Tag Archives: sacrifice

Suffering Servant

Mark 10:32-45

The Apostles heard Jesus preach about the kingdom many times and they believed this kingdom was to come before His death. It is in this context that James and John, two beloved Apostles in the inner circle of Jesus, asked to be seated at His left and right hand (Mk 10:37).

Jesus’s reply was not so much an answer but a statement that

“His kingdom will not be of this world, and that to sit by His side is something so great it surpasses the angelic orders — which they did not yet merit.” (St. Theophylact)

Influenced by human feelings, the remaining Apostles became ridden with envy and felt indignant at James and John (Mk 10:41). Jesus however, intervenes and ‘called them to Him’ (Mk 10:42), teaching that the greatest amongst them must be their servant (Mk 10:43). Jesus substantiates His statement with living proof of Himself, since He came down from Heaven to give His life for the world (Mk 10:45).

Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco (1577–87)

This consistent theme of the “Suffering Servant” throughout the entirety of Mark’s Gospel is something beautiful and rich with wisdom. Jesus, like Christianity today, continues to challenge worldly norms even though the Church has always been in the minority. Catholics have been the only ones consistently speaking out against the world on intrinsic evils like Abortion, Euthanasia and Contraception. An inevitable blooming Culture of Death.

Yet, while the Church continues to guard and promulgate the Truth, she will always do so from the perspective of a Suffering Servant, not a demanding tyrant. The world will always mock and hate us, but as a wise man once told me — being hated by the world is a sign that you’re in the right Church. As the Saints have echoed through the centuries, “The Truth which subsists in the Church will always be rejected by the world.”

If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hated. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh.

If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church that is accused of being behind the times, as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth.

Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God.

Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because He called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men.

Look for the Church which amid the confusions of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its Voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly it is other worldly. since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself. But only that which is Divine can be infinitely hated and infinitely loved. Therefore the Church is Divine.”

— Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

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Originally posted on Instagram.

Sicario, Excitement and Paying Your Dues

Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my Facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American soil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.

I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”

Seriously? That’s what this is about?

I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.

I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.

Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…

… see where I am going with this?

I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself, I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just sheer aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.

Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is, we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.

The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and roller-coaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.

It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, training-for-ruck-marches-imagethousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.

Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.

This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.

Images: PD-US

Sell Everything

I began my discernment journey 11 years ago with these two words that kept coming up in prayer, but I wasn’t sure what it really meant.

Months later, I attended a Vocation Discernment Retreat, hoping for God to give me an affirmation that I wasn’t called to the priesthood, so that I could get a confirmation on marrying the girl of my dreams then. But God instead revealed a path that immediately gripped my heart with excitement and joy, even amidst the pain of knowing I would have to leave the one I love with all my heart. I then realized: God was asking me to sell my dreams of marriage, for a higher calling to the priesthood.

Many years later while in my 6th year of seminary formation, I went through a vocation crisis. I was experiencing desolation in prayer, unworthiness in sin, and even an attraction towards someone. I thought God changed His mind, and I was close to calling it quits. That’s when I learnt that just as love is more than a feeling, but a choice, so too is my vocation dependent not just on my feelings, but on a choice to remain faithful regardless of how I was feeling. At this stage, I was asked to sell my need for spiritual consolations.

Recently, after having completed my seminary formation and waiting for my ordination, I went through another round of crisis, feeling frustrated and disappointed with things that seemed to obstruct what I wanted to do in my eventual priesthood. It wasn’t till someone challenged me if I had fully given up my life to Christ that I realize I had placed so much emphasis on my priesthood as the pearl of great price, that I hadn’t really fully given my life to Him who ought to be my pearl of great price. This time, God was asking me to sell my attachment to the vocation of priesthood in order to more fully give my life to Him and really do whatever He tells me. And when I did, all desolation was removed, and I felt immense peace once again.

For now I’ve learnt, that seeking one’s vocation is not about the WHAT, but about WHO am I giving my life entirely to, so that I do whatever He tells me to, even if it means SELLING EVERYTHING.

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Originally posted on Instagram.

The Sanctifying Cross of Marriage

Mark 10:1-12

In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about Divorce.

Growing up I never thought much about the sacredness of married life. My family was pretty much dysfunctional (this MIGHT be an understatement) and I never thought much about the importance of family — in fact I detested it.

I (shamefully) remember asking my mom one birthday — it was my 7th — for her to divorce my dad as my birthday gift. I did not think it would be a problem — after all, when someone is aggressive to you daily, you leave him… right?

To that she gave a response I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: “This is a cross I must carry.”
Honestly, I thought she was mad for wanting to endure this hardship.

On hindsight, that was her living out her vows of marriage and that planted in me a seed of perseverance and faithfulness to God. It was the wisest thing anyone ever said to me.

The Pharisees quoted the mosaic law and questioned why Moses allowed for divorce. But Jesus explained that God’s intention for our state in life — whether married or single — was to be saints.

“Marriage of Mary and Joseph.” From an early 1900s Marriage Certificate.

Being a saint entails that we rely on the power of God to overcome hardship before we rely on the power of man.
Moses had only permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.
Male and female are indissolubly united in one flesh in marriage — a sacred and binding union — until death.

Marriage vows are so sacred, and such exemplars of what it means to love truly — you vow to love unconditionally every single moment of every single day, you vow to give yourself totally for the good of the other person. THAT is true love.

After all, from a Theology of the Body (TOB) lens, our entire faith is based on the idea of God wanting to marry us! He — in the person of Jesus Christ — is the groom and we the Church are His bride; the cross the “nuptial bed”. Just like how Jesus was humble to death  on the cross, couples must learn to adjust in humility for the marriage to grow and experience success. Many failures in marriages are due to:
– lack of humility
– stubbornness
– lack of prayer life

Back to my mom: she may not be educated in theology or the doctrines of the Church. But she is (sure as sure can be) in possession of the Truth and I believe that she is the epitome of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.

Prayers for all my married friends, that you realize that God has called you to be saints in your vocation as married people, and may God grant you the graces to be faithful to the end.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

The Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

By guest writer Victor R. Claveau, MJ.

Let me tell you a story that will illustrate one of the many reasons why the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Not long ago, I was invited to address the Bible and Philosophy students at a Protestant High School. The teacher and I were to meet a few days before I was to speak to the students, to get to know one another and to discuss the schedule. We met on a Sunday evening at 5:30 pm.

A few minutes after I arrived at his home, the doorbell rang, and four other people entered. As it turned out, these people were the teacher’s pastor, the pastor’s wife, and two other teachers. I was a little taken aback by the circumstances as the teacher did not tell me that he had invited other guests.

After brief introductions, our host invited his friends to ask me questions about the Catholic religion.

As I began to answer their questions, one of the teachers interjected time and again trying to explain the Protestant position. After two or three interruptions, I finally said, ‘Everyone here, including me, knows what you believe, now is your chance to find out what the Catholic Church really teaches and the foundations for those beliefs. I did not come here to argue but am willing to explain and possibly build a bridge between us.’

From then on, we had a worthwhile dialogue.

I had been answering their questions for almost three hours when the Pastor’s wife posed the question: ‘Why do you believe that you are really eating Jesus when you have communion in your church?’

Thank you for the question,” I said. “Let me try to explain by asking you a few questions.

Who created the universe?” I asked.

“God”, she answered.

“And how did God create?” I asked further.

“He spoke,” she answered.

“Right,” I said, “now let’s look at the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1:1-30 and follow along with me as I read.” Then I read the following passages.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”, (Genesis 1:1-4)

“What happened when God said, ‘Let there be light’,” I asked.

“There was light”, she answered.

“Yes,” I said, “in verse 4 it says that ‘there was light.’ God spoke and there was light”.

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so (Genesis 1:6-7).

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so (Genesis 1:9).

And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” And it was so (Genesis 1:11).

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so (Genesis 1:14-15)

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so (Genesis 1:24).

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so (Genesis 1-29-30).

In each of these creation accounts,” I said, “God declared something to be and ‘It was so.’”

Let’s go to the Book of Isaiah.” ‘So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it’ (Isaiah 55:11).

“Doesn’t this passage indicate that whenever God declares something to be, then it becomes a reality at that instant?” I asked.

“Yes,” she agreed.

I went on.

“In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to the fig tree ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once (21:19). Isn’t that correct?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“When the hemorrhaging women reached out through the crowd and touched Jesus’ cloak, she was healed by her faith. ‘And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’ (Mark 5:30). Jesus had the power to heal.

“When Jesus said to the adulterous woman that her sins were forgiven, were they in fact forgiven?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Jesus withered the fig tree, healed the hemorrhaging woman, and forgave the adulterous woman. How could he do this?” I asked.

And the Pastor’s wife answered, “Because Jesus is God.”

“Yes, of course,’ I said, “we all believe that Jesus is God and as God He has no limitations.”

Then I went on to further explain:

“And Jesus (God) said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

“And Jesus (God) said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever” (John 6:53-58).

“And Jesus (God) said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:22-24).

During the Last Supper, Jesus held bread in His sacred hands and declared that the bread was in fact His Body.

“Who. Not what, was Jesus holding in his hands at that moment?” I asked.

There was a pregnant silence for a few seconds, before the pastor’s wife said, “Himself”.

I pressed on and asked, “Who. Not what, was Jesus holding in His hands when He declared the contents of the cup to be His Blood?”

“Himself” She answered.

“Yes,” I said, “He actually gave His Body and Blood to the Apostles to eat and drink. Certainly, this is a mystery, one of the greatest mysteries in the history of the world. These elements still looked and tasted like bread and wine, but in fact they had become in reality Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, simply because, as God, He declared them to be so.

“‘Christ held Himself in His hands when He gave His body to His disciples.”

I felt as though I was on a roll, so I said, “Let me explain further”.

“Jesus went on to say, ‘Do this in memory of me’. What did He mean by the word ‘this’?

“He had just changed bread and wine into His Body and Blood, and He commanded His Apostles to do the same. At that moment Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Priesthood, and during the Mass, when a duly ordained priest says the same words Jesus spoke, the Holy Spirit changes bread and wine into the reality of Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

“The faith of the Apostolic and early Church in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Eucharist is attested by the words of Saint Paul and the Fathers; by the discipline of the Secret: the symbols and illustrations found in the catacombs. The fact that the Church from the very beginning believed in the Real Presence proves that the doctrine must have been delivered to her by her Founder.

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Victor R. Claveau, MJ has been a full-time Catholic evangelist since 1989 and is a graduate of the Diocese of Melbourne School of Evangelization. As the Director of Catholic Footsteps “The Evangelization Station” in Angels Camp, California, he has lectured on Catholic belief and evangelization both nationally and internationally.

Romantic Thoughts for Ash Wednesday

Terminate torment

Of love unsatisfied

The greater torment

Of love satisfied.”

— T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?

Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.

But must it be this way?

It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.

The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.

As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities?  Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?

We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God.  It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.

In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.

This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.

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Image: PD-US

What Makes a Book Great?

(Warning: spoiler alert for A Tale of Two Cities after the image.)

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Franz Kafka, author of the highly disturbing The Metamorphosis, wrote:

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

I personally agree with his first and last lines, not necessarily the content in between. Every book is an opportunity to appraise one’s worldview by considering another’s perspective, seeing the world anew through someone else’s eyes. Yet, I do not believe that it is necessary for a book to be distressing in order to be useful, let alone great. There are certainly disturbing books which are generally deemed great classics, such as Frankenstein, The Lord of the Flies, and dystopian fiction such as 1964, The Catcher in the Rye or A Clockwork Orange. Certainly, these are books which can be considered great because they shake us out of our comfortable lives, making us re-evaluate political or moral systems which we may take for granted as mundane facts of our existence.

However, I believe that truly great books are those which awaken us from our ordinary tepidity by inspiring us to strive for virtue, especially heroic virtue: above all, sacrificial love. It is the books which stir our hearts to burn with love for God and our fellowmen which are the greatest and best – the books which move us to marvel at the divine actions mere man is capable of, and thus awaken the desire in us to be truly great human beings.

There are several great books which can jolt us out of our daily torpor and break the sea of potential frozen in us, above all, the Holy Bible. However, I shall not presume to expound upon the myriad wonders of Sacred Scripture; instead, I shall list a number of other books which have stayed with me as a lasting influence which struck to the depths of my heart, and select one which I love.

Tolstoy’s Master and Man, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, St Thérèse’s Story of a Soul and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are among the books which spring to mind when I think of great literature. These books are from different genres, lands and centuries, but they all have a common theme: self-sacrifice for the good of another. Often, it is the unexpected, bumbling or aloof character that rises to the occasion in time of need and gives his life to save someone whom he may hardly know, or whom he has no real obligation to save, as in Tolstoy’s and Dickens’ tales. Sometimes, it is one humble soul who gives all in order to save the world, as in Tolkien’s and Beagle’s fantasies – aided by selfless friends who support them in their weakness. “No man is an island,” said John Donne, and these profoundly human tales demonstrate how our interdependence and cooperation with one another bring about goodness, love and life.

A Tale of Two Cities

Compelled to select a single great book, I nominate A Tale of Two Cities as an exemplar of a novel which displays the beauty of true Christlike greatness latent even in wounded human nature. In this thin book, Dickens sketches the unforgettable story of two lookalike men, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay. Carton is a self-pitying alcoholic lawyer, hardly worthy of admiration. Yet, moved by unrequited love for the wife of Darnay, his unjustly-accused client, Carton takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine; furthermore, he keeps an innocent girl company in the death-cart, buoying her up with thoughts of Our Lord. His last words brought tears to my eyes: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

In this tome, we see the transformation of a near-contemptible man into an unbelievable hero – we see him turned by his selfless love into a saint, crowning his unremarkable life with a deed parallel to St Maximilian Kolbe’s. Our hearts ache in sympathy for him, who had to see his beloved marry another man, after which he became that man’s defence lawyer and finally gave up his life for him. We are rendered speechless by his gift of self – would we do the same in his place? Could we find that strength? He was a weak man, but he could, and he gives us the hope that we can do likewise.

As Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote,

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.”

As Catholics, we are constantly challenged, empowered and inspired to become people who can exhibit Sydney Carton’s Christlike love in complete donation of self for the good of others.

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Winner of a Campion College 2014 The Lord is My Shepherd book grant.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was prefigured in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which had polyvalent significance. Animal and plant sacrifices were used to atone for sins, offer thanksgiving and worship to God, and seal covenants, entering into communion with the Almighty.1 The Mass, as the true sacrifice of Calvary, is the fulfillment and perfection of all the sacrifices offered before, which could not infinitely merit as Christ did.

Rodolfo Amoedo, “Abel’s Offering” / PD-US

The first pleasing sacrifice recorded in the Old Testament is that of Abel, who was a shepherd.2 He “offered a holocaust of the firstlings of his flock to the Lord his God with true devotion and as a recognition of his subjection to the Divine Majesty,”3 in faith and integrity.4 God, Who “looks at the heart”5 and knows the interior dispositions of men, accepted his offering but rejected Cain’s. Cain, who was already a wicked sinner,6 became envious of his brother Abel and killed him.7 Thus, the first recorded sacrifice was linked with the spilling of innocent blood, the first murder in human history. Similarly, Christ the Good Shepherd humbly,8 faithfully, lovingly, and obediently9 offered Himself as the perfect unblemished Lamb of God and the firstborn of creation,10 the best He could offer to the Father, and was killed unjustly by sinners.

In the Mass, both Abel’s and Cain’s offerings are apparent, symbolizing the taking up of all creation and human history into the Divine Sacrifice which renews the earth, overcomes sin and gives us new, eternal life. Cain’s offering from the fruits of his garden is a prototype of Jewish and Catholic offerings of bread and wine, through which “we offer to God His own creation, (acknowledging) our total dependence on the Creator, (praising) His generosity and the goodness of His gifts.”11 Like Cain’s offering, which was obtained through farming the land with the sweat of his brow,12 ours is procured through the concerted work of human civilization.13 Abel’s worthy offering is discernible in what the offerings of us unworthy sinners, the offerings which cannot merit salvation by themselves, are transformed into—the perfect sacrifice of Christ the Paschal Lamb, Who is both the Divine Gardener and the Good Shepherd of souls.

James Tissot, “Sacrifice of Noah” / PD-US

The second significant sacrifice was that of Noah. His family and representatives of each animal species were saved by the shelter of the Ark he built. After surviving the cataclysmic inundation which washed the world clean of sin, he built an altar upon reaching dry land and offered holocausts to God.14 Holocausts are sacrifices “in which the whole victim was consumed by fire upon God’s altar, and no part was reserved for the use of priest or people.”15 God was pleased with Noah’s offering and made a covenant promising never again to eliminate humanity with a flood, and commanded his family to “increase and multiply, and fill the earth.”16 Similarly, upon Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after immolating Himself to the last drop of His Precious Blood which purifies mankind of sin, He offered Mass as a todah or Jewish thanksgiving sacrifice for His conquest of death as well the deliverance of His people from drowning in sin.17 A todah “begins by recalling some mortal threat and then celebrates man’s divine deliverance from that threat.”18 Before breaking the bread at Emmaus, Jesus explained how the Scriptures pertained to His Passion.19 “Both the todah and the Eucharist present their worship through word and meal. Moreover, the todah, like the Mass, includes an unbloody offering of unleavened bread and wine.”20 Rabbis prophesied that at the coming of the Messiah, all sacrifices would cease except the todah, which would continue eternally.21 At the end of each Mass we are commanded to go forth and spread the Good News, so that all nations may be baptized and the children of God multiplied,22 and saved in the Ark of the Barque of Peter.

God is infinitely pleased with Jesus’ wholehearted sacrifice, which established a New Covenant saving mankind from the eternal effects of sin.23 St Anselm wrote that “Christ could have redeemed us by spilling a single drop of His precious blood. Divine justice could have been appeased, man’s fall and all our subsequent sins—from Cain’s slaughter of Abel to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews—could have been blotted out by the blood Jesus shed… at His circumcision.”24 However, “it may be that Jesus so emptied Himself to show the immensity of His charity, to give us a tantalizing peek at the secret love that fuels the Trinity… Christ would undertake no minimal intervention, no frugal-but-fair exchange of a drop of the God-Man’s blood for the billion petty squalors we pile up every day. Instead, He overwhelms us, explodes our sensibilities, and offers us in the Cross an appalling spectacle that thousands of years of contemplation can never exhaust.”25

Rembrandt, “Sacrifice of Isaac” / PD-US

Thirdly, the sacrifice which Abraham was called upon to make of his only son Isaac is a prototype of the sacrifice of God’s only Son. Abraham is depicted as a faithful servant of God, obeying His call to leave his family and homeland for a foreign country where God promised to make of him a great nation;26 God said: “In thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed.”27 Abraham frequently offered animal sacrifices to God, building altars in various places,28 and made a covenant with God in this manner.29 Finally, God tested his fidelity by commanding him to offer his beloved Isaac as a holocaust on Mount Moriah.30 Although Abraham had waited many years for God to fulfill His promise of giving him progeny so this was a very confusing and heartbreaking command, he placed God first and obeyed Him unquestioningly: “And he took the wood for the holocaust, and laid it upon Isaac his son.”31 In so doing, he became an enduring example of utmost fidelity, and God blessed him for his obedience, renewing His promise. Furthermore, Abraham’s words to Isaac, “God will provide Himself a victim for a holocaust, my son,”32 became prophetic of Jesus’ sacrifice.33 Jesus was completely obedient to the Father’s will,34 entering into the family of mankind and establishing a holy people for God through His ministry and death upon the wood of the Cross. “In fact, the site where Jesus died, Calvary, was one of the hillocks on Moriah’s range.”35 In the Mass, the People of God proclaim Christ’s death,36 remembering God’s everlasting fidelity and pledging their faithfulness in return. In the sacrificial meal, “the consumption of what belongs to God, the sitting at the table of God, is the sign of friendship and communion with God.”37

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Sacrifice of Melchizedek” / PD-US

Fourthly, the Eucharist (literally, “thanksgiving”) takes after the thanksgiving sacrifice of bread and wine offered by the priest-king Melchizedek of Salem (a toponym meaning “peace”) upon Abraham’s victory in battle.38 Christ the Prince of Peace, King of the Heavenly Jerusalem,39 likewise offers bread and wine as His body and blood, a thanksgiving sacrifice for His triumph over sin and death. The scriptures identify Christ as “a priest forever in the Order of Melchizedek,”40 contrasting His unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine with the animal sacrifices of the Levites, which ended with the destruction of the Temple.41 As St Paul wrote: “If then perfection was by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? … There is indeed a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.”42 Unlike the sacrifices of the Levites, “the sacrifice of Melchizedek was a universal priesthood, not the privilege of a particular caste.”43 Christ’s sacrifice as the Paschal Lamb was foreshadowed by the daily Levitical sacrifices of lambs,44 but far surpassed them, wholly accomplishing what they only did in part: atonement for the sins of all mankind. He continues to offer His sacrifice through priests of every nation.

Huybrecht Beuckeleer, “The first Passover feast” / PD-US

Finally, the Passover sacrifice and meal is the prime archetype, the Jewish tradition which Christ transformed into the Eucharistic celebration.45 “Just as God, on the eve of the liberation of the people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, instituted the Passover as a memorial of His wondrous deeds in the Exodus, so Jesus gave us a memorial to this wondrous event on the eve of the sacrifice of His life. This established a new unbreakable covenant relation between God and man, a relationship of love, friendship, and remission of sin… What the Lord does here… is to engage in prophetic action. In anticipation Christ prefigures what will happen on the Cross, namely, the one and perfect sacrifice where He will offer Himself for the salvation of many.” 46 Moreover, “the apostles have to be involved in this sacrificial meal, since it took place for their sake… They have to consume these gift offerings.”47 The Passover is not a mere memorial of the Exodus, but “the foundation event of the Jewish nation” is “made present and actual in a very real sense in the course of the liturgy.”48 It is “a living memorial, one filled with the reality of that which it commemorates.”49 Likewise, in the Mass, we “recall and relive” Christ’s “‘exodus,’ His passing over from this world to the Father, the foundation events of the New Israel.”50

Christ is the new Passover Lamb, Whose blood saves His people from death. “For that innocent lamb without spot was a figure betokening our Savior Christ, the very innocent Lamb of whom Saint John the Baptist witnessed: ‘Ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi’ (Lo, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world),51 by whose immolation and sacrifice on the cross, and by His holy body received into ours as that lamb was into theirs, His faithful folk should be delivered out of thralldom of the devil’s dominion.”52 “According to the Gospels, Jesus did not finish the Last Supper. At least, He did not finish it in the Upper Room.”53 He finished it by His death.

Mankind’s sins—original sin and personal sin—separate us from God, rendering us incapable of offering right worship.54 “Burdened by our sins, we cannot approach God and live.”55 God, being an infinite Being and infinitely Good, Holy and Just, is infinitely offended by sin. Only Christ the God-Man was and is able to offer a pure sacrifice which infinitely and eternally atones for the sins of men.56 The sacrifices of the Old Testament could not make infinite satisfaction for sinful humanity; Christ alone is the ultimate scapegoat.57 The Sacrifice of the Mass may be described as a reversal of the Old Testament sacrifices, because “here the sacrifice is no longer brought by mankind to God, as in the Old Testament and in non-Christian religions; it is rather God Himself who ‘offers Himself up’ in the person of His Son to mankind.”58 Christ is both Priest and Victim, offering an eternal sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Christ is continued in the sacrifice of the Mass because it “keeps its memory alive and applies its fruits,”59 enabling the faithful who live after the time of Christ’s earthly ministry to participate in His eternal sacrifice and receive the graces which flow from it.60 In the Mass the historical events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are made present to us and “transform our very being much beyond what psychological remembrance is capable of.”61 Furthermore, the Mass is more than the commemoration and re-presentation of the Passion: “In the Eucharistic celebration the whole Pasch of Christ is present, that is, His incarnation, passion, death and His resurrection, glorification and the descent of the Spirit”—the whole “mystery of salvation.”62 Moreover, the Mass is eschatological, a taste of future glory as we share Christ’s life and participate “in the eternal life of the Triune God,”63 the endpoint of salvation. “The Eucharist continues the Incarnation… To say that in the Eucharist the bread and wine remain what they are but acquire a new signification would contradict the logic of the Incarnation. Christ was not simply a prophet who pointed out the way to the Father; He was the way to the Father. He did not just communicate the truth about God, He was the Word of God. The believer comes to the Father, not by the way and the truth that are signified by Christ, but through Christ Himself, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”64 The Mass is a foretaste of Heaven,65 and the highest form of prayer conforming us to Christ, allowing us to participate in His saving work.

The sacrifices of the Old Testament all point toward the Sacrifice of Christ, the cause of mankind’s salvation. In the Mass, the sacrifices of Abel, Abraham and Melchizedek are explicitly mentioned in the Roman Canon,66 and the Passover Lamb is evoked by the Agnus Dei. “If… Holy Scripture tells us that these offerings were a sweet odor before God, the reason was because they were types of the sacrifice of Christ the Lord.”67 The Mass enables all generations of Catholics to participate in the one Sacrifice of Christ, and applies His saving merits to individual souls.

___

Also see: Meditations on the Traditional Latin Mass by Saint Francis de Sales

1 “Burnt Offering,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3847-burnt-offering] (accessed 9 May 2014).

2 Genesis 4:2,4.

3 Rev. Martinus von Cochem OSF, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass Explained. BAC Australia Pty Ltd (Sydney, 1996), p. 39.

4 Hebrews 11:4; Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (Michigan, 1987), p. 455.

5 1 Samuel 16:7.

6 1 John 3:12.

7 Genesis 4:8.

8 Philippians 2:6.

9 Philippians 2:8.

10 Colossians 1:15.

11 Roch Kereszty, “A theological meditation on the liturgy of the Eucharist.” Communio 23 (Fall 1996), p. 537.

12 Genesis 3:19.

13 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 538.

14 Genesis 8:20.

15 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible Online commentary [http://www.drbo.org/chapter/01008.htm] (accessed 9 May 2014).

16 Genesis 8:21-22, 9:8-17.

17 Shane Kapler, “The Meal at Emmaus – Jesus’ Todah.” Catholic Exchange. 21 April 2014. [http://catholicexchange.com/meal-emmaus-jesuss-todah]. (accessed 21 April 2014).

18 Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper. The Cromwell Press (London, 2007), p. 32.

19 Luke 24:27-31.

20 Hahn, op. cit., p. 33.

21 Ibid., cf. Pesikta Rabbati, I, p. 159.

22 Matthew 28:19.

23 Matthew 26:28.

24 John Zmirak, “No Morphine on the Cross,” Crisis Magazine. 31 March 2010. [http://www.crisismagazine.com/2010/no-morphine-on-the-cross] (accessed 9 May 2014).

25 Ibid.

26 Genesis 12:1-2.

27 Genesis 12:3.

28 Genesis 12:7-8, 13:18.

29 Genesis 15.

30 Genesis 22:1:1-2, cf. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”

31 Genesis 22:6.

32 Genesis 22:8.

33 Roy Schoeman. “Notes on the Relationship between Christ and Passover.” Salvation is from the Jews. [http://www.salvationisfromthejews.com/justarticles.html#Passover] (accessed 10 May 2014).

34 John 5:30.

35 Hahn, op. cit., p. 17-18.

36 1 Corinthians 11:26.

37 G.T.H. Liesting, “The Inviting Gesture of Christ’s Action,” in The Sacrament of the Eucharist. Newman Press (1968), op. cit., p. 50.

38 Von Cochem, op. cit., p. 41; Genesis 14:18-20.

39 Hahn, op. cit., p. 17.

40 Hebrews 5:6, 5:10, 6:20, 7:17; cf. Psalms 109:4.

41 Von Cochem, op. cit., p. 41.

42 Hebrews 7:11,18.

43 Jean Danielou SJ, The Bible and the Liturgy. Darton, Longman & Todd (London, 1956), p. 146.

44 Von Cochem, op. cit., p. 41.

45 Raymond Maloney SJ, Our Splendid Eucharist: Reflections on Mass and Sacrament. Veritas (Dublin, 2003), p. 70.

46 Liesting, op. cit., pp. 55-56.

47 Ibid.

48 Maloney, op. cit., pp. 74-75.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 John 1:29.

52 Thomas More, Treatise on the Passion, of The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, ed. Garry E. Haupt. Yale University Press (Yale, 1976), Volume 13, p. 62.

53 Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Doubleday (New York 2011), p. 148.

54 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 539.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Von Cochem, op. cit., pp. 127-128.

58 Peter Henrici, “‘Do this in remembrance of Me’: The Sacrifice of Christ and the Sacrifice of the Faithful.” Communio 12 (Summer 1985), p. 148.

59 Liesting, op. cit., p. 52.

60 Nicholas Gihr. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained. B. Herder Book Co. (London, 1946), p. 175.

61 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 530.

62 Liesting, op. cit., p. 58.

63 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 530.

64 Robert Sokolowski, “The Eucharist and Transubstantiation,” Communio 24 (Winter 1997), p. 875.

65 Hahn, op. cit., p. 9.

66 Von Cochem, op. cit., pp. 41-42.

67 Ibid., p. 124.

How does His dying save me?

The following was a response to an inquirer who was troubled by the Christian language of Jesus’ saving death. How is it possible that God can be “appeased” by the death of His innocent son?

I have organized this in a Q& A format.
Why did God create creatures capable of sinning?
I guess we can flip this question around. Why did God create creatures capable of loving? To love means to have free will. Could God create creatures without free will? Yes He could. In fact He already has, by creating the plants and animals. Human beings (and angels) on the other hand, are creatures with free will, capable of choosing love. On the flip side, they are also capable of choosing selfishness. Choosing to be selfish is sin.
Did God know that His creatures would sin?
He would surely know. When He created creatures with free will, the possibility of disobedience/selfishness was in-built into the equation. Does He will that we sin? No He does not. But can God foresee the possibility? Yes He could. Take for instance the relationship between parent and child. After giving their child a good education for instance, can they foresee that it is possible for them to abuse it? Indeed they could. Nevertheless, they can also foresee them making use of this gift to serve society. And if they freely choose the loving act, it is a wonderful thing, it’s not something “forced.”

If His creatures were to sin, was the death of His son the only way to rescue/save them?

St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, two giants in Catholic theology, answer “No”. God is sovereign; He could choose other ways. He could simply forgiving them. In fact, He already did so as described in the book of Genesis. He banished Adam and Eve to be sure, because they seemed not to have been aware of the gravity of their actions, i.e. wanting to be like God (on their own terms), knowing (determining) good and evil. However, He showed that he cared for them by “making them garments of skins and clothing them.” (Gen 3:21)
In fact, in the entire Old Testament, God teaches Israel how to obtain forgiveness, through very precisely prescribed sin offerings via worship in the temple. The Psalms, especially psalm 51, are full of episodes of the human person recognizing his fault and being confident that he is forgiven.

If that is the case, then why must He send His Son to earth, if not on a rescue mission?

Blessed Duns Scotus, another giant in Catholic theology answer in the following manner: “The incarnation was the greatest and most beautiful” of God’s works and is not “conditioned by any contingent facts.” God has always planned to “unite the whole of creation with Himself in the person and flesh of the Son.”
In other words, His Son coming to earth was not “plan B” but always part of God’s intention from the beginning. If our first parents did not sin, nor subsequent human beings, then the incarnation would be like a courtesy call, something like the prince visiting the dwellings of his subjects to have tea with them. It would be something very happy and most pleasant. In fact, C.S. Lewis tries to imagine such a scenario in his space trilogy.
Even if our first parents sin, and so did subsequent human beings, the Son of God will nevertheless keep His appointment. Hence in the fullness of time, the incarnation, in a situation of dysfunction. One of the things that the Son of God need to do is precisely to heal the dysfunction.

Why must the rescue mission involve the crucifixion?

We must be very clear on this. God is not appeased when He sees blood. As you mention so correctly, it is ludicrous for someone convicted of murder to escape scot-free because the judge agrees that his own innocent son can take his place and die instead. This is not mercy. This is perversion. This is not Catholic teaching. Perhaps certain Protestant groups hold to this. It’s called penal substitution.

The crucifixion is not necessary, in the strict sense, for salvation. Why then did the Son willingly subject Himself to this?

Perhaps Plato (Greek philosopher a few hundred years before Christ) might help. Plato wonders what would happen to a perfectly righteous man if he steps into a society full of people who are dysfunctional and tries to help them. Plato concludes that these people would mostly likely crucify him.

What Plato highlights is the stark but terrible reality of human beings. We are often comfortable with our wrongdoing/selfishness and dysfunction. We don’t believe we need rescuing. If somebody who is righteous comes along and shows us a better way, we may well be resentful and feel it best that he gets lost. Maybe we want to put him to death in our hearts.

In the time of Jesus, crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling the enemies of Rome to conform. If you try rebellion, this is what will happen to you. When Jesus preached the kingdom of God, love, brotherhood, and worked His miracles among poor people, and later make gradual claims about his divinity, it was too much for both the Jewish people and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. What Jesus seem to be preaching is a rival kingdom. Of course He has to die. And Jesus was willing to pay the price for the kingdom.

But how does His willingness to pay the price “save” me?
Catholics have divided the effects of Jesus’ death into two categories. His death as example, and His death as expiatory (making up for what we cannot).
Let’s deal with the example first.
The question for me, and perhaps for humankind, is “are we really that bad?” Surely I am not personally responsible for the death of Jesus? A popular hymn we sing at good Friday is “Were you there where they crucified my Lord?” Of course we were not there. But what if we were? Will we join in the crowd and shout “crucify him” due to cowardice? Or turn away and say “I prefer to mind my own business?” Or if we stand in solidarity with his Mother, do we not also feel the great sorrow at a man who did not wrong and yet suffered in that manner? And what if this was no ordinary righteous man, killed by evil men (an often too familiar action). What if this righteous man was God incarnate? Does this mean that in our free will, we are capable of killing God? And if we are capable of killing God, do we even deserve to be forgiven?

Applying it to our contemporary context, do we dare say we do not turn a blind eye to the evil around us? Are we also not complicit?

The answer from the cross is Yes. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And if we are “cut to the heart” and realize that we are indeed capable of crucifying the Son of God, we may well cry out like Peter in a paradoxical way “leave me Lord for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8) while at the same time clinging on to him tightly.

Hence His death saves us in an exemplary sense because we may well be “cut to the heart”. We are indeed sinners, we have nothing to boast about. We need a Savior. And God from the cross has already given the verdict. If you recognize your need for a Savior, you will indeed be forgiven, for we know not what we do.

How is Jesus’ death “expiatory” i.e. making right what we cannot?
Perhaps in comfortable modern society, we can make the case “saying sorry is enough and relationships can be restored.” We don’t encounter horrific evil that often. At least not personally. But think of the Japanese Occupation. Is “saying sorry” enough for a Japanese soldier who may have tortured and brutally murdered the husband of an innocent women?
No matter how sincere, even if the Japanese soldier were to commit seppuku in atonement, can we say that he has successfully “made up” for the evil he has done? Could we describe his death as “expiatory”?
While it is possible that his asking for forgiveness is sincere, and his sacrifice wholehearted, can he actually “make things right” for the woman after he has tortured and killed her husband? It is not possible.

This is where only the intervention of someone who hold the power of life and death and can make things right in a more than earthly sense becomes perhaps fitting.

Jesus is that someone. He is a man: He can be our true representative. He is God: His life given up willingly can actually make things right again. Why? Not because God the Father demands blood (he does not) but because the order of justice can actually be restored only through someone who is of cosmic importance.

For the Japanese soldier, in Christ, his attempt at expiation is made possible. For the victim, in Christ, the expiation (making right) not possible through the death of the Japanese soldier, becomes possible, since Christ holds the power of life and death.

In the Old Testament, the temple sacrifices of animals in atonement for sins is a constant pedagogical reminder to the people. Making things right is important. And yet the sacrifice of lambs can only be symbolic. For very serious breeches, forgiveness is always possible. Making things right “expiation”, however, is beyond your capability because in the final analysis, via a sacrificial animal , it can only be symbolic. You need YHWH Himself to provide the solution through His Messiah.

Hence the book of Hebrews has a very prescient observation (Hebrews 10:11-14):
Day after day every the priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins [referring to atonement not so much forgiveness]. But when this Priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Harry Potter: from Aristotle’s Poetics to Christian Virtue

What makes a book great? A great book touches people across cultures and nations; it is a tome that reflects the realities of humanity in its characters, as Aristotle recommended in his Poetics,1 and reinforces virtue while decrying vice, as Plato noted in The Republic;2 as well as a classic that draws readers to reread it over and over again, discovering anew its nuggets of wisdom and delighting in its celebration of the best traits and actions of people.

Hogwarts

I nominate the Harry Potter series by Joanne Kathleen Rowling as recent great books. The series is not as impressive as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has a more mystical and cerebral air; but it is more accessible and appealing to the average reader and has had a substantial impact on an entire generation, having been translated into 67 languages, with more than 450 million copies sold.3 In fact, I avoided reading the series for five years because I disdained its popularity, which I took as a sign that it was just another cheap product of mass culture. However, when I finally picked up the first book in the series, I quickly devoured as many sequels as there were available, recording lines that spoke to my heart.

For instance, Harry’s godfather Sirius Black says: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.4 Rowling is an astute observer and recorder of human nature, character, and interaction. Through her novels, she champions the underdog, exalts the lowly, and casts the mighty from their thrones. She writes of prejudice against wizards from non-wizarding families (“mudbloods” like the brilliant student Hermione Granger), cruelty to enslaved house-elves (Dobby and Winky),5 and discrimination against werewolves (the learned Professor Lupin), giants (or half-giants like the gentle, generous Hagrid),6 and other races. In this way, she addresses very real human concerns in the guise of fantasy. In fact, researchers have observed that readers of Harry Potter tend to become more empathetic towards the disadvantaged, such as refugees.7

In addition, Rowling explores sinister modernist ideas. The evil antagonist Voldemort, an orphan born of a loveless union, declares, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.8 This is an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche,9 who wrote, “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides.10 Voldemort seeks to purge the world of everyone besides those of pure wizarding stock, a eugenic exercise reminiscent of the Holocaust. The orphaned Harry, who grew up with incredibly abusive relatives, does not succumb to hatred or cowardice but repeatedly triumphs over Voldemort, protected by his parents’ self-sacrificial love and aided by the knowledge and bravery of his devoted friends and mentors. Thus, he and his allies demonstrate selfless goodness overcoming selfish evil. Voldemort tempts Harry to join him,11 and Harry even questions his own sanity at one stage because he can feel Voldemort’s emotions through the cursed scar that links them,12 but Harry does not give in, although at times he really resents having been born into this stressful role of battling with Voldemort. These matters of morality reflect the life of the Christian, born into a fallen world and constantly battling with the devil, yet triumphing through the exercise of reason, virtue,and free will, supported by a community of love. As the headmaster, Dumbledore, tells Harry, reassuring him that he was not meant to be in Voldemort’s house of Slytherin: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.13 Again and again, Harry chooses to do good, ultimately sacrificing himself but rising again from the dead.14 He is a Christ-like figure, an ordinary-looking human born into the position of saving the world from annihilation. Voldemort seeks to kill him from his birth, warned by a prophecy,15 but is himself destroyed by his own actions every time he attempts to destroy Harry. Rowling adheres to Aristotle’s plot guidelines, with peripeteia or reversal of circumstances, as well as anagnorisis or recognition.16

In spite of these serious themes, Rowling ensures that the books are enjoyable reads because of her magnificent sense of humor. She is a master of irony, sarcasm, and wit, creating immensely likable characters with unique voices.17 Some fans even feel as if the characters are like family.18 Furthermore, Rowling cleverly weaves in classical imagery and language, employing various mythical creatures such as the manticore, the sphinx, and Cerberus; using the names Minerva and Argus for the wisest female professor and the ever-watchful caretaker;19 and liberally sprinkling Latin phrases throughout the books. Moreover, borrowing from medieval times,20 she employs Christian imagery21 and the idea of the philosopher’s stone and even correctly dates the age of the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, a real-life Frenchman.22 Thus, Rowling builds on Western culture and tradition, reinterpreting and transmitting ancient stories to modern generations, as Aristotle recommends.23

Authoress Elizabeth Drew said, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” I last reread Harry Potter over the summer, and found parallels between his life and mine, particularly in his preference to be at Hogwarts rather than home for the summer break. (I am thoroughly enjoying my studies at Campion College and do not really look forward to holidays.) Harry Potter inspires me, like so many others,24 to be considerate to everyone regardless of their background; to place others before myself, even to the ultimate cost; to love and appreciate those around me in this brief time on earth; and to find the joy and humor in this world though things may seem bleak (as things must have appeared to Rowling, who wrote the first book while dealing with divorce, depression, joblessness, and single parenthood). One fan reported that reading the books motivated her to seek help for depression.25 Rowling’s style and impact has even been likened to Dickens’ and Twain’s.26 Harry Potter, I believe, has passed the test, and belongs among the great books of all time.

___

Winner of The Lord is My Shepherd Campion College Book Grant 2015.
Image: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Recommended reading: Baptizing Harry Potter: A Christian Reading of J.K. Rowling by Luke Bell OSB.
Also see: “9 Reasons the Weasleys Are (Probably) a Catholic Family“.

1 Aristotle, Poetics, chapter XV.
2 Plato, The Republic, Book III.
3 Alexander Atkins, “How Many People Read the Harry Potter Books?” [https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/how-many-people-read-the-harry-potter-books/]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
4 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Bloomsbury (2002), p. 456.
5 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury (2000).
6 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bloomsbury (2003).
7 Bret Stetka, “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter”, Scientific American [http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-everyone-should-read-harry-potter/] (accessed 25 March 2015), cf. Jon C. Reidel, “New Book Reveals Political Impact of ‘Harry Potter’ Series on Millennials” [http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/?Page=news&storyID=16276]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
8 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (2000), p. 211.
9 John O’Callaghan, “Harry Potter and the Catholic Imagination” [https://www.up.edu/portlandmag/2004_summer/potter.htm]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
10 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Will to Power and the Antichrist”, in M. Perry, M. Berg & J. Krukones (eds.), Sources of European History since 1900, 2nd edition. Wadsworth Publishing (2010), p. 36.
11 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (2000), p. 211.
12 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Bloomsbury (2002), ch. 30.
13 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury (2000), p. 245.
14 Rowling cites A Tale of Two Cities as a major influence (cf. my last book prize entry) – Norman Lebrecht, “How Harry Saved Reading, The Wall Street Journal [http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304584004576419742308635716]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
15 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Bloomsbury (2004), ch. 37.
16 Aristotle, Poetics, VI. [https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/poetics/] (accessed 25 March 2015); cf. Eva Langston, “Harry Potter, Aristotle’s Poetics, & Literary Magic”, In the Garden of Eva [http://inthegardenofeva.com/2013/08/29/harry-potter-aristotles-poetics-literary-magic/]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
17 Simran Khurana, “Funny Harry Potter Quotes” [http://quotations.about.com/od/harrypotterquotations/a/funnyharrypotter.htm]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
18 Scott Bryan, “Here’s What The ‘Harry Potter’ Stars Have Got To Say About Their Most Obsessive Fans” [http://www.buzzfeed.com/scottybryan/heres-what-the-harry-potter-stars-have-got-to-say-about-thei]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
19 “Greek Mythology in Harry Potter” [http://www.funtrivia.com/en/subtopics/Greek-Mythology-in-Harry-Potter-126574.html] (accessed 14 April 2015); “Characters and Mythology”, The Harry Potter Project [http://www.tg-offenburg.de/potter/DiscussionTopics/charactersandmythology/characters.htm]. (accessed 14 April 2015) [Incidentally, a certain Campion lecturer strongly reminds me of Professor Minerva McGonagall.]
20 John Granger, “J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism” [http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/j-k-rowlings-medievalism/] (accessed 14 April 2015); cf. Gail Orgelfinger, “J. K. Rowling’s Medieval Bestiary” [http://universitypublishingonline.org/boydell/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9781846157639&cid=CBO9781846157639A018]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
21 John Granger, “Why my family adopted Harry Potter”, Catholic Digest [http://www.catholicdigest.com/articles/food_fun/books/2007/07-01/why-my-family-adopted-harry-potter] (accessed 14 April 2015) (accessed 14 April 2015); cf. O’Callaghan, op. cit.
22 Travis J. Dow, “Nicholas Flamel”, History of Alchemy [http://historyofalchemy.com/list-of-alchemists/nicolas-flamel/]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
23 Langston, op. cit.
24 Stetka, op. cit.
25 Bryan, op. cit.
26 Norman Lebrecht, “How Harry Saved Reading “, The Wall Street Journal [http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304584004576419742308635716]. (accessed 25 March 2015)

What Ms. Frizzle Taught Me

(This post originally appeared on www.yellowpelican.net)

It started with an episode of the Magic School Bus and ended with a trip to Urgent Care.

Last summer, we had just moved to a new city and had minimal resources – a couple new friends and no real knowledge of the area. I had a six month old, 2.5 year old, and 5.5 year old and was still busy trying to find our new normal. In other words: stressed and distracted. Earlier in the week, my big kid had watched an episode of the Magic School Bus and there was apparently a science experiment that was so incredible it had to be tried in real life. So my husband set it up.

I was utterly clueless about it all. All I know is one day there was a jar of frozen water in a mason jar in the fridge and my kid said I had to open it. Distracted as I was and not thinking, I grabbed it, and as soon as the seal released BAM! Glass explosion to the hand. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say there was skin hanging where it shouldn’t be and lots of red everywhere.

Somehow I managed to call my husband home, change the baby’s diaper, get clothes on the kids, and grab the diaper bag all one handed while keeping pressure on the cuts. (The only thing I didn’t do successfully was pull my hair up without looking like I just woke up – apparently there’s always time for humility.) The whole ordeal ended with some decent stitches, Dermabond, and weeks of healing. What’s left is a fear of mason jars and a bumpy scar on my finger.

That was last year and I’ve pretty much forgotten about it most days. But recently, I’ve noticed when I’m putting clothes away or cleaning, I’ll have the finger that was injured tucked in so I can’t use it just like when it was healing. When I realized it, I thought it was so funny. It’s been almost 12 months since it happened, it wasn’t even a huge injury in the grand scheme of things, and it was just a finger and healed well. Yet here I am, instinctively still protecting it.

It made me think of the other wounds I’ve had in my life. I’ve had a c-section, hurts to my heart from broken relationships, broken bones, burns and more. And what I’ve learned from all my injuries and hurts is they change you. Whether big or small, visible or invisible, we come through it different than before.

The thing with a scar is that it is a permanent memory of suffering. But it’s also a permanent reminder of healing. It’s the tension between what was, what hurt, and what is now. My finger will never be the same after the Ms. Frizzle fiasco. In a way, it’s disfigured. If I hit it too hard, it hurts. But that doesn’t mean healing didn’t happen. Whether from stitches or heartache, scars tell the story of a victoriously healed person. Once a wound is healed, it doesn’t mean things go back to how they were. We are forever changed by suffering and scars, the important thing is whether we let it form us more into the likeness of Christ or not.

When I read the Gospels, I’m struck with condition of the Risen Lord. He’s heavenly, luminous, unearthly, walking through walls …. and bearing the marks of His crucifixion. Even the Savior, victorious over death, bears the marks of the suffering that brought the glory. The Church recognizes the Saints in the same way – the suffering that brought them to heaven is how they are depicted in sacred art. St. Lucy holds her eyeballs on a platter, St. Agnes her breasts, and St. Sebastian holds the swords that pierced him. Heaven is filled with scarred human souls that used their suffering for the glory of God.

Never be ashamed of your scars. Let the healing happen but know that even after healing, things might never be the same. And it’s good. It is so good. Because we have a Father who cares about our wounds enough to use them for our holiness if we let Him. Your suffering matters in the eyes of God, especially if you offer it to Him in love and unite with His Son’s. 

Thanks, Ms. Frizzle, for the odd life lessons you’re always so good at teaching.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. -Romans 8:18

Salvation through Wrinkles

“I prefer a family with tired faces from generous giving, to a family with faces full of makeup that know nothing of tenderness and compassion. I prefer a man and a woman, don Aniceto and his wife, with faces that are wrinkled due to the daily struggles over the fifty years of strong married love; and here we have them, and their son has learned the lesson from them and is now twenty-five years married. These are families.”
—Pope Francis’s message to families in Mexico

While the whole world is fascinated by the statements Pope Francis made on the plane ride back from Mexico, it is this quote, directed to the family, that struck me. I am expecting my fifth son in a few weeks/days, to go with four boys (5, 4, 3, and 19 months). Quotes like these, which affirm the joy of family, appeal to a young father like me who still struggles to see the joy in every minute of every day. Yet there is something more to this quote than just my experience or comprehension of it. In this I see the small daily conversion to Christ’s teachings that takes place when someone encounters a holy person (or even someone who strives for holiness). Rather than being repelled by the physical appearances of this elderly couple, Francis is renewed in his mission to speak for the beauty of the family. Where society sees suffering, sacrifice, pain, and waste, Francis sees joy, beauty, goodness, and truth.

Family life is filled with great experiences of games, joy, and laughter. Along with them, there is exhaustion, strain, and exerted patience. The “sacrifice” of the family, however, is not arbitrary or fruitless. The sacrifice is the constant kenosis—the emptying of the self—that imitates Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. What Francis is calling for in his homily is, in many ways, a societal return to true heroism and true selflessness, which is manifested in and through the family. He calls for a society built on selflessness, heroism, and virtue—in other words, a society centered on love. Francis’s description of the ideal family reveals his belief that a virtuous society will arise only from the family.

The Selfless Family

Family is the first and vital cell of society (Apostolicam Actuositatem 11), society’s root (Gaudium et Spes 52). A healthy society, therefore, comes about when families form and create persons who are for others. The family begins from the free and open self-gift between a man and a woman (AA 11). This self-gift naturally leads to the fostering of offspring that will further the future of society. Rather than being prepackaged robots, children come with their own originality and personalities. They need to learn how to eat, sleep, behave, and do many things their parents have taken for granted. With these experiences come joy and accomplishment. They also bring anxiety, sleep deprivation, and frustration. Frankly, they bring out the best and the worst. I can speak of this from experience. With each child, my ability to love has expanded to reach horizons I never thought possible. Yet this expansion has revealed levels of sin I thought were long gone or never knew I had. For example, I am more patient than I have ever been, only because I have seen how impatient I was before. In calling me out of my own sinfulness and my own way of thinking, my children challenge me to become the man God desires. While the wrinkles are forming (as Francis stated), these wrinkles are only part of the kenosis I must undertake to imitate Christ in all things, including suffering. In this selfless giving of life, the parents become examples for the future generation to imitate, showing that life is only truly lived in service to others.

The Heroic Family

“The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death” (Pope St. Leo the Great). This simple and yet direct statement from Francis’s predecessor proclaims the mission and focus of discipleship in the family. As seen above, the expansion of the parents’ love for their children brings with it much work, responsibility, and sacrifice. These experiences are God’s way of calling us to closer communion with Him in our imitation of His Son. Christ’s suffering on the Cross for the sake of others is the greatest example of heroism for all humanity to imitate. The sacrifice of one’s life, the giving up of the will for that of the Father, is the call to all Catholics: ordained, religious, or lay. For the layperson, vocation is lived through the family. The family becomes the sacrament of the Church for the world and is the apostolate for the laity. The ideal of heroism shines through the Church, and not simply through the examples of men and women who died, were persecuted, or gave up everything for the faith. The Church shines with equal brilliance through the simple daily living of the “quiet” saints. These holy men and women may not have done deeds to be told from generations to generations, but they do the small things that light a fire that will not be quenched. Helping neighbors move or clean house, shoveling the snow for the elderly, giving up time to assist in a church function like a fish fry, or simply stopping to assist someone in need on the road or sidewalk: these simple, quiet acts produce saints. These hidden saints support the more-known heroes, instilling virtues within them. St. Augustine had his mother Monica to give witness to patience and humility; St. Therese of Lisieux’s parents bore patiently her difficult temperament in childhood and are now canonized saints. Behind the portrait of each saint is someone, be it a parent, family member, or family friend, who inspired and instilled the courage to take on the great task of sainthood. For every great missionary, there is someone in the background who gives the saint inspiration to continue forward regardless of the cost. The family is the environment upon which true heroism is created. The family is the environment to which we need to return.

The Virtuous Society

The heroic family brings about a truly virtuous society. As Gaudium et Spes explicitly states, a just society has the human person as “the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (25). A society naturally does this because it is composed of persons who came from a family that constantly focused on the building-up of persons into other well-centered humans. This family comes with wrinkles; it comes with suffering and with sacrifice. Yet, formed in love, these wrinkles become a wealth of knowledge, not scars of exhaustion. Done in love, suffering becomes redemptive, a victorious sign of our ability to overcome our own selfishness to build something greater. Done in love, our sacrifices allow us to become what we truly desire; they become the source of our freedom and life. The wrinkles, sufferings, and sacrifices show that the person we were before these events carried a yoke that was heavy and a burden that was not light. I’d like to conclude with an example of virtue that was exhibited to me not too long ago. Our son was sent to the hospital, and due to the nature of the visit, we were held up all weekend. We could not bring all four kids with us and needed to give attention to our hospitalized son. Our family came to our aid and took the three other kids over the weekend (with no forewarning). Friends who heard of our situation came to our aid, cleaned our house (which was a mess at the time), and chipped in with some appliances and furniture that needed to be replaced (without us even asking or making any indication that it was needed). They came in during their weekend, missed events they were scheduled to attend (with good speakers, I might add), and donated their financial resources to help us out in a time of need. In these saintly acts I am sure some wrinkles were added, but in doing so new stories of heroism and courage can be told. This was a case of a virtuous community that was formed not out of self-love, but of the selfless assistance to those in need. When I see these families, I see the description of what Francis has been calling for. No, he is not naïve; he sees the real challenges and burdens we face from society and mostly from our own sinfulness. But among these ashes comes the greater joy, the joy of being loved—first by God, then by family, and finally by friends. Always rooted within the family, we are shown God’s love and mercy and come to express this through our love of others. The family is the place where this takes place. It is God’s designated vehicle to make His Son known.