persevering – (from the Sunday Gospel) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Thus is fulfilled the great and passionate love God has for us. His own Son comes and finds us in all our wayward places and leads us back.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.us.

VI. Promotion – (from the Epistle) God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ—for by grace you have been saved—raised us up with him.

Thus is our redeemed state even greater than our original justice. We have been raised up with Christ. Grace has brought us higher than we ever were before.

Now no mere earthly garden is granted, but Heaven itself.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

VII. Peril – (from the Gospel reading) – Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Many who love to quote John 3:16 (God so loved the world …) stop before getting to the lines above. Yet they are critically important to the overall passage because they remind us that we must welcome the saving love of God.

God has done everything to help us and to summon us to Him, but He does not force the deal. He stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20). He does not barge in; we must open ourselves to Him.

But some do not open! Why? Because they prefer the darkness to the Light. To them, the Light is harsh and convicting. It exposes their deeds for what they are: wicked, sinful, and unjust. Pride and obstinacy keep many from answering God’s call. They reject the saving love He offers and the many ways He has reached out to them.

Here, then, is the peril of human free will. God offers, but some reject Him, preferring sin and darkness. God permits this rejection because He wants our love to be offered freely. Love cannot be forced; it must be given freely. God wants to save us and lift us higher. The peril is that many prefer wickedness, darkness, and earthly pleasures. They would prefer to “reign” (they will not) in Hell rather than serve in Heaven. The peril comes from us, form our obtuse hearts. It is not from God.

For those of us who do open ourselves to Him, God’s love is ready to lift us higher. He offers us eternal life, the fullness of a life that grows richer every year until it opens to one so full and beautiful that eye has not seen nor has ear heard of the glories waiting for us (cf 1 Cor 2:9). Praise God! Rejoice!

I know that this song isn’t religious, but transpose it to a higher key, the way the Song of Songs does the Bible. Consider these lyrics as referring to the Lord and how His love satisfies all of our desires and lifts us higher:

Your love, is liftin’ me higher
Than I’ve ever been lifted before
So keep it up, quench my desire
And I’ll be at your side forevermore.

Now once I was downhearted
Disappointment was my closest friend
But then you came and he soon departed
And you know he never showed his face again
That’s why your love is liftin’ me, higher, and higher …

I’m so glad I finally found you
Yes, that one in a million
And with your loving arms around me
I can stand up and face the world.