Another View of Christmas

Merry Christmas!

Only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, include accounts of the Nativity and childhood of our Lord. John’s gospel has a pre-infancy narrative (to put it mildly), focusing on the pre-incarnate, eternal Christ, God from all eternity before he took flesh from the womb of the Virgin. Mark also omits this material, although the incipit (opening words) of his gospel contain perhaps the most arresting Christmas message of all:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

With this short sentence, Mark has immediately captured the attention of the entire world, both Jew and Gentile. It’s like a slap in the face, or a dousing with ice-cold water. To paraphrase Saint Paul, first for the Jew: Jesus is the Christ. And Christ is, of course, not Jesus’ last name, but the Greek form of Messiah.

Then for the Gentile: Jesus is the “Son of God”. Mark’s gospel was originally addressed to Rome, and what stands behind it is the eyewitness testimony to Christ’s life of Peter, the Church’s first pope, martyred in the Eternal City. But “Son of God” did not mean to the first-century readers of the gospel what it means to many today. For the Romans, the only “Son of God” they knew of was the emperor. Julius Caesar, the first of the Caesars, was postumously declared to be a god. Every Caesar afterwards, from Augustus on (who reigned as Emperor when Christ was born), was declared to be the divine “Son of God” and “Universal Savior of Human Life”. Many ancient Roman inscriptions have been uncovered to this effect. Even Augustus’ birthday was declared to be “the birthday of the god”.

Moreover, each time Rome won a military victory, or a new Emperor took the throne, it was published throughout the empire as “Good News”. In fact, the very reason why Jesus was derided in his passion by the Roman soldiers the way he was (the purple robe, the crown of thorns as opposed to a garland of laurel, and the mock homage paid to him – “Hail, King of the Jews!”) was to imitate, in jest, the coronation ceremony of the emperor (“Hail, Caesar!”). Little did they know what sort of King they were dealing with.

This why Mark’s very first sentence was a challenge to the entire world, both Jew and Gentile alike. “In your face, Caesar!” is how one scholar describes it. To us, we who have heard the life of Christ so often that it almost seems routine, the first verse of Mark can seem trite. But when we read it through the eyes of a first-century subject of the Roman Empire, it is bracing.

This is why one of the most important persons mentioned in Mark’s gospel is the Roman Centurion who stood by the cross of the dying Jesus. After years of serving Caesar, he is moved by Christ’s death, and realizes, “Truly, this man is the Son of God” (Mark 15:39, emphasis mine). Jesus is the true divine Son of God, not Caesar. He is the true Universal Savior of Human Life. It is the day of his birth that is “the birthday of the God”. And it is he who deserves our allegiance, this Christmas and always. Merry Christmas, and may God bless you.

Postscript: The image selected for this post, Lorenzo Lotto’s Nativity, contains a crucifix in the background. Fitting, for the shadow of Calvary hung even over Bethlehem. The Nativity of Christ is the Christmas gift given. The Crucifixion is the gift torn open. The Eucharist is the gift received.

“Quantum” and the True Solace

(My article in Catholic Insight‘s December issue.)

James Bond is film’s most enduring character. Now in his 22nd official movie, agent 007’s latest celluloid adventure is called Quantum of Solace. The title is borrowed from a heretofore little-known Bond short story by creator Ian Fleming. 

It’s a double entendre: “Quantum” is the nefarious terrorist organization Bond battles in the film. A quantum is also defined as “a share or portion”. Bond is searching for his piece of peace, his own “quantum of solace”, following the events of the last installment, the superior Casino Royale (2006).

Quantum of Solace is an incredibly stylish film, and moves along at a much quicker pace than its predecessor – in fact, it’s the shortest Bond film in history, whereas Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, was the longest. The added time did allow for proper character development. But Quantum‘s director, Marc Forster, had a different vision for his film – he wanted it to be faster – in his words, “like a bullet”.

Royale was a reboot of the series, where we discovered, along with new Bond actor Daniel Craig, how Bond becomes Bond, the British Secret Service agent with the license to kill. He also falls in love with the beauteous Vesper Lynd, who, forced to betray him and overwhelmed by guilt, commits suicide. Quantum picks up the storyline as Bond seeks revenge on those responsible.

At one point in Royale, Bond says to Vesper, “Do what I do for long enough, and there won’t be any soul left to save”. For love of her, he actually resigns from Her Majesty’s Secret Service until Vesper’s death. In Quantum, Bond gets back to the business of spying – and losing his soul – with a vengeance. This occurs in four ways:

Bond is saturated with sex, but never finds True Love. After losing Vesper, Bond (perhaps brokenhearted) reverts to his old, philandering ways in Quantum with fetching fellow agent Strawberry Fields. Her name – and “crude” fate – recalls Bond girls of the ‘60s, one of several nods to early 007 films. Vesper once chided him, “You think of women as disposable pleasures”. Clearly, Bond has not read Humanae Vitae, also from the ‘60s. He has yet to overcome lust, or discover that the self-gift of matrimonial sexual love points toward the Trinity itself – an eternal exchange of love. Only in light of the God who is Love will Bond discover the love he truly desires.

Bond is immersed in intelligence, but never knows Truth. Ethical dilemmas abound in Quantum. The CIA is in bed, so to speak, with the baddies, and so are the Brits. Bond’s boss/den mother, M (Judi Dench) is told by a British official that “If we only did business with good people, we’d have no one left to trade with”. Rene Mathis mentions to Bond that “When one is young, right and wrong are easy. When you’re older, it gets harder to tell”. Perhaps Pilate was thinking the same thing when deciding what to do with Jesus. When he asked Christ, “What is truth?” Truth itself was looking back at him. Today, like us, Bond has to battle more than dictators. He has to deal with what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism”.  

Bond is drawn to beauty, but never apprehends the Beautiful. From Tom Ford suits to Aston Martins, from exotic locales to fetching femme fatales, Bond has a taste for the finer things in life. But his keen powers of observation never notice what Fr. Thomas Dubay dubs “the evidential power of beauty” – that beautiful things point to the beautiful God who made them – and him.

Bond is merciless without finding Mercy. The ‘blunt instrument” of the last film is armed with razor-sharp, and lethal, hand-to-hand combat skills, courtesy of the stunt team from the Bourne trilogy. Regrettably, like those films, Quantum suffers from hard-to-follow quick cuts in the action, most of which involves Bond taking full advantage of his license to kill. But Bond, at a key moment, unexpectedly spares an adversary’s life. Why? To prove a point to M, or so he can sleep at night? Perhaps he heeded Mathis’ advice: “Vesper gave everything for you. Forgive her. Forgive yourself”. Has 007 learned mercy? We shall see. But we must learn it – from our divine teacher, Christ, who truly gave everything for us, so we could forgive and be forgiven. As a fictional character, Bond can’t really discover this. Only we can experience Jesus, the Prince of Peace, our true Quantum of Solace.

Humanae Vitae: A Buried Treasure Conference

I was invited to speak at the Humanae Vitae: A Buried Treasure Conference held at the University of Toronto on Saturday, November 15. Despite the dreary weather, approximately 400 people jammed into the Sam Sorbara Auditorium, with over 200 people being turned away, either at the door or by phone, who were looking for tickets! I can’t lie – they certainly weren’t there to see me! 

The other speakers included such luminaries as Ottawa’s Archbishop Terence Prendergrast, our very own Archbishop Thomas Collins, Father Thomas Lynch, Director of Priests for Life Canada, musician Mark Mallett, and Dr. Maria Kraw, who spoke on the medical dangers of contraception. 

The phenomenal crowd was proof that the message of Humanae Vitae is still fresh, even in our day – in fact, it’s needed now more than ever. My topic was the Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II. Appropriately so, because JPII viewed the TOB as the full flowering of Humanae Vitae.

It really felt like a family event for me – Archbishop Prendergrast was formerly Archbishop of Halifax, where I used to live. Of course, Archbishop Collins is my spiritual father now. Fr. Lynch reconciled me to the Church in ’04, hearing my confession. Dr. Kraw was my wife’s roommate in university. It’s like six degrees of Kevin Bacon!

(Hat tip to Jenny Beraun for the photo of yours truly, preaching up a storm!)

Proving Purgatory

(Here’s my latest article, from Catholic Insight magazine’s November issue.)

November sees two familiar events in the liturgical year for Catholics – All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2). We pray for the latter, that they might join ranks of the former. That’s because All Souls’ Day is largely about helping the holy souls in purgatory attain the Beatific Vision of heaven.

Lost, a popular ABC television program, was once thought to be about purgatory. The story centres around a plane crash on a mysterious, supernatural island. Many of the survivors attempt to “atone” in some way for past sins. Although this theory about the enigmatic show’s meaning has since been discredited by its creators, it sparked a new interest in the actual reality of purgatory for many. 

But what exactly is purgatory? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). One thing it is not is a “second chance” for those condemned to hell after death: “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031). 

But even the very existence of purgatory, like the strange island of Lost, is highly dubious to many non-Catholics. Protestants view the idea as an unbiblical “invention” of the Catholic Church. Can their objection be sustained?

Many claim that since the word “purgatory” is not found anywhere in Scripture, that is sufficient proof of its non-existence. The word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture either, but that does not mean that the doctrine is not taught therein. In fact, all  Christians believe that it is, implicitly. The question really is, is the concept of purgatory scriptural?

The Old Testament says this of Judas Maccabeus: “For if  he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But…it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc. 12:43–45). It is not necessary to pray for those already in heaven. As for people in hell, no amount of prayer can extract them (cf. Luke 16:19-31). There must be an intermediate state where those who are destined for heaven, yet still bound in some sense to sin, can be purified. 

Of course, 2 Maccabees does not appear in the Protestant biblical canon. One of the reasons it was removed from their Bibles is that the very “Catholic” doctrine of praying for the deceased who may be in purgatory is so clearly stated here. At the very least, this pericope highlights the fact that our Jewish forbears believed in such a doctrine. It was not “invented” by later Catholics.

In Matthew 12:32, Jesus himself refers to sin that “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come”. This implies, along with 2 Maccabees, that the temporal punishment due to sin can be expiated after death. 

Saint Paul writes about one whose work is tested by God in the “Day” of judgment and is found wanting: “he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). No one “suffers loss” in heaven – in fact, no one suffers at all there! Yet, this passage cannot refer to hell, either, for salvation does not occur there. This has to do with a purifying state.

The Book of Hebrews is startlingly clear: “Strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). If no one will see the Lord unless they are holy, what happens to those not fully sanctified before death? They may be forgiven sinners in a state of grace, but they may not yet have attained the Christian perfection of a Mother Teresa, either. 

God will complete his sanctifying work in his people, even if it occurs after death, in purgatory, making us capable to whistand the Beatific Vision. Consider the words of Revelation: “nothing unclean shall enter” the heavenly city (21:27). God must remove the imperfections in our soul and complete any temporal punishment due to sin (the eternal guilt having been forgiven) for us to dwell in his holy temple. 

Scripture, along with the teaching of the Church, is clear: the one who “invented” purgatory is none other than God himself. He saw to it – so we could one day see him.

Most Excellent Theophilus

I recently came across a very interesting blog by Lee Thomas Dahn. It’s called Most Excellent Theophilus, and astute bibliophiles will recognize the name Theophilus immediately. Theophilus, of course, was the addressee of Luke the Evangelist’s 2-part series, The Gospel According to Luke, and The Acts of the Apostles – both of which became part of the New Testament canon. 

It has become de rigeur in New Testament studies to suggest that Theophilus was a Roman nobleman or official of some sort, who was the patron bankrolling Luke’s evangelistic project. But Dahn suggests otherwise:

Theophilus was the high priest of 37-41CE. This Theophilus was the son of Annas, high priest of 6-15CE. Theophilus was brother to four other first-century high priests: Eleazar, Jonathan, Matthias, and Ananus. His brother-in-law was Caiaphas, high priest of 18-36CE. This family filled the office for 35 years between 6 and 43CE.

If this is the case, this would challenge some cherished assumptions about Luke’s work. Commentators commonly suggest that Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience, being one himself (in fact, the only non-Jewish NT author). But Luke was also well acquainted with the OT, given the artful allusions to it he makes in his Gospel. It is quite possible that Luke’s work, although universal (Catholic) in scope, was of particular interest to his Hebrew audience – especially a certain man who was once High Priest.

This thesis also has great explanatory power. It explains why Luke opens his Gospel not with the Annunciation, but rather with the account of Zechariah the priest, serving in the Temple. It also sheds light on certain accounts from the life of Christ only recorded in Luke (and likely obtained through interviews with Mary herself) – for example, the relating of Jesus’ disappearance in Jerusalem at twelve years old, where he is found debating in the Temple precincts with the teachers of the law.

This incident in particular would have caused quite a sensation in the Holy City, and certainly would not have escaped the notice of Annas, Theophilus’ father, who was High Priest at the time. Theophilus likely would have heard about this from his own father’s lips – and now, Luke mentions it again to buttress his case for Christ, the true, eschatological high priest.

Dahn’s blog features a post about this passage and many others from Luke-Acts, all of them well worth reading. Here’s hoping he continues the project!

Worship God’s Way

(Another of my recent articles from Catholic Insight.) 

When I ask my Protestant friends (some of whom, sadly, are ex-Catholics) the question, “Why do you worship where you do, as opposed to somewhere else, some other congregation?” the answers vary: “I like the preaching.” “I like the music – love that contemporary Christian worship.” “I like the nursery program for my kids.” “I like the fact that it’s close to my home.” 

 

Yet the answers, although different, are also strangely alike – for they all have a common theme: “I”. “I like this; I prefer that. This is the worship that I like.”

But what kind of worship does God like?

Throughout salvation history, we do not see flexibility on God’s part here. God has always had a preference in these matters as well, a way he “likes” to be worshipped. In the Old Covenant, it was the temple liturgy that was central to the worshipping life of all Israel.

But what about the New Covenant? Is a multiplicity of worship forms acceptable in the New Testament Church, as my friends would believe? 

Here is how the brilliant Catholic convert Thomas Howard puts it, in his book On Being Catholic: “Christian worship did not proliferate randomly. There was a shape given to it in the beginning…it is not as though the apostolic community cast about for ingredients that might be appealing to local Jewish converts, or to Greeks, or to Scythians, Romans, Egyptians, or Parthians, least of all to that ubiquitous figure, ‘contemporary man’. No market research was brought into play. No caucuses – of youth, or of senior citizens, or of the affluent or the indigent, or of women, or of men, or of anyone else – were heard from. No theologians or reformers or charismatic leaders or prophets dictated the shape of things” (p.39). 

And the shape of things was the Mass, received “from the hands of Jesus Christ himself”, as Howard puts it.

Worship has always been a gift from the “top down”, from God to us, rather than something cooked up by us – from the “bottom up”, so to speak. I often hear complaints from fellow Catholics regarding the lack of participation or interest in the Mass by many, especially the young. As Catholics, we are “born again” in Baptism, but often many of us seem “bored again” each time we go to Mass! How do we get people more involved? The solution, according to some, is to “Protestantize” our worship with more “entertaining” elements: electric guitars, contemporary worship styles, perhaps a more informal atmosphere – you know, the stuff people “like”.

As a “Pre-16” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, this attitude is fraught with danger. In speaking of Israel’s apostasy in their worship of the golden calf, he writes: 

“The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world…Man is using God…he is placing himself above God…Worship becomes a feast the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry…self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. (The)golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God, but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God” (p. 23).

The true worship, the Mass, is a gift from God. We must be educated about it in order to understand it. And we must understand it in order to appreciate it. And we will find that, in the end, we will “like” it, as God likes it, because it will set us free: “that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God”.

“The Dark Knight” of the Soul – Part Two

 

In the lead-up to the film’s release, Nolan mentioned that the character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face was the emotional heart of the film. I had suspected that was Nolan’s way of “throwing a bone” to actor Aaron Eckhart, lest his performance be lost in the mania surrounding Ledger’s epic turn. But Nolan spoke rightly, as Dent’s character ties the film together. He represents the drama of the individual soul, as both good and evil, the way of Satan and the way of Christ, wage war for its allegiance. The Joker seeks to draw Dent, a D.A. crusading against evil and recovering from a horrific accident, into sharing his hell-bent way of life, as Satan did with our first parents (Gen. 3). Dent takes the bait and, as Two-Face, begins a reign of murder of his own, like Cain. Batman vicariously substitutes himself for Dent, taking the blame for Dent’s crimes and making himself public enemy #1 in the process, echoing Jesus’ self-dereliction on the cross.
Dent’s marred visage points to the potential evil lurking within all of us, and the ugliness of sin, although the capacity for good remains. Gotham is not Calvin’s Geneva, with its “total depravity” of mankind – a view the Joker shares. “When the chips are down, these people will eat each other, you’ll see”. The inherent good in human nature shines through even in a film dark as this, as the Joker discovers when his plan to cause citizens to kill each other fails in the most surprising of ways. Dent’s character beautifully represents the power of good example and also the nagging pull of original sin, and the choice we must all make each day: to give in to the darkness or strive for heroic virtue. Harvey Dent/Two-Face is like Simon/Peter, and so are we. We are like Simon when our faith fails; when we sin and deny our Lord by our actions. We are like Peter when we choose the light of Christ in a dark world – as Dent once tried to be: “decent men in an indecent world”.
A great theme in TDK is the personal cost involved in standing against evil. As any Christian knows, the moment one attempts to subdue sin, in one’s own life or in the culture, the spiritual battle intensifies. Temptations to fall increase, like Dent discovered firsthand: the darkness hates the light. But choosing not to stand is far worse. As Edmund Burke said so long ago, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Intentions are not enough. We must have, as does Batman, the will to act. A line from The Dark Knight himself, uttered in Batman Begins, says it well: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” And so it is with us all.

“The Dark Knight” of the Soul – Part One

This is part one of my most recent Catholic Insight article, a film review of The Dark Knight, the latest Batman film.  

In a previous article (Catholic Insight, Sept. 06), I noted the Christological themes inherent in Superman Returns. The Dark Knight, the second installment of the Batman film franchise, so skillfully rebooted by director Christopher Nolan with 2005’s Batman Begins, also deals in spiritual issues – but in a much more nuanced manner. As Father Joseph Singh has noted, the difference between Superman Returns and these new Batman movies is the difference between C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, where Christian symbolism is obvious, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where one must look for God, and the devil, for that matter, in the details.

The Dark Knight’s devil is Heath Ledger’s diabolical Joker: tongue slithering over hideously scarred lips, he is a liar through and through – like Satan himself, who Christ called “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Joker offers conflicting (but equally disturbing) accounts of the source of his wounds, and claims there’s no method to his madness (“I’m a dog chasing after cars; I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one”). Yet, he meticulously scripts his nefarious schemes to the nth degree, exhibiting a seemingly preternatural intelligence befitting a fallen angel. The final act pictures the Joker surrounded with three hounds as if from hell, underlining the source of his destructive madness.
The late Ledger’s performance lives up to, and surpasses, all the hype surrounding it. A posthumous Oscar would be an accolade well earned – no sympathy votes necessary. Makeup notwithstanding, Ledger totally disappears into the role, and his Joker gets the chilling treatment the character deserves – his is a truly frightening and malevolent presence, not Jack Nicholson’s comic buffoon.  
Batman/Bruce Wayne is played again, ably, by Christian Bale. Fitting, for his character truly represents the Christian and his struggle against evil. Superman, like Christ, was born great, but Batman has struggled to achieve greatness. Like us, he has fought something like the spiritual battle St. Paul speaks of in Ephesians 6, as the apostle reminds us to don the armour of God to battle the wickedness of the devil. Batman uses his own high-tech weaponry and armour to whistand the Joker’s assaults, resisting the temptation to compromise with evil, to break his “one rule”: Batman will not kill. 

Batman is actually less like a Christ figure than Pauline in his approach. As St. Paul once said, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” ( 1 Cor. 11:1), Batman has sought to inspire others to take back the streets of Gotham City. Other similarities abound: in one scene, Bruce Wayne reveals the scars on his body resulting from his war on evil. Saint Paul wrote, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6: 17), suffering numerous stonings, beatings, and lashes (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10) to proclaim Christ. The extreme measures to which both Paul and Batman will go to combat the darkness are striking. Paul traversed the known world on his missionary journeys. Batman, in one of TDK’s most thrilling sequences, even reaches Hong Kong in his pursuit of the criminal element. 

Stay tuned to this same Bat-channel for part two!!

Welcome to FX: The Faith Explained

Welcome to my new website! I pray that it will be an encouragement to you in your faith journey. You’ll find many resources here that will help you explore the priceless treasure of the Catholic faith.

Cale Clarke

Director, FX: The Faith Explained Catholic Seminars