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Quick Q and A on the Trinity

TrinityQ. This past Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Why is this doctrine so important?

A. There are many reasons, but most prominent among them is this: it’s who God is. God is a Trinity of Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is actually God’s “name”. In the Scriptures, one’s name defines a person’s identity.

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges his followers to “(g)o 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 close of the age” (Matt 28:19-20, emphasis mine).

Notice Jesus says, “name”, not “names”. There are not three Gods here; there is one God, but three divine Persons within the Godhead. Their essence – what they are, essentially, is divine. Divinity is what they are “made of”, so to speak. In the case of Jesus, of course, who was the divine Logos from all eternity, he “wedded” a human nature to his preexisting divine nature at the moment of the Incarnation.

Q. So many still find the Trinity difficult to understand or believe in.

A. I’ve got two pieces of news for you, which may be surprising: first, one must believe in the Trinity to hold the Catholic faith. It is a truth revealed by God. On a somewhat practical level, if you have the question of God wrong, you’ll never get anything else right about the faith. To use a management term, it’s a “top-down” process.

Secondly, don’t worry if you don’t completely understand the Trinity, because no one does. That’s right – no saint or theologian – not even the great St Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” – has ever claimed that they fully understood the Trinity. In fact, if they had claimed that they did, they would have been guilty of heresy. Why?

If you could completely understand the Trinity, that would mean that you were greater than God, which is obviously not the case. Your finite, created mind, however intelligent it may be, cannot comprehend God in his infinity. However, that does not mean that we can’t know anything about the Trinity.

One can know something is true without being able to perfectly understand or explain it: for example, I know electricity works: I flip the switch, and the room lights up. Can I explain it? No. I don’t know how the energy moves throughout the circuitry, etc. I just know the truth of electricity, that it works. In the same way, we can be certain about whatever God chooses to reveal about himself, even if we can’t fully comprehend it – and what he has revealed is that he is a Trinity of persons.

Pentecost Primer

Pentecost2

Q. This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Could you explain its background?

A. When Pentecost arrives each year in the liturgical calendar, most Christians immediately think of the dramatic gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church, Peter’s impassioned preaching, and the mass conversion occasioned by this event, as recorded in Acts 2.

Many people are surprised to learn that the feast of Pentecost did not originate at this time. It has its roots in the Old Testament period. It’s actually one of the great Jewish festivals in the liturgical cycles of Israel’s worship. It was during this feast that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to believers in Jesus the Messiah.

Q. Was the festival of Pentecost known by another name during the Old Covenant period? What was its original purpose?

A. This feast was also called the feast of Weeks. It arrived seven weeks after the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread came to an end. The name “Pentecost” is a Greek word that refers to the fifty-day period (Lev 23:15-22; Deut 16:9-12).

What the festival of Weeks/Pentecost celebrated was the great wheat and barley harvest that took place in the summertime (Lev 23:10-15). The Hebrews has different names for the months of the year at that time, but this took place roughly at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Q. How can we relate the Old Covenant feast of Pentecost to that of the New?

A. There is much that could be said here, but let me focus on just a few points. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as a new and greater Moses. Just as Moses dispenses the Spirit on his elders (Num 11:11-29), Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to his Apostles (Jn 20:19-23, which is the Gospel reading for today).

Weeks/Pentecost was also linked in the Jewish tradition with the covenant made to Noah, which sheds light on how the Holy Spirit was gifted to humanity as a whole (Acts 2:5-11). Pentecost also, of course, is a celebration of the “first fruits” of the grain harvest, given by God. Jesus often spoke in agricultural parables of the world as a “field of souls”. Those early believers in Christ were indeed part of the “first fruits” of people harvested from the world, to belong to God for all eternity.

“Hail, Full of Grace”: On the Solemnity of the Annunciation

Annunciation di Corciano

Today’s Gospel on this Solemnity of the Annunciation is the famous account of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel from Luke 1:26-38. It includes some indirect proof for two major Marian dogmas of the Church – the Immaculate Conception (which was recently celebrated on Dec. 8), and the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. It also gives us part of the biblical roots of the “Hail Mary”.

When the archangel Gabriel greets Mary, it marks the only recorded incident in scripture that an angel greets someone by their title, not their name. “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). This, of course, is the first line of the “Hail Mary”, with the second line, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”, from Luke 1:42. So much for the ridiculous argument that the prayer is “unbiblical”.

But what of those dogmas? Speaking of the phrase, “Full of Grace”, in the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, it is an interesting term: kecharitomene. It means, literally, “one who has been made full of God’s grace” (biblical translations that render this term “highly favored one”, or something to that effect, don’t cut it) . It’s a past perfect term, meaning that, at some point in the past, Mary was made perfectly full of God’s grace. This condition extends out into the future, into eternity. This is exactly what the Immaculate Conception is all about – that, from the first moment of her existence, Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin. If one is perfectly full of the grace of God, there is no room for sin.

With respect to the perpetual virginity, Gabriel explains to Mary that she will bear the Messiah, and at this point he has said nothing about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yet, Mary says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). A very strange question for a young woman to ask, who, as we have already been told, was engaged to be married. Unless, that is, she had already intended to remain a virgin, consecrating herself wholly to God.

This post was originally published as “Mary of the Annunciation”

Quick Q and A on the Feast of St Joseph

JMJQ. March 19 is always the Solemnity of St Joseph, so why is it being celebrated today, March 20?

A. Because March 19 fell on a Sunday this year, this feast day was superseded by the Third Sunday of Lent. The Solemnity of Saint Joseph was thus moved to the following day this year.

Q. When did this feast originate in the Church?

A. Saint Joseph’s feast can trace its beginnings to the 15th century. It became a feast of the Universal Church (which is another way of referring to the Catholic Church as a whole) in 1621.

Q. Is it true that Saint Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church?

A. Yes. In 1847, Pope Saint Pius IX named Saint Joseph patron over the whole Church. He is also the primary patron saint of Canada and many other countries. Pope John XXIII, in the 20th century, included Saint Joseph’s name in Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon). Greater and greater honor has been shown to Saint Joseph over time, as, over the course of centuries, the Church has come to a deeper understanding of the role and importance of Saint Joseph in God’s plan of salvation, and in God’s family.

This is true in a double sense: the Greek word that explains God’s fatherly plan for salvation history is “oikonomia” – literally, “the law of the household”. Saint Joseph had charge of God’s “family” on earth in quite a literal sense – the Holy Family of Nazareth. Joseph was the foster father of the God-Man, Jesus Christ and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And Joseph is also the protector, by his prayers in heaven, of God’s other “family” on earth, the Church, which is also referred to in the New Testament as “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Saint Joseph’s intercession is powerful indeed – we should learn to take more advantage of his help in our daily lives.

With the exception of Our Lady, there is no greater saint in Heaven than Saint Joseph. In her autobiography, Saint Teresa of Avila wrote: “To other saints, Our Lord seems to have given power to help us in some special necessity, but to this glorious saint (I know by my experience), he has given the power to help us in all things. Our Lord would have us understand that, as he was subject to Joseph on earth – Saint Joseph, bearing the title of his father and being his guardian, could command him – so now Our Lord in heaven grants all his petitions.”

Saint Joseph, pray for us!

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

guadalupe

Matthew Leonard, Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology:

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the native people of Mexico City suffered conquest first by the Aztecs and then by the Spanish conquistadores. It was the custom of the Aztecs to harvest the conquered people as victims for human sacrifice, offered to the snake god Quetzalcoatl (Qweztzel-coh-AH-tul). Think Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto”, though it was about Mayans. Same basic, brutal principle.

By the Aztecs’ own account, this cost a quarter of a million human lives per year. In the dedication of just one temple, a celebration lasting four days, they slaughtered more than eighty thousand men and women. As you can imagine, these native peoples lived a life of natural and supernatural terror. Yet the fear of their idols kept them trapped in idolatry, and they resisted conversion to the Christian faith. The best efforts of brilliant missionaries proved basically ineffective.

Then, in 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico City to a peasant man named Juan Diego.

Read the rest here.

In Assisi in 2005, my wife and I met an American priest named Padre Sisco. He gave me his contact information, which I, of course, misplaced. This guy was unbelievable – on the off chance any readers out there know him, I’d love to get in touch. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on homilies preached in Mexico following the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the miraculous image she left behind.

That would make for some pretty incredible reading – over eight million Mexicans, by some accounts, converted to the faith in just a few years as news of these events spread. As Leonard notes, Mexico had been stubbornly infertile mission territory prior to 1531.

I’ve always found it fascinating that, while the Church on the Continent in the 16th century was being fractured by Luther’s revolt and the events that followed, the most effective evangelistic movement in the history of the world was taking place at the exact same time in the Americas.

A Fiery Sword and Tongues of Fire: Pentecost

Pentecost“‘And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:3-4). They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire; of fire which consumes the thorns of sins, but gives lustre to the soul. This is now coming upon you also, and that to strip away and consume your sins which are like thorns, and to brighten yet more that precious possession of your souls, and to give you grace; for He gave it then to the Apostles. And He sat upon them in the form of fiery tongues, that they might crown themselves with new and spiritual diadems by fiery tongues upon their heads. A fiery sword barred of old the gates of Paradise; a fiery tongue which brought salvation restored the gift” (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 17.15).

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

H/T to Father Z for the quote.

Athanasius and the Myth of the “Great Apostasy”

Athanasius

Rod Bennett, author of some great books on the early Church, was interviewed about today’s feast of St. Athanasius over on the Catholic Answers blog:

The theory goes like this: just a few centuries after Christ’s death, around the time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the true Faith suffered a catastrophic falling-away. The simple truths of the gospel became so obscured by worldliness and pagan idolatry, kicking off the Dark Ages of Catholicism, that Christianity required a complete reboot.

This idea of a “Great Apostasy” is one of the cornerstones of American Protestantism, along with Mormonism, the Jehovah s Witnesses, and even Islam. Countless millions today profess a faith built on the assumption that the early Church quickly became broken beyond repair, requiring some new prophet or reformer to restore the pure teaching of Jesus and the apostles.

This theory is popular—but it’s also fiction. In his book The Apostasy that Wasn’t, Rod Bennett narrates the drama of the early Church’s fight to preserve Christian orthodoxy, even as powerful forces try to destroy it. Amid imperial intrigue and bitter theological debate, a hero arose: the homely little monk Athanasius, a Father of the Church, whose feast we celebrate on May 2. Athanasius stood against the world to prove that there could never be a Great Apostasy, because Jesus promised his Church would never be broken.

We asked Bennett to elaborate on this influential myth and why, logically, it couldn’t have occurred.

Q. What is the Great Apostasy?

Bennett: It’s one of the cornerstones of American religion, actually—the notion that the original Church founded by Jesus and his apostles went bust somewhere along the line and had to be restored by some latter-day prophet or reformer. Most of our Christian denominations here in the Unites States teach the idea in one form or another, though, significantly, they usually disagree completely on which “Second Founder” ought to be followed.

Usually, they date the collapse to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 and his subsequent adoption of Christianity for the whole Roman Empire. In doing this, he transformed the Christian Church (or so the story goes) from a simple body of pure, New Testament believers into the state religion of the Roman Empire.

This made Church membership socially advantageous for the first time, which brought in a vast flood of half-converted pagans who were admitted with minimal fuss by a mere external act of baptism. And this, in turn, subverted the original Faith so seriously that a Dark Age of idolatry and superstition was the result, a “great falling away” so serious that it required, in the end, a complete “reboot” from heaven.

Q. Where did the notion of the Great Apostasy find its beginnings?

Well, if you think about it, any group that has a short historical pedigree—founded, as most of our denominations have been, within the last few centuries of Christianity’s very long timeline—will be driven to the idea eventually. If you find that your church was founded in the twentieth century (or the nineteenth or the sixteenth) and teaches things no one was teaching in the fourteenth, the tenth, or the fifth century, then you’re going to have to account for that fact somehow.

The most common solution has been to offer a “conspiracy theory” of some kind: this idea that the early Church actually did teach Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventism or Unitarianism or what have you, but the “powers that be” hushed the original version up—burned their books, forced them underground, and so forth. The whole “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon from a few years back was based on the same idea.

For the whole interview, including an Bennett’s interesting comparison of Constantine to a guy who marries a rich woman, click here.

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I thought I’d help you celebrate the day when everybody seems to be Irish with a little post about St. Patrick. So, after you’ve enjoyed your green beer, or whatever beverage you may raise in celebration (For me, as a kid, it was always McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes), why not make this prayer of St. Patrick your own?

It’s called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, because of the many times it calls for God’s protection. It’s a classic…enjoy.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,I
n preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Sunday Scriptures: The Baptism of the Lord

Q. This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, which inaugurated Jesus’ public ministry. Can you speak about the connection between Jesus and “John the Baptizer”?

A. Indeed, many scholars call him exactly that – “John the Baptizer” instead of “John the Baptist”, so as not to confuse him with members of the Baptist denomination! At any rate, it is interesting to note the connection between Jesus and John. They are relatives, of course, and in the Gospel of John, the Baptizer is referred to as the “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29), or “best man”, if you will. Jesus, of course, is the Divine Bridegroom.

John, speaking about Jesus in John 3:30, is quoted as saying, “He must increase, I must decrease” (“He must become greater, I must become less”). This, by the way, is a great spiritual “passphrase” of sorts to use when you are walking up and down a staircase – it’s a supernatural reminder we can use throughout the day. Certainly it speaks to the great humility of John. It’s interesting to note how this factors into the Church’s choice of the respective Nativity feasts for both Jesus and John. Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers explains:

“One reason December 25 may have been deemed suitable (to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ) is its proximity to the winter solstice. After that date the days start to become longer, and thus it is at the beginning of a season of light entering the world (cf. John 1:5). The summer solstice – after which the days start to get shorter – falls near June 24, on which the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, who declared of Christ, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30).”

Q. The Baptism of the Lord reminds me, of course, of my own baptism, and that of my children. I know that the Church teaches that baptism calls us to two things: holiness and apostolate (sharing our faith). Can you speak to these realities, especially concerning my responsibility as a Catholic parent?

A. Let’s speak briefly about Catholic parenting. What God is looking for from you as a parent is much different than what the rest of the world seeks. Other parents may care most about the letters at the end of their children’s names – M.D., M.B.A., or PhD, for example. But Catholic parents care most of all about the letters they hope come before their children’s’ names: ST. Saint. For the goal of Catholic parenting is that your child become a saint.

Who are the saints? The word saint is from the Greek word “hagios”, which means “the holy ones.” And what does it mean to become holy? Does it mean being “weird” or “strange”, like Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons”? No. Being a holy person just means being the best version of yourself. The person you were created to be. The Bible says, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). This is why we need to share our faith! If we want our kids (and everyone we know and love) to get to heaven, if we want them to see Jesus, they must become saints. And so must we.

You may also like:

Q and A: The Baptism of the Lord

The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

What does your own baptism mean to you? Share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn and let the discussion begin! 

Sunday Scriptures: The Epiphany of the Lord

Epiphany

Q. This Sunday, January 3, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord (although in many regions it is still celebrated on its traditional date of January 6). What does the Feast of the Epiphany really about?

A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in paragraph 528:

“The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs,” and acquires Israelitica dignitas (are made “worthy of the heritage of Israel”).

Q. Why is Psalm 72 used as the Responsorial Psalm today?

A. Consider these passages from Psalm 72, which were really written about the “Son of David”, King Solomon, but can certainly be applied to King Jesus, the Son of David:

8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
9 May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!
11 May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

12 For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their souls;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live,
may gold of Sheba be given to him!
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all the day!
16 May there be abundance of grain in the land;
on the tops of the mountains may it wave;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may men blossom forth from the cities
like the grass of the field!
17 May his name endure for ever,
his fame continue as long as the sun!
May men bless themselves by him,
all nations call him blessed!

The similarities are obvious: just as “kings” render Solomon precious gifts, including “gold”, the magi bring Jesus gifts. Just as these Kings discovered Solomon enthroned along with the Queen Mother (the Gebirah), Bathsheba, the Magi discover Jesus enthroned with the Queen Mother of his Kingdom, Mary.

Note: Incidentally, the reason Canada is called “The Dominion of Canada” is because of verse 8: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” May that be the case indeed!