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Penance

In Catholic, Christianity on April 29, 2009 at 3:00 am

Had an interesting conversation with a friend today, a Baptist.  He asked if I confess to a priest and accept penance.  I responded that I do.  He said, “But isn’t penance a ‘work’? Aren’t you doing something to earn forgiveness?  If you confess to Christ and sincerely repent, then you are forgiven.  Why do penance?  It’s like ‘busy work’ assigned as a punishment, or to earn God’s pardon, isn’t it?”

Unfortunately, many protestants have that perception of the Sacrament of Penance. Worse still, that is the perception of many Catholics.  My wonderful Baptist friend is a lapsed Catholic.

The Sacrament of Penance is actually one of God’s most beautiful gifts.  It is Christianity Richly, indeed!  Here’s how. But in describing penance by analogy, please understand that the full richness and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be captured in a formulaic way.  Even a good analogy falls far short of the reality of the sacrament itself.

So, penance:  aren’t we already forgiven? Yes, by God’s grace and mercy.  But think of sin confessed as kids breaking a window while playing baseball.¹ In Christ, the offense is forgiven and the price of the window fully paid.  There is no further forgiveness or payment for sin to be “earned.”  But one problem remains.  The broken window still has to be replaced.  

When we sin, we injure ourselves (and often others).  Part of us is “broken.”  Penance is the process of repairing the window; fixing what was broken; remedying the injury.  For example, if we confess fearfulness, our penance might be to prayerfully read Psalm 27:  “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom do I fear?”  This is not busy work.  This is not punishment. This is God’s grace, restoration, love, and kindness offered to men and women, through the Sacrament of Penance.

Penance?  Yes!  It’s all part of Christianity Richly . . . and thanks be to God for it.

 

¹ Any analogy breaks, if pressed too far.  For example, one might offer the objection, “But the kids playing baseball didn’t break the window deliberately.” If your mindset is to object, rather than to understand, then please assume the batter possessed the necessary skill to deliberately drive the ball through the window of an annoying neighbor.  I trust, of course, that the readers of Christianity Richly have the attitude described by Saint Anselm (✝ 1109): “Faith in search of answers,” not skepticism demanding answers before exercising faith.

Key Posts

In Blog Procedures, Christianity on April 21, 2009 at 1:46 pm

When Christianity Richly launched, I chose a newspaper-like format.  The narrow columns are more readable and the amount of vertical scrolling is limited.  Just three posts appear on the front page.  A list of the fifteen most recent posts appears at the bottom of page one.  The rest are archived, by month. However, this means posts more than 15-20 days old disappear.  They still exist, but can only be seen by clicking on a month or a category (shown at the bottom center of page one).

As a result, every couple of months of so I’ll highlight some posts I think deserve ongoing attention.  Perhaps you’ve just found Christianity Richly.  These posts may be of interest to you.  But even  if you read Christianity Richly regularly, you may have missed a day or two.  And occasionally I’ll highlight something because it relates to something I plan to post over the next week or so.

So, what’s worth a look from Christianity Richly‘s February, March, and April 2009 archives?  Try these:

A longer post, but one worth reading I hope, is Christian and UnChristian.  This post discusses the contrast between how Christianity is perceived by 16-29 year olds, as compared to what the Church says about itself.  How we close this gap is of vital importance.

And finally, if you are a convert to Catholic Christianity—or thinking of becoming one—the 3-post series Battles Converts fight may be helpful (Parts I, II, and III).

The Long and the Short of It

In Blog Procedures, Christianity on April 21, 2009 at 12:41 pm

In the post Thank You Young Catholics, I mentioned everyone seems young to me these days.  Want proof?  Well, I go back to the early days of the Internet—yes, even before Al Gore invented it.  I was on a team that developed one of the first Internet portals, which we sold to AOL in 1995. Even the word “portal” is so Web 1.0!  We hardly use the word today.

What does any of that have to do with Christianity Richly?  Two things:  first, one of the joys of Web 2.0 and social media is that we no longer go to the Web just to find information.  Just as frequently, we go there to find each other.  I follow some wonderful  people on Twitter who I would never have known otherwise: a writer in Phoenix, a technology analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area; an entrepreneur in Upstate South Carolina, as just three examples.  And through social media, I know the writer’s birthday; the antics of the analyst’s dog; that the entrepreneur loves cigars.  

These touches of humanness make the Web far more than an digital reference library, or worse, a channel for instantaneous delivery of spam.  Perhaps I’m not stretching my point by quoting the opening words of Gaudium et Spes: through the Web 2.0, we better understand “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of men and women in our times—just as the Church seeks to know, understand, and respond to these things.  I hope so.  I’ll be returning to that theme soon, in a post on John O’Malley’s book, What Happened at Vatican II.

But my second reason for mentioning the Internet and social media is because micro-blogging sites like Twitter are changing the ways we exchange information.  This post has already reached 297 words.  Twitter is limited to 140 characters (letters and spaces combined)!

So, you’ll find some long posts here, when the importance of the topic merits some length.  But expect some short ones, too, when the point can be made quickly or the scope of the topic is more limited.  And for the shortest possible posts, follow @ChristRichly on Twitter!  And that’s the long and the short of it . . . at Christianity Richly today.

Thank You Young Catholics!

In Christianity on April 20, 2009 at 12:28 am

Fr. Michael Cassabon’s homily at St. Mary’s Second Sunday of Easter was a wonderful reminder that real love—God’s love—goes well beyond the slogans of pop culture like “I’m lovin’ it,” McDonald’s, or Hard Rock Cafe’s “love all, serve all.”  God’s love for us in and through Jesus Christ is genuine love, kindness, and compassion.  We tap into that love through the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance.

But Fr. Cassabon’s homily was a reminder of something else, too:  the richly textured role that young people today are playing in the Church.  As a recent convert, it is hard to adequately describe what an encouragement young Catholics have been to me.  Young people and young priests like Fr. Cassabon, along with John Paul II’s influence upon them, are all bound together when I look back at the ways God led me to the Church.

When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, my wife and I had just moved from California to South Carolina.  The California real estate market had treated us well.  As a result, I had several months off to settle in and find a job.  It was during this period that John Paul II died and I was able to watch CNN’s extensive coverage.

As Fr. Cassabon related this morning, millions of young people flocked to Rome to say goodbye to their Pope.  I had not yet begun my pilgrimage to the Church, but their love for this godly man was striking.  I thought, “This is not a Church on its last legs.”  Nor is this a matter of conservatives battling so-called progressives.  This is something far more vital and significant than scandal-ridden picture of the Church the news media has attempted to portray over the past few years.

In Courage to Be Catholic, George Weigel covers recent challenges the Church has endured.  Yet through all the challenges, and despite the detours stemming from misunderstandings of Vatican II, a magnificent tide of young people are carrying on—no, actually, surging forward and strengthening—the authentic faith and practice of the Catholic Church.

I pray daily for Fr. Cassabon (his first Solemn Mass is here), along with Fr. Christopher Smith who was Parochial Vicar when I began attending St. Mary’s (now at St. Francis by the Sea in Hilton Head).  I pray for Fr. Eugene Florea, of Saints Simon and Jude, whom I met during a trip to Phoenix.  I think of the pew filled with college-age young women, praying next to my wife and me, during at visit to the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.  I give thanks for the godly young men who serve at the altar at St. Mary’s, and their solemnity, leading us into worship.

Too many sentences begin with “I” in the last paragraph. This post is not about me. This post is to recognize and thank the dozens of godly young men and women I’ve met since entering the Church; the “John Paul II” Catholics; the “Benedict XVI” young people, all of whom have recognized and responded to God’s love, manifested through these two extraordinary Holy Fathers.

To each of you, may God’s peace be yours always.  Apologies to any of you who no longer think of yourselves as “young.”  From my vantage point, almost everyone is young. But I distinctly remember not liking the word from the time I was five years old.

That said, my deepest, warmest thanks, for the encouragement you are to me.  Even more than that, thank you—in the love of Christ—for all you are accomplishing and will accomplish, by God’s grace, in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church as it enters its Third Millennium.  You are, and have shown me, Christianity Richly.

Certainty

In Christianity on April 17, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Certainty was one of the most important influences in my becoming a Catholic Christian. The word of God is certain, but interpretations are not.  Yet, it is neither biblical nor reasonable to believe Christ would leave the Church without clear guidance.

Certainty rests upon the Catholic Church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, as the Nicene Creed states—being not simply one “denomination” among many, but the Church that Jesus Christ established.

Good Men Differ?
“Good men differ,” we used to say as protestants.  But diametrically opposed positions—all claiming the Bible as their authority—cannot simultaneously be true.  A PewSpective post underscores the point:

I remember discussing the Eucharist with a Presbyterian friend whose opinion on the subject was very different than mine. He smiled and said, “We can agree to disagree and both leave here friends.” I smiled back. “You bet, but we can’t both leave here right.”

Scot McKnight, in “From Wheaton to Rome,” quotes Irenaeus (Bishop of Lyons in the second century) as saying “the mission of the Church to teach with infallible certitude.” Indeed! It was Dr. McKnight’s article—the work of a protestant theologian—that helped me make sense of the Catholic Church. He cites certainty, history, unity, and authority.

We all want certainty. We don’t just want it, but can reasonably and biblically expect it. “God is not a God of confusion” (KJV, ESV translations of 1 Corinthians 14:33).  Such certainty is achieved in fellowship with the Church that received “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

How is This Accomplished?
How is the “faith once delivered” transmitted and certainty thereby achieved?  The pattern for the Church is found in 2 Timothy 2:2. The apostles chosen by Christ sent forth a subsequent generation of faithful men, who sent forth the next generation of faithful men, who sent forth the next, right up to and including those who are leading Christ’s Church today.  To be a Catholic Christian today is to be in direct contact with faithful men who trace their offices back to the Apostles chosen by Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

To suggest to some evangelicals that Catholics have certainty might seem ironic, since one common protestant objection to Catholicism is, “Oh, those poor people.  They live in such fear.  Don’t they realize they can know they are going to Heaven?” This protestant concern for Catholics only serves to underscore how important certainty is about eternal questions.

Good Men Needn’t Differ
Good men needn’t differ about theological points.  Certainty is found in the Church founded by Christ. After Peter’s affirmation that Christ is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) Jesus said to him:

Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.¹

By this, Jesus Christ confirmed Peter’s profession of faith was divinely inspired and established him as head of the Church—the role today we would call Vicarius Christi, the “Vicar of Christ,” or Pope (“Papa” in Italian, a wonderful, tender title).

Authoritative teaching was promised to Peter, the Apostles, and their successors. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Pastoral Care and the Certainty of Forgiveness
Moreover, pastoral care, along with authoritative teaching, was entrusted to Peter and his successors. Christ not only admonishes Peter to “feed my lambs; feed my sheep” but to “tend my sheep” (John 21: 15–17). Our Lord concludes these remarkable acts by even giving Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the power to forgive sins and reconcile fallen men and women to Himself and His Church:

Jesus then said to the Apostles, “‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” (John 20:21-23).

These are the charters given Peter and the first Apostles of Christ’s Church.

Apostolic succession matters. As Steve Wood once said in a radio broadcast about his experience as a Presbyterian minister and that group’s ordinations, “How could we know we weren’t just a bunch of friends, going through the motions of ordaining each other?” The answer? He couldn’t. He had no certainty.

Certainty matters—and, best of all, certainty is possible.  Christianity Richly!

¹ For evangelical readers of this post, be assured that Catholics humbly trust God for salvation— “perseverance unto glory” in the words of Father Garrigou-Lagrange, director of Karol Wojtyła’s doctoral thesis before Cardinal Wojtyła became John Paul II.
² Matthew 16:17–19

Repentance is Richness

In Christianity on April 15, 2009 at 8:18 am

Having written on April 14th “I want to be a saint,” let no one imagine I actually reckon myself to be one.  That is not false humility.  To see our own shortcomings is a great grace (“not your own doing; it is the gift of God”¹).

Why—automatically; reflexively, almost as if no other conclusion were possible—do we think of ourselves as the good guys?  “Here we are, Lord,” in navy blazers and rep ties; dresses and heels; fashionable, respectable.

At best, we wrap our pettiness in pretty packages.  We paper over the moral cracks and flaws.  At worst, we fail to see our self-reliant foundation crumbling—although at times, Prufrock-like, we sense our self confidence collapsing.  “Whitewashed tombs [nicely starched white oxford cloth shirts and blouses!], which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”²  

I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
—From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (T.S. Eliot) 

Do we want to be saints?  Yes.  Have any of us attained this?  No!  Readings during Holy Week remind us of that. On Good Friday we read John 18-19 in celebration of Our Lord’s Passion. How good but terribly painful it is to play the part of the crowd.  “Behold your king!” we are told. “Take him away, take him away!  Crucify him!” we shout in return.³  Dear God, forgive us!  Forgive us every sin.  Forgive us each time we’ve turned our own way, despite knowledge it was not Your way.  Forgive every time Christ has opened his arms to us, but through our failure to respond, we have yawned and responded, “Crucify him.”

O dear God, I want to be a saint!  But the saints arrived at their destination one day at a time.  What can I do today to take just one more step toward that goal?  Can I say, with Saint Paul, as he wrote to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (3:12).

Christianity Richly?  Perhaps its greatest richness, its greatest grace, is repentance. Lord I am not worthy . . . but only say the word, and I shall be healed.

 

¹ Ephesians 2:8
² Matthew 23:27
³ John 19:15

I Want to Be a Saint

In Catholic, Christianity on April 14, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Early in my journey toward the Church, St. Mary’s eight month RCIA program began (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).  Each Wednesday night, our group of 75+ adults met for instruction as a single group.  Then, with maybe 10-15 minutes remaining before dismissal, we divided into small groups for discussion and prayer.

On the first night of small group discussion, we were asked to introduce ourselves and explain why we were in RCIA.  A variety of reasons were offered, ranging from “just exploring possibilities,” to “feel drawn to the Church,” to “marrying a Catholic.”

One member of the group, however, offered an explanation that stopped most of us cold. He said simply, “I want to be a saint.”  

Be a saint?  What did that mean?  Weren’t we all “saints” in the protestant sense of the faithful; the redeemed?  The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible with which I was raised used the word quite liberally, with 96 occurrences of “saints” and another 5 for the singular form “saint.”  Imagine my surprise when I found only 3 occurrences of “saints”—all very much more specific—when I searched my Catholic New American Bible (NAB).

As audacious as the statement “I want to be a saint” seemed, however, the quality of this person’s life matched the simplicity and directness with which he said it.  Despite our talk of 96 occurrences versus 3, or questions about the formal canonization process, that seemed insignificant beside the the gentleness with which he spoke;  how well he listened; how he treated his children.

Obviously, three admirable attributes don’t make a saint.  But what accompanied his brief testimony was a more difficult to describe beauty of holiness—a life being lived, with as much effort and integrity as possible, pointed constantly toward God.  

“The Church is Holy . . . [and] Her holiness shines in the saints” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 867).  

“I want to be a saint.”  Christianity Richly.

Christian and UnChristian

In Christianity on April 14, 2009 at 2:46 am

Easter Monday was interesting . . . and difficult.  More than once I’ve thought about Luke 9:37—the day after the Transfiguration, when some of Christ’s disciples were confronted with their powerlessness.  “On the next day.”  Caught up in unimaginable glories just one day before, “on the next day” a man tells Christ that His disciples couldn’t help.  In a space of only 24 hours, we can be off the mount and back in the depths of the valley.

What prompted this reflection and a somber day today was the juxtaposition of two readings.  The first was a book I’ve been working through:  What Happened at Vatican II, by John W. O’Malley.  In his chapter “Big Perspectives on a Big Meeting,” he uses the phrase rhetoric of invitation to describe the tone of the Council (p. 47).

The starkly contrasting reading was a link in an email, pointing to UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters.  Employing research by the Barna Group, the authors of UnChristian claim that words like “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old fashioned,” “too political,” and “out of touch with reality” were used by a vast majority of respondents between the ages of 16-29 to describe Christianity.  A YouTube interview with one of the authors describing his reactions to the research appears here.

What’s the point for Christianity Richly readers?  One’s initial reaction, of course, might be skepticism.  Not knowing the religious background of the Barna Group’s sample, one wonders what percentage of respondents have any genuine knowledge of Christianity?  To ask the opinions of people—young or old—who have only distant, second-hand acquaintance with Christianity would be akin to asking people who have never seen a basketball game whether they think the game might be fun to play, or an aid to fitness.

To dismiss this research, however, would be to ignore the reality that the face of evangelical Catholicism and John Paul II’s new evangelization is turned outward.  Whatever the qualifications of Barna’s respondents to make judgments about Christianity, they are souls for whom Christ died and rose again to redeem.

So, how do we reconcile the gap between the the richness of Christianity, contrasted with the perception it is hostile, hypocritical, and out of touch?  The answer is love. What was Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical?  Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).  What was in John Paul II’s heart as he wrote about the tens of thousands of young people with whom he had connected around the world?

I saw them swarming through the city, happy as young people should be, but also thoughtful, eager to pray, seeking “meaning” and true friendship . . . Sometimes when we look at the young, with the problems and weaknesses that characterize them in contemporary society, we tend to be pessimistic. The Jubilee of Young People however changed that, telling us that young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ.

A rhetoric of invitation.  The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.  Forced faith is not faith.  Love.  Most of all, the absolute certainty that God’s love for every person—young or old, who misunderstands the richness of The Faith—is bigger than the obstacles that stand in the way of reaching them.

Making a Difference in Us

In Christianity on April 12, 2009 at 6:57 pm

Easter morning!  A time of joy and celebration.  A morning of resurrection; transformation, from death to life—and the promise that we, too, shall rise.  The Risen Savior of that first Easter morning should make a difference in our lives.  The richness of life in Christ shows itself, as the reality of our conversion produces holiness.  

One clear manifestation of His life within is a sense of transcendence and reverential awe.  We become aware that we have been made part of something—Someone—much bigger than any of us.  Every Christian is part of the Body of Christ.  That is accompanied by immense privileges, privileges in worship and service that should humble us and bring us to our knees in joy and awe. “Come, then, let us bow down and worship, bending the knee before the Lord, our maker” (Psalm 95:6).

Along with immense privileges, come responsibilities and even restraints: in a word, obedience.  I am no longer the final word.  It is not for me to choose what teachings of the Church I follow or don’t follow.  When an adult convert is received into the Church, he or she is asked to affirm that they believe all the Catholic Church holds and teaches.  In the renewal of baptismal promises at Easter. the members of Christ’s Body are reminded that we are renewing “promises made in baptism, when we rejected Satan and his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy Catholic Church.”

What else will we see in Christ’s transformation of our lives?  By God’s grace, we should see increased purpose and persistence in prayer.  Here, the Church offers so many helps that are unavailable (or perhaps we should say “un-availed upon”) by separated brothers and sisters.  

Many outside the Church imagine that only Catholic Christians read their prayers.  In fact, the Puritans and many in the Puritan tradition frequently employed, not extemporaneous, but written prayers.  As Arthur Bennett notes in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions:  Many Puritans “wrote down a record of God’s intimate dealings with their souls . . . to test their spiritual growth, and to encourage themselves by their re-perusal in times of low spiritual fervor.  Others . . . turned their personal devotions into corporate forms for family worship, and published them to the church at large.”  

Catholic Christians enjoy the riches of 2,000 years of concentrated prayer.  Today, the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, and numerous well-established devotions allow us to pray with the saints; with the Church; with our brothers and sisters all over the world.

Finally, the resurrection of Our Savior will manifest itself in our lives through victory over sin.  Are you struggling against a persistent evil in your life—a besetting sin?  Saint Paul writes of your struggle (and mine):  “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no long I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:20).  What is the answer?  “Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ . . . I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25, 8:38-39).

The Risen Christ, the Savior of Easter morning, lives to help.  Trust Him—and obey!  Perhaps that sounds too simple.  Yet, He died to redeem us; to give us victory over sin.  Look to the Risen Lord!  Yes, He is Lord.  Yes, obedience is our responsibility and privilege.  But this is not servile obedience.  His banner over us is love (Song of Songs 2:4)!

Say What You Mean

In Christianity on April 11, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Holy Saturday.  A day for meditation.  

The Stations of the Cross were broadcast over our local Catholic radio station yesterday, and I was praying them as I drove to church for Good Friday Veneration of the Cross.  I have three prayer books, each of which contains completely different prayers for the stations.  During the broadcast, however, I heard yet another prayer that included the words, “I wish to die with Thee.”

Do we?  

In the deepest, most authentic sense, if death with Christ were required of me, I believe—only by God’s grace and all thanks to Him!—I could say those words sincerely.  But surely we must be very, very careful about what we say without careful reflection?

Growing up Baptist, a frequently sung hymn included the words,  “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away; it was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.”  Yes, if one thinks carefully about the consequences of redemption, then joy fills one’s heart even on those days when one is not terribly happy.  Yet too often I sang those words with neither thought nor much happiness, simply bouncing along on the dotted quarter, eighth note rhythm.

Listening to the radio yesterday my reaction was not that mindless, but was probably more like Paul Claudel’s, in his first prayer at the conclusion of A Poet Before the Cross:

Age has weakened my ears and my eyes.  I am beginning to feel around me all the symptoms of that period of life spoken of by Ecclesiastes, “the street doors shut . . . man is for his everlasting home.”  My everlasting home! Why, Lord, that is what I want, but after all, am I not already here?  Only here do I feel really comfortable.  I am like one of those old men in a General Store of the Far West.  He doesn’t speak.  He doesn’t buy anything.  But they let him stay there because he’s no trouble.  He doesn’t listen to the conversation going on around him, but he follows it from time to time when it coincides with his own thoughts.  He is there as if he didn’t exist, and someone seeing him close to the stove might think that he has nothing else to do in life but warm himself at that inside sun.

“Why, Lord, of course I am eager to join you in my everlasting home; of course I wish to die with Thee, but after all . . . .”  

I am so thankful that, through grace given by God the Holy Spirit and good catechesis, those words brought me up short and forced me to think, “Do I really mean what I am praying? Do I want to die with Christ?”  Moreover, and more to the point for those of us not called to martyrdom, am I dying to self and taking up my cross daily (Luke 9:23)?  Has my old self been crucified with Him (Romans 6:6)?

For one who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we also will live with Him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  For the death He died, He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives, He lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

May Easter morning, and each day until we celebrate this joyous occasion again next year, find us dead to sin and self—and alive in our Risen Lord!

Pilgrim Pavement

In Christianity on April 10, 2009 at 3:31 pm

We have entered the Easter Triduum—three days pilgrimage from the evening of Maundy Thursday to the joy of Easter.  During this time, we have one focus: Jesus Christ.

  • Maundy Thursday, Our Lord institutes of The Lord’s Supper.
  • Good Friday, a time for silence and meditation, particularly during the hours of Our Lord’s Passion.
  • Holy Saturday, a day of waiting; a reminder we live in the “already, but not yet,” between the victory Easter represents and Christ’s glorious return.
  • Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, the realization that “God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . in His great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”! (1 Peter 1:3)

This Triduum procession mirrors the journeys of our lives and of Christ’s Church. “The Church . . . will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven, at the time of Christ’s glorious return.  Until that day, the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations.”¹

Few writers have expressed the nature of our pilgrimage and of God’s consolations as well as Margaret Ridgeley Partridge, whose “Pilgrim Pavement” was set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1934. 

Can you hear adown the future, echoes of a moving throng
Treading down the Pilgrim Pavement, in procession millions strong? 
Can you see their rapt expression, do you hear the choral beat
Of their pilgrim song and psalter, can you mark their sandaled feet,
Slow advancing toward the altar, toward the candles tall and white;
Toward the focal point of worship, where the pavement leads to Light.

Restless feet returning weary, from dim avenues of care,
From the vast dissatisfaction, to the vaster aisles of prayer.
Entering with steps that falter or that forward surge apace,
Seeking, finding, strength and solace, where the pavement leads to Grace.

.  .  .

O Presence ever waiting, O Rose of Sharon there!
Shedding your balm forever on human grief and care,
O mystical renewal of forces lost and spent,
O touch of Love supernal, all healing Sacrament.

O changing wheaten wafer, that veils the changeless One!
O chalice of the Living Grape still lay
Thy Grace upon the lips that here will seek Thee
Through ages yet to be
The pilgrims who since Bethlehem
In faith have searched for Thee.²

May God grant each one of us a richly blessed Good Friday, as we continue our Triduum pilgrimage.

¹ Cathechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, ¶ 769
²
“Pilgrim Pavement”.  The copyright holder for this work is uncertain, but the complete text (not reproduced here), along with Vaughan Williams musical setting, is available on Chandos Records, Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5.  

 

Battles Converts Fight, Part III

In Catholic, Christianity on April 9, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Having written two posts on the challenges converts face, I thought I was  probably finished with the topic.  One post dealt with the difficult of not entering the Church, when the coherent doctrine and the richness of Catholic Christianity is so compelling. The other dealt with the unique challenge converts face, fearing they have been deceived (or are deceiving themselves), despite careful study and prayer. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when in the middle of Holy Week 2009 I was struck by absolute terror that perhaps I had fallen into error—a fear made worse because, through writing and teaching, I am pointing others in the same direction. James 3:1 is very clear that teachers will be judged with greater strictness.

I confessed my fear in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that same day.  My penance, by God’s grace, helped me realize that when these fears strike, we must go back to basics.  Psalm 27:1—”The Lord is my light and my salvation.”  Whose cross will I reverence on Friday?  Whose resurrection are we so eagerly awaiting to celebrate on Easter Day?  The Lord is my light and my salvation.

Yet back to basics in no way means “just me and my Bible,” a Church-less faith. Christ’s Church serves as a curb to our subjective fears and feelings.  It is, as 1 Timothy 3:15 says, “. . . the pillar and ground of the truth.”

  • Christ founded His Church.  He appointed Apostles and gave them authority to teach and to appoint others.  That apostolic succession and promise of teaching authority comes right down to today (and beyond!).
  • The Sacraments are not dependent on my feelings or any man’s doing.  Yes, God be thanked, our priests are set apart—called to do a work I cannot do.  But when we are baptized; when the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ; when we are absolved of our sins, God “does the doing.”  It is God’s action, God’s power, and God’s sovereignty that gives grace through the Sacraments; His power guarantees that these signs accomplish what they signify.
  • Scripture and Sacred Tradition are always there to guide us.  When we begin to think, “Did I?” or “Have I?” or “Am I?”, the second word in each of those questions is dangerous.  Go back to the Bible.  “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (St. Jerome).  Go back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  One of the biggest red flags in conversation among Christians, or when musing on something ourselves, is “Well, I think.”  With all due respect for reason and disciplined study, what I think must be congruent with what the Bible teaches; what the living magesterium of the Church has taught and is teaching us.

May God bless this Maundy Thursday to each one of us, and through Word and Sacrament, may the peace of the Lord be yours always.

Welcome New Readers

In Welcomes on April 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Welcome to new readers of Christianity Richly, many of whom have been sent this way by Father Dwight Longenecker’s kind mention at Standing on My Head. Comments and emails from those of you new to Christianity Richly have been wonderfully encouraging.  I pray that all who visit will find something that, used by the Holy Spirit, will continue to shape each one of us in the beauty of holiness.

Having spoken of Father Longenecker, let me also point you to his article, “A Little Way Through Lent,” in the March 1-7, 2009, issue of National Catholic Register.  Despite my admiration for Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, I had previously had difficulty grasping the “little way.”  But by God’s grace and in the context of Father Longenecker’s article, these words finally hit home—hard!

She realized that all the heroic deeds without charity are worth nothing.  She writes, “You know well enough that our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”

How many times have I steeled myself to do the right thing, even if unwillingly or with mixed motives?  Dear God, continue to change me!  Let me begin by practicing the small things cited from a letter written by Thérèse to her sister Celine:

I seek little opportunities, mere trifles, to give pleasure to Jesus; for instance, a smile, a pleasant word when inclined to be silent and to show weariness.  If I find no opportunities, I at least tell Him again and again that I love Him; that is not difficult, and it keeps alive the fire in my heart.  Even though this fire of love might seem extinct, I would still throw little straws upon the embers, and I am certain it would rekindle.

We have almost passed through Lent to reach the glorious day of the Resurrection of Our Savior. But the seemingly small sacrifices of Thérèse’s little way are not intended to end with Lent.  May we incorporate them into our daily lives as one more means of attaining what Thomas Dubay calls “heroic virtue,” and in honor of St. Thérèse we might add, “heroic love.”

Helps for Faith

In Catholic, Christianity on April 6, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Early in my journey to becoming a Catholic Christian, I met a wonderful young couple who were protestant converts to the Orthodox Church.  When I asked about their conversion, one of the reasons they gave was the helps, or aids to faith, they had found.  At the time I was curious but didn’t pursue the point.  Since entering the Church, however, I’ve discovered exactly what they meant!  Here are just a few of the helps that contribute to the immense richness of the Catholic (and Orthodox) Christianity.

The Church Year.  Growing up Baptist, I had little idea what terms like Advent, Lent, Ash Wednesday, or Good Friday meant.  What a shame! The rhythm of the Church Year, from season to season, keeps us grounded in reality—the reality of eternity: our progression from sin to salvation; mortality to immortality.

The Communion of Saints.  I had been taught “the saints” were simply those good Christians around me.  Yet, I always knew the Church extended forward and backward in time.  What a joy it was to discover that the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) were neither unconcerned nor unavailable to me as prayer partners!

Prayer.  For years I struggled to maintain a consistent daily prayer time.  By God’s grace I was often successful, but what I did felt improvised. Imagine to my surprise, after entering the Church, the disciplined routine I developed resembled a poorer version of the Liturgy of the Hours—the longtime prayer of the Church.  And when praying the Liturgy of the Hours, my brothers and sisters worldwide are praying with me; I am now caught up in communal Christian prayer.

Liturgy.  I have written elsewhere about liturgy at much greater length.  Much more could be said, but let’s leave that for another time.

The Sacraments.  Growing up, I was taught there were two ordinances:  baptism and The Lord’s Supper.  We didn’t call them sacraments.  That didn’t come until later, as a Presbyterian.  What are the Sacraments?  They are grace given!  By God’s sovereign act, the Sacraments actually accomplish what they signify.  Praise God they don’t depend on me, or understood rightly, even my priest.  They are the gracious action of God, objective and outside myself.

Helps.  Gracious helps, more numerous than mentioned here.  Christianity Richly.

Christ’s Body and Blood

In Catholic, Christianity on April 6, 2009 at 6:09 pm

In proclaiming Christianity Richly, nothing compares with the richness of Christ’s body and blood offered to the twelve at The Last Supper—and still offered to us today.  This is “the source and summit” of our Christian experience.  I was reminded of this today, while reading Fr. Peter John Cameron’s editorial opening Magnificat‘s Holy Week volume.

Writing about this takes us into deep waters, of course.  The challenge stems from the immensity of Christ’s declaration in John 6:53: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  The implications of that statement push us into the depths of denominational differences.  Yet without ignoring the force of Christ’s words (we’ll come back to them), surely even the most restricted definition of what takes place at The Lord’s Table must nevertheless rank among our richest moments of communion with the Lord.

Let’s survey three traditions.  In our differences, we still see brilliant glimpses of the richness of life in Christ.  For a Baptist, the meal is a solemn memorial, to be joined only after carefully examining oneself.  For a Presbyterian, it is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, dependent upon the work of the Spirit and the word of institution. For the Lutheran, it is the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine.  None of these celebrations are insignificant occasions.

The Catholic Christian affirms each of those highlighted phrases, and then underscores (based on John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11) that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood—the Real Presence—of our savior Jesus Christ.  Described in this way, perhaps, a Catholic Christian’s joy in the richness of The Eucharist seems not only less strange or unfamiliar, but entirely scriptural, as well.   

Yes, the Real Presence stretches the finitude of our minds.  Yes, even when those following Christ heard the words “eat my flesh and drink my blood” from the Savior’s own lips, many of his disciples protested this was a “hard saying,” and they “turned back and no longer walked with Him.”  Yet Jesus didn’t allegorize or explain away what He had said.  And when Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he simply repeats Christ’s words, saying . . . “This is my body, which is for you.”

This is My Body.  Source and summit.  Christianity Richly.

Richness of Thought

In Catholic, Christianity on April 5, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Christianity Richly can be described in many ways.  In some cases richness is described by analogy, as in Psalm 63:5, “My soul shall be filled as with rich food.” In other cases, we directly experience richness through Christian art, architecture, and music. In other circumstances, we sense great richness—even if only momentarily—as worship transcends our “earthbound-ness” and takes us to the edge of the eternal.

Disciplined thought also ranks among the great riches of Christianity, although this treasure is sometimes undervalued within the Church, and almost entirely discounted outside her.  Yet the world is going to need disciplined, Catholic thought to survive the next few centuries, if Christ does not return in the interim. Why?  Because unthinking Christianity is an ineffective witness against the onslaught of evil the world faces.

This thought struck me this morning, as I was reading Janet Smith’s, Humanae Vitae a Generation Later.  After 100 pages of carefully reasoned preparation, she writes, “Human life is such a great good that it is considered to be an intrinsic good (as opposed to an instrumental good).”  

There you have it, in 22 words: the answer to the abortion controversy; the answer to euthanasia and assisted suicide; the answer to medical cost/benefit analysis, and much more.

Disciplined thought.  Christianity Richly.

Battles Converts Must Fight, Part II

In Catholic, Christianity, Postmodernism on April 4, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Having written that it can be difficult not to enter the Church (Battles Converts Must Fight, Part I), many converts still face doctrinal questions and spiritual struggles that contradict that statement.  In talking with others whose spiritual journey took them into the Church, one common theme emerges—the question “Am I being deluded?  Am I fooling myself?  Is a force at work within to deceive me?”

This struggle was difficult.  I use myself as an example, not because I am in any way noteworthy, but because I know my own journey best. Still, this question may be the biggest hurdle well-taught biblical Christians will face on their way home, to the Church.

The argument with oneself against the Church goes like this:  “All that I have found in the Catholic Church—all the richness, the joys, and the beauty of holiness—may only be Satan disguised as an angel of light and his servants masquerading as agents of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).  Shouldn’t I reconsider and retreat from all that I have found, lest I be deceived?”

By God’s grace, this struggle was resolved for me on Good Friday, 2006.  Here are the notes made in my Bible:

All good gifts come down from the Father (James 1:17).  If we give good gifts to our children (and we are fallen creatures) how much more shall our Father give the Holy spirit when we ask (Luke 11:13)?  Therefore, never be afraid Satan disguised as an angel of light is deceiving you, because He Who is in us is greater than the fallen demon who is in the world (1 John 4:4). Never fear that Satan is deceiving you when the Holy Spirit, through scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) and the Church Christ founded (Matthew 16:18), is leading.  And never commit the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit by attributing His work to Satan (Matthew 12:32).

To think otherwise is to enter a postmodern rabbit hole, where nothing you see is what it seems to be, and nothing you hear is what was the Author intended to say.  One could run in endless circles on such a path: “Well, if it seems good, it must be bad.  But if it seems bad (austere or difficult), then it must be good.  So, if I am drawn a certain direction, I should do the opposite.  But if the opposite now seems wrong to me, then it is probably right—because I was about to be wrong about what is right.”

This amounts to rational and linguistic suicide.  See Kevin Vanhoozer’s, Is There a Meaning in This Text?.  

Instead, believe what you see; be assured you are continuing in what you have learned and believed (2 Timothy 3:14); and rejoice that, like Apollos under the instruction of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24-26), you have been invited home, where you will find the way of God explained more adequately.

Battles Converts Must Fight, Part I

In Catholic, Christianity on April 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Let me be clear:  Christianity Richly is about the joys of life in Christ—the rich interior and communal life in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Having said that, depending on your faith tradition (small “t”), if God is leading you to become a Catholic Christian, you will fight battles almost every day until you enter the Church.  Some of those battles, even if graciously contested, may be with family and friends.  But most of the battles will be with yourself.  You will experience moments of interior discomfort no one would believe, unless they have been on the same journey.

What kind of battles?  You will find yourself in conflict, not because the Church is difficult to enter, as a result of her doctrine or rituals.  Rather, with study, you are quite likely to find the Church is difficult not to enter!  Her joy in Christ and the beauty of holiness, her aids to spiritual growth, and the Church’s  biblical foundation will begin to almost irresistibly draw you.

The pilgrim who prays daily, “Show me the way, Lord; show me any untruths; show me any lack of conformity to scripture; show me any error in this way,” will be led to see that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is the Church established in Matthew 16, verses 13-19.