Many groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.
Here in the aftermath of Easter with all our fancy words like catechumen, mystogogia, neophyte, regeneration, etc, I muse on our overall tendency to “church-speak. To some degree, we need these words and should educate God’s faithful as to their meaning. But it is a source of some humor to ponder how arcane, how obscure our language can become.
For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?
I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.
Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!
Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).
Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”
During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.
Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined
At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.
The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.
Again, I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.
This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!
After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples at certain places and times, but did not seem to stay with them continuously. On the first Easter Sunday, He appeared six times in rather rapid succession: first to Mary Magdalene, then to the women at the tomb, third as the women left the tomb, fourth to Peter, fifth to the two disciples going to Emmaus, and sixth to the ten Apostles in Jerusalem (when Thomas was not present).
In His public ministry, Jesus seemed to be with His disciples nearly all the time. However, after His Resurrection he would appear, converse, and teach, but then be absent from them bodily. For example, John 20:26 says that “after eight days” Christ appeared to the disciples, suggesting that He was not otherwise present to them during that period.
While it is true that we do not have an exact calendar of His appearances and not every appearance is necessary recorded, it seems apparent that the Lord was not constantly with the disciples during the forty days prior to His ascension.
Why is this?
St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on this question and offers two basic reasons. In so doing he does not propose an absolute explanation, but rather demonstrates why it was fitting that Christ was not with them continuously during the forty days prior to the ascension. St. Thomas writes,
Concerning the Resurrection two things had to be manifested to the disciples, namely, the truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Him who rose.
Now in order to manifest the truth of the Resurrection, it sufficed for Him to appear several times before them, to speak familiarly to them, to eat and drink, and let them touch Him. But in order to manifest the glory of the risen Christ, He was not desirous of living with them constantly as He had done before, lest it might seem that He rose unto the same life as before … [For as Bede says] “He had then risen in the same flesh, but was not in the same state of mortality as they.”
That Christ did not stay continually with the disciples was not because He deemed it more expedient to be elsewhere: but because He judged it to be more suitable for the apostles’ instruction that He should not abide continually with them, for the reason given above.
He appeared oftener on the first day, because the disciples were to be admonished by many proofs to accept the faith in His Resurrection from the very out set: but after they had once accepted it, they had no further need of being instructed by so many apparitions (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 55, Art. 3).
While St. Thomas observes that there may well be appearances that were not recorded, he is inclined to hold that there were not a lot more of them. He writes,
One reads in the Gospel that after the first day He appeared again only five times. For, as Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. iii), after the first five apparitions “He came again a sixth time when Thomas saw Him; a seventh time was by the sea of Tiberias at the capture of the fishes; the eighth was on the mountain of Galilee, according to Matthew; the ninth occasion is expressed by Mark, ‘at length when they were at table,’ because no more were they going to eat with Him upon earth; the tenth was on the very day, when no longer upon the earth, but uplifted into the cloud, He was ascending into heaven. But, as John admits, not all things were written down. And He visited them frequently before He went up to heaven,” in order to comfort them. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:6-7) that “He was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once … after that He was seen by James”; of which apparitions no mention is made in the Gospels (ibid).
St. Thomas strikes a balance between the Lord’s need to instruct them and summon them to faith in the resurrection, and the need for them to grasp His risen glory. Christ did not merely resume His former life. The disciples were not to cling to their former understandings of Him as Rabbi and teacher; now they were to grasp more fully that He is Lord.
Though Thomas does not mention it here, I would add another reason for the Lord’s action of not abiding with them continuously: It was fitting for Him to do this to accustom them to the fact that they would no longer see Him as they had with their physical eyes. Once He ascended, they would see Him mystically in the Sacraments and in His Body the Church. Thus, as the Lord broke the Bread and gave it them in Emmaus, they recognized Him the Eucharist (Luke 24). Thereupon He vanished from them. It was as if to say, “You will no longer go on seeing me in the same manner. Now you will experience me mystically and in the Sacraments.”
One option for Easter Sunday morning’s Mass is from the Gospel of John (20:1-8). (I have written before on the Matthean Gospel option (here)). Like most of the resurrection accounts, John’s version paints a portrait of a journey that some of the early disciples have to make: out of fear and into faith. It shows the need to experience the resurrection and then come to understand it more deeply. While the Gospel account begins with Mary Magdalene, the focus quickly shifts to St. John; let’s study his journey.
I. Reaction Mode – The text begins by describing everyone as being in reaction mode, quite literally running about in a panic! On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”
The text describes the opening moments as “still dark.” John is likely trying to do more than tell us the time of day. The deeper point is that there is still a darkness that envelops everyone’s mind. The darkness makes it difficult for us to see; our fears and sorrows can blind us.
Mary Magdalene sees direct evidence of the resurrection but presumes the worst: that grave robbers have snatched the Lord’s body! It doesn’t even occur to her to remember that Jesus had said that He would rise on the third day and that this was that very third day. She goes immediately into reaction mode instead of reflection mode. Her mind jumps to the worst conclusion; by reacting and failing to reflect, she looks right at the blessing and sees a curse.
We also tend to do this. We look at our life and see only the burdens instead of the blessings.
I clutch my blanket and growl when the alarm goes off instead of thinking, “Thank you, Lord, that I can hear; there are many who are deaf. Thank you that I have the strength to rise; there are many who do not.”
Even though the first hour of the day may be hectic: socks are lost, toast is burned, tempers are short, and the children are loud; we ought to be thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for my family; there are many who are lonely.”
We can even be thankful for the taxes we pay because it means we’re employed, for the clothes that fit a little too snugly because it means we have enough to eat, for the heating bill because it means we are warm, for the weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day because it means we have been productive.
Every day millions of things go right and only a handful go wrong. What will we focus on? Will we look right at the signs of our blessings and call them burdens or will we thank the Lord? Do we live lives that are reactive and negative or do we live reflectively, remembering that the Lord says that even our burdens are gifts in strange packages? And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Do we know this, or are we like the disciples on that early morning when it was still dark, looking right at the blessings but drawing only negative conclusions, reacting and failing to reflect?
II. Recovery mode – The text goes on to describe a certain subtle move from reaction to reflection. So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
Mary Magdalene’s anxiety is contagious. She comes running to the disciples, all out of breath, and says that “they” (whoever “they” are) have taken the Lord (she speaks of Him as a corpse) and “we” (she and the other women who were with her) don’t know where they put Him (again, she speaks of Him as an inanimate corpse). Mary’s panic triggers that same reaction in the disciples. Now they’re all running! The mad dash to the tomb has begun.
Notice, though, that they are hurrying so that they can verify the grave robbery, not the resurrection. Like Mary, they didn’t take the time to reflect and perhaps remember that the Lord had said He would rise on the third day and that this was the third day. Instead, they also panic, rushing forth to try to confirm their worst fears.
But note a subtlety: John runs faster than Peter. Some scholars say it indicates merely that John was the younger man. I would argue, however, that it signals hope. The Holy Spirit, speaking through John, is not likely interested in passing things like youth. Some of the Fathers of the Church see a greater truth at work in the love and mystical tradition that John symbolizes. He was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the disciple who knew and experienced that love of God. Love often sees what knowledge and authority can only appreciate and later affirm. Love gets there first.
There is a different verse in Scripture that I believe explains John’s strength (manifested in his speed):
But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Is 40:31).
Perhaps John runs faster because he begins to move from reaction to reflection and remembrance. When you run quickly it’s hard to talk, so you tend to recede alone into your thoughts. There is something about love that enlightens, that recalls what the beloved has said. Perhaps John begins to think, to reflect and consider these things:
Didn’t Jesus say He’d rise three days later and isn’t this that day?
Didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel?
Didn’t He deliver Noah from the flood?
Didn’t He deliver Joseph from the hands of his brothers and from the deep dungeon?
Didn’t He deliver Moses and the people from Egypt?
Didn’t He deliver David from Goliath and Saul?
Didn’t He deliver Jonah from the whale?
Didn’t He deliver Queen Esther and the people from wicked men?
Didn’t He deliver Susanna from her false accusers?
Didn’t He deliver Judith from Holofernes?
Didn’t Jesus raise the dead?
Didn’t God promise to deliver the just from all their trials?
As for me, I know that my redeemer liveth!
Something started to happen inside John. I have it on the best of authority that he began to sing this song in his heart as he ran:
“I don’t feel no ways tired. Come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”
Yes, John is in recovery now. He has moved from reaction to reflection. He is starting to regain his faith.
The text says that John looked in and saw the burial cloths, but waited for Peter. Mystics and lovers may get there first, but the Church has a Magisterium that must be respected, too.
III. Reassessment mode – In life we must often reassess our initial reactions as further evidence comes in. Peter and John must take a fresh look at the evidence from their own perspective. The text says, When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths [lying] there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Mary Magdalene’s assessment was that grave robbers must have struck, but the evidence for that seems weak. Grave robbers typically sought the fine linens in which the dead were buried. Yet here are the linens while the body is gone. If they were going to take the body, why not also take the valuable grave linens? The Greek text describes the clothes as κείμενα (keimena)—lying stretched out in place, in order. It is almost as if the clothes simply “deflated” in place when the body they covered disappeared. Finally, the most expensive cloth of all, the σουδάριον (soudarion), lies folded (rolled up, in some translations) in a separate place. Grave robbers would not leave the most valuable things behind. And surely, even if for some strange reason they wanted the body rather than the linens, they would not have bothered to carefully unwrap and fold things, leaving them all stretched out in an orderly way. Robbers work quickly; they snatch things and leave disarray in their wake.
Life is like this: you can’t simply accept the first interpretation of things. Every reporter knows that “in the fog of war” the first reports are often wrong. We have to be careful not to jump to conclusions just because someone else is worried about something. Sometimes we need to take a fresh look at the evidence and interpret it as people of faith and hope, as men and women who know that although God may test us He will not forsake us.
John is now looking at the same evidence that Mary Magdalene did, but his faith and hope give him a different vision. His capacity to move beyond fearful reaction to faithful reflection is changing the picture.
We know little of the reaction of Peter or Mary Magdalene at this point; the focus is on John. And the focus is on you. What do you see in life? Do you see grave robbers, or are you willing to reconsider and move from knee-jerk fear to reflective faith?
Does your resurrection faith make you ready to reassess the bad news you receive and look for blessings, even in crosses?
IV. Resurrection Mode – Somewhat cryptically, the text now focuses on the reaction and mindset of St. John. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
On one level the text says that St. John saw and believed. Does this mean merely that he now believed Mary Magdalene’s story that the body was gone? As is almost always the case with John’s Gospel, there is both a plain meaning and a deeper one. The text says that he ἐπίστευσεν (episteusen); he “believed.” The verb here is in the aorist tense, a tense that generally portrays a situation as simple or undivided, that is, as having a perfective (completed) aspect. In other words, something has come to fruition in him.
Yet the text also seems to qualify, saying, they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. It is as if to say that John came to believe that Jesus had risen but had not yet come to fully understand all the scriptural connections and how this had to be. He only knew in his heart by love and through this evidence that Jesus was risen. Deeper understanding would have to come later.
For our purposes, let us observe that St. John has gone from fear to faith. He has not yet seen Jesus alive, but he believes based on the evidence and on what his own heart and mind tell him.
At this moment John is like us. He has not seen but he believes. Neither have we seen, but we believe. John would see him alive soon enough and so will we!
We may not have an advanced degree in Scripture, but through love we too can know that He lives. Why and how? Because of the same evidence:
The grave clothes of my old life are strewn before me.
I am rising to new life.
I am experiencing greater victory over sin.
Old sins and my old Adam are being put to death.
The life of the new Adam, Christ, is coming alive.
I am being set free and have hope and confidence, new life and new gifts.
I have increasing gratitude, courage, and a deep peace that tells me that everything is all right.
The grave clothes of my old way of life lie stretched out before me and I now wear a new robe of righteousness.
I am not what I want to be but I am not what I used to be.
So we, like John, see. We do not see the risen Lord—not yet anyway, but we see the evidence and we believe.
St. John leaves this scene as a believer. His faith may not be the fully perfected faith that it will become, but he does believe. John has gone from fear to faith, from reaction to reflection, from panic to peace.
We do well to ponder the whys and wherefores of the Passion of Our Lord. St. Thomas Aquinas presents the premise that God does nothing in an arbitrary way, but rather as Lord of History sets forth everything in fitting ways and at appropriate places and times. Every detail has something to teach us.
Let’s consider why Christ suffered in Jerusalem (but outside its walls) in a place called “the skull.” St. Thomas covered these matters in his Summa Theologiae, Part III, Question 46, Article 10. His words are in bold, black italics; my inferior comments are shown in plain red text.
Christ died most appropriately in Jerusalem. First of all, because Jerusalem was God’s chosen place for the offering of sacrifices to Himself: and these figurative sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s Passion
For the Jewish people of that time, there was only one place to offer sacrifices to the Lord: Jerusalem. Although towns had synagogues, only Jerusalem had the Temple, and one had to go there to offer sacrifices to the Lord.
This rule had become quite firm. Indeed, even when Temple sacrifices were interrupted during the Babylonian captivity (the Temple was destroyed in in 587 B.C. and not rebuilt until about 70 years later), rather than relocate the place for sacrifice, the people lamented, We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you (Daniel 3:38).
Therefore, because salvation is from the Jews (Jn 4:22), it was fitting that Christ, our Paschal Lamb and perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, was sacrificed in the only acceptable place.
Secondly, because the virtue of His Passion was to be spread over the whole world, He wished to suffer in the center of the habitable world–that is, in Jerusalem. Accordingly, it is written, “But God is our King before ages: He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth” (Psalm 73:12)—that is, in Jerusalem, which is called “the navel of the earth.”
A glimpse at a map shows that Jerusalem is arguably at the very intersection of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Psalm 48:2 reads, Mount Zion, true pole of the earth, the Great King’s city!
Thirdly, because it was specially in keeping with His humility: that, as He chose the most shameful manner of death, so likewise it was part of His humility that He did not refuse to suffer in so celebrated a place.
Not only was Christ’s humiliation very public, it occurred when Jerusalem was packed for the Passover feast!
Fourthly, He willed to suffer in Jerusalem, where the chief priests dwelt, to show that the wickedness of His slayers arose from the chiefs of the Jewish people.
Jerusalem had the reputation of being the place where prophets suffered the most and where most of them went to die. This is likely because it was there that faith and power intersected. Human beings seldom negotiate that intersection well and the scale is tipped more to power than to faith.
Jesus said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling. Look, your house is left to you desolate. And I tell you, you will not see Me again until you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:34-35).
Jesus said, Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.” Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. (Luke 11:47-51).
Stephen added, You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:51-53).
These teachings, fitting though they are, give rise to these questions: If Jerusalem was the appropriate place, why was Jesus not sacrificed on the Temple mount, inside the city? Why was He instead sacrificed outside the city gates? St. Thomas answers this as follows:
For three reasons Christ suffered outside the gate, and not in the Temple nor in the city. First of all, that the truth might correspond with the figure. For the calf and the goat which were offered in most solemn sacrifice for expiation on behalf of the entire multitude were burnt outside the camp, as commanded in Leviticus 16:27.
Note the distinction between the sacrifice of an individual family (which was offered at the temple and burnt on the altar there) and the sacrifice offered on behalf of all the people on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:27 says, The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. Therefore, it is fitting that Christ, who died for all, should be sacrificed outside the gate (“outside the camp,” as it were).
Secondly, to set us the example of shunning worldly conversation. Accordingly, the passage continues: “Let us go forth therefore to Him without the camp, bearing His reproach.”
Out worldly categories and notions cannot contain Christ. In His time there were at least three political and religious groups: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Zealots. Jesus walked with none of them; neither did He simply parrot their views. There was only one thing the groups could agree on—Jesus had to go. Thus, fitting nowhere, Christ was crucified outside the camp.
Thirdly, as Chrysostom says in a sermon on the Passion (Hom. i De Cruce et Latrone): “The Lord was not willing to suffer under a roof, nor in the Jewish Temple…lest you might think He was offered for that people only. Consequently, it was beyond the city and outside the walls, that you may learn it was a universal sacrifice, an oblation for the whole world, a cleansing for all.”
He suffered once and for all. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (Jn 4:21-24).
St. Thomas presents two additional reasons that Jesus was crucified where He was, noting especially the name of the place: Golgotha. Although Aquinas described both reasons, he concluded that only one is correct.
According to Jerome, in his commentary on Matthew 27:33, someone explained “the place of Calvary” as being the place where Adam was buried; and that it was so called because the skull of the first man was buried there. A pleasing interpretation indeed, and one suited to catch the ear of the people, but, still, not the true one. … [For] Adam was buried close by Hebron and Arbe, as we read in the book of Jesus Ben Nave.
To this day, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there is a small opening or cave at the base of Golgotha that is venerated by some as the tomb of Adam. One can stop in there prior to climbing the stairs to Calvary. Legend has it that the Blood of Christ dripped though the opening and touched the bones of Adam, causing him to get up and dance a jig.
St. Thomas was not impressed with such legends or even with the teaching of St. Jerome; instead, he offered another interpretation.
For the spots where the condemned are beheaded are outside the city and beyond the gates, deriving thence the name of Calvary—that is, of the beheaded. Jesus, accordingly, was crucified there, that the standards of martyrdom might be uplifted over what was formerly the place of the condemned. … [So] Jesus was to be crucified in the common spot of the condemned rather than beside Adam’s sepulcher, to make it manifest that Christ’s cross was the remedy, not only for Adam’s personal sin, but also for the sin of the entire world.
Martyrs die for Christ, not as mere condemned criminals. And though Christ did die for all, not just for Adam, the primordial sin was Adam’s.
It is curious to me that St. Thomas, writing in a style somewhat out of keeping with his usually reserved way, so forcefully set aside St. Jerome’s interpretation. Perhaps we can learn something from both views! This is especially the case because the location of Adam’s burial remains a matter of dispute to this day, with many continuing to venerate the site beneath Calvary.
The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy.
1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.
How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.
The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.
God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.
2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.
While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,
It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).
This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.
This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.
In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.
Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.
3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.
After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,
A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).
This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.
4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.
Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.
St. Thomas teaches,
[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).
5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.
St. Thomas teaches,
The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.
On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).
6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.
It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,
Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).
7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?
Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:
The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”
After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).
St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).
Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.
Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.
Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!
In response to some in the current scene who are dismissing mortal sin as a clear or present danger to the human person, yesterday’s article sought to address the conditions for mortal sin. Grave matter, due discretion, and deliberate consent are not as hard to come by as some allege.
In today’s brief post, there is addressed the rather brusque dismissal of the notion that anyone ever chooses to turn away from God. Tomorrow’s post will, with proper caveats seek to list some of the more some of the more common mortal sins committed.
As just noted then, Many people today scoff at the idea that mortal sin is a turning away from God. They doubt that most people directly intend to turn away from God, as if to say, “I hate God and so I am going to turn away from Him by sinning.” But of course, this both caricatures and absolutizes the turning away from God. Almost no one explicitly sets out to sever their relationship with God as the principle motive of their sinning, and this is not what is meant by the Church teaching that serious sin separates us from God.
That Catechism gives a more realistic description and common occurance of what occurs in mortal sin, teaching that our preference for an inferior good to God by a serious violation of His law is what turns us away from him.
[M]ortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. In mortal sin the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end. As such, the sin is mortal by its very object whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1855-1856).
So, once again, we are taught that in mortal sin we set our will upon something we know to be incompatible with our ultimate end. And, even though our first thought may not be that we are rejecting God, we set our will on something incompatible with God. In so doing, we are preferring something or someone to God.
This poisons our heart if we do not repent because we feed a desire in our heart for what is not God and we starve our heart from Him and what He offers. If unrepentant, soon enough we prefer the darkness to the light. We prefer the trinkets of this world to God and come to regard Him as a thief who comes to take what we want and keeps us from doing what we want to do. God becomes our enemy.
If we die in this state, the warmth of God and Heaven seem overwhelming, wrathful, and like a consuming fire. We cannot endure and so we turn away finally and permanently to a place that we strangely prefer, but which is hellacious because it is not that for which we were made. It lacks the one thing necessary: God.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come into the Light (John 3:19-20).
So, in mortal sin it is not that we directly turn from God — at least not at first — but that we turn to the lesser things, preferring the darkness, and come to hate Him who is the Light.
Without repentance and regular confession we soon settle down with sin and prefer it to God and what he teaches. Gradually we can even come to see God and his teaching as obnoxious, “intolerant” and hateful. Or, alternately we imagine our own version of a god who is not the God of Scripture, who approves of our turning away to lesser things. Of course this is idolatry as we place other gods before the Lord God. In either case we turn from God by persisting in our desire for lesser things and letting it grow. We seen then how mortal sin and its effects do turn us from God.
The Word for Lent is Repent. Metanoiate, the Greek Word for repent, means more literally, “come to a new way of thinking.” Here then is a second installment in my proposed Lenten series challenging us to think differently and see things in a new or differently ways from the common zeitgeist.
Modern Evangelization methods and parish “mission and vision statements” seem almost exclusively focused on staying “positive.” Keywords include: welcoming, inclusion, and diversity. Yes indeed, come to our lovely parishes, we are a welcoming, embracing and joyful faith family! or so the sayings go. Still-shrinking numbers suggest most people aren’t buying it and don’t find the vision compelling.
And then comes Ash Wednesday, a wildly popular day that isn’t even a Holy Day of Obligation, and it breaks every rule of the typically modern parish plan. Numbers aren’t just slightly higher on Ash Wednesday, they are remarkably higher.
And what is our message (if we are faithful to it)? Simply this: “Repent, you are going to die.” And while you’re at it, fast, pray and give alms. We further alarm the congregants with messages from the Prophet Joel and St. Paul that give urgent admonition that we should weep and fast on account of our sins, that we must be reconciled to God. And then we smudge soot on their foreheads.
It’s pretty humbling isn’t it? The usual Catholic fare in too many parishes looks and sounds nothing like this. Sin is soft pedaled, calls to repentance and conversion are shunned as non-welcoming and even hateful, and any talk of death, judgement or the possibility of Hell is just unthinkable. Maybe Ash Wednesday teaches us that we have things to learn!
There is very little “gravitas” evident in many modern parish settings. Hence, there is often little respect given to what we do. Frankly the problem isn’t what we do, it is what we fail to do. Cheerfulness has its place but, if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. And hence, we fail to explain the very reason for our existence. We’re running a spiritual hospital but through our widespread silence about sin we imply there is no real illness or dangerous injuries to avoid. So who needs our hospital? Our widespread modern cheerfulness is not a compelling message because deep down most people know they’re in rough shape but the appointed doctors are more interested in attracting patients than healing them.
But then comes Ash Wednesday when, for at least a minute, the doctor (pastor) is willing to say, “You’ve got to be more serious and get with the program since your death will not tarry.” And this commands the respect that so much of our other messages fail to summon. It is not the cheerful, welcoming, inclusive and diverse message we are told will fill the pews, but we do well to heed the lesson motivation is more complicated than just seeming appealing. Commanding respect through a serious and necessary message is more important than many realize. Jesus was no clown attracting people to some circus entertainment. He knew how to look crowds in the eye, urgently summon them to repent and be serious about the difficult task of being true disciples. Death and judgment awaited them and there were but two outcomes: Heaven or Hell. Something of Ash Wednesday touches this serious side of Jesus that we have too easily cast aside.
Most Lenten reflections center on fasting or abstinence along with prayer and almsgiving. However, the word “repent” in our English bibles translates the Greek word “Metanoiate” which most literally summons us “to change (meta) the way we think (noiate).” With this in mind, I would like to post some articles this Lent that help us to think of and see things differently, and in a more helpful way.
Family life is so central to our experience and moral life that I begin by offering a humble picture of it that emphasizes its somewhat tumultuous quality. As we well know, family life can be wonderful, but it can also be challenging and even terrible at times. We can choose our friends, but seldom can we choose our family. Family is assigned by God and thus, we do well to understand that what we want is not always the same as what we need.
Family members have a way way of keeping us humble. Siblings, especially, are ever present to remind us that we are not all we are “not all that” and that life isn’t just about us. Sadly today, many people have few, if any, siblings and this factor tends to produce a lot more narcissism and idiosyncrasy. But oh, for a few siblings to keep you humble! Parents too can humble us and also encourage us, they can edify us and also cause deep pain. Add to the mix cousins and in-laws of every sort and the mix becomes quite a show. Our families can have all the glory, and all the gorey. Among us there are saints and there are aint’s; there are the mighty oaks of legendary renown and more than a few nuts falling from the same family tree. Ah family, can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
This Lent we do well to ponder however that even the difficult and trying aspects of family life have a way of helping us. Somehow it all reminds me of a rock tumbler.
Indeed, when I was a kid there was a school geology kit that included a “rock-tumbler” which was meant to teach us how stones can go from being jagged and drab to being smooth, polished and even colorful. It was a round drum that looked a bit link a cement mixer. Throw in some rocks and various sorts of sand and run it for a few weeks and, shazam, the rocks came out looking beautiful, almost like gems or marble.
And this is all a paradigm or image for family life. We are the rocks and the tumbler represents life with all its twists and turns. The sand is the tuff grit that comes from living in a world that has its fair weather but overall, is a kind of sandstorm of trials and tumult, tensions and disagreements. And so the world turns and we, especially in our families, bump up against each other and face the often-abrasive sands of life. But through it all, our rough edges are chipped away, the sands cause a polish to emerge on each of us. The process is harsh and gorey, but at the end, someone beautiful emerges: the very man or woman God has created us to be. We begin as diamonds in the rough or coarse stones and come forth as beautiful jewels, polished and lightesome.
Hence, even the less desirable aspects of life can ultimately be a blessing for us. Scripture says that “All things work together for good to those who trust the Lord and are called according to His purposes.” (Rom 8:28) So, in marriages, families and parishes, the rough and tumble of human interactions is often permitted by God to smooth us, polish us and beautify us.
This is not to sanctify every problem in family life. There is some abuse that is simply evil and should in no way be considered part of the rough and tumble that helps perfect us.
But in Lent, we do well to see beyond the annoyances of life and the tensions of family, to the greater purposes of God who permits such things for our good. A little less resentment and a lot more acceptance is a good lenten theme.
Metanoiate! Think differently this Lent about the ups and downs of Family life. Thank God even for those gifts in strange packages.