On the Balance of Love and Correction according to St. Gregory.

102814Applying salutary  discipline, and balancing it with necessary consolations and encouragement is never an easy task. It is possible that a parents can be too severe on their children, such that they become disheartened, and lack necessary self-esteem. But it is also possible that parents can be too lax such that their children become spoiled and lack proper self-discipline and humility. Hence Scripture seeking to balance teaching with encouragement says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4)

Pastors too in their leadership of parishes need also to find proper balance, offering kindness, consolations, and encouragement and witness to their congregation, while not failing to properly rebuke sin and warn of its consequences  and of the coming judgment. And thus St Paul says, You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:11-13). Thus, like a loving Father must the priest exhort, as one who teaches, wants and expects the best for his flock, but also as one who loves them.

It is hard to argue that we have the balance right in the Church today. Correction and rebuke, according to what most Catholics report, is seldom a feature of preaching today. And where this is the case it is hard to argue that the priest is acting like a father. For a father would see how sin can threaten the future of his children and in love he will correct, being willing to upset his child to prevent something worse. Yet in some places there are also priests who teach and preach as if trying to win an argument and prevail over others, than as an act of loving concern, and perhaps he will be unnecessarily harsh.

In families too the trend seems to lean toward being too permissive and thus the necessary balance is lost. Too many children today have become incorrigible, since they did not learn discipline when they were young. Too many are bold toward elders and have lost the humility necessary for learning and maturity. And this speaks to families where the balance between encouragement and discipline has been lost. It is also true that some children are oppressed by the other extreme and are weighed down with discouragement, poor self image and anger.

Hence balance is necessary.

St Gregory in his Pastoral Rule presents some good advice in regard to this balance. And while much of what he says is common sense, it is important to review it since common sense isn’t as common today. What he says is also excellent since he uses two very memorable images that can stay with the thoughtful priest or parent who reads it. There hear what St. Gregory has to say about addressing the wound of sin:

But often a wound is made worse by unskilled mending…in every case, care should be provided in such a way that discipline is never rigid, nor kindness lax.… Either discipline or kindness is lacking if one is ever exercised independently of the other. … This is what the scriptures teach through the Samaritan who took the half dead man to the inn and applied wine and oil to his wounds. The wine purged them and the oil soothed them.

Indeed, it is necessary that whoever direct the healing of wounds must administer with wine the bite of pain, and with oil the caress of kindness; so that what is rotten may be purged to by the wine, and what is curable may be soothed by the oil.

In short, gentleness is to be mixed with severity, a combination that will prevent the laity from becoming exasperated by excessive harshness, or relaxed by undue kindness. … Wherefore David said, “Your rod and your staff have comforted me.” (Psalm 23:4) Indeed, by the rod we are punished and by the staff we are sustained. If therefore, there is correction by the rod it, let there also be support through the staff. Let there be love that does not soften, vigor that does not exasperate, zeal that is not immoderate or uncontrolled, and kindness that spares, but not more than is befitting. Therefore justice and mercy are forge together in the art of spiritual direction. (Rule II.6)

Practical reminders to be sure, but also with the memorable images of wine and oil, rod and staff. Both are necessary, both must balance the other. There must be clarity with charity, and charity with clarity; there must be veritatem in caritate (truth in love).

The Progressive Stages of Sin

We are living in times when many are doubling down on their sin. As the darkness grows, many fiercely defend their sinful practices. This is especially evident in the matter of abortion. The science could not be clearer that there is a unique, beautifully formed, distinct human life in the womb of a pregnant mother, with a heartbeat, brain activity, alternating sleep and wake cycles, and the ability to feel pain. Despite this, many demand that all limits on abortion be removed. They “shout” and celebrate abortion, rejoicing in the dismemberment of babies in the womb and all the while considering themselves morally superior to those who support life.

How does it happen that so many obstinately persist in sin and promote wickedness until they are ultimately lost? As with all progressive diseases, sin is a sickness that moves through stages, further debilitating and hardening the sinner in his ways.

St. Alphonsus Liguori laid out five stages through which sin (if not resisted and repented of in its initial attacks) takes an increasing toll on the human person, making repentance less likely and more difficult.

While the names of the stages are mine, I am summarizing the insights of St. Alphonsus, who details these stages in his lengthy essay, “Considerations on the Eternal Maxims” (also called “Preparation for Death”) in Chapter 22, “On Evil Habits.” I have added some of my own additional insights as well.

Stage 1: Impairment – The first effect of unrepented habitual sin is that it blinds the understanding. Scripture says, Their own malice blinded them (Wisdom 2:21). Yes, every sin produces blindness, and the more that sins are multiplied, the greater the blindness they produce.

A further effect of this blindness is a foolish and dangerous wandering about. Scripture provides several references for this:

        • The wicked walk round about (Ps. 12:8).
        • They stagger as with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment (Is 28:7).
        • Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the pit that he has made (Ps 7:14-15).

Thus, habitual sin leads to impaired vision and an impaired walk. Not seeing, the wicked stumble about and fall into a pit of their own making.

Stage 2: Indifference – After an evil habit is contracted, the sins that previously excited sorrow are now viewed with increasing indifference. Scripture says the following:

        • Fools destroy themselves because of their indifference (Prov 1:32).
        • But he who is careless of conduct will die (Prov 19:16).

To the increasingly indifferent and careless, the Lord gives this solemn and salutary warning: In little more than a year you who feel secure will tremble; the grape harvest will fail, and the harvest of fruit will not come (Is 32:10).

Thus, as unrepented sin grows, not only does the sinner stagger about and fall into pits, he cares less and less about the foolishness of his ways. The sins that once caused shame, or the thought of which caused sorrow and aversion, either go unnoticed or seem normal—even attractive.

Stage 3: Incapacity – As sin deepens its hold, the willingness and even the capacity to repent decreases. Why is this? St. Augustine answers this well when he says, dum servitur libidini, facta est consuetudo, et dum consuetudini non resistitur, facta est necessitas (when lust was served it became habit, and when habit was not resisted it became necessity) (Confessions, 8.5.10). Sin deepens its hold on the sinner in this way.

Stage 4: Incorrigibility – As Scripture says, The wicked man, when he is come into the depths of sins, has contempt (Proverbs 18:3). St. John Chrysostom commented on this verse, saying that habitual sinners, being sunk in the abyss of darkness, despise corrections, sermons, censures, Hell, and God; they despise everything.

A bad habit hardens the heart and the habitual sinner remains increasingly unmoved and mired in contempt for any correction or remedy. Scripture says of them, At your rebuke O God of Jacob, they have all slumbered (Psalm 76:7). An evil habit gradually takes away all remorse and replaces it with angry indignation at any attempted correction.

Then, instead of regretting his sins, the sinner rejoices in them, even laughing and boasting of them. Scripture says,

        • They are glad when they have done evil and rejoice in the perverseness of evil (Proverbs 2:14).
        • A fool works mischief as if it were for sport (Proverbs 10:23).

Thus, they are incorrigible. They laugh at attempted correction and celebrate their sins with pride.

Stage 5: Indisposition – When the understanding is deprived of light and the heart is hardened, the sinner ordinarily dies obstinate in his sin. Scripture says, A hard heart shall fare ill at the end (Ecclesiastes 3:27).

Some may say that they will amend their ways before they die, but it’s very difficult for a habitual sinner, even in old age, to change his life. St. Bernard said, “The man on whom the weight of a bad habit presses, rises with difficulty.”

Indeed, how can a sinner, weakened and wounded by habitual sin, have the strength to rise? Even if he sees the way out, he often considers the remedies too severe, too difficult. Though conversion is not impossible, he is indisposed because it all seems like too much work. In addition, his love has likely grown cold for the good things that God offers.

Thus, even on their deathbeds, many sinners remain unmoved and unwilling to change; the darkness is deep, their hearts have hardened, and their sloth has solidified.

In these ways sin is like a progressive illness, a deepening disease; it moves through stages in much the same way that cancer does. Repentance at any stage is possible, but it becomes increasingly unlikely, especially by stage four, when the sinner becomes proud of his sin and joyful in his iniquity.

Beware the progressive illness of sin!

If You Can Use Anything Lord, You Can Use Me – A Homily for the 11th Sunday of the Year

The readings for this Sunday speak of God’s providence, which is often displayed in humble, hidden, and mysterious ways. While it is true that God sometimes works in overpowering ways, His more common method seems to be using the humble and even unlikely things of the created order to accomplish His goals.

For us who are disciples, there are three related teachings given to us that speak of how God will make use of us and others. It is also good to link these teaching to Father’s Day, which occurs this weekend here in the U.S. These three teachings can be described as Adaptability, “Awe-Ability,” and Accountability.

ADAPTABILITY – In today’s first reading and in the Gospel, we hear how God can take something humble and adapt it to be something mighty and powerful.

The tender shoot of the first reading becomes a mighty oak: I [the Lord] will take from the crest of the cedar…a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. … It shall put forth branches and bear fruit and become a majestic cedar (Ezekiel 17:22-23).

The mustard seed of the first reading which becomes a great shade tree: The … kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade (Mk 4:32-33).

Yes, God adapts us for His purposes and no one should say, “I cannot be used.” An old song says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” There’s a litany I’ve seen floating around the Internet that says,

The next time you think God can’t use you, remember

Noah was a drunk
Abraham was too old
Isaac was a daydreamer
Jacob was a liar
Leah was ugly
Joseph was abused
Moses was murderer had a stuttering problem
Gideon was afraid
Samson had long hair and was a womanizer
Rahab was a prostitute
Jeremiah and Timothy were too young
David had an affair and was a murderer
Elijah was suicidal
Isaiah preached naked
Jonah ran from God
Naomi was a widow
Job went bankrupt and was depressed
Peter denied Christ
The Disciples fell asleep while praying
Martha worried about everything
The Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once
Zaccheus was too small
Paul was too argumentative
Timothy had an ulcer
and Lazarus was dead!

No excuses, then, God chooses the weak and makes them strong

In fact, it is often our very weakness that is the open door for God. In our strength we are usually too proud to be of any use to Him. Moses was too strong at age forty when he pridefully murdered a man, thinking he was doing both the Jews and God a favor. Only forty years later, at the age of eighty, was Moses weak and humble enough to depend on God. Only then could God use him.

We are invited in this principle to consider that it is not merely in the “biggie-wow” things we do that God can work. It is also in the humble and imperfect things about us—the mustard seed of faith, the tiny shoots, the humble growth—that God can magnify His power.

So, God can adapt even the humblest, most ordinary, lowliest things and from them bring forth might and lasting fruit. Never despair of what is most humble about you, or that you are of little account on the world’s stage. It is precisely our humble state that God most often uses to bring forth His greatest and most lasting works.

“AWE-ABILITY” – This is the capacity to reverence mystery and to have wonder and awe at what God does. In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that although a man plants seeds, he does not really know the deeper mysteries of life and growth:

This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mk 4:26-27).

Despite our often-self-congratulatory celebration of our scientific prowess and of how much we know, there is much more that we neither know nor understand. We do well to maintain a reverential awe of the deeper mysteries of God’s works and His ways. We are also rather poor at assessing the effectiveness of our methods. We may come away from a project considering it to have been very effective, and yet little comes of it in the long run. Conversely, sometimes what we consider to have been an ineffective effort may bear great fruit. God works in His own ways and we do well to remember that He can surprise us, reminding us that He is able and is in charge.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had on her desk a “God can.” It was a metal cookie tin with the following saying on its lid: He worketh in strange and mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Into this box she would place slips of papers on which were written the challenges, struggles, and failures of her life. When she reached the limits of her strengths and abilities, she would say, “I can’t, but God can.” So, into this metal “God can” went the slips of paper, placed there in the hope that God would make a way out of no way. Quite often He did.

We do well to cultivate a sense of wonder and awe at who God is and how He works. Not only does this bring us joy, but it also opens us to hope. It reminds us that God can work in hidden ways to exult what is humble and to bring great transformation to those who are cast down and troubled. As we saw in the “adaptability” section of this post, it is often in the humblest things that God performs His mightiest works.

ACCOUNTABILITY – If it is true that we can’t, but God can; if it is true that God can use us mightily despite our humble state, our weakness, and even our sinfulness; then there can be no excuse for not bearing fruit in our life. Each of us is accountable to the Lord for how we let Him use us and work through us to further His Kingdom.

The second reading reminds that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:9-10).

God is able to adapt and to work in wondrous and hidden ways to lift us up, even if we are humble and struggle. Given this capacity of God’s, we must one day render an account of how we have responded to God’s grace and His invitation to be used for His work.

On that day of judgment, the answer “I couldn’t” will ring hollow, because God can. Today’s readings remind us to be open to what God can do, often in mysterious ways, and even with the most humble things in our life.

Today is also Father’s Day, and so the following litany of resolution seems appropriate:

I DO solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife, and my children.

I WILL love them, protect them, serve them, and teach them the Word of God as the spiritual leader of my home.

I WILL be faithful to my wife, to love and honor her, and be willing to lay down my life for her as Jesus Christ did for me.

I WILL bless my children and teach them to love God with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength.

I WILL train them to honor authority and live responsibly.

I WILL confront evil, pursue justice, and love mercy.

I WILL pray for others and treat them with kindness, respect, and compassion.

I WILL work diligently to provide for the needs of my family.

I WILL forgive those who have wronged me and reconcile with those I have wronged.

I WILL learn from my mistakes, repent of my sins, and walk with integrity as a man answerable to God.

I WILL seek to honor God, be faithful to His church, obey His Word, and do His will.

I WILL courageously work with the strength God provides to fulfill this resolution for the rest of my life and for His glory.

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

This resolution comes from the 2011 movie Courageous, which I strongly recommend seeing.

All of us, men and women, will be held accountable, for even if we can’t, God can. Even if we feel too humble and insignificant, God does His greatest work with humble things and humble people. For us, it is simply to say that we have an adaptability that God can use. This should inspire in us an “awe-ability” that joyfully acknowledges God’s often secretive and hidden power. If that be the case, then, knowing our accountability, it simply remains for us to say, “If you can use anything, Lord, you can use me!”

 

From Simply Sentimental to Strong and Sure – A Consideration of Devotion to the Sacred Heart

I must say that in the past I was not always as on board as I should have been when it came to the Feast of the Sacred Heart. As a man, I have struggled especially with some of the Sacred Heart images of past years, especially from the 1940s into the 1970s that, frankly, made Jesus look like a bearded lady. Deep red lips, baby soft skin, “come-hither” look, “feminine” head tilt, long slender fingers, and strangely bent wrists all seemed too feminine for me.  See for example the image here:  Sacred Heart. Frankly, the feminized portrayal of Jesus made me cringe. “Maybe this works for some,” I thought, “but not for me.” Women are beautiful, but men shouldn’t look like women.

Then too, the whole notion of the heart has become rather distorted. The heart is thought of by most as the domain of sentimental feelings and romance. Stronger biblical notions of the heart were lost in favor of these sentimental and romantic ones.  So there was Jesus, pointing to His heart to indicate His love, but I experienced it through the current notion of sentimentality and romance. While the true teaching on the Sacred Heart was much richer and more proper, the version that reached me was distorted and had little appeal.

In recent years, I have tried to recover a more proper notion of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I have done this by coming to understand the heart in a more biblical way. I have also done this by learning to understand the heart of Christ in a stronger way that is more helpful for me.

Recovering a more biblical understanding of the heart – In celebrating the heart of the Lord Jesus, we ought to see it in a more biblical way. In the biblical world, the heart did not exclude feelings, but feelings were thought of as more located in the gut. Things such as tenderness, mercy, love, and emotions were spoken of in terms more visceral than we are comfortable with today. Most of our modern translations do not render the Hebrew and Greek references, which speak of the “bowels of mercy”  in God or in the human person, literally.  Most modern translations render the Hebrew “bowels of mercy” as “tender mercy” and expressions such as “my bowels are moved within me” as “my heart is moved within me.” We just don’t talk about bowels today in polite company!

I say this to indicate that for the biblical writers, feelings, sentiment, and mercy were not usually located in the heart but elsewhere. You can see this if you get a rather literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek such as the Douay Rheims or Young’s Literal Translation and refer to passages such as these: Gen 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Song 5:4; Is 63:15; Jer 31:20; Lam 2:11; 2 Cr 6:12; Phil 1:8; Phil 2:1; Col 3:12. While feelings such as anxiety, fear, romance, and tenderness were pondered in the heart, their real “place” was shifted down one level to the “gut” or viscera. We do have some vestiges of these ancient notions in expressions like “gut reaction” or “butterflies in my stomach.”

So what then IS the biblical notion of the heart? While not wholly excluding feelings, the “heart” in the Scriptures is the deepest part of us; it is where we “live.” It is where we deliberate, where our memories and thoughts are. It is where we process feelings and events. It is where we ponder what to do and then decide. It is where we reflect and consider the direction of our life and most deeply understand who we are and how we are related to God and others. It is the place of our decisions and where we set priorities. In short, it is the place where “I am” in the deepest sense. Most moderns locate this in the brain (or mind, a word that the Scriptures often use for a similar understanding), but the ancients located all this in the heart.

A broader and stronger notion of the heart – Hence, as we ponder the Heart of Christ on this feast of the Sacred Heart we do not wholly exclude His tender feelings for us. But we must also broaden our notions of what it means to celebrate the Heart of Christ. The Heart of Christ is where He lives and is most essentially His very self. Hence His human heart is a heart that first of all worships and obeys His Father. It is in His heart that He ponders His Father’s will and sets out to obey it. It was in His heart that He set his face like flint for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51) and said to this apostles, “the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). It is in His heart that He decides to lay down His life for us: No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father (Jn 10:18). Isaiah had said of Jesus, Oblatus est quia ipse voluit (He was offered because he himself willed it) (Is 53:7). It is ultimately by Christ’s obedience that we are saved, and this was determined in His heart. His love was manifested by His decision to both obey His Father and die for us. This is deeper than emotion or feeling, though it does not exclude them. When the solider thrust a lance in His chest and heaved it open, there was revealed the human heart of Christ who resolutely chose to save us. There was also revealed the very heart of God, who loves us infinitely.

A heart tender but also strong – On this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate not just that He loves us in an emotional sense, but even more, that He decided to die for us. He freely pondered what our salvation would cost Him and took up the cross. He chose to obey the Father for us. His love is tender but it is also decisive. The warmth of His love is sure but the wounds of His obedience also speak of a love that is strong and enduring unto the end.

Sentiment has its place but (perhaps because I am a man) I need more. On this Feast of the Sacred Heart, I am glad to point to a love that is strong, obedient, loyal, and sacrificial; a love that engages the battle on my behalf and summons me to follow; a  love that is not just visceral but is of the true and deep Heart of Christ, a heart tender but also strong.

This video has many images of Jesus (some better than others). Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Learn the Latin of “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum”

As a further reflection in the wake of Corpus Christi Sunday, permit me to offer a reflection on the two great Eucharistic hymns of Benediction. I sometimes get requests for help in understanding the Latin texts of these very familiar hymns for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction.

“O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” though familiar to many Catholics, remain only vaguely understood in terms of a word-for-word translation. They are sometimes referred to as just “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo.” Most know the poetic English renderings (“O Saving Victim opening wide” and “Humbly let us voice our homage”) but this does not necessarily facilitate a word-for-word understanding as the Latin is sung. What I hope to accomplish here is to provide a very literal rendering (preserving the Latin word order) so that one can understand the Latin precisely. It is my hope to bring these hymns more alive for the faithful who sing them, but may not be highly skilled in Latin.

“O Salutaris Hostia” – This is actually the last two verses of the hymn “Verbum Supernum Prodiens” (The heavenly Word going forth), written by St. Thomas Aquinas. He composed it for Lauds (Morning Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is iambic dimeter, which is accentual with alternating rhyme. Even the hostile Jean-Jacques Rousseau was said to have been so pleased by this hymn that he said he would have given all his poetry to be its author. To facilitate easier comparison, I present the Latin text on the left; a very literal, word-for-word English translation preserving the Latin word order in the center; and an English translation with more English-like word order (and some punctuation for additional clarity) on the right:

O salutaris Hostia
quae caeli pandis ostium
bella premunt hostilia
da robur fer auxilium
O saving Victim
who of heaven opens the gate
wars press hostile
give strength bear aid
O saving Victim
who opens the gate of heaven
hostile wars press;
give strength; bear aid
Uni Trinoque Domino
sit sempiterna gloria
qui vitam sine termino
nobis donet in patria
To the One and Threefold Lord
may there be eternal glory
who life without end
to us may give in the Fatherland
To the One and Threefold Lord
may there be eternal glory;
who life without end
may give to us in the Fatherland

I have prepared a more thorough word study here: Study of the O Salutaris.

“Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” – This is actually the last two verses of the hymn “Pange Lingua” (Sing, my tongue), also written by St. Thomas Aquinas. It was composed for Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is trochaic tetrameter catalectic, which rhymes at both the caesura and the end of the line. There is in this hymn a wonderful union of sweetness of melody with clear-cut dogmatic teaching. To facilitate easier comparison, I present the Latin text on the left; a very literal, word-for-word English translation preserving the Latin word order in the center; and an English translation with more English-like word order (and some punctuation for additional clarity) on the right:

Tantum ergo sacramentum
veneremur cernui
So great therefore a sacrament
let us venerate with bowed heads
So great therefore a sacrament
let us venerate with bowed heads;
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui
and the ancient document
new give way to the rite
may supply faith a supplement
of the senses for the defect
and the ancient document
to the new rite give way;
may faith supply a supplement
for the defect of the senses
Genitori Genitoque
laus et jubilation
salus, honor, virtus, quoque
sit et benediction
procedenti ab utroque
compare sit laudatio
To the One who generates and the One who is generated (i.e., to the Father and Son)
be praise and joy
health, honor, strength also
may there be and blessing
to the One proceeding from both
equal may there be praise.
To the One who generates and the One who is generated (i.e., to the Father and Son)
be praise and joy,
health, honor, strength also
may there be, and blessing.
to the One proceeding from both
may there be equal praise.

I have prepared a more thorough word study here: Study of the Tantum Ergo.

Here is setting of the Tantum Ergo (composer unknown, but sometimes attributed to Mozart), which I paired with some video footage I found:

Three Teachings on Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi affords us an opportunity to renew our understanding of the Holy Eucharist and Sacred Liturgy. It also helps us clarify certain errors that have crept into our thinking. Let’s look at the readings today under three headings: The Righteousness of our Worship, the Reality of our Worship, and Readiness of our Worship.

The Righteousness of our Worship – In the first reading today Moses has the faithful swear an oath:

Taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

Jesus too gives a solemn command at the Last Supper:

Take and eat, this is my Body… take and drink this is my Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant…do this is in memory of me.

He too seals the covenant, not with the blood of animals, but with his very own blood. We who would heed and do all that the Lord commands cannot skip out on Holy Communion and absent ourselves from the Sacrifice and Liturgy that is at the very heart of the New Covenant.

Too many people today think of Sunday worship in rather egocentric terms. They speak of “being fed.” But usually what they mean by this is that the preacher gave them an uplifting message in terms that please them and seem relevant to them, or that the choir sang well and there was good fellowship. These are all fine.

But the first and most essential reason that we are to show up on Sunday is to worship God, to give Him the thanks and adoration He is due. To worship is an act of justice and righteousness. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa does not put worship where we might expect it, (likely under Faith or Love). Rather he puts worship in his treatise on Justice. We owe God praise, gratitude and adoration. He is the source of every blessing, all that we call our own is really His, everything, quite literally every thing is his and generously shared by Him. God has been too good to us for us to shirk our duty to worship and obey him. Even our troubles work together for our good, if we trust God. To fail in our duty to worship God on his terms is to fail in righteousness and justice. When Jesus says, “Do this is remembrance of me,” we owe him obedience in this regard. Our faithful Sunday worship and regular and worthy reception of Holy Communion is our righteous worship and an act of Justice.

The Reality of our Worship – In the Gospel today Christ makes it clear that we are receiving him: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist is no mere symbol of Jesus. Sadly today, many Catholics, according to polls, have lost faith in the Eucharist, seeing it as only a symbol. But we do not partake of a symbol; the Eucharist is truly the Lord. Neither is it a “piece” of His flesh; it is Christ, living, glorified, whole and entire. Scripture attests to this in many places.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).

They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35).

For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:29).

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51).

This last passage is a profound theology of the Eucharist from Jesus Himself. He makes it clear that we are not to think of the Eucharist as symbolic.

As Jesus spoke the words saying that the bread was His flesh, the Jewish people grumbled in protest. Jesus did not seek to reassure them or to say that He was speaking only symbolically. Rather, He became even more adamant, shifting His choice of words from the polite form of eating, φάγητε (phagete, meaning to eat), to the impolite form, τρώγων (trogon, meaning to munch, gnaw, or chew).

So insistent was He that they grasp this, that He permitted most of them to leave, no longer following in His company due to this teaching (cf Jn 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for His graphic and “hard” teaching (Jn 6:60).

Today, He asks us, Do you also want to leave me? (Jn 6:67) We must give our answer each time we approach the altar and hear the words, “The Body of Christ.” It is at this time that we respond, “Amen,” as if to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

Would that people grasped that the Lord Himself is truly present in our Churches! Were that so, one would never be able to empty our parishes of those seeking to pray with the Lord. As it is, though, only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. This is more evidence of the “narrow road” and of how few there are who find it. Two thousand years ago, Jesus experienced that most left Him; many today continue to leave Him (or stand far away), either through indifference or false notions.

What father would not be alarmed if one of his children stopped eating? Consider, then, God’s alarm that many of us have stopped eating.

The Readiness of our Worship – Notice that in preparing for the Last Supper and First Mass, Jesus told two of his disciples to enter Jerusalem and look for an unusual thing, a man carrying a water jar. This was usually women’s work and thus a man doing so would stand out. They were to follow him, and: he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Now, this is for us a spiritual prescription for the inner room that is our soul:

    • It is to be large, a spacious place not cluttered with sin and worldly trinkets trappings and distractions. There is to be plenty of room for the Lord, who is the guest of our soul in Holy Communion!
    • It is to be furnished with holiness, justice, patience and love to receive so great a guest as Jesus!
    • It is to be ready. That is, it is to be clean, free of the filth of sin and fully apportioned unto the great liturgy about to occur in every Mass. The heart and mind are to be eagerly alert, awaiting in full readiness our divine Guest!

Of course, at the heart of this large upper room furnished and ready, is to be free of serious sin as St. Paul admonishes:

The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me….” Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:24-29)

Because of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states: Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385). For how can the upper room of our soul be spacious, furnished and ready if it is filled with sin? In my own parish we hear confessions before every Sunday Mass to ensure the faithful an opportunity to confess if necessary or simply out of devotion.  If we priests are to be sincere in promoting the worthy reception of Holy Communion, we must be generous in celebrating the Sacrament of Confession and the faithful must be zealous in seeking it when necessary.

Here then are three teachings and reminders about Holy Communion. May we be righteous in our observance, real in our understanding and ready in our souls!

 

 

Remember! On Memorial Day

memorial-dayWhat is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated, but what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something heavy. Hence, to honor someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.

For many, Memorial Day means the beginning of summer. To others, it’s a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of our country, those who carried a great burden so that many of us did not have to.

Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that we can live more freely and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that some carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly.

War remains controversial (as well it should). But soldiers do not create the politics they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be faced, an injustice to be ended; and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson is one of those who went north during the Korean War and did not return. He carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly; he gave his life.

The love of one’s country (patriotism) is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,

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

The Lord Himself makes it plain: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary film on the Second World War, entitled simply, “The War.” It remarkably depicts the suffering and cost, and the burdens carried, especially by the soldiers. But it also shows the sacrifices made by many back home who scrimped, saved, and went without. Some endured the loss of loved ones. Some were detained in camps.

Each episode of the documentary begins and ends with the same beautiful and haunting anthem and can be heard in the video below. Its basic theme is “America, I gave my best to you.” The full text is as follows:

All we’ve been given by those who came before
The dream of a nation where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?

Let them say of me I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received.
Let me know in my heart when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.

Each generation from the plains to distant shore
With the gifts they were given were determined to leave more.
Battles fought together, acts of conscience fought alone:
These are the seeds from which America has grown.  

For those who think they have nothing to share,
Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there.
Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies
The soul of a nation that will never die.

America, [America] I gave my best to you.

The word “memorial” comes from the Latin memorare, which is an imperative meaning “Remember!” So Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present in our minds and hearts such that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different.

This is a day to remember that there are men and women who have died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.

Here is the song and video from “The War” by Ken Burns.

One and One and One are One. A Homily for Trinity Sunday

Trinity

There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high you can’t get over Him. He’s so low you can’t get under Him. He’s so wide you can’t get around Him. You must come in, by and through the Lamb.”

It’s not a bad way of saying that God is “other.” He is beyond what human words can describe, beyond what human thoughts can conjure. On the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery that cannot fit in our minds.

A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition, the word “mystery” refers to (among other things) something that is partially revealed, something much more of which remains hidden. As we ponder the Trinity, consider that although there are some things we can know by revelation, much more is beyond our understanding.

Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and observing how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.

I.  The Teaching on the Trinity Explored

Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God, whole and entire (Catechism, 253).

There is one God and each of the three persons of the Trinity possesses the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise, the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And the Holy Spirit is God, not merely one-third of God.

It is our human experience that if there is only one of something, and someone possesses it fully, then there is nothing left for anyone else. Yet mysteriously, each of the three persons of the Trinity fully possesses the one and only divine nature while remaining a distinct person.

One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. It compactly and clearly sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:

It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying, Holy, Holy, Holy

Wow! It’s a careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: Triune (or Trinity). Triune literally means “three-one” (tri + unus), and “Trinity” is a conflation of “Tri-unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.

If all of this baffles you, good! If you were to say that you fully understood all this, I would have to say you were likely a heretic. The teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and it is surely beyond human understanding.

Here is a final image before we leave our exploration stage. The picture at the upper right is from an experiment I remember doing when I was in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the intersection of the three circles the color white appeared. Mysteriously, the three primary colors are present in the color white, but only one shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) for Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God, but it does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)

II. The Teaching on the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture also presents images of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the ones I want to present here are from the Old Testament.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of these texts; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting into a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have. Why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide whether you think these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Here they are:

1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gen 1:26)

God speaks of himself in the plural: “Let us … our …” Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning in Genesis there is already a hint that God is not all by himself, but rather is in a communion of love.

2. Elohim

In the passage above, the word used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting to note that this word is in the plural form. From a grammatical standpoint, Elohim actually means “Gods,” but the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much debated point, however. You can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular.

(We have certain words like this in English, words that are plural in form but singular in meaning such as news, mathematics, and acoustics.) My point here is not to try to understand it as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even as a present day Jew. Rather, I am observing with interest that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. God is one yet three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God, and I see an image of the Trinity.

3. And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said (Gen 18:1-5).

From a purely grammatical standpoint this is a very difficult passage because it switches back and forth between singular and plural references. The Lord (singular) appears to Abram, yet Abram sees three men (some have said that this is just God and two angels, but I think it is the Trinity). Then when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The tortured grammar continues as Abram suggests that the Lord (singular) rest “yourselves” (plural) under the tree. The same thing happens in the next sentence, in which Abram wants to fetch bread so that you may refresh “yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) answers, but it is rendered as “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one and God is three. For me as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Because the reality of God cannot be reduced to mere words, this is a grammatically difficult passage, but I can “see” what is going on: God is one and God is three; He is singular and He is plural.

4. Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5).

When God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

5. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3).

God is Holy, Holy, and yet again, Holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the three persons of the Trinity. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels praising each of the three persons of the Trinity. God is three (Holy, holy, holy …) and yet God is one (holy is the Lord …). There are three declarations of the word “Holy.” Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

6. Here are three (of many) references to the Trinity in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
  2. Jesus also says, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
  3. Have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula, Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the name (not names (plural)) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the beginning.

III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us, and sure enough, we do.

  • It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. We humans cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us, but even beyond that we need one another for completion.
  • Despite what the Paul Simon song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, the product he makes was likely the result of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
  • We are individual, but we are social. We are one, but we are linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one, yet we are many.
  • We have entered into perilous times where our interdependence and communal influence are under-appreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism: “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the community, Church, or nation. That I am an individual is true, but it is also true that I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me, but for others. What I do affects others, for good or ill.
  • The attitude that it’s none of my business what others do needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does concern for what others think and do, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. A common moral and religious vision is an important thing to cultivate. It is ultimately quite important what others think and do. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.
  • Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but rather a man and a woman together in the lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. When God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God then says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as He sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.

We must be careful to understand that what humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually, for God is neither male nor female in His essence. We may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. So real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband and wife love each other and their love bears fruit in their children (See, USCCB, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”).

So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward so as to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.