Two Kinds of Love to Celebrate on St Valentine’s Day

St. Valentine’s Day is a day that celebrates romantic love. This sort of love, to be sure, is noble and to be encouraged. The Church has sometimes been accused of being suspicious of romantic love. It is true that certain heretical groups such as the Cathari and the Jansenist’s have frowned on sexual love in marriage. But they were considered heretics for their views. A true Catholic view celebrates romantic love  (eros in Greek).  As a Catholic Pastor I like others want to encourage romantic love and ultimately marriage. And within marriage to encourage on-going romantic love. I tell my younger parishioners, get married (first!) have lots of babies and raise them Catholic! You may recall the old Rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.”

A Great Love – Romantic love is good and it brings blessings! But romantic love (eros) has a place a purpose and in God’s plan. Fundamentally eros is meant to draw a man and a woman to each other and ultimately to marriage. And within marriage their romantic love is to be fruitful and multiplying. Yet too many today just play around with and dabble in eros. They vent its power through premarital sex and do not  follow it’s intended course which is to draw to people together in deep desire and love. Eros is about drawing and man and woman into deep interpersonal union it is not merely about bringing two bodies together.  Too many rush to eros’ physical urge and disclose the deepest mysteries about themselves inappropriately. The great dance of courtship and marriage is thus short-circuited and eros looses both it’s dignity and its goal. Marriage rates have plummeted and so have birthrates.

Pope Benedict had this to say on eros:

That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks….The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness…..Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet [in] the contemporary [scene] eros, is reduced to pure “sex”….Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: … no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. [But] true, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves….Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important….eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose….[And in Scripture Marriage] becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. (Deus Caritas est 3-11 selected)

So romantic love (eros) has a dignity but it also has a purpose. It’s purpose is to draw man and woman toward marriage, family and ultimately toward God. The deep desire that man and woman have for each other is a sign of the ultimate desire of the human heart for deep union with God.

An even greater love – But there is a second love to be celebrated on St. Valentines Day and that is Agape love.  Agape love is the love whereby we love God above ourselves, above all things and above all people. There is perhaps no greater example of this sort of love than that of the martyrs. They were willing to forsake everything for Christ. They excepted the supreme price of this love, the gift of their very own life. Every martyr can truly say, “Lord, I love you more than my self, my life, my things and more than any other person in my life.  The world hates me for this and will kill me for it, but I willing pay the price that this love demands.”

St. Valentine was a martyr. Christian tradition recognizes two saints from the early Church as “Valentine.” The first is the Roman priest Valentine. He was decapitated in 268 AD  for the crime of trying to convert a member of Emperor Claudius the Goth’s household. He also a renowned healer. The second Valentine is Bishop Valentine who was also a renowned healer and was also turned it for converting people to Christianity. He was imprisoned and the attempt was made to force him to sacrifice to pagan gods. When he refused an attempt was made to club him to death. When that failed he was beheaded in 273 AD.

The red of St. Valentine’s Day signals not only the warm blood of romance, but also the red hot blood of martyrs. Eros is surely noble and necessary. It is rightly celebrated. But no great love (agape) exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Thus today the red blood of martyrs too is celebrated and proclaimed.

A blessed St. Valentine’s Day to one and all.

On a Strange and Horrible Biblical Story and the “Bad” Memory of God.

We are reading from Hebrews 12 in the Liturgy this week (Monday  of the 4th Week) which mentions, among the heroes of ancient Israel, Jepthe. More on that in a moment.

But one of the most strange and horrifying stories of the Bible is the story of Jephthah  (Pronounced “Jeff-tha” and alternately spelled Jepthe) and his ritual murder of his daughter. It is a tale of faith and piety gone terribly wrong and a teaching of what happens when error and false religion are substituted for the true faith.  It is also a tale of how God can work even with the worst of us to accomplish his ends. Let’s look at this “fractured fable” of a story.

The story of Jephthah  is told in Judges 11. He is described as a mighty warrior and would one day be numbered among the Judges of Israel. As the chapter opens we are told:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.  Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. (Jdg 11:1-3).

Jephthah the Ganger – Tob is a land to the extreme east of Jordan. Having been dispossessed of any personal resources Jephthah became ranked among the roving bands of dispossessed youth who had little to lose. While the text above says describes Jephthah as gathering “adventurers”  around him, many translators render the Hebrew as “worthless men” or “ruffians.” In effect Jephthah is a gang member, the head of a group of marauders who allied themselves with local inhabitants who felt over-taxed or had other grievances against local rulers. They sustained themselves by raiding caravans or towns and enemies of their friends.

It is quite a remarkable thing that the likes of Jephthah would rise to Judge Israel for six years. Judges were those who, in the years prior to kingship in Israel, served as charismatic leaders. They usually rose to power in response to some crisis or need.

And, sure a enough, a crisis did arrive that would catapult Jephthah to power. The text says,

Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.  “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”  Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”  The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?”  The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them (Jdg 11:4-10).

The Israelites needed a warrior and Jephthah had gained the reputation of being a skilled and fearsome warrior. He would be their man and he came to Judge (rule) over Israel. He first, as a formality,  sent messengers to negotiate a settlement with the Ammonites. In a lengthy message he sets forth both an  historical and theological basis for Israel’s claim on the Transjordan area to which the Ammonites were now laying claim. Among other things the Israelites had lived in the land over 300 years. But the Ammonites rejected all negotiations. So Jephthah prepared for war. (cf Jdg 11:12-28)

Here is where things get strange. Prior to going to war Jephthah vows a vow. It is an immoral vow, on the face of it. It is a vow that would require something wicked of him. The text says:

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. (Jdg 11:29-31)

This is a wicked vow. It is wrong to vow to kill some as a sacrifice to God. It is forbidden explicitly by to offer any human being in sacrifice to any god let alone Him: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31; cf also Lev 18:21) It is murder that Jephthah vows. It is false religion that he embraces.

Some have tried to soften the vow by translating the vow as “whatever” comes out of the house, Jephthah would offer in sacrifice. Thus he could have meant an animal. But it is difficult for the Hebrew (צֵא הַ) to support this notion. The gender of the word would have to be in the feminine form to support this theory. But the form is masculine which everywhere else means “whoever” and it is coupled with the verbs  “to come out” and “to meet.” It does not usually pertain to things and animals to do this. Hence, it seems the plain meaning of this text is that Jephthah vowed to kill the first human who came forth to meet him upon his return. One may suppose he figured that a slave or servant would be the first to greet him?

What makes the vow even more troubling is that it was generally presumed that one who was called to be a judge had an anointing from God. Verse 30 does speak of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah How could one anointed by God be guilty of such a gross violation of God’s law. We can only recall  that God’s approval of one area in a person’s life is not an approval of every area of their life. Most of Israel’s greatest leaders had serious flaws: Moses and David had murdered, Jacob was a usurper, Abraham “pimped” his wife and so forth. God can write straight with crooked lines. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the great treasure of God within “earthen vessels.” An old gospel hymn says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” God does not call the perfect, that much is clear.

The story of Jephthah then has it’s horrible twist and dreadful end:

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”  “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”  “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jdg 11:33-40).

In the end, Jephthah is met by his only daughter and is “forced” to fulfill his vow to kill her as a sacrifice. But in fact he is not forced for no one is compelled to fulfill a wicked vow. Yet the plain meaning of the text indicates that did just that. There are attempts by some scholars to try and show that Jephthah really didn’t do it. But, their attempts are very contrived and, in the end, set aside the plain meaning of the text which quite clearly indicates Jephthah went through with his vow.

What happened to Jephthah? We can only speculate. But it would seem that he had come under the influence of the false religions of the pagans. In particular, he seems to have come under the influence of the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice. The Jewish people had often fallen prey to just such a syncretism. Their faith in the God of Israel was often selective and weak. Superstition often drew them to the Baals and other gods of the surrounding nations. Their straying often led them to great wickedness, sexual promiscuity, deviance and even human sacrifice. Jephthah seems to have been among their number. His rejection by his brothers in Israel and his wandering at the fringes of the land were surely factors in his religious confusion and the evil that flowed from it.

And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.

On the Bad Memory of God – One final thought on the story of Jephthah. It occurs to me that God has a “bad memory.” I say this because God the Holy Spirit holds Jephthah up later in scripture for our admiration. It’s right there in Hebrews 11 where Jephthah is said to be among the cloud of witnesses:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 11:32-34; 12:1-2)

It is a remarkable thing to see Jephthah listed among the great Old Testament saints. Perhaps we can say that Jephthah repented? We can surely hope. But it is also possible to celebrate the “bad memory” of God. I hope you will understand, I mean no irreverence here. Scripture says, For I [the Lord] will forgive [my people] their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:34). And also, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” says the Lord (Heb 10:17) I don’t know about you, but I am depending and the “poor memory” of God. I am hoping for a poor recollection on the part of God of certain incidents and passages in my life  🙂  And if Jephthah can make the cut, perhaps there’s hope for me too!

There have been a number of musical oratorios based on the Story of Jephthah. One of my favorites is “Jepthe” by Carissimi. In this first video I have assembled some images to the story and set it to a Chorus from Jepthe by Carissimi. The song is led by the daughter and is one of the happy moments in the Oratorio. The text says, Cantemus Omnes Domino! Laudemus belli principem, qui dedit nobis gloriam et Israel victoriam (Let us all sing to the Lord! Let us praise the prince of war, who gave glory to us and Israel Victory).

 

The final chorus of Jepthe by Carissimi is a minor masterpiece and a deep lament for the only daugther of Jepthe. The text says: Plorate filii Israel, plorate omnes virgines, et filiam Jephte unigenitam in carmine doloris lamentamini (Weep O children of Israel, weep, all you virgins, and in sorrowful songs lament the only daughter of Jepthe). The final lamentamini repeats over and over as we are drawn into the deep sorrow of loss.

A Deeper Look from Scripture at What Afflicts Us

In a pandemic, and after a summer of violence, a contentious election and now more violence, a reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is striking  by the fact that the ancient diagnosis of Israel applies to our times as well. By the following I don’t intend a commentary on the events of the last few days. Rather, I think the text from Isaiah and my remarks seek to go to a deeper and wider level of what ails us and has been growing for decades. Here is what Isaiah says: 

And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor. The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable. … Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves (Isaiah 3:5-9).

When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … My people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow (Isaiah 3:6-12).

Let’s note four fundamental issues that God assigns to that age (and, I would argue, ours as well). Our culture and nation have become:

Dominating and Loud And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor.

These are indeed contentious times—so contentious that we cannot seem to have honest debates or disagreements; we just yell at one another. On college campuses, students shout down speakers with differing views and accuse them of hate. Demonstrations both on campuses and elsewhere often devolve into a kind of mob violence, which has included vandalism, setting cars afire, breaking windows, looting, and even murder.

Pope Benedict XVI warned of the tyranny of relativism. By this he meant that as relativism and subjectivism have shifted the source of truth from the object to the subject, from reality to opinion, there is no longer any basis for reasonable discussion.

In such a climate, whose views win the day: Those with the most money, power, and political clout or those who shout the loudest or are best able to intimidate others?

Dishonoring and Low – The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable.

What is described in this verse has been going on for a considerable time. Those of us who are older remember a time when disrespect for elders was not tolerated. Beginning in the 1950s and picking up speed through the 1960s, our culture devolved into one centered on youth. Youthful vigor and youth itself were esteemed over maturity. Young people were “hip” and relevant; “old people” were out of touch and had nothing to offer. If something was old, it was bad; if something was new it was good. Rock music emphasized rebellion and the rejection of tradition. Television sitcoms featured children who were all-wise and parents (especially fathers) who were stupid and buffoonish.

All of this has led to a breakdown of respect for elders and those in authority. And, frankly, elders and authority figures have not helped matters, as many of them have fearfully declined to insist upon proper respect.

When there is no respect, there can be no teaching. When there is no teaching or handing down of what has proven best and most worthwhile, what is base and low-brow too easily appeals to those who are schooled only in their lower passions.

Rap stars, news media, Hollywood actors, and other pop-culture figures have more influence than Scripture, faith, literature, and tradition. Much of popular culture presents that which is base and most of those who represent it reject the honorable and time-tested traditions that have built our culture. Cultural iconoclasts dominate; those who build on what is honorable are fewer, both in number and influence.

Destructive through Lust Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves.

Today, promiscuity of every sort is celebrated. Again, those of us who are older can remember a time when living together outside of marriage was scorned; it was referred to as “living in sin” or “shacking up.” Now, not only is it widely tolerated; it is even encouraged.

Movies and popular songs since the 1960s have depicted and spoken of illicit sexual unions of every kind as normal, acceptable, routine, and even beautiful. Homosexual acts are now celebrated, made the matter of pride. Contraception, widely rejected by every Christian denomination prior to 1930, is now called virtuous or responsible by most. Divorce, once considered shocking and discouraged by our very laws, is now common; it is often encouraged as a way to happiness.

God warns through Isaiah in this text: Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves. In other words, if we don’t get marriage and sexuality right as a culture, it will kill our civilization. Sexual distortion leads to distortions about marriage. Distortions about marriage lead to broken families. Broken families lead to broken children. Broken children become broken adults. Broken adults have a hard time leading or making good decisions.

The breakdown of culture and civilization continues. In our sins we deal out evil to ourselves. We sow the wind and we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). We sow in the field of the flesh and we reap a harvest of corruption (Gal 6:8).

Declining in Leadership When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the LordO my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow.

This is an especially controversial part of the text. Yet, honestly, there is a crisis of leadership in our culture at nearly every level. In families, many parents do not lead their children, choosing instead to try to be their friends. Many priests and bishops timorously hide, speaking in abstractions and generalities rather than teaching clearly. Too many do not vigorously summon the faithful to a proper moral vision.

In terms of social and political leadership, mob rule is becoming more common, and leaders succumb to many notions simply because a loud and sometimes violent group demands it. Further, many leaders mislead by looking only to their political survival and “playing to their base.”  There is a kind of hypersensitivity to the feelings of aggrieved individuals or groups of self-described victims. Many leaders are more preoccupied with not giving offense to certain popular groups than with making difficult decisions that may demand sacrifice and that will not please all, but are still the best answer. What is best can sometimes be hard; the truth is not always pleasing to everyone.

Disclaimer: Without a doubt, some of what Isaiah said was controversial in his day. And without a doubt my application of the text to this day and age will likewise be controversial. But what if ensuing conversations and debates are the result? What if you get a chance to register your comments and complaints in the comment box here and other people get to respond to you? What if my imperfect post is meant to encourage conversation in a culture that increasingly wants to shut down conversation and forbid “politically unapproved” speech and replace an open mouth with a clenched fist?

Finally, remember that biblical passages have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We’re all a little of both and we need both.

This song, recorded in my parish church, was performed by the St. Luke Ordinariate Choir:

A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism in a Time of National DIstress

Yesterday, January 6th (the official day of Epiphany) was quite and epiphany of its own,. Currently in our country we are dramatically and almost evenly divided. The huge crowd that gathered yesterday was largely peaceful and came to express concerns about the conducting of the last election. Fine; and probably worth further investigation. But the rioters who broke into the Capital acted immorally and deserve the same condemnation as those who rioted in the racial demonstrations of the summer. Legitimate grievances do not allow the endangerment of life, the destruction of property, or the desecration of sacred or  special places.

None of us will be happy about the outcome of every situation, debate or election. Traditionally we have accepted defeats and used legitimate processes to continue our struggle for what we think is right or best. That seems far less the case today with our burning cities and now violated Capital. Any talk about understanding the anger of rioters simply adds to the injury and seeks to excuse what is heinous and immoral behavior.

Personally, I have never been so worried about the condition and future of our country as I am today; not simply because we have deep differences, but especially because we no longer seem to have a way to resolve our differences civilly.  It is the tyranny and chaos of relativism of which I have written elsewhere  Click HERE.

There was a time when we all agreed that we loved our Country and only wanted what we thought best for it.. Even that agreed premise seems less obvious today. Yet it still seems to me that healthy patriotism is among the first places we should look to begin a recovery.

Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC #2239).

Much of this is reflected in a beautiful song written for the Ken Burns series “The War.” It is called “American Anthem.” The lyrics are touching and moving. The central themes are just what the Catechism teaches: gratitude and the serving of the common good. Let’s explore some of the themes of this song on this Memorial Day of 2019.

The song begins in this way:

All we’ve been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers
Of centuries
Have brought us to this day

So we begin with gratitude. The works and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. Each day we wake up in a land of beauty and plenty. We live in freedom because others died to win it and protect it. We drive on roads that others paved, make use of an electrical grid that others created and built. We depend on technologies that others developed. The Constitution, our legal system, civil society, the Church and her time-tested teachings—all these things and many more we have received from the hard work and ingenuity of others. Every day I am blessed to be able to walk into a beautiful church built by others.

Those who came before us were not sinless, but they exhibited bravery, virtue, perseverance, and patience in carefully setting forth a nation and a commonwealth that we often carelessly take for granted. When I ponder these things, I am overcome with gratitude.

The song also speaks of the dream of a nation in which freedom would endure. Today, many interpret freedom as the license to do whatever one pleases, but true freedom is the ability to obey God, live virtuously, and benefit from the fruits of that behavior: freedom from excess and the slavery to sin. It is only in this freedom, a freedom from self-absorption, that one can leave the sort of legacy of which the song next speaks:

What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

Remember that America is not merely a nation-state or a legal entity—it is our patria, our homeland, from which we get the word “patriotism.” There is both a fatherly and motherly image we can derive from our country, America. We are sprung from its loins and nurtured in its womb. We have shared in its freely bestowed resources, taken our meals from its rich soils, and learned from the best of its teachings and traditions.

Thus, patriotism is a beautiful virtue linked to the fourth commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Sadly, some people today dismiss the virtue of patriotism, calling it “nationalism” and portraying it as evidence of xenophobia. That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us. From it we derive a requirement to do our part to protect, preserve, and contribute to the common good. We are to leave a legacy that others will recognize, that we carried our share of the burden, that we did our very best for the land and people we are called to love.

Each generation from the plains
To distant shore
with the gifts they were given
Were determined
To leave more
Battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown

It is perhaps enough to simply do no harm or merely hand on what we received, but love is expansive. It leads us leave to our descendants more than we received. It is the American and human spirit to build on what is received, to bring things to greater perfection and beauty.

As the song mentions, we often do this by working together, but sometimes we must take up the lonely and often-despised role of the prophet summoning the nation to greater justice and holiness. Both traditions are needed. Many of us have had to raise our voices in protest at the straying of our land from its biblical roots, but this has been and is done out of love for our people and land, so that we attain to a greater and more perfect union.

In times like these a song like this feels healing. It ends this way:

In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

America
America
I gave my best to you.

Being in Church is Essential, Governor. Virtual is Not the Same as Real.

Many of us have heard expressed the formulaic regret by someone declining to attend an event: “Though I can’t be there, I’ll be there with you in spirit!” Two reactions usually occur to us who receive such a reply:

1 That’s unfortunate.

2 Whatever the phrase “there in spirit” means, they probably won’t be present in spirit either.

We human beings are body and soul. It is our dignity to combine the two orders of creation: matter and spirit. Angels are pure spirit, animals are matter, but the human person gloriously unites both orders in our one person.

For the human person, physical presence is important because we are not disembodied energy and while absences are sometimes necessary, it is usually thought of as less than ideal when we “phone it in” or go virtual.

Many people forget that the word “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really.” So, we might say, “He’s virtually a genius.” This is a form of hyperbole where we speak of his qualities that are like a genius though he’s not actually one in the full sense of the word. Lately “virtual” has simply come to mean “electronic” or “online” communication. But we ought not lose the original insight that computer (“zoom”) meetings are sort of like meetings but not really. They lack important aspects and subtleties when people share a room together and are physically present. There’s usually more buy-in in actual meetings. Interaction is livelier and people can’t get away with some of the multitasking going on in the background of virtual meetings. There is also something about being away from your usual desk or location with all its distractions and being in a room that is both neutral and designed for meetings.

To be sure, some meetings work well online, especially those that are brief and to the point. Travel time is often saved as well. Zoom and other platforms have been a great help in this time of plague. But recent studies have shown that online classes are terrible for students, especially the younger ones. Others too are wearied by all the online time that has been asked of us. And while I have given many online talks in recent pandemic months, I miss the dynamic of being in the room with people where I draw energy and get subtle feedback by their postures and expressions. Obviously masks also hinder this feedback greatly.

But of all meetings where physical presence is most required, the Sacred Liturgy is most important. One cannot receive sacraments virtually. You simply have to be there. How discouraging it was to hear the Governor of Virginia seek to school religious leaders and their congregants recently on where and how they should experience God:

Worship outside or worship online is still worship….  You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” ….Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. [*]

It is more than annoying for this radical pro-choice governor to play theologian and liturgist. He certainly shows little knowledge when it comes to Catholic Sacraments, all of which require physical presence to be conferred. You can’t get baptized online, receive Holy Communion online, or even absolution. Physical presence is required. All the sacraments touch the body in some way, whether through the laying on of hands, pouring of water, anointing with oil, or reception of Communion. The Christian faith is incarnational. Christ did not come among us as a ghost, a meme, or a Zoom host. He does not simply livestream and is not merely an idea. The Catholic Mass and Sacraments touch and interact with the body. Presence is crucial.

Even for most Protestants whose belief in sacraments is minimal and whose services are more apt for livestreaming, they still see fellowship as important. You can’t get real fellowship online, you just have to be there for one another.

Christ has a mystical body and it is essential that the members of his Body gather every Sunday: Christ the head, and his members together. In the Catholic Liturgy we experience the presence of Christ in the faithful gathered, and in the priest through whom Christ ministers. We hear his voice in the Word proclaimed and are fed by his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.

I do not expect the Governor to know all this. But, all the more reason for him to act with care and not speak so publicly of things he knows not. Catholics and other Christians are not frivolous in our need to gather. Our souls are just as important, if not more so, than our bodies. Sacraments and Sacred worship ARE essential in our lives, despite what some other governors and mayors have asserted. We should be expected to engage in prudent precautions like anyone who goes anywhere else. But government officials should not under-estimate our need to assemble for Sacred Worship even if they do not personally understand or share our beliefs. Our beliefs and practices far outdate this pandemic, this Country, and this culture. We will be here when all these things pass, as worldly things do. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.

Five Advent Reflections

The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first view of it came at night and I took the photo above. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! It reminds me of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. The flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls and towers showcase a great advance in building technique.

These were the skyscrapers of the Middle Ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; almost like a forest, a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to Him in a great work of human praise.

Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building:

      • Beauty is id quod visum placet – Beauty is that which pleases when seen.
      • Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.

A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square is something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is on the left. It was not uplifting and seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or a huge stumbling block). Like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” Indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums.

Some disparagingly refer to the Middle Ages as the “dark ages” while referring to the current age as “enlightened.” Certainly, no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: uplifting, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark and brooding, and its meaning is opaque. One is an uplifting building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who knows what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? Decide for yourself, but I’ll take the 13th century!

Generally speaking, the idea at work in modern art is that it is merely the expression of the artist. We who view it are supposed to respect the artist expressing himself. This is largely a outgrowth of the subjectivism that fills our time.

The ancient idea however was that art is recta ratio factibilium (right reason in regard to things that are made). So the ancient ideal in things to be made, including art that the focus is not me, is not the artist, it is whether the art reflects conformity to the way a reasonable person can perceive the world. This does not mean that every painting must be like a photograph, or that sculpture should be an exact replica of what is. But it does mean that it has some conformity with reality that a reasonable person can perceive. So much modern art (not all) is either meaningless, or has no set meaning, it does not appeal to our reason or speak to our communal understanding of the reality about us.

Hence, St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas.  He writes,

For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color [Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8].

In applying these criteria to art and architecture, we might consider the following:

Integritas (Integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful because God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry, but it does require at least a respectful glance to creation, holding forth some aspect of it so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral pictured above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospels. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, because it puts forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. Because it is not integrated into the glory of creation (in any way that I can discern, at least) it does not have integrity. Rather, it seems to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you to explain why and how; I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.

Consonantia (Proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus, art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality, or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order, and that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “blob” (I don’t know what else to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.

Claritas (Clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question “What is it?” with some degree of precision and understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches us and reminds us of God—and God and light are beautiful. The gorgeous cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order, its proportionality. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.

The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be met for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee beauty.

So again, you decide for yourself. Each of the two structures pictured above is representative of its age. Were the Dark Ages really so dark? Is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.