On Fascination and Fear before God

Balanced spiritualties seek to find a middle ground between fascination and holy fear, a kind of reverent bowing before the Holy One Who draws me close. We saw it in yesterday’s reading in which Moses was fascinated by the burning bush and went nearer to investigate it. He was cautioned to revere this mystery:

An angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight and see why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:2-6).

In Latin the words fascinosum and tremendum were often used to evoke this needed balance between attraction and holy fear:

Fascinosum is the source of the word “fascinating.” It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, piques my interest; it is something that strongly attracts and is deeply satisfying.

Tremendum is the source of the word “tremendous.” It refers to something awesome, too big to comprehend or grasp. In response, we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with bewilderment. We feel small before the tremendous.

The human person before God is drawn by His inexorable beauty yet compelled to fall prostrate before His awesome majesty. Scripture speaks of this experience in many places. Here are but a few:

I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook, and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me. I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Isaiah 6:1-5).

And Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:1-6).

I [John] saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives” (Rev 1:15-17).

Note the pattern of these theophanies: They are drawn by God and behold His beauty (fascinosum), and yet they instinctively fall prostrate and need to be reassured by Him (tremendum).

It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31). The most interesting passage to me is the third one, involving John the Beloved. This is the same John who, at the Last Supper, felt perfectly comfortable leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder and asking Him a question. Yet now as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, John falls prostrate before Him. The Lord’s glory is fully unveiled here, and John, who appreciates the beauty and describes it to us, is ultimately compelled to fall down.

We are living in an era in which God has been trivialized in many ways. Perhaps it was an overcorrection to a more severe time when any misstep could result in a quick trip to Hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Fear was a strong motivator for many people in those days.

By the 1970s the common feeling was that God didn’t seem to care what we did; His main purpose seemed to be to affirm us. As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to be replaced by a kind of “Mr. Rogers” or “Buddy Jesus” who just went around saying nice things. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded primacy in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgment and the possibility of Hell, and spoke with such authority that even the guards sent to arrest Him came back empty handed saying “No one has ever spoken like that man”—this Jesus was nowhere to be found.

We need a return to the balance of fascinosum and tremendum. We all sense a deep desire for God. We are drawn to Him in all His beauty and glory, but we are mere creatures and it is appropriate for us to have a reverential fear of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It may well be that God will reassure us, but our instinct to tremendum is a proper and biblical one. The biblical saints knew both fascinosum and tremendum, and they show us what a true encounter with God includes.

This does not mean that our liturgies need be somber, for reverence and joy can occupy the same heart. In the end, it is God whom we worship, and falling to our knees is wholly fitting. Seeking the necessary purification and striving for the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14) is appropriate. I wish you plenty of fascinosum and equal doses of tremendum!

May fascinosum and tremendum be yours!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Fascination and Fear before God

A New Translation of Mark’s Gospel

A new translation of Mark’s Gospel was published recently that I find very appealing: The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark, by Michael Pakaluk.

As the title acknowledges, most scholars consider Mark’s Gospel to be that of Simon Peter. Tradition says that Mark was Peter’s secretary or scribe, and the recollections he recorded are really those of Peter.

One of the things that make Mark’s Gospel unique is its sense of immediacy. Part of this is due to his frequent use of the word “immediately” (eutheos in Greek)—more than forty times in what is the shortest of the four Gospels. Here are just a few examples:

    • And immediately the Spirit drove [Jesus] into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).
    • And when He had gone a little further, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets, and immediately He called them (Mk 1:19-20).
    • And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath day He entered into the synagogue and taught (Mark 1:21).

Another aspect of the Gospel of Mark contributing to its vibrancy and sense of immediacy is Mark’s tendency to render things in the present tense. Here is how Michael Pakaluk describes it:

Mark varies his verb tenses in apparently unpredictable ways. Sometimes he uses the present tense, sometimes the imperfect, sometimes the “aorist.” Most translations solve the problem by throwing everything into the past tense. And yet this removes the vividness that Mark’s frequent use of the historic present conveys. But when one approaches the text as originally a spoken narrative, one can generally retain Mark’s tense changes …. Someone speaking from memory … will change tenses to keep the hearer’s attention, but mainly because, as he is speaking “from memory,” he finds it easy to revert to the viewpoint of what it was like to be there (Introduction 24-25).

That is one of the things that make this new translation so interesting and refreshing. It puts the reader right into the scene, watching the action unfold. Consider Pakaluk’s translation of the  beginning of Mark Chapter 3:

He entered the synagogue again. A man with a withered hand was there. They were watching him intently, to see if he would heal the man on the Sabbath, so they could accuse him. So Jesus tells the man with the withered hand, “Stand up in the middle.” He says to them, “Is it allowable, on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil? To save a life or to put to death?“ They were silent. He looks around at them with anger, pained that their hearts are like stone, and he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out. His hand was restored to normal. The Pharisees walk out, and immediately started to scheme against him, with the Herodians, to find some way to destroy him (Mark 3:1-6).

Notice the calm shifting between the past tense and the “historic present.” It is as if we are there in the room witnessing the events while our interpreter and storyteller, Mark, adds commentary for us.

Pakaluk’s skillful translation makes the text new and vibrant for me. It is like listening as Mark (who records Peter’s preaching) speaks directly to me. Engendering such a feeling is important because the Gospels are not meant to be like “spectator sports.” We are not just watching the lives of others unfold; this is our life, too. We are in the Gospel narrative: we are Peter; we are Mary Magdalene. These are not just distant events being recalled from memory; they are made present to us and become our story, too.

Another aspect that makes Mark’s Gospel so interesting and narrative-like is his use of the Greek work “kai.” Pakaluk describes it in this way:

In Greek, sentences in a continuous narrative must be joined, each with the one before, through a “connecting particle,” such as “hence,” “now,” “therefore,” “but,” and so on. Writers of ancient Greek typically vary these connectors for subtlety and argument. But Mark is famous for largely limiting himself to one such connective—the simplest one, at that—“and” (kai). The majority of the sentences begin with “and.” Translators usually deal with the problem by just leaving the word out. But Mark’s usage makes more sense if we think of how we speak when we tell a story: “So I left my driveway. And I turned around the block. And I saw a man with a pig. And I thought it was strange. So I stopped to ask him about it. And he said…” And so on (Introduction 24).

In this new translation of Mark, Pakaluk retains a lot more of the “and” (kai) connectors, varying its translation just a bit for variety: “and,” “so” “once again,” and so forth. This retention of “kai” also adds to the narrative or storytelling quality of the text.

I am very grateful for this fresh translation of the Gospel of Mark and hope you find it as helpful as I do. Along with the new translation, Pakaluk provides solid commentary that includes the consideration of many different interpretations of the text. If you (or perhaps your Bible study group) are looking for an interesting and informative book, consider this one.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  A New Translation of Mark’s Gospel

Time to Decide – A Reflection on a Question from Elijah

In this week’s Office of Readings comes a crucial question from Elijah. It came at a time of widespread apostasy among the Jewish people. Elijah summoned a multitude to Mt. Carmel in the far north of Israel:

Elijah appealed to all the people and said, “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” The people, however, did not answer him (1 Kings 18:21).

The Baals were the gods of the Canaanites. It had become expedient and popular to worship them because the ruling political leaders, the apostate King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, had set forth the worship of the Baals by erecting altars and sacred columns. All who wished their life to go well and to have access to the levers of prosperity were surely “encouraged” to comply. Jezebel funded hundreds of prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah. She also had many of the prophets of Israel killed and forced others into hiding. Through a policy of favoritism and fear, the true faith was being suppressed and false ideologies were being promoted.

At a critical moment Elijah thus asked his question. In effect he told them that they needed to decide whether to serve the Lord God out of courageous fidelity or the Baals out of cowardly fear.

We, too, must decide. In our times, the true faith has been undermined in the hearts of many by plausible liars, cultural war, and political correctness. Those who strive to hold to the true faith are called hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. A legal framework is growing that seeks to compel compliance to the moral revolution and abandonment of the biblical worldview. Social pressures are at work as well, seeking to force compliance through political correctness, through suppression of speech and ideas, and through the influence of music, cinema, and art.

The same question must be asked of us:

How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him (whatever the cost). If Baal is your god, follow him! If you prefer what is popular, trendy, politically correct, and safe, go for it. But understand that if you do so, your decision is increasingly for Baal, not the Lord. In a culture that insists you celebrate fornication, homosexual acts, transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia, and all sorts of intemperance, realize that your decision to comply amounts to a choice for Baal.

Some claim that they are not really making a fundamental choice against God and for the modern Baals. Rather, they prefer to think that they are being “tolerant,” that they are pleasant moderates seeking to build bridges and keep the faith “mainstream.”

Today the lines are starkly drawn. The choices required of us are clear. The ancient maxim has never been more true: tertium non datur (no third way is given). Jesus says, You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24). James adds, Adulterers! Do you not realize that a friendship with the world is enmity at God? (James 4:4) Elijah’s question cannot be watered down. There are two sides in the moral battle of our times: choose a side.

In Elijah’s time, the people did not want to answer. The text says that they just stood there, silent. But silence does not make the question or the choice go away. Indeed, prolonged silence to so fundamental a question becomes an answer in itself. Silence and fence-sitting are not valid answers when the lines are so clearly drawn.

To the fence-sitters is directed this warning in the form of an old story:

A man once refused to take sides in the critical and disputed matters of his day, nobly declaring that he was tolerant of all views. Taking his seat on the fence he congratulated himself for his moderation and openness; others did too. One day the devil came and said, “Come along now, you’re with me.” The man protested, “I don’t belong to you. I’m on the fence!” The devil simply replied: “Oh, but you do belong to me. I own the fence.”

“How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Time to Decide – A Reflection on a Question from Elijah

When Theology Must Fall Silent: A Reflection on a Teaching from St. Bonaventure

silence and light

Saints sometimes say daring things. Today, on the feast of St. Bonaventure I’d like to reflect on a saying by him. First, though, let’s consider a certain idiom he used, drawn from biblical times.

In Scripture there is an “absolute” way of speaking that many of us moderns misconstrue. For example, Jesus says (quoting Hosea 6:6), For I desire mercy not sacrifice (Matt 9:13). To those untrained in Jewish and biblical idioms, the meaning would seem to be, “Skip all the sacrifice; God just wants you to be nice.” However, that misses the point of the idiom, which more accurately means this: “Practice mercy without neglecting sacrifice, for sacrifice is in service of mercy.” All of our rituals have the goal of drawing us to greater charity for God and neighbor. Caritas suprema lex (Charity is the highest law). Although charity is the highest law, that does not mean it is the only one. The basic Jewish and biblical idiom goes like this:

“I desire A, not B.”

This means that A is the goal, not B.
However, B is not to be neglected because it is a means or a way to A (the goal).

With all this in mind, let’s consider a teaching from St. Bonaventure, who wrote something very daring—even dangerous. Because he is a saint, we must grant him the liberty that we would not give to lesser men. As a saint he ponders truth and is thoroughly reputable. In his sanctity, his thoughts go where words no longer “work.” In a sense, he must explode our categories lest we become locked in them and forget that God is greater than words or human thoughts can express.

St. Bonaventure wrote of a kind of “passover” we must make wherein we must pass from the world of words, categories, images, pictures, and preconceived notions; to God, who is mystically beyond all that. It is a moment when the “ology” (words) of our theology must step aside for the Theos (God) of our Theology. As you read this quote, remember the cautions and context we have just reviewed, especially regarding the “I desire A, not B” idiom.

For [our] Passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit … inflame his innermost soul ….

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God 

[From The Journey of the Mind to God, by Saint Bonaventure, bishop (Cap. 7, 1.2.4.6: Opera omnia 5, 312-313)].

Unschooled readers will cringe at the apparent dichotomies: grace not doctrine, longing not understanding, sighs not research, bridegroom not teacher, darkness not daylight.

But this is why we studied the idiom beforehand. “I desire A, not B” means that B serves A, not that B is of no value. Thus, doctrine leads to and serves grace. Our teachings point to heights where words no longer suffice. Our understanding and intellect inspire the will to desire Him whom our minds could never fully contain or comprehend.

Thus our goal is not doctrine (precious and necessary though that this). Our goal is Him to whom the doctrine rightly points. Doctrine is the roadmap, the path, not the destination. Follow the map! It is foolish to try to invent your own religion. Yes, follow the map! But remember, the map is not the goal; it is not the destination. God is the goal and desired destination, and He cannot be reduced to our words or categories.

The great theologian Bonaventure knew the limits of theology. Theology makes the introductions sets the foundation, set limits beyond which we may not go. But there comes a moment for silence and a dark night of the senses and even the intellect. Now the heart and the fiery light of God’s Holy Spirit must do His work. He will not overrule doctrine but build upon and transcend it.

St. Peter speaks to this same process:

We also have the message of the prophets, which has been confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to this message, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:18-19).

Yes, the prophets and the teachings must be attended to; they are like a lamp shining in a dark place. But there comes a moment when those teachings are confirmed and a greater light dawns, the Morning Star rises in our hearts. The truth of doctrine gives way to the Truth Himself, who is also the Way and the Light.

Listen to Bonaventure; listen to Peter. The Creed is essential. Memorize it and don’t you dare go off and invent your own religion! But there comes a moment when the creed steps aside and, pointing to God, says, “He is the one of whom I speak. Go to Him and sit silently at His feet.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: When Theology Must Fall Silent: A Reflection on a Teaching from St. Bonaventure

Love Lightens Every Load – A Homily for the 15th Sunday of the Year

One could easily reduce this Sunday’s Gospel to trite moral advice such as this: Help people in trouble; be kind to strangers. While these are certainly good thoughts, I would argue that it is about far deeper things than human kindness or ethics. This is a Gospel about the transformative power of God’s love and our need to receive it. It is not a Gospel that can be understood as a demand of the flesh.

Let’s look at the Gospel in three stages.

I. The Radical Requirements of Love – As the Gospel opens, there is a discussion between Jesus and a scholar of the law as to a basic summation of the law. The text says, There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

The scholar quotes the Shema, a summary of the law known to every Jew. Notice how often the word “all” occurs. There is a radical nature to the call of love that cannot be avoided. When it comes to love, the requirement is not to give what is reasonable, to give a little, or perhaps to give a tithe. No, the call is to give God all our heart, mind, being, and strength, and to love our neighbor as though he were our very self.

Our flesh recoils at this sort of open demand; immediately we want to qualify it and quantify it somehow. The flesh seeks refuge in law, asking, “What is the minimum I can do while still meeting the requirements?”

Love, however, is by its very nature open-ended and generous. Love is extravagant; it wants to do more. Love wants to please the beloved. A young man in love does not say to himself, “What is the cheapest gift I can get her for her birthday?” No, he will see an opportunity to show his love; he may even spend too much. Love does not think, “What is the least I can do?” Love thinks, “What more can I do?” Love is expansive and extravagant.

The flesh, that fallen and sin-soaked part of our nature, blanches at such expansive talk and brings out the lawyer in us, negotiating for lesser terms.

II. The Reductionism that Resists Love After giving the beautiful answer about love, the scholar of the law (and there is a lawyer in all of us) reverts to form and speaks out of his flesh. The text continues, But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, he wants to say, “If I have to love my neighbor, let’s make this ‘neighbor’ category as small and manageable as possible.”

Note how quickly he has retreated into a kind of fearful reaction to the broad expanse of love. His fear is likely rooted in the fact that he has reduced the Shema into a moral platitude, as if he could pull the whole thing off out of his own power. He recoils and demands more favorable terms of surrender. Because he thinks he has to do it all on his own, he tries to reduce the scope to something manageable. Perhaps he is willing to consider the people on his block to be his neighbors, but those two or three blocks away? That’s just too much.

The fearful lawyer in him has started negotiating a kind of debt relief. He seeks to narrow down this “neighbor” category. The Lord isn’t buying it; He will expand the concept even further than the Jewish notions of the day.

To be fair, there is a lawyer in all of us, always negotiating for more favorable terms. And while it is not wrong to ask for some guidance in understanding the law, we all know that the lawyer in us is trying more to evade the terms than fulfill them.

In a way each of us is like the typical teenager. Every teenager seems to be a natural-born lawyer. Give a teenager a rule and he will parse every nuance of it in order to escape its demands or water down the terms.

Some years ago, I was teaching 7th grade religion in our parish’s Catholic school. I told the kids, “Do your work … and no talking!” Within moments, a young lady started singing. Interestingly, her name was Carmen (which means song in Latin). When I rebuked her for breaking the rule, she replied, “I wasn’t talking; I was singing … and you didn’t say anything about singing.”

I remember my thoughts when I was in high school: I couldn’t break the 6th commandment (forbidding adultery) because I wasn’t married and certainly wouldn’t be intimate with a married woman since they were all “old.” Yes, the lawyer in me was at work.

This is how we are in our rebellious, fearful, and resentful flesh. Hearing a law, we go to work at once, parsing every word, examining every nuance so as to evade its intent in every way possible. If we are going to follow the law at all, we’re going to try to find a way that involves the least possible effort.

So often Catholics and other Christians talk more like lawyers than lovers: Do I have to go to confession? How often? Do I have to pray? How long? Do I have to give to the poor? How much? Why can’t I do that? It’s not so bad; besides, everyone else is doing it.

Sometimes, too, we seek to reduce holiness to perfunctory religious observance. Look, I go to Mass; I put something in the collection basket; I say my prayers. What more do you want? Perhaps we think that if we do certain ritual observances (which are good in themselves) we have bought God off and do not need to look at other matters in our life. Because I go to Mass and say a few prayers, I can put a check mark in the “God box” and don’t really need to look at my lack of forgiveness, my harsh tongue, or my lack of generosity.

This is reductionism. It is the lawyer in us at work, seeking to avoid the extravagance of love by hiding behind legal minimalism. It emerges from a kind of fear generated by the notion that we must be able to do everything on our own, by the power of our own flesh. But that’s not possible. You can’t pull it off on your own. But God can, and that is why He commands it of us.

Our fleshly notions have to die. Our spirit must come alive with the virtue of hope that relies trustingly on God’s grace to bring out a vigorous and loving response in us. Law and the flesh say, “What are the minimum requirements?” Love says, “What more can I do?” This is the gift of a loving heart that we must seek.

III. The Response that Reflects Love The Lord then paints a picture of what His love and grace can accomplish in someone: Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

There is a very important phrase that must not be missed, for it gives the key to the Samaritan man’s actions: “… [he] was moved with compassion ….” Note that the sentence uses the passive voice (“was moved”). That is to say, it was not so much that the Samaritan acted, but that he was acted upon.

More specifically, love and grace have moved within him and are moving him. The Greek verb used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplagchnisthe), a third-person singular passive verb meaning “to be deeply moved” or “to be moved to compassion.” The verb is also in the aorist tense, signifying that something has happened but also that it has a kind of ongoing dimension to it.

Why is this phrase “was moved” so important? Because it indicates the power of the gift of grace. So many of our fears about what God asks and what love demands are rooted in the idea that we must accomplish them out of our own flesh—that is not the message of this Gospel. In the New Covenant, the keeping of the Law is received, not achieved. The keeping of the commandments is a work of God within us to which we yield. Keeping the commandments and fulfilling the law are the results of love, not the causes of it.

We do not know the Samaritan’s history; the Lord does not provide it to us. He is telling a story and the Samaritan is only a literary character in it.

We must clearly understand the teaching of today’s Gospel: Our receiving and experiencing of love is and must be the basis of our keeping of the law. Experiencing and receiving God’s love for us equips, empowers, and enables us to respond extravagantly as joyful lovers rather than as fearful lawyers.

Love lightens every load. When we love God and love other people, we want to do what love requires. Even if there are difficulties that must be overcome, love makes us eager to respond anyway.

When I was in the 7th grade, I found myself quite taken by a pretty girl named Shelly. I was “in love.” One day she was walking down the hall struggling to carry a pile of books to the library; I saw my chance! I jumped in and offered to carry her books. Mind you, I was skinny as a rail with no muscles at all, and those textbooks were heavy—but I was glad to do it despite the effort. Love does that; it lightens every load and makes us eager to help, even at great cost.

Perhaps it’s just a silly story of an awkward teenager, but it demonstrates what love does. It “moves” us to be generous, kind, merciful, patient, and even extravagant. We don’t do what we do because we have to, but because we want to.

The Samaritan in this story, was “moved” with and by love to overcome race, nationality, fear, and danger. He generously gave his time and money to save a fellow traveler.

Let love lift you. Let it empower you, equip you, and enable you! Go to the Lord and pray for a deeper experience of His love. Open the door of your heart and let the love of God in. Go to the foot of the cross and remember what the Lord has done for you. Let what He has done be so present in your mind and heart that you are grateful and different. Let God’s love come alive in you.

As a witness, I promise you that love lightens every load and makes us eager to keep the commandments, to help others, to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and to speak the truth in love to others. Yes, I am a witness that love can and does change us. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. Love has lifted me and lightened every load of mine.

Again, today’s Gospel is not mere moral advice. The main point is that we must let the Lord’s love into our heart. If we do, we will do what love does and we will do it extravagantly—not because we have to but because we want to.

The grace of love lightens every load and equips us for every good work.

This song says, “More of His saving fullness see, more of His love who died for me

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Love Lightens Every Load – A Homily for the 15th Sunday of the Year

The Sovereignty and Stewardship of Man Over Creation, as Seen in a Commercial

The advertisement below depicts all kinds of animals screaming in fear at the thought of a shark. Sharks do indeed inspire fear.

What is interesting is that Scripture says it is not sharks that inspire fear among the animals; it is we:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on every living creature on the earth, every bird of the sky, every creature that crawls on the ground, and all the fish of the sea. They are delivered into your hand (Gen 9:1-2).

While some larger animals occasionally attack (and even kill) human beings, such occurrences are rare and typically a result of fear we have incited in them. Even the fiercest predators generally avoid us, only engaging when they feel threatened. We are not a staple of any animal’s diet. In this matter we are unique, and we manifest the authority and stewardship God gave us over all living things.

Consider well, then, our dignity and responsibility as those appointed by God to oversee His creation.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Sovereignty and Stewardship of Man Over Creation as Seen in a Commercial

On The Sinful Census Conducted by King David

In the Office of Readings this week we read about a census conducted by King David that caused great harm (2 Samuel 24). Joab, David’s general, strongly cautioned him not to take the census, but David insisted. When the census had been completed, the prophet Gad informed David that God was angry and intended to punish him and all Israel. God offered David his choice of punishments: a three-year famine, three months of military fighting from Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence. David chose the pestilence, figuring that it was better to be in God’s hands than those of an enemy. About 70,000 people died during those three days.

This raises two central questions:

What is wrong with a census?

Why was all Israel punished for something David did?

What is wrong with a census?

The first answer can be found by focusing David’s lack of trust. God had called David to trust in Him—not in mankind, not in numbers. We tend to rely too heavily on numbers, thinking that something is good, or right, or successful if a lot of people support it. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rectitude rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? In calling for a count of his people, David seems to be seeking confidence in numbers rather than in God; this is a sin.

David may also be guilty of pride. It could well be that he was proud that he had amassed such a large number of people in reuniting Israel and Judah and in conquering the Philistines, the Hittites, and others. Taking a census was perhaps a way of patting himself on the back, of making a name for himself. The numbers are quite impressive—so impressive that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. If women, children, and those men too old or frail for service had been included, the number would probably have been close to 5 million. (These figures seem so high that they are a source of great debate among biblical scholars about biblical enumeration.) Suffice it to say that David ruled over a populous nation. His taking of a census likely indicates that he was proud of his accomplishments and wanted it acknowledged by his contemporaries and recorded in the annals of history: David, king of multitudes!

Others point out the sinfulness of counting God’s people. These are not David’s people to count; they are God’s. Because counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business. This is a number that is for God alone to know, for He numbers His people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).

Finally, the results of a census can be used sinfully. Governments can and sometimes have used the information to oppress the people. The census David commissioned provided him with the number of men “fit for military service.” In the ancient world, a census was often taken to facilitate a military draft. It was also typically used as a basis for exacting taxes. Finally, kings used it to measure their power and to manipulate and coerce based on that power.

Even in our own time as we know, the taking of the official U.S. census every ten years is often surrounded by power struggles, as the results can lead to shifts in electoral boundaries, increases or decreases in congressional representation, changes in tax policy, shifting of spending priorities, and the pitting of different ethnic and racial groups against one another. A lot of trouble can be tied back to the results of the census; numbers can be powerful. Those that have “the numbers” get seats at the table while those who do not have to wait outside.

Note: I am not taking a side on the citizenship question that is currently being debated in the U.S. The point I am making here is much broader (and older) than the current disagreement.

In amassing numbers, David increases his power and his ability to manipulate the people in sinful or unjust ways.

Exactly where David’s sin lay—a lack of trust, pride, acting as if they were his people rather than God’s, amassing power, or in some combination of all these things—is not made clear in the passage. God is clear, though, in letting David know that he has sinned and seriously so.

Why was Israel punished for something David did?

This question is much more difficult to answer than was the first one. First, we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects and we may not be able to know the answer fully. All we can do is to offer some speculation.

The most common answer emphasizes that Israel was not sinless in the matter. The census story begins as follows: The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David … to number Israel and Judah. For some undisclosed reason, God was angry with the whole nation and therefore permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps the result of a census was also a point of national pride, with the people thinking, “Look how big, prosperous, and powerful we have become!” This is mere speculation, but the point is that according to the text, Israel had angered the Lord.

It is important to note that modern Western notion of individualism is not a biblical one. We tend to think that what we do is our business and what others do is theirs, and thus we are outraged at the idea that many would suffer for the sins of one. In the biblical worldview, though, we are all interconnected: There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one member suffers, every member suffers; if one member is honored, every member rejoices. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:25-27). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is the biblical vision.

The decisions we make affect the people around us, whether for better or for worse. Even what we call “private” sins set loose evil, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.

To those who would say that God is not being “fair” in punishing Israel for what David did, there must be this strong advice: Be very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, we would all be in Hell right now. Rather, we should seek His mercy.

God knows how to shepherd us rightly. There are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know the precise nature of Israel’s sin, but God’s anger at Israel is His passion to set things right. He is getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On The Sinful Census Conducted by King David

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