Why did Christ die in his early thirties rather than as an older man? This would have permitted Him more time to teach and to set forth His Church. St. Thomas Aquinas answered the question in the following way:
Christ willed to suffer while yet young, for three reasons. First of all, to commend the more His love by giving up His life for us when He was in His most perfect state of life. Secondly, because it was not becoming for Him to show any decay of nature nor to be subject to disease …. Thirdly, that by dying and rising at an early age Christ might exhibit beforehand in His own person the future condition of those who rise again. Hence it is written (Ephesians 4:13), “Until we all meet into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Summa Theologica III, 46, 9 ad 4).
Speculations such as these strike some as purely arbitrary. Others consider the reasoning to be a post hoc justification: Christ died at the age of 33, so let’s make something up to try to explain it.
St. Thomas’ reasoning, however, is not based on wild speculation. There are premises to his reasoning.
First, there is the premise that God does nothing arbitrarily and we do well to allow even seemingly minor details in Scripture (e.g., the time of day) to teach us.
Another premise is based on the nature of perfection. Perfection can be harmed by either excess or defect. Consider the case of age: A young person may lack physical and intellectual maturity (youth being a “defect” in age), but there comes a time when age becomes problematic in the other direction as time takes its toll on the body and the mind becomes less sharp (old age being an “excess” in age). Thus, there is a period of time when one’s age is in the “perfect” range: harmed neither by excess nor defect.
In St. Thomas’ time one’s thirties was considered to be that time of perfection. This is arguably still so, though we do seem to take a lot longer to reach intellectual and emotional maturity these days.
St. Thomas notes that because Jesus died while in the prime of His life, the sacrifice was greater. His apparent lack of any disease or physical imperfections also increased His sacrifice. This is a model for us. We are to give the best of what we have to God in sacrifice; not merely our cast-offs, or things of which we might say, “This will do.” The Lord once lamented, through Malachi,
If I am a Father, then where is my honor? When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts (Mal 1:8).
And thus what might seem to some to be an unremarkable detail (Jesus’ age) actually provides important teachings to the sensitive soul. Christ gave His all, His best—and He did so when He was in the prime of His life. We too are summoned to increasing perfection
The Passion, which we read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.
It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly. But there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.
As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me; we do these things.
I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,
This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.
Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).
We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).
Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but rising to new life. But even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.
Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.
As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.
We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him, then our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we will observe in the people of that day.
Next, let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.
II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. There’s no need to take everything here personally.
1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.
In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him. But they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they get drowsy and doze off. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful, so we tune out.
The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.
Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).
We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. But despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So they, and we, just give in to the stress and tune out.
2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awaken, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.
In our fear, we, too, can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.
It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to; all we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.
Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.
3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. And we, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.
Regarding one of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we just dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!
Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). But too easily we are ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.
4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”
We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just hightail it out.
The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerge and they run. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.
5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying as true, or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.
Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.
So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or our hide over doing what is right. And in so doing, we often blame others for what we have freely chosen. “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”
We are often willing to say, in effect,
“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know… Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”
We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.
And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.
III. The Path that is Prescribed– By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!
We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.
Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.
So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.
I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:
It’s all right, it’s all right. My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.
Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down. But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.
Sometimes I’m almost on the ground. My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.
There are many references to “the flesh” in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase is confusing to those who think it synonymous with the physical body. While Scripture many times uses the word “flesh” to refer to the physical body, when it is preceded by the definite article, it usually means something more. Only rarely does the biblical phrase “the flesh” (ἡ σὰρξ (he sarx), in Greek) refer only to the physical body (e.g., John 6:53, Phil 3:2, 1 John 4:2).
What, then, is meant by the term “the flesh”? Most plainly, it refers to the part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly, and obstinate part of our inner self that is always operative. It is the part of us that does not want to be told what to do. It is stubborn, refuses correction, and does not want to have anything to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause one to be diminished or something less than the center of the universe. The flesh hates to be under authority or to yield to anything other than its own wishes and desires. It often wants something simply because it is forbidden. The Protestants often call the flesh our “sin nature,” which is not a bad definition. In Catholic tradition the flesh is where concupiscence sets up shop. Concupiscence refers to the strong inclination to sin that is within us as a result of the wound of original sin. If you do not think that your flesh is strong, just try to pray for five minutes and see how quickly your mind wants to think of anything but God. Just try to fast or be less selfish and watch how your flesh goes to war.
The flesh is in direct conflict with the spirit. The “spirit” here refers not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit. The (human) spirit is the part of us that is open to God, that desires Him and is drawn to Him. It is the part of us that is attracted by goodness, beauty, and truth; the part that yearns for completion in God; the part that longs to see His face. Without the spirit we would be totally turned in on ourselves and consumed by the flesh. Thank goodness our spirit, assisted by the Holy Spirit, draws us to desire what is best, upright, and helpful.
Let’s examine a few texts that reference “the flesh” and in so doing, learn more of its ways. This will help us to be on our guard, and by God’s grace to rebuke it and learn not to feed it.
The flesh does not grasp spiritual teachings. [Jesus said,] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (John 6:63).
Having heard Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, most of His listeners ridiculed it and will no longer take Him seriously. Jesus indicates that their hostility to the teaching is of the flesh. The flesh demands that everything be obvious to it on its own terms. The flesh demands to see physical proof for everything. It demands that it be able to “see” using its own power, and if it cannot see based on its own limited view it simply rejects spiritual truth out of hand. In effect, the flesh refuses to believe at all because what it really demands is something that will “force” it to accept something. Absolute proof takes things out of the realm of faith and trust. Faith is no longer necessary when something is absolutely proven and plainly visible to the eyes.
The flesh is not willing to depend on anyone or anything outside its own power or control. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. … I [now] consider this rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:3-9 selected).
The flesh wants to be in control rather than to have to trust in God. Hence, it sets up its own observance, under its own control, and when it has met its own demands it declares itself to be righteous. Because the flesh hates being told what to do, it takes God’s law and makes it “manageable” based on its own terms. For example, if I’m supposed to love, let me limit it to my family or countrymen; I’m “allowed” to hate my enemy. Jesus says that we must love our enemy. The flesh recoils at this because unless the law is manageable and within the power of the flesh to accomplish it, the law cannot be controlled. The flesh trusts only in its own power. The Pharisees were “self-righteous.” That is to say, they believed in a righteousness that they themselves brought about through the power of their own flesh. The law and flesh cannot save, however; only Jesus Christ can save. The flesh refuses this and wants to control the outcome based on its own power and terms.
The flesh hates to be told what to do. For when we were controlled by the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death (Rom 7:5).
The disobedience and rebelliousness of the flesh roots us in sinful behavior and a prideful attitude. The prideful attitude of the flesh is even more dangerous than the sins that flow from the flesh because pride precludes instruction in holiness and possible repentance that lead to life. The flesh does not like to be told what to do, so it rejects the testimony of the Church, the scriptures, and the conscience. Notice that according to this passage the very existence of God’s law arouses the passions of the flesh. The fact that something is forbidden makes the flesh want it all the more! This strong inclination to sin is in the flesh and comes from pride and from indignation at “being told what to do.” The flesh refuses God’s law and sets up its own rules. Yes, the flesh will not be told what to do.
Flesh is as flesh does.Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the spirit have their minds set on what the spirit desires. The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace (Rom 8:5-6),
The flesh is intent on things of this world, on gratifying its own passions and desires. On account of the flesh, we are concerned primarily with ourselves and seek to be at the center. The flesh is turned primarily inward. St Augustine describes the human person in the flesh as incurvatus in se (turned in upon himself). The spirit is that part of us that looks outward toward God and opens us to the truth and holiness that God offers. Ultimately, the flesh is focused on death, for it is concerned with what is passing away: the body and the world. The human spirit is focused on life, for it focuses on God, who is life and light.
The flesh is intrinsically hostile to God. – The mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:7-8).
The flesh is hostile to God because it is pridefully hostile to any one more important than itself. Further, the flesh does not like being told what to do. Hence, it despises authority or anyone who tries to tell it what to do. It cannot please God because it does not want to.
The flesh abuses freedom.You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).
The flesh turns God-given freedom into licentiousness, demanding freedom without limits. Because the flesh does not like to be told what to do, it demands to be able to do whatever it wants. In effect, the flesh says, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” This is licentiousness and it is an abuse of freedom. It results in indulgence and, paradoxically, leads to a slavery to the senses and the passions.
The flesh demands to be fed. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal 5:16-17).
Within the human person is this deep conflict between the flesh and the spirit. We must not be mistaken; the flesh is in us and it is strong. It has declared war on our spirit and on the Holy Spirit of God. When the spirit tries to obey, the flesh resists and tries to sabotage its best aspirations. We must be sober about this conflict and understand that this is why we often do not do what we know is right. The flesh must die and the spirit come more alive. What you feed, grows. If we feed the flesh it will grow. If we feed the spirit it will grow. What are you feeding? Are you sober about the power of the flesh? Do you feed your spirit well through God’s Word, Holy Communion, prayer, and the healing power of Confession? What are you feeding?
The flesh fuels sin. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-210).
This catalogue of sins that flow from the flesh is not exhaustive but is representative of the offensive and obnoxious behaviors that arise from it. Be sober about the flesh; it produces ugly children.
So here is a portrait of “the flesh.” It is ugly. You may say I’m exaggerating, that the flesh is not really that bad—I’m not. Just look at the news and you can see what the flesh is up to. You may, by God’s grace, have seen a diminishment in the power of the flesh in your life. That is ultimately what God can and will do for us. He will put the flesh to death in us and bring alive our spirit by the power of his Holy Spirit.
The first step is to appreciate what the flesh is and understand its moves. The second is to bring this understanding to God through repentance. Step three is (by God’s grace) to stop feeding the flesh and start feeding the spirit with prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, Holy Communion, and Confession. The last step is to repeat the first three steps for the rest of our lives! God will cause the flesh to die and the spirit to live, by His grace at work in us through Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The story marks a significant turning point in the ministry of Jesus: it is because of this incident that the Temple leadership in Jerusalem resolves to have Jesus killed; a supreme irony to be sure.
As is proper with all the Gospel accounts, we must not see this as merely an historical happening of some two thousand years ago. Rather, we must recall that we are Lazarus; we are Martha and Mary. This is also the story of how Jesus is acting in our life.
Let’s look at this Gospel in six stages and learn how the Lord acts to save us and raise us to new life.
I. HE PERMITS. Sometimes there are trials in our life, by God’s mysterious design, to bring us to greater things. The Lord permits these trials and difficulties for various reasons. But, if we are faithful, every trial is ultimately for our glory and the glory of God.
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary, and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Notice that Jesus does not rush to prevent the illness of Lazarus. Rather, He permits it temporarily in order that something greater, God’s Glory in Jesus, be made manifest. In addition, it is for Lazarus’ own good and his share in God’s glory.
It is this way with us as well. We do not always understand what God is up to in our life. His ways are often mysterious, even troubling to us. But our faith teaches us that His mysterious permission of our difficulties is ultimately for our good and for our glory.
Rejoice in this. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this so that your faith, more precious than any fire-tried gold, may lead to praise, honor, and glory when Jesus Christ appears (1 Peter 1: 10).
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
An old gospel hymn says, “Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand, all the way that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But He guides us with his eye and we follow till we die, and we’ll understand it better, by and by. By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.”
For now, it is enough for us to know that God permits our struggles for a season and for a reason.
II. HE PAUSES. Here, too, we confront a mystery. Sometimes God says, “Wait.” Again, this is to prepare us for greater things than those for which we ask.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Note that the text says that Jesus waits because he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. This of course is paradoxical, because we expect love to make one rush to the aid of the afflicted.
Yet Scripture often counsels us to wait.
Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD (Ps 27:14).
For thus says the Lord God, the holy one of Israel, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet an in trust, your strength lies” (Isaiah 30:15).
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance … God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Pet 3:9).
Somehow our waiting is tied to strengthening us and preparing us for something greater. Ultimately, we need God’s patience in order for us to come to full repentance; so it may not be wise to ask God to rush things. Yet still his delay often mystifies us, especially when the need seems urgent.
Note, too, how Jesus’ delay enables something even greater to take place. It is one thing to heal an ailing man; it is quite another to raise a man who has been dead four days. To use an analogy, Jesus is preparing a meal. Do you want a microwave dinner or a great feast? Great feasts take longer to prepare. Jesus delays, but he’s preparing something great.
For ourselves we can only ask for the grace to hold out. An old gospel song says, “Lord help me to hold out, until my change comes.” Another song says, “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”
III. HE PAYS. Despite the design of God and His apparent delay, He is determined to bless us and save us. Jesus is determined to go and help Lazarus even though He puts himself in great danger in doing so. Notice in the following text how the apostles are anxious about going to Judea; some there are plotting to kill Jesus. In order to help Lazarus, Jesus must put himself at great risk.
Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”
We must never forget the price that Jesus has paid for our healing and salvation. Scripture says, You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet 1:18).
Indeed, the Apostles’ concerns are borne out: because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Temple leaders plot to kill him (cf John 11:53). It is of course quite ironic that they should plot to kill Jesus for raising a man from the dead. We can only thank the Lord who, for our sake, endured even death on a cross to purchase our salvation by His own blood.
IV. HE PRESCRIBES. The Lord will die to save us. But there is only one way that saving love can reach us: through our faith. Faith opens the door to God’s blessings, but it is a door we must open, by God’s grace. Thus Jesus inquires into the faith of Martha and later that of Mary.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
Jesus prescribes faith because there is no other way. Our faith and our soul are more important to God than our bodies and creature comforts. For what good is it to gain the whole world and lose our soul? We tend to focus on physical things like our bodies, our health, and our possessions; but God focuses on the spiritual things. And so before raising Lazarus and dispelling grief, Jesus checks the condition of Martha’s faith and elicits an act of faith: “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe.”
Scripture connects faith to seeing and experiencing great things:
All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23).
If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for you (Mt 17:20).
And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58).
When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Mat 9:28).
So Jesus has just asked you and me a question: “Do you believe this?” How will you answer? I know how we should answer. But how do we really and truthfully answer?
V. HE IS PASSIONATE. Coming upon the scene Jesus is described as deeply moved, as perturbed, as weeping.
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”
In his human heart, Jesus experiences the full force of the loss and the blow that death delivers. That He weeps is something of mystery because He will raise Lazarus in moments. But for this moment, Jesus enters and experiences grief and loss with us. Its full force comes over Him and He weeps—so much so that the bystanders say, “See how much He loved him.”
But there is more going on here. The English text also describes Jesus as being perturbed. The Greek word used is ἐμβριμάομαι (embrimaomai), which means to snort with anger, to express great indignation. It is a very strong word and includes the notion of being moved to admonish sternly. What is this anger of Jesus and at whom is it directed? It is hard to know exactly, but the best answer would seem to be that he is angry at death and at what sin has done. For it was by sin that suffering and death entered the world. It is almost as though Jesus is on the front lines of the battle and has a focused anger against Satan and what he has done. Scripture says, by the envy of the devil death entered the world. (Wisdom 2:23). And God has said, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
At the death of some of my own loved ones, I remember experiencing not only sorrow, but also anger. Death should not be. But there it is; it glares back at us, taunts us, and pursues us.
Yes, Jesus experiences the full range of emotions that we do. Out of His sorrow and anger, He is moved to act on our behalf. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And Jesus is about to act.
VI. HE PREVAILS. In the end, Jesus always wins. You can skip right to the end of the Bible and see that Jesus wins there, too. You might just as well get on the winning team. He will not be overcome by Satan, even when all seems lost. God is a good God; He is a great God; He can do anything but fail. Jesus can make a way out of no way.
He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
I have it on the best of authority that as Lazarus came out of the tomb he was singing this gospel song: “Faithful is our God! I’m reaping the harvest God promised me, take back what devil stole from me, and I rejoice today, for I shall recover it all!”
VII. HE PARTNERS.
So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go free.”
Notice something important here: Although Jesus raises Lazarus, and gives him new life, Jesus also commands the bystanders to untie Lazarus and let him go free. Christ raises us, but He has work for the Church to do: untie those He has raised in baptism and let them go free.
To have a personal relationship with Jesus is crucial, but it is also essential to have a relationship to the Church. For after raising Lazarus, Jesus entrusts him to the care of others. Jesus speaks to the Church—parents, priests, catechists, all members of the Church—and gives this standing order regarding the souls He has raised to new life: “Untie them and let them go free.”
We are Lazarus and we were dead in our sin, but we have been raised to new life. Yet we can still be bound by the effects of sin. This is why we need the sacraments, Scripture, prayer, and other ministries of the Church through catechesis, preaching, and teaching. Lazarus’ healing wasn’t a “one and you’re done” scenario and neither is ours.
We are also the bystanders. Just as we are in need of being untied and set free, so do we have this obligation to others. By God’s grace, parents must untie their children and let them go free; pastors must do the same with their flocks. As a priest, I realize how often my people have helped to untie me and let me go free, strengthened my faith, encouraged me, admonished me, and restored me.
This is the Lord’s mandate to the Church regarding every soul He has raised: “Untie him and let him go free.” This is the Lord’s work, but just as Jesus involved the bystanders then, He still involves the Church (which includes us) now.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the Light of the World, brings light to a man born blind. If you are prepared to accept it, you are the man born blind, for all of us were born blind and in darkness. It was our baptism and the faith it gave that rendered us able to see and to come gradually more fully into the light. The man in today’s Gospel shows forth the stages of the Christian walk, out of darkness and into the beautiful light of Christ. Let’s take a moment to ponder the stages of the blind man’s walk, for each of us is the man.
I. The Problem that is Presented– We are introduced to a man who was blind from birth, incapable of seeing at all. As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
So there is the problem: he is blind; he has no vision. On account of Original Sin, we lost all spiritual vision. We could not see God or endure the light of His glory. This lack of vision causes many to have no “vision” for their life. They don’t know why they were made or what the true purpose of their existence is. Many cannot see past the sufferings of this world to the glory that awaits. Others have retreated into the material world and cannot see beyond it. Still others have retreated even further, away from reality into the realm of their own mind, their own opinions. St. Augustine describes this condition of the human person as curvatus in se (man turned in on himself). Yes, there is a blindness that imprisons many in the darkness. Even for us who believe there are still areas where it is hard for us to see. Coming to see God more fully, and to see ourselves as we really are, is a journey; one we are still on.
While the disciples want to dwell on secondary causes, Jesus sidesteps these and focuses on solutions. Assessing blame is unproductive; healing the man is uppermost. In a statement dripping with irony, Jesus says that the works of God will be made visible in a blind man. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength (1 Cor 1:25). Yes, God can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.
II. The Purification that is Prescribed – Having diagnosed the problem, Jesus begins the work of healing this man. When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam”—which means Sent. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.
Hopefully, you can see baptism here. Jesus tells him, “Go wash … he went and washed, and came back able to see.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this of the Sacrament of Baptism:
This bath is called enlightenment, because those who receive this [catechetical] instruction are enlightened in their understanding … Having received in Baptism the Word, “the true light that enlightens every man,” the person baptized has been “enlightened,” he becomes a “son of light,” indeed, he becomes “light” himself (CCC 1216).
Baptism is required in order to truly see. It is no accident that John mentions the name of the pool to which the man goes: Siloam, a name meaning “sent.” Jesus sends him and He sends us. Baptism is required. Jesus says elsewhere, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
Notice that the man comes back able to see. But just because you’re able to see doesn’t mean you actually do see. Right now I am able to see the Statue of Liberty; my eyes function properly, but I do not see it; I have to make a journey in order to do that. Similarly, the man here is able to see Jesus, but he does not yet see Him. He has a journey to make in order to do that. He has a long way to go to see Jesus fully, face to face. Baptism is not the end of our journey but the beginning of it. It renders us able to see, but we are still newborn babes. We need to grow. We can see, but there is plenty we haven’t yet seen.
III. The Perception that is Partial – The man can see but still does not know much of the one who has enabled him to see. His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”
So he’s able to see. But he hasn’t yet seen much. The man must grow in faith to come to know who Jesus really is. Look at how his partial perception is described. For now, he merely understands Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” To him, Jesus is just “some guy.” When asked where Jesus is, all he can say is that he doesn’t know. Although he is able to see, he does not yet actually see Jesus.
This describes a lot of Christians. They know about Jesus but they don’t know Him. Many Catholics in the pews are “sacramentalized but unevangelized.” That is, they have received the sacraments but have never really met Jesus Christ; they do not know Him in any more than an intellectual way. Many don’t even expect to know Him. He is little better to them than “the man called Jesus.” They’ve heard of Jesus and even know some basic facts about Him, but He is a distant figure in their lives. When asked questions about Him, they respond like this man: “I don’t know.”
IV. Progress through Persecution and Pondering – The text goes on to show us the progress that this formerly blind man makes in coming to know and finally see Jesus. It is interesting that this progress comes largely through persecution. Persecution need not always be understood as something as severe as being arrested and thrown in jail. It can come in many forms: puzzlement expressed by relatives and friends, ridicule of Catholicism in the media, or even those internal voices that make us question our faith. In whatever form, though, persecution has a way of making us face the questions and refine our understanding. Our vision gets clearer as we meet the challenges.
Notice the man’s progress thus far. He has been baptized and is now able to see, but he still knows little of Jesus, referring to Him only as “the man called Jesus,” He doesn’t know where Jesus is. He is about to grow, though, and does so in several stages.
In stage one of the man’s post-baptismal growth his neighbors turn on him and bring him to the Pharisees, who interrogate him because Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath.
They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath. So then, the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
Notice what this persecution does for him. As he is challenged to say something about Jesus, he moves beyond calling him “the man called Jesus” and describes Him as a prophet. The man has gained some insight. A prophet speaks for God and Jesus is the Word made flesh.
In stage two of the man’s post-baptismal growth the Pharisees doubt his story and broaden their persecution, interrogating and threatening his fearful parents.
Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” his parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason, his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”
In stage three of his post-baptismal growth we note that the continuing persecution seems to make him grow even stronger and more able to withstand his opponents. Note his determination and fearlessness during the second interrogation he faces, which includes ridiculing him and placing him under oath:
So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.
The result of this is to further deepen his vision of Jesus. At first, he saw Jesus only as “the man called Jesus.” Then he sees Him as a prophet. Now he goes further and sees Him as “from God.” He’s progressing from sight to insight. His ability to see, given to him in baptism, is now resulting in even clearer vision.
V. Perfection that is Portrayed – The man has been thrown out of the synagogue, as many early Christians were. He has endured the hatred of the world and the loss of many things. When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.
Now the man’s vision is clear. After all this, he finally sees. Not only does he see Jesus, he sees who Jesus is. First he saw Him only as “the man called Jesus.” Then he sees Him as a prophet. Next, he says that He is from God. The final stage is the best of all. He actually sees Jesus and falls down to worship Him. Jesus is not only from God, he is God. Christ has fully enlightened him.
This is our journey, moving in stages to know Jesus more perfectly. One day we will see Him face to face; we will see Him for who He is.
Where are you on this journey? If we are faithful, our vision is getting better daily, but it is not yet complete. Scripture says,
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood (1 Cor 13:12).
Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? (Psalm 42:2)
For now, make this journey. Make it in stages. Come to know who Jesus is.
I have it on the best of authority that the man, on his journey to Jesus, sang this song:
Walk in the Light, beautiful light. Come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright. Walk all around us by day and by night, O Jesus the Light of the World!
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!
As we examine the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass we do well to understand that is about human desires and how the Lord reaches us through them. Prior to examining the text in detail, let’s consider a few things:
What it is that really makes you happy? We desire so many things: food, water, shelter, clothing, and creature comforts. We long for affection, peace, and a sense of belonging. Sometimes we want stability and simplicity, at others we yearn for change and variety. Our hearts are a sea of desires, wishes, and longings. Today’s Gospel says that a woman went to the well to draw water. She represents each one of us and her desire for water is symbolic of all our desires.
In reality, your desires are infinite. Can you remember a time when you were ever entirely satisfied, when you wanted absolutely nothing else? Even if you can recall such a time, I’ll bet it didn’t last long. That is because our desires are without limit.
The well in today’s Gospel symbolizes this world. Jesus says to the woman, Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again. The world cannot provide what we are really looking for. No matter how much it offers us, it will never suffice, for the world is finite while our desires are infinite. In this way our heart teaches us something very important about ourselves: We were not made for this world; we were made for something, someone, who is infinite, who alone can satisfy us. We were made for God.
The water offered is the Holy Spirit. Jesus said elsewhere, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive (Jn. 7:37-39).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the meanings of our longings:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for. … With his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material, can have its origin only in God (Catechism # 27, 33).
Scripture speaks to us about our desires:Of You my heart has spoken: “Seek His face.” It is your face O Lord that I seek; hide not your face! (Psalm 27:8-9). Only in God will my soul be at rest, he is my hope, my salvation (Psalm 62:1).
Augustine wrote these classic words to describe our truest longing: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (Confessions 1,1).
With these in mind, let’s look at the journey that this woman makes to Jesus. Things start out rough, but in the end she discovers her heart’s truest desire. The journey is made in stages.
Rendezvous – Notice that Jesus is the one who takes the initiative here. As the Lord teaches elsewhere, It was not you who chose me, It was I who chose you (John 15:16). Jesus encounters a woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. She desires water, but Jesus knows that her desire is for far more than water or in fact anything that the world gives. Her desire has brought her face to face with Jesus. It is a holy and fortunate rendezvous. Jesus begins a discussion with her about her heart’s truest longing.
Request – The discussion begins with a request. The text says, It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” Imagine, God asking you for anything; what a stunning thing! What can she or anyone really give God? The answer is simply this: the gift of our very self. God has put a threshold before our heart that even He will not cross unless we first say yes to Him. Jesus’ request initiates a discussion, a dialogue of two hearts. As we shall see, the woman struggles with this dialogue. To be sure, it is a delicate, even painful process for us to accept the Lord’s invitation to self-giving. Something within us makes us draw back in fear. Scripture says, It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of living God (Heb 10:31).
Rebuke – Sure enough, she draws back with fear and anger. She says, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”—For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans. In our journey to God, we do not always trust or understand Him at first. Some are afraid to relate to God because they think they will lose their freedom or that they will have to change too much. Others loathe the commandments or fear that they cannot keep them. Still others are angry at the unexpected twists and turns of life and do not want to trust a God who doesn’t always give them what they want. The woman’s anger is not really at Jesus; it is at “the Jews,” with whom the Samaritans have a hostile relationship. This is sometimes the case with God as well. It is not always the Lord Jesus, or God the Father, whom people hate or distrust; rather, it is Christians. Some have been hurt by the Church or by Christians; others have prejudiced opinions influenced by a hostile media and world.
Repetition – Jesus repeats His offer for a relationship. He says, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” I don’t know about you, but I am mighty glad that the Lord does not merely write us off when we say no to Him. Jesus stays in the conversation and even sweetens the deal by making an offer to give her fresh, living water. The Lord does the same for us. First He gave the Law, then He gave the prophets; now He gives His Son. It just keeps getting better. First He gave water, then He changed it to wine, and then He changed it to His blood. Despite our often harsh rejection of God, He keeps the dialogue going.
Ridicule – The woman is still hostile and now even ridicules Jesus: “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” To the world, the teachings of God often appear to be foolishness. People often dismiss religious faith as fanciful and unrealistic.
Reminder – Jesus now re-frames the question by reminding the woman of the obvious: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. What she is relying on can’t come through for her. The world’s water does not satisfy us; the world’s delights are transitory. They promise ultimate satisfaction, but soon we are thirsty again. The world is the gift that keeps on taking; it takes our money, loyalty, freedom, and time, while giving us only temporary—and ultimately unsatisfying pleasures—in return. It’s a bad deal. Every one who drinks from this well be thirsty again.
Re-upping the offer – Jesus says, “… but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Here the Lord speaks of happiness and satisfaction that he will give, that grows in us and makes us more and more alive. The “water” he offers (as noted above) is the gift of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit lives in us and transforms us, we become more and more content with what we have. As the life of God grows in us, we become more alive in God and joyful in what He is doing for us. This is what the Lord offers us: the gift of a new and transformed life, the gift to become fully alive in God. I am a witness of this. How about you?
Result – The woman has moved toward Jesus; she has warmed to His offer. She says, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Here is the result of the Lord’s persistence. Thank God that He does not give up on us. He keeps calling, even when we say no, even when we sin; He just keeps call our name!
Requirement – Jesus wants to give this gift, but first He must help her to make room for it. For the truth is that she has unrepented sin. A cup that is filled with sand cannot be filled with water. The sand must first be emptied out and then the cup cleansed. Thus Jesus says, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” Now she does what most of us do when we are in an uncomfortable spot: she changes the subject. She attempts to engage in a discussion about where to worship. Jesus is patient and answers her, but ultimately draws her back to the subject at hand: her heart and what her desires are really all about.
Reconciliation – At this point the conversation gets private; we are not permitted to listen in. It is just between her and Jesus. But whatever it was, she is elated and will later declare, “He told me everything I ever did.” There is no sense in her tone that Jesus was merely accusatory. Rather, it would seem that Jesus helped her to understand her heart and her struggle. An old song says, “I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in and then a little light from heaven filled my soul. He bathed my heart in love and he wrote my name above and just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.” Here, Jesus reconciles her with God and with her own self.
Rejoicing – The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” They went out of the town and came to him.” Do not miss that little detail: she left her water jar. She left behind the very thing she was depending on to collect the things of the world. What is your “water jar”? What do you use to gain access to the world and to collect its offerings? For most of us, it is money. Scripture says, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:10). At any rate, the woman is joyfully empowered to leave this enslaving water jar behind. Freed from its load, she is able to run to town and declare Jesus to others. Her joy must have been infectious, for soon enough they are following her out to meet the Lord!
This is the journey of a woman who represents each one of us. This is our journey, out of dependence, out of an enslaving attachment to the world. It is our journey unto Jesus, who alone can set us free. Here is our journey to understand that our desires are ultimately about God.
One of the deceptions of our time is the notion that serious sin is only a remote possibility for most people and that such sins are only committed by truly wicked people. Too many people assess their moral standing with unhelpful platitudes such as these: “I’m basically a good person,” or “Well, I haven’t murdered anybody.”
We must be more serious and mature in our discernment. While it is true, as we have noted in previous articles (HERE and HERE) that there are conditions necessary for mortal sin, we ought not simply presume they are hard to meet. It is true that, even when there is grave matter, that our freedom or knowledge can be limited in such a way that our blameworthiness is reduced below the level of mortal sin. But, as noted, deep down we usually know what we are doing in most matters. Further, our freedom, though seldom a perfect freedom is more free that we like to admit when we get in trouble of some sort.
Further, God does not leave us in such a fog of uncertainty. His Word is quite clear in specifying some of the more serious sins so that we can humbly recognize our tendency to do these very things. It is also expected of us, who have reason and free will that these are not just theoretical powers seldom observed, but that they are fundamental endowments for which we are responsible and in which are expected to grow. It is offensive to our human dignity to assert, in effect, that most people are too stupid to go to hell or too enslaved to their passions to really be responsible for what they do. The Holy Scriptures presuppose that we are moral agents and engage our intellect and will. They warn of serious sin and and its consequences neither of which are relevant if we do not possess the requisite intellect and will.
In this third post on the topic mortal sin is to advance a kind of listing of sins that are more commonly mortal. But note, simply listing mortal sins is not sufficient because, as noted, there are important factors affecting culpability. For example, some of the sins listed below (e.g., lying) can admit of lighter matter (one might tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feeling). Lies can also be devastating, robbing people of their good name or depriving people of necessary information. Also, as noted and despite the cautions I have noted, compulsions or addictions can erode the freedom necessary to be guilty of mortal sin. Hence, a sin could be venial if the person were acting under some compulsion. This does not mean that it is not a sin at all, just that it may not be fully mortal in its effects.
We begin with biblical “lists” of the more serious sins from the New Testament. Note in these lists that saying a particular sin excludes one from the Kingdom of Heaven is a biblical way of saying that it is a mortal sin. These five lists are not exhaustive and there are other passages in the Bible that include sins not mentioned below (e.g., refusal to forgive, cf Matt 6:15).
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were (1 Cor 6:9-10).
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore, do not be partners with them (Eph 5:3-6).
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:12-16).
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 25:41-46).
Finally, here is a general warning from the Lord:
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me (John 5:28-29).
What follows is a list of sins that are mortal or can commonly become mortal due to the harm caused.
First Commandment: I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me. Polytheism and idolatry, divination, magic, sorcery and spiritism. Atheism, Agnosticism, Irreligion, sacrilege, simony. Apostacy, Heresy, schism, stubborn refusal to obey God, recourse to: Wicca, Pachamama, witchcraft, horoscopes, palm readers, tarot cards, mediums and psychics, Ouija boards, crystals, pendulums, Rieke, Charlie-charlie, seances, crystals and… just add the latest . See CCC 2110-2128; 2138-2140
Second Commandment: You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. Blasphemy, curses, unfaithfulness to promises, false oaths, perjury. See CCC 2142-2149; 2160-2162
Third Commandment: Remember to keep holy the LORD’S day. Not attending Holy Mass on Sundays and Holy days of Obligation without a just motive (e.g. sickness); See Catechism 1389
Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother. Serious Negligence, of the obligations/responsibilities towards one’s children, parents and siblings; hatred; ingratitude; disrespect; disobedience in matters concerning the material and spiritual well-being; negligence and indifference toward virtue and in faith of one’s children. Serious insubordination or lack of due respect to lawful authority. Undermining of authority by sedition or inciting public unrest. See Catechism 2114-2118;2221-2229
5th Commandment: You shall not kill. Direct and intentional murder and cooperation in it; direct abortion and cooperation in it. Direct euthanasia,
suicide. Hatred, extreme anger, terrorism, seduction into serious sin, See Compendium 470; Catechism 2268-2283; 2321-2326
6th Commandment: You shall not commit adultery. Adultery, masturbation, fornication before or outside of marriage, incest, sexual abuse and harassment, pornography, prostitution, rape, and homosexual actions. Direct sterilization, contraception, artificial or in vitro fertilization, divorce and remarriage, polygamy, incest, cohabitation. See Catechism 2351-2359; 2396; 2370-2372; 2380-2391, 2400
7th Commandment: You shall not steal. Theft, borrowing without permission, business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices, taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property, vandalism, refusing reparations when property is damaged, slavery, greed, withholding wages.
Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Lying, especially about serious matters that harm reputations, seriously misleading or depriving others of important information, false witness and perjury, rash judgment, detraction, calumny, adulation, violation of the sacramental seal, divulging professional secrets. Catechism 2475-2487; 2507-2509;
10th Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. Jealousy, envy, ingratitude, disrespect or misuse of the property of others, greed, and envy, immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself. Catechism 2534-2540; 2551-2554
No list of mortal sins can be perfect, either due to excess or defect. We must recall that small sins can cause great harm in certain circumstances, such as when children are involved or merely unkind words are uttered in a very sensitive moment. Further, what are often mortal sins can admit of light matter such as telling a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or taking a small item like a cookie versus a highly expensive one.
Mortal sins happen. Frequent confession is a salutary and proper remedy that takes such sin seriously but does not despair of God’s mercy. Further, it refers judgment to the proper tribunal of God working through the Church and the priest. It “errs” on the side of caution beseeching mercy.
Finally, this thought: Even venial sin harms our relationship with God. It weakens it and sets us on a path that becomes accustomed to sin in growing degrees. Those who forever say, “Well I don’t think it is mortal” soon enough cross into mortal sin, likely still denying they are in such a state since they have been desensitized and settled down with sin.