In this Gospel passage there is seemingly a huge disjuncture between the 1st and 2nd half of the Gospel, but dig deeper and you will find a gem.
In the first half of the Gospel, we see that Jesus says:
“If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.”
The keywords here are “who belong to Christ”.
What does it mean to BELONG TO CHRIST? It means that our whole life is about Jesus: every thought word and deed draws others to Jesus and allows Jesus to shine!
So what does all this have to do with cutting off your hands and being salt of the earth, as seen in the second half of the Gospel?
The answer lies in these two ideas:
1. Turning away from sin
2. Rooting our identity in Christ
Everything that stops us from belonging to Christ must be removed. If we are the obstacle, then we are better off dead (being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around you pretty much equates to death). If we are living a life of sin that causes scandal, or living a wayward life that draws us and others away from God, we need to STOP.
Jesus appears harsh by telling us to cut off the body part that causes us to sin. Let’s look deeper.
Are we willing to cut off whatever draws us away from Christ?
We ARE the salt of the earth. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s worthless. If we lose our identity in Christ, it renders us useless.
NEWSFLASH: We didn’t need to exist! We were created for a reason and purpose — we are created by God for God, in His image and likeness.
Fulfilling the will of God will help us to live a life of peace. It will never be a peace that the world can give. Nay, they will persecute and condemn, claiming us to be holy.
God’s peace is offered to us daily. We can only do that by being the salt of the earth, by belonging to God, and by doing God’s will.
The central theme of James 4:1-10 and Mark 9:30-37 is discord. In the Gospel, we read that the Apostles were arguing about “who was the greatest”. The reason for this dispute probably arose because Jesus only brought Peter, James and John up onto the mountain where he was transfigured.
The others might have wondered if Jesus showed favoritism by passing a secret to only these three. Moreover, only Peter was promised the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven according to Matthew’s Gospel.
These snippets of the Gospel show us just how human the Apostles really were. Their behavior isn’t so different from ours if you think about the times when we too, fall so easily to the sin of envy.
A friend told me yesterday, ”We listen to the voices of angels and devils every day. Which of the two we obey though, is up to us.” So how do we discern which is the voice of God?
Indeed most of the time, God’s voice is drowned out by the world. It is not that God cannot speak loudly and clearly, but he usually prefers to speak quietly and gently because he wants to INVITE us to listen, not command us. When it comes to God, it is always ‘requests’. A loud, terrifying voice would be a mandate, not an invitation, causing a person to respond out of Servile Fear.
God does not want this. He wants us to know His soft voice and obey Him out of our own free will. This is why Jesus did not come down from the cross when challenged to do so. If Jesus had come down, the Jewish people would have been compelled to believe in Him. It would not be true Faith.
Noise is a great obstacle to hearing Jesus, who is meek and humble of heart. Finding time every day for silent prayer and listening is critical. Let us remember that when we pray, we are conversing with a LIVING GOD, not a dead god.
Some of us (me definitely included) fall into despair sometimes when we believe that we are too damned.
We detest sin — as we all should! — but we detest sin not because we desire the good, but we detest it out of frustration, out of a belief that God might not forgive us again.
Peter Kreeft in his book Three Philosophies of Life talks about the Treasure of Sin and he has basically given me hope again!
Wait. What?! Sin? A treasure? Yes, read on.
“But we are all philosophers, unless we are animals. Men live not just in the present but also in the future. We live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead. Our lives are like an arc stretching out to us from the future into the present. Our hopes and ideals move our present lives. Animals’ lives are like an arc coming to them out of their past; they are determined by their past. They are pushed; we are pulled. They are forced; we are free. They are only instinct, heredity, and environment; we are more; we are persons.
The determinists, from Marx and Freud to Skinner, who deny this fact, insult us infinitely more than any preacher who shouts sin and damnation at us. It is a great compliment to call a man a sinner. Only a free man can be a sinner. The determinists mean to steal from us the great treasure of sin. They deny us our freedom, and therefore our hope, our ability to live not just from our determined past but also from our undetermined future.”
As most know by now, Ireland just declared open season on unborn lads and lassies, not to mention their mothers, who will suffer the aftermath of great emotional upheaval!
So tragic that there weren’t enough faith-full Catholics to defeat the foes of Life!
Relative to this, a few thoughts on Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), now in its 50th year. Everything that Pope Paul VI warned would happen to society has indeed happened, because of its acceptance of contraception! (contra literally means “against”, ception=conception/life, so literally it means AGAINST LIFE.)
This, the Church teaches, is a grave sin against God, whose most fundamental attribute is Life-giver.
Paul VI warned that by tying the hands of God’s divine prerogative to create life, serious consequences such as promiscuity, infidelity, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and other perversions of God’s plan would soon ensue and we see that clearly today. Anything goes!
The Catholic Church alone has, from the beginning, held out to the world, the “hard saying” that we must practice sacrificial love, not selfish pleasure / using others for sexual gratification. God spoke though Paul VI no less than any of the prophets. Too bad so few listened. Too bad the Protestant churches, as well as too many Catholics did not see that contra-ception was the forbidden fruit.
Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:
“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”
I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.
She goes on to say:
“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.
Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:
“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.
Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.
They are impossible.
Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.
Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.
Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
“Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Or to pick another example:
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.
Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.
Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
No man can enter into the house of a strong man and rob him of his goods, unless he first bind the strong man, and then shall he plunder his house.
– Mark 3:27 (cf. Matthew 12:29)
A few Fridays ago, my friend invited me to exit the house via the garage since she was driving out. This created a problem when I returned home from work, because nobody had unfastened the security peg of the front door. Since my friend was away for the weekend, I had to seek lodging elsewhere.
The security peg was just a tiny bit of metal, but it kept me out of the house. It made me think about ways to keep Satan out of the house of one’s soul. He may steal the key from you in a moment of temptation, but he still won’t be able to enter if you have a strong security peg and window grilles in place.
What pegs would work for you? It depends on your weakness, since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Fortunately, we have been granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to live holy and virtuous lives.
Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (AD 348 – 410), a Christian Roman governor, composed an epic poem entitled Psychomachia, or Battle/Contest of the Soul. Practicing these virtues is the remedy against the Seven Deadly Sins: humility triumphs over pride, kindness over envy, abstinence/temperance over gluttony, chastity over lust, patience over anger, liberality/charity over greed, and diligence over sloth.
Be sure to securely peg the door of your soul with the virtue it needs most, lest our tireless adversary break in and defile the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Sin is not wanting too much, but settling for too little. It’s settling for self-gratification rather than self-fulfillment.
— Scott Hahn, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity
It should have been better that all the stars should have fallen from Heaven than that one soul should have ever committed a single venial sin.
— Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman
“Sins of the flesh, let us remember, are at the bottom of the scale. The Church says self-righteousness is at the top. Therefore, I’m in a lot better shape than some of my feminist and establishment Republican enemies.”
That part made me wonder about his grasp of Holy Scripture and the Catechism, not to mention Our Lady of Fatima’s sobering warning:
“More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.“
A friend of mine chimed in: “Sins of the flesh rank lowest in Dante’s Inferno and also Bishop Barron agrees in his CD Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues.”
I replied: “Indeed, lust of all the sins is most akin to love, Dante notes. But when you really love someone, offending them in any way is just downright bad. And no matter what degree of Hell someone is in, it’s all really bad ‘cos it’s eternal separation from Love. So on one hand it may be technically right to say one sin is not as bad as another… On the other hand, they’re all terrible and we ought to scram from every one!”
Sometimes when we are in a state of sin, it is tempting to compare ourselves to other sinners, thinking, “At least we’re not as bad as they are!” But isn’t that really the pinnacle of self-righteousness? Isn’t it akin to the attitude of the Pharisee who thought himself better than the publican? (Luke 18:11)
It’s like a sick person comparing himself with others in hospital: “At least I’m not as poorly as that man!” or worse, “What’s the point in getting well, we’re all going to fall sick and die in the end anyway.” He’s still stuck in hospital, and comparing himself to another patient just creates a false sense of consolation. Instead, it would be better to focus on his recovery, comparing his current condition with the healthful one he hopes to be in.
When in sin, therefore, let us take the example of Christ and the saints as our standard, and lean ever more on God for the strength to strive for holiness: confessing our sins, performing penance, and amending our lives.
For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God. Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption, that is in Christ Jesus…
— Romans 3:23-24
To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.
— Frederick Buechner
God does not judge Christians because they sinned, but because they do not repent.
— St. Niphon of Constantia
To say that God turns away from the sinful is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
— St. Anthony the Great, Cap. 150
Be ashamed when you sin, not when you repent. There are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is the wound, repentance is the medicine. Sin is followed by shame; repentance is followed by boldness. Satan has overturned this order and given boldness to sin and shame to repentance.
— St. John Chrysostom
The Jungle Book (2016) is a masterful adaptation of Kipling’s book, paying due homage to the classic Disney film with its meshing of the familiar soundtrack with exquisitely-rendered new visuals.
It is also a tale of growing up in a dangerous world, of fulfilling one’s telos or true end, and of choosing to practice virtue instead of being consumed by vices which enslave us and lead us to harm others.
[Caution: Spoilers ahead]
Shere Khan is gripped by a burning anger, unable to forgive Mowgli’s father for scarring his face with a firebrand in self-defense. The tiger’s hatred of men is boundless, extending to the innocent Mowgli who was a mere toddler when Shere Khan killed his father. Khan’s insatiable wrath isolates him, making him feared by the other creatures of the jungle, while he spends each day in a terrible rage, enslaved by his fixation on ending Mowgli’s life.
It should in fact be Mowgli who hates Shere Khan for killing his father and hunting him relentlessly, but Mowgli does not seek revenge on Khan even after learning the truth from the serpent Kaa. Even when Mowgli hears of the wolf Akela’s death, he only wants to face Khan and stop him from further devastating the wolf pack for letting the boy walk free. Mowgli even places himself in mortal danger by hurling his torch into the water so as not to frighten the other animals. By this act of making himself vulnerable, Mowgli wins back the trust of the others, although he has accidentally set their forest on fire, and they all band together to fight against Khan. In contrast to Khan, Mowgli only resorts to killing his opponent in self-defense – and by indirect means, allowing Khan’s own rage to fuel his fall into the fire. Furthermore, Mowgli does not allow his losses and scars to bind him in brooding rage over the past, although Khan has twice robbed him of father-figures and his home. He goes on to lead a happy life in the jungle, in the company of his assorted friends.
Similarly, Satan is a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) with an undying enmity against the human race (Genesis 3:15), and we are to be ever vigilant against his attacks on our souls; there are times in the spiritual life when we must flee in order to preserve our virtue (as St Thérèse did once)1, and there are times when we must take courage and face the adversary, overcoming him with the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. Satan knows no peace – Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell2– but is possessed by a terrible rage against mankind. Yet, when we stand together as the Body of Christ, instead of being divided by fear, we will not succumb to his deadly rule, but will win through to everlasting life in the heavenly communion of saints.
As Satan lured Eve by inciting her lust for the forbidden fruit, of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:5), Kaa lures Mowgli with the knowledge of his past, seducing him with lies that he is safe with her. Of course, the python only sees him as a tasty morsel to be gobbled up. (In the book, Kaa is male and a mentor of Mowgli’s.) Kaa is so fixated on her prey that she is unable to react in time when Baloo the bear chances upon them and saves Mowgli from certain death.
Baloo is a sloth bear who lazes around, trying to use monkeys to procure honey for him. He initially lies to Mowgli too, taking advantage of him and allowing him to be stung horribly all over while obtaining honeycombs. However, unlike the other predators in the jungle, Baloo gives Mowgli his freedom to leave whenever he likes, and Mowgli chooses to stay with the bear, forging a firm friendship as they forage for food. Yet, Baloo still uses Mowgli to pander to his gluttony, claiming that he will starve in hibernation if they do not store enough honey. Bagheera the panther, Mowgli’s mentor, turns up and points out that Baloo does not hibernate. Happily, Baloo is ultimately virtuous and self-sacrificing, overcoming his fear of heights to save Mowgli from his next mishap.
King Louie the monstrous orangutan is possessed by greed and envy, longing for “man’s red flower” so that he can rule over the entire jungle, although he already has plenty more than enough, with the simians of the forest waiting on him hand and foot. He wants to be like man, “on top of the food chain”. His boundless lust for power is his downfall, for in trying to capture Mowgli, Louie destroys his own palace and is buried in the ruins of his home.
In the end, each villain meets their downfall through self-absorption and overweening pride, hankering after something not rightfully theirs; each hero triumphs through humility, overcoming their shortcomings and embracing their true strengths. Bagheera tells Mowgli to fight Khan as a man, not a wolf, and Mowgli, though physically much weaker than any of the animals, triumphs by exercising his intellect, exploiting his fearsome opponent’s weakness and using Khan’s wrath against himself. Similarly, when we are beset by fears and discouragement, we can turn it against Satan, offering up our suffering in union with Christ so that the Kingdom of God may triumph in the hearts of men. As delineated in Plato’s Republic, the body is in harmony when the intellect governs the emotions and the appetites; there is justice in the body politic when each part of society works together for the common good. Then we shall rid our homes of the scourge of evil, and live in peace with all of God’s creation.
1Story of a Soul Ch. 9: “I thought that if I began to justify myself I should certainly lose my peace of mind, and as I had too little virtue to let myself be unjustly accused without answering, my last chance of safety lay in flight.”
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church
We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.
Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.
I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.
Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.
Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:
“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)
A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.
Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.
The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).
By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.
The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).
As I sat there closing one eye, then opening it while closing the other, going back and forth looking through each one, I thought that maybe the reason why there seemed to be a dark blotch covering half the view of my left eye was because I was tired. I went on with my day thinking it would go away after a good night’s sleep. I was wrong and found out that I was experiencing retinal detachment.
I had a great doctor, self-described “eye butcher”, who took care of me. At first I was told by others that I might need to stay on my back or stomach for 2-3 weeks. However, after one 24-hour period of staying on my back for 45 minutes of every hour (I was not allowed to even lie down at all the night before), I was able to go back to semi-normality.
This meant no restrictions in my positioning, but I was not able to pick up more than 5 lbs, including my two daughters and infant son, and was told to take it easy. I took two weeks off work and was unable to perform the tasks I was used to as a husband and father. Because of this I took kind of a tough hit. Maybe I felt like I lost my identity, maybe the seclusion and bed confinement were giving me cabin fever. I definitely felt a dark cloud descend, but I got through it and the cloud has since lifted.
Many people have it much worse than this and go through some extremely harsh trials. This causes them to question God’s goodness, power, and love. It seems like a fair question. Why would an all loving all-powerful, all-loving God allow us to hurt?
The answer to the question comes to us in the story told by the Gospels. Who knows suffering more than the Son of God, Who out of great love, came down to earth to be rejected, scorned, tortured, and killed by the very ones He came to save? And even in the midst of our greatest suffering, remembering this fact reminds us that we are immensely loved.
Furthermore, Jesus’ suffering on the cross takes away our sins. We choose sin out of free will, which is given to us by God. It is in this freedom to choose that we are able to reject God. However, without free will, we are merely robots programmed to obey, but with it, we are sons and daughters choosing to lovingly obey our Father.
Everything God created is good. It is human free will that has brought sin and the consequential suffering into the world. He allows this suffering to help us remember not to sin again and for a greater reason.
Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross to take away all sin, however, when we choose to sin, it still hurts us. It hurts our relationship with God, either venially or mortally, and every time we sin, we make it easier to choose to sin. This is done through our choice of pleasure over God.
Therefore, to undo the habit of choosing pleasure over God, we need to continually choose God over pleasure. This can come to us by choice (penance, fasting, and almsgiving), or those pains out of our control (sickness, vision loss, death of loved ones). Either way, any acceptance of suffering can make up for our sins and the we can offer it up for others.
Furthermore, it is during these times of suffering that we can unite our pain to that of Jesus’ on the cross. This is how Jesus transforms and gives value to our suffering. He takes our suffering, unites it to His own, and uses it to save us and others. In this way our suffering merits grace.
This means that a headache could help someone get to heaven. Or my eye surgery and subsequent healing process made up for many of my sins.
How good is that?! God took a consequence of Original Sin and made it into a treasure. We have a treasure in suffering in that we can help others with our pain. And really anything that causes discomfort can be offered up. This includes rejection, stubbed toes, not getting our way, burning dinner, not eating ice cream after dinner, a stomach flu, a minor cold, and much more.
Jesus came to set to the world on fire with His suffering. We can do the same with offering up our own. Our world currently commands us to avoid suffering at all costs, but imagine what it would be like if everyone embraced it like Christ embraced His cross.
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.
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.
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, whichwould 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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