Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spirit of Truth: the Word of God as taught by the Magisterium of the Church

All Christians agree that the Bible is the Word of God. Its text is believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is the written source of Revelation from which doctrines are formed, and moral and spiritual guidance is assimilated. Prophets and Apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit to write words of this ancient text, and these writings were compiled into what is called “Holy Scripture” or the “Bible.” This book has been preserved down through the centuries by faithful Christians. No Christian would dispute the importance of Scripture in the life of the believer in Jesus Christ.

The question then arises: Does the Bible ALONE guarantee the soundness of Christian doctrine? Did God give us ONLY the Bible for the preservation of His Word?

There are many thousands of Christian denominations and sects, which claim that “Scripture Alone” is in fact the sole source for Christian teaching. They reject the authority of any ecclesial (church) body or hierarchy to interpret Scripture and they reject any other source for Revealed Truth, and instead claim that the Bible Alone, in the hands of each individual Christian, is the means by which God preserves His Word. They say that the Spirit guides each individual to discover the Truth of Scripture, and that Scripture’s meaning is plain and literal in every word of every page, so that anyone can grasp its meaning.

And so the next question inevitably follows: Why is it that no two “Bible Only” churches agree on doctrine? How can it be that the Spirit has guided all of these individuals down separate paths to different Truths? Is there not ONE Truth? Why does the Bible Alone yield a plethora of churches with competing doctrines? As these “Bible churches” quarrel and disintegrate into break-away factions that spawn new churches every year, one might wonder what the Holy Spirit was thinking in leading so many astray. Is this really the way Christ established His Church?

Is this what Christ prayed for when He said: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one…” (John 17:20-22)

Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers, a unity that mirrors His own union with the Father – “so that they may be one, as we are one.” It is clear that the “Bible Alone” does not provide that kind of unity for the Church. Would the Father and the Son disagree on doctrine; would They quarrel, and then decide to go Their separate ways, and form Their own churches? Because that is what “Scripture Alone” has given us. Scripture Alone has given Christianity a shattered and broken Body. This cannot be what Christ intended. If Jesus prayed for unity (and who doubts that the Father would grant the prayer of His Son for His Church?), then Jesus’ prayer would surely be answered more effectively than the Bible Alone doctrine has done throughout history.

The Catholic Church counters the weakness of the “Bible Only” doctrine in two ways:

1) The Word of God is found not in Scripture Alone, but rather Scripture AND Tradition.

It must be emphasized that the Catholic Church’s position has always been that the Bible contains the Word of God. It is the sacred written record of God’s revelation to mankind. The Catholic Church shares this opinion with other Christian denominations. Make no mistake, Catholics love and respect the Bible.

However, the Catholic Church also recognizes that the Bible makes no claim for itself to be the ONLY source of God’s Word. If we are to accept the “Bible Alone” to be a sound doctrine to guide Christians, then the “Bible Alone” doctrine too must be found in Scripture. But it is not. Bible-Only Christians claim that all authentic Christian doctrine should come from the pages of Scripture. But if this is true then we must reject the Bible Alone doctrine since it disproves itself.

Nowhere does Scripture say that the Bible is the ONLY source of God’s Word. To the contrary, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: - orally 'by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit'; - in writing 'by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing'." (CCC 76)

And this teaching agrees with Scripture: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

So we see that the Word of God can be passed on orally as well as in the written form: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31)

Paul tells us that his spoken words are truly the Word of God: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” (1Thessalonians 2:13)

So the Church teaches rightly that God’s Word comes to us in two forms: oral and written. Obviously the written form is called the Bible (as we have already established); and to this, other Christians agree. The oral form is referred to simply as Tradition. This is not to be confused with customs and practices adopted by the Church down through the ages. These are not equal to God’s Word, but are merely expressions of faith as the gospel has been lived out from generation to generation. As the Catechism puts it: “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned…”CCC 83)

Thus a clear distinction ought to be maintained between Tradition (with a capital “T”) and traditions (lower case “t”) so that customs and practices common among Catholics are not to be confused with the Word of God. Much misunderstanding among non-Catholics stems from this unfortunate mistake in terminology. Sacred Tradition would include such things as the papacy (but not specific ceremonies surrounding the pope), the Mass (but not the precise arrangemnt of words or gestures used at the Mass); Tradition is unchanging (although our understanding of it may grow) – whereas customs and traditions can be altered.

With that in mind, the Catholic Church maintains that Scripture and Tradition are derived from the same source: "'Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.' Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own 'always, to the close of the age'." (CCC 80)

In fact, Scripture is itself nothing more than a written form of Tradition that grew out of the early Church: “The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.” (CCC 83)

Scripture and Tradition are thus inextricably linked. They grew out of the same source – the preaching and example given by the Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The two must be viewed and interpreted together to achieve sound doctrine and to appreciate the whole Word of God.

"As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, 'does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.'" (CCC 82)

2) The Church’s Magisterium authoritatively interprets that Word of God as found in Scripture and Tradition.

We know that "Scripture Alone" does not work. It brings us only division and a broken church. Tradition, as a collection of passed on wisdom may shed light on Scripture and clear up shades of meaning, but still, if it were left up to each individual to sort out doctrine on his own, we would be left with the same confusion that the Bible Alone doctrine has yielded. It cannot be that God has given us His Word in Scripture and Tradition, but then left us in the same mess from which Bible-Only churches suffer with individual interpretation and competing doctrines.

Christ did not leave his Church to such confusion and lack of guidance. He first called the Twelve Apostles to a role of leadership in His new Church and gave them an authority that is recognized both in Heaven and on Earth: "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18)

He promised this authority to the Twelve, but He spoke similar words to Peter (using the singular word for “you”) and also bestowed on him the "keys" to symbolize Peter’s unique position of authority: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)

Obviously the Apostles received a special authority as a group, and individually for Peter. This teaching authority was passed on to selected men who would continue as bishops of the Church, as the Catechism tells us: "'In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.' Indeed, 'the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.'" (CCC 77)

The early Christians (from the first few centuries A.D. bear witness to this line of succession:

"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

"Far be it from me to speak adversely of any of these clergy who, in succession from the apostles, confect by their sacred word the Body of Christ and through whose efforts also it is that we are Christians" (Jerome, Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]).

This teaching office that has been passed down from the Apostles is called the “Magisterium.” Rather than drawing our certainty about God’s Word from our own individual interpretation, we can instead turn to the Magisterium of the Church, the teaching office established by Christ and maintained down through the generations. This is not to say that the Magesterium has power over God’s Word, but rather the Magisterium is in the service of God’s Word and is bound by it… "[T]his Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." (CCC86)

So the division and in-fighting that is so often found among the “Bible Only” churches is soundly answered within the Catholic Church, where there can be surety of doctrine and unity of belief just as Jesus prayed for his followers. Interpretation is not left up to each Christian, but rather, the Holy Spirit works through the teaching office of the Church as the Apostles appointed bishops for that very task. The “Bible Only” doctrine is a rebellion against God’s plan of unity within His Church. Holy Scripture must not be isolated from the Tradition from which it came. Nor should God’s Word be misused by those to whom no authority has been given to interpret authoritatively.

Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium work together to bring us the Truth of Revelation: "'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.' This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome." (CCC 85)

"It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls." (CCC 95)

By this we can be certain that Christ’s promise is fulfilled: “…when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part V

One letter remains for us to explore from Ignatius - that which he wrote to his friend Polycarp, a fellow student of John the Apostle and fellow First Century Christian bishop. We will study Polycarp in more detail soon enough, but first we will examine a few lines from Ignatius’ letter to this dear friend.

Ignatius opens his letter with the following words:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnaeans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: [wishes] abundance of happiness.”

We have seen in other texts from Ignatius great emphasis placed on the authority of the bishop. Ignatius says that Christians are to follow their bishop as they would God. This seems strong language. But in the opening of this letter we have the other side of the story: the bishop is to see God as his own Bishop. Or, put more plainly: the leaders of the Church are answerable to God, just as we are answerable to those same leaders. Thus God is an active participant within the hierarchy of the Church.

Still we must ask, is this comparison of “God” and “Bishop” biblically sound? Is Ignatius perhaps elevating the authority of the bishop to undue heights; or, conversely, is God’s majesty being drawn down to a human level? Can we rightly speak of “God” and “Bishop” in such a relational manner?

The answer is clear. Scripture gives the title of “Bishop” to Christ: “For you were going astray like sheep; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” (1Peter 2:25)

The word used here to refer to Jesus as “Bishop” of our souls is the Greek word episkopos, which is the same word used elsewhere in the Bible for the office of “overseer” or “bishop” as the highest rank of ordination in the Church. Obviously, the Bible has no problem relating Jesus (the Son of God) to the office of bishop. There is a direct correlation between Jesus’ role as head of the Church and the bishop as head of the local congregation – both are described as episkpos. If the Bible uses this terminology, then we can be certain that God is not diminished by calling Him “Bishop.”

Still it might fairly be asked, is Ignatius not elevating the power of man by assigning undue authority and prestige to the office of bishop? God may be the “Bishop” of our souls, (this much is true and is soundly biblical), but do the human bishops within the hierarchy of the Church really have sway over our souls as well?

Scripture tells us that those holding leadership positions within the Church are worthy of imitation and set an example of faith for other Christians to follow: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Outward imitation is one thing, but does God expect a mere human to be answerable for the salvation of those who are under his watch as bishop? Does a bishop’s spiritual authority reach to our very souls? According to Scripture, it does: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)

Understandably, Ignatius and Polycarp take very seriously their duties as bishop, as they will be answerable to God for the outcome of their service. They take as their role model, Jesus, the Bishop of bishops, and guardian of our souls. Ignatius encourages Polycarp in this vocation, and urges him to remain steadfast in exercising his God-given authority:

“Let not those who seem worthy of credit but teach strange doctrines fill you with apprehension. Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten…Let nothing be done without your consent…”

Even marriage falls under the discretion of the bishop: “…[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God.”

Also, to the people of Smyrna, those who have Polycarp as their bishop, Ignatius issues instructions similar to that which he gave the other churches:

“Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God! Labor together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together, as the stewards, and associates, and servants of God.”

From all that we have read of Ignatius’ letters, we can conclude that the First Century Church had an ordered hierarchy, composed of bishops, priests, and deacons; that the ordained clergy of the Church exercised an authority originating from the Apostles, who in turn received their authority from Jesus; that the office of bishop in the local church is a reflection of Jesus’ own authority over the whole, universal Church and over each individual bishop; that the word “catholic” (“universal”) correctly describes Christ’s Church; that Rome enjoyed a special distinction among all the ancient church’s as worthy of high honor and praise, and as a faithful witness to Apostolic teaching; and finally, that the early Christians sought unity in belief and practice, most especially concerning the celebration of the Eucharist, which they saw as containing the Presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine.

These teachings of Ignatius cannot be discredited as simply one man’s opinion among many. This was not some obscure “nobody” who died alone in his musings at the start of the Second Century. This was Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, consecrated bishop by Simon Peter, friend of the Apostles, bishop of Antioch (an important center of Christianity); he was led to his death after decades of service to the Church. On his journey to martyrdom he was met by adoring throngs as word spread of his passage to Rome. Along the way he wrote letters to the surrounding cities and Christians preserved these texts for future generations. This was not just any man, nor was this some deviant sect of Christianity. This was the faith of the First Century Church recorded for history to retell many centuries later.

We do not know how many letters Ignatius issued during his lifetime, (we have only seven of which we are certain, and these reflect his thoughts as he awaited his impending death). But we do know that his influence reached far and wide in the First Century Church, during the years he served as bishop. His final instruction to Polycarp is characteristically aimed at spreading the Catholic faith far and wide and preserving Apostolic Teaching:

“It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honor that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ…”

Ignatius wished for all the churches to send out messengers bearing his greetings and his final instructions…

“Inasmuch as I have not been able to write to all the Churches, because I must suddenly sail from Troas to Neapolis, as the will [of the emperor] enjoins, [I beg that] you, as being acquainted with the purpose of God, will write to the adjacent Churches, that they also may act in like manner, such as are able to do so sending messengers, and the others transmitting letters through those persons who are sent by you…”

Till his death Ignatius remained a strong witness for the First Century Church. Through his writings we catch a glimpse of the faith of the first Christians. To believe as Ignatius believed is to share in the faith of the martyrs. In our study of the Church Fathers, Ignatius, called Theophorus (Bearer of God) offers invaluable insights into the early Catholic Church.

Next we will meet Ignatius' friend, Polycarp…

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Easter 2009

The Triduum

Tonight marks the beginning of the Triduum – the three days from Holy Thursday evening to Easter Saturday evening – during which Catholics commemorate the Last Supper, the Passion and Crucifixion, and finally the vigil at the tomb awaiting the Resurrection. The three-day Liturgical celebration caps off Holy Week which began the preceding weekend on Palm Sunday (which recalls Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem).

Holy Thursday

Tonight we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In preparation for His death, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples, a meal which would be His last. And at that celebration Christ gave new meaning to the unleavened bread and the cup of blessing, by proclaiming, “This is my Body…This is my Blood” – linking His sacrificial death to the Communion meal now celebrated at every Mass.

Also at that meal Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles to demonstrate the humble service to which they would be called as leaders of the Church. If Jesus, their Master, washed their feet, then how much more ought they to wash the feet of others. On this night, during Mass, members of the congregation are selected to have their feet ceremoniously washed by the presiding celebrant (the priest or bishop presiding at Mass.)

At the end of the Mass, the consecrated Eucharist (which Catholics believe to be the Body and Blood of Jesus – His Real Presence in our midst) is transferred from the main altar to a temporary location outside of the main sanctuary to a suitable altar of repose, where members of the faithful can wait with the Lord through the night, just as the Apostles were called to do in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.

The service ends abruptly, with no concluding hymn or procession. All leave in silence. The liturgy does not end…it continues the following day.

Good Friday

On Good Friday the death of our Savior is recalled. The Liturgy begins (or rather, takes up again where it left off on Thursday) that afternoon in silence, as the priest prostrates himself (lies flat upon the floor) before the altar as a sign of reverence and humility in honor of Christ’s sacrifice. A cross or crucifix is brought forward for the faithful to reverence (with a kiss, a touch, or a bow).

Scriptural readings include the telling of the Passion from John’s Gospel. As the story of Jesus’ suffering and death are recounted, the faithful are given a part to play: During the reading, when Pilate asks what ought to be done with this Jesus, who claims to be King of the Jews, we cry out, “Crucify him!” We also are given the role of taunting and ridiculing Jesus on the Cross. This aspect of Good Friday is meant to drive home the point that we are all guilty and we cause Jesus to suffer by our sinfulness. We are the ones who bear the blame for His death.

There is no consecration of the Eucharist on Good Friday. When Communion is distributed, the Body is taken from the altar of repose where it has been kept since the previous evening.

Afterwards, all leave in silence…for again, the Liturgy does not truly end, but will continue the following evening.

Holy Saturday

Since the time of the Second Vatican Council and the renewal of the Liturgy, the Holy Saturday celebration has become a sort of “crowning jewel” of the Liturgical Season. Filled with multiple symbols and significance, this night stands out among other Masses as a real point of inspiration when it is celebrated faithfully and with reverence.

We begin outside (whenever possible) around a fire, in the dark of the evening. The fire is blessed, and a large candle (the Paschal Candle or Easter Candle) is also blessed and lit from the fire. The flame of the Paschal Candle represents Christ “the Light of the World.” The congregation lights smaller candles from the larger Paschal Candle as we all receive our light from Christ. We process in to a darkened church which is soon aglow in the light of the many small candles, as we pass flames from one to another, until the whole congregation is assembled. Then the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection is read or sung and the lights of the church are turned on. From then the Mass continues.

Among the other features of Holy Saturday, those seeking full communion with the Church are baptized and Confirmed and receive their first Communion. After completing many weeks of training in the faith, Holy Saturday is the traditional day of accepting these new Catholics into the fold. For this purpose, holy water is blessed and the chrism (holy oil used for anointing), which was only recently consecrated at the beginning of Holy Week, is used in the ceremony.

Also, the “Alleluia” is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent. Since Lent is a time of penance, a somber reflective season, the grand Alleluia, which is usually sung before the Gospel, has been omitted for forty days. The Alleluia makes a glorious return on Easter Saturday evening.

And with that the Gospel is proclaimed that Jesus has risen, and the long wait of Lent is over.

I would strongly urge anyone who is able to participate in all three days of the Triduum if at all possible. It encapsulates the entire Passion of Christ and plays it out in real time before your eyes with liturgical precision. In the Triduum the true meaning of Easter is celebrated within the Universal Church, as the whole Body of Christ’s believers await the risen Christ.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Encountering Jesus in the Stations of the Cross: the Physicality of Faith

In just about every Catholic Church one can find depictions (whether paintings, sculptures, prints, mosaics, etc.) of the Stations of the Cross – fourteen images of events that encompass the trial, suffering, and execution of Jesus. The traditional fourteen stations begin with Jesus condemned to death before Pontius Pilate and end with Him being laid in the tomb. Included are various moments (some directly Biblical, others rooted in popular tradition) that tell the story of Jesus’ Passion and which allow the viewer to meditate on each event as they pass from station to station on what is also called “The Way of the Cross.”

The Stations are usually arranged in an orderly fashion within the church, spread out in such a way to encourage us to walk from one to the next as though following a route marked out by each successive event, numbered “one” through “fourteen,” until we find ourselves at the tomb. It becomes a journey on which we pause to pray and reflect at designated intervals.

This traditional devotion surrounding Jesus’ suffering and death stems from the ancient practice of making a “pilgrimage” – a journey to the holy places of Jerusalem or other significant religious sites. Specifically, the Way of the Cross allows those of us who cannot afford, or due to some other limitation cannot make, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see and experience what pilgrims have seen and experienced for centuries. We re-trace the steps of Jesus as He is led to his death. In the Stations of the Cross we behold a physical reminder of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. The Stations of the Cross are often prayed during Lent, as we journey to the joy of Easter.

Our five-year-old son has been fascinated with the Stations of the Cross for a couple of years or so. Many Sundays, after Mass, he insists that we walk from station to station as I tell him what is happening in each picture. Our daughter (who is soon to be three) is also now taking an interest in the Way of the Cross. They both have benefited from the very physical depictions of Jesus’ life and death, as well as the lives of the saints that appear, not only in the Stations, but also in the statutes and stained glass, the paintings and imagery found throughout our parish church. These are invaluable teaching tools for the very young. But even adults can benefit from these physical reminders of the faith.

Catholic faith thrives on the physical. The sights and sounds (or the “bells and smells,” as they say) encourage total participation from all of our five senses as we pray and worship God in the Catholic Tradition. Faith is not just a “mental” disposition – a belief that stays trapped in the abstract, in the mind – faith involves the whole person. We worship as whole persons, body and soul, when we include our bodies in the spiritual act of prayer. Catholics have certainly taken this principle very seriously down through the centuries. We stand, sit, or kneel during the Mass for very specific reasons; we cross ourselves; we light candles, burn incense, and pray on rosary beads; we genuflect and bow and process in and out of church; we use blessed palms, blessed ashes and holy water; we consecrate with sacred oils We find every way imaginable to include our bodies in our devotions.

One component of the Protestant Reformation involved a shedding of the outer “trappings” of Catholicism, specifically the physical reminders of what the Reformers saw as a corruption of the true faith. They destroyed statues, burned paintings, and shattered stained glass. The holy water, the incense, the liturgical vestments were thrown out. Gone were the images and relics of the past, and all that was left was “Faith Alone” – as the Protestant motto declared. But this was a Faith stripped bare and left naked and in the dark. Without the kneeling, the standing, the genuflections, faith was left paralyzed. Without the statues, the windows, the paintings and the lamp-light, faith was left blind. “Faith Alone” is a lonely and disheartening prospect. Some of the Reformers realized this and struggled somewhere between a pseudo-Catholicism and the more puritanical sects of the Reformed Movement. Protestantism has, ever since, struggled to grapple with how to include physicality within spirituality.

Today some of the Mainline Protestant churches retain a few “catholic” carry-overs. Some use palms on Palm Sunday or ashes at the start of Lent. Some use liturgical vestments and even some stained glass or paintings. But many of these mainline denominations are dying out. The up-and-coming Christian sect seems to be the Evangelical, non-denominational, mega-church style of Christianity. And with its rise there seems to be a new stripping away of the old “catholic” understanding of Tradition and the physicality of worship. The new Christian churches are sleek and clean. The minister wears a suit and tie, and cannot be physically distinguished from any of his parishioners. If there is a cross, it is bear, without Christ’s body. There are no depictions of saints or Biblical scenes in the windows or on the walls. Worshipers are given plush stadium seating so that each can sit comfortably, unmoved throughout the “show” without standing or moving or gesturing in the slightest. This new manifestation of the Protestant ideal has not only watered down the doctrine, but it has further watered down the spirituality. Our bodies are again separated from the worship of God.

I listen to a radio station frequently that advertises heavily for a local Evangelical mega-church. Many of the other sponsors on this station also lean heavily toward this brand of Evangelicalism. I recently heard a commercial on this station that I found encouraging and somewhat surprising. With the approach of Easter, one Christian retailer was promoting a product that is meant to bring out the true meaning of the holiday and introduce children to the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Their product includes twelve Easter eggs which contain objects associated with different moments in Jesus’ Passion – from the Agony in the Garden to the Resurrection. As your child opens each egg, he or she is introduced to the events of Jesus’ suffering and death and through these physical reminders will come to a better understanding of the true meaning of Easter and the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. Sound familiar? Rather like the Stations of the Cross, don’t you think?

There is no escaping the physicality of our being. We are physical creatures and we express ourselves in physical ways. Our spirituality can be nurtured through outward signs and symbols. The Son of God, though He was pure spirit became flesh and blood, so that salvation could be brought to our bodies as well as our souls. We should embrace our physical nature and include it in our worship. Our children, who are so often exposed to the signs and symbols of the pop culture, need corresponding symbols in the world of faith to combat the temptations and struggles they will inevitably face. It does no good to strip our Christian faith of the physical symbols in the name of some supposed “reform” if that reformed church fails to teach our children who Jesus is and what He did for our salvation. As we approach Easter we should realize that when Jesus died He did not shed his body and assume a new non-physical form. Rather He rose again in the flesh, and we too must feed our flesh spiritually for our own growth in the faith.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Love, and Proper Order in Creation

I just watched a news piece on one of the major networks telling of a strange “custody” battle in California. A woman owned a parrot for ten years until one day the parrot escaped and flew away. Another woman in the same city found the parrot and “adopted” it as her own. After three years the two women (who had been strangers) met, quite by accident, and struck up a conversation about their love of animals and their special fondness for parrots. As they talked about their pets they realized that they were both talking about the same parrot.

A lawsuit followed with the original owner demanding that her missing bird be returned to her; while the other woman insisting that the parrot had found a new home with her and ought to remain. In the end the judge ruled in favor of the original owner. In the judge’s words, under California law “pets are chattel; they're no different from your automobile.” In other words, pets are property. We OWN pets and the rights of the original owner must be honored.

The woman who lost the case lamented the decision, “This poor bird, he calls me 'Ma. He's very attached to me.” Noticeably distraught and in tears she wailed, “They treat a living, breathing animal like a car. Is that fair? Is that justice”
YES! It is fair! It is justice!

An animal is not a child. A parrot is not a member of the family. The fact that a parrot can mimic the human voice is quaint and causes their owners much joy, and this ability makes them a desirable pet for many people…But they are still just PETS, not children – even if they do call you “Ma.”

I changed the channel to another news program and, coincidentally, I landed upon a story about the chimpanzee that recently achieved national infamy for literally tearing the face off of its owner’s friend. This particular news report was an update of the victims recovery (which is improving), but imbedded in the story were some comments from the chimp’s former owner. She claims that the chimpanzee’s rampage was a freak accident. She maintains that she has been wrongfully blamed for not keeping the animal in a cage or somehow contained, and that his frenzied attack is no different than when any human suddenly snaps and murders someone unexpectedly…sometimes these things just happen without warning.

But it IS different!! A chimpanzee is a wild animal and should not be compared to a human person. The owner of this chimp treated her pet as though it were her son. He ate and slept with her, and roamed around the house as though he were one of the family. His violent outburst was not like a human who commits murder; the two should not be equated. The chimp was only acting as a chimp. We should not be surprised when a 200 pound male ape attacks a human who enters his territory. We should, however be surprised that society has accepted animals as our equals. We should be alarmed that a wild creature can live among us as though they are part of our extended family. A wild animal taken out of the wild is still a wild animal.

Don’t get me wrong. I love animals. The Catholic faith has a rich tradition of respecting and loving God’s gift of creation. Saint Francis gives us a wonderful example of how we are called to love and care for all of God’s creation including the beasts, wild and tame, who share our planet with us.

But as with all things, love must be properly ordered. Love of fellow man is not the same as love of animals, just as love of fellow man is not the same as love of God. There are different kinds of love and different expressions of love. To elevate one species or one Being is to necessarily diminish another. If we love ourselves as we do God, we diminish our love of God – we drag Him down to our level. If we love animals as we do ourselves, then we drag ourselves down – we risk losing the dignity that separates mankind from animals. Indeed, many on the cultural left would do just that. They see no difference between the dignity of a dog or a cat and the dignity of a person. And many would tear down our notion of God and remove the sense of the sacred. They deny and image of God in man.

A couple of years ago PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ran an ad campaign that compared the butchering of chickens for Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants to the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust. There was, of course, an immediate outcry from the Jewish community and the ad was scrapped. But PETA (a very left-leaning organization) saw the comparison as appropriate and justified. The killing of Jews and the killing of chickens is of the same order of evil. The chicken has been elevated, but in the process, humanity is degraded.

To paraphrase the woman who lost the parrot custody case: “They treat humans as though they were chickens. Is that fair? Is that justice?”

There is something drastically wrong with society when our sense of reality can become so morbidly twisted. After all, our REALITY is what this is all about, not simply some woman’s eccentric attachment to a chimp or a parrot. But how do we answer certain fundamental questions – How do we define the things around us? What is a “family”? Does it include parrots? What is “motherhood”? Are you a “mother” to a chimpanzee? What does it mean to be “human”? Are we nothing more than animals with large brains? How do we react and interact with the world? How do we love?

Love is a beautiful thing…but love misdirected can be destructive. Loving something for what it truly is gives us a sense of order to our world; but loving a thing for what it is not distorts creation and can lead to a multitude of errors.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part IV

We have thus far examined Ignatius’ understanding of episcopal (“bishop’s”) authority in the First Century Church, and the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon that composes the hierarchy of the Church. We have seen how this view of ecclesial (“church”) power ensures unity and preserves authentic teaching as handed down from the Apostles. According to Ignatius, the Church would cease to exist without this authority vested in the hierarchical structure of the institution. As he wrote to the Ephesians: “Apart from these, there is no Church."

On the theme of Church unity, Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaens concerning the people’s relationship to their bishop: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

This passage from Ignatius marks the first recorded use of the word “catholic” in describing the Church. Interestingly, we know from the Bible (Acts 11:26) that it was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first called “Christian.” Now in this letter from Ignatius, a First Century bishop of the same ancient city, we find the Christian Church described for the first time as “catholic” – which means “universal.” Through this word “catholic,” we see that Ignatius’ view of the Church includes more than just a loose collection of individual local congregations lead by independent bishops spread throughout the world. Rather, the local churches are integrated into one single “Body,” and form - to use Ignatius’ term - a “catholic” (“universal”) Church, which encompasses all believers. The Church is a single entity, not a group of independent congregations.

Now we must ask… If, according to Ignatius, we are all members of a larger, “Universal” (Catholic) Church that extends beyond local boundaries, then what is it that brings about the Church’s catholicity? What are some of the common characteristics that bind Christians together in the “universal” faith? What do we believe that makes us “Catholic”?

Certainly, we might point out the common bond with Apostolic Tradition which is traced through the succession of bishops down through the generations. For Ignatius the hierarchy is one component of catholicity. This is a common theme in Ignatius writings. But we might also search further in Ignatius’ letters for a description of some of the specific Catholic beliefs that distinguish the First Century Church.

Ignatius does not give us a point-by-point run down of all the doctrines he held, but he is very specific about certain areas of belief, especially Christian worship. I will give a few points on which Ignatius writes concerning Christian worship:

1) Christians of the First Century accepted the bishop’s authority regarding the proper celebration of authentic worship, which they called “Eucharist.

From Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaens: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.”

The Greek term “eucharistia,” from which we derive the term “Eucharist,” means “thanksgiving.” The blessing and breaking of the bread and the sharing of the common cup, which Christ instituted at the Last Supper, became known as the “eucharistic” feast as early as the First Century. Ignatius, who learned the faith from John the Apostle (himself a companion of Jesus and a witness to the Last Supper), tells us that the Eucharist can be validly celebrated only by a properly ordained bishop or one designated by the bishop (presumably a priest serving under the bishop)

So we can say that one “catholic” belief from the First Century is proper ordination from a bishop (a successor to the Apostles) for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist.

2) The Eucharist unites Christians to Jesus, as it is a Communion in His Body and Blood.

“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.” (From Ignatius’ letter to the Philadelphians)

Today’s Catholic understanding holds that the Eucharist may be celebrated in many locations or over the course of many years, at all times and places, yet in all of this there is but “one Eucharist.” In the Eucharistic celebration, whenever and wherever it is kept, we all gather around the “one altar” and partake in Christ’s one sacrifice. The Catholic Church’s teaching seems to echo that of Ignatius cited above.

Likewise Paul maintains a similar view: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1Corinthians 10:16-17

So, united with the bishop in the Eucharistic feast, Christians who partake in the bread and the cup are united to the sacrifice of Christ and within the one Body of Christ, the Church.

3) The First Century Christians believed that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Jesus and only the heretics reject this teaching.

“They [the heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.” (From the letter to the Philadelphians)

This belief obviously corresponds to the Catholic Church’s belief today that the Body and Blood of Jesus are truly present under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist. It is supported by Biblical passages such as Paul’s warning from 1Corinthians 11:27-29:

“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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

Also Jesus own words: “I am the bread of life…Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:6:48,54-56)

So the Real Presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist is a “catholic” belief taught by Ignatius, a First Century bishop of Antioch.

4) Christians of the First Century worshiped on Sunday rather than the old Jewish Saturday Sabbath.

From the letter to the Magnesians: “Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. …[T]hose who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death…”

And furthermore: “Therefore, having become His disciples, let us learn to live according to the principles of Christianity…It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believes might be gathered together to God.” (Also from the letter to the Magnesians)

There is not a specific Biblical mandate for the transference of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. However, this is an ancient tradition that grew up within the Church from a very early date and Ignatius bears witness to this fact. The Bible offers some indication of this:

Acts 20:7 “On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread…”

1Corinthians 16:2 “On the first day of the week each of you should set aside and save whatever one can afford, so that collections will not be going on when I come…” (Paul obviously knew that Christians gathered on the first day of the week and therefore a general collection would be possible at that time.)

Also important to note, both the Resurrection and the decent of the Holy Spirit happened on a Sunday.

So too, it must be remembered that Ignatius received his training in the faith directly from John the Apostle and from Peter who ordained him as bishop. Ignatius learned from the Apostles themselves how to carry on proper Christian worship. Just as the New Law superseded certain Jewish practices in the Old Testament (kosher dietary requirements, for instance), so too, the Sabbath took on a new meaning for Christians as Sunday became the day of worship.

Thus one of the “Catholic” (“universal”) Christian beliefs of the First Century was that Sunday is the proper day of worship.

In conclusion…

In his brief letters to various congregations, Ignatius devoted much time to the issue of Christian unity - the oneness of the “universal” Church. He stressed unity in the authority of the bishops and the hierarchy of the institutional Church, and he sought unity in the authentic celebration of the Eucharist. Indeed, the Body of Christ on earth (the Church) is united to her Head (Christ) by partaking in the Body that is made present in true Christian worship. Thus the “Catholic” Church is gathered around the one altar to share in the one sacrifice.

The Eucharist played a central role in Ignatius’ writings, and also in his own life. Or rather, his death, as this passage from his letter to the Romans reveals:

“I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. …[E]ntice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body…Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God].”

Truly no better witness can be found to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and our intimate relationship to Christ’s own sacrifice than Ignatius of Antioch, First Century bishop and martyr.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Happy New Year!!...sort of...

There are several theories as to the origins of April Fools Day. The most likely scenario involves the introduction of the Gregorian calendar (the one we currently use) which replaced the Julian calendar in 1582. The Gregorian calendar is named for Pope Gregory XIII, who had called for the formulation of the new calendar and ordered its implementation. Among the new features that were introduced with the Gregorian calendar, the New Year was moved to January 1 from its previous date of April 1. The selection of the start of the calendar year may seem like an arbitrary matter (after all, what difference does it make which month begins the year), until one examines the reasons behind the decision.

Obviously our current celebration of the New Year marks the climax of a week-long celebration of Christ’s birth (a celebration which then continues for several days into the month of January). We celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, and this Feast builds up to the changing of the calendar year on January 1, to mark the number of years since the time of Jesus’ nativity. Similarly the old April 1 date was the climax of a week-long celebration of Jesus conception, which was (and still is) marked on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. We can see then that the two dates are not so arbitrary after all.

So we are presented with two competing ideass about which event ought to determine the changing of our calendars. Both of these have theological merit; both involve the Incarnation and divide time between that which came “Before Christ” (B.C.) and that which is “Anno Domini” (the Year of our Lord – A.D.). But with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 eventually won out, and replaced the April 1 celebration.

Yet there were those who openly resisted the new date for the New Year (or, due to lack of communication in those days, were simply unaware of the change) and continued to celebrate the New Year on April 1. These people were referred to as April Fools, and were taunted and lampooned by the rest of society. April 1 became the Day of All Fools or April Fools Day.

Today we play pranks and make jokes at the expense of others and call them “April Fools” without much thought to the historic origins of this popular custom. I find it interesting to reflect on this day that April Fools has a Catholic origin. Perhaps in the true spirit of the day, those who (for whatever reason) do not acknowledge papal pronouncements or reject the authority of the Church as a divinely established institution ought to reflect on the folly of their ways...perhaps they are the true April Fools.