Thursday, March 30, 2017

The "Scratch" on Christ's Chest

Today, I’m thinking about the wound Christ’s body received when the soldier at the foot of the cross thrust his lance into His side.  I’m always mystified when I look at a painting or a crucifix statuary in which the crucified Christ is shown with only a superficial wound, almost like a scratch, at the puncture point.  And … the puncture point always seems to be in the wrong spot … at a point between two ribs.  The photograph accompanying this post shows what I am talking about.

St. John, who was present at the foot of the cross, tells the story of this piercing (Jn 19: 34).   John says that Jesus is already dead, but, for some unknown reason, one of the soldiers who came to check on Christ and the two criminals delivered this dramatic end to the crucifixion event.   John records that when Christ’s body was pierced, “at once there came out blood and water.”  This implies that the lance punctured the heart.

Why do I think that the puncture point is shown in the wrong place?  Well, Christ’s body was on the cross, and it seems to me that His body would have been elevated – maybe as much as six feet above the ground.  The soldier, who was likely standing on the ground, would have had to thrust the lance upward at quite a steep angle, making it impossible to cause the wound to be between two ribs, and into the heart of the upright, though possibly sagging, body.  To me, it is more likely that the lance was pushed upward under the lowest rib making it more like a wound on the right side of the abdomen rather than between two ribs.  And blood and water gushed out?  There would have been evidence of this on the body, i.e., a flow of blood and water below the wound.  It would not have looked like a superficial scratch.

Further evidence of the gruesome nature of the wound is given later by St. John, in which the resurrected Jesus and the doubting St. Thomas come together.  Jesus says to St. Thomas “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”  (Jn 20:27).  Place your hand in my side?  It must have been a massive scar, to be able to put one’s hand in it.

But let us not forget the significance of the piercing and the blood/water flow in all of this.  It was actually surprising that a flow of blood and water would flow from a dead body.  I think, by recounting this story, St. John may be saying that the crucifixion was not an end, but a beginning.  The beginning of the flow of Christ’s saving grace into our hearts, yours and mine. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Face-to-Face With Satan?

Today I’m thinking of the story of Jesus experiencing temptation in the desert (or “wilderness”), following his baptism by John.  The story is told in quite some detail in the Gospels of Matthew (Mt 4:1-11) and Luke (Lk 4:1-13) and is mentioned in passing in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 1:12-3).  Both Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus came face-to-face with the devil and had a conversation with him.  There were three temptations.  Jesus had been fasting, so, first, in both accounts, the devil was quoted as saying that he wanted Him to turn stones into bread so that He would have something to eat.  Jesus refused.  For the second temptation according to Matthew (but the third according to Luke), the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and told Him to jump off, that God’s angels would protect Him so that He would not injure himself.  Jesus again refused, saying that it is wrong to tempt “the Lord, your God.”  The third according to Matthew (second according to Luke) the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain where the view was magnificent.  The devil said that all the land that He sees can be His if He would worship him.  At that, according to Matthew, Jesus seemed angered.  He said “Get away, Satan!  It is written:  ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.’”

My first thought here is this:  Did Satan really take human form and really speak with Jesus face-to-face?  I would say “maybe, but maybe not” because that is not what Satan does when WE are tempted.  When you and I are tempted to commit sin, we don’t see Satan as a human being staring at us.  In our case, His temptation is a thought that causes us to have a conversation with ourselves.   We might say to ourselves, “I think I am going to commit adultery now.  I know it is seriously wrong, but I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.”  We don’t have the devil in front of us in the form of a human being, so we can’t say to him that it is wrong to tempt us like that.  We don’t have him staring at us so that we can say “I love the Lord, my God, and it is Him that I serve.”  We can’t tell him to “get away” because he is not there in human form.

What we can say, though, is that Satan is putting the thought into our head.  He has that power.  He “prowls about the world seeking the ruin of souls” as the prayer to St. Michael states.  He seeks the ruin of souls by putting temptations into our heads in the form of thoughts.  Too often we respond with another thought: “Yes, Satan, this will give me pleasure, so I will go ahead and do it.  I knows it is seriously wrong, but I don’t care.”  That is when we get into serious trouble.  What we need to do is combat the thought with this thought:  “No, I will not do this.  It is a serious wrong.  It offends the Lord, my God.”  Go ahead and say it out loud if it helps:  “The Lord, my God, shall I worship and Him alone will I serve.”

I think that Jesus’ temptations may also have been thoughts put into his head by Satan.  Jesus was God incarnated.  He was a man with a human nature.  He was God come to earth experiencing the human condition, to suffer and die, for our sins.  His prayer in the Garden of Olives demonstrated his humanity:  “Let this cup pass from me, yet not as I will but yours be done.”  In the garden, He was shown to indeed a man like us and He seemed stressed beyond belief with what was about to happen to Him.  So stressed that His sweat became like drops of blood.  He experienced temptations to sin like we do.  He experienced suffering and death, just like we do.  The good news is that he also had a divine nature along with his human nature and, as the Son of God, He saved us from our sins through this horrible suffering and death.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Whatever You Shall Bind on Earth ...

The accompanying photo shows Jesus proclaiming his message of salvation to His disciples.  What is it that he might be saying?  Of course, there are literally hundreds of possibilities.  Today, I’m thinking of this:  “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 shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Mat 16:18-19).  This statement is the basis of what Catholics believe about papal authority.  The “church” is the Catholic Church and Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and thereby became the first pope.  Jesus proclaimed the “bind and loose” statement a second time (Mat 18:18), this time to His other apostles as well as to Peter, thus giving authority to the apostles and their successors, the bishops, as well as the pope.  Today we have the Church’s Magisterium, which includes all bishops in union with the pope.

What sort of things has the church subsequently proclaimed that, by this authority, binds the people on earth?  Though there are many things that the Church has proclaimed as seriously sinful, such as premarital or extra-marital sex, abortion, artificial contraception, euthanasia, etc., I’m thinking specifically of what has come to be known as the six “Precepts of the Church” by which the Church binds Catholics under pain of mortal sin just as the Ten Commandments binds them.  By way of these six precepts, all Catholics are bound to (1) attend Holy Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; (2) receive the Holy Eucharist during the Easter season, (3) if guilty of mortal sin, confess sins to a priest once a year, (4) fast and abstain on appointed days, (5) observe the marriage laws of the Church, and (6) contribute to the support of the Church.

Let’s take the first one as an example.  Why would the Church require such weekly Mass attendance and make it seriously sinful if ignored?  I’m sure it has as its basis, the third of the Ten Commandments:  “Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath.” What more fitting way is there for keeping the Sabbath (Sunday) holy than to “break bread” by attending Holy Mass and receiving the Eucharist?  The Eucharist consists of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine.  Jesus Himself said this:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54).  Attending Holy Mass and receiving the Eucharist is thus the ultimate in holy acts.  The Church only requires it once a week!  How can any Catholic not want to adhere to this simple requirement?  On a personal note, in my retirement, I attend Holy Mass and receive the Eucharist daily.  It is the highlight of my day and I can’t imagine life without it.

Similar statements could be made about all six of the precepts.  The Church has our spiritual well-being in mind always and, despite what you might think or have heard, it is easy.  My prayer today, and every day, is for all baptized but lapsed Catholics to choose the narrow gate (Mat 7:13-14), the gate of salvation, and come back to the Church that Jesus founded.  On Judgement Day, I have to believe that you will be very glad you did.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

International Women's Day 2017

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day 2017.  Given the current political climate on women’s issues, it may be too hot a topic for me to reveal my thoughts on this today.  But, My Thursday Thoughts are just that, and that is what I am thinking about today.  So here we go.

Many women have touched my life, as they have yours, I imagine.  I can name my mother.  I can name my wife.  I can name my daughters.  I can name the Blessed Mother Mary.  I can name my sisters.  I can name my teachers.  I can name many professional women.  I can name women who have been canonized saints in the Catholic Church.  I can name my aunts and nieces.  I can name wives and daughters of friends.  And I can name women in various lots in life with whom I have come into contact.  There are women who have the same or similar worldview as me.  And there are women that have a different worldview compared to me. 

Most everyone would probably heap high praise on their mother and I am no exception.  My father died in a farming accident when I was ten years old.  I was the youngest of five children, four of whom were still living at home, two in their teenage years, when the accident happened.  One brother living at home was a 21-year-old man who was mentally retarded.  Given these circumstances, my mother faced many great challenges during those eight years between the sudden death of her husband and father of her children until I left the farm to go to college.  But, I think I turned out pretty well as did my brothers and sisters.  So, please understand me if I say that she was someone very special.

Respecting their privacy, I will not say too much about my wife and daughters.  What I will say is that I love them dearly and admire them greatly for who they are, especially with regard to their professional careers and their strong and deep affection for the Catholic faith.   God has indeed blessed me in this regard.

Speaking of the Catholic faith, there are those who seem to despise Christ’s Church due to what they perceive as an antiquated stance on women as priests and women at other levels of Church governance.  And this is one point where my worldview is different.  There is no other religion of which I am aware that has elevated women to the level that the Catholic Church has.  I’m speaking of the Blessed Mother Mary.  Next to Jesus Himself, there is no man who has reached the level of honor and praise that she has, either inside or outside  the Catholic faith.  Some would even say that Catholics worship Mary, which, of course, is false.  But that opinion does reveal the position which she holds in the minds of many people.  The problem may be that she is the symbol of motherhood, which today is a symbol that some women do not want to be.  These are women who tend to support the killing of unwanted pre-born children (half of whom are the women of the future) and not the high calling that is humbly referred to as “mom.”

The “Hail Mary” prayer says it all.  In this prayer, we Catholics say what we believe regarding her.  She is “full of grace.”  The Lord is with her.  She and the fruit of her womb are blessed.  She is holy.  She is the Mother of God.  We ask her to pray for us sinners now and also when we die.  Indeed … no other woman (or man, besides Jesus, for that matter) has reached this level of honor, praise, and respect.  International Women’s Day should be her birthday!

Space does not permit me to express my opinions on such issues as equal pay for equal work or sexual harassment in the workplace, and others that deeply hurt women.  Suffice it to say that I agree with those women on the liberal side of politics on these issues, of course.  I only wish we could agree on more than we do.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Some Rich Gospel Messages

I am so excited that we once again are in the season of Lent.  One might ask why so excited, since Lent is a time of penance, sacrifice, and repentance – all things that one would not necessarily enjoy.  I’m excited because of the rich Gospel messages that we encounter once again at Mass this time of year.  The last sentence of today’s Gospel, from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 9: 25), is a prime example:  “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” Many folks, it seems, are intent on making money as the primary objective of their lives.  Young men and women often ask themselves the question:  “What career path would provide me the most money or the most lavish lifestyle?”  According to Jesus, this is the wrong question!  We should rather concentrate on our eternal salvation so that we don’t lose or forfeit ourselves on judgement day.

The message in the gospel at Monday’s Mass is similar.  It is the story of the man who “had many possessions.” Jesus says that, in addition to keeping the commandments, the man should “sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  (Mark 10:17-22).  Jesus followed this up with this:  “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Mark 10:25).  Nonetheless, Jesus then says, despite the impossibility for many to then be saved, “All things are possible for God.”  (Mark 10:27).  For me, the message is that it is okay to seek wealth, but don’t forget the less fortunate in the process and keep your mind focused on God.

We also have the message of humility in the Gospel for the Mass for yesterday, Ash Wednesday.  In this Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)), Jesus talks about righteous deeds, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them …”  “When you give alms, don’t blow a trumpet before you … to win the praise of others.”  “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.”  “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your heavenly Father who is hidden.”

Lent is the time for repentance.  In the Gospel for the Mass for this Saturday, Jesus said:  “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”  (Luke 5:32).  My take is that Jesus is calling all sinners to repentance.  Lent is the season for us to come to realize that we are all sinners and that Jesus is calling us.  Form a picture in your mind of Jesus being nailed to the cross (see accompanying photograph).  It is our sins that caused his agony.  Let us be reconciled to God.  Let us perform righteous deeds.  Let us give alms.  Let us pray.  Let us fast.  And let us be humble when we do these things.  Others don’t have to know.  Only God, who is hidden. Ah, yes, it is an exciting time of year.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lust ... A Mortal Sin or Not?

Several years ago, an Evangelical Protestant friend of mind, who was baptized a Catholic and who had twelve years of Catholic education, posed the following question to me: 

“So in the Catholic world, if a priest, or even the Pope, had a lustful thought towards a woman, which Jesus himself calls adultery (Mt 5:28), and then immediately after that thought, the priest or the Pope has a heart attack and dies, is the priest or Pope going to hell because they didn’t get a chance to repent of that one sin?”

I responded to him at that time, but today I am thinking once again of this question.  First of all, the Catholic teaching is that if person (anyone) dies in the state of mortal sin, that person would be condemned to hell for all eternity.  This includes priests and popes.  It must be no secret to anyone these days that priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes are not perfect and are subject to just as much temptation and sin as any other human being.  There are priests and popes that have been declared saints by the Church, but there are also plenty of priests and popes that have not been declared saints by the Church and may, in fact, be in that place of torment.

Secondly, however, my Protestant friend specifically mentioned the sin of Lust – “a lustful thought.” The question now is:  Is a lustful thought a mortal sin?  In general, a sin is defined as an offense against God.  Some such offenses are serious, while others are not so serious.  For example, murder is serious, but steeling a friend’s pencil is not so serious.  Serious sins are called mortal sins.  Not-so-serious sins are called venial sins.  To answer the question, we must make the determination if “a lustful thought” is venial or mortal.

The Church teaches that Lust, which is one of the seven so-called “deadly” sins as defined by the Church, may or may not be mortal depending on whether the thought is voluntary or involuntary (I refer you to the book Catholicism for Dummies by Fr. John Trigilio and Fr. Kenneth Brighenti, pages 211-212).  If one engages in the conscious and deliberate act of having a lustful thought, meaning that if the sin occurs when you initiate, consent to, and/or continue fantasizing about sexual activity with another person, then that thought is a mortal sin and, if it is not forgiven in the sacrament of Confession, would condemn you to hell.  If it is a spontaneous, involuntary thought, then it would not.

That brings up other Catholic teachings concerning mortal sins.  There are three conditions that must be met in order for a sin to be mortal.  (1)It must be a truly serious offense against God; (2) the sinner must be aware that it is a serious offense; and, (3) knowing that it is a serious offense, the sinner must fully consent to committing the sin.  So, seriousness, awareness, and consent are the three conditions.

I have one final thought on this topic.  We on earth cannot judge others.  We can know seriousness, but we cannot know another’s state of mind as to awareness or consent.  Whether one merits heaven or is condemned to hell is up to our omniscient God on Judgement Day.    

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Serious Prayer is Needed Today

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, I had a pastor in my parish in Lincoln, Nebraska, that used to lament the fact that Catholics today don’t know their faith like they should.  To help with this problem, he created a Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults (RCIA) class (a class non-Catholics take to prepare to join the Catholic Church) and invited both Catholics and non-Catholics alike to attend.  It was (is) a 3-4 month class that met once a week for about two hours.  The word spread far and wide throughout the Lincoln Diocese and beyond and created a bit of a stir.  Registrations for the class included, as requested, both Catholics and non-Catholics and the numbers soon mushroomed.  He decided to videotape the lectures, and even did so outside the classroom for people who could not attend.  I know because I actually did the taping for him with my personal home video camera.  It was good for me, because I exposed again to what I had supposedly learned during my twelve years of Catholic school back in 1954-66.

I am now re-reading a book titled Meat and Potatoes Catholicism by Father Joseph Classen.  Fr. Classen laments the same things, that Catholics today don’t know their faith like they should.  He places the blame on the “new” liberal culture that invaded us back in the 60’s and 70’s and the misguided reaction to the teachings of Vatican Council II.  The intent of Vatican II was to breathe new life into the Church.  It occurred during the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI in 1958-64.  I was in high school when the changes came down.  The changes could be seen during the daily Masses we students attended at the beginning of each school day and included Mass in English instead of Latin, the priest-celibrant facing the people (which meant that a new altar had to be installed in all the Catholic churches worldwide), and new hymns sung in English at the beginning, during the offertory, at Communion time, and at the end.  But there was so much more.

There was also a relaxation of some “rules.”  For example, before Vatican II, Catholics were required, under pain of serious sin, to abstain from eating meat on all Fridays of the year.  After Vatican II, this rule was modified.  This abstinence was now required only during Lent.  It was suggested that, on the other Fridays, a Catholic may choose to abstain, but in its place, perform some other act of penance (in remembrance of the day Christ died, which was a Friday).  All that got communicated at my parish was that we could now eat meat … not the rest.  I think it exemplified how Vatican II directives were often either misinterpreted or ignored.  Something else that stands out for me is the fact that orders of religious sisters took this “breath of fresh air” to mean that they should allow sisters to wear lay clothes instead of the traditional “habits.”  And this meant that the nuns now go to a beauty shop to have their hair styled (for example) like all lay women.  What is wrong with this picture?  Perhaps most serious of all is that many Catholic schools have closed, including the one I attended all those years ago.  That means that generations of our children will now not know their faith like they should.

This post could get very long.  Let me just say that I believe that this list of changes and misinterpretations are the cause of the myriad of problems we are seeing today.  This, along with the liberalization of our culture, both in society in general and in the lives of Catholics, means that there are fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life; that there is a sex scandal among Catholic clergy; that young Catholics leave the Church, especially when exposed to misguided professors and others at our colleges and universities; and that attendance at Mass is down worldwide.  Catholic men and women don’t know their faith.  I lament that fact too, just like my former pastor and like Father Classen. Serious prayer is needed today.