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“Let us show ourselves people of Nineveh, not of Sodom”, wrote St. Gregory of Nazianzus, commenting on the story of the prophet Jonah. “Let us amend our wickedness, lest we be consumed with it. Let us listen to the preaching of Jonah, lest we be overwhelmed by fire and brimstone.”
Such language isn’t common or popular. After all, how can we say God is love and full of mercy if we talk in such a way? As one angry atheist wrote to me years ago, “Why should I believe in a God who delights in throwing people into the flames of hell?”
Well, you shouldn’t. And, in fact, today’s readings reveal that God not only loves mankind, he makes provision for our salvation. The readings, notes Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar in Light of the Word (Ignatius Press, 1993), “all emphasize the urgency of conversion, for there is no time for anything else.”
That phrase—“there is no time for anything else”—can be understood in two complimentary ways. First, time is short; it is transitory by nature, and our natural bodies will eventually expire and then we’ll face life after time. This is emphasized in the message taken by Jonah to the Assyrians: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Saint Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, is equally insistent: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.” And our Lord, preaching in Galilee, declared, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Secondly, since time is short and the time is at hand, our time should be dedicated to what is lasting, eternal, and indestructible. “Time is short”, quipped Cardinal John Henry Newman, “eternity is long.” The perennial temptation is to flee the relentless march of time by immersing ourselves in time-bound pleasures, activities, and distractions. These can be sinful, such as the wickedness practiced by the Ninevites, or be good things turned into the ultimate good, such as work, recreation, and relationships.
This is the point made by Paul, who didn’t intend to dismiss the worth of marriage or work, but was exhorting Christians to see and understand them in the light of the eschaton—the end of time and the full revelation of God’s glory and promises. “In and of itself”, noted von Balthasar, “time is so pressing that one cannot settle into it with unconcerned comfort.”
Jonah, of course, did not wish to embark on an uncomfortable mission. Consequently, he experienced even greater discomfort. But the bigger issue for Jonah, as it is for all of us, is not so much material comfort as it is spiritual sloth. The Catechism explains that “acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (par 2094).
Jonah was actually repelled and angered by God’s gift of mercy and salvation to the hated Assyrians. When the Assyrians turned away from their evil way and God did not carry out the destruction of Nineveh, Jonah did not rejoice or praise God: “But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry” (Jon 4:1). Why was he angry? St. Augustine noted that the prophet “was frustrated over the redemption and salvation of the Gentiles!” Jonah had to learn that God does not desire the destruction of his creatures, but their holiness and perfection (see Jon 4:9-11).
One lesson to be learned is that it’s not just those people “out there”, in the world, who need conversion and cleansing, but also those of us who have been baptized into Christ and are members of his mystical Body. When Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets to follow Christ, they embarked on the path of conversion. But we know it was a long and often difficult path, filled with misunderstandings, failings, and, in the case of Peter, denial of the Lord.
We also need constant conversion, for there is no time for anything else.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January 22, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
Should We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? | Mark Brumley | Catholic World Report
Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's soteriology has often been misunderstood or misrepresented. Here is a short primer on what he actually wrote.
Let me cut to the theological chase: the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wasn’t a universalist. Not if a universalist is one who claims for certain all men will be saved. Or, to put it differently, that no one—including ourselves—will be lost. This side of eternity, according to Balthasar, we simply can’t know, either way, whether all people will be saved or whether “two eternal outcomes”—one of salvation and one of damnation—will be realized. Whatever Balthasar’s position is, and whether or not it is correct, it isn’t universalism.
“All of us who practice the Christian faith and, to the extent that its nature as a mystery permits, would also like to understand it are under judgment,” Balthasar wrote at the beginning of his book Dare We “That Hope All Men Be Saved”? (2nd edition, 2014). Note the words “under judgment.” These are not the words of confident universalism. He continued:
By no means are we above [judgment], so that we might know its outcome in advance and could proceed from that knowledge to further speculation. The apostle, who is conscious of having no guilt, does not therefore regard himself as already acquitted: “It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4).
Balthasar went on to speak of Paul’s exhortations to confidence and hope in Christ, the judge who “has borne the sins of everyone,” yet he insisted that we can’t for that reason be “quite untroubled in the certainty of our salvation.” Later Balthasar declared that “we stand completely and utterly under judgment, and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the Judge’s cards. How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this?” (p. 131).
Writing of theologians contemplating that people for whom Christ died “may fail to reach their final destination in God, and may instead suffer eternal damnation with its everlasting pain,” Balthasar maintained:
If we take our faith seriously and respect the words of Scripture, we must resign ourselves to admitting such an ultimate possibility, our feelings of revulsion notwithstanding. We may not simply ignore such a threat; we may not easily dismiss it, neither for ourselves nor for any of our brothers and sisters in Christ” (Dare We Hope, p. 191).
Right now, we stand under judgment; the outcome isn’t determined and there is the real possibility of damnation, not just for others but for ourselves as well. We have hope, not certainty, of salvation for all, Balthasar maintained. Nor did he see such hope as inconsistent with missionary work—just the opposite. The Christian must care about the salvation of others as well as his own salvation; he must be an agent, by grace, of salvation for others and in this way for himself as well.
Not everyone shares Balthasar’s uncertainty, of course.
It is a question meant for all men of every time and in all places and situations. It is the question put to the two disciples by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. What are you seeking? What is the purpose of your existence? Who are you looking for?
The Fourth Gospel is filled with questions, each revealing something important and telling about the questioner. The first chapter alone contains a dozen questions, many of them asked by religious leaders or disciples. A couple of questions in John 1 are, however, put forward by Jesus (Jn 1:38, 50). The contrast is notable. While the questions asked by others often betray ignorance and even animosity, the questions asked by Jesus throughout the Gospel of John display knowledge and understanding. He often asks the questions that others either don’t want to ask or don’t think to ask. And his questions are meant to challenge his listeners to have faith.
For example, when speaking with Nicodemus about being “born from above,” Jesus states, “If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (Jn 3:12). When some of the disciples leave Jesus after his shocking statements about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Jesus challenges those who remain: “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67). And while engaged in a tense confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus bluntly says, “Can any of you charge me with sin? If I am telling the truth, why do you not believe me?” (Jn 8:46).
Theodore of Mopsuestia, a fourth-century bishop also known as “Theodore the Interpreter,” wrote that Jesus asked his question of the two disciples “in order to give them an occasion to trust him.” They responded by entering into that trust, first by addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” (or “Teacher”), and then by asking where he was living. Having been seekers, they became followers.
The reply given by Jesus—“Come, and you will see”—is, like so many of his statements, loaded with multiple meanings on different levels. On the material level, the disciples did follow and see where he dwelt. But on a deeper, spiritual level, they entered into a relationship—Teacher and disciples—that eventually revealed to them a shocking truth: Jesus is the Word, who “was with God” and who “was God” before the beginning of creation (Jn 1:1-3). The One who now dwelt among men was one with the Father, and had been sent to call men to himself, to seek and to save. Those saving truths were given to the disciples because, Jesus said in his high priestly prayer to the Father, “they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me” (Jn 17:8).
After spending the day with Jesus, the two disciples (Andrew and possibly John the Evangelist) find Simon, saying, “We have found the Messiah.” First seekers, then followers, and, finally, disciples. And, in bringing Simon to Jesus, they begin their work as apostles—those who are sent out to proclaim the Gospel.
Man, created in the likeness and image of God but mortally wounded by sin, hungers for truth and meaning. God, the Catechism observes, “calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength” (par 1). Becoming a disciple “means accepting the invitation to belong to God's family, to live in conformity with His way of life” (par 2233). That family, of course, is the Church, and her members pursue holiness, by God’s grace, recognizing the profundity of St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20).
But it is not enough to keep and live the faith; we must “also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it…” (CCC, par 1816). We must be disciples by asking others, however we can: “What are you looking for?”
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January 18, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
The better we understand Jesus, the better we understand ourselves. But who was Jesus, this itinerant preacher whom many called the Messiah? In Priest, Prophet, King, you'll discover Jesus as the Anointed One-the ultimate priest, prophet, and king foreshadowed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Using biblical insights and engaging stories, Father Barron affirms that we see Jesus most clearly through the lens of the Old Testament.
This deeply biblical program, filmed in high-definition video, features an accompanying study guide by notable Catholic writer and apologist, Carl E. Olson, written under Fr. Barron's direction. (Carl also wrote the study guide for the CATHOLICISM formation program.)
Through this presentation of Priest, Prophet, King, you will better understand Jesus, become more familiar with Scripture, and realize your own priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission.
This DVD contains the following language options: English and English subtitles. Dubbed Spanish and Spanish subtitles.
The six lessons are as follows: 1. Adoratio: Adam as Priest (View lesson one video sample) 2. The High Priest 3. Challenging False Worship: Elijah the Prophet 4. The Word Made Flesh 5. Ordering the Kingdom: King David 6. King of Kings
Each small group discussion leader should have the Leader's Guide and each participant should have his/her own copy of the Study Guide.
A complete session plan and other program advice is outlined in the Facilitator’s Guide, which is part of the Leader’s Guide. Each DVD segment is 20 minutes long and the discussion should be planned for 60-70 minutes, so each lesson can be covered in a total of 90 minutes. Participants should read the commentary in the study guide and prepare the Questions for Understanding and the Questions for Application before the small group discussion. This preparation can be accomplished either before or after they view the DVD, as the commentary in each lesson is very detailed.
"The Baptism of Christ" (c. 1305) by Giotta [WikiArt.org]
A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 11, 2015 | Carl E. Olson
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7 or Is 55:1-11 Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 or Ps 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30 Acts 10:34-38 or 1 Jn 5:1-9 Mk 1:7-11
Why be a Catholic? Why bother? Is it about being a good person? Or fitting into a family, a culture, or a particular group of people? What exactly is the point of practicing the Catholic Faith?
It might not be obvious at first, but these basic questions are addressed in today’s Gospel reading and in this celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. They are answered, in part, when we consider another question, a question posed by this Feast: Why was Jesus baptized? If, after all, baptism is for the remission of sins, why would the sinless, holy Son of God insist he go under the waters of baptism?
Not surprisingly, many of the Church Fathers contemplated this question. They recognized that God, in becoming man, had made a startling, transforming statement—through the Word—about the material world. All that has been created is good, and good things such as water, oil, bread, and wine will be used by God to bring grace and impart divine life.
The baptism of Christ was a cosmic blessing; it expressed, in actions and words, the profound gift of God’s divine life. “Do you see, beloved,” wrote Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236), “how many how great blessing we would have lost if the Lord had yielded to the exhortation of John and declined baptism? For the heavens had been shut before this.”
By being baptized, Hippolytus explained, the Creator was creating again, creating anew. “So it happened not only that the Lord was being baptized—he also was making new the old creation. He was bringing the alienated under the scepter of adoption.” God did not become man, in other words, to merely make man more moral, or to help people get along better.
“In his Son and through him,” states the first paragraph of the Catechism, God “invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.” This is the message of Christmas, as described so pithily by St. Paul: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption” (Gal. 4:4-5).
The Holy Spirit descended at the baptism of Christ and revealed the Trinity; he also disclosed the sanctifying work brought to man by the Incarnation, and by the death and resurrection of the Son. “The Spirit is the one who testifies,” St. John writes in today’s epistle, “and the Spirit is truth.” There are, he noted, three that testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood.
These three “are of one accord,” for they testify to the truth and to the One who is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. All three are necessary for true baptism: the Holy Spirit fills man with new life, the water signifies the destruction of original sin and the infusion of divine life, and the blood of Christ regenerates man and restores his communion with God.
Later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus identified his baptism with his approaching death on the Cross: “You do not know what you are asking,” he said to James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they insisted on being able, Jesus replied, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mk 10:38-39). Only through the death of Christ can we be baptized; only by baptism can we share in his life (cf. Rom 6:1-11).
John’s baptism of water brought repentance, but more was needed. “So then John,” explained St. Ambrose, “who was a type of the law, came baptizing for repentance, while Christ came to offer grace.” That grace, which is the love and life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, makes man holy. It makes man a son of God. That’s why we are Catholic.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January 11, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
Sacrifice is troublesome for us fallen humans. It is not only the inconvenience or effort that troubles us so much, because we are sometimes willing to be inconvenienced or troubled for good reason; that is, a reason that serves our own agenda in some way. The need to sacrifice may become palatable when it can be connected with some form of personal advancement or gratification. The most difficult part of truly understanding sacrifice, in a religious sense, comes from our unwillingness to admit that we owe anything to anyone other than ourselves. We are consistently taught by our society, in all places, from kindergarten to Madison Avenue, that our purpose in life is to achieve, become, and grasp at whatever makes us feel best about ourselves. Adam and Eve, even without public school or mass media, found themselves unable to resist the temptation to do some grasping themselves, looking for something more, and novel, even while in the midst of paradise. The understanding that they owed something to God and were called to return the gifts he had given them, though built into their very nature, was found to be less than compelling or binding in the end.
Sacrifice requires a willingness and ability to prioritize our lives: to rank our obligations and to properly order our desires. To sacrifice a “thing” for something else, whatever the sacrifice itself, or its purpose, may be, is to say that the purpose supersedes the object. To sacrifice something, specifically to a higher power, is to say, “this thing is less important to me than you.” For this reason, it is easy to see the natural place of sacrifice in the cult of religion as an antidote to our concupiscence and selfishness. In the context of biblical religion, animal sacrifice (such as the sacrifice demanded by God from Abram to initiate the Genesis 15 covenant) has the additional significance of the shedding of lifeblood—signifying the participant’s agreement to have the same thing happen to him if he is unfaithful to the covenant. It was, for the people Israel in the Old Covenant, a regular reminder of the grave implications of their chosen status.
God’s prescription for sacrifices is taken up a notch when we get to Moses and the Exodus.
Parables of the Generous One | Fr. John Navone, SJ | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Our faith-conviction that God is the primordial Source and Resource for all creation and human life inspires our gratitude for all as gift, and our boundless hope that the best is yet to come. The abundance of God is the ultimate Source and Resource of Christian hope in the face of death, grounding our conviction that there is more where that came from. There is an artesian well in everyone whose Source is the abundance of God. We are what we are because of who our Parent is, and once this identity becomes deeply rooted in us, then an unself-conscious giving of self will become a way of life. This is another way of saying that we “inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
By the grace of God, we are what we are. Our worth is a gift given to us from the moment of our creation. The marvel of our life in Christ is not getting something from the outside to the inside by achieving. Instead, the marvel is coming to recognize what is already inside by the grace of creation, and learning to bring this outside by sharing and serving. It consists in seeing the first thing that ever happened to us—our birth—the way God sees it, and regarding it alongside God as something “very, very good.”
Jesus gives us this new way of perceiving the event of our beginnings—and thus of our whole lives. We, too, can begin to look on our creation the way Genesis depicts God as looking on all creation. When this begins to occur, delight rather than dissatisfaction becomes the lens through which all is perceived. What begins with a new appreciation of our own birth extends to the world itself, which means that the spirit of chronic dissatisfaction is replaced by the spirit of the One who first looked on creation and pronounced it “good.”
Every one of us has been given our chance to live by the action of Another. We did not engineer our birth into the world. It was a gift—a sheer, total, and unmerited gift. We were all given the same mandate as well: to do with our gifts and power what God does with his. God is not an irresponsible and indifferent giver. Jesus tells us that God is going to want to know at the end of our journey what we have done with all we were given in the beginning through the abundance of divine generosity. Creation is, at bottom, an act of generosity—God sharing his bounty. We have been made in the image of Generosity for Generosity. Our Creator’s magnanimity lies at the root of our being the kind of creatures that we were meant to be. Just as there is delight in our recognizing how much we have that we do not deserve or create, so there is a godly delight in seeing our generosity bless and energize others.
The parables of Jesus teach that we have to decide about what God has already decided, namely, that we are invited to share God’s joy. The joy that God sets before us can only be received; it cannot be forced on us. Jesus invites us in the following parables to share that joy.
The parables of Jesus assume that we are made in the image and likeness of a dynamic and creative God, and that we do know something of God’s ecstasy when we are in communion with God and what he is doing. It is then that we become what God had in mind for us from the beginning. It is then that we follow the example of the Holy One, described in Genesis, who freely used his power to delight himself and to bless all that he touched. This is the life that we are called to share.
The banquet image sums up what Holy Scripture reveals about the generosity, abundance, joyfulness, and exuberance of God.
"Adoration of the Magi" (1438-c.1445) by Benozzo Gozzoli [WikiArt.org]
The Journeying of Humanity toward Christ | William L. Patenaude | CWR
The Feast of the Epiphany highlights a scandalous message of hope that cries out in our days’ dark news
The Christmas Season continues for many this Sunday with the Feast of the Epiphany. This feast celebrates the revelation in Matthew’s Gospel of the adoration of the magi. This account offers an important but often overlooked detail about the scandal of Christmas—of how Christ’s birth is good news of great joy that comes at a price.
This is foretold in one of magi’s gifts to the Christ child. While gold is a gift for kings as is frankincense for priests, myrrh is an ointment used to embalm the dead. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brought “myrrh and aloes” after Jesus’ crucifixion.
This foretelling by the magi of Christ’s passion begins to make known the decisive Christian proclamation: God’s coming among us is a coming to the entirety of the human condition—including suffering. The crib of Christ is connected to the cross of sacrifice because our conception and birth are the first steps taken toward death.
From Christianity’s earliest days, many resisted this talk of sacrifice and death. They would not (and do not) tolerate the proclamation that the infinite and transcendent would dwell in and among the anguished finite. Confronted over the centuries with various forms of this resistance, Christianity held true to its core proclamations, as it does today within a new age that seeks to wipeout Christianity from the public square—or, as in areas of the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, from the face of the planet.
And yet the Christmas message of sacrifice survives.
Pope Paul VI, in the Apostolic Exhortation, “Marialis Cultus” (Feb. 1974), emphasized that the “Christmas season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific motherhood of her whose ‘inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world.’” This is so much the case, he wrote, that “on the Solemnity of the Birth of Christ the Church both adores the Savior and venerates His glorious Mother.”
He then stated the following about today’s great feast: “On the Epiphany, when she celebrates the universal call to salvation, the Church contemplates the Blessed Virgin, the true Seat of Wisdom and true Mother of the King, who presents to the Wise Men, for their adoration, the Redeemer of all peoples (cf. Mt. 2:11).”
Mary’s presentation of her Son to the wise men was another demonstration of her mysterious and maternal role in salvation history. It was mysterious—not magical—because Mary, sinless from conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived the sinless Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Her faith is that of a disciple—but not just any disciple, for she is the first and perfect disciple of her Lord.
Her role, then, is truly maternal, for she is both mother of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, but also mother of the Church, the mystical body of Christ. Mary, although not divine by nature, is at the heart of the culmination of divine revelation: the coming of God in the flesh.
And so the Solemnity of the Epiphany is a celebration of the epiphaneia—that revelation and manifestation—of God become man, Jesus the Christ. The feast, going back to the early centuries of the Church, has focused on three key events, related to one another by virtue of being revelatory in nature: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
Each manifests the astounding, transforming truth of the Incarnation. Each, in turn, opens up further the mystery of God and calls us to worship and adore the Messiah.
Consider that Mary and Joseph did not have to receive the magi. We also recognize that Mary did not have to accept God’s invitation to be the mother of the Savior, nor did Joseph, the foster father of Christ, have to obey the directives given to him by angels. Mary and Joseph were not stock characters or tools used by an impersonal force, but real people who accepted the call and the word of God with free will and full faith. Then, in turn, they opened up their hearts and home to those seeking the Word who is the way, the truth, and the life.
The magi represent those who earnestly desire the fullness of truth and who yearn to see the face of God. I am struck again by how Matthew’s account presents, so simply but powerfully, the four actions or responses of the magi. First, they were filled with joy upon recognizing the star and being brought to the home of the Christ child. Secondly, they entered into His home and into communion with Him and His Mother. Third, they worshipped Him. And, finally, they offered Him the finest gifts they possessed.
The readings from the prophet Isaiah and from Saint Paul to the Ephesians draw out this fact about the magi: they were not Jews. The Kingdom of God is offered to and includes peoples from all nations; it is not for a people united by ethnicity or geography, but by grace and the fullness of revelation. Thus, the magi represent the first of a vast number of Gentiles brought into the family of God through the Christ-child, who is the King of the Jews and the King of kings.
And Mary, the true Seat of Wisdom and true Mother of the King, continues to open the doors to her Son so we can see him, know him, and worship him.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January 8, 2012, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
"Rest on the Flight into Egypt" (1597) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, December 28, 2014 | Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph | Carl E. Olson
Readings: • Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 or Gen 15:1-6; 21:1-3 • Psa 128:1-2, 3, 4-5 or Psa 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9 • Col 3:12-21 or Heb 11:8, 11-12, 17-19 • Lk 2:22-40
The family today, in so many ways, is under scrutiny and even under attack. Some of the questions are about the very nature of this most ancient and central institution: What is a “family”? What is necessary for a family to exist? For what purpose do families exist?
On December 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI gave a Christmas address to the Roman Curia which focused on the family. He noted that “there is no denying the crisis that threatens it to its foundations – especially in the western world.” The family is important, he explained, because within the family exists “the authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint of human existence. This is something we learn by living it with others and suffering it with others.”
He then said something that is worth pondering on this Feast of the Holy Family: “So it became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human.”
Put another way, the reality of the family is rooted in the truth of man: he is created by God so he can have eternal and life-giving communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The very first sentence of the Catechism makes this clear: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.”
And how is God going about the business of saving us? “He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church.” This is why the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, became man. This is why the Holy Spirit, through the sacraments, makes us God's “adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (CCC, 1).
God became a man and a member of a specific family so that all men and women might be able to become members of the supernaturally-constituted family of God, the Church. This means that each Christian family is a reflection of an eternal mystery, for it is “a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 2205).
This is heady stuff, no doubt. Which is one reason the reality of the Holy Family is so important, for it reveals how true theology is lived out in true charity, in the daily work and rhythm of family life. Thus, the exhortation from Sirach: “Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them.” And similar words of wisdom from the Apostle Paul: “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Wives are to acknowledge the proper leadership of their husbands; husbands are to truly love their wives; children are to be obedient and respectful.
This is not about simply following “the rules,” but about giving oneself to others in selfless love, for it was the overflow of God's selfless love that brought about creation. This means recognizing the dignity and worth of others, while also recognizing our proper relationship with one another.
Benedict noted that today there is a serious crisis when it comes to “the human capacity to make a commitment,” the sort of commitments essential to true family life. The Son committed himself to the work of the Father and was born of Mary the Virgin. Mary committed herself to the word of God, trusting completely in the divine plan. Joseph committed himself to Mary and Jesus, obeying God despite the efforts it required.
And Jesus, on the Cross, cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Christ was willing to die for a lost family, bringing into being a new family, in which we can become authentically human.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the December 29, 2013, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
Theosis: The Reason for the Season | Carl E. Olson
Note: This piece was originally posted on December 30, 2008. Because it has proven to be fairly popular, it is being reposted, with updated links.
"The Cross of Christ on Calvary stands beside the path of that admirable commercium, of that wonderful self-communication of God to man, which also includes the call to man to share in the divine life by giving himself, and with himself the whole visible world, to God, and like an adopted son to become a sharer in the truth and love which is in God and proceeds from God. It is precisely besides the path of man's eternal election to the dignity of being an adopted child of God that there stands in history the Cross of Christ, the only-begotten Son..." — Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 7.5.
"Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a 'commandment' imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is 'divine' because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a 'we' which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is 'all in all' (1 Cor 15:28)." —Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 18.
What, really, is the point of Christmas? Why did God become man?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a section titled, "Why did the Word become flesh?" (pars 456-460) provides several complimentary answers: to save us, to show us God's love, and to be a model of holiness. And then, in what I think must be, for many readers, the most surprising and puzzling paragraph in the entire Catechism, there is this:
The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature": "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (par 460)
So that "we might become God"? Surely, a few might think, this is some sort of pantheistic slip of the theological pen, or perhaps a case of good-intentioned but poorly expressed hyperbole. But, of course, it is not. First, whatever problems there might have been in translating the Catechism into English, they had nothing to do with this paragraph. Secondly, the first sentence is from 2 Peter 1:4, and the three subsequent quotes are from, respectively, St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and (gasp!) St. Thomas Aquinas. Finally, there is also the fact that this language of divine sonship—or theosis, also known as deification—is found through the entire Catechism. A couple more representative examples:
Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace. It brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ's brethren, as Jesus himself called his disciples after his Resurrection: "Go and tell my brethren." We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection. (par 654)
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. (par 1996)
Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life." The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due.... Our merits are God's gifts." (par 2009)
The very first paragraph of the Catechism, in fact, asserts that God sent his Son so that in him "and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life." God did not become man, in other words, to just be our friend, but so that we could truly and really, by grace, become members of his family, the Church. Christmas is the celebration of God becoming man, but it is also the proclamation that man is now able to be filled with and to share in God's own Trinitarian life.
Several years ago I wrote a short article about theosis in which I stated the following:
Detail from "Adoration of the Magi" (1304) by Giotto di Bondone [WikiArt.org]
Venite adoremus, Dominum! | Carl E. Olson | Editorial | Catholic World Report
The real problem, for most people, is not an outright denial of Jesus, but a refusal to worship Jesus—the Son of God, the Incarnate Word
“To worship ourselves is to worship nothing. And the worship of nothing is hell.” — Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation
“The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 2807
For as long as I've been paying close attention to the news, which is now over thirty years, I've seen the same repetitive patterns and tired pieces as Christmas approaches. There are the “Yeah, but” pieces, in which Atheist Bob or Skeptic Sue explains, with a mixture of sullen victimhood and strident pseudo-intellectualism, why the Christmas story is full of historical holes and how the world would be a more moral, rational, and loving place without pious, superstitious tales about God, angels, a Virgin and assorted extras (shepherds, wise men, etc.). Along similar lines, there are usually some pieces about how fewer and fewer Americans believe in the Virgin birth and related “myths”. And there is usually something about how Christmas alienates this or that group of people, many of them “offended” in ways that only those with the most sensitive of post-modern sensibilities can be offended.
This year, there has been a spate of stories about “ten commandments” for atheists and skeptics, the result of a contest among the faith-challenged to “rethink the Ten Commandments” and conjure up “an alternative secular version … for the modern age.” On one hand, it's encouraging that some folks are still aware of the Ten Commandments; on the other hand, it's strange that it took some three thousand years (give or take) for the alternative tablets to descend from a cyber hill of 2800 online submissions. And the winner was: “Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.” I'm pretty certain that was also what Mr. Milam, my ninth grade Earth Science teacher, told us during the first week of class. The lack of divine inspiration seems fairly obvious, based on the evidence at hand (although, of course, I'm open to new evidence, if you can wake me up).
The Ten Commandments, however, are not simply a set of rules, and the first commentment is not just a pious platitude: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut. 5:6-7). This opening, unique commandment contains, in essence, the whole of the Ten Commandments. Other ancient documents of laws and commandments exist, but haven’t had the lasting influence of the Ten Commandments. Why? Because the Decalogue is first and foremost about the revelation of God—who he is, what he commands, and how he relates to man. By condemning the worship of other gods, the true God announces that he alone is one, holy, and deserving of man’s obedience and worship. This duty to God is not separate from man’s obligation to others, but enlightens and guides it.
In commenting on the nature of “other gods,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses superstition, idolatry, divination, atheism, and agnosticism (pars 2110-2128). Every man worships someone or something, for men, remarked St. Jerome, “invariably worship what they like best.” Everyone practices a religion, even if it is the devout denunciation of another religion.
This book is perhaps one of the most misunderstood works of Catholic theology of our time. Critics contend that von Balthasar espouses universalism, the idea that all men will certainly be saved. Yet, as von Balthasar insists, damnation is a real possibility-for others but also for ourselves. Indeed, he explores the nature of damnation with sobering clarity. At the same time, he contends that a deep understanding of God's merciful love and human freedom, and a careful reading of the Catholic tradition, point to the possibility-not the certainty-that, in the end, all men will accept the salvation Christ won for all. For this all-embracing salvation, von Balthasar says, we may dare hope, we must pray, and with God's help we must work.
The Catholic Church's teaching on Hell has been generally neglected by theologians, with the notable exception of von Balthasar. He grounds his reflections clearly in Sacred Scripture, and in Catholic teaching. While the Church asserts that certain individuals are in Heaven ("saints"), it never declares a specific individual to be in Hell. In fact, the Church hopes that in their final moments of life, even the greatest sinners would have repented of their terrible sins, and be saved.
Sacred Scripture states, "God...desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all." (1st Timothy, 2:4)
"Truly deep theological questions can rarely be answered with a simple yes or no. Rather, they are approached by the careful theologian, who circles around them, making distinctions, bringing essential aspects to light. The issue of who and how many will be saved is surely one of the thorniest theological puzzles in the Catholic tradition, and I don't know any theologian-classical or contemporary-who performs the nimble task of bringing out the complexity and profiles of this issue better than Hans Urs von Balthasar. In this short but rich text, you will hear of grace, punishment, mercy, the awful self-absorption of sin-but above all of hope." - Fr. Robert Barron, Rector/President Mundelein Seminary/University of Saint Mary of the Lake
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) was a Swiss theologian widely regarded as one of the greatest theologians and spiritual writers of modern times. Named a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II, he died shortly before being formally inducted into the College of Cardinals. He wrote over one hundred books, including Prayer, Heart of the World, Mary for Today, Love Alone Is Credible, Mysterium Paschale and his major multi-volume theological works: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic.
Detail from "The Cestello Annunciation" (1489) by Sandro Botticelli (WikiArt.org)
A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, December 21, 2014, the Fourth Sunday of Advent | Carl E. Olson
Readings: • 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16 • Ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29 • Rom 16:25-27 • Lk 1:26-38
“Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! holy beyond all holy ones. Hail! ark gilded by the Holy Ghost. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.”
These words from the ancient Akathist hymn, a great sixth-century song of praise for the mystery of the Incarnation, poetically summarize the Marian themes in today’s readings. The Theotokos—the Mother of God—is the dwelling place of God, the “container of the Uncontainable God,” and “the womb of God enfleshed.”
Many of the early Church fathers spoke of Mary as the new ark of the covenant. “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling,” the Catechism remarks, “is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells” (par. 2676). The ark of the covenant, described in Exodus 25, was a gold-plated wooden chest containing holy objects, including some manna, Aaron’s rod, and a copy of the covenant between God and Israel (Heb. 9:4-5). Its lid, the mercy seat, was made of gold and adorned with two cherubim, representing the throne of God.
For a long time the ark was kept in a mobile tabernacle. Eventually, as we hear in today’s first reading, King David desired to build a permanent house, or temple, for the ark. In responding to David, the Lord made clear that the only one who could build an everlasting house for God is God himself; he promised to eventually “raise up” an heir who would establish an everlasting throne and kingdom.
The raising up of an heir was realized in the coming down of the Son through the mystery of the Incarnation—“the mystery kept secret for long ages,” in the words of Saint Paul. The King of kings and Lord of lords rested within the throne of a womb; the Creator of all things visible was carried, invisible, within the Virgin; the Conqueror of sin and death was kept and concealed within the Blessed Mother.
“Hail! O you who have become a kingly Throne. Hail! O you who carries Him Who carries all! Hail, O Star who manifests the Sun. Hail! O Womb of the Divine Incarnation!”
Mary, created without sin, finding favor with God, and accepting in faith the call of the Lord, became a living, breathing ark of the covenant. “Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world” (CCC 2676). As God once dwelt in the tabernacle among a nomadic people, he now comes to dwell, through a singular woman, among men—pilgrims journeying toward their heavenly home. “For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men” (CCC 721).
David longed to build a temple and his son Solomon did build the temple, but only God could and did create a sinless, human temple.
Only God, because of his power and love, could become so small and humble so that he might save us. It is God who reaches out, who dwells among man, who becomes flesh and blood for our sake. Nothing, the angel Gabriel explains to the young Jewish virgin, “will be impossible for God.”
“May it be done to me according to your word.” With those words, Mary demonstrated the proper response to God, bursting with quiet faith and trusting reception. Opening herself to God’s word, she was filled with the Word who is God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she became the throne of God.
"Behold,” exclaims the Akathist hymn, “heaven was brought down to earth when the Word Himself was fully contained in you! Now that I see Him in your womb, taking a servant’s form, I cry out to you in wonder: Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!” During Christmas we cry out in wonder at the work of God and the faith of his mother.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the December 21, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
"The Adoration of the Magi" by Matthias Stom (c.1600-c.1652) [http://commons.wikimedia.org/]
Is Catholicism the "Babylon Mystery Religion"? | Mark P. Shea | CWR
How the story of the Magi sheds plenty of light on the historical soundness of the Gospel of Matthew and how early Christians viewed paganism
As we saw last time in this space, the notion that Christianity is "really" warmed-over paganism is contradicted by the fact—abundantly in evidence not only in the New Testament but in the writings of the Fathers and the liturgy of the Church—that, well, early Christians just don't care much about pagan things, while both the New Testament and the Fathers are positively drowning in the images, words, ideas, thought forms, questions, and concerns of the authors of the Old Testament. Reading the New Testament in the hope of discovering the secret paganism that it is the real root of Christianity is like reading Shakespeare with the undying conviction that sufficient scrutiny will uncover his massive debt to Korean literature: it just ain't gonna happen. The New Testament is obsessed with the Old Testament, not with paganism. It makes reference to paganism only very occasionally, and to pagan literature only a handful of times.
Meanwhile, the New Testament is soaked in Hebraic thought, imagery, poetry, prophecy, law, and wisdom. The early Christians don't care too much about paganism, seeing it as, variously, 1) a dim hunch about things Jews and Christians were privileged to know by revelation from God; 2) a demonic deception; 3) a source of human wisdom, but not divine revelation. For that, they turn with obsessive fascination to what Paul calls "the oracles of God" (Romans 3: Early Christians will turn to it to illustrate a point, as when Paul quoted a Greek poet or two to connect with the Greek locals, just as a stump speaker might mention the local football team in attempting to connect to his audience). In much the same way, even today modern Christians offer punning riffs on current cultural phenomena (“Jesus: He’s the Real Thing,” “Christ: Don’t Leave Earth Without Him,” etc.).
But exactly what these Christians did not do was take passages of Scripture that referred to Jesus and apply them to Apollo or some other pagan deity. Nor did they look to any pagan deity to tell them about Jesus; they knew perfectly well that Jesus could be represented as the Sun of Justice and Light of the World long before Aurelian invented his pagan festival. That’s because early Christians were behaving in a way perfectly consistent with Scripture, becoming “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22), not “holding the form of religion while denying the power of it” (2 Tim. 3:5).
This matters immensely because it bears directly on the first moment the early Catholic Church really did borrow something from pagans. And not just any pagans, mind you, but actual adherents of Babylonian Mystery Religion. And most amazingly, the early Catholics’ decision to do so receives the complete approval of, and even hearty defense by . . . Bible-believing Christians!
We Three Kings of Orient Are /Astrologers Who Traverse Afar
As a young Evangelical, one of the things I routinely heard from critics of Christianity was that “everybody knows” the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 is a pious fiction invented by the Evangelist.
A Silence about Mary | Fr. Charles Kestermeier, SJ | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Mary is very central to the Gospel’s infancy narratives, but after Cana she almost disappears: we see her in the “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” passage, at the foot of the cross, and as being present at the Pentecost event, but after that, nothing. Why does Scripture progressively ignore her in this manner, and what are we to make of it?
The first time we meet Mary, Luke describes her as “filled with grace,” and I think it is possible that we do not take that description in a sufficiently strong sense, at least in terms of her lifetime as a whole: the Annunciation is a moment when the Holy Spirit changes her life completely and in a most profound physical sense, but what would her prayer life have been before and after this visit? I don’t think that we could classify her as a mystic—I doubt that she fits any such categories—and yet, she had to be in some sort of constant awareness of God, living in some sort of profound presence to him, at the very least, after this event, and, almost certainly, before it. To judge from the Magnificat, she was clearly filled with at least the scriptural presence of God in the best possible way, but how does she change afterwards?
The infancy narratives give us some idea of who she is as a young mother, at least from the outside. After that, just about anything we might say about her would be pretty much all speculation—but let me offer some ideas anyway.
In the episode of Jesus discussing with the doctors in the Temple, when he is supposedly “lost” there (Lk 2:41-50), note Mary’s expectation that, even at that age, Jesus would still act like a son and would have at least mentioned to her and Joseph that he was leaving home. At this point, the Perfect Man is acting like a perfect teenager; he still needs some polishing. And then, without any other recorded words from Mary or Joseph, we see Jesus simply return to Nazareth with them.
There he grows in “age, wisdom, and grace” until he is about 30, when he begins his mission and shows a completely different kind of awareness, knowledge, and wisdom than he did in the Temple (it is not easy to describe this new mindset in two words). He begins his real mission, not in the Temple with the doctors of the Law, but fairly far from that place in every sense of the word, far from all the activities and attitudes which that site implies, among the common people instead. He has indeed grown, humanly and spiritually, under the tutelage of Mary, and, for at least much of that time, Joseph. They were exactly what Jesus needed as parents.
The Gospel texts show Mary as present to Jesus only twice after that, before she appears at the foot of the cross.
Ridley Scott and Missing the Point of the Book of Exodus | Fr. Robert Barron | CWR blog
Exodus is not telling a story primarily of political liberation (though that is part of it), but rather a story of spiritual liberation from false gods
Exodus is not telling a story primarily of political liberation (though that is part of it), but rather a story of spiritual liberation from false gods
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism"and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization."Learn more at www.WordonFire.org
Ridley Scott’s new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” features Moses, the Pharaoh, hundreds of thousands of slaves making their way across the floor of the Red Sea, all ten plagues, the burning bush, and even the angel of Yahweh in the form of a petulant eleven year old boy with a British accent.
And yet, the movie is spiritually flat, as though its makers had read the Biblical story but understood precious little of its theological poetry.
Many commentators have focused their critical attention on the portrayal of the angel as an annoyed little boy, but in itself that choice didn’t bother me. Let’s face it: it’s next to impossible to represent God in a cinematically adequate way. For Charlton Heston, the God of Mt. Sinai was a disembodied voice (actually Heston’s own, dramatically slowed down) and flashes of fire. I’m not at all sure that this was better than Ridley Scott’s version, and in point of fact, the weird kid caught something of the unnerving, unsettling, more than vaguely frightening quality of the God disclosed in the Old Testament.
The problem is the way the relationship between Moses and the God of Israel is presented.
Why God Becomes Human | Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
The Advent and Christmas seasons are upon us. Like the reality itself, we Christians have to look more deeply to see the mystery beneath the glitter and the commotion. God has now descended into his creation to take up his rightful place as Lord and King of Heaven and Earth. He has infiltrated enemy lines in this civil war which rages in each of our divided hearts. In the history of this great battle, only one faithful woman has been his totally. Only she has never strayed, only she has never refused a command, only she is wholly his. The rest of us must be won back through an eternal promise of an eternal labor: Christ’s defeat of sin and death and his extending his life and love in all his elect. This is the great story now made visible in a small cave in Bethlehem. At the center of this scene is Mary, the Mother of God, and in this singular act, she has become the Mother of all God’s children.
And here is where one mystery unfolds into another. Mary intercedes and shares her maternity with all the baptized so that we, too, might bring Christ into the world. Gerard Manley Hopkins thus likened each of us to “New Bethlems,” in whom Christ can once again take on flesh:
Of her flesh he took flesh: He does take fresh and fresh, Though much the mystery how, Not flesh but spirit now. And makes, O marvelous! New Nazareths in us, Where she shall yet conceive Him morning, noon, and eve; New Bethlems, and he born There, evening, noon, and morn.
Our Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that there are four primary reasons the Word becomes flesh. The first motive for God’s becoming human is to reconcile us to his and to our Father: “The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who ‘loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins … the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world … to take away sins’” (§457) (boldface mine). Death was the result of our divine disobedience, so God himself had to take on that which could die in order to atone for what we mortals incurred. Our Lady gives the immortal Author of Life what he needs to reconcile sinners to the Father, his mortality. This is a great paradox: Mary’s loving God enough to give him whatever he asked from her, not only to the point of death, but even death itself.
The second reason the Catechism gives is epistemological in nature.