Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Great Period of Trial

In the Catholic Church, this Sunday, November 1, is All Saints Day.  The first reading at the Mass for All Saints Day is taken from the Book of Revelation.  Today, the following verse from this reading is on my mind:  “Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, ‘Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’  I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.’  He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.’” (Rev 7:13-14). 

I’ve asked myself, “What is this ‘time of great distress’, or this ‘great period of trial’ as it was translated in earlier versions of my New American Bible?”  Commentaries I have read say that the author of Revelation (St. John) meant this ‘great period of trial’ to refer to a period of fierce persecution of the early Christians at the hands of the Roman authorities.  This commentary also states that the Book of Revelation remains valid and meaningful for Christians of all time.  So how is it “valid and meaningful” for us today?

Well, first, I understand that, in Revelation, St. John is giving his account of a vision of heaven in the highly symbolic and allegorical language popular in the literature of his day.  I picture him, in this vision, speaking with the elder while viewing the spectacle of the “multitude” standing “before the throne and before the Lamb…” as stated earlier in the account.  It is easy to understand that the throne is the throne of God, that the Lamb is Jesus, and that the multitude consists of the saints of heaven.  But, what of the great period of trial, or the time of great distress, which they have survived?  It seems clear that these terms refer to their time on Earth.

If that is true, then the story is valid and meaningful for us today in that we must survive OUR great period of trial so that we can stand before God upon our death having been made clean by washing our robes and making them white in the Blood of the Lamb.  What must we do specifically to survive it in this way?  That is the question that must be answered.  The interpretation of the Catholic Church is that we must die in the state of grace, free from sin.  It goes back to other Thursday Thoughts that I’ve had.  We must use the Holy Catholic Church as our guide, make use of the Sacraments, be aware of the mercy of God, confess our sins and be ready.  Remember, the end will come “like a thief in the night.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Were Adam and Eve Real People?

I’ve often heard the question “Do you believe that Adam and Eve were real people?”  Well, everyone believed that until the Theory of Evolution changed things.  If the Theory of Evolution is true (and by all accounts, it is), then the thought that in a single event, God created a single man and a single woman from whom we all descended can’t be true.  Well, today I have some thoughts about what just might have happened that is consistent with both, the Book of Genesis and the Theory of Evolution.  It involves the following two verses from Genesis, Chapter 1.  First, “Then God said:  'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'” (Genesis 1:26).  Second, “… the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7).  

Man apparently was created first and then the breath of life came along.  Do you think man was totally lifeless until God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life?  Well, maybe he was just an ordinary animal until that happened.  In other words, maybe the “breath of life” is the soul of man, meaning his intelligence and free will.  That would be consistent with the above verse from Chapter 1 of Genesis, i.e. God made man in his own image and likeness.  After all, how else could the image and likeness of God, who is pure spirit, be a pattern for man, a being with a physical body?  No, perhaps the image and likeness of God is man’s soul.  So to re-cap this new thought:  The breath of life that God breathed into the nostrils of man and the image and likeness of God are both the same thing … man’s soul.   

Now, then, who were Adam and Eve and how does this new thought fit with the Theory of Evolution?  Well, imagine man evolving over many millions of years, just as the Theory of Evolution speculates, and imagine that this evolution was taking place all over the world such that there was, in reality, a whole mass of man creatures just waiting for the breath of life.  Now imagine God choosing one of them, Adam, for this gift of his image and likeness, thus creating a “real” man.  Maybe God saw that it was good and then breathed the breath of life into others of his choosing such that the creation of man was off and running.  It could be that the biblical account was only about one of them, Adam, and later, his descendants.

Of course, the obvious question is “Where was Eve and all the other women creatures when all of these man creatures were getting the breath of life?”  Well, the account of the creation of woman is also in Genesis, Chapter 2.  “So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man.” (Genesis 2:21-22)

Is it possible that men got the breath of life before women did?  Is it possible that man creatures evolved a little faster than woman creatures such that God had to do something special to speed things along so that the man creatures, now with souls, would have a suitable partner?  But to take a man’s rib and form it into a woman?  The answer to that question is going to have to come from future even more innovative Thursday Thoughts.

The photo shows thousands of man and woman creatures gathered to see Pope Benedict during his return trip to Germany in 2011.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Oh, The Mind of God!

Christ died for our sins.  The action of his death on the cross opened the gates of heaven for us.  He saved us from our sins by his death on the cross.  That is why he is called our Savior.  Some would say our “personal Savior.”  Heaven is now open for us as a result of his death on the cross.

Over the years, I’ve had some difficulty fully grasping the meaning of these statements.  How is it that so much has been made of Christ’s crucifixion.  How is it that his death on the cross was such a saving action.  Why did God choose this particular act to save mankind from his sins.  How and why?  How and why?  Today, I’m thinking of some possible answers.

God created us out of love.  The old Baltimore Catechism answered the question “Why did God make us?” by saying “God made us to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, and to be happy with Him in heaven.”  Oh, the mind of God!  He wanted us to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, and be happy with Him in heaven.  But at the same time, He gave us free will.  Can you imagine God talking to Himself, saying “If I make this creature man and make Myself known to him, and he freely chooses to love and serve Me, then I would have made a creature that would be eternally happy with Me in heaven, and what love there would be between us.”  So what went wrong?

Man freely chose to sin instead.  He chose to listen to the Evil One and, even though he knew God, He did not choose to love Him or serve Him.  He chose to sin.  So then it was not possible for man to be happy with God in heaven unless he was somehow redeemed, somehow given a second chance.  Centuries of time passed.  God knew what He would do.  He sent many prophets to let man know what He would do.  And as a result, mankind waited for their savior, the Son of God, to appear.  God even told them that His Son, this Savior, would suffer and die.  This would be the saving action. But how and why?

His son would become one of us … a man.  He would be a man with all human frailties.  He would laugh.  He would cry.  He would experience joy.  He would experience heartache.  He would know pain.  He would know fear.  He would bleed.  He would die.  And all of this was seen starting in the Garden of Gethsemane.  I can imagine Him kneeling there by the rock shaking from head to toe, fearing what was to follow over the next day or two.  He prayed that His Father would take away this challenge so that he wouldn’t have to suffer and die.  But He also prayed that his Father’s will would be done.  And so it happened … a horrible, mind-boggling death.  The saving action.

Before it happened, though, Christ founded His Church as the vehicle by which his saving power would be realized.  Then He rose from the dead and proved that He was God.  And now, His creature man has come to know Him again.  And His creature man can now choose all over again to love Him, to serve Him, and to be happy with Him in heaven.  Oh, yes, the mind of God!  Oh, yes, the genius of God.  Not all of us will make it.  We still must choose that narrow gate, for the Evil One is still with us.  But, oh, what happiness awaits those who do make this choice! 

My prayer for today:  Lord, be at my side as I trudge through the mud of this life.  Whisper in my ear to keep me on the straight and narrow.  Pick me up when I fall, and guide me to the eternal home you have prepared for me from the beginning of time.  Amen.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Sign of the Cross

Today, I’m thinking about the “sign of the cross.”  This is the very public hand motion and prayer that Christians make when beginning or ending another prayer or when otherwise wanting to show their special faith or devotion in regard to some action.  The motion traces a cross on one’s body using the fingertips of the right hand, first to the forehead, then to the breastbone, then to the left shoulder, and finally to the right shoulder.   It is most often accompanied by the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” 

A former pastor at my parish used to say that the sign of the cross is a kind of blessing.  It is like blessing ourselves, or asking God to bless us.  Other blessings that I’ve experienced, such at the end of Mass or when a priest blesses a sacramental, also involve a hand motion in the form of a cross, but just in the air.  I’ve always considered it as telling the Lord that we are about to do something (like say a prayer) in his name, or in the name of the Blessed Trinity.  Some athletes make the sign of the cross, apparently asking God to bless them prior to attempting some sports action, such as a baseball player stepping into the batter’s box.

When we enter a Catholic Church, we dip our fingertips in holy water prior to making the sign of the cross.  This action with holy water is intended to remind us of our baptism while calling down God’s blessing on us.  For many of us, myself included, this action has been so routine that our baptism doesn’t enter our minds.  Lately, because it’s been on my mind, I do recall my baptism and what it means.  Some of us don’t dip our fingerprints in the holy water, nor make the sign of the cross on this occasion, perhaps because they believe the Protestant complaint that it is superstition; that the water is just water and nothing special. 

I remember, growing up, our family always made the sign of the cross before the prayer before meals (in the privacy of our home) or the rosary.  And when we went to a restaurant, we did not pray before the meal, so no sign of the cross.  However, I’ve become more faith-filled since then, and now I do make the sign of the cross and pray the prayer before a meal at a restaurant and I’m very proud to do so.  It’s a very public expression of my faith.

My final thought for today is about the holy water.  Holy water is ordinary water that is specially blessed by a priest, bishop, or deacon.  It is a sacramental – a religious “object” or action created by the Catholic Church as opposed to by Jesus Himself.  One of these days I’ll do a blog post on sacramentals.  In the photograph, Father Maurice Currant is blessing a picture of the Blessed Mother as he makes the sign of the cross in the air above it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Faith, Works, and Boasting

Previously in this space, I have mentioned that there is a particular verse in Scripture that Protestants most often use to argue in favor of “sola fide,” the idea that in order to obtain eternal salvation, all one needs to do is believe.  The verse is Ephesians 2: 8-9, which reads “For by grace, you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.”  I am currently reading a new book by former Protestant and Catholic Answers apologist Jimmy Akin titled The Drama of Salvation and he has a chapter titled “Faith, Works, and Boasting,” a direct reference to this Scripture verse.  Naturally, my interest was piqued.

Now, of course, we Catholics believe that there is more to the gift of faith than to simply say we believe.  This gift also includes the ability to repent and be forgiven.  One can declare faith in Christ, and be quite sincere about it, but then, because of human weakness, concupiscence, etc., go on and commit deadly sins.  Such a person, by Catholic standards, cannot be saved without repentance and forgiveness before death.  

What is meant by “works” and “boast?”  What are the “works” that Saint Paul refers to in this Scripture passage?  Akin claims that there are two kinds of “works” evident in Saint Paul’s writings.  One is works of the law and the other is works of mercy toward our fellow man.  “Works of the law” refers to acts performed by Jews of the day that kept them in compliance with Jewish law and traditions, such as circumcision, eating kosher foods, etc.  Jews that were in compliance with these laws claimed that their salvation was assured because of this compliance, boasting that they were saved by these works.  In this Scripture passage, Saint Paul was warning them that, in the new covenant, salvation is by the gift of faith and not by their own doing … not by these works.

Christ gave us a defined path for the repentance and forgiveness that is required in the new covenant.  He gave us the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Confession.  After rising from the dead and before ascending into heaven, He said “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”  He gave the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins when the sinner repents.  So, yes, we are saved by the gift of faith, but this gift of faith includes the gift of the sacraments when we need to have our sins forgiven.  

My prayer for today:  Lord, thank you for your precious gifts of our faith and the sacraments.  Please help us to nourish our faith so that we can avoid serious sin and seek your forgiveness when we fail.  Amen.