Friday, April 29, 2011
So, we motored out in my still-hanging-together Mini Cooper. Observing the trees down & other damage all alongside the road, we started talking about the weather & all the storms that have hit the area. The I switched on the radio & really did have Palestrina in the CD player, because our Latin Mass choir is practicing to offer Missa Brevis on Pentecost. I played a little of the Kyrie, & explained that this plea for God's mercy at the beginning of the liturgy was the last remaining Greek in the Roman liturgy.
Now, my friend is agnostic, but not anti-religious. He was simply not brought up in a household of faith & didn't know much about religion, even the Christian religion. In our prior conversations, he has always asked intelligent & straightforward questions about what Christians believe & the differences between the various Christian sects. This kind of questioning can be the most difficult to answer because of the lack of common language & presuppositions on which to proceed. It's not like discussing a point of disagreement with another Christian. You have to build your points from ground up & assume very little.
I've said it before, though, that the divisions between Christian groups is a huge scandal to non-believers. It confirms their suspicions. His question was along the lines of, "How can 2 different Christian groups read the same book of the same stories & come to such opposing conclusions about what it means?" A very fair question. I don't think we believers ask ourselves that question enough.
I started by confirming his doubt. In ancient times, there were all kinds of understandings & misunderstandings about who Jesus was, what he did, what it meant, & what we should do in response. Each group who believed something different used the Scriptures to support their position. I also pointed out that what we call the Bible today was really a collection of individual writings that varied among the different communities of the ancient world. I noted that all this points to the need of an authority outside of the Scriptures themselves.
Then I shifted the discussion toward Tradition. Jesus taught some thing; he did some thing; he handed on to his disciples some thing; to Peter, especially, he entrusted this thing & commanded that this thing be preached to all nations. I was so bold as to say that the Catholic Church believes that it has received this thing - this Faith - from Jesus himself; she is its custodian & passes it on to others throughout the ages.
When some people believed Jesus was merely a good teacher, it was the Church reflecting on what she had received that allowed her to declare, "False!" When others said Jesus was just a vision or spirit from God, not a real human being, the Church again was able to say, "False!" based the intimate knowledge she had received from the Lord. When some wanted to add this or that book to the list of biblical books, but toss out these others, it was the Church that was able to say, "No, this is what is true, because it accurately relates what I received from my Lord."
I didn't think to say this at the time, but describing Tradition as a rule of faith in contrast to Scripture is much like the difference looking through a scrap book or photo album of Dear Aunt Polly versus actually talking with Dear Aunt Polly's siblings, relatives, & friends. Later you find out that those same folks put together the photo album to begin with! Which source would you go to to understand some detail of Dear Aunt Polly's life? Not that I'm comparing the Lord of Lords & the King of Kings to Dear Aunt Polly. Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, fully God & fully man! And Dear Aunt Polly? Well, I just made her up.
I also mentioned the schism & fractures within Christianity itself. I said that this was never meant to be so, & that I knew this was a huge stumbling block for people. I said no Christian group can be an isolated island unto itself. Among Protestants one often finds the mentality of "church shopping" - keep moving around to you find one that suits you. Your favorite pastor's moved on? Then leave. Find another you like? Go there for a while. And so on. This can happen in Catholic circles, too, but I pointed out that one of the primary jobs of the Pope as the office of Peter is to ensure the unity of Christians, & that the Church is in discussion with virtually every major Christian group at some level to understand the reasons for their disunity & to seek reconciliation. I still hold great hope that I will live to see formal reunification with the Orthodox Churches, though God's will be done in all things.
At the end of our trip, I apologized for rambling so much, & my friend thanked me for answering his questions so thoroughly. I personally have found that whatever the topic or argument, the Catholic Church always has very intelligent & rational reasons for holding the positions that it does. But even beyond that, it has a deep & all-pervasive love for Jesus Christ. I think people who genuinely seek the truth are attracted by that. It has avoided devolving into an ideology or a movement of some kind, as all schisms are ultimately fated to do; she remains herself regardless, because she is only who she is because she has received it from Christ himself & is charged with handing it on to others.
In any case, the lesson here is that you have to be ready to share this Good News whenever, wherever, & with whomever the opportunity arises. Happy Eastertide!
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Blogging on Easter Sunday? Only if it's Pope Benedict's homily from Easter Vigil Mass. Further, the Holy Father here summarizes & deepens the thoughts he first laid out in his book In The Beginning 30 years ago. Ad multos annos, Papa!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The liturgical celebration of the Easter Vigil makes use of two eloquent signs. First there is the fire that becomes light. As the procession makes its way through the church, shrouded in the darkness of the night, the light of the Paschal Candle becomes a wave of lights, and it speaks to us of Christ as the true morning star that never sets – the Risen Lord in whom light has conquered darkness. The second sign is water. On the one hand, it recalls the waters of the Red Sea, decline and death, the mystery of the Cross. But now it is presented to us as spring water, a life-giving element amid the dryness. Thus it becomes the image of the sacrament of baptism, through which we become sharers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yet these great signs of creation, light and water, are not the only constituent elements of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Another essential feature is the ample encounter with the words of sacred Scripture that it provides. Before the liturgical reform there were twelve Old Testament readings and two from the New Testament. The New Testament readings have been retained. The number of Old Testament readings has been fixed at seven, but depending upon the local situation, they may be reduced to three. The Church wishes to offer us a panoramic view of whole trajectory of salvation history, starting with creation, passing through the election and the liberation of Israel to the testimony of the prophets by which this entire history is directed ever more clearly towards Jesus Christ. In the liturgical tradition all these readings were called prophecies. Even when they are not directly foretelling future events, they have a prophetic character, they show us the inner foundation and orientation of history. They cause creation and history to become transparent to what is essential. In this way they take us by the hand and lead us towards Christ, they show us the true Light.
At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being. Now, one might ask: is it really important to speak also of creation during the Easter Vigil? Could we not begin with the events in which God calls man, forms a people for himself and creates his history with men upon the earth? The answer has to be: no. To omit the creation would be to misunderstand the very history of God with men, to diminish it, to lose sight of its true order of greatness. The sweep of history established by God reaches back to the origins, back to creation. Our profession of faith begins with the words: “We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”. If we omit the beginning of the Credo, the whole history of salvation becomes too limited and too small. The Church is not some kind of association that concerns itself with man’s religious needs but is limited to that objective. No, she brings man into contact with God and thus with the source of all things. Therefore we relate to God as Creator, and so we have a responsibility for creation. Our responsibility extends as far as creation because it comes from the Creator. Only because God created everything can he give us life and direct our lives. Life in the Church’s faith involves more than a set of feelings and sentiments and perhaps moral obligations. It embraces man in his entirety, from his origins to his eternal destiny. Only because creation belongs to God can we place ourselves completely in his hands. And only because he is the Creator can he give us life for ever. Joy over creation, thanksgiving for creation and responsibility for it all belong together.
The central message of the creation account can be defined more precisely still. In the opening words of his Gospel, Saint John sums up the essential meaning of that account in this single statement: “In the beginning was the Word”. In effect, the creation account that we listened to earlier is characterized by the regularly recurring phrase: “And God said …” The world is a product of the Word, of the Logos, as Saint John expresses it, using a key term from the Greek language. “Logos” means “reason”, “sense”, “word”. It is not reason pure and simple, but creative Reason, that speaks and communicates itself. It is Reason that both is and creates sense. The creation account tells us, then, that the world is a product of creative Reason. Hence it tells us that, far from there being an absence of reason and freedom at the origin of all things, the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom. Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis. As believers we answer, with the creation account and with John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom. Hence it is good to be a human person. It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it. If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason. And because it is Reason, it also created freedom; and because freedom can be abused, there also exist forces harmful to creation. Hence a thick black line, so to speak, has been drawn across the structure of the universe and across the nature of man. But despite this contradiction, creation itself remains good, life remains good, because at the beginning is good Reason, God’s creative love. Hence the world can be saved. Hence we can and must place ourselves on the side of reason, freedom and love – on the side of God who loves us so much that he suffered for us, that from his death there might emerge a new, definitive and healed life.
The Old Testament account of creation that we listened to clearly indicates this order of realities. But it leads us a further step forward. It has structured the process of creation within the framework of a week leading up to the Sabbath, in which it finds its completion. For Israel, the Sabbath was the day on which all could participate in God’s rest, in which man and animal, master and slave, great and small were united in God’s freedom. Thus the Sabbath was an expression of the Covenant between God and man and creation. In this way, communion between God and man does not appear as something extra, something added later to a world already fully created. The Covenant, communion between God and man, is inbuilt at the deepest level of creation. Yes, the Covenant is the inner ground of creation, just as creation is the external presupposition of the Covenant. God made the world so that there could be a space where he might communicate his love, and from which the response of love might come back to him. From God’s perspective, the heart of the man who responds to him is greater and more important than the whole immense material cosmos, for all that the latter allows us to glimpse something of God’s grandeur.
Easter and the paschal experience of Christians, however, now require us to take a further step. The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. After six days in which man in some sense participates in God’s work of creation, the Sabbath is the day of rest. But something quite unprecedented happened in the nascent Church: the place of the Sabbath, the seventh day, was taken by the first day. As the day of the liturgical assembly, it is the day for encounter with God through Jesus Christ who as the Risen Lord encountered his followers on the first day, Sunday, after they had found the tomb empty. The structure of the week is overturned. No longer does it point towards the seventh day, as the time to participate in God’s rest. It sets out from the first day as the day of encounter with the Risen Lord. This encounter happens afresh at every celebration of the Eucharist, when the Lord enters anew into the midst of his disciples and gives himself to them, allows himself, so to speak, to be touched by them, sits down at table with them. This change is utterly extraordinary, considering that the Sabbath, the seventh day seen as the day of encounter with God, is so profoundly rooted in the Old Testament. If we also bear in mind how much the movement from work towards the rest-day corresponds to a natural rhythm, the dramatic nature of this change is even more striking. This revolutionary development that occurred at the very the beginning of the Church’s history can be explained only by the fact that something utterly new happened that day. The first day of the week was the third day after Jesus’ death. It was the day when he showed himself to his disciples as the Risen Lord. In truth, this encounter had something unsettling about it. The world had changed. This man who had died was now living with a life that was no longer threatened by any death. A new form of life had been inaugurated, a new dimension of creation. The first day, according to the Genesis account, is the day on which creation begins. Now it was the day of creation in a new way, it had become the day of the new creation. We celebrate the first day. And in so doing we celebrate God the Creator and his creation. Yes, we believe in God, the Creator of heaven and earth. And we celebrate the God who was made man, who suffered, died, was buried and rose again. We celebrate the definitive victory of the Creator and of his creation. We celebrate this day as the origin and the goal of our existence. We celebrate it because now, thanks to the risen Lord, it is definitively established that reason is stronger than unreason, truth stronger than lies, love stronger than death. We celebrate the first day because we know that the black line drawn across creation does not last for ever. We celebrate it because we know that those words from the end of the creation account have now been definitively fulfilled: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Amen.
Courtesy of Whispers in the Loggia
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Joseph Ratzinger opens his second homily by reviewing two realizations from his first homily: firstly, that Christians read the Scriptures with Christ, who is their guide, “indicating to us in reliable fashion what an image is and where the real, enduring content of a biblical expression may be found. He is freedom from a false slavery to literalism and a guarantee of the… truth of the Bible, which does not dissipate into a cloud of pious pleasantries but remains the sure ground upon which we can stand (p.21).” Secondly, that faith in creation is reasonable.
The early development of the sciences operated on an ancient principle that the heavens were of divine nature & therefore eternal & unchangeable, which the newly-discovered mathematical formulae that described & governed the physical realm seemed to support. As things progressed, however, a messier & more complicated picture of the cosmos emerged. Ratzinger notes science began to see that “the universe is subject to both becoming & destruction… Temporality is inscribed upon it… a passage from a beginning to an end (p.22).”
Indeed, on both the tiniest & the largest scales, science continues to reveal to us many surprising, startling, frightening, & awe-inspiring things. The very complexity of the universe – especially life – seems to render absurd any explanations rooted in inherent necessity or random chance, & frequently the attempts of science to explain things are untenable. One writer noted that what atheistic scientists wish to impose on us is far more unbelievable than anything Christianity has ever taught. But with faith one sees the rational hand of God at work in the cosmos. Ratzinger says, “the natural sciences… have given us a new & unheard-of creation account with vast new images, which let us recognize the face of the Creator and… realize… that at the very beginning & foundation of all being there is a creating Intelligence (p.24).”
Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter Humani Generis of 1950 set the Church’s rules of engagement with modern science, which I will vainly attempt to sum up as: science never by itself & never for itself, but always in light of Jesus Christ & with the guidance of the Church. Pius spends a lot of time mapping out the role of the Church as a custodian of science, but I will leave that for you to explore. However, the idea of science never in isolation is important to Ratzinger because he knows it can only lead to a false &, ultimately, meaningless view of the cosmos & of man himself. In this overly-rationalistic climate a person is only value insofar as they are productive, & all matter – even human matter – serves merely as raw material to be manipulated & used for the sake of the idol of progress.
But the good news of Christianity (which it shares with the Jewish faith) is that every human being has profound meaning as an image of God & has a noble purpose which is nothing less than union with God himself. Without God, a creation hurtling toward its end is completely devoid of hope. What Christianity proposes is a creation that is a gift from the Creator & is on a journey toward an ultimate destination – a truly unimaginable conclusion that is only known in the mind of God.
In the second part of his homily, Ratzinger will return to the Genesis text again and consider more deeply the imagery within it, what he calls the enduring significance of the symbolic elements in the text.