Back in 2011 I featured this wonderful post from Fr. Barron. Just as good then as it is now.
Archive for the ‘Fr. Robert Barron’ Category
I’m allowed to have a couple of traditions after plugging away for almost 4 years here. Repeating Fr. Barron’s retelling of the nativity in Luke is one of them and this Christmas prayer is another.
Listen to Fr. Barron retell Luke’s story:
And steal this Christmas prayer and use it sometime Christmas Day:
Merry Christmas 2013!
Back in the day, altar boys loved to serve weddings because it involved ready cash: minimally, $5 (which in those days meant something), often a ten-spot. Once in a great while an exceptionally generous best man would slip each server an envelope with $25 — a small fortune to a boy in the early 1960s.
Serving weddings should have enlarged more than the youthful exchequer, however. For wedding servers were exposed, time and again, to the prescribed “exhortation” the priest read to the couple before they pronounced their vows. That exhortation is worth recalling, now that the very idea of “marriage” is being contested on four state ballots, and in the national election, on Nov. 6:
“My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.
“Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood. …
It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern. …
“No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. …”
It’s impossible to imagine a Catholic priest pronouncing those words at a gay “wedding.” And that impossibility illustrates several Catholic theological objections to the notion that same-sex couples can “marry.” “Gay marriage” is opposed to the divine order built into creation and to the Gospel: for “gay marriage,” by its very nature, cannot be a fruitful one-flesh union, and “gay marriage,” which by definition involves grave sin, cannot be an image of Christ’s spousal love for the Church. Thus Catholics who support “gay marriage” are deeply confused about both Word and Sacrament, the twin pillars of Catholic life.
In public policy terms, the Catholic critique of “gay marriage” reflects the Catholic idea of the just state. Rightly understood, marriage is one of those social institutions that exist “prior” to the state: prior in terms of time (marriage existed before the state), and prior in terms of the deep truths embedded in the human condition. A just state thus recognizes the givenness of marriage and seeks to protect and nurture this basic social institution.
By contrast, a state that asserts the authority to redefine “marriage” has stepped beyond the boundaries of its competence. And if that boundary-crossing is set in constitutional or legal concrete, it opens up a Pandora’s box of undesirable results. For if the state can decree that two men or two women can make a “marriage,” why not one man and two women? Two women and two men? These are not paranoid fantasies; the case for polyandry and polygamy is now being mounted in prestigious law journals.
And if the state can define “marriage” by diktat, why not other basic human relationships, like the parent-child relationship, the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, or the priest-penitent relationship? There is no principled reason why not. Thus “gay marriage” is another expression of that soft totalitarianism that Benedict XVI aptly calls the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Conscientious voters will keep this — and the Democratic Party platform’s endorsement of “gay marriage” — in mind on Nov. 6.
A short addendum here:
A Light Unto My Path — Father Robert Barron
G.K. Chesterton observed that secular society regularly complains about the Church’s imposition of laws and regulations, especially in the arena of sex. What was true in Chesterton’s time is even truer today: contemporary secularism criticizes the Church as finger-wagging in matters sexual. Whereas the non-religious world says, “Do what you want,” the Christian world says, “No!”
Chesterton turned this conventional wisdom on its head. When two young people fall in love, they don’t say things like, “I’m rather fond of you” or “I’ll stay with you as long as things work out.” They become poets and make the most extravagant statements: “I will give my very life for you!” and “You are everything to me; I will never love another the way I love you.” Young lovers would want those sentiments written across the sky for all the world to see.
In insisting on the indissolubility of marriage, he concluded, the Church wasn’t imposing a burden; it was ratifying the natural exuberance and intensity of true love. In the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” The natural intensity of love is strengthened and elevated through association with the supernatural love of God. If without reference to God, young lovers naturally pledge their undying fidelity to one another, how much more when they realize that their love is ordained by God and ordered to his purposes.
The indissolubility of marriage is a liberating law of both nature and grace.
Three contributions here. The first is a wonderful little blog posting from William Doino Jr. that I found very comforting to read. I hate to see my Church squabbling and a lot of post Vatican II “dialogues” seem to have been just that. Next Fr. Barron offers some perspective in a YouTube video. Finally a reading selection from Francis Cardinal George’s keynote address at the conference, “Keeping the World Awake to God’: The Challenge of Vatican II,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 12-14 January 2012. Taken all together, an excellent look back at Vatican II as it nears its 50th anniversary.
And a special invitation to any reader of PayingAttentiontotheSky who lives in the Boston area. I belong to a Communio Reading Group that will be taking up Cardinal George’s keynote address. If you would like to read the piece, I would be happy to email it off to you along with directions to St. Clement’s Shrine where we meet on September 23rd. Join us and share some Catholic Fellowship as we discuss.
It has now been almost fifty years since the Catholic Church created waves by opening the Second Vatican Council. And for many, the tumult continues. Vatican II has become nothing less than a battle over the mission of the contemporary Church.
The progressive left sees the Council as an open-ended innovation whose revolutionary promise has yet to be fulfilled. The traditionalist right views it with deep suspicion and is sometimes heard to say (if not openly, at least sotto voce) that the Church would have been better off had it never occurred. But the vital center of Catholicism — if it can be called that — has always defended the Council as a necessary and faithful extension of the Church’s evangelical mission to the modern world. The historian Edward Norman gave voice to this perspective when he wrote:
The remarkable thing about the Council was that it was able to produce more or less exactly what it set out to do: a statement of the Catholic faith in modules of understanding intelligible to modern culture yet completely conformable to past tradition — an achievement the more remarkable in view of the incoherence of western culture in the 1960s.
Norman’s perspective is better appreciated today. John Paul II’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, and Benedict XVI’s insistence on a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than rupture have both helped to recover a “deeper reception of the Council” as the Synod’s final report requested. The wonderfully clarifying universal Catechism was one of the Council’s greatest fruits. But even as Vatican II, properly understood, remains an achievement of the first order, its immediate consequences were anything but.
No sooner had the final session of the Council ended than dialogue gave way to worldly adaptation: Priests started abandoning their collars and nuns their habits, if not their orders. Large portions of the Catholic laity, flushed with a sense of unbounded freedom, stopped going to confession and Sunday Mass. Consciences once formed in the light of Catholic teaching began to morph into self-interest. The Church’s teaching against contraception, for example, was effectively thrown out the window by the laity. These events were not authorized by the Council, and somehow secularism and relativism had penetrated the Church.
Leading Catholics whose writings had done so much to influence the Council — men like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand — sounded the alarm. By 1967, Congar was asking: “Where do we go from here? Where shall we be in twenty years? I, too, feel almost every day a temptation to anxiety in the face of all that has changed or is being called into question.”
But none of these men turned their back on the Council or the Holy See. As von Hildebrand stressed:
When one reads the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ [Lumen Gentium] of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council. But when one turns to so many contemporary writings…one can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.
Among those who share von Hildebrand’s concerns is Father Paulo Molinari, S.J., who was a contributor to Lumen Gentium. Several years ago, I had the privilege to speak to him in Rome. In our lively discussion, three things stood out.
First, Vatican II was not a bolt out of the blue from Pope John XXIII. It was preceded by twenty ecumenical Councils, and Congar writes that “the Church has always tried to reform itself.” Pius XI and Pius XII had seriously considered holding a new Council themselves. Next, John XXIII’s famously jovial personality has led many to believe he was an unabashed progressive, and this has colored many accounts of the Council. But Molinari, a close friend of the pope, told me that this popular image of “Good Pope John” as easygoing and tolerant of almost any proposal, is “absolute nonsense.” Finally, statistics about the Church in the pre-Conciliar years are misleading, because there were many trends afoot — in theology, morality, politics, science, and exegesis — that were already having an unsettling impact on the internal life of Catholics.
At the end of our discussion, I still had one question: “All that being said Father, and granting the necessity, beauty, and orthodoxy of the Council’s teachings — how did their implementation go so disastrously wrong in the immediate years that followed?”
“The Council called us to find fulfillment in Christ,” he said gently, “but many Catholics confused that with their own self-fulfillment.” Stunned, I finally murmured, “That’s a pretty big mistake.” “Yes,” he replied, with tremendous understatement.
The Second Vatican Council wasn’t about us, but about Christ’s call, lovingly offered, to fulfill our potential on his terms, in and through the moral and spiritual teaching of his Church. It is the transformation that awaits us all — if we are prepared to accept it — promised by Christ two thousands years ago: “He that finds his life shall lose it and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.”
The Church In The World
The internal unity of the Church as communion should establish and model the external unity of the human race in solidarity, of nations and cultures and peoples living together in peace. The council therefore was an exercise in ecclesial self-consciousness, as Pope John Paul II explained this from the viewpoint of his own philosophical anthropology. How is the Church to change her self-consciousness in order to be God’s instrument for changing the world? How does the Church situate herself in the world so that she can be, as the first paragraph of Lumen gentium, the decree on the Church, says, “the sacrament or … sign of union with God and of the unity of all mankind.”
With that declared purpose in mind, a few points about the Church’s life demonstrate how there is continuity of principle but in always changing circumstances. In a changing world, principles themselves sometimes take on a different cast as well. Pope Benedict XVI has explained this as the hermeneutic of reform. There is development of doctrine in the Second Vatican Council because of a changed understanding of the Church’s pastoral life and mission. It was a reform council, which means some things changed. What changed was our sense of the Church and her mission today. Nothing was taught that contradicted what Christ had said and done in establishing the Church, but there were new interpretations of teaching in order to establish new efforts to perfect the Church’s mission.
The great ecclesiologist after the Council of Trent and in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation was St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). He was building on the work of the late medieval jurists who studied ecclesiastical structures of governance in relation to the various civil societies in which the Church lived. The earlier councils of the Church were concerned with responding to errors about the mystery of the Godhead in the Trinity, and in clarifying the person and natures of Christ. In the late middle ages, as the way of life of many Christians, including many in the papal court, was more and more separated from the way of life presented and modeled in the Gospel, the reform councils of the Lateran spoke about the Church in moral terms.
One could easily argue that the Reformation was rooted in the scandal of the Church’s pastors and faithful not living in conformity to what they were professing as they proclaimed the Gospel. But schism in the Church pre-dated the Reformation, and it was answered in juridical terms by the medieval jurists. James of Viterbo, in the early years of the fourteenth century, wrote the first canonical treatise in ecclesiology. St. Robert Bellarmine was working out of that received juridical framework for understanding the Church as a visible society, because the reformers were saying that the structures of the Church are adventitious: it does not matter really what form the governance of the Church takes because the Church is invisible, she is a work of grace.
It is true that invisible grace is the life of the Church, but because the reformers relativized and almost put aside or confided entirely to civil rulers the apostolic structures of the Church, Cardinal Bellarmine’s reaction was to define the Church as a perfect society, like the state. The Church’s members are not morally perfect any more than the state’s citizens are morally perfect; but both are perfect in the legal sense that both have everything needed to do their work to accomplish their mission. The Church has all the gifts necessary to fulfill her mission from Christ, just as the state has everything that it needs in order to fulfill its mission in this world.
St. Robert Bellarmine explained, in a more theological framework, how the Church possesses all that is necessary for her mission. He defined Church authority and its juridical limits and gave these a basis in Scripture and Tradition; he clarified the rights and duties of different classes of Church members. The Church was examined from outside, as if by an observer. The analogy for the Church’s self-understanding was the kingdom of France or the republic of Venice. That controlling metaphor meant that Church governance was still legitimated by jurisdiction, by the legal power to act.
This left the Church in the modern age with the dilemma of competing jurisdictions: how does one separate the domain of the Church and the claims of the new nation-states created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648? Both Church and state are perfect societies; both are complete; both have their rights. Yet each makes both religious and secular claims. How does one separate the domains of competence and, more than that, how can Church and state peacefully and respectfully cooperate?
Various theories of the proper subordination of state to Church and of the Church’s liberty of action in the secular sphere have been elaborated. The Church needed an ecclesiology that established her freedom in the world for the sake of her mission that transcends the world. She also needed to explain how civil society is properly autonomous but not totalitarian. Before the Second Vatican Council, Pope Pius XII had already begun to draw on the thought of German theologians who, in the nineteenth century, moved beyond the juridical framework of the perfect society based upon jurisdiction toward a theology based upon the biblical metaphors that describe the Church in the New Testament.
The Church is related to Christ and the Holy Spirit as a mystery of faith and, in 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ in order to define the Church’s nature from the sources of her life from within rather than from her juridical organization. Pius XII wrote to combat the false notion that there are two different churches, an interior or spiritual church of all who believe in Christ and an external, visibly structured Church which can be analyzed without reference to her nature as a mystery of faith. He overcame ecclesial dualism by identifying the Mystical Body of Christ with the society and structures of the Roman Catholic Church, with no overlap.
The famous existet in of Lumen gentium says exactly that, but the council recognized the existence of gifts from Christ outside of visible Catholic communion. There are visible elements of ecclesial reality outside of the visible structure of the Catholic Church, and these relate people to the Church in ways that make salvation available. They are called vestigiae ecclesiae (vestiges of the Church). These elements of the Church outside of her pastoral and visible unity serve to include all Christians, in a certain limited sense, in her membership in such a way that it is possible to dialogue with them as brothers and sisters, to see something in them that is also in us, to see them as friends and as fellow believers, through a common baptism.
This is the conviction found also in the mission document of the council, Adgentes. Semina verbi, the seeds of the Word, are to be discovered in natural religions and in non-Christian religions so that, again, missionaries can dialogue with people of other faiths or of no faith at all, because seeds of the Word are present among them. God created the world, and the world therefore is good even in its own now fallen and wounded nature, the cosmos speaks of God to those who are listening. Our discerning everywhere vestiges of the Church and seeds of the Word enables the Second Vatican Council to say that all are already part of God’s family, even if not everybody realizes it. Catholics should therefore be the ones to initiate dialogue, and this ability presupposes that the Church is free to do so everywhere in the world.
Vatican II finessed the political dimensions of how the Church should be in the world by sidestepping the relationship between Church and state (which is still the unreconstructed way we speak of it in this country) and emphasizing instead the relationship between faith and culture. The most provocative and original section of the constitution on the Church in the world, Gaudium et spes, is the second chapter, on culture. The concept of culture is not too explicitly defined but nonetheless the Church’s parameters shifted from living the tension between two perfect societies to explaining the relationships between two normative systems — faith and culture.
We are who we are because of our culture, far more profoundly than because we are citizens of a particular nation state. Both faith and culture are normative for those who are believers; both are complete in themselves and both tell us what is important, what to think and how to act. If the Church is to be in the world as a leaven, then she must engage cultures. Just as the legalist approach to understanding the Church is inadequate to her full internal reality, so also her external relationship to the world through the institution of the state, while obviously still of great importance, becomes secondary.
The relationship between the Church and the world is defined by dialogue between faith and culture. The council fathers were therefore concerned about the conditions for authentic dialogue. To have an authentic dialogue between the universal faith and a particular culture, in order properly to situate the Church in the world in a new age, the council spoke to the freedom of the Church to fulfill her mission publicly and the personal freedom of conscience that is a natural right.
The council’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, depended partially on the prior work of John Courtney Murray, S. J. His groundbreaking articles in Theological Studies in the 1950s, remain, however, an institutional analysis. In countries where the state claims vast jurisdiction over its citizens’ lives, a legally defined relationship between the Church and the state is necessary because the Church could not otherwise be free. But in the case of a state with limited government, and the best example is the restriction placed on the state by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the state is contained within its own domain and therefore leaves free every other domain of human activity.
The United States does not have a government ministry of religion nor of culture, as European states often have. Our constitutional guarantees were thought to give the Church greater freedom of action. The document on religious freedom in the modern world, however, starts not from institutional considerations but from anthropology. It decides who we are as free people, men and women made in God’s image and likeness and therefore necessarily exercising our religious duties to God and expressing our religious beliefs publicly in society. The state must respect and permit that freedom. The dignity of the human person is therefore the foundation of Dignitatis humanae, and the document explains how that dignity is given to every human person because of his or her relation to God. Dignitatis humanae also speaks of freedom of conscience, but it talks about freedom of conscience vis-a-vis the state, not vis-a-vis the Church.
Freedom of conscience means a person has the right and obligation to act according to his or her conscience, but conscience is a practical principle in Catholic moral teaching. Freedom of conscience does not mean one has the right to interpret personally or to deny what God has revealed in Christ and still call oneself a Catholic believer. Freedom of conscience is often understood as a function of the sovereign self in an individualistic society. It means that individuals have a right, even by reason of the Church’s own teaching, to deny what is declared by the Church as authentically revealed. Every individual would then be a Church of one.
Rather, freedom of conscience is understood within the community of faith differently from the way that it is understood within the civil community. It must be, as a principle of both belief and action, respected totally in the civil community. Within the community of faith it must be respected as a principle of action but not as a principle of belief. Faith is a response to what has been revealed by God. Its contents are assented to as a whole, or else it is not faith in a God who reveals himself. Thomas Aquinas explained that, if one believes every article of the Creed but one, he or she doesn’t believe any of the articles, because “faith” would be reduced to an “assent” to an individual’s personal value system. In the realm of faith, an individual’s intelligence and will cannot be the criteria of what God has revealed, as if God’s word were not trustworthy without our verification.
The council’s teaching on the relationship between culture and world and on the freedom of religion and conscience builds on what was taught before, but the council shifts the tradition so there is a reinterpretation and a new emphasis rather than a simple reiteration of teaching. There is authentic development; there is reform. Reform means a principle remains but is now worked out in different ways because circumstances have changed and new insights have come to shape the Church’s living tradition.
After many years of exile from the courts of Egypt where he had been raised, a Hebrew man named Moses, while tending the flock of his father-in-law on the slopes of Mount Sinai, saw an extraordinary sight: a bush that was on fire but was not being consumed. He resolved to take a closer look. As he approached, he heard a voice: “Moses! Moses! … Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Then the speaker identified himself as “the God of your father … the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6), and he gave Moses a mission to liberate his people enslaved in Egypt.
When Moses asked for the name of this mysterious speaker, he received the following answer: “I am who am” (Exodus 3:14). Moses was asking a reasonable enough question. He was wondering which of the many gods — deities of the river, the mountain, the various nations — this was. He was seeking to define and specify the nature of this particular heavenly power.
But the answer he received frustrated him. For the divine speaker was implying that he was not one god among many, not this deity rather than that, not a reality that could, even in principle, be captured or delimited by a name. In a certain sense, God’s response amounted to the undermining of the very type of question Moses posed. His name was simply “to be,” and therefore he could never be mastered. The ancient Israelites honored this essential mysteriousness of God by designating him with the unpronounceable name of YHWH.
Following the prompting of this conversation between Moses and God, the mainstream of the Catholic theological tradition has tended not to refer to God as a being, however supreme, among many. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest theologian in the Catholic tradition, rarely designates God as ens summum (the highest being); rather he prefers the names ipsum esse (to be itself) or qui est (the one who is). In fact, Aquinas goes so far as to say that God cannot be defined or situated within any genus, even the genus of “being.” This means that it is wrong to say that trees, planets, automobiles, computers, and God — despite the obvious differences among them — have at least in common their status as beings. Aquinas expresses the difference that obtains between God and creatures through the technical language of essence and existence.
In everything that is not God there is a real distinction between essence (what the thing is) and existence (that the thing is); but in God no such distinction holds, for God’s act of existence is not received, delimited, or defined by anything extraneous to itself. A human being is the act of existence poured, as it were, into the receptacle of humanity, and a podium is the act of existence poured into the form of podium-ness, but God’s act of existence is not poured into any receiving element. To be God, therefore, is to be to be.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury, one of the greatest of the early medieval theologians, described God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” At first blush this seems straightforward enough: God is the highest conceivable thing. But the longer one meditates on Anselm’s description, the stranger it becomes. If God were simply the supreme being — the biggest reality among many — then God plus the world would be greater than God alone. But in that case he would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought. Zeus, for example, was, in ancient mythology, the supreme deity, but clearly Zeus plus the other gods, or Zeus plus the world of nature, would be greater than Zeus alone. Thus the God whom Anselm is describing is not like this at all. Though it is a very high paradox, the God whom Anselm describes added to the world as we know it is not greater than God alone.
This means that the true God exceeds all of our concepts, all of our language, all of our loftiest ideas. God (YHWH) is essentially mysterious, a term, by the way, derived from the Greek muein (to shut one’s mouth). How often the prophets and mystics of the Old Testament rail against idolatry, which is nothing other than reducing the true God to some creaturely object that we can know and hence try to control. The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”
Arguments For God’s Existence
I have firmly fended off the tendency to turn God into an idol, but have I left us thereby in an intellectual lurch, doomed simply to remain silent about God? If God cannot be in any sense defined, how do we explain the plethora of theological books and arguments? After all, the same Thomas Aquinas who said that God cannot be placed in any genus also wrote millions of words about God. Chapter 33 of Exodus gives us a clue to the resolution of this dilemma. Moses passionately asks God to reveal his glory to him, and Yahweh acquiesces. But the Lord specifies, “I will make all my beauty pass before you … But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives” (Exodus 33:19-20). God then tells Moses that while the divine glory passes by, God will place his servant in the cleft of a rock and cover Moses’s eyes. “Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face is not to be seen” (Exodus 33:22-23). God can indeed be seen in this life, but only indirectly, through his creatures and effects. We can understand him to a degree, but only obliquely, glimpsing him, as it were, out of the corners of our eyes. We see his “back” as it is disclosed in the beauty, the intelligibility, and the contingency of the world that he has made.
Following this principle of indirection, Thomas Aquinas formulated five arguments for God’s existence, each one of which begins from some feature of the created order. I will develop here the one that I consider the most elemental, the demonstration that commences with the contingency of the world. Though the term is technically philosophical, “contingency” actually names something with which we are all immediately familiar: the fact that things come into being and pass out of being. Consider a majestic summer cloud that billows up and then fades away in the course of a lazy August afternoon, coming into existence and then evanescing.
Now think of all of the plants and flowers that have grown up and subsequently withered away, and then of all the animals that have come into being, roamed the face of the earth, and then faded into dust. And ponder the numberless human beings who have come and gone, confirming the Psalmist’s intuition that “our years end like a sigh” (Psalms 90:9). Even those things that seem most permanent — mountain ranges, the continents themselves, the oceans — have in fact emerged and will in fact fade. Indeed, if a time-lapse camera could record the entire life span of the Rocky Mountains, from the moment they began to emerge to the moment when they finally wear away, and if we could play that film at high speed, those mountains would look for all the world like that summer cloud.
The contingency of earthly things is the starting point of Aquinas’s proof, for it indicates something of great moment, namely, that such things do not contain within themselves the reason for their own existence. If they did, they would exist, simply and absolutely; they would not come and go so fleetingly. Therefore, in regard to contingent things, we have to look outside of them, to an extrinsic cause, or set of causes, in order to explain their existence. So let’s go back to that summer cloud. Instinctually, we know that it doesn’t exist through its own essence, and we therefore look for explanations. We say that it is caused by the moisture in the atmosphere, by the temperature, by the intensity of the winds, and so on, and as far as it goes, that explanation is adequate.
But as any meteorologist will tell us, those factors are altogether contingent, coming into being and passing out of being. Thus we go a step further and say that these factors in turn are caused by the jet stream, which is grounded in the movement of the planet. But a moment’s reflection reveals that the jet stream comes and goes, ebbs and flows, and that the earth itself is contingent, having emerged into existence four billion years ago and being destined one day to be incinerated by the expanding sun.
And so we go further, appealing to the solar system and events within the galaxy and finally perhaps to the very structures inherent in the universe. But contemporary astrophysics has disclosed to us the fundamental contingency of all of those realities, and indeed of the universe itself, which came into existence at the Big Bang some thirteen billion years ago. In our attempt to explain a contingent reality — that evanescent summer cloud — we have appealed simply to a whole series of similarly contingent realities, each one of which requires a further explanation.
Thomas Aquinas argues that if we are to avoid an infinite regress of contingent causes, which finally explain nothing at all, we must come finally to some “necessary” reality, something that exists simply through the power of its own essence. This, he concludes, is what people mean when they use the word “God.” With Aquinas’s demonstration in mind, reconsider that strange answer God gives to Moses’s question: “I am who am.” The biblical God is not one contingent reality among many; he is that whose very nature it is to exist, that power through which and because of which all other things have being.
Some contemporary theologians have translated Aquinas’s abstract metaphysical language into more experiential language. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said that “finitude in awareness is anxiety.” He means that when we know in our bones how contingent we are, we become afraid. We exist in time, and this means that we are moving, ineluctably, toward death; we have been “thrown” into being, and this means that one day we will be thrown out of being; and this state of affairs produces fear and trembling. In the grip of this anxiety, Tillich argues, we tend to thrash about, looking for something to reassure us, searching for some firm ground on which to stand.
We seek to alleviate our fears through the piling up of pleasure, wealth, power, or honor, but we discover, soon enough, that all of these worldly realities are as contingent as we are and hence cannot finally soothe us. It is at this point that the scriptural word “My soul rests in God alone” (Psalms 62:1) is heard in its deepest resonance. Our fear — born of contingency — will be assuaged only by that which is not contingent. Our shaken and fragile existence will be stabilized only when placed in relation to the eternal and necessary existence of God. Tillich is, in many ways, a contemporary disciple of Saint Augustine, who said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”
In 1968 a young theology professor at the University of Tubingen formulated a neat argument for God’s existence that owed a good deal to Thomas Aquinas but that also drew on more contemporary sources. The theologian’s name was Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger commences with the observation that finite being, as we experience it, is marked, through and through, by intelligibility, that is to say, by a formal structure that makes it understandable to an inquiring mind. In point of fact, all of the sciences — physics, chemistry, psychology, astronomy, biology, and so forth — rest on the assumption that at all levels, microscopic and macrocosmic, being can be known. The same principle was acknowledged in ancient times by Pythagoras, who said that all existing things correspond to a numeric value, and in medieval times by the scholastic philosophers who formulated the dictum omne ens est scibile (all being is knowable).
Ratzinger argues that the only finally satisfying explanation for this universal objective intelligibility is a great Intelligence who has thought the universe into being. Our language provides an intriguing clue in this regard, for we speak of our acts of knowledge as moments of “recognition,” literally a re-cognition, a thinking again what has already been thought. Ratzinger cites Einstein in support of this connection: “in the laws of nature, a mind so superior is revealed that in comparison, our minds are as something worthless.”
The prologue to the Gospel of John states, “In the beginning was the Word,” and specifies that all things came to be through this divine Logos, implying thereby that the being of the universe is not dumbly there, but rather intelligently there, imbued by a creative mind with intelligible structure. The argument presented by Joseph Ratzinger is but a specification of that great revelation.
One of the particular strengths of this argument is that it shows the deep compatibility between religion and science, two disciplines that so often today are seen as implacable enemies. Ratzinger shows that the physical sciences rest upon the finally mystical intuition that reality has been thought into existence and hence can be known. I say it is mystical because it cannot itself be the product of empirical or experimental investigation, but is instead the very condition for the possibility of analyzing and experimenting in the first place. This is why many theorists have speculated that the emergence of the modern sciences in the context of a Christian intellectual milieu, in which the doctrine of creation through the power of an intelligent Creator is affirmed, is not the least bit accidental.
One of the most basic of biblical ideas is that God is the maker of all things. The opening lines of the book of Genesis speak, not so much of God’s nature, but of God’s creative action: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth …” (Genesis 1:1). Now there is a puzzle in regard to this primordial action of God; namely, why did he do it? If God is God, which is to say, the perfect act of being itself, utterly happy in his own nature, why would he bother to make things at all?
To answer this question is to move very close, spiritually speaking, to the heart of the matter. Precisely because God doesn’t need the world, the very existence of the world is a sign that it has been loved into being. We recall that to love is to will the good of the other as other. Since he has no needs in himself, all of God’s intention and activity in regard to what is other is therefore utterly for the sake of the other. The perfect God cannot be self-interested, and hence in regard to the universe he has made he can only be loving.
Drawing on Plato, the ancient Christian theologian Dionysius the Areopagite said that since the good is diffusive of itself, the infinitely good God naturally and exuberantly expresses his goodness to the world. The fathers of the First Vatican Council echoed Dionysius in saying that God made the world not out of need but in order to “manifest his glory” and to share his life and perfection. What we see in the lives of the saints is an iconic representation of this completely generous divine manner of relating to the other.
If God is the sheer act of to be itself, then God’s creation must be ex nihilo, from nothing. To understand this idea, it might be helpful to propose a contrast. When an artist produces a sculpture, he begins with marble or clay and then shapes that substance into something aesthetically pleasing. When a chef makes a meal, she blends water, meats, vegetables, spices, and sauces into a palatable conglomeration. Both agents are making something from something; they are reordering in a creative manner a re-existing substrate. But God, the very fullness of being itself, does not operate this way; he doesn’t shape some alien substance or matter into arm; rather he brings whatever exists outside of himself into being in its entirety from nothing.
Several important insights cluster around this truth. First, creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are relationship to God. Nothing in a creature exists independently of, or prior to, God’s creative act, and hence no creature stands, as it were, over and against God, simply in a relationship to God. Instead every aspect of a creature’s being is already constituted by God’s creative will. This is why Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, could say that the best metaphor for the spiritual life is not so much the climbing of a holy mountain in order to get to a distant God, but rather the “sinking into” God.
Second, all creatures are connected to one another by the deepest bonds precisely because every creature is coming forth, here and now, from God’s creative act. When I find my deepest center in God, I necessarily find your deepest center and that of every other creature, even of “brother sun and sister moon,” to use the language of Saint Francis.
Third, creation from nothing is a nonviolent act. In so much of the mythological tradition, the creation of the world takes place through a primal act of violence, one god defeating another, or a set of gods doing battle with their rivals. Often the physical universe is pictured as the remains of the conquered enemy. Even in the more refined philosophical accounts of Plato and Aristotle, the universe is formed through the imposition of form on recalcitrant matter.
But there is none of this in the Christian conception. God does not wrestle a rival into submission, for He has no rival; nor does he intervene to shape matter according to his aggressive will, for there is no matter that confronts him. Rather, through a sheerly nonviolent, nonintrusive, non-interruptive act of speech, God gives rise to the whole of finite reality: “Let there be light, and there was light … Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear … Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree … And so it happened” (Genesis 1:3, 9, 11). We can see now the deepest roots of Jesus’ ethic of nonviolent love articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it seems ludicrous to our sinful minds, the recommendation to love one’s enemies and to resist evil through nonviolence is actually to dance in step with the most fundamental metaphysical rhythm of the world.
This God who continually creates the universe from nothing must also be described as provident. The Deist view — on display in both classical and modern times and especially prevalent today — is that God is the orderer of the universe, but only in a distant way, as the source of the laws and basic structures of the universe. But Christian theology has no truck with Deism. It stands, instead, with the book of Wisdom, which speaks of God’s power “stretching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (Wisdom 8:1).
God is not a celestial CEO, managing earthly affairs from an antiseptic distance; he holds the world in the palm of his hand, involving himself in things both great and small. Thomas Aquinas summed up this biblical perspective when he said that God’s providence “extends to particulars.”
Now to give the Deists their due, all of this stress on the particularity of God’s providence does seem to pose a threat to the independence and integrity of the created order. If God is hovering fussily over the whole of reality in every detail, how could we speak, for instance, of freedom or chance? A full treatment of the thorniest of theological issues would require an entire book, but for our purposes I would draw the reader’s attention, once again, to the noncompetitive relationship that God has to the world. God’s creativity and providence are necessarily expressions of the divine love and hence of the “letting be” of the other.
The providential God is not one great cause among many, interfering with the nexus of conditioned causes. We recall the language of the book of Wisdom, how “sweetly” God exercises his power, operating precisely through the realm of secondary causes. Perhaps I could illustrate this with a simple example. If asked, “How do you make a cherry pie,” one would say, presumably, “You bring together cherries, sugar, flour, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” Even the religious believer would not say, “You bring together ferries, sugar, flour, God, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” God is not one cause among many, but rather the reason there are cherries, flour, water, fat, the baker, and so on, at all. Hence, it is precisely through those causes and not in competition with them that the providential God works out his purposes.
If you have a couple of minutes, listen to Fr. Barron retell Luke’s story:
And steal this Christmas prayer and use it sometime Christmas Day:
Merry Christmas 2012!
Law is not the enemy of freedom but precisely the condition for its possibility. What is joy but the experience of having attained the true good? Therefore in this more biblical way of looking at things joy (beatitude) is the consequence and not the enemy of law. What Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is that new law that would discipline our desires, our minds, and our bodies so as to make real happiness possible.
I would like to suggest a reading of the eight beatitudes that looks first at the more “positive” formulations and then, in light of those, at the more “negative” prescriptions. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). This stands at the heart of the matter, for mercy or tender compassion (Chesed in the Hebrew of the Old Testament) is God’s most distinctive characteristic. Saint John would give this same idea a New Testament expression in saying “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Saint Augustine reminded us that we are, by our very nature, ordered to God: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and therefore our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
If this is true, then nothing short of God, no substitute for God, will ever finally satisfy us. But since God is tender mercy, “having” God is tantamount to exercising compassion, being merciful ourselves. And attend to the way Jesus articulates this law: those who exercise mercy will themselves receive mercy. According to the “physics” of the spiritual order, the more one draws on the divine life, the more one receives that life, precisely because it is a gift and is properly infinite. God’s life is had, as it were, on the fly: when one receives it as a gift, he must give it away, since it only exists in gift form, and when he gives it away he will find more of it flooding into his heart. If you want to be happy, Jesus is saying, this divine love, this Chesed of God, must be central to your life; it must be your beginning, your middle, and your end, your “work day and Sabbath rest.” Everything else that is good will find its place around that central desire, which is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33).
We turn now to the closely related beatitude: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). This means that you will be happy if there is no ambiguity in your heart (the deepest center of the self) about what is most important. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the saint is someone whose life is about one thing. He didn’t mean that the saint lives a monotonous existence; he meant that a truly holy person has ordered her heart toward pleasing God alone.
Again, many interests and passions and actions can cluster around that central longing, but none of them can finally compete with it. And thus, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). We want many things — food, drink, shelter, fame, financial security, and so on — but what, most fundamentally, do we want? What is the Hunger that defines and orders the attendant and secondary hungers? What, in Paul Tillich’s language, is your “ultimate concern”? If it is anything other than the will and purpose of God righteousness — then you will be unhappy and unfulfilled.
The last of the “positive” beatitudes is: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Since God is the Creator, he is that power through which all creatures are connected to one another. As we have seen in the first chapter, God is a gathering force, the unifier of all that he has made. Therefore someone who has ordered himself fundamentally toward God is, ipso facto, a peacemaker, for he will necessarily channel the metaphysical energy that draws things and people together. One of the most readily recognizable marks of sanctity — on clear display in all the saints — is just this radiation of reconciling power. This is why peacemaking will make us children of God and therefore happy.
With these more positive beatitudes in mind we can turn with increased understanding to those beatitudes that can strike us initially as perhaps confounding and counterintuitive. The simple fact of the matter is that on account of the mysterious curvature of the will that we call original sin, we deviate from the very actions and attitudes thatwill make us happy. In the elegant formulation of Saint Augustine, we have turned from the Creator to creatures, and as a result we are wandering in “the land of unlikeness,” which is to say, a place of spiritual aridity. Jesus recommends a series of negative prescriptions, designed to orient us wanderers aright.
One of the most fundamental problems in the spiritual order is that we sense within ourselves the hunger for God, but we attempt to satisfy it with some created good that is less than God. Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Sensing the void within, we attempt to fill it up with some combination of these four things, but only by emptying the self in love can we make the space for God to fill us. The classical tradition referred to this errant desire as “concupiscence,” but I believe that we could neatly express the same idea with the more contemporary term “addiction.”
When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never, in principle make us happy.
And so Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This is neither a romanticizing of economic poverty nor a demonization of wealth, but rather a formula for detachment. Might I suggest a somewhat variant rendition: how blessed are you if you are not attached to material things, if you have not placed the goods that wealth can buy at the center of your concern? When the Kingdom of God is your ultimate concern, not only will you not become addicted to material things; you will, in fact, be able to use them with great effectiveness for God’s purposes. Under this same rubric of detachment consider the beatitude “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Again, this can sound like the worst sort of masochism, but we have to dig deeper. We could render this adage as how blessed, how “lucky” (a legitimate rendering of makarios, according to some scholars) you are if you are not addicted to good feelings. Pleasant sensations — physical, emotional, psychological — are wonderful, but since they are only a finite good, they can easily drive an addiction, as can clearly be seen in the prevalence of psychotropic drugs, gluttonous habits of consumption, and pornography in our culture. Again, Jesus’ saying hasn’t a thing to do with puritanism; it has to do with detachment and hence with spiritual freedom. Unaddicted to sensual pleasure, one can unreservedly follow the will of God, even when such a path involves psychological or physical suffering.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land” (Matthew 5:5). I don’t know of any culture at any time that would be tempted to embrace this beatitude as a practical program of world conquest! Meek people don’t come to positions of political or institutional influence. But once more, Jesus is not so much passing judgment on institutions of power as he is showing a path of detachment. How lucky you are if you are not attached to the finite good of worldly power. Many people up and down the centuries have felt that the acquisition of power is the key to beatitude. In the temptation scene in the Gospel of Matthew, the devil, after luring Christ with the relatively low-level temptations toward sensual pleasure and pride, brings Jesus to the top of a tall mountain and reveals to him all of the kingdoms of the world in their glory and offers them to Jesus.
Matthew’s implication is that the drive to power is perhaps the strongest, most irresistible temptation of all. In the twentieth century, J. R. R. Tolkien, who had tasted at first hand the horrors of the First World War and had witnessed those of the Second, conceived a ring of power as the most tempting talisman in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But if you are detached from worldly power, you can follow the will of God, even when that path involves extreme powerlessness. Meek – free from the addiction to ordinary power — you can become a conduit of true divine power to the world.
The last of the “negative” beatitudes is “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). We must read this, once again, in light of Thomas Aquinas’ analysis. If the call to poverty holds off the addiction to material things, and the summons to mourn counters the addiction to good feelings, and the valorization of meekness blocks the addiction to power, this last beatitude gets in the way of the addictive attachment to honor. Honor is good thing in the measure that it is a “flag of virtue,” signaling to others the presence of some excellence, but when love of honor becomes the center of one’s concern, it, like any other finite good, becomes a source of suffering.
Many people who are not terribly attracted to wealth, pleasure, or power are held captive by their desire for the approval of others, and they will, accordingly, order their lives, arrange their work, and plot their careers with the single value in mind of being noticed, honored, and endowed with titles. But this again involves the attempt to fill up the infinite longing with a finite good, and it produces, by the laws of spiritual physics, addiction. Therefore, how lucky are you if you are not attached to honor and hence are able to follow the will of God even when that path involves being ignored, dishonored, and, at the limit, persecuted.
Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. The saint specified this observation as follows: if you want beatitude (happiness) despise what Jesus despised on the cross and love what he loved on the cross. What did he despise on the cross but the four classical addictions? The crucified Jesus was utterly detached from wealth and worldly goods. He was stripped naked, and his hands, fixed to the wood of the cross could grasp at nothing. More to it, he was detached from pleasure.
On the cross, Jesus underwent the most agonizing kind of physical torment a pain that was literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross), but also experienced the extreme of psychological and even spiritual suffering (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). And he was bereft of power, even to the point of being unable to move or defend himself in any way. Finally on that terrible cross he was completely detached from the esteem of others. In a public place not far from the gate of Jerusalem, he hung from an instrument of torture, exposed to the mockery of the crowd, displayed as a common criminal. In this, he endured the ultimate of dishonor.
In the most dramatic way possible, therefore, the crucified Jesus demonstrates a liberation from the four principal temptations that lead us away from God. Saint Paul expressed this accomplishment in typically vivid language: “ And even when you were dead [in] transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions;  obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross;  despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it” (Colossians 2:15).
But what did Jesus love on the cross? He loved the will of his Father. His Father had sent him, as we saw, into the farthest reaches of godforsakenness in order to bring the divine love even to that darkest place, and Jesus loved that mission to the very end. And it was precisely his detachment from the four great temptations that enabled him to walk that walk. What he loved and what he despised were in a strange balance on the cross. Poor in spirit, meek, mourning, and persecuted, he was able to be pure of heart, to seek righteousness utterly, to become the ultimate peacemaker, and to be the perfect conduit of the divine mercy to the world.
Though it is supremely paradoxical to say so, the crucified Jesus is the man of beatitude, a truly happy man. And if we recall our discussion of freedom, we can say that Jesus nailed to the cross is the very icon of liberty, for he is free from those attachments that would prevent him from attaining the true good, which is doing the will of his Father.
The first glimpse of Jesus the warrior is at Bethlehem of Judea, the little town outside of Jerusalem, where Israel’s greatest fighter, King David, was born. The Christmas stories in the Gospels are not charming children’s tales, for they are full of the motifs of opposition and confrontation. C. S. Lewis, who saw these themes very clearly, asked, “Why did God enter into our human condition so quietly, as a baby horn in obscurity?” His answer: “because he had to slip clandestinely, behind enemy lines.”
Let us turn to Luke’s familiar telling of the story. The narrative commences, as one would expect poems and histories in the ancient world to commence, namely with the invocation of powerful and important people: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was … when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). And these two mighty figures are doing something paradigmatically powerful, for by counting one’s people one could tax them more efficiently, draft them into the army more easily, and order them about more completely.
But then Luke pulls the rug out from under us, for we promptly learn that the story isn’t about Augustus and Quirinius but rather about two nobodies making their way from one forgotten outpost of Augustus’ empire to another. And the narrative will unfold as the tale of two emperors — rival claimants to power — the one in Rome and the one born to Mary in Bethlehem. When Mary and Joseph arrived in David’s city, there was no room, even at the crude traveler’s hostel so the child is born in a cave, or as some scholars have recently suggested, the lower level of a dwelling, the humble part of the house where the animals spent the night.
Who was the best protected person in the ancient world? It was undoubtedly Caesar Augustus in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome. But the true emperor, Luke is telling us arrives vulnerable and exposed, because the good life is not about the protection of the ego, but rather about the willingness to become open to the other in love. And we hear that the baby king was wrapped up Imagine a newborn infant, too weak even to raise its head, and now picture that child wrapped up from head to toe in swaddling bands. It is an image of consummate weakness.
Who was the rangiest and freest person in the ancient world? It was certainly Caesar Augustus, able to exert his will to the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean and to the wilds of Britain and Germany. Luke is telling us that true kingship hasn’t a thing to do with this sort of worldly dominion, but rather with the willingness to be bound for the sake of the other. The child was then placed in a manger, where the animals eat. Who was the best-fed person in the ancient world? It was Caesar in Rome, who could snap his fingers and taste of any sensual pleasure. But the true emperor, Luke insists, is not the one who feeds himself but who is willing to offer his life as food for the other. At the climax of his life, this child, come of age, would say to his friends, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).
There is one more telling detail from Luke’s infancy narrative to which I would draw attention. We hear that an angel appeared to shepherds keeping night watch over their flocks in the hills around Bethlehem. We shouldn’t get romantic or sentimental about angels, for in the biblical accounts the typical reaction to the appearance of an angel is fear. If a reality from a higher dimension suddenly broke into your world, fear would be your immediate and appropriate response. The angel announced the good news of the birth of Jesus and then, Luke informs us, there appeared with the angel an entire stratias of angels.
That Greek term is often rendered in English as “host,” but its most basic sense is “army.” Our words “strategy” and “strategic” come from it. Luke is informing us that an army of overwhelmingly frightening realities from heaven have appeared to signal their solidarity with the baby king. Who had the biggest army in the ancient world? Caesar Augustus in Rome, and that is precisely how he was able to dominate that world. Nevertheless, his army is nothing compared to this angelic stratias that has lined up behind the new emperor. Remember Isaiah’s prophecy that Yahweh would one day bare his mighty arm before all the nations. N. T. Wright has magnificently observed that the prophecy finds its fulfillment in the tiny arm of the baby Jesus coming out of his manger-crib.
The battle that began in Bethlehem, this lining up of two very different personifications of power, would play itself out in the life and ministry of Jesus. John Courtney Murray said that as the Gospels unfold we witness the ever increasing agon, or struggle, between Jesus and the powers that oppose him. From the moment of his arrival on the public scene, the demons screamed and the scribes and Pharisees schemed. Many of the major sections of the Gospels end with ominous phrases such as ‘[the devil] departed from him for a time” (Luke 4:13); and “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where [Jesus] was, he should inform them, so that they might arrest him” (John 11:57); and “So they picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59).
This shouldn’t surprise us, for Jesus, God made flesh, entered a world that was distorted by sin, by deep-seated opposition to God. In fact, the very intensity of the divine presence in Jesus disclosed the powers of darkness most completely, just as a particularly intense light casts the deepest shadows. The fight would reach its culmination in Jerusalem, on the top of Mount Zion, where the Davidic warrior would confront definitively the enemies of Israel. The battle would be joined, not on an open field, but on a terrible instrument of torture.
On what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus entered the holy city, hailed as the Son of David, and almost immediately after his arrival he went into the Temple and picked a fight. As we have seen, his provocative action in the Temple was practically guaranteed to arouse the opposition of both the Jewish and the Roman establishment. But as the last week of his life unfolded, Jesus did not contrive to confront these powers in the conventional manner. Rather he allowed them to spend themselves on him; he permitted the darkness of the world to envelop him.
In the densely textured passion narratives of the Gospels we see all forms of human dysfunction on display. Jesus was met by betrayal, denial, institutional corruption, violence, stupidity, deep injustice, and incomparable cruelty, but he did not respond in kind. Rather, like the scapegoat, upon whom all the sins of Israel were symbolically placed on the Day of Atonement, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world.
As he hung from the cross, he became sin, as Saint Paul would later put it, and bearing the full weight of that disorder he said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus on the cross drowned all the sins of the world in the infinite ocean of the divine mercy, and that is how he fought.
We can see here how important it is to affirm the divinity of Jesus for if he were only a human being, his death on the cross would be, at best, an inspiring example of dedication and courage. But as the Son of God, Jesus died a death that transfigured the world. The theological tradition has said that God the Father was pleased with this sacrifice of his Son, but we should never interpret this along sadistic lines, as though the Father needed to see the suffering of his Son in order to assuage his infinite anger. The Father loved the willingness of the Son to go to the very limits of god forsakenness — all the way to the bottom of sin — in order to manifest the divine mercy. The Father loved the courage of his Son, the nonviolent warrior.
Jesus claimed divinity, and I’ve been defending his divine status throughout this writing, but what finally prevents us from saying that the crucified Jesus wasn’t simply a failed revolutionary, an admirable idealist who was, sadly enough, ground under by the wheel of history? What prevents us from taking that route of interpretation is the stubborn unnerving fact upon which Christian faith is grounded: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. N. T. Wright has reminded us that from a strictly historical standpoint it is practically impossible to explain the emergence of Christianity as a messianic movement apart from the resurrection.
In the context of first-century Judaism, the clearest indication possible that someone was not the Messiah would be his death at the hands of Israel’s enemies, for, as we have seen, one of the tasks of the Messiah was to battle those enemies successfully and unite the nation. In the year 132, a Jew named Bar Kochba led a revolution against the Romans. Many of his followers proclaimed him the Messiah; they even minted coins stamped with the motto Year One of Bar Kochba. His rebellion was put down, he was executed by the Romans, and precisely no one further entertained the thought that he was the Messiah.
Yet the first Christians stubbornly and consistently proclaimed the crucified Jesus as Messiah. Paul refers time and again in his letters to Iesous Christos, which is his Greek rendition of Ieshoua Maschiach (Jesus the Messiah). The first disciples went to the ends of the world and to their deaths declaring the messiahship of Jesus. How can we realistically account for this apart from the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead?
Far too many contemporary scholars attempt to explain away the resurrection, turning it into a myth, a legend, a symbol, a sign that the cause of Jesus goes on. But this kind of speculation is horn in faculty lounges, for few in the first century would have found that kind of talk the least hit convincing. Can you imagine Paul tearing into Corinth or Athens or Philippi with the message that there was an inspiring dead man who symbolized the presence of God? No one would have taken him seriously. Instead what Paul declared in all of those cities was anastasis (resurrection). What sent him and his colleagues all over the Mediterranean world (and their energy can be sensed on every page of the New Testament) was the shocking novelty of the resurrection of a dead man through the power of the Holy Spirit.
According to the Gospel accounts, the risen Jesus typically did two things: he showed his wounds and he pronounced a word of peace. The wounds of Jesus are a continual and salutary reminder of our sin. The author of life appeared in our midst and we killed him, and this gives the lie to any attempt at self-justification or exculpation. But the risen Lord never leaves us in guilt; instead, he says, “Peace be with you,” the Jewish greeting, Shalom (John 20:19).
This is the peace that the world cannot give, for it is the shalom that comes from the heart of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul said, “For I am convinced that neither death, life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 39). How does Paul know this? He knows it because we killed God, God returned with forgiving love. He knows it because the enemies of Israel have been defeated.
As we saw, the Old Testament writers anticipated that Yahweh would gather the tribes, cleanse the Temple, fight the final battle, and finally would reign as Lord of all the nations. In the light of the resurrection, the first Christians understood that this great work had been accomplished and that Yahweh would reign precisely in the person of Jesus. And they saw their task as announcing this new state of affairs to the world. That is why Paul darted all over Asia Minor, Cyprus, and Greece, and why he longed to go to Spain, which for a first-century Jew would have meant the ends of the earth. If someone today wanted to get a message out far and wide, he would go to New York or Los Angeles or London — centers of culture and communication. Many of the first believers in Jesus — including Peter and Paul — went forth with a similar hope to Rome.
In the Roman Forum stands the Arch of Titus, which was built to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. On the inside of the arch is a depiction of the conquering soldiers carrying the Menorah from the Temple. I believe it is fair to say that the soldiers involved in that conquest, as well as those men who designed the Arch of Titus, undoubtedly thought that this humiliating defeat signaled the end of the Jewish religion and the disappearance of the God of Israel. The supreme irony is that just before the destruction of the Temple, Peter, Paul, and their Christian colleagues arrived in Rome, and in proclaiming the risen Jesus they brought the God of Israel to Rome, and through Rome, to the world.
In the letters he wrote to the tiny Christian communities that he had founded Paul often spoke of Iesous Kyrios (Jesus the Lord). This can sound blandly “spiritual” to us, but in Paul’s time and place those were fighting words, for a watchword of the era was Kaiser Kyrios (Caesar the Lord). This was the way that one signaled one’s uncompromised loyalty to the Roman emperor, one’s conviction that Caesar was the one to whom final allegiance was due. The revolutionary message of Paul was that Jesus, the crucified Messiah, was Lord, and not Caesar.
Having unpacked that simple phrase, it is easy enough to see now why Paul spent so much time in jail! On the slopes of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, in the second half of the first century, a Christian named Mark had a residence. Mark had been a secretary, translator, and companion to Saint Peter, and around the year 70 Mark composed the first of what came to be called the “Gospels.” Here is the opening line of the text: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God]” (Mark 1:1). Again, this can sound anodyne and harmlessly pious to us, but those too were fighting words. Mark’s Greek term, euanggelion, which we render as “good news,” was a word that was typically used to describe an imperial victory. When the emperor won a battle or quelled a rebellion, he sent evangelists ahead with the good news.
Do you see how subversive Mark’s words were? He was writing from Rome, from the belly of the beast, from the heart of the empire whose leaders had killed his friends Peter and Paul just a few years before, and he was declaring that the true victory didn’t have a thing to do with Caesar, but rather with someone whom Caesar had put to death and whom God raised up.
In April of 2005 the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI came onto the front loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica to bless the crowds. Gathered around him on the adjoining balconies there appeared all of the cardinals who had just chosen him. The news cameras caught the remarkably pensive expression on the face of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. When the cardinal returned home, reporters asked him what he was thinking about at that moment.
Here is what he said: “I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, `Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.”
Jesus Christ is Lord. That means that neither Caesar nor any of his descendants is Lord. Jesus Christ, the God-man risen from the dead, the one who gathered the tribes, cleansed the Temple, and fought with the enemies of the human race — he is the one to whom final allegiance is due. Christians are those who submit to this Lordship.