Author Archives: Brian

The Liberating Power of Fasting – March 6, 2017

“Do you wish your prayer to reach God? Give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.”
-St. Augustine, Discourse on the Psalms

“What happened to fast and abstinence in the Church in the United States?” This was the question Pope John Paul II asked Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, the former Dean of the Pontifical North American College, in a conversation they had in Rome in 1980. Pope John Paul perceived what is readily apparent to us still today, the seeming collapse of the practice of fasting in the day-to-day lives of Catholics. This question is particularly relevant now in the midst of Lent as the Church unites herself “to the mystery of Jesus in desert.” (CCC 540) The Bible tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards He was hungry.” (Mt. 4:2) If we are to unite ourselves more closely with Christ, we need to rediscover this holy practice of fasting.

The Catechism lists fasting as one of the three pillars of penance in the Christian life. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving express our conversion, respectively towards oneself, God, and neighbor. (CCC 1434) Fasting is a critical part of our metanoia, our turning away from sin. We are in constant need of this conversion towards God. It was when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit that Original Sin and concupiscence entered our human nature. Since then, as St. Paul eloquently wrote, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” (Gal. 5:17) This is our human predicament. The question we must ask ourselves is: Do our bodily desires and instincts rule our spirit, or does our spirit control our bodies? The mortification of the flesh, through fasting, offers a sort of “liberation of man” against this “wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance.” (Paentiemini, II) Through fasting, we can cultivate this cardinal virtue of temperance, as moderation and self-control tame the unruliness of the flesh.

In the Old Testament, Nineveh turned away from their sins. The wickedness of the city had reached a point that God sent the prophet Jonah to warn them that in “forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” (Jnh. 3:4) However, the people of Nineveh believed Jonah and the words of God, so “they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” God reacted by not carrying out His threat against them. God showed Himself to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jnh. 4:2) It is an example for us. By fasting, we can demonstrate our humility before God by repenting of our sins and asking forgiveness. As the story of Nineveh shows, God readily accepts this act of contrition.

Jesus is our example par excellence on the vital spiritual importance of fasting. Scripture tells us that before He began His public ministry, He was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1) Just as the first Adam was tempted by the serpent and failed by eating the fruit, so the second Adam, Jesus, was tempted by Satan, and yet resisted him by not eating. Satan tempted Jesus to break His fast by turning stones into loaves of bread, at which Jesus countered him, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ fast spiritually prepared His humanity to confront and resist the devil. This is reminiscent of the disciples, who were unable to cast out a demon from a boy. Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith, and then, exorcised the demon. Later, when the disciples asked Jesus why they could not cast it out, He replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mk. 9:29) Prayer and fasting are fundamental tools we have to overcome the devil and his minions, and temptation. Fasting is a powerful weapon.

This self-denial and mortification, as expressed in fasting, is also efficacious for the conversion of others. Sacrifice and prayer are the vicarious payment we make towards the redemption of another. It is the required “money,” if you will, offered on behalf of their “debt.” St. Paul captured this eloquently when he wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body.” (Col. 1:24) This remains the same for us. We know that our love and intercessory sacrifices for others will cover a multitude of sins. (Jas. 5:20)

Intercessory prayer and fasting is exactly the message of Fatima as well. Our Lady of Fatima said, “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.” Mary revealed that our prayers and sacrifices are truly efficacious reparations, in which we can even positively affect someone’s eternal destiny. This Lent is the perfect opportunity for us to heed her words, especially this year, the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. Heaven is waiting for our daily prayers, sacrifices, and fasts.

As Christians, we need to re-embrace this pillar of our faith and practice regularly the discipline of fasting. It is a transformational habit that would enliven the modern Church, liberate us from our intemperate desires, and bring us into a closer divine intimacy with God. It also draws us nearer to the hungry and the poor, in line with the Beatitudes of Jesus. Although Jesus forbade His disciples from fasting while He, the divine Bridegroom, was still here, He did exhort future generations, and for that matter, us, that once the Bridegroom was gone, “then they will fast.” (Mt. 9:15) Some 2,000 years later, we continue our fast, at the behest of Jesus’ Good News, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:17)

Of course, fasting is not easy. It is a discipline that we must train our bodies to handle. We can accommodate fasting to our life situation. The important point is that we fast in some fashion, in union with the Church, particularly on Fridays in remembrance of Christ’s Passion, whether just giving up meat, or strictly on bread and water, or somewhere in between the two. The ancient ascetic monks perfected the discipline of fasting in the desert. Yet, we can bring fasting into the hustle and bustle of our lives, and families, and homes, and Churches, to form an oasis of sanctity in our modern world. Let us renew our faith – and fasting – this Lent, and beyond.

A Meditation on the Theology of the Face – February 22, 2017

“Thou hast said, “Seek ye My face.”
My heart says to Thee,
“Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” (Psalm 27:8)

Do our faces reflect the divine signature of Christ?

Genesis declares that man is “made in the image of God.” Humanity is set apart from the rest of creation with an eternal soul capable of reason, will, and self-giving love; that is, God created man with divine attributes. These preternatural gifts bestow on us a rational and spiritual nature, elevating us above our mere physical natures. Man is separated from animal, person from non-person, primarily by our rational souls.

Yet, as Christians, we do not believe that we are just spiritual beings. We are more than just incarnate spirits confined to a body and then freed upon death. This is an ancient gnostic heresy, a Manichean dualism, unfortunately still prevalent today. Rather, our true human nature is a composite nature of spirit and body. The Catechism calls the flesh of the body the “hinge of salvation.” In the beginning, God created the flesh of the body; in marriage, man and woman become one flesh; in the Incarnation, the Word became flesh; in the Eucharist, Jesus gives us His flesh; and in the resurrection, the flesh is raised glorified and incorruptible. (CCC 1015) Christ, the Bible, and the Church are all in agreement: The body is good.

There is a sacramentality to the body. The body is the sacrament of the human person. It is a sign and symbol, making visible a hidden reality. Pope John Paul plumbed the depths of this mystery in his “Theology of the Body” series, referring to the body, “It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be its sign.” The body is a sign of divine mystery. Pope John Paul also stated “the face reveals the person.” It is the gateway to the soul. All of our senses are found in our face: our eyes, our ears, our nose, our mouth. They are the means by which the material world is translated by our human bodies to the spiritual world of our mind and soul. The face is the mediator between material and divine.

According to our Christian faith, the whole economy of salvation rests upon the bodily crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For, through the wounds of Christ we are healed, and through His death and resurrection we are saved. We can speculate, in conjunction with this definitive event in human history, did God mark our faces with Christ’s redemptive act?

Imagine, for a moment, Jesus’ Cross transposed on our faces. Our two eyes seem to correspond to the nail wounds of Christ’s two outstretched hands on the horizontal beam; our nose, the vertical beam of the Cross; our nostrils, the piercing of Christ’s side; our mouths, the nail wounds of both feet, placed one atop the other. Of all the shapes our faces could have taken, they assumed the perfect symmetry of a cross. The human face is clearly arranged in a “T” shape of two perpendicular lines. It is like a symbolical seal of Christ and His wounds.

In contemplating the face as a sign, all that we perceive, and all that we know of the world, is through our senses: In effect, analogously through Jesus’ hand wounds, we have eyes and sight; through the piercing of Jesus’ side, we can breathe and smell; and through the wounds to Jesus’ feet, we can taste, drink, breathe, and speak. His suffering was our grace. The face is not just the means of our perception, but also brings in life. The nose intakes air, and breaths oxygen into our lungs and blood. The mouth too provides sustenance through breathing, and nourishment through eating and drinking. Moreover, the face also conveys outwardly our divine faculties. We express emotions, words, language, singing, love, and worship all through our face. It reveals our rational and conscious nature.

The face is the icon of the person. This is God’s primordial claim upon us, through the imprint of Christ on the flesh of our face. The personal “I” of each one of us is made present to the world by the portal of our face. We can almost broaden Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy that “with His stripes we are healed” (spiritually), and extend it, metaphorically, to the body: So that, through His wounds, we have our senses, life, and access to the whole universe around us.

There are hints in scripture to the supernatural significance of the face. St. Paul calls Christ the “head of the body.” Would it not be fitting that our heads should bear the stamp of our Savior? When God spoke with Moses on Mt. Sinai, Yahweh hid His face from him saying, “you cannot see My face; for man shall not see Me and live.” When Moses returned to the Israelites, they were afraid to come near him because “the skin of his face shone.” Moses then put a veil over his face, which St. Paul later interpreted to mean they failed to recognize Christ; In effect, the unveiling of the face is related to recognizing Christ. Just before His Passion, Jesus did unveil His divinity on Mt. Tabor in His Transfiguration when “His face shone like the sun,” giving us a brief glimpse to the glory of the face of God.

In the climax of Dante’s Paradiso, the face of God is finally revealed in full to man in the Beatific Vision, and he is amazed to see that God’s face “seemed to be painted with our human likeness.” Perhaps more aptly, we are being painted with the likeness of God. St. Paul alluded to this, saying “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18) Our ultimate hope is to behold God “face to face” for all eternity. At last, as St. John wrote of this blissful destiny, the redeemed “shall see His face,” and “we shall be like Him.”

God’s Presence in Confession – January 24, 2017

A number of years ago I approached the confessional booth in the crypt church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. It was there that something somewhat miraculous happened, or at least that is how it struck me.

I was a regular visitor at the crypt church for Confession and to attend Mass. On this particular day, however, I was also there to pray for my friend. At the time, a close childhood friend of mine had recently and unexpectedly passed away. He had become an avid mountain climber, and had gone on an adventure to climb one of the tallest mountains in the world in Pakistan. Then, one fateful day I received a phone call that he had gone missing after an avalanche. Soon after, our worst fears were confirmed. Obviously shocked and saddened I turned towards prayer and the Church.

After praying before the Blessed Sacrament, I went to Confession. Once I had confessed my sins, I spoke to the priest about concerns for my friend. I never once mentioned to him who he was or what had happened. I told him only that he had died outside the Church, and I asked if I should pray for him? His answer amazed me.

In part, he said, “sometimes I will pick up the paper and read, for example, about people who died while mountain climbing in Pakistan, and yes, I would pray for them.” I took this as a miraculous intervention of Christ in the sacrament, and as a direct response regarding my friend. The unknown priest, I am sure, had no idea of the prophetic words he had just spoken to me. Yet, his words resonated loudly in my soul.

As believers, we know that God always hears our prayers, even if sometimes it may not feel like it. As Catholics, we also know that God is present to us in a special way in the sacraments. The priest works in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ the head, or as the Church teaches, “it is Christ Himself who is present.” (CCC 1548). This is of great consolation in Confession – the sacrament of divine mercy – when we are blessed to hear those most comforting of Jesus’ words, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” (CCC 1484)

The priest’s words that day had a number of effects on me. First and foremost, it powerfully reconfirmed the efficaciousness of the sacrament. Christ is truly present and truly forgives. It also affirmed to me that we are called to be intercessors, for our family and our friends, and in fact, for all those entrusted to us. This is our privilege and important responsibility as Christians. Lastly, we should not judge, but rather, entrust everyone by prayer and sacrifice to the divine mercy of God. Even today, years later, I pray for my friend’s eternal rest.

The Dignity of the Human Person – January 14, 2017

“When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” (Evangelium Vitae, 21)

It is a perplexing fact of history that one of the world’s most prolific mass murderers, Adolf Hitler, was also a vegetarian who abhorred cruelty to animals. This conundrum was oddly revisited when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ran a publicity campaign “Holocaust on Your Plate” in 2003 comparing caged farm animals to Jewish prisoners in Nazi death camps. As author Richard Weikart points out, ironically both the Nazis and PETA engaged in the fallacy of anthropomorphism, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. These are extreme examples, but highlight an underlying philosophical confusion in our modern era regarding the dignity of human life. Subsumed in this diminishment of human worth is an implicit denial of personhood.

This misanthropic view is unfortunately on the ascendancy in Western culture. To have a sense of this, one need only look at the recent outpourings of indignation and contempt at the killings of Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla. The flipside of overvaluing animal life can often be the devaluing of human life; the outrage over Cecil and Harambe stand in stark contrast to our culture’s complacency regarding abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, suicide and assisted-suicide. This “culture of death” is the negative underbelly of the modernist endeavor: recasting the human being as simply an ordinary animal who no longer merits ontological God-given dignity or teleological God-given purpose. Human life becomes expendable compared to the perceived greater good of the society or state, or the whimsy of the individual. The worth of the human person today has become obscured.

How did we get here?

Conflating the dignity of man and animal is but a symptom of the overall creeping confusion. A dimming appreciation for the specialness of man runs centuries deep, with incremental philosophical subversions to the foundations of true knowledge.

At its core, we are in a crisis of epistemology. The great breadth and depth of human knowledge have been sacrificed on the altars of skepticism and materialism. This modern epistemological error revolves around the denial of our true human nature as composite beings, of body and soul. The initial missteps of severing body and soul were philosophical.

Some trace the errors of modern secularism back to William of Ockham in the 14th century, who posited that universal essences, like humanity, are not real, but are only nominal extrapolations in our minds. Ockham theorized there are no universal forms but only individuals. This undermined part of our ability to explain objective reality. If there is no universal human form, or human nature, then we are deprived of fulfilling those ends of our nature and our teleological purpose. Once that is gone, it is not hard to imagine a confusion of personhood and a loss of ethics.

In the Enlightenment era, empiricists, like Locke and Hume, proposed that only the phenomenon of a thing could be known, and not the thing itself. Like Ockham, they rejected abstract knowledge of universals in favor of sense experience only. In other words, they dismissed our intellectual and spiritual knowledge for something akin to that of animals. Kant similarly conceded that we only know “things as known,” as interpreted by the mind, but not “things in themselves.” This “epistemological geocentrism,” as physicist Father Stanley Jaki called it, prevents us from having knowledge of God, the soul, and the full nature of reality.

Perhaps the most damaging blow to our understanding of our composite natures comes from biological materialism, in the form of Darwinism in the 19th century. Darwinian theory made strict biological materialism and scientism the predominant “acceptable” knowledge. No longer was there a need for the special creation of man by God, or the need for an immaterial soul or intellect. Man is just an evolved ape, created through blind forces, genetic mistakes, and the survival of the fittest. The severance of body and soul, begun in the philosophies of the previous centuries, was now complete. As Chesterton noted, “Evolution does not especially deny the existence of God; what it does deny is the existence of man.” Man was no longer a composite spiritual being, but mere physical creature.

This materialist reductionism had major repercussions on the modernist worldview and the dehumanizing of man. When the materialists finally seized power, Communist regimes, from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, murdered some 100 million people. Social Darwinism too had seeped into Western thought, sparking talk of people as “fit” and “unfit,” and races as “superior” and “inferior.” This was most pronounced in Nazi Germany, where racist notions were “proven” and “justified” by so-called science. Hitler had fully embraced this idea of evolutionary ethics in his march towards war and genocide.

The evidence of the past century has highlighted the fact that evolutionary ethics is no ethic at all. It undermines our moralistic certainty. Morality becomes very subjective, and in the spirit of the age, relativistic. Material reductionism altered people’s view on the sanctity of human life, by devaluing what it means to be human. The soul became merely an epiphenomenon of matter. In that sense, Christianity is at odds with strict Darwinian materialism, as opposed to the general theory of evolution, with which there is no conflict. This dogmatic materialism denies a priori even the possibility of final causality in man. It falsely stifles the reasonableness of belief in God, our moral compasses, and the knowledge of our selves as spiritual beings.

Sadly, this epistemological reductionism has not only persisted to the present day, but also increased. Although there is some progress against the culture of death, there remains a peculiar amnesia regarding the dignity of man, lingering in our cultural psyche. Not surprisingly, there has also been a concurrent falling away from the faith, as evidenced by record numbers of non-religious and atheists in recent polls (i.e., the “rise of the Nones,” so-called for listing “none” as their religious preference).

How are we as Catholics to respond? To start, we can reaffirm that there are many good, intellectual, and multifaceted reasons to believe. Christianity and belief in God are perfectly reasonable, despite protestations from modern scientific materialists and atheists. Science and theology, faith and reason are not opposed to each other, but are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (Fides et Ratio) In fact, there is available today more cutting-edge scientific data suggesting a Creator than ever before. What better confirmation is there, for example, of Aquinas’ cosmological argument for God as the prime mover than the Big Bang and the latest supporting evidence of cosmic microwave background radiation?

Christianity was built upon revelation, of course, but also upon reason. Jesus had commanded us to love God with “all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37) The intellectual tradition of the West, and its empirical science, is, after all, borne out of Christian civilization. The contention with modern secularism only arises with the materialist denial of God and the soul. It is a denial of our composite being. Atheism suffers from an epistemological defect of rejecting personhood. As Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum states, “It is the mind, or reason, . . . which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute.” We should embrace the idea of personhood and the philosophy of personalism as part of our worldview and ethic, and as a bulwark against dehumanizing philosophies.

One of the greatest proponents of the modern philosophy of personalism was Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla, witnessed these dehumanizing forces of materialism firsthand in Poland, initially under Nazi occupation, and later under Soviet Communism. He was in the epicenter for both of these totalitarian outbursts, and observed what he called the “pulverization” of the human person. It was in reaction to these impersonalist philosophies and the subsequent political tyrannies that he helped lead a new philosophical movement and moral theology focused on the absolute dignity of the human person.

Wojtyla advocated for “Thomistic personalism,” a modern philosophy focused on the transcendent dignity of each person. His particular personalism was grounded in Thomas Aquinas’ classical metaphysics, and the cosmological view of man that we are set apart from the rest of creation by our rational nature and intellect.

Wojtyla sought to go beyond this, however, to explain the “totality of the person.” He recognized the great importance of the interior perspective to human experience. This interior perspective he referred to as “subjectivity,” experienced in each person’s consciousness, where no two are alike. Each person, then, is utterly unrepeatable, irreplaceable, incommunicable, and irreducible.

Pope John Paul spoke of this in practical terms, in his “personalist principle,” that the human being should always be treated as an end in itself, and never subordinated to another as a means to an end. Internalizing this principle would inevitably produce concrete practical applications, such as standing against slavery and human trafficking. But, it could also help turn the societal tide against normalizing this culture of death, with its impersonalist impulses, as recently witnessed in the Netherlands, euthanizing a man for being an alcoholic, or with Peter Singer, a utilitarian ethicist from Princeton, advocating for ending the lives of severely disabled infants.

As Catholics, we must always advocate for the inviolable dignity of the human person. This, of course, goes all the way back to Genesis when “God created man in His own image.” (Gen. 1:27) The magisterium echoes this by calling each of us “a sign of the living God, an icon of Jesus Christ.” (EV, 84) We have an interior transcendence in common with our Creator. Humans are relational and social beings, made in conformity to God, a trinity of intra-relational Persons.

As the image of God, there is a specialness to man. It sets us apart from the rest of creation. We alone can say “I.” No other animal, as wonderful as they are, can utter such a thing. They are bound by instinct. Even in the higher primates, as with the fascinating case of Koko the signing gorilla, the disparity remains immense. In the words of Pope John Paul, “an ontological leap” has to be made to span the “great gulf” that separates person from non-person. Man alone is capable of rational and abstract thought, free will, self-consciousness, moral action, complex language and speech, technological progress, higher purpose, altruism, love, creativity, prayer and worship. Man is different in degree and in kind, because God makes each person from the infiniteness of Himself. (CCC 2258)

In the New Testament, Jesus gives us the heart of personalism with His commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” For, as He later reveals, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” By embracing this notion of personalism in our lives, we liberate ourselves from our own egoism and coldness towards our neighbor. We see the face of God in each other. This is our vaccination against dehumanizing a person, and adopting a culture of life. It stands against the slide of centuries towards extreme skepticism and materialism, and calls us to draw again from a more complete knowledge. Materialism is only partially true. It denies the higher nature of our spiritual selves. By recognizing the image of God in each other we see the universal ontological value of each person, even down to the seemingly lowliest and weakest among us. It is for us to contemplate (and act upon), in light of Christ’s sacrifice, “how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life” with “the almost divine dignity of every human being.” (EV, 25)

The Sanctifying Humanity of Jesus’ Incarnation – December 24, 2016

“The hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life.” (CCC 533)

The Incarnation of God as man is a scandal. The first century Jews were expecting a Messiah, but did not conceive that he would be the Son of God Himself. They expected a messianic political leader. Jesus, being the second person of the Trinity, could very well have descended from Heaven ablaze in His divine power and majesty to establish His kingdom. Yet, we know this is not what happened. The Son of God came in obscurity, humility and poverty. This is the second scandal of the Incarnation. The divine being was born as a baby, completely dependent and helpless, to a poor family in a small village, placed in an animal manger. God came as the least among us. Chesterton called this “an idea of undermining the world.” This is the great paradox of Christianity, God as man, and even, God as an infant, the divine hidden in the ordinary. So intimate is His love for us that He came personally in search of us, as the Creator entered His creation, and eternity entered time. How few recognized the extraordinary baby in their midst in that most ordinary scene in Bethlehem? How often still do we fail to see God in our ordinary circumstances each day?

The Incarnation is, at its most basic and profound level, a love story. It is the love of an infinitely merciful God for a broken and lost humanity. God came into our world on a search and rescue mission, to save us from our sins. Jesus did not come as the expected conquering king, rather, He came as the unexpected suffering servant. He chose to enter into our state of life, to follow the same path as all of us, of being born, growing up, laboring as an adult, and ultimately, dying. In doing so, He chose to take on the lowliness of our human nature, the ordinariness of our circumstances, and the drudgery of our every day lives. This is truly an amazing thing to contemplate. Jesus, the divine being, chose to spend most of His life living a private, ordinary existence just like yours and mine. God chose to live like us in the small, mundane details of our lives. But why?

We know the ultimate reason for the Incarnation is the Redemption. Yet, to state the obvious, Jesus was God even before His public ministry. When He worked as a carpenter in Joseph’s workshop, He was God. When He lived with Mary His mother, He was God. Jesus’ redemptive mission did not begin with His public ministry. It began with His Incarnation and birth, and continued along the spectrum of His whole life. As the Catechism states, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption.” (CCC 517) What is nearly as remarkable is the fact that almost all of Christ’s life was hidden and seemingly unspectacular. As the Church states, “During the greater part of His life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor.” (CCC 531) Jesus lived as one of us in all ways, except sin.

Little else is said in the Bible of this time period before Jesus’ public ministry. Unsurprisingly, when we think of the life of Jesus, we think most often about the last three years of His life, His public life, as recorded in the Gospels. These were the all-important years when Jesus gathered His disciples, preached the kingdom of God and the repentance of sins, worked miracles, healings, instituted the sacraments, founded His Church, and of course, offered Himself to the Father with His Passion and Crucifixion. There seems to be a huge dichotomy between the ordinariness of His first thirty years and the extraordinariness of His last three years. One can imagine at the beginning of His public ministry the astonishment of His neighbors when they asked, “Where did this man get all this?” (Mk. 6:2) They only recognized the “ordinary” Jesus, and were incredulous at seeing and hearing the divine Jesus.

This begs the question then, why did Jesus live these two almost separate, distinct stages in His life? Why was there seemingly such a difference between the first 90% of His life versus the last 10% of His life?

The two distinct periods of Jesus’ life, the private and the public, were not at odds with each other. Jesus’ whole life was lived accomplishing the will of the Father. Even from His beginning, He was already accomplishing the will of the Father in perfect obedience. As the Catechism states, “From the first moment of His Incarnation the Son embraces the Father’s plan of divine salvation in His redemptive mission.” (CCC 606) The mystery of redemption was at work throughout His life, even in His private years as a seemingly ordinary person. It was one continuous redemptive mission along the spectrum of Jesus’ life.

So then, what was Jesus’ redemptive mission in His private life? He followed the same path that we all follow of being born into this world, growing up, and laboring as an adult. Jesus took on all of our circumstances, and lived our daily, ordinary lives. He also lived in the most humble and extreme of circumstances so as to encompass the breadth and depth of human experiences. He came intentionally to live through all these various stages of life. The Catechism says, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said, and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation.” (CCC 518) Jesus recapitulated within Himself all of our ordinary human actions, and in fact, our very ordinary human nature.

This mystery of recapitulation included our human institutions, from the family, to our jobs, our hardships, and our vocations. He also recapitulated all of our states in life. He was conceived in the womb, He was born, He grew up as a child, He became a young adult, and finally He reached maturity, and at last, died. Jesus lived all of this. God deemed no stage or circumstance of life unworthy of His presence. He lived these in order to sanctify them, consecrate them, and restore them. The Catechism quotes St. Irenaeus in this area, “For this reason Christ experienced all the stages of life, thereby giving communion with God to all men.” (CCC 518) Within Jesus, all aspects of human life, from birth until death, were sanctified.

The mystery of redemption took place in the body of Christ when “the Word became flesh.” The material nature of man was subsumed in the vastness of His divinity, and the infinite efficaciousness of His divine nature was infused into human nature. This is the hypostatic union – a fusion of humanity and divinity – in the person of Jesus Christ. The Catechism refers to this as “His holy and sanctifying humanity.” (CCC 774) Jesus’ humanity is the instrument for redeeming our human nature. It was made holy and sanctified when God took on our nature and lived as one of us. Humanity was raised up, restored, and divinized in the life and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, as the fullness of divinity dwelt in the person of Christ, every event, every word, every deed, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, took on a divine significance and importance. There are no small actions for a God-man. Everything He did or said was of divine significance. Because of this, St. Thomas Aquinas can say, “Christ did merit in the first instant of His conception.” All of Christ’s actions are of divine worth imbued with supernatural grace and with infinite value. For Christ’s whole life, the infinite God performed finite human tasks, living as an ordinary man. His sacred humanity then was a sacrament, a sign and instrument, of His divinity. (CCC 515)

Christ was indeed the “perfect man,” the new Adam, who lived a perfect life, but He did not live it for Himself. Rather, Christ lived it for us and for our salvation. Moreover, “All Christ’s riches ‘are for every individual and are everybody’s property.’” (CCC 519) Part of the reason Jesus lived His private life of thirty years was so we could be united to Him in everything we do. Our ordinary lives can have extraordinary meaning. The Catechism forthrightly describes our communion with His mysteries, “Christ enables us to live in Him all that He Himself lived, and He lives it in us. “`By His Incarnation, He, the Son of God, has in a certain way united Himself with each man.’” (CCC 521) And so, it is up to us to unite ourselves with Him in all that we do.

We can be united to Christ even now in our most ordinary of lives, through the sanctifying humanity of Jesus in His Incarnation. Each of Jesus’ actions was performed with the salvific power of the Godhead, infusing them with infinite moral value, not limited by time or space. This is part of the on-going love story, and is perhaps the third scandal of the Incarnation. We can partake in Christ’s mysteries, and He can continue to live them in us and through us. If we do so, in communion with the Church, the infant Christ of Bethlehem will be born again into our hearts and our souls. So, we too, like the shepherds can recognize Christ in our midst and adore His presence in our lives each day.

Our Supersubstantial Bread – December 5, 2016

“Grant us this day our daily manna.” Dante, Purgatorio, Canto XI

The Lord has left us a mystery to contemplate. It is right there in the middle of the “Our Father” when Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Mt. 6:11) This is generally recognized to mean pray for our basic daily necessities. (CCC 2837) This is true. Yet, hidden in the mundane and seemingly redundant word “daily” is the veiled, mysterious Greek word epiousios (επιούσιος). Epiousios is a unique word, sacramental-like in nature, a visible sign of a hidden reality. Epiousios occurs nowhere else in the Greek Bible except in the same Our Father passage in Luke 11:3 and the Apostle’s Didache. In fact, epiousios is not found anywhere else at all in Greek literature. The only recorded reference to epiousios, ever, is Jesus’ prayer.

As the early Church Father and master of the Greek language Origen (d. 254 AD) concludes, epiousios was “invented by the Evangelists.” The millennia have bore out his assertion that epiousios was a new word, a neologism of uncertain etymology. The usual Greek word for “daily,” hemera, is, after all, used elsewhere in the New Testament, but not in this instance. Why did St. Matthew and St. Luke feel compelled to create a new Greek word to accurately reflect the words of Jesus? They most likely had to use a new word to faithfully translate a novel idea or a unique Aramaic word that Jesus used in His prayer. What was Jesus’ new idea? Although there are multiple levels of meanings to epiousios, Jesus is making a clear allusion to the Eucharist. “Our daily bread” is one translation of a word that goes far above our basic needs for sustenance, and invokes our supernatural needs.

St. Jerome translated the Bible in the 4th century from the original Latin, Hebrew and Greek texts to form the Latin Vulgate Bible. When it came to the mysterious word epiousios, St. Jerome hedged his bets. In Luke 11:3, St. Jerome translated epiousios as “daily.” Yet, in Matthew 6:11, he translated epiousios as “supersubstantial.” The root words are: epi, meaning “above” or “super;” and ousia, meaning “being,” “essence,” or “substance.” When they are read together, we come to the possible translations of “super-substantial,” “above-essence,” or, in effect, “supernatural” bread. This translation as supersubstantial is still found today in the Douay-Rheims Bible. Taken literally, our supersubstantial bread is the Eucharist. (CCC 2837) In his commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel, St. Jerome states this directly: “We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures.”

St. Jerome also suggests that the Hebrew word for epiousios was the word maar meaning “for tomorrow,” invoking an eschatological interpretation of epiousios. In this sense, we are praying “this day” for our bread “for tomorrow,” or our future bread. We are petitioning God for tomorrow’s future bread today. Pope Benedict reflects on this “petition for an anticipation for the world to come, asking the Lord to give already ‘today’ the future bread, the bread of the new world – Himself.” This again has Eucharistic overtones, as the Catechism states, “the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come.” (CCC 2837)

This eschatological interpretation is also borne out in the parable for the “coming day’s bread,” that Jesus teaches immediately following the Our Father. In Luke 11:5-8, Jesus tells the story of a man, who at “midnight” asks a friend to lend him three loaves of bread, as another friend of his has arrived from a journey and he has nothing to give him. As scholars have noted, there is the crucial matter of timing in this parable. In the morning the man can provide an abundance of food and bread for his guest, but at midnight he has nothing. This is an allusion to the fact that in the coming day of the Lord in heaven we will have a superabundance to meet our every need, both material and spiritual. But, as of yet, in this temporal life, a constant need remains.

Ours, like the man in the parable, is a matter of timing. We desire to have a measure of that superabundance now, and not just to meet our needs, but also to share with others. Thus, in praying today for tomorrow’s bread, we are praying to realize now, in time, a bit of the fulfillment of eternity. This is in line with the theme of “realized eschatology” that runs through the Our Father, in which we pray for “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Even now on earth, we share daily in the realized eschatology of the heavenly Mass.

In asking God for our daily, supernatural bread, we are also reminded of the manna from heaven that the Israelites supernaturally survived on in the desert for forty years. In the exodus, where there was no food or water in the desert, God miraculously rained down bread from heaven each day, both a supernatural and daily occurrence. In the morning dew, they gathered manna for their daily sustenance, and in the evening they ate the flesh of quail. As the psalmist says, “Man ate of the bread of the angels,” and “He rained flesh upon them like dust.” (Ps. 78:25; 27) The Israelites ate of the heavenly bread and flesh from the time they crossed the waters of the Red Sea (a foreshadowing of Baptism) until they reached the Promised Land (a foreshadowing of heaven). Then, as soon as they completed their journey, the heavenly manna ceased. (Joshua 5:12) Our daily manna is with us too from the time we enter into the Church until the time we cross over into eternity.

Jesus makes a direct connection of Himself to the manna from heaven, calling Himself the “Bread of Life.” The Jews, citing Moses and the manna from heaven, demanded a similar sign from Jesus. In response, Jesus tells them, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever.” (Jn. 6:51) Jesus is the new Moses, leading a new exodus, with a new heavenly manna. Like the Israelites’ manna, Jesus offers His bread and flesh for us to survive on for our journey. He tells them “he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.” (Jn. 6:54) Evidently Jesus wanted to make sure His scandalous words were not glossed over, because He repeated six times that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood have eternal life.

This theme of “eating and living forever” is mentioned in only one other place in the Bible – in the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Life. After the fall of man, God sent Adam and Eve out of paradise, lest he “take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” (Gen. 3:22) However, now with the Incarnation of the God-man, Jesus, paradise is, at last, opened fully to humanity to “eat and live forever.” The Tree of Life, cut off to us by our sins, is now open to us through the tree of the Cross, and resurrection of Christ. The fruit of this tree is given to us sacramentally in His supernatural manna, the Holy Eucharist. It is our spiritual bread without which we cannot live.

Thus, Jesus is making a direct reference in the Our Father for our daily supernatural bread of the Eucharist. As Jesus instructs us in the beginning of the Bread of Life discourse to not work for “food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” (Jn. 6:27) The theme of bread runs through the life of Christ, as visible signs pointing to a hidden reality. He is a priest-king, the order of Melchizadek, who offered bread and wine. He was born in Bethlehem, Hebrew for the “house of bread.” He performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves to feed 5,000. He refers to Himself as the “Bread of Life,” the true manna from heaven. In the culmination of the Last Supper, the Passover feast and the feast of Unleavened Bread, He offered bread and wine as His Body and His Blood of the New Covenant. After His Resurrection, He revealed Himself to His disciples in the “breaking of the bread.” Jesus lives on with us sacramentally in the Holy Eucharist, under the guise of bread. In the final revelation He promises to give us “some of the hidden manna.” (Rev. 2:17) This is our food of salvation, our medicine of immortality, which gives eternal life. It is not surprising then that the disciples beseeched Jesus saying, “Lord, give us this bread always.” (Jn. 6:34) And, so it remains with us.

A Few Observations on Therese Neumann, Laywoman, Mystic, and Stigmatic – October 24, 2016

Very rarely has a person reflected so many purported supernatural gifts as did Therese Neumann, a 20th century German mystic and stigmatic. Her renown nearly rivaled that of St. Padre Pio. Their gifts supposedly included bearing the sacred stigmata (the wounds of Christ), visions, bilocation, reading hearts, healings and conversions, among other phenomena. However, unlike St. Padre Pio who was canonized June 16, 2002 by Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has not yet officially recognized Therese Neumann as a saint. She was known as a joyful woman who loved animals and flowers, and was particularly despised by the Nazis. By most accounts, Therese Neumann was an extraordinarily holy laywoman, as well as a Third Order Franciscan, who displayed a great devotion to Jesus and the Church. She truly lived as a “Servant of God.” After an investigative period for some years after her death, the Vatican officially opened proceedings for her beatification on February 13, 2005 by Bishop Gerhard Mueller of Regensburg, Germany. The process remains open to this day.

Regardless of the Church’s final ruling on Therese Neumann, we must recognize that the mystical component of her life falls squarely under private revelation, which no one in the Church is forced to accept. The Catechism states in no uncertain terms that the deposit of faith is closed, and there will be no further public revelation. (CCC 67) In certain limited instances the authority of the Church recognizes private revelations that are in line with magisterial teachings, in order to help the faithful “live more fully” the gospel. The Church obviously treads very carefully in these matters, so as to root out frauds and impostors. Indeed, the focus should never be directed towards sensationalism, but always towards faithful obedience to Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Still, in reviewing Therese Neumann’s purported mystical gifts, we may find inspiration for our own lives.

Therese was a stigmatist, that is, she bore the wounds of Christ on her own body. There have been numerous people in the history of the Church who have officially had the sacred stigmata, including St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio, and perhaps even St. Paul himself, as he suggests in his letter to the Galatians. (Gal. 6:17) In March 1926, during Lent, as Therese began to have ecstatic visions of Jesus in His Passion, she concurrently began to have the stigmata. The wounds of Christ began to appear on successive Fridays: first the wound to her side, just over her heart; then the next Friday, the wounds to her hands; and finally, on Good Friday, all five wounds. Months later, on Friday November 5, 1926, Therese received the full complement of Jesus’ wounds from His Passion: holes in both hands; holes in both feet; the wound to the side above her heart; nine wounds around her head from the crown of thorns; and wounds to her shoulders and back from the scourging and the Cross. It is estimated that she bore at least 45 wounds in total, meaning she bore the full wounds of Christ’s Passion, not just the Crucifixion. Perhaps even more shocking, the wounds never left her from that moment in 1926 until her death in 1962. As one biographer, Adalbert Vogl, put it, “Not one of the wounds ever disappeared; they never healed, and they were still imprinted on her body at the time of her death.”

Therese’s sufferings and visions conformed exactly to the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. Just as she received the wounds of the Crucifixion on Good Friday, so also were her visions and ecstasies aligned to the liturgical calendar. For example, when she initially received the sacred stigmata, it was during the liturgical season of Lent. Although Therese had the wounds of the Passion for the rest of her life, she only experienced the ecstasies of the Passion on Fridays, and only on Fridays during Lent and Advent, and on some of the sorrowful octaves. Thus, her experience of the Passion was connected only to the relevant liturgical days, and never during joyful seasons, such as Christmas or Easter. On the Fridays when she did not endure the Passion ecstasy, she would have a vision of the death or martyrdom of the saint whose feast day it happened to be, in recognition of the liturgical calendar. On All Saints Day, November 1st, she would have a 24-hour ecstasy and see souls of saints from Heaven, and similarly on All Soul’s Day, November 2nd, she saw saints from Purgatory. Based on the timing of the mystical experiences of Therese Neumann, it seems heaven honors with great respect the liturgical calendar; perhaps we should pay close attention to this as well.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Therese Neumann’s mystical experiences is that she evidently lived without food or water for much of her life. This supernatural phenomenon is known as inedia. It is not unheard of in ecclesiastical history, particularly with stigmatists, as reported in the life of St. Catherine of Siena, who supposedly ate no food for the last seven years of her life. Therese herself stopped eating food in 1922, and then stopped drinking nearly all water in 1926, and continued this way until her death in 1962. Her sole sustenance for 36 years was the Holy Eucharist. As part of this experience, she had no desire whatsoever to eat food or drink water. Solid food or liquids would be immediately expelled from her body, save her daily Holy Communion. Her physical sustenance depended directly on her reception of the Eucharist. If she did not receive the Eucharist on a given day, she would have an extreme hunger and fatigue until she received Him. Once when asked how she could live just on the Eucharist alone, she responded, “The Savior can do all things. Did He not say that “My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink?”” (Jn. 6:55)

For 15 days in 1927, Therese was placed under strict observation and investigation at the behest of the Archbishop of Regensburg. The investigation was directed by a non-Catholic professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Ewald, and a prominent Catholic physician, Dr. Seidl, as well as four nuns, who were trained nurses. Their strict instructions were to work in two-person teams, never leaving Therese alone, day or night. They were to record, measure and photograph everything that happened over the course of the investigation. At the end Dr. Ewald reported Therese’s complete abstinence from food and minimal water intake to swallow Communion (about 45cc of water, although this was apparently discharged too). Despite losing some weight around the time of her Passion ecstasy, she then regained the weight back over the next few days. Her weight was the same, 121 lbs., on July 28th as it had been on July 13th, despite not eating anything.

The supernatural phenomenon of inedia highlights in a literal way the words of the Lord regarding the Bread of Life. Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger; and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35) There seems to be a mystical connection between the sacred stigmata and embracing the Passion of Jesus, and inedia and living strictly off the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. In consuming the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, His Passion and sacrifice of the Cross may come to life in the events of our ordinary lives. In some extreme instances, the Passion and sacrifice of Christ come to life in an individual’s life in an extraordinary way, such as with Therese Neumann. The Eucharistic life is a life of redemptive and vicarious suffering. It is an embrace of the Cross of Christ. Therese Neumann lived this life of divine union par excellence. As St. Paul said “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) This suffering is not without meaning. We know that we who suffer with Christ, for this short while, will also rise with Him to eternal life.

Jesus and the Fulfillment of the Jewish Fall Feasts – October 18, 2016

“Spiritually we are all Semites.” Thus spoke Pope Pius XI on the eve of World War II, as Nazi Germany was about to launch its fateful war and Final Solution against the Jewish people. His words of solidarity are, of course, manifestly true. Christianity grew directly out of Judaism. Jesus was an observant Jew. The scriptures, the beliefs, and the rituals are all intertwined and interconnected between old and new. It is for this reason that St. Augustine can say, “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (CCC 129) Christian theologians refer to this biblical prefiguring and foreshadowing as typology. There is a unity in the divine plan linking the progressive stages of salvation history. The Old Testament, in its symbols and rituals, point to the Messiah, while the New Testament fulfills all of these in the person of Jesus Christ. In speaking of the law and the prophets, Jesus Himself said plainly, “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt. 5:17)

This typology is evident in the Jewish memorial feast days. They are generally broken up into two seasons, the spring feasts and the fall feasts. They anticipated and foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Last Supper, the Eucharist, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The feasts prepared Israel for the Incarnation. God obligated centuries of faithful observance of these feasts to place the seeds of understanding in the minds of Israel to prepare them to accept the Son of God when He finally was born into the world. While we as Christians no longer celebrate these Jewish feasts, they are still part of our common Judeo-Christian lineage. Jesus chose these major Jewish feasts to fulfill the central parts of His mission. As the catechism teaches, “His public ministry itself was patterned by His pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great Jewish feasts.” (CCC 583) Jesus was formed by the feasts, and in fact, the central events of His life gave ultimate meaning to the feasts. (CCC 592)

The primary focus of the Jewish feasts was to prefigure the coming of Jesus. This is true of the fall feasts of Yom Kippur and Sukkot (Oct. 16-23rd this year). Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is primarily a prefiguring of Calvary. One of the most important aspects of Yom Kippur is the idea of the scapegoat. This is the one and only time of the year when the high priest would go behind the veil in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, dare to utter the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, and offer the sacrifice of two goats. Upon one goat, the high priest placed his hands while confessing all the sins of Israel, symbolically conferring the sin to the goat. It was then sent off into the wilderness to die. The other goat was sacrificed, and the high priest sprinkled its blood upon the mercy seat in the Holy Holies. The high priest then came out and announced, “It is done.” This has clear similarities with the paschal lamb, and again, a foreshadowing of Christ and His last words from the Cross “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30)

Calvary, of course, was sacramentalized in the Last Supper. The Mass became the feast of the new and eternal covenant. Just as the high priest entered the Temple and offered the sacrifice of goats, so too, does Christ enter the heavenly sanctuary and offer the sacrifice of Himself to the Father on behalf of our sins. The high priest of Yom Kippur is a ‘type’ of the true and eternal high priest of Christ in heaven. Christ Himself is both the high priest and the sacrifice. As the letter to the Hebrews states, “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:12) If God accepted Israel’s sacrifice of goats, as mere symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, how much more efficacious is the actual sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood? The Day of Atonement finds its ultimate meaning in Calvary, and each Mass is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement.

In this regard, Jewish tradition documents a miraculous event pertaining to Yom Kippur. In both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, they record that there was a scarlet cloth or strap tied to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur, as part of the sin offering. A thread from the crimson cloth was later tied to the Temple door. According to the Talmudic anecdote, every year when the goat was sacrificed, the thread would miraculously turn white, in recognition of God accepting their sin offering. One is reminded of Isaiah’s scripture “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Is. 1:18) Yet, as recorded in both Talmuds, this stopped happening some forty years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. This would have been about the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in 30 A.D. The scapegoat was no longer accepted in atonement for sin, but was superseded now by the sacrifice of Christ.

In contrast to Yom Kippur, the last fall feast is a little bit different. It is the joyous feast of Tabernacles, also known as the feast of Booths, or simply, Sukkot. Sukkot is the road map for the Church. It is ironic to call Sukkot a road map because it commemorates when the Israelites wandered seemingly aimlessly through the desert for forty years! But, their wanderings are representative of our wanderings as pilgrims on this earth. Just as the Israelites crossed the waters of the Red Sea and the evil Pharaoh was killed, so too, do we pass into new life through the waters of Baptism and sin is removed. Yet, the Israelites did not immediately make it to the Promised Land. Rather, they traveled in the desert wilderness for forty years with God leading them, who as “the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Ex. 13:22) For forty years, God sustained them in the desert. Sukkot is a roadmap because it reveals God’s plan to sustain us.

It is in this intermediary period that we find ourselves today, as travelers in the desert wilderness of life. Sukkot reveals that we must stay close to God, and be fed with the supernatural manna from heaven, and the water of the rock. The Israelites ate manna from heaven each day. As Moses said of the manna on the morning dew, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (Ex. 16:15) This immediately reminds us of Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. The Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus, citing the miraculous manna from heaven story, but He answered them saying, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35) Jesus reveals that He is the new manna from heaven, the Eucharist, which sustains us until we reach the eternal Promised Land.

God also quenched the thirst of the Israelites with the water from the rock. Sukkot commemorates Moses striking the rock in the desert and water coming out for the Israelites to drink. St. Paul tells us this rock and water was Christ. He says, “For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:4) In the time of the Temple, the priests would make a procession to the Pool of Siloam and draw water out with a golden pitcher. The high priest would then pour the water out on the altar in the Temple while reciting the verse from Isaiah, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Is. 12:3) This was to celebrate the days of the Messiah when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all of Israel.

It was at the climax of the feast of Booths, on the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, that scripture declares, “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (Jn. 7:37-38) Jesus is telling them that He is the living water that is symbolized in this Temple ceremony. The living water is the Holy Spirit, and the sanctifying grace in faith and the sacraments, particularly the waters of Baptism. This is also reminiscent of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. He tells her, “the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4:14) The Holy Spirit and the sacraments are the fulfillment of the water ceremony in the feast of Booths. This is our spiritual water from the rock, to sustain us in this age of the Church, from Christ’s first coming to His second coming.

Sukkot also has a deeper eschatological meaning to it. During the exodus, the Israelites had no permanent abodes. So, during Sukkot, the Jews commemorated this by building temporary “booths” or “huts” outside their house, and covering them with leafy branches or palms. The roofs were not supposed to be perfect but have openings, so they could view the stars at night. This again is allegory to us. Our lives are also imperfect, but in much the same way, we can look up to heaven and yearn for our permanent home with God. Scripture reminds us that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth… seeking a homeland.” (Heb. 11:13-14) It is perhaps fitting, then, that Jesus likely chose the feast of Booths to reveal His glory to the Apostles in His Transfiguration. (see Mt. 17:4) The Transfiguration gives us a glimpse and hope of the glory of God to come.

Thus, the Jewish feasts were a foreshadowing of Christ, and Christ fulfilled them with His life. They point to eternal truths of God and the Incarnation. The signs and symbols of the feasts were fulfilled in reality with the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the foundation of His Church. We no longer anticipate the coming of the final sacrifice in the paschal lamb or the scapegoat or the pouring out of water in the Temple. The Temple itself is no longer necessary, because we ourselves have become the temple of God. The Jewish feasts have been superseded by the sacramental reality. However, the feasts are still metaphorical roadmaps for us. We are to survive on the food God provides in the Eucharist and the water God provides with the Holy Spirit and the sacraments. We continue to learn the faith now through the celebration of the Catholic liturgical calendar, with its sets of feasts, and festivals and fasts. The primordial feast remains the Sabbath, or to Christians, the Lord’s Day, Sunday. It is the day set aside each week for rest and worship offered to God. The Mass is the foundational liturgical celebration of the Church. It anticipates the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. This is our manna from heaven and our life giving water. Indeed, if but we believe, the sacramental life of the Church will sustain us, through our temporary wandering in this desert wilderness, to eternal life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Burning Passion of St. Francis – October 4, 2016

On his deathbed, Lenin reportedly uttered, “To save our Russia, what we needed . . . was ten Francises of Assisi.” Lenin was right: St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. Almost single-handedly, he helped revive the medieval Church in the 13th century with the foundation of his mendicant Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans. He had many preternatural gifts as a mystic, healer, and leader, as well as a special symbiosis with nature. It is not surprising that Dante dedicated a canto in Paradiso to St. Francis, calling him a “prince” who “was all Seraphic in his ardour.” More than these great many gifts, however, St. Francis’ success was rooted in his desire, to live a life in imitation of Jesus Christ, particularly the crucified Christ. Many people today erroneously think of St. Francis as a sandal-wearing, milquetoast peacenik whose greatest legacy was in gracing birdbaths everywhere. Rather, St. Francis lived a life of radical conformity and divine union to the sacrificial life of Christ. In retracing the life of St. Francis, we can see how his divine union with Christ grew and developed through successive stages of personal martyrdom.

As with many young people, especially those coming from a wealthy family, Francis in his youth was given to follow the vanities of life. Tradition holds that he loved wine, food, and feasts, and lived a life of indulgence. The lyric poems of troubadours and wandering minstrels also held sway over his imagination. Perhaps they sparked his daydreams of becoming a gallant knight, fighting chivalrously in a far off crusade. In fact, it was not long before the high-minded youth was caught up in a skirmish in 1202 against the nearby rival city of Perugia. In the battle the young Francis was wounded and taken captive. He was held in prison for a year, during which time he developed a long and protracted illness. Eventually, after his release and his continuing maladies, his thoughts began to turn away from knightly adventures and worldly desires. He then began to spend long hours in intense prayer, religious exercises, and in the contemplation of God. This was his first conversion.

It was in this period that Francis had a miraculous encounter with a leper. He had discerned in prayer that God wished him to deny himself and conquer his self-will. To this end, his conscience was tugging at him about his strong aversion and disgust of lepers. One day, tradition has it that while he was riding through the countryside, he came upon a leper. Recalling his resolution, he approached the afflicted person, gave him some alms, and kissed his diseased hand. Upon remounting his horse, he turned to look back at the person, but no one was there. From this point on, Francis began to visit and minister to lepers in hospitals and other undesirable places, washing their sores, kissing them, and eating with them. With this, he began his process of detachment from himself.

While praying intently in a chapel at San Damiano in 1205, and kneeling devoutly before a large Byzantine crucifix, Francis heard the voice of Jesus. He saw the lips on the image of Jesus move and heard the voice of Jesus say to him, “Francis, go, repair My house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” Three times Jesus spoke this to him. Francis was overwhelmed by the miraculous vision, and sought at once to repair, literally, the chapel at San Damiano. Initially he sold some of his father’s possessions to pay for the repairs at the chapel. Later, under direction from the Bishop, he understood that it was wrong for him to have taken his father’s wealth. At last, to the astonishment of the Bishop, his father, and many witnesses, Francis stripped his fine garments off piece by piece, and renounced all his possessions, save a hair shirt he had on. With this nakedness, Francis officially detached himself from his father and the world, and embraced a life of poverty.

For several years Francis lived in a small cottage, in an intense life of prayer and severe bodily discipline. He also begged for money to continue repairs to the chapel and other churches. After repairing San Damiano, he moved on to repair San Pietro della Spina, and then, the Portiuncula, or Little Portion, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. St. Bonaventure later recounted that Francis’ restoration of these three churches symbolized the three orders he would later establish: the Order of Friars Minor, the Poor Clares for women, and the Third Order of St. Francis for the laity. During mass at the Portiuncula, he heard the gospel reading, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Lk. 9:3) This made a profound impact upon Francis as if Jesus Himself had commissioned him. He set off with only a common peasant’s tunic tied by a cord, to preach the good news of penance and salvation to all he met.

Francis, the “poor man of Assisi,” continued to live the life of renouncement and poverty. With Francis’ tremendous charisma and preaching, he soon began to develop a large group of followers. They too were converted to a life of radical poverty of Christ, of begging and serving the poor and preaching the Gospel. Their life of self-martyrdom consisted of mortifications, penances, and prayer. In 1209, after Pope Innocent III had a remarkably vivid dream of Francis holding up the papal Lateran Basilica, he gave approval to the first Rule of the Order. They had tonsured haircuts and an austere habit made of coarse grey cloth with a pointed hood and a knotted cord around their waist. Francis was also ordained a deacon; in his profound humility, he did not deem himself worthy to be ordained a priest. Once his Order was established, the friars lived by the rules of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church.

Francis also sought to evangelize others and save souls, which manifested itself in his missionary work. In 1219, Francis travelled with the crusaders to Egypt, but not as a knight in battle as he had imagined in his youth, but now as a missionary for Christ. Pope Honorius III had enacted the Fifth Crusade to retake the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Since his initial conversion, Francis had been living a life of spiritual martyrdom and physical mortifications. Now, with the crusaders surrounding the Egyptian city of Damietta on the edge of Cairo, Francis was prepared to offer up his life as a true martyr for Christ. After warning the crusaders that they would lose the battle and suffer horrible losses, they attacked anyway. Once the Muslim forces won the battle, with some 5,000 crusaders killed and another 1,000 taken prisoner, a truce was called. It was at this time with the battle barely simmered down that Francis and one of his companions were permitted to enter the camp of the Saracens and approach the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

Francis boldly entered enemy territory, prepared to die, armed only with his zeal to save souls. He was immediately beaten and chained by the Saracens, and brought before the Sultan. There, he informed the Sultan that he came as a messenger of God to reveal the truth of Christianity and save the Sultan’s soul. Despite the Imams’ urging to cut off Francis’ head, the Sultan was moved by Francis’ concern for the Sultan’s eternal salvation. One of Francis’ companions described the Sultan, “that cruel beast,” who in response to Francis, “became sweetness itself.” By God’s grace, Francis was allowed to stay for weeks in the court of the Sultan, discussing theology and evangelizing him. The Sultan refused to convert to Christianity, at least publicly and be killed by his followers, so Francis eventually returned to the crusader encampment, undoubtedly to their amazement. According to oral tradition, the Sultan converted on his deathbed and embraced the faith of St. Francis. Francis’ companion, Brother Illuminato, said that after hearing Francis preach, the Sultan “always had the Christian faith imprinted in his heart.” As a lasting legacy of Francis’ encounter, the Franciscans were later made custodians of the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land and Middle East, a position they still hold today. After his brush with martyrdom, St. Francis updated the Order’s Rule of 1221, Regula non Bullata, chapter XVI, on travelling and evangelizing in Muslim territory by quoting the Lord thusly: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Mt. 10:16) His recommendation was to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, even if it meant persecution and death.

In 1224, St. Francis climbed a remote mountain La Verna for a forty-day fast and spiritual retreat for the feast of St. Michael. On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, September 14th, while contemplating the passion and death of Christ, St. Francis had a vision of a six-winged Seraphim fixed on a cross and flying towards him. As it came closer, he recognized that it was Jesus with his hands and feet nailed to the cross. St. Francis understood the vision to mean that he himself would be transformed by his seraphic love of God into a perfect image of the crucified Christ. Waking from the vision, St. Francis found he had received Christ’s wounds into his very own body, holes in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He had received the sacred stigmata as a testament to the oneness of spirit he had with Christ, recalling the words of St. Paul, perhaps the Church’s first stigmatist, “For I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17) For the next two years until his death, St. Francis bore the stigmata as a sign for all, enduring this painful martyrdom supernaturally manifested in perfect unity with Christ’s passion.

St. Francis embraced his sufferings out of love for God and his neighbor. St. Bonaventure quotes him as saying, “Nothing would make me more happy than to have you afflict me with pain and not spare me. Doing your will is consolation enough, and more than enough, for me.” It was at this point that the saint composed his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” including the line “May thou be praised, my Lord, for those who forgive for the sake of They love and endure infirmity and tribulation.” Having trouble walking from the wounds in his feet, and his eyes now nearly blind, the little poor man of Assisi approached death on the evening of October 3, 1226. In recollection of his initial conversion, and in perfect imitation with the poverty and death of the Lord, he asked to be placed naked on the ground in anticipation of his own death. With his dying breaths, St. Francis implored his followers to hold fast to the Gospel and the faith of the Church. With that, he entered into his eternal reward.

In meditating on the life of St. Francis we are reminded of the stages of martyrdom he went through in his life, from renouncing his wealth and possessions, to serving lepers and the poor, to placing himself in danger by evangelizing Muslims, to suffering through infirmities, to eventually receiving the very wounds of Christ Himself with the stigmata. As much as anyone in the history of the Church, he imaged Christ perfectly. St. Francis believed in a life of sacrifice, poverty, and humility. It was St. Francis’ seraphic love and humility that led him to create the first creche, or manger scene, in its beautiful simplicity and reverence on one Christmas night for midnight mass. He lived his whole life out of this great love for the Lord, in imitation of the life of Christ. He also believed that vicarious and redemptive suffering, when offered to God, can be meritorious for the salvation of souls. His concern for the salvation of all souls was central to his life. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are all called to complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ and share in His redemptive work, for as Jesus said, “where I am, there shall My servant be also.” (Jn. 12:26) Let us be there now, with St. Francis, our brother, as we honor him on his feast day.

The Holy Name of God – September 18, 2016

According to Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the recently passed Chief Exorcist of Rome, who has performed seventy thousand exorcisms, demons generally do not and cannot say holy names. Instead, they call Jesus “he” or “your Boss.” If our most abhorrent spiritual enemies shudder at the idea of speaking the holy name of God, why then do we say it with such carelessness and recklessness? It seems everywhere these days people take the name of God in vain. It should stop us in our tracks whenever we hear it. It is after all the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” (Ex. 20:7) included among the other Ten Commandments like “you shall not kill,” “you shall not commit adultery,” and “you shall not steal.” Taking the Lord’s name in vain, if done with full knowledge and consent, is blasphemy. That makes it a mortal sin, which could send a soul to hell. This echoes the warning from Jesus, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36-37) We should be very careful to heed the Second Commandment and treat the holy name of God with the utmost reverence and respect.

In Hebrew tradition, names are not merely labels but are linked inseparably to the identity of the person. When Jesus chose Simon to be the foundation of His church, He gave him a new name, Peter, from the word for “rock.” In this Jewish understanding, names reveal the identity and essence of a person. The catechism builds upon this saying, “Everyone’s name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person.” (CCC 2157) Yet, God had not revealed His name, even to the Patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was not until Moses comes to the burning bush on Mount Horeb that God reveals His name to His people. After God gives His mission to Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses says if they ask me, “‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” (Ex. 3:13-14) God reveals the divine name, Yahweh, to Moses and Israel, and establishes a personal relationship with them as their God. God’s name “I Am” reveals that He is existence and being itself. Later, after Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he again comes before God on the top of a mountain. Yahweh is wrapped in smoke and fire, and lightning and trumpet blasts, as Mount Sinai quakes and trembles at His presence. It was here, in that terrifying scene, that Moses receives the Ten Commandments, and the voice of Yahweh speaks in thunder, commanding humanity not take His name in vain, for “the Lord will not hold him guiltless.” (Ex. 20:7) To this day, religious Jews will not speak the name of God, but instead refer to Him as Adonai (Lord), or simply “Ha Shem” (the Name).

The revealing of God’s name to man is a sign of trust and intimacy. (CCC 2143) It is part of His sacred mystery in revealing Himself to us. It is not a surprise then that Isaiah prophesied that a virgin would give birth to the Messiah, and His name would be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” (Is. 7:14) In fulfillment of this, when the Virgin Mary was pregnant, an angel revealed to Joseph in a dream that they should name the child Jesus, “for he will save His people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:21) Jesus Himself claimed equality with the name of Yahweh. He tells the Pharisees who are questioning Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (Jn. 8:58) Jesus claims He is one with God, the I Am. As such, the name of Jesus is synonymous with the name of God. Jesus is God. It is because of this that St. Paul writes “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Phil. 2:10) For, the very name of Jesus is imbued with power. All who call upon the name of Jesus Christ will be saved. (Acts 4:12) In the “Our Father” prayer, Jesus teaches us how to pray and the importance of God’s name. He starts it with “hallowed be Thy name.” We should hold the name of God in reverence, adoration, and praise. Jesus similarly warns us not to take any oath by the name of God lest we be judged for failing to meet the promise. (Mt. 5:34)

The name of Jesus Christ is powerful and efficacious enough to bring grace in Baptism and cast out demons in those who are possessed. In Jesus’ final instruction to His disciples He commands them to baptize all people in the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19) The name of God is associated with the sacrament of initiation into the Church. It is in the rite of Baptism too that a minor rite of exorcism is performed. Jesus tells His disciples “in My name they will cast out demons.” (Mk. 16:17) Jesus Himself performed many exorcisms casting out demons by His own authority, leaving many in amazement at the power of His word. (Lk. 4:36) Jesus’ disciples similarly cast of demons through the power of Jesus’ name, as St. Paul did. (Acts 16:18) The power of Jesus’ name is not something relegated just to the pages of the Bible either. As modern day exorcists attest, they are able to command the demonic spirits in the midst of exorcisms by invoking the authority and power of the name of Jesus Christ. As exorcist Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea explains, “Rather than asking the demon anything, the priest orders or commands him in the name of Jesus.” With this authority, the demon, under the guise of the possessed person, is forced to submit to the name of Jesus. This confirms the disciples’ joyful exclamation “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” (Lk. 10:17)

The name of God and Jesus Christ are holy and powerful, and we should take great care not to utter them carelessly or profanely. The name of God is the means of our sanctification, consecration, and salvation. It should be spoken in prayer, worship and praise, not in idle or empty talk, and most certainly not as a curse word! Even as found on social media in everyday expressions, like OMG, this similarly expresses a lack of respect towards the holy name of God. It is interesting that that phrase is almost like a mocking of the first words of the Act of Contrition that we say in Confession, “O My God… I am heartily sorry for having offended You.” I find it deeply offensive, on behalf of how I am sure God feels, when I hear someone say the name of God in vain or curse using His name. I prefer to say a small prayer in reparation for this offense against God and for the person who said it, something like “Sit nomen Domini benedictum,” or “blessed be the name of the Lord.” Rather than using the Lord’s name in vain, we should consecrate all of our words and deeds in the name of Jesus. (Col. 3:17) He is our hope, for “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:13) We know too that Jesus calls each of us, His sheep, by name (Jn. 10:3) If we follow Him, God will inscribe His name on our foreheads, sealing us as His for all eternity. (Rev. 14:1) This is His promise of eternal life and our hope for Heaven. Blessed be the name of the Lord!