Saturday, December 11, 2010

Morality and the Greatest Commandment

Many would agree that Christianity is very poorly represented in our popular culture. In news and entertainment media we’re constantly bombarded by a distasteful caricature of our ancient and beautiful faith. The idea of traditional Christianity as something outdated and unnecessarily moralistic has permeated our society.  Even among Christians, the idea of sin has become blurred and morality is not taken seriously. Why? Because the foundations of our faith have been obscured and undermined.  The media loves to parade out examples of Christian hypocrisy and talk about moral teachings which are incomprehensible to the secular world, but completely ignores the heart and soul of Christianity. This is the problem. What is the basis of the Christian life? What is the most important tenet of our faith? Let’s turn to Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is asked this question.
“Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
There we have it, the basis of the Christian life. If we love God with everything we are, the desire to live a righteous and moral life will follow and we will understand the importance and reasonableness of obedience and humility. Outside of this context, most other tenets of Christianity cannot be easily understood. Talking about the Church’s moral teachings outside of the context of a profound love for God is like talking about the rules of checkers outside of the context of having fun. We could turn up our noses in distaste that anyone would dare suggest we limit our checkers to diagonal movements across colored squares (this being the 21st century after all!), but completely miss the point that it is all for the fun of the game. Just so, when our culture focuses on the moral commandments of Christianity outside the light of the greatest and first commandment, their entire purpose is lost in translation. Let’s not let pop culture damage our faith as it casts aside the heart and soul of Christianity. We should take this opportunity to return to our foundations and remind the world why we believe in such crazy ideas as sin and righteousness. Many know and recite the traditional Christian prayer of repentance for sin called the Act of Contrition, but its traditional counterpart has largely been forgotten – the Act of Love. We should start our days with a prayer like this, and then it will make more sense to end them with an Act of Contrition.
O my God, I love you above all things, with my whole heart and soul, because you are all-good and worthy of all love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of you. I forgive all who have injured me, and I ask pardon of all whom I have injured.
-Act of Love, traditional Christian prayer

Friday, December 10, 2010

Immaculate Conception(Part 1)

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and so I believe it is worth it to talk about how the sinlessness of Mary is Biblical.  While the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly outlined in the Bible, many hints and shadows of this inspired teaching can be found in the Old and New Testaments. If we do not accept the Apostolic authority of the Church's bishops, we may not find these Biblical passages to be sufficient, but it should at least be clear that the Immaculate Conception is consistent with the Scriptures.  Protestants usually bring out this passage on men’s sinfulness, “there is no man on earth so just as to do good and never sin”(Ecclesiastes 7:20) but when Protestants say this why is the fourth Commandment of honor thy father and mother forgotten?  Why then, would Christ not, to the fullest of His capabilities, honor His mother?  Remember, Mary's sinless state was achieved solely by the merits of her son, Jesus Christ.

Now let’s look at Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike his heel”.  To put this in context this is God talking to the serpent, or Satan.  If enmity is put between Satan and the woman that means there is a mutual hatred between Satan and the woman.  If Mary, the new Eve, sinned then what would be this hatred between Satan and herself.  There would be none!

Let us look now at Mary as the Ark of the Covenant.  We have to consider what made the ark holy.  The original ark was holy because of what was inside which consisted of the ten commandments, or the Word of God written on stone; the manna, or the miraculous bread which God sent; and the priestly rod of Aaron.  Mary similarly held within her the Word of God made flesh, the Bread of Life which conquered death, and the divine eternal priest, Jesus Christ.  The golden box which held in it the ten commandments, the manna, and Aaron’s rod represented a pure encasement for God’s Word just as Mary is pure without sin.  How else could Christ come into this world then by a sinless mother?  

So you see, in these few instances types of Mary in the Old Testament.  I wish I had more time to expand upon the reasons why Mary was born without sin.  The Immaculate Conception is Biblical and although it may not be explicitly stated in Scripture we still see Mary as being pure and without sin through these types.  I would like to leave you with the words of Ambrose,
"Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin."
Ambrose,Sermon 22:30(A.D. 388),in JUR,II:166

Why the Nativity Matters

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

Of all the Christian feast days which have been observed by the faithful throughout the centuries, the feast of the nativity is perhaps the most widely celebrated. The name of the Holy Mass in honor of Christ’s birth, or Christmas, has somehow even become integrated into the winter celebrations of non-Christians. I guess the joy of the feast is just that infectious! Of course the problem is that, as the meaning of Christ and the Mass are slowly drained from Christmas, the holy day is becoming nothing more than an empty cultural shell. Not for Christians, though, because we know why the nativity matters.

The joy of this season for us is not the fleeting joy of materialism and warm sentiments, but the true and everlasting joy of reconciliation with God. In the person of Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, humanity and divinity entered into perfect communion. There is much that is inherently mysterious about the incarnation, despite the valiant efforts of two millennia of brilliant theologians, but the significance of this event is inescapable. There is now no question that God understands our trials. No matter what state of life we find ourselves in, no matter what depths of suffering we sink to, we know that almighty God has been there and intimately understands.
Not only did Christ give us a personal connection with God, but He was born to be a sacrificial victim for us. In the nativity, the way was opened up for us to salvation from the corruption and death we see all around us.   Let’s not forget that all of this could not have come to pass were it not for the cooperation of a humble young woman who was to be the Lord’s mother. The Early Church Father Irenaeus said:

“Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:22:24 [A.D. 189])

Mary is called Theotokos, a Greek word which means God-bearer or the Mother of God. Through a mysterious action of God’s Holy Spirit, she immaculately conceived a child who was God Himself. While this was a singular event in history, we are all called in a certain way to the role of Theotokos. This point was made by Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent book “Light of the World”.

“The birth of God was one of the major themes for the Church Fathers. They said that God was born once in Bethlehem, but that there is also a very significant and profound way in which he must be born again in every new generation, and it is to this, they thought, that every Christian is called.” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Light of the World”)

Let’s be God-bearers this Christmas, as we celebrate the most important event in human history. Through our example, we should show the world the non-violent, sacrificial love of Christ, who entered the world as an infant in a manger and conquered it from the cross.

Keys to the Kingdom

To understand Apostolic Succession in the light of the Catholic Church we must first understand this key phrase, “the keys to the kingdom”.  This phrase shows up only twice in the Bible yet it packs a great amount of significance.  Let’s first look at Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  This sounds like the passing of authority from Christ to Peter.  Now let’s look at the verse before, Matthew 16:18, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  When Christ changes Simon’s name to Peter he is calling Simon rock.  That is the literal translation of his name.  So we can see in these two verses Christ passing authority.  Now let’s look at the other verse concerning “the keys to the kingdom”.

Let’s look back to an oracle in a deep dark corner of the Old Testament in the book of Isaiah.  In Isaiah 22 we see the passing of authority from Shebna to Eliakim.  In Verse 22 it reads, “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts no one will open”.  We can see that Christ, the Heavenly Davidic King, referenced this historical verse as his setup for his church.  To further this point let’s look at the previous verse in reference to Eliakim it reads, “I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority.  He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah”.  Again we see the passing of authority from an authority head to their successor.

This sets up Apostolic Authority and Succession.  We should be immensely
grateful that Christ gave us a leader of our Church which, “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against” for if we did not have a leader we would be left with chaos.  Christ left us with a united Church to stand until the “day of the Lord”.  The lack of unity is what causes Protestants to have so many “churches” where one person who disagrees can go and start their own church.  Does this make sense?  Is this Biblical?