A local parishioner has drawn upon the best available evidence to create this realistic sculpture of Jesus Christ on his Cross. Come to St. Wenceslaus in Eastman on Friday, March 24th at 7 PM to encounter this impressive, life-sized crucifix. Father Victor Feltes will speak about the historical sources on which this crucifix is based and lead some short devotions.
Archive for the ‘Salvation History’ Category
Highlight to Reveal the Answers
- Which archangel visited Mary?
(((A: Gabriel))) B: Michael
- In which Gospel does the archangel visit Mary?
(((A: Luke))) B: Matthew
- Who is the “Immaculate Conception?”
A: Jesus (((B: Mary)))
- Where was Jesus conceived by the Holy Spirit?
A: Bethlehem (((B: Nazareth)))
- What is grown in wombs?
A: Christmas Trees (((B: Babies)))
- Who was born first?
A: Jesus Christ (((B: John the Baptist)))
- Which Gospel has John the Baptist’s birth?
(((A: Luke))) B: Matthew
- About many years ago was Jesus born?
(((A: 2,017 Years))) B: 3,300 Years
- What is a manger?
(((A: Feed Box))) B: Stable
- Who invented crèches (or manger scenes)?
A: St. Augustine (((B: St. Francis of Assisi)))
- Which Gospel has the “Wise Men” or Magi?
A: Luke (((B: Matthew)))
- From which direction did the Magi come?
(((A: The East))) B: The West
- Who was St. Nicholas in the 4th century?
(((A: Bishop in Turkey))) B: Norwegian Martyr
- When does the Roman Catholic Church’s Christmas Season end?
(((A: Baptism of the Lord))) B: Epiphany
So how did you do?
Readings: Isaiah 11, Luke 10
While recently visiting the Sea of Galilee in Israel I saw something in the skies I had never seen before. There were miles-wide concentric cloud rings with the occasional sound of long, rolling, man-made thunder. Though these things were interesting to behold, I hated the reason behind why they needed to be there. Northwestern Israel borders Syria and these high-altitude contrails and jet-engine sounds were from the Israeli Air Force’s U.S.-made F-15’s or F-16’s on defensive air patrols to ensure their neighbor’s civil war did not spill over into their own country.
The coastline of the Sea of Galilee is beautiful, peaceful, and prosperous. We were able to celebrate a Mass in an outside chapel near the site where Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and had breakfast with his disciples (as recorded in John 21.) But while we were free to tour and worship without threat or fear, the people of Aleppo, Syria were under siege just 250 miles north. There the Russian bear and the Syrian wolf are allied against the ISIS serpent in a battle for the right to rule over the suffering lambs and little children caught in the middle. The prophet Isaiah’s poetic vision of the radical peace the Messiah (or Christ) would someday establish has not yet fully come:
“Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.” (Isaiah 11:4-9)
On one occasion, turning to the disciples in private, Jesus said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24) Many great Old Testament figures longed for the promised Messiah but died before his coming. We are blessed to live in an age which has seen his arrival and blessed to have heard his message. Yet further blessed are we if we pray and prepare the path for the New Creation Christ promises to bring.
Along the sea of Galilee, it is possible to give no thought to the suffering and death happening not so far away. Likewise, in our beautiful, peaceful, prosperous country it is possible to ignore that there are grave evils in our midst, happening just out of sight. But blessed are we if we choose to long and labor for the life of the New Heavens and New Earth.
“Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
…Blessed are they who hunger and thirst
for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
…Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
…Blessed are they who are persecuted for
the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the
kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5)
Readings: Isaiah 4, Matthew 8
Capernaum was a home base for Jesus Christ during his ministry in Galilee. Josephus, the 1st century A.D. Roman-Jewish historian, wrote that 30,000 people lived in Capernaum. Josephus has a bad reputation for exaggerating his figures but even if the true number were one-third that, Capernaum would still be a major city on the ancient trade route. But today, if you visit Capernaum (or Kfar Nahum “Nahum’s village” in Hebrew), you will find very little standing there. There are the ancient ruins St. Peter the Apostle’s home and of a fourth-century synagogue, a couple of Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries, but not much else. The nearby surroundings are dry orchard fields and rocky barrenness. Capernaum is no longer a great, impressive city. Jesus had once foretold of its desolation:
“And as for you, Capernaum:
‘Will you be exalted to heaven?
You will go down to the netherworld.’
For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (Matthew 11:23)
One thing remaining from Capernaum are the Gospel accounts of this encounter between Jesus and a centurion. Once, when Jesus entered the city, the centurion approached and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” Jesus told him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith….” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour his servant was healed. (Matthew 8)
The centurion does not do very much in this episode. According to Luke 7’s telling, he actually communicated with Jesus through intermediaries. So what about him impressed Jesus so much? The centurion’s few words reveal his reverent humility and confident trust before Jesus, and his loving concern for his suffering servant. Jesus is not impressed by world wealth and power, by great cities or empires, but by acts of faith and love, which remain before him always.
Catechism of the Catholic Church #668-679
I. HE WILL COME AGAIN IN GLORY
Christ already reigns through the Church…
“Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Christ’s Ascension into heaven signifies his participation, in his humanity, in God’s power and authority. Jesus Christ is Lord: he possesses all power in heaven and on earth. He is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” for the Father “has put all things under his feet.” Christ is Lord of the cosmos and of history. In him human history and indeed all creation are “set forth” and transcendently fulfilled.
As Lord, Christ is also head of the Church, which is his Body. Taken up to heaven and glorified after he had thus fully accomplished his mission, Christ dwells on earth in his Church. The redemption is the source of the authority that Christ, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, exercises over the Church. “The kingdom of Christ [is] already present in mystery,” “on earth, the seed and the beginning of the kingdom.”
Since the Ascension God’s plan has entered into its fulfillment. We are already at “the last hour.” “Already the final age of the world is with us, and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real but imperfect.” Christ’s kingdom already manifests its presence through the miraculous signs that attend its proclamation by the Church.
…until all things are subjected to him.
Though already present in his Church, Christ’s reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled “with power and great glory” by the king’s return to earth. This reign is still under attack by the evil powers, even though they have been defeated definitively by Christ’s Passover. Until everything is subject to him, “until there be realized new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells, the pilgrim Church, in her sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons of God.” That is why Christians pray, above all in the Eucharist, to hasten Christ’s return by saying to him: Marana tha! “Our Lord, come!”
Before his Ascension Christ affirmed that the hour had not yet come for the glorious establishment of the messianic kingdom awaited by Israel which, according to the prophets, was to bring all men the definitive order of justice, love, & peace. According to the Lord, the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by “distress” and the trial of evil which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching.
The glorious advent of Christ, Israel’s hope
Since the Ascension Christ’s coming in glory has been imminent, even though “it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are “delayed.”
The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by “all Israel,” for “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” in their “unbelief” toward Jesus. St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” St. Paul echoes him: “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” The “full inclusion” of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of “the full number of the Gentiles,” will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” in which “God may be all in all.”
The Church’s ultimate trial
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.
II. TO JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching. Then will the conduct of each one and the secrets of hearts be brought to light. Then will the culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God’s grace as nothing be condemned. Our attitude about our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love. On the last day Jesus will say: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He “acquired” this right by his cross. The Father has given “all judgment to the Son.” Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save and to give the life he has in himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one’s works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love.
The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus: “He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted.” He went on to say to Mary: “And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”
Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your Son. Indeed, after your Jesus – who belongs to everyone, but is especially yours – gave up his life, the cruel spear, which was not withheld from his lifeless body, tore open his side. Clearly it did not touch his soul and could not harm him, but it did pierce your heart. For surely his soul was no longer there, but yours could not be torn away. Thus the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.
Or were those words, “Woman, behold your Son,” not more than a word to you, truly piercing your heart, cutting through to the division between soul and spirit? What an exchange! John is given to you in place of Jesus, the servant in place of the Lord, the disciple in place of the master; the son of Zebedee replaces the Son of God, a mere man replaces God himself. How could these words not pierce your most loving heart, when the mere remembrance of them breaks ours, hearts of iron and stone though they are!
Do not be surprised, brothers, that Mary is said to be a martyr in spirit. Let him be surprised who does not remember the words of Paul, that one of the greatest crimes of the Gentiles was that they were without love. That was far from the heart of Mary; let it be far from her servants.
Perhaps someone will say: “Had she not known before that he would not die?” Undoubtedly. “Did she not expect him to rise again at once?” Surely. “And still she grieved over her crucified Son?” Intensely. Who are you and what is the source of your wisdom that you are more surprised at the compassion of Mary than at the passion of Mary’s Son? For if he could die in body, could she not die with him in spirit? He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.
This Monday, I dialogued with Muslims, Jews, and Unitarians in an online comments section. How’d it go? A Muslim man accused me of an “unforgivable sin” for espousing Trinitarianism. (I thought: “If that’s literally true, then that makes me less inclined to become Muslim. I mean, why bother?”) But the commenters were generally thoughtful and kind.
The blogger who hosts the website had written, “The Jews had no idea of the Trinity. Their faith was centred in the Shema: a unitary monotheistic confession. Jesus clearly affirmed that very same unitary monotheism in Mark 12:29. [“Jesus replied, ‘The first (commandment in the law) is this: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord is one!”] How is it that Christians today have abandoned their rabbi on this point?” I felt moved to reply and what follows is based upon my responses.
Faithful Jews recite the Shema prayer each morning and evening, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Is the oneness professed in this passage of God’s word irreconcilable with Trinitarian belief?
In declaring that “the Lord is one,” the Hebrew passage employs the word “echad” for “one.” Echad is often used to mean singularity, but sometimes the same word denotes a unified entity. For instance, in the Garden, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one (echad) flesh.” And again, at the Tower of Babel, “If now, while they are one (echad) people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.”
God could have selected a different word to be inspired for this passage, but the one He chose allows a providential flexibility. Echad permits the unified oneness of the Persons of the Trinity without requiring this reading from the Jewish generations who came before Christ. So, contrary to the blogger’s claim, when Jesus quotes the Shema it is not clear that He is affirming the very same unitary monotheism assumed by his ancestors. Interestingly, the “oneness” of God taught in Deuteronomy 6:4 leads to the conclusion that we ought to love God with the unified oneness of three aspects of ourselves. The immediately following verse reads: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.”
A Unitarian (a Christian who asserts God’s unity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity) found this last observation interesting and asked me to recommend a book that makes a great case for the Trinity. To him, I replied:
I would suggest approaching the Holy Trinity in the same way the first Christians came to this knowledge; through Jesus of Nazareth. Some dismiss the Christology of John’s Gospel as later theological development, but even the Gospels thought to be written earlier show Jesus doing and saying things only God could rightly do (e.g., forgiving sins, declaring himself lord of the Sabbath, demanding an absolute total commitment to himself, etc.) A book I recommend that explores this is Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 “Jesus of Nazareth (Part 1)” In it, Benedict spends a good deal of time discussing Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s book, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.” The central issue that prevents that rabbi from believing in Jesus is the same scandal that led Jesus to his death: his revealing himself as God.
To objections at Christians detecting in the Shema something which no Jews had previously held–indications of the Trinity–I answered:
In the course of the Jewish Scriptures, we can see God developing humanity along; from polytheism to monotheism, from polygamy to monogamy, from blood vengeance to “an eye for an eye.” That the LORD was not just one god among the many gods–but the only God, was a revelation His people learned over time. (For example, Moses must ask of God in Exodus 3:13: “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what do I tell them?”) When Jesus comes He extends the revelation further; “Love your enemies,” “What God has joined let no man separate,” “The Father and I are one.” My point is this: To argue Christian beliefs cannot be true because they were not previously known among Jews is like saying there cannot be only one God because this was not clear to the Patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel.
One Muslim asked whether the Old Testament prophets who did not know about the Trinity would therefore be worshiping an incomplete God. I answered:
All analogies touching on the Trinity fall short, but imagine being introduced to a friendly and engaging man at a dinner-party. In the course of your conversation you learn that he is a doctor, married, and has three kids. Now these things were true about the man from the first moment you knew him but you came to know him more fully with time. Likewise, God has always been a Trinity of Persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; acting, speaking, and revealing throughout history. Abraham and the prophets’ understanding of God were not as filled-out as in later generations, but they did indeed know and love and worship God. Of course, the parallel I’m trying to draw is not that God is one person wearing three different hats like that doctor-husband-father (which is the heresy of modalism.) I’m noting how Abraham and the prophets could enjoy true relationship with the Holy Trinity without yet knowing of that doctrine.
Consider the interesting episode of Abraham’s three visitors in Genesis 18: “The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre… Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.” Now two of this trio are later called angels (Genesis 19:1) but more precisely these are “messengers,” and the Son and the Holy Spirit do indeed serve the Father this way, revealing God the Father and his will among men. Did Abraham perceive in his guests what Christians suspect in retrospect, that this was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity? Maybe not, yet Abraham could still commune in God’s presence.
I think something that trips people up about Christianity is imagining God the Father as the sole Divine Person in the Old Testament, with the Son and the Holy Spirit only appearing later in the New. However, if the Trinity is true it has always been true, and the three Persons (possessing the same Divine Essence the prophets praised) have been active in the affairs of mankind throughout history. Christians reflect back on the Jewish Scriptures and see the Persons of the Trinity at work together. Our Nicene Creed professes that the Holy Spirit has “spoken through the prophets.” Look at the episodes where a “messenger” speaks in the divine first-person (e.g., Genesis 22:12, Judges 6:16 & 13:21-22) I would say Abraham and the prophets’ experiences of God were Trinitarian even if they did not fully grasp it then. I believe the same is true for all today.
Aphantasia (Greek for “without fantasy”) has been written about since 1880 but it has recently gained increased attention. To understand what I am talking about, picture a red triangle, a horse running, or the house where you grew up. With a moment’s attention you can see them in your mind. However, people with Aphantasia are incapable of voluntarily forming images in their mind’s-eye.
Blake, a successful 30-year-old software engineer only recently learned he experienced the world differently from others. He relates a conversation similar to this with a Facebook friend:
—If I ask you to imagine a beach, how would you describe what happens in your mind?
—Uhh, I imagine a beach. What?
—Like, the idea of a beach. Right?
—Well, there are waves, sand. Umbrellas. It’s a relaxing picture. Are you okay?
— But it’s not actually a picture? There’s no visual component, right?
—Yes, there is, in my mind. What are you talking about?
—Is it in color?
—How often do your thoughts have a visual element?
—A thousand times a day?
—Oh, my goodness…
If someone were to ask Blake to “imagine a beach,” he could ruminate on the concept of a beach: it has sand, waves, heat, sun. He could recognize a beach when he saw one, but even if he were standing on a beach he could not recreate or remember the image with his eyes closed.
Philip is a 42-year old photographer from Toronto. He is happily married, but he cannot conjure up his wife’s face (or any other image) in his mind’s eye. He was recently listening to a podcast presenter describing aphantasia. He says it came as a complete surprise, “I was like ‘what do you mean? People do that?’” He thought it was a joke so he checked with his four-year old daughter. “I asked her whether she could picture an apple in her mind, she said ‘yeah, it’s green’. I was shocked.”
A 2009 survey of 2,500 people suggests that aphantasia is the experience of about 2% of people. So far, I have found it in two of my friends, including a fellow priest. He tells me that when our spiritual director in seminary would tells us to prayerfully picture ourselves, say, at the table of the Last Supper he thought it was just a metaphor. He was surprised to learn that when people “counted sheep” to fall asleep that was more than just a figure of speech.
Disbelief is a common response when people on either side of this phenomena hear that other people do no experience the world like themselves. (“That’s impossible. You’re lying. You’re pulling my leg.”) However, unless we happen to carry around an MRI machine, we have to take our friend at his or her word in order to know the truth. And here we come to the connection with this Feast of Corpus Christi.
An extraordinary experience at the center of our Faith is founded upon a trust in our friend Jesus Christ’s testimony. At the Last Supper, Jesus does not say, “This is like my body,” or “This symbolizes or represents my body.” He says, “This is my body.” Around the year 150 AD, St. Justin Martyr described what early Christians everywhere believed about these words:
“The apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “Do this in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood” … “This food is called among us the Eucharist… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
The Church has always proclaimed and worshiped Jesus Christ as truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist. This belief has been confirmed for us throughout the centuries. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would lead us to all truth and remind us of all that he told us, has reaffirmed this teaching in Councils of the Church. Jesus has also allowed Eucharistic miracles to unveil this mystery we cannot normally perceive. For instance, at the Miracle of Lanciano in eighth century AD, a priest who was doubting Jesus’ Real Presence witnessed the bread become flesh and the wine become blood (which coagulated and broke into five globules in the chalice) as he said the words of consecration. In 1971, scientific analysis indicated that, as at similar miracles, the Host was human cardiac muscle. Who would go through such trouble when a fraudster’s more convenient use of pig’s flesh would have been undetectable? The truth is that Jesus gives us his heart in the Eucharist, along with his whole self. You can go to Lanciano, Italy and behold this Host today.
For many Christians, the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbolic commemoration, a ritual that remembers him. But if Jesus is everywhere, then he is nowhere. It then impossible to physically draw near to him any place on earth. Unless you are blessed with a vision of Jesus, you can never see him with your eyes or touch him in your flesh until after your death and resurrection. But with the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, “Behold, I am with you always…”
If you have always enjoyed mental images, or if you have received the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion since you were a child, then you may not appreciate the gift you have. If you experience aphantasia, or if you have never believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, then you may not even know what you are missing. So for our non-Catholic family and friends, tell them about this treasure—Jesus wants them to receive him, too. And for ourselves, let us truly appreciate the incredible gift that we are blessed to receive.
In the new blockbuster movie Captain America: Civil War the titular hero is discerning an important decision when he hears this message in a church:
“Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.”
As I watched in the movie theater, that bit about the tree struck me as odd. Trees bend and can be cut down, but pillars of iron or stone mountains don’t budge. I later discovered that these movie lines were adapted from a famous comic book speech Captain America once addressed to Spider-Man:
“When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, you move.’”
Did you spot the difference? “Plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth.” That’s not only more beautiful, it’s also an allusion to Old Testament imagery. Psalm 1:3 says:
“[The Just Man] is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in due season, whose leaves do not wither, and whatever he does prospers.”
And Jeremiah 17:8 says:
“[Those who trust in the Lord] are like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It does not fear heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still produces fruit.”
These verses teach that the just man who is rooted in the Law (or the Truth) of God prospers, and that those who trust in the Lord prevail against adversity.
I wish that Hollywood had included the fuller quote in the new Captain America movie—not only because it’s better writing, not only because it echoes Sacred Scripture, but because it better reflects the truth about where Truth comes from. My all-time favorite film disappoints me in a similar way.
A Man for All Season won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Picture, but its depiction of its hero, St. Thomas More, falls short of perfection. In the movie, as in real life, Thomas More suffers unjust imprisonment for refusing to swear an oath recognizing King Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Catholic Church in England. The movie’s screenwriter, the agnostic Robert Bolt, drew on More’s own writings to craft some fantastic dialogues, but Bolt somewhat misrepresents the saint’s true motivations.
In one scene, Thomas More’s friend, the Duke of Norfolk, asks why he won’t just “give in.” Thomas answers, “I will not give in because I oppose it — I do — not my pride, not my spleen, nor any of my appetites, but I do — I!” The real St. Thomas More’s motivations are portrayed more accurately in the scene at his trial. He tells the court:
“The indictment [against me] is grounded in an act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the law of God, and his Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon [himself.] This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ himself, to Saint Peter and the Bishops of Rome whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is, therefore, insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it.”
The real St. Thomas More refused to sign the King’s oath because he saw in it a denial of Christ. He preferred to die rather than lose Heaven; and he did go on to die, thereby gaining Heaven. But Robert Bolt has his Thomas More conclude his courtroom speech like this:
“Nevertheless, it is not for [refusing the King’s] Supremacy that you have sought my blood, but because I would not bend to the [King’s re-marriage]!” (In other words, “No one is going to make me act contrary to my own self-will!”)
The real St. Thomas More was not standing up against the world for individually-chosen truth. (More opposed heretics when he served as King Henry’s High Chancellor.) He knew that Truth and right and wrong are not things we create for ourselves. We receive them, as water from a river. They do not flow from us as their source. The real St. Thomas More was a champion for the Truth which comes from God.
So how can we be faithful to the Truth which comes from God? How can we be planted like trees beside the River of Truth that flows from God? By prayerfully welcoming the Holy Spirit.
At his interrogation before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus says: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (In the Holy Trinity, the Father is the Speaker, Jesus is the Word, and the Holy Spirit is the Voice) But Pilate refuses to listen. He retorts to Jesus, “What is truth?” He rejects the Spirit of Truth and walks away.
Later, at his Ascension, Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high with the Spirit of Truth who will teach them everything and remind them of all he has told them. Unlike Pilate, the disciples listen to Jesus and obey him. Some 120 persons (including the apostles, the Virgin Mary, some women, and some male relatives of Jesus) gather together and all devote themselves to prayer. They pray for nine days—the Church’s first novena, and on the tenth day, on the Jewish feast of first fruits called Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, comes and fills them.
Once the Spirit’s fire touches their heads, the disciples know what to say and they are unafraid to say it. Previously they had been hiding behind locked doors, but now they go out into Jerusalem’s crowded streets praising and preaching Jesus. This new-found wisdom and courage are gifts from the Holy Spirit, who empowers them to begin reaping the Church’s first fruits from the world. Observe well what the disciples do, for we are called to do the same: they listen to Jesus and obey him, they gather together and pray, they receive the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and gifts, and then they go forth to speak and act powerfully in the world.
In the Gospel of John, on the last and greatest day of one of the Jewish feasts, Jesus stands up in the temple area and exclaims, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” Here the Gospel writer adds: “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.”
The Holy Spirit is our River of Living Water. As trees planted beside him we will prosper, and by being rooted in him we will prevail against adversity. In Holy Mass let us pray to receive the Spirit wholeheartedly and to be clothed with his power. And then, filled with the Spirit of Truth, even if the whole world tells us to move, we will have the words and courage to stand our ground. By the Holy Spirit, we can be heroes for this world in desperate need of heroes, in the likeness of Captain America, St. Thomas More, and the apostles after Pentecost.
Today, two great celebrations providentially align: the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven and Mother’s Day. After his resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days teaching, instructing, and preparing his disciples for their new life ahead. The number 40 often appears in the Bible in relation to times of preparation. Noah spent 40 days and nights on the ark as the waters of the flood were renewing the world. Moses and the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in the desert before God’s people entered the Promised Land. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights praying and fasting in the desert. And after his death on the cross, Jesus’ body spent (by tradition) 40 hours in the tomb awaiting the resurrection. The number 40 also has a place in your life story as well. Each of you remained 40 weeks, more or less, within your mother’s womb being prepared for a new life. I ask you to reflect on that time.
Attached to your mother’s vine you grew into the mature fruit of her womb. You were nourished and grew within her. You were never far from her heart or mind. You existed within her, connected to her at the center of your being. (Your belly button marks the spot where you were once attached to her.) She fed you with her very self. She provided for all your needs. Apart from her you could do nothing. You remained in her and you found your rest within her.
In the womb, at those earliest stages of life, our minds did not comprehend very much, but what if you could have understood then everything that your mother was doing for you? Surely you would have directed your thoughts to her often. And, from time to time, you would have turned to her with the eyes of your heart to bask in her love for you.
What if, imagining further, that you could have spoken with your mom when you were in her womb? Wouldn’t you have taken the opportunity to speak with her every day? Wouldn’t you have thanked her with a deep gratitude and let her know how much you love her? I suppose a baby could ignore its mother in such as situation and continue to live on, at least biologically, but the child would be deprived without this first and special relationship with mom.
As you and your mother would continue to talk throughout the days and months of pregnancy she would eventually present you with a most-frightening prospect. She might put it this way, “My child, soon, in a little while, you are going to begin a new stage of your life. You will be departing from the life you know, and then you’ll experience a whole world of people and things you have never known before. Once you are born, you will meet me in a new way.”
You might say, “I’m scared! I don’t want to go—not now, not ever!” But she would reassure you, “I realize this concept is scary for you, but trust me when I say that it is better that you go. In fact, someday soon you’ll look back and think it a silly thought to be back again where you are now. This transition is going to hurt a little bit… trust me, I know… but when the appointed time comes, I’ll be right here with you. So don’t be afraid, it’s going to be O.K.”
Our life in our mother’s womb is like our life in Jesus Christ. You are attached to Him as to a vine. You are nourished and grow within Him. You are never far from His heart or mind. You exist within Him; you live and move and have your being in Him, connected to Him at the center of your being. He feeds you with His very self in the Eucharist. He provides for all your needs. Apart from Him, you can do nothing. You remain in Him and can find your rest in Him.
Knowing and believing this, shouldn’t we direct our thoughts to Him often? Shouldn’t we, from time to time, turn to Him with the eyes of our hearts to bask in His love for us. We have the ability to talk with Jesus Christ whenever we want in prayer. We should take the opportunity to speak with Him every day, thanking Him out of deep gratitude and telling Him how much we love Him. A person who ignores Him will still continue to live, at biologically, but they will not be fully alive without this primary and special relationship with Christ. We must to pray every day if we want to remain in Him and bear much fruit.
We don’t want to die and that’s perfectly natural. But Jesus says to us, “Soon, in a little while, you are going to begin a new stage of your life. You will be departing from the life you know, and then you’ll experience a whole world of people and things you have never known before. Once you die, you will meet me in a new way. I realize this concept is scary for you, but trust me when I say that it is better that you go. In fact, someday soon you’ll look back and think it a silly thought to be back again where you are now. This transition is going to hurt a little bit… trust me, I know… but when the appointed time comes, I’ll be right there with you. So don’t be afraid, it’s going to be O.K.”
Was Jesus afraid when he ascended into heaven? In the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his died Jesus was anxious and distressed at the sufferings before Him. But at the Ascension, as he rose high above the ground, I do not think He was afraid at all. He was beyond all fear and He was going home. The anecdotal evidence of near death experiences indicates that for friends of God the journey beyond this life is peaceful and joyful. A friend of mine once went into cardiac arrest and had a vision like that of going home. When they defibrillated her heart in the Emergency Room and brought her back to into this world she felt quite angry and tore off the wires they had stuck on her skin because she so much wanted to go back to where she had just been.
As our mothers would have told us before we were born from womb into world, and as Jesus tells us before our birth from this life to next, we do not need to be afraid. Instead let us live in gratitude and peace. Today, let us thank God for the life, love, and tender care we have received from our mothers and through Jesus Christ. May God bless our mothers and may Jesus Christ be praised.
A prophet is someone enlightened by God to reveal his message. Each Sunday, we familiarly proclaim that the Holy Spirit has “spoken through the prophets,” but the identities of the seven last Old Covenant prophets (as seen in the Bible) may well surprise you.
#7 : The Author of 2nd Maccabees
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, yet the Bible’s books do not always appear in chronological order. Our separated Protestant brethren would identify Malachi as the last prophetic book in the Old Testament, but the Church’s Bible includes seven books which they exclude. The last of these is 2nd Maccabees, written during the 1st century BC.
The author of 2nd Maccabees, who chronicles the Jews’ successful rebellion against their Greek persecutors, does not seem to know he writes by divine inspiration. In his closing remarks he adds, “If [this story] is well written and to the point, that is what I wanted; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the best I could do.” (15:38) However, neither does St. Paul appear to grasp that his letters to the churches would be revered on the level of Genesis, Joshua, or Daniel. This shows that God can use us in amazing ways, in perfect accord with his will, even if we fail to recognize it at the time.
#6 & #5 : St. Zachariah & St. Elizabeth
Zachariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are old and childless. But the Archangel Gabriel appears to Zachariah in the Temple and says that they shall have a son. Although he knows that God has blessed with children elderly and barren couples of old, Zachariah disbelieves the message. In response, he is put on a forty-week silent retreat. Zachariah becomes mute and apparently deaf as well (since his neighbors and relatives will later resort to making gestures to ask him the name of his newborn son.) Though he cannot tell his pregnant wife of their unborn son’s great mission, Elizabeth receives insights from the Holy Spirit.
When she hears the greeting of her visiting relative, Elizabeth is “filled with the holy Spirit” and cries out in a loud voice, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” The Blessed Virgin’s belly has not yet begun to grow, but Elizabeth prophesies and confirms to Mary that she is indeed pregnant with a boy who is “the Lord.” (Luke 1)
The Holy Spirit also seems to reveal to Elizabeth the name of her child: “John,” a name unfamiliar to her family. At the naming ceremony, Zechariah regains his voice, confirms her word, and “filled with the holy Spirit, prophesie[s]” through the canticle which bears his name. This holy, prophetic couple would ready their son for the great mission prepared for him by God.
#4 : The Blessed Virgin Mary
The Archangel Gabriel declared unto Mary that she would conceive the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. But is Mary a prophetess? Unlike Elizabeth and Zachariah, Luke’s Gospel does not say Mary, “filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied,” or “filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice.” However, as Fr. Raymond Brown observed, the Annunciation to Mary shares the biblical form of a prophetic calling (like those of Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel before her):
(1) An Encounter with God or His Angel
(2) An Introductory Word
(3) A Call or Commission
(4) Objection(s) to the Message
(5) Reassurance by God or His Angel
(6) A Sign is Given
In her later canticle, Blessed Mary speaks a prophesy which remains fulfilled in our midst: “Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is a prophetess, filled with the Holy Spirit, who bears God’s Word.
When the baby Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple for the first time, they were met by Simeon and Anna; she was “a prophetess” and “[t]he holy Spirit was upon him.” Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple,” took Jesus in his arms, and declared him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Anna likewise came forward at that very time and “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2)
Simeon may have been advanced in years, but “it had been revealed to him by the holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord.” Anna, for her part, was an eighty-four-year-old widow who “never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” Anna and Simeon show us how the old can bless the young through sharing the word of the Lord they have personally come to know.
#1 : St. John the Baptist
We do not know exactly how many Old Covenant prophets God inspired after the author of 2nd Maccabees. (A case might be made for the Bethlehem shepherds and the Magi as well.) But we do know that John the Baptist represents the last Old Covenant prophet, the forerunner to the New Covenant Christ. He is “more than a prophet,” Jesus says. “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. … Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11)
At baptism, each Christian is entrusted with a prophetic mission. As those enlightened with God’s ultimate revelation, we are to share this Word. As great as it is to proclaim Christ’s coming, to proclaim his triumph is still greater.
Once, at a picnic in college, I learned from a Muslim professor about what Islam teaches regarding Jesus — that he is not the divine Son of God but a prophet of Allah. Of course, my own Christian beliefs differed but I sat patiently listening — until he told me something about ‘Jesus (peace be upon him)’ which left me manifestly incredulous. He said Jesus was never crucified; Allah only made it appear as if he suffered and died. Reportedly, most Muslims (like this professor) believe that Allah gave someone else Jesus’ physical appearance to die on the Cross instead.
The relevant portion of the Quran [4:157] says:
“That they said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’; but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not…”
I began asking the professor clarifying questions on this point to make sure that I understood and after a while he asked me why. I replied that if the eyewitnesses to the Crucifixion were not merely mistaken but actively deceived by Allah, then Allah is the author of a lie. God is Truth and “can neither deceive nor be deceived.” (CCC #156-157) So how could Islam’s doppelganger explanation for denying the Crucifixion of Jesus be true? (Similarly, creationists may argue that evolutionists are misinterpreting the ancient fossil record, but they may not say that God has planted false evidence to test our faith.) The now-ruffled Muslim professor retorted that Christianity’s belief in ‘the three gods of the Trinity’ did not make any sense, and we let our interfaith picnic dialogue end there.
But what if Allah can lie? If Allah acts against Truth then his omnipotence would be unlimited in every sense, transcending beyond both logic and goodness. But if Allah transcends good and evil, if God is not absolute goodness in a way that human beings can recognize, then what is our motive to worship him besides submission before his power? C.S. Lewis wrote in opposition to Calvinism’s doctrine of mankind’s “Total Depravity” with words which are just as applicable here:
“[I]f God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white,’ we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good,’ while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what.’ … If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend.”
In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks the title character, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or, put another way: “Is morality right simply because God declares it so, or does God acknowledge it as right because it is right independently of Himself?” Christianity answers that Euthyphro’s dilemma is a false choice. Goodness comes from God’s eternal nature; nothing could exist without Him. God’s word calls forth the good from Himself. He creates good things, sustains them, and sees that they are good. This is the good God we know; the true God “who does not lie” (Titus 1:2); the God who is supremely revealed by the death on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for all people.
From the Catena Aurea or Golden Chain, St. Thomas Aquinas’ collection of Church Father quotes.
- It may be asked, why Peter, who was a fisherman before his conversion, returned to fishing, when it is said, “No man putting his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” The craft which was exercised without sin before conversion, was no sin after it. Wherefore after his conversion Peter returned to fishing; but Matthew sat not down again for the receipts of custom. For there are some businesses which cannot or it can hardly be carried on without sin; and these cannot be returned to after conversion.
- The [disciples’] fishing was made to be very unlucky, in order to raise their astonishment at the miracle after: “And that night they caught nothing.”
- It may be asked, why after His resurrection He stood on the shore to receive the disciples, whereas before He walked on the sea? The sea signifies the world, which is tossed about with various causes of tumults, and the waves of this corruptible life; the shore by its solidity figures the rest eternal. The disciples then, inasmuch as they were still upon the waves of this mortal life, were laboring on the sea; but the Redeemer having by His resurrection thrown off the corruption of the flesh, stood upon the shore.
- To Peter was the holy Church committed; to him is it specially said, “Feed my sheep.” That then which is afterwards declared by word, is now signified by act. He it is who draws the fishes to the firm shore, because he it was who pointed out the stability of the eternal country to the faithful. This he did by word of mouth, by epistles; this he does daily by signs and miracles.
- By holding this last feast with seven disciples, [Jesus] declares that they only who are full of the seven-fold grace of the Holy Spirit, shall be with Him in the eternal feast. Time also is reckoned by periods of seven days, and perfection is often designated by the number seven. They therefore feast upon the presence of the Truth in that last banquet, who now strive for perfection.
Few proved faithful to Jesus on Good Friday, but on Good Friday Jesus proved himself faithful to us.
The political leaders were supposed to serve justice, but Pilate and Herod failed to protect Jesus as an innocent man. Jesus protected us when we were guilty.
The religious leaders were supposed to serve holiness, but the High Priests and the Sanhedrin failed to accept Jesus as their Messiah. Jesus accepted us so that we might become holy.
The disciples were supposed to serve their teacher and lord, but Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and the others abandoned him. By enduring his suffering and death, Jesus proved himself faithful to us.
Jesus’ mother Mary was faithful. She stood with him at the foot of the cross. It was a consolation for Jesus to have her there. Two of his beloved disciples were also there: Mary Magdalene and the apostle John. Jesus was grateful to have them close by.
Today, on this Good Friday, by the grace of God, we are at the foot of the cross. Let us pray for mercy, for ourselves and for others. Despite our past unfaithfulness, let us honor his faithfulness to us. Jesus is pleased that we are here with him, and he is grateful for our gratitude.
St. Augustine wrote a famous reflection on Proverbs 23:1 :
“If you sit down to eat at the table of a ruler,
observe carefully what is set before you.”
Why? Because you will be expected to provide the same kind of meal for him. This proverb is a practical tip of worldly wisdom, but St. Augustine goes deeper; what is its spiritual meaning for the Christian?
Who is our ruler? It is Jesus our Lord.
Where is his table? It is here, his altar.
Now carefully observe the food he sets before us: it is the Eucharist, his very self.
Jesus calls us to prepare the same kind of meal for him. He says, “This is my body, given up for you. Do this in memory of me.” We must make a gift of ourselves by living our lives for him, and we are to serve him in others for he tells us, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
After washing his disciples feet at the Last Supper where he institutes the Eucharist, Jesus says to his disciples, and to us: “Do you realize what I have done for you? … I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”