There’s something interesting about the love between brothers and the way in which they show it. There’s a combination of competitiveness and deep love: “I get to hassle you, but no one else had better do that!”
In the video below, although the older boy continually reminds his younger brother who’s in charge, there’s actually some underlying respect in his actions. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know you can take it. I’m just trying to prepare you for life. There’s always going to be someone bigger and stronger than you are, so stay humble!”
When someone else torments the younger boy, however, the older brother steps in. Without uttering a word, he conveys this message: “I’ve always got your back.”
At times, Jesus was pretty tough on His Apostles, but I suspect the situation wasn’t so far removed from what this video shows. Jesus was saying, “I’m getting you ready for something that you can’t handle right now. And remember, I’ve always got your back” (see John 16:12 and Mat 28:20).
I have said the Traditional Latin Mass for all of my many years of priesthood. Back in the late 1980s, only a few priests were “permitted” to do so and there were few resources available to learn it. About the only visual help was the Fulton Sheen film from the 1940s describing the Mass. So, I trained under a few older priests during my seminary years. I moved from being part of the schola in the choir loft, to serving as sub-deacon, then deacon, and finally as priest-celebrant. Solemn High Mass was my specialty; I only learned the low Mass later. Most of us who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass exhibit great care in observing the rubrics and norms and have great esteem for its beauty.
During my training, I asked the older priests why they and their generation got rid of such a beautiful form of the Mass. They often replied that though they came to lament its loss later, at the time it was not always celebrated so beautifully; they spoke of hurried masses, cursory gestures, and mumbled Latin. They indicated that the Solemn High Mass (the form with a priest, a deacon, a sub-deacon, and a bevy of acolytes) was quite rare in Washington, D.C. Even the Missa Cantata (in which some of the parts are sung by the celebrant, but without the deacon and sub-deacon) was limited to one Mass, and many places didn’t even have that. Homilies at weekday Masses were rare and even a good number of Sunday Masses had minimal preaching.
With all the horrifying abuses associated with Masses after the liturgical changes, these problems may seem mild, but in any case, things were not as ideal as I had imagined—at least that was picture these older priests painted for me.
I recently came across a letter from the 1920s in our parish archive that confirms this generally perfunctory quality. It is a lament on this situation from Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore and is directed to his priests.
At that time, the Archdiocese of Washington was still part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Thus, the Archdiocese of Baltimore covered a very large area, stretching from the Delaware border in the east, through Washington, all the way to the western panhandle of Maryland. It contained large city parishes from Baltimore and Washington, a growing number of suburban parishes, and numerous small ones from the large expanses of rural territory.
Regarding the city parishes, remember that the immigrant Church of that period was expanding rapidly and vast numbers of newly immigrated Catholics from all over Europe were filling the pews. One of the needs was thus to schedule numerous Masses to accommodate the numbers. In addition, in those days all Masses had to be finished before noon. All of this led to a hurried morning schedule in which some of the liturgical principles suffered as a result.
And now we proceed to the letter itself. It is hard to imagine a bishop of our times being so informal and blunt, yet those were days in which many bishops and local pastors were known for their large, colorful personalities. Enjoy some excerpts of this colorfully blunt letter, which focused on encouraging priests to be more liturgically minded. I include some brief remarks of my own in red text.
July 9, 1929
Reverend and Dear Father,
Confusion worse confounded has arisen during the past few years in the matter of our Sunday services. An inter-parochial competitive system has ended in chaos and not a little distant disedification. We must now return to sane normal conditions. Hence the following mandatory regulations will be effective Sunday, October 6.
The High Mass (Solemn or Missa Cantata) must be the last of the parish masses and may not be an hour later than eleven. Every church in Baltimore, Washington, and Cumberland is expected to have a High Mass. The same is expected of all parishes outside the above cities where a choir is possible. The choir does not have to be an adult choir. It may be composed of school children. In country parishes where heretofore there has been no High Mass, I desire the pastors to work towards a High Mass. The Missa parochialis must be kept in its honorable place. … Let the well-prepared sermon be short and practical; let the music be strictly liturgical and let the liturgy be carried out with dignity and correctly.
We see that in certain areas, the low Mass (recited and whispered) had come to be the only type celebrated. High Mass, with the priest and choir singing significant portions, was becoming too rare. This afforded less possibility for the faithful to interact with the Liturgy. Further, it excluded a vast repertoire of chant, polyphony, and classical music from the Mass. In response, the Archbishop insisted that at least one parish Mass should open this treasure to God’s people.
The epistle and gospel should be read at all the masses. … A short discourse (of even five-minutes duration) should be given at each mass. The work of instruction should be supplemented by the recommendation of pamphlets as reading matter. No parish church should be without a pamphlet rack.
A significant problem in that era was that the readings were proclaimed in Latin by the priest at the altar. Because few if any of the laity knew Latin, the proclamation of the Word mostly fell on deaf ears. A common solution was that the priest would go to the pulpit and repeat the readings in the vernacular, but this lengthened the Mass. Some priests evidently skipped this altogether and merely continued on with the Mass. Some even skipped a sermon of any sort at certain masses. The Archbishop was surely not pleased and insisted that teaching the faith was an essential purpose of any liturgy.
Some of our younger parish clergy read their sermons. This should not be done except for some very special reason. The priest who is not capable of preparing and delivering a brief, clear instruction on Catholic teaching to his people is not fit to be in parish work. The people as a rule do not want to listen to a sermon reader. The reader is usually a poor one and his matter many times is poorer. We do not expect every priest to be a Lacordaire or a Bossuet. We do expect every priest however to be a teacher of God’s word, an intelligent and intelligible one. We have heard splendid eloquence on the subject of card parties, bazaars, church support, etc. and then mental confusion in many cases when the time came for the sermon. Our work as preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ is of infinite importance. It ought to be done with prayerful preparation. The sermon should be delivered in such a manner that our people can hear, understand, and take away with them a better knowledge of their faith and at the same time feel moved to live that faith and more practical way. If the priests of a parish wish to hold her people’s loyalty to their parish church, they cannot do it by competition in the matter of late hours for masses, unbecoming a hurry in the celebration of divine mysteries, or curtailment of devotional church practices.
Tough, but well said.
In some parishes of the cities there is no evening service. The reason given is that the people will not come. If the pastor will only give the people a chance to come, they will come in sufficient numbers to Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They will come gladly to hear a course of sermons during Advent, Lent, novenas, etc. They will not come to hear the rosary and litany recited in a marathon style. They leave their parish church and go to one where there is devotion in the sanctuary.
We have completed our building program. The brick-and-mortar work is almost over. Let us now apply ourselves to the more important work of gathering our people around the sanctuary in order that we may build Christ our Blessed Lord into their hearts and lives. We have, thank God, many parishes where liturgical functions are carried out with inspiring dignity, order, correctness, and consequent impressiveness. … But where there is a tendency to starve the people spiritually, the priest soon realizes a reaction that, to say the least, is neither healthy nor pleasant.
Let us then in God’s name begin with enthusiasm a new era of order in matters liturgical October 6th.
Sincerely, + Michael Curley Archbishop of Baltimore
I hope this provides you with a little picture of liturgy and parish life form the late 1920s. The problems of that time are nothing compared with the disorder often evident from the 1970s through today, but surely the human condition will always require that we battle the perfunctory observance of the sacred liturgy.
This video clip from the beginning of the movie True Confessions shows a beautiful depiction of the Traditional Latin Mass. I first saw it in 1981 and was amazed at the beauty of the Mass. I set about learning this form of the Mass well before it was more widely allowed. Although Solemn High Mass was not unknown in larger city parishes, its celebration complete with all the details was rarer than I thought. Low mass, recited and whispered, was more the norm. This situation led to Archbishop Curley’s request that at least one high Mass be sung in every parish each Sunday. Amen, Archbishop!
In Bible Study in my Parish we have been reading through Genesis. This past evening we read of Lot and the horrifying results of his decision to pitch his tent toward Sodom. We also see in his life a significant spiritual problem: sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. Sloth is a sorrow, sadness, or aversion to the good things God offers. Rather than being joyful and zealous to obtain these gifts, the slothful person sees them as too much trouble to obtain and is averse to the changes such gifts might introduce into his life. This is clearly the case with Lot, who resists the attempts of God to rescue him and his family from the sinful city of Sodom, which is about to be destroyed. Let’s examine his struggle in several steps.
I. Roots– Lot’s personal troubles were many, but for our purposes his problems began when he “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Gen 13:12). Abraham and Lot had grown very rich (almost never a good thing in the spiritual life) and realized that their flocks were so large that one part of the land could not sustain them both. Thus they agreed to live in different sectors. Abraham left the choice of areas to Lot, who (selfishly?) chose the better part for himself. The area where Sodom was is now a deep desert, but at that time the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt (Gen 13:10). And thus it was that Lot took his family and pitched his tent toward Sodom.
II. Risks – But Sodom was a wicked city, filled with false worship, greed, insensitivity to the poor, and the approval and practice of homosexuality. I will not be writing on that in detail in this post, as I have already done so in previous ones.
But here is the risk that Lot takes: he turns his face toward Sodom and willingly exposes his family to the grave moral threats there. And it does indeed affect them. Ultimately, his wife cannot bear to leave, looks back, and is lost. His daughters escape, but later engage in the grave sin of incest. Lot, too, will find it hard to flee Sodom, finding God’s offer to save him to be too much trouble. He’d rather stay, whatever the risk.
If you’re going to swim in muddy water, you’re going to get muddy. And that mud gets in your ears and in your soul. This is what Lot risks and what results when he pitches his tent toward Sodom.
Many of us, too, think little about the risks that television, the internet, music, and culture pose to us and our children. Too easily we risk our eternal salvation and that of our children by pitching our tent toward Sodom through easy commerce with a world that is poisonous to our faith. Even if some things are troublesome, many of us make little effort draw back and limit, even in little ways, the influences that are contrary to our faith.
III. Resource – Lot has only one resource in his favor: Abraham is praying for his ne’er-do-well nephew. He asks God’s destroying angel to spare Lot and his family (Gen 19). God agrees to this and acts to save Lot in spite of himself. Really, it’s the only thing that saves Lot.
It is true that Lot was just, in the sense that he did not approve of the sin around him. But neither did he act to really protect himself or his family from it. Something about Sodom appealed to him. Perhaps he thought he could make money there (or perhaps the trains ran on time). Whatever the benefits, Lot weighed them more heavily than the risks.
And so, too, for many today, who leave the TV on no matter the risk because it entertains or has some other perceived benefit that outweighs the obvious risks. Or those for whom it’s just too much trouble to monitor the websites their children visit or the music they listen to.
It really is only Abraham’s prayers that save Lot, who would live with sinners, from dying along with them. Thus, don’t forget the power of prayer for some of the “ne’er-do-wells” you may know. God may act to save them before the Day of Judgment simply because you prayed for them.
IV. Root Sin – But here comes the heart of the story: sloth. The angel warns, “Flee!” But Lot hesitates. Fleeing is hard work; it means leaving things behind that you like. Perhaps Lot thinks, “Maybe the warnings of destruction are overblown; maybe it won’t really be so bad.” Here is what the story says:
As dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “On your way! Take with you your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of Sodom.” When he hesitated, the men, by the LORD’s mercy, seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters and led them to safety outside the city. As soon as they had been brought outside, he was told: “Flee for your life! Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain. Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away!” “Oh, no, my lord!” Lot replied, “You have already thought enough of your servant to do me the great kindness of intervening to save my life. But I cannot flee to the hills to keep the disaster from overtaking me, and so I shall die. Look, this town ahead is near enough to escape to. It’s only a small place. Let me flee there–it’s a small place, is it not?– that my life may be saved.” “Well, then,” he replied, “I will also grant you the favor you now ask. I will not overthrow the town you speak of. Hurry, escape there! I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” That is why the town is called Zoar (Gen 19:15-21).
Wow, this is sloth with a capital “S”! So lazy and settled in with sin has Lot become, that he’d rather accept death than expend the effort to flee. Not only that, he can’t even manage to rouse himself in order to save his family. It’s all just too much trouble. Sloth is sorrow, sadness, or aversion.
Thanks to Abraham’s prayers, the angels literally drag Lot and his family out of the city and repeat the warning: “Flee!” God who made you without you, will not save you without you. So Lot must cooperate. But still, Lot sees it as all just too much trouble. In effect, he says, “Man, those hills look far away. And they’re not nearly as nice as this valley. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get there. Do I really have to go that far?”
And here is another aspect of sloth: compromising with evil despite knowing the danger. Even if it occurs to many that some things in their lives need to change, they try to minimize those changes. The Lord tells us that we cannot serve two masters, that we cannot serve both the world and Him. In other words, we must decisively choose God over the demands of this world whenever there is a conflict. But many, realizing that this may introduce uncomfortable situations or have financial impacts, begin to negotiate with their conscience, saying, “I’m basically serving God … well, at least mostly. Maybe it’s enough if I do a few holy things and serve God for the most part. And then I can still serve the world and enjoy its fruits, too. Maybe I’ll serve God 80% and the world 20%. Hmm … well, maybe that’s a little too ambitious. After all I have a career and I don’t want to risk that promotion. How about if I serve God 60% and the world 40%? Is that enough?”
Thank God for His mercy! (And thank Abraham for his prayers.) We are a real mess. As the text shows, God will take the little he can get from Lot, at least for now, in order to save him. But God shouldn’t have to take this from us. Only grace and mercy can spare us from ourselves.
V. Results – But note this: grace and mercy need to have their effect. We cannot go on in sloth forever. We have to allow God to heal this deep drive of sin in us or we will be destroyed. Lot is saved for now, but great tragedy is still in store for him. His wife will turn back in longing for Sodom and be lost. His daughters cannot get Sodom out of them and will later turn to incest (Gen 19:30ff). And from this incest will be born the ancestors of the enemies who will later afflict Israel: the Moabites and the Ammonites.
And what of us today? What role have we played in pitching our tents toward Sodom? What happens to us and to our children and grandchildren when all we do is express shock at the condition of the world but expend little real effort to protect ourselves from it or actively change it? What happens to us when we learn to live off the fruits of our Sodom, and make easy compromises with the world in terms of greed, insensitivity to the poor, and sexual confusion? What happens when God’s plan to rescue us through the gifts of chaste living, generosity, and more simple living, is rejected as too much trouble or as requiring us to give up too many things that we like? Many think to themselves, “I know my favorite television show has bad scenes, but I like the story line and I want to find out what happens at the end of the season. I know I should be clearer and firmer with my children, but that leads to conflict and I hate conflict, and besides they’ll complain if they can’t have a smart phone. And it’s so much trouble trying to monitor their Internet activity. And … and … and …”
What happens when we do this, when we slothfully reject God’s offer of a better, less-compromised way? Well, we don’t have look far; we know what happens. We and the people we love get lost, wounded, corrupted, confused, and even die, both physically and spiritually.
The virtues opposed to sloth are zeal and joy. Zeal for God’s truth and the beauty of holiness, and a joyful pursuit of the life God offers us are gifts to be sought. Sloth is very pernicious and has cumulative effects. We haven’t done well, collectively speaking. It’s time to turn more zealously to God, to appreciate the truth of what He has always taught. It’s time to gratefully, joyfully study His ways, and live them and share them with others.
Here, then, is a study of sloth in the life of Lot, a lesson more necessary and urgent today than ever before.
Interesting too for our times, the one day we should rest, we don’t. Here’s an old song from the Moody Blues that recalls Sunday rest:
One of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.
But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.
Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:
Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).
Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).
Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58, 83, and 109) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.
Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”
A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?
While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.
St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:
First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.
Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.
Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.
So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)
To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).
Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.
It is as if God is saying,
I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.
It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.
As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.
Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.
Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 ) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.
Today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s Baptism but on our own. In an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of His Body. As Christ enters the water, He makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water, and we who are members of His Body go with Him. In these waters He acquires gifts to give us.
Let’s examine today’s Gospel in three stages:
The Fraternity of Baptism – The text says, Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
John is surely puzzled when Jesus requests Baptism. Why? John’s Baptism of repentance presumes the presence of sin, but Scripture is clear that Jesus had no sin.
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15).
You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (1 John 3:5).
So, why does Jesus ask to be baptized? Before answering, let’s consider this dramatic fact: Jesus identifies with sinners, even though He never sinned. As He comes to the riverside, He is not concerned with what people think. He is not embarrassed or ashamed that some might think Him a sinner. He accepts a remarkable humiliation in being found in the company of sinners like us and even in being seen as one of us. He freely enters the waters despite the likelihood of being numbered among the sinners by those who do not know Him.
Consider just how amazing this is. Scripture says, He is not ashamed to call us his Brethren (Heb 2:11). It also says, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
Jesus ate with sinners to the horror of many of the religious leaders: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them (Lk 15:2). Jesus was a friend of sinners, had pity on the woman caught in adultery, and allowed a sinful woman to anoint His feet. He cast out demons and fought for sinners. He suffered and died for sinners in the way reserved for the worst criminals. He was crucified between two thieves and He was assigned a grave among the wicked (Is 53).
Praise God, Jesus is not ashamed to be found in our presence and to share a brotherhood with us. There is a great shedding of his glory in doing this. Again, Scripture says, [Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself (Phil 1:3).
The Fulfillment of Baptism – The text says, Jesus said [to John] in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.
The Fathers of the Church are of varying opinions as to what exactly Christ means by fulfilling all righteousness.
Chromatius links the righteousness to all the sacraments and the salvation they confer: This is true righteousness, that the Lord and Master should fulfill in himself every sacrament of our salvation. Therefore, the Lord did not want to be baptized for his own sake but for ours” (tractate on Matthew 13.2).
Chrysostom links it to the end and fulfillment of the Old Covenant: He is in effect saying, “Since then we have performed all the rest of the commandments, this Baptism alone remains. I have come to do away with the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the Law. So I must therefore fulfill it all and, having delivered you from its condemnation, bringing it to an end” (Homily on Matt 12.1).
Theodore of Mopsuestia interprets Christ to mean that He is perfecting John’s Baptism, which was only a symbol of the True Baptism. The Baptism of John … was perfect according to the precept of Law, but it was imperfect in that it did not supply remission of sin but merely made people fit of receiving the perfect one …. And Jesus makes this clear saying, ‘For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ (Fragment 13).
From another perspective, the word righteousness refers, biblically, to God’s fidelity to His promises. In this sense, Jesus would mean that His Baptism would be the sign of the fulfillment of God’s righteous promise of salvation. God had promised this, and God is faithful to His promises. Jesus’ Baptism indicates this. How?
St. Maximus of Turin speaks of the Old Testament prefigurement of Baptism at the Red Sea and then shows how Christ fulfills it:
I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed …. But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people …. At the time of the Exodus the column … made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism (de sancta Epiphania 1.3).
So, what God promised in the Old Testament by way of prefigurement, He now fulfills in Christ. They were delivered from the slavery of Egypt as the column led them through the waters, but even more wonderfully, we are delivered from slavery to sin as the column of Christ’s body leads us through the waters of Baptism. God’s righteousness is His fidelity to His promises. Hence, Jesus says that in His Baptism and all it signifies (His death and resurrection), He has come to fulfill all righteousness and thus fulfills the promises made by God at the Red Sea and throughout the Old Testament.
The Four Gifts of Baptism – The text says, After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Ephesians 5:30 says that we are members of Christ’s body. Thus, when Jesus goes into the water, we go with Him. In going there, He acquires four gifts on our behalf:
Access – the heavens are opened. The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin, but with Jesus’ Baptism they are opened. Jesus acquires this gift for us. At our Baptism, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says, Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand (Romans 5:1). Scripture also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence, the heavens are opened at our own Baptism giving us access to the Father.
Anointing –the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. Here, Jesus acquires for us the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Baptism we are not just washed of sins; we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After Baptism there is the anointing with chrism, which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults, this is Confirmation, but even for infants there is an anointing at Baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
Acknowledgment – this is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from his Father for the faith of those who are there to hear it but also to acquire this gift for us. In our own Baptism we become the children of God. Because we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your Baptism, the heavenly Father acknowledged you as His own dear child. Scripture says, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26).
Approval – I am well pleased. Jesus had always pleased His Father, but now He acquires this gift for us as well. Our own Baptism gives us sanctifying grace, the grace to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph 1:1-3).
Thus, at His Baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us so that at our own Baptism we could receive them.
Consider well the glorious gift of your Baptism. Perhaps you know the exact date on which you were baptized. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday! Christ is baptized for our sake, not His own. All of these gifts have always been His. In His Baptism, He fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for us. It’s all right to say, “Hallelujah!”
There is a marvelous chapter in the Book of Proverbs that ought to be studied by every young person living in this lustful world. It sets forth plainly the stance that any son or daughter of God should have regarding the lust so often celebrated by this age.
Many preachers and teachers wince at the Book of Proverbs on this topic since it tends to portray seduction and lust as coming from women.
However, it must be recalled that Proverbs features a father speaking to his son. So the context is that of a young man experiencing seduction from a certain class of women (not all women).
The silence of this chapter of Proverbs on the problem of men seducing women should not be taken as a denial of this problem; it is simply not the context of the discussion. Any woman ought to be able to take the advice given here and translate it for her own sake as well.
With that in mind, let’s look at this masterful advice from the Wisdom of God. The alliterations (on the letter “D”) are based on a talk by Rev. Adrian Rogers that I heard many years ago. While the alliterations are his, the content of this article is wholly mine.
The Direction we should follow – My son, be attentive to my wisdom, incline your ear to my understanding; that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge.
As we have noted, the Book of Proverbs takes up the form of a father advising his son. One of the most critical jobs a parent has is teaching and handing down the preserved and tested wisdom that comes to us from God and from experience. A father should teach his children at length on all matters of life, including sexuality. He should also insist that his children both listen (incline their ears) and apply (attend to) the wisdom that comes from God.
With the modern breakdown of the family on a wide scale, this basic function of fathers, specifically, and parents and elders, in general, is poorly executed. Children today are often without critical moral instruction, at least of a healthy sort.
The opening verse encourages the son to hearken to the wisdom of the elders so that he may keep discretion. In this case discretion refers to the ability to exercise good judgment and to having cautious reserve. Discretion is the ability to make responsible decisions. Sound teaching is meant to assist sound decisions.
The son is also encouraged to hearken to wisdom so that his own lips may preserve knowledge. In other words, one day he will need to teach others, and what comes from his mouth should be the tested wisdom of God, not the fleeting and often foolish slogans of the world.
Sadly, when one generation fails to teach wisdom, the next generation is not only poorly instructed, it is ill-equipped to teach; this allows the problem to multiply quickly. What was once common sense isn’t very common anymore. It doesn’t take long for the whole culture to start crumbling without good sense.
There is a direction, a received wisdom, that ensures sound judgment; we must keep it, preserve it, and pass it on.
The Deception we should avoid– For the lips of a loose woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol; she does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it.
This describes a woman inciting lust in men. Surely such a woman is the antithesis of Lady Wisdom! Again, though this describes a woman, seduction and the incitement of lust is not unique to women (any more than wisdom is unique to women). Men can seduce and draw others to lust as well. However, in general, men are more susceptible to lust. Even if you wish to debate that, recall that this book is a collection of teachings of a father to his son.
Note the description of sweet lips and smooth talking. Lust always plies her trade by emphasizing her sweet delights without mentioning the cost. Her smooth talk assures that everything will be all right, that those who object are just sexually repressed and judgmental. She assures that “experts” have found “healthy” societies where free love is practiced. She cites statistics that nearly everyone fornicates anyway. How can the majority of people be wrong? Yes, she’s a smooth talker all right.
Then comes the bill and the results are bitter as wormwood. Lust cuts like a sharp but jagged knife; she drags souls to Hell.
Lust has lost sight of her own lies. She has even convinced herself that her lies and deceptions are true. This occurs because of the way that sins, especially sins of the flesh, cloud the intellect. St. Thomas Aquinas noted that the sins of the flesh (lust and gluttony) are not usually the most serious (sins of the Spirit such as pride are more so), but they are the most disgraceful because of the way that they darken the mind. St. Paul similarly wrote that those who suppress the truth claim to be wise but are fools and their senseless minds are darkened (cf Rom 1:17ff).
Lust cannot even see for herself how foolish her notions are. She believes her own lies and so do those who fall into her trap. Even middle school students can see how unhealthy promiscuity is. They can recognize that homosexual acts violate the very design of the body: the “parts don’t fit together.” They can do this because their hearts have not yet been blinded by lust, nor have their minds been darkened by it.
Lust and her followers soon become blind and fail to see even the most obvious facts before them; their minds are darkened. Jesus says, Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? (Lk 6:39)
The Distance we should keep– And now, O sons, listen to me, and do not depart from the words of my mouth. Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house;
Yes, stay away. How many have been snared merely by coming too close! Addiction to Internet pornography has reached shocking levels. Many young men think it impossible to break free. Worse still, the addiction descends into ever darker and even unnatural places. What begins as sinfully looking at “ordinary” nudity soon degrades to viewing depictions of some of the vilest sexual practices. Children today can find displayed before them practices that normal adults would not have even imagined just 50 years ago. Even animals do not engage in the things pined for by those addicted to lust. There is a great debasement described in the literature by experts who try to help those lost in lust. Even if these addicts can break free, their minds may be sullied for years if not for life.
Hence, Scripture advises us to stay far away, to venture not even near the door. Elsewhere, St. Paul wrote, Flee fornication (1 Cor 6:18). There is to be no dabbling with lust, no risk-taking, no testing limits, no teasing, no occasional looks at risky websites to satisfy curiosity. One must soberly, carefully, and prudently avoid any and all commerce with lust. Lust easily gets her hooks in. Once that happens, it is goodbye to innocence and healthy notions of human sexuality.
Keep a safe distance. Install web filters. Engage in prudent dating practices. There is a distance that we must maintain or we will suffer great damage.
The Damage we will suffer – Many damages are described: lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless; lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of an alien; and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed, and you say, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I was at the point of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you … For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he watches all his paths. The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is caught in the toils of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is lost.
Note the following damages:
Dissipation– lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless; lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of an alien … Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you
Practically speaking, fornicators and adulterers can find their income reduced by alimony, child support, and other expenses. Those who flee these responsibilities are often pursued by the government and can have their wages garnished. They can be subject to penalties for lack of compliance. They assume the financial costs without the benefits of a loving wife and children, a common home, and the shared joys that God intended to go with the challenges of marriage and family.
Hence, the text speaks of the honors, strengths, and fruits of labor of the fornicator and adulterer going to strangers, to homes where he does not live or enjoy the warmth and love thereof.
Why should this be, O lover of lust, that your wealth and resources be scattered? Resist lust now or you will find your resources scattered to alien homes.
Disease … and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed …
Practically speaking, the text points to sexually transmitted diseases.
The text can also refer to the emotional and spiritual damage that comes from giving your body over to strangers and to lust. There is the anger and depression of being used and discarded. Intimacy cannot be exchanged in a merely physical way; humans are just not made that way. Our soul and psyche are deeply connected to our body, especially in matters of profound physical intimacy. To be joined in this way can never be as casual as the lustful say it is. There is a connection that sets up and is hard to break. An entire subset of deliverance ministry is devoted to helping people break their “soul ties” to past “sexual partners.”
Add to this list of ailments the awful sorrow and gnawing guilt associated with post-abortion syndrome.
Many groan under the physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional weight of their sins. Even for believers, who know that God has forgiven them, it is often hard to forgive themselves. The weight of guilt, embarrassment, and shame is hard for many to shake. Lust does not like those who have discovered her lies, and she taunts them with guilt and shame.
The verse also points to the end of life. Although at the end of our life we are meant to be surrounded by loving children and grandchildren, many who served lust will die far more alone.
Disappointment – … and you say, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors … ”
If the sinner ever wakes up, his disappointment with himself is often colossal. He feels foolish and regrets that he pridefully rejected instruction, regarding it as stupid or old-fashioned. I meet people like this all the time, those who wish they could do it all to do over again, differently.
It is so easy to scoff at instruction when we are young, and even when we are not so young. In a culture fixated on adolescent rebellion, a culture that thinks it knows better than Mother Church, many finally grow up and realize what a mess they have made of their own life and that of others.
The promises that sexual and other sinful pleasures make are broken on the rocky shores of disappointment and betrayal.
Disgrace – I was at the point of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.
Our private sins have a way of becoming public. The Internet porn addict discovers that his browsing habits are known by search engines, the FBI, and even prospective employers who do background checks. Security clearances are threatened. The adulterer is found out. The boyfriend running from his duties to the pregnant girlfriend is summoned to answer for himself. The sinful priest is turned in, arrested, and loses his parish and ministry. The sexually abusive stepfather is arrested. The public school teacher has her escapades with the teenage boy displayed on the nightly news.
At some point it would seem that even Lust and Satan himself tire of the sinner; they like to see him suffer before Hell comes. Though Satan risks having the person repent and ultimately be saved, he can’t quite resist making an early “snack” of some of his followers.
What is done in the darkness will be brought to the light.
Even a world that says sexual sin is “no big deal” turns on its own at some point. The sinner cannot escape the special shame and scorn that go with sins of the flesh.
On account of envy, many fellow sinners delight in pointing to someone in worse shape than they are. Somehow they think that this will make them feel better. Maybe, but only for a moment; envy is the sin that keeps on taking.
Domination – The iniquities of the wicked enslave him, and he is caught in the toils of his sin.
There is an addictive quality to lust and especially to Internet pornography. Many reach a point where they feel enslaved. They want to stop but feel incapable. Though their habit is costing them dearly in all the ways already described, even this cannot motivate them to stop. They are enslaved and dominated by lust.
Death– He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is lost.
The death described here is surely a spiritual death, but there are those, not few in number, who have physically died from syphilis, gonorrhea, and AIDS.
St. Paul wrote, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:23). We were made to be free and alive in the Lord, but sin (in this case indulged lust) drags us to death and Hell.
Jesus warned, but He advanced a solution as well: Therefore I say to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins (John 8:24). Only the grace of God, working through our faith and His mercy, can cancel the death that ultimately comes upon the unrepentant slave of lust (or of any of her nasty sisters, cousins, and aunts). Scripture says, The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God … Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life … (Gal 5: 19-21; 6:7-8).
The text says that this death comes upon one who lacks discipline. The word discipline is rooted in the Latin word discere (to learn). In English, the word discipline also speaks to applying what one has learned as a way forward. Thus, one can be said to engage in the discipline of learning or the discipline of science. To lack discipline is to reject sound teaching or to refuse to apply it.
The text adds that it is a great “folly” to do so. Folly is related to the word “fool.” Who is the fool? The one who refuses received and taught wisdom.
Make no mistake, then. To refuse or reject God’s wisdom, handed on through the Church, is foolish; it shows a lack of discipline and brings death.
The Design that we should follow – Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, A loving doe, a graceful fawn—let her breasts always satisfy you; be lost in her love forever. Why should you be infatuated, my son, with a loose woman and embrace the bosom of an adventuress?
Yes, here is God’s design: a man should leave his father and mother, seek for a wife, and having found her, cling wholly to her in an embrace of growing and fruitful love. This plan has its difficulties and requires sacrifice, mercy, and mutual forgiveness, but unlike lust, God’s plan gives life. Fruitful, faithful, and lasting matrimony is God’s answer to a lustful world.
Lust is no lady! Another proverb says, Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised … An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain (Prov 31:30, 10-11).
Every now and then, someone will come to me to request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s for money! Sometimes, not recognizing the person, I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” “Well, Father, you don’t know me, but my parents go here; this is our family Church.” “I see, but where do you go to Church?” I usually ask. The response is usually something like this: “Well, you know how it is Father, I don’t get to Church too often … but my parents go here.”
Well, I’ve got news for you: your parents’ faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your parents, and ultimately the Church, to announce the True Faith to you. At some point, though, you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your parents can’t go to Church for you and they can’t believe for you.
On another occasion, a man came up to me in the parking lot of the local grocery store and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he saw the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He was mildly offended and said, “Gosh, don’t you know who I am?” “No,” I admitted with some embarrassment. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the Church and that I really ought to know who he was. “Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was there at the last funeral, the one for my grandmother, whom you buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I said, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say I know you.” “That really hurts, Father, because if it hadn’t been for my family the Church wouldn’t be there.”
Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Mass for more than 20 years (since he graduated from the parish school), and that his only attendance was for a few funerals and weddings. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I said, humorously, but with underlying seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it will be a lot worse to hear Jesus say, ‘I don’t know you.'”
Indeed, in one of the judgment scenarios in Scripture, Jesus declares that he does not “know” some who seek entrance to Heaven:
Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” (Lk 13:23-27)
Later the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).
We may wonder how the Lord cannot “know” someone. Is he not omniscient?
Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” as understood in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know,” in biblical terms, more richly describes knowing through personal experience. It implies an intimacy gained through a personal experience of another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” to refer to sexual intercourse (e.g., Gen 4:17,25; Lk 1:34).
The Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known of Him and even spoken and taught of Him, but they did not want Him. They may have used Him for their purposes, but they did not want Him. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.
Each of us we must accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built the Church,” or “I went to Catholic school,” or “My mother goes there.”
Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13)? They were waiting for the groom (in those days one waited for the groom; nowadays the groom waits for the bride) to show up for a wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps, while five were foolish and did not not. When the groom was delayed in coming, the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones replied that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.
You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.
You know what happened in the story. The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival and then were not able to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began, the doors were locked and then no one else could enter. When they finally arrived, the groom said that he did not know them.
The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Church for you. You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.
There is an old gospel hymn that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to say what your mother said. You have to know Jesus yourself. Do you know Him? I didn’t say, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for yourself.
A grave deficiency of modern times is the loss of the sense that our lives are caught up in a tremendous, epic battle. Yet here we are living in the midst of a great drama—in the greatest story ever told.
Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy, one of whom many rarely speak: Satan. Yet, he is active and involved, manipulating both the world and the flesh (our sinful nature). We are on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war, a war that is to blame for most of the casualties you see around you. Yes, fellow Christians, there is a dragon, a roaring lion—Satan—who seeks to devour our souls.
Ah! But there is also a Son, a Savior, who is born to us and whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (cf Is 9:6). He shall reign forever. His hand is outstretched, first on the cross, but now outstretched to you to save you and to draw you up out of the raging waters, to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light!
Will you take hold of His hand, or not? This is the decision—your decision—is the great drama of your life and of every life; it is your chapter in the greatest story ever told.
Yes, the battle rages all around us, and we are swept up in it! It’s happening in our world, our culture, our families, and in our hearts. The sequence hymn from Easter says dramatically of it, Mors et vita duello; Conflixere Mirando (death and life at battle in a stupendous conflict).
The Book of Joel vividly describes the great drama. It is not merely an eschatological battle but a battle that is already around us in the decision we must make, in the war we must wage (with God’s grace) against the evil that is in and around us. It is a vivid and dramatic war, and we must choose sides. Our decision will one day be revealed in the great judgment that is coming on this world.
Prepare war, stir up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’ Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great. Multitudes! Multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:9-14).
Text after text in the Bible describes the awesome drama and the great decision we must make, a decision on which hinges our very destiny. Here are just a few:
I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you (Deut 30:19-20).
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own heart also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-36).
Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I have told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM” (John 8:23-24).
Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41).
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15).
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:12-14).
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:4)
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 1:8).
A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heavens; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne … And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth … Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child … The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev 12, selected verses).
“Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).
So here we are in the Valley of Decision (in Hebrew, the Valley of Armageddon). Here is the drama of our life! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! All of us have a decision to make, an army to join, a direction to choose! Tertium non datur (No third way is given). There are only two armies on the field of battle; there are no demilitarized zones, no sidelines. Choose an army! What will it be, light or darkness, grace or sin, Jesus or Beelzebub?
Yes, here is the immense drama in the greatest story ever told; it is our drama and our story.
Yet this drama is rarely discussed today. In the very times in which the contrast between the two ways has never been clearer or starker, there is near silence. If anything, our times are marked by boredom and a lack of awareness of the battle that is raging around us. We have “spiritual ADHD”: endlessly fidgeting but never focusing on what matters. There is also a kind of “spiritual myopia,” in which the two armies are lost in the blur of perceived (but not real) pluralism.
Put plainly, if you don’t think that this drama is real and that a choice between the two sides is required, if you think that the biblical texts cited above are histrionic and hysterical, you have been deceived. You have been lulled to sleep by the spirit of this age. You’ve been deceived by Satan, as was Eve long ago when he said to her, “You surely will not die.”
All of us must wake up to the battle raging around us, to the great drama in our life, a drama that is unfolding before our eyes. If you insist on sleeping through the drama or ignoring the summons to wake up, beware! For Scripture says of such dreamers that there will come upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:11-13).
Awaken to the drama! Choose the Lord! Be a soldier in His army! Only Jesus can save us from this “present evil age.” His grace and mercy are there for us in abundance, but His respect for our freedom means that our choices matter; they build in one direction or the other. This is the drama of our life, and it is also our dignity. Scripture pronounces a great blessing on those who choose the Lord:
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen (Gal 1:1-2).