Sunday, September 30, 2012

18th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Corinthians 1:4-8 / Matthew 9:1-8

And Jesus seeing their thoughts, said: Why do you think evil in your hearts?

The scribes find themselves, or so it would appear, in a bit of a bind. They know perfectly well that God, and God alone, has the power to forgive sins. To admit otherwise is to reject their whole faith, to abandon not simply what they imagine God to be, but indeed what God has revealed about himself. In other words, this is not simply the case of men who need to expand their conception of God, as though it is only in their vain imagining that God alone forgives sins, whereas in fact the forgiveness of sins can come willy-nilly from anyone whoever would claim to offer it. Whatever else their faults, the scribes are quite right in concluding that anyone who is not God and claims to forgive sins has blasphemed.

This, however, is the source of their bind. Jesus rebukes this line of reasoning, or so it would seem, when he challenges their own unspoken challenge — He blasphemeth. — and says aloud in rebuke, Why do you think evil in your hearts? Now, we know by faith that Jesus is God and man, and therefore he can rightly claim to forgive sins without blasphemy, but what of the scribes? What reason do they have to acknowledge Jesus' claims to divine authority? After all, the miraculous healing, what will serve to move the hearts of the multitude with fear and lead them to glorify God, Who had given such power to men, was not yet in evidence when Jesus had said to the man sick of the palsy, Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Absent this kind of evidence, we might well regard the scribes' concerns as praiseworthy, even if mistaken in fact.

Yet, Jesus is not one to accuse lightly, to find fault where there is none to be found. So, we would do well to look again at his rebuking question, Why do you think evil in your hearts? Could it be, then, that it is not the scribes' reasoning which is flawed, but rather their refusal to make their objection openly, that earns Jesus' criticism? If the scribes had honestly and without fault imagined that Jesus had been guilty of blasphemy, and by implication so also the man who was brought for healing and those who brought him as well, then what can explain their silence? Why, that is, would a zealous desire to defend God's honor be held within themselves rather than be brought out in the open? The scribes, we can see, were more content to know themselves to be right and to allow Jesus to remain in spiritually deadly error than to risk an open correction. Rather than draw Jesus and those who sought him out back into right relationship with God, they contented themselves to be silently righteous, leaving those in error to remain in the darkness of grave sin.

While we must always use prudence in choosing when and where to correct our brothers and sisters in their errors, true charity demands that we make our concerns known. At the very least, we should want to draw those who seek God to follow those paths that he has revealed, and in so wanting, we owe it to our neighbors to manifest our worries, as opposed to keeping them hidden. This means, of course, that we must be open as well to our brothers' concerns, living a life that invites and welcomes, rather than repels and rebuffs honest attempts to steer us on the right path.

God wills our good, and so wills that we desire not merely our own good in him, but also that of all of our brothers and sisters. Will we, in the face of what we worry to be grave sin in others, be content to congratulate ourselves on being in the right, speaking our rebukes only within ourselves and not aloud where they might do some good? Or, will we dare to correct, and be open to correction, that in our mutual desire to come to God, not a one may be lost?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Micah 5:1-4a / Romans 8:28-30 / Matthew 1:1-16, 18-23

In the United States, we then to think of the beginning of September as the beginning of the school year. In the Byzantine world, September 1 actually marked the beginning of the year itself. It was believed that the very first day of creation was September 1, and so this same date marked the annual cycle that passed from the beginning of all things until the culmination of the age. As a result of this calendar, the festal year of the Church in the Byzantine world both opens and closes not with events in the life of Jesus Christ, but rather with those of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, beginning with her entrance into the world on the feast of the Nativity, and ending with the celebration of her entrance into eternal glory, body and soul, on the feast of the Dormition.

For Latin Christians, it may well seem strange to give this kind of priory to the Virgin Mary rather than to her Son, Jesus Christ. It may strike us a well-meaning but ultimately misplaced act of piety to honor the Mother of God and the Church. Why not, we might understandably ask, prefer a more obvious cycle, one that begins and ends the year with the two Advents of the Word made flesh, opening the year with the prophecies of his most gracious coming in time, closing with his return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the world with fire?

However, there is a deep truth in beginning and ending the calendar not with the Creator, but rather with creation, and marking its opening and closing with the crowning glory of all things made, the Blessed Virgin. God, after all, as we are told by philosophers and theologians alike, is sufficient to himself. He has no need of anything else, as he is goodness itself, his very being unalloyed joy. So, while creation may well be a work which serves to glorify God, we cannot say that it is for his good. Instead, creation must be for our good, that we might have a share in God's goodness in this life, that goodness which is mirrored in the world he made, and, at least for those whom he has predestined, the world is to prepare us to have a share in the glory of his eternal, Triune life. Even as the Nativity of the Virgin near the anniversary of the creation of the world both marks and models our share in earthly bounty, so too the annual celebration of her Assumption serves as a model and anticipation of the glory promised to all those whose names are written in the Book of Life.

Yet, for this very reason, that is in light of the fact that the world exists not for God's good but for ours, we must likewise conclude that there are no incidental people, no one who just happens to be in the world but who is not invited to share in those goods which the world was meant to impart. The yearly cycle of events, that is, is not and never was meant to benefit God, neither in his divinity nor even as such in the Incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ. Nor was is meant merely for one human person, or even a few. Rather, the world and its yearly cycle have been given us so that those whom God has predestined and called may, through and in the world, come to have a full share in the righteousness and glory of God Most High.

In a nation where, during the past year, some 17 million persons, over one in twenty Americans, repeatedly ran short of the food they needed to thrive, this truth should make us pause. Knowing that the world was meant for all of our good, and seeing in the humble Maid of Nazareth God's care for the lowly and poor, as well as hearing on her lips his judgment against the mighty and well-fed, can we afford to let our observance of the Virgin's Birth pass by as one more pious observance? Or, emboldened by the grace and promise of her Birth, will we renew our commitment to the poor and hungry of our nation and of our world? Will be trust in the strength of God's call to justice and to glory, and witness to the Good News to the poor, that God's peace, who is Jesus Christ, may reach to the ends of the earth?

Monday, September 3, 2012

St Pius X, Pope and Confessor

1 Thessalonians 2:2-8 / John 21:15-17

For many, St Pius X stands as a sign of the Church's tradition, standing fast against the unwholesome desire to change and adulterate the Gospel delivered once for all to the saints. He is remembered for his tireless work to put an end to the errors of Modernism which were distorting the teaching of seminarians, and so threatened to touch the lives and souls of all the faithful. He is also recalled for his work in the restoration of music in the Church, both the Gregorian chant and the polyphony which time and fashion had allowed to be discarded, even as he worked to resist the roots to "modernize" and in so doing also to deracinate the musical heritage of Latin Christendom. Restoration, not innovation, was his motto: To restore all things in Christ. To this day, even the wayward followers of traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre retain this saintly pope as the patron of their association, the Society of Saint Pius X.

Yet, for all of his associations with restoring and maintaining tradition, St Pius was no stranger to innovation, to taking bold steps without historical precedent, when he thought they served the needs of the faithful committed to his care. In his reworking of the Breviary, Pius authorized a reorganization of the Psalter that departed from ancient patterns of prayer shared across Christendom since the days of the Fathers. In authorizing the codification of Canon Law, Pius swept away much of the the complexity, but also the historical jurisprudence, of the Church's understanding of her own inner life and governance. In permitting and encouraging the reception of Communion as young as the age of seven, Pius broke from the ancient order of initiation into the sacramental life, from Baptism to Confirmation, and then eucharistic Communion. In all of these, Pius enacted what had never been done, inspired by his mission not merely to preserve what had been handed down through the ages, but more crucially "to have a care, not only for all the faithful, but for every soul for whom Christ died."

 Like St Paul, and like St Pius, our task is not to invent our own Gospel. We are not supposed to develop our own theology, as though the Gospel itself and its authentic transmission by the successors of the apostles were not enough. We are to exhort people to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, without addition or subtraction, without trying to hide what we think may turn others away from the faith, nor to add pleasing words which attract, but which falsify the Word we have been given. This may well mean forsaking the glory of men, of abandoning the approval of the worldly wise and respectable, of seeming out of touch or two hundred years behind the times. None of this matters. Our task is the preaching of the Gospel as we have received it.

All the same, like St Peter, and like St Pius, we show our love of Christ first and foremost not in the untouched transmission of everything of the Church's treasure in pristine form, but to feed the lambs of Christ. Our fidelity to the unchanging Gospel is seen above all in our bringing the life of Christ to those who have been called into the one flock of the Incarnate Word of God. If we can do so through the restoration and preservation of ancient and timeless practice, then this is all for the good. All the same, if more lives can be touched by Christ and his saving grace through practices and precepts newly formed to sate their hunger for God, then so we must do.

No innovation is justified if it would make false or unheard the Gospel handed on faithfully over the ages through the Church, yet no preservation or restoration is justified where an innovation can spread more widely and generously the Good News of the Savior. This is the witness of Peter and Paul, the witness of Pius, and the continuing witness of the Church, a witness to the saving power of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Galatians 5:16-24 / Matthew 6:24-33

Walk in the Spirit: and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh.

On the face of it, St Paul's word to the Galatians seems at best ill-formed, at worst, altogether contrary to the Gospel. Minimally, it might prove to be a source of confusion. After all, we confess by faith that the Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father, took upon himself our whole human nature. That is, he did not merely appear to be human, but shared in everything proper to us, having not only a human soul, but a human body, and if a body, then flesh as we have. More than that, we hold by faith that the humanity, and thus the flesh, assumed by the Word of God was not merely a means for communication, that the invisible God might be seen and speak with a human voice. Rather, we profess that his humanity, his flesh and blood, both was and remain even now the very instrument of our salvation. What the Son of God did and suffered in his flesh, not only the divine and miraculous works, but also those daily experiences he shared with us, both served then and serve now to work out our salvation, to redeem our whole nature, that as he shared in our humanity, so we might come to share in his divinity.

Over the centuries, the Church has struggles against those who would assert, even from within the flock of Christ, that God cares only for the spirit, for what is immaterial, even to go so far as to claim that the material world is evil, a trap for luminous spirits, the creation of a wicked and wayward god. Again and again the Church has stood against this mistaken view, which all to often has turned to claims such as St Paul's in his letter to the Galatians to buttress their assertion.

Of course, as with most errors, this mistake is rooted in something quite true. Partly, our task is to be a careful reader of the Scriptures, and in being such to see that the New Testament uses the word flesh, and likewise the related word world, in two different ways. Sometimes, by flesh is meant the stuff of which animals are made, even as world means God's creation. From this perspective, flesh is good, being what the Lord Jesus Christ took upon himself for our salvation, even as the world was the object of God's love, such that he sent his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.

In other passages, however, the flesh and the world are taken to mean not our material reality as such, but rather the created order when lived apart from God. That is, when the flesh is seen to have its own needs and demands, and these are seen to be unrelated to and competitive with the holiness of God, when the demands and logic of worldly possibility are seen as motives not to pursue God's righteousness, then the flesh and the world are taken by the New Testament to fall under God's wrath, and those who live by them to be subject to the condemnation of God's holy Law.

Moreover, there is another way that the flesh, even taken in its good sense, must still necessarily by transcended, and in that sense overcome, without its being thought to be evil or contrary to God. As human beings, which is to say, as animals and not pure spirits, while God has gifted us with the power of reason, the power to know beyond what we can sense and what the sensed world means to us for good or ill, we share with all animals the power of imagination, of considering the world always through the sensory images impressed on us by things present, things remembered, or things woven together from both. Try as we might, everything we think of, even the most sublime, we always and necessarily think about by using mental images drawn from the world of the senses. Those who imagine that they have transcended images, that they can think without them, have deceived themselves. So, even though our reason may know that God and his angels, that mercy and kindness, are not in themselves things of the world of sense, the minds God made for us will inevitably imagine each as something we could see, touch, hear, smell, or taste.

None of this is a dilemma or a tragedy in itself. It is how God made us, and it is our special joy to be able to move from the same kind of things that animals sense to the most sublime of truths by the power of reason. All the same, such a move is difficult, and we can easily fall short. Sometimes the error may be easily overlooked and causes little harm in itself, as when children might actually imagine angels to have wings or God the Father to be bearded and seated upon a throne in the clouds. On the other hand, sometimes we fail to move to the best of things because of our bent wills and wayward desires. We allow ourselves to believe that only what we can imagine really exists. So, without the notion of joy in God, we satisfy our longing with fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury. Refusing to believe in a God who transcends and shatters any category or limit we place upon him, we fool ourselves into thinking we can control and bargain with him, and so dabble in idolatry and witchcrafts. Each of the sins, and far more besides, that Paul lists, can find its origins not in a failure to imagine, but in a failure to allow that there is something beyond imagination itself.

God invites us to a world, a life, a kingdom, which passes anything we have our even could imagine. In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, we can come to inherit the kingdom with confidence. Can we trust that nothing placed before our senses, nothing our mind imagines, not even the holy flesh of the Savior himself, can compare with the unimagined glory of the Father's face, the glory to which we are called by our life in the Spirit?