Jake Tawney

The Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Luke, Prima Pars

My life has been insanely crazy lately as I am in the middle of a major career change.  This in part explains my absence from these pages.  My apologies, but hopefully the following three-part piece will be of interest to the readers of American Catholic while my work schedule settles down into something more manageable, or at least something that allows for more time dedicated to writing.

 

1. The text and an introduction.
Douay-Rheims
Luke 6:20-26

20. And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples, said: Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21. Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for you shall laugh.

22. Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man?s sake.

23. Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold your reward is great in heaven. For according to these things did their fathers to the prophets.

24. But woe to you that are rich; for you have consolation.

25. Woe to you that are filled; for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh; for you shall mourn and weep.

26. Woe to you when men shall bless you; for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets.

Thus begins the greatest sermon ever composed. These blessings are commonly referred to as the Beatitudes, which stems from the Latin word beati, meaning “Blessed.” Servais Pinkares writes, “[T]he sermon on the Mount has been one of the chief sources of spiritual renewal known to the Church through the ages. Its fruitfulness is amply attested by its constant reappearance. There are few passages in Scripture that touch the Christian heart more surely and deeply, or that have a greater appeal for nonbelievers. Then Sermon on the Mount was one of Ghandi?s favorite texts; he reproached Christians for their neglect of it” (The Sources of Christian Ethics, 135). As familiar as the words are to Christians and non-Christians alike, there is one word in particular that can very easily go unnoticed: is. In verses 21-23, every blessing promises a future reward for a present circumstance. Consider the first half of verse 21: “Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled.” This indicates that those who experience hunger during their earthly time will be filled in the eschaton. The first beatitude (verse 20), however, seems to deliberately use the word is: “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

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Narcissism in Music (or, “How Gregorian Chant can Save the World”)

Last week National Public Radio ran a story called “Narcissism on Rise in Pop Music Lyrics.” It opened up with,

On this very day in 1985, the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 was…”We Are the World” (“We are the world. We are the children.”)  Fast-forward to 2007 when Timbaland’s “Give It to Me” featuring Nelly Furtado topped the charts: “…love my a$$ and my abs in the video for ‘Promiscuous.’ My style is ridiculous.”

So more than two decades ago, we were holding hands and swaying to a song of unity, and these days, we’re bouncing to pop stars singing about how fabulous they are.  Psychologist Nathan DeWall has had the pleasure of listening to it all for research, and he found that lyrics in pop music from 1980 to 2007 reflect increasing narcissism in society. And DeWall is an associate psychology professor at the University of Kentucky.

Dr. DeWall proceeded to explain:

I was listening to a song that, really, one of my favorite bands, Weezer, had on one of their albums recently, and it’s called “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” and I kept wondering, who would actually say that out loud?  ”I am the greatest man that ever lived. I was born to give and give and give.”

The ironic thing is it’s a song about how I’m the greatest person in the world, but it’s to the tune of “‘Tis A Gift To Be Simple,” which is a song about humility. And so what I wanted to do, instead of relying on self-report measures of personality like narcissism, I wanted to actually go into our culture, our cultural products, which are tangible artifacts of our cultural environment. And so, for that, I thought maybe song lyrics would be a very good jumping-off spot.

What we found over time is that there’s an increasing focus on me and my instead of we and our and us. So, for example, instead of talking about love being between we and us and us finding new things together, it’s mostly about how, you know, for example, Justin Timberlake in 2006 said, “I’m bringing sexy back. Yeah. Them other boys don’t know how to act. Yeah.”

There is no doubt that DeWall is correct.  Pop music is becoming more narcissistic.  The broader, age old question is: Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?  The answer is probably some of both.  Our culture is increasingly narcissistic.  In the spirit of the NPR article, which was about music, I wish to propose a possible antidote for narcissism: the liturgy, specifically liturgical music.

Unfortunately, we must first distinguish between music that might be heard in any given liturgy and liturgical music, properly speaking.  While the Catholic Church has been plagued with bad versions of the four-hymn sandwich for decades, the fact remains that Holy Mother Church has given us a liturgical hymnbook: The Graduale Romanum,  In this book, one will find the ancient Gregorian chants.  But what many will be surprised to find is that the Church has given us specific chants for every Sunday of the year in the places that we currently sing “hymns.”  For any given Mass, there are prescribed chants for the Introit (think here of the “Opening Hymn” you are used to hearing), the Gradual (“Responsorial Psalm”), the Offertorio (“Offertory”), and the Communio (“Communion Song”).  Most of these date back more than a thousand years.  Of course, in the Graduale Romanum, one will find the chant written in Latin.  However, vernacular versions of these exist.  What is key is that the liturgical rubrics, while they permit hymns, call for a preference given to these chants.  Vatican II itself held that the Gregorian chant tradition should enjoy a “pride of place” in our liturgies.

Why do I see this as an antidote for narcissism?  The surest way to deal with this problem is to give people the sense that they are not the center of reality, nor are they the source.  The Cartesian turn to the subject has flipped classical metaphysics on its head so that people come to view reality as what is in their own minds rather than what their minds encounter on the outside.  The liturgy is a reality that is given to us, not one that is created by us.  In fact, it is in the liturgy itself that we find our own fulfillment.  When we go to Mass, we participate in reality itself, something that is much bigger than us.  If we see the Liturgy as something that we fit into rather than something that fits into our lives, we can come to understand that we are not the center of reality: God is.

The problem is, as has been observed on several observations over the past decade, there is an increasing narcissism even within the liturgy itself: both priests and people come to think that the liturgy is something that can be created and recreated with the fickle winds of changing culture.  In fact, the lack of narcissistic language in the new translation of the Roman Missal has been pointed out in comparison with the current, defective translation.  Currently, there are several places in the texts that seem to order God to do certain things and to give a primacy to the people over the divine.  The new translation, being more faithful to the Latin, has sought to correct many of these errors.  What remains to be fixed is the same problem in the hymns that are often chosen for Sunday worship.  Many of the modern hymns focus on man rather than God (think here of “Gather Us In,” or the ever-elusive “Sing a New Church Into Being”).  Quite simply, these hymns are self-centered rather than God-centered.

Contrast this with the use of the Graduale Romanum.  These chants have been given to us by the Church, each carefully constructed around sacred texts in order to serve as a sort of lectio divina for the readings of the day.  Indeed, when Gregorian chant is properly performed, it seems as if it is not of this world.  Part of that is due to the inherent structure of the music, for chant lacks a strict meter (though it has an internal rhythm of its own).  Unlike a hymn, which marches forward towards a climactic conclusion, chant allows the listener to rest in contemplation, a mirror of the eternity which we, God willing, will experience someday.  But another part is due to the words, which become primary (unlike modern pop music, where the words are often a later add-on to an already existing rhythm/chord structure).

Perhaps the most important point, however, is the fact that the music of the Mass inevitably (forgive the pun) sets the tone of the entire celebration.  It stands to reason, then, if we employ a music that is provided for us by the Church (not to mention encouraged by the rubrics), then the people will better understand that the liturgy itself is given and not created.  If they come to understand the liturgy, which is the objective center of reality, in this manner, then they will come to see that they are not the center of reality.  Thus, my rapid fire, probably incomplete, but hopefully coherent, argument that an antidote for the rise in narcissism is Gregorian Chant.  Save the liturgy, save the world.

Royalty and Ritual

Early tomorrow morning, the world will be watching the royal wedding of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton.  While there are bound to be a wide range of critiques that describe a misplaced prioritization of fanfare over marriage, I for one think there is something about the pomp and circumstance that surrounds royal customs from which modern man can take a lesson.  Some time ago, I wrote about how our culture has lost a sense of formality, and along with it an appreciation for ritual and solemnity:

 

At the heart of liturgy is the concept of ritual.  Instead of fitting the Liturgy into our lives, it is in the liturgy that we are taken up into something much bigger, the cosmic worship of God.  The liturgy is a great drama that is being played out on a cosmic scale, and simply by being there, we are taken up into this drama.  This is exactly why having specific rituals in the liturgy is so important.  When there are “lines” that need recited, “actions” or “stage directions” that need followed, the structure of the liturgy itself teaches that the liturgy is bigger than us; we are taught that it is not something that we can create, but something that must be received.  This is all a very complicated way of saying that the liturgy is an objective reality.

 

In contrast, when the liturgy becomes the result of the creative efforts of a “liturgy committee,” the congregation is given the impression that the main focus of the action is not on God but on the people, that we are the creators, not God.  How the liturgy is presented and the way in which it includes us affects how we come to think of the essence of the liturgy and of ourselves as human agents.  This is the basic principle of sacramentality in its most general form.  The principle states that “we are how we act.”  In other words, the way in which we act forms the views we hold and even the type of person we become.  If the Mass is presented as a ritual, people are given the correct impression that it is something bigger than themselves, a sacred action into which they are taken up.  They then come to realize that they are not the center of reality.  If it is presented as self-created, then people come to see themselves as self-creators.

 

I was struck by the objections people raised to the fact that Miss Middleton will be arriving to the wedding by car instead of by carriage.  Whether it was done on purpose, I cannot say, but it strikes me that Miss Middleton, before the wedding, is not in fact royalty, but rather a commoner.  Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the newly married couple will depart from the church by carriage (the same one used by Princess Diana at her wedding), for at that time Miss Middleton will be Princess Kate.  I would hate to concentrate solely on the carriage example, for it is but one of what will undoubtedly be a series of rituals that make the wedding not just any wedding, but a royal wedding.  And I certainly don’t wish to get into the debate over the suitableness of this particular action, but rather to point out the implicit ritual and significance it carries.  It is a nice reminder that actions, in particular rituals, do in fact matter.  And it is ritual that gives an event solemnity.  And solemnity is not necessarily somber, but in fact can be joyful.  In the words of C.S. Lewis:

 

This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity.’  The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity.  A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixes est.  Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp — and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity.’ To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in.   Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual (A Preface to Paradise Lost, emphasis added).

 

Mysterium Paschale – Holy Saturday

NB:  After the disagreement (though not quite unanimous) that my last post generated, I hesitated briefly on this next one.  Every time I bring up von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday thesis, it generates quite a bit of conversation.  Nevertheless, I find it very useful on this third, and perhaps most mysterious day of the Sacred Triduum.  Please know that I am not unaware of the theological controversy surrounding this thesis.

In my mind, this is an example of a deep theological question that warrants some discussion.   The publication First Things did a very nice job of presenting both sides of this argument: Alyssa Pitstick representing the traditional position, and Fr. Edward Oakes defending Balthasar (or rather defending the position that Balthasar was not heretical in his claims).  For my own part, I think Balthasar’s thoughts are worth pondering, and I think Fr. Oakes is correct at least in his assessment that Balthasar is not wading in heresy in his claims.

While I do not have time, space, or expertise to present this entire debate, I would reference the readers to the series of article by Pitstick and Oakes in First Things.  Without further adieu …

 

The twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a work entitled Mysterium Paschale in which he attempts to come to grips with the experience of Christ on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  The thesis of the book is that Christ, in order to redeem man from the punishment of sin, must take on sin and all of its consequences and must rise from those consequences on Easter in his return to the Father.

The most striking chapter of the book, and certainly the one that has received the most attention, is his description of Holy Saturday.  For Balthasar the experience of Holy Saturday is preeminently about the credal phrase descendit ad inferna (Christ’s descent into Hell).  While belief in the statement is a matter of dogmatic obedience, the Church has not been clear on exactly what Christ’s going to Hell entailed.  Balthasar’s thesis hinges on two given facts.  First, in order to redeem man Christ must take on the penalty of death merited by man’s sin.  Second, the penalty for sin is not just death of the body, but also death of the soul.

The experience of Hell is that of abandonment by God.  More precisely, the soul has chosen to separate itself from God in the very act of sin.  God is both our efficient and final cause, so eternity spent in the absence of this God is greater than any suffering of which we can conceive, and certainly greater than any physical suffering.

Because Christ in his saving act must go through the entire experience of death, with the eventual result of its conquering, he must not only suffer and die a bodily death, but also must suffer a spiritual death, a death that is the complete abandonment by God.  The whole idea becomes more profound when we consider that Jesus is God.  As such, his “closeness” to the Father is perfect, and certainly much more intense than our own relationship with the Father.  While two separate Trinitarian Persons, they are in fact one God.  In this sense, Christ has a much greater loss when he is abandoned by the Father in Hell than any non-divine man could experience.  (Note that only in a Trinitarian theology can we even begin to grapple with the idea of God being abandoned by God.)

Another way of looking at this is that Jesus, as true man, must experience the full depth and breadth of the human condition, and as perfect man will experience this depth and breadth in a manner more perfect than the rest of us.  The human condition in its positive aspect is an original union with God, of which Jesus experiences in a far more perfect manner than we.  In its negative aspect, the human condition is the abandonment of God in death caused by both original and personal sin, a death that only begins with the destruction of the body, but continues in the destruction of the soul in every way except its annihilation.  Jesus, as perfect man, experiences the depths of Hell in a manner more perfectly terrible than even the souls of the damned.

As Christians, we have become accustomed to thinking about the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday.  On Holy Saturday, we at times become a bit more human-centered, perhaps reflecting on the emptiness and confusion the disciples would have felt as people who did not yet fully understand the significance of the prior day’s events.  Perhaps, however, we should keep our gaze on Christ, knowing that the sufferings he is experiencing today are infinitely greater than those of Good Friday.  The height of his Good Friday sufferings occurs in his shout from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!”  This is the beginning of His Hell, and today is a long and arduous experience of this abandonment – and all of this He did for us.

 

Note:  The traditional view on the matter comes from 1 Peter 3:19 and describes Christ preaching to the souls in prison.  Balthasar notes that the tense in this and other passages is mysteriously passive, as if the preaching occurred simply by the event of the descent.  Of course, the second person of the Trinity is the Word, so any action is simultaneously a “speaking” of sorts.  A similar “preaching” occurred to the souls of the living in his very act on the Cross.  The point is that Balthasar’s thesis in no way contradicts the traditional view.

 

New Urbanism and Virtue

There is an outstanding article on the blog Public Discourse about how “walkable communities” are more conducive to building virtue.  (Hat tip to A Dei in the Life for this reference.)  Many have argued for some time now about the merits of living in a community that does not require driving on a day-to-day basis, but Raymond Hain (the author) finds the popular arguments inadequate: controversial environmental issues, tacky architecture, and vague descriptions about the value of “community.”  Instead, utilizing the work of Philip Bess, Mr. Hain seeks to establish an argument for walkable communities that is grounded in solid Thomistic virtue.  His arguments are three:

 

1.  We need others to help us to identify what is good for us.

2.  True virtuous action demands that we treat others justly, charitably and with kindness, but such action is always with regards to a particular situation, not abstract generalities.

3.  When our lives are fragmented in the way suburbia makes possible, it is much easier for us to act badly, and it is much harder to learn from the bad actions we do perform (and so to become someone who eventually acts well).

 

Regarding the first point, Thomas insists that training in virtue must be done in community (he says “in conference among several”).  The demands of the moral life are not always simple, and prudence is required to sort through all the various aspects of a dilemma, but these various aspects are often disclosed to us in consultation with those in our lives.

Regarding the second point, virtue is a habit, and as such it needs practiced in order to develop.  Practice means encountering real, concrete situations, not merely working our solutions in abstract.  We need frequent interaction with others in order to prudently judge the merits of various moral solutions.

Finally, with respect to the third point, personal encounters provide the impetus for virtuous behavior.  In the words of the author, “It becomes much easier for us to treat someone poorly, to violate the demands of true virtue, when that person shares only a small fragment of our lives.”

Mr. Hain is onto something here.  Our lives are rapidly becoming both private and segmented.  Both of these tendencies tend away from seeing man as made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God.  First, God consists of three Persons, which means that God is inherently relationship.  When John claims that God is love, he does not say God loves or God has love, but rather discloses that God, in his essence, is the act of love.  As such, God is immanent (which is not to discount his transcendence), and as beings mades in his image and likeness, we are called to be in relationship with one another.  The increasingly mobile society, together with the Cartesian turn towards the subject, promotes quite the opposite.  However, God is not merely plurality, but is also unity: there is but one God.  In other words, even in his multiplicity God is perfectly integrated.  As an image of God, while we have different aspects to our beings and our lives, we are called to integrate them into our person.  This goes first and foremost for our body and soul – our body needs trained in the ways of the soul, for a strict dualism is impossible.  But it also goes for the various arenas in which we live out our vocation.  Our jobs, our family, our friends, our faith … all must be oriented ad Dominum, and in doing so we come to understand a life whose singular purpose is holiness.

I would add two marginal observations to Mr. Hain’s argument.  The first involves the use of communication technology.  As communication became possible without physical proximity, man began to rethink the meaning of knowledge, discourse, and relationship.  In the 1980’s, Neil Postman observed that this began with the invention of the telegraph: for the first time in human history, communication was not limited by geography.  (Letter writing was always a possibility, but inherent to letter writing is the lack of instantaneousness, something absent from telegraphic communication.)  Once the telegraph became utilized by the news agencies, it introduced three problems into rational discourse: irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.  It accomplished this by decontextualizing information and presented it as a series of disconnected (and disappearing) facts.

But the telegraph was only the beginning, for later came the telephone and the television, and the whole thing has seen a great culmination with the advent of the internet.  (Postman sees the culmination, but his work was published before the internet became widespread.  In this sense, he was an man ahead of his time.)  Personal communication is being replaced with rapid transmission of zeros and ones, and relationships are being replaced with Facebook “friendship.”  Whether this is a cause or result of the suburban sprawl is a bit of a chicken-egg phenomenon, but the correlation is obvious.

My second marginal observation is the strange juxtaposition of proximity and isolation found in the act of driving on the highway.  When a driver is on the road, he is surrounded by hundreds of other individuals who are in relative close proximity, yet he is isolated in his own world.  This all seems contrary to the way in which human relationships were intended to work.  By this I mean that man is an embodied soul, and as such he can best relate to his fellow man when the person is physically present.  (Such is the very principle of sacramentality.)  True, some methods of communication can provide a substitute for the lack of proximity (such as the telephone), but they will always be substitutes.  (This, indeed, is the very heart of the problem – people are coming the see the substitute as the real thing, as can be seen when today’s youth would rather send a text message than actually dial the phone or meet the person face to face.)  Human relationships are intended to involve the body and physical proximity.  This is why Confession must be done in the presence of a priest, and more importantly explains the reason and power of the Incarnation.

The problem with extended time in a car is that is separates relationship from proximity.  It is actually the flip side of the telegraph-telephone-internet problem.  Communication technology attempts to preserve the personal encounter without a corresponding physical encounter.  Driving in a car presents us with a situation where we have a physical encounter but one the is completely void of anything personal.  In falsely separating these two things, it is no surprise that people are less prone to virtue in their communications.  On the internet, when the face-to-face encounter has been eliminated, people are more likely to behave in vicious ways because they perceive those actions as lacking consequence.  Likewise, in a vehicle there is an absence of personal relationship (due to the physical isolation and confinement) and therefore people are more likely to exhibit rage and other vicious emotions.  Again, a perceived lack of consequences plays a role here.  The whole thing seems to separate what God has joined: relationship and physical proximity.

While marginal, these two observations are intimately bound up with the problem of suburban sprawl.  Of course the second example of the car is a direct consequence of suburbia.

I would add as a final observation that both communication and transportation technology provide the one necessary ingredient for destroying virtue and human relationship: anonymity.  When one is able to dissociate his personal identity from his actions, virtue becomes virtually impossible.  It is telling the Scripture presents a life of virtue as tied to personal identity, or rather it presents the lack of identity as a key characteristic of evil, which is why the demons Christ encounters often refer to themselves in the plural (“We” or “legion”).

Mr. Hain ends his article with the following:

[S]uburbia represents a turning away from public life towards private life. Front porches have become back decks, and public squares have disappeared. Suppose we were to rebuild those public squares, and all of us spent our evenings on our front porches. We might discover, to our dismay, that we had almost nothing to talk about.

The last bit reminds me of a quotation from Henry David Thorough, written on the eve of  the development of a transcontinental telegraph line:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Main to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

But as usual, Postman synthesizes all of this best:

A man in Main and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about.  The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.

The Two Trees of Eden

As those who have read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will attest, the Creation story of Genesis is the foundation of everything that follows in the Pope’s catechesis.  Following that model, Anderson and Granados devote a considerable amount of time to the first pages of Scripture in their book Called to Love.  In their discussion of the original sin, we find what is either a little-known detail of the account of the fall or, at the very least, an aspect of the story that often goes overlooked.

 

Everyone knows of the tree from which the original couple was forbidden to eat.  What is often forgotten is the care that the Book of Genesis takes to highlight not one, but two trees in the garden.

 

“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:8-9)

 

With two trees on the scene, let us see which of the two that the Lord places off limits to the original couple.

 

“And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis, 2:16-17)

 

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil stands for the proper order of things: God as the author of reality and man as the recipient of his love.  It a the sign of distinction between Creator and creation (sign here understood as more than a symbol, but as containing something of the reality of which it signifies).  Grasping the fruit from the tree is an attempt to invert reality; it is an attempt to make the creature the author of reality.  “It stands for a false independence based on the attempt to determine the meaning of existence without God, to be a self-sufficient spring with no need to draw the water of life from the original Source” (Called to Love, 105).

 

The death that eating from this tree brings is not merely a punishment, but is also a metaphysical necessity.  If the tree is a sign of the proper order of Creator and creation, then it is also a sign of the meaning of existence for man.  Man can only exist in and through God’s Love and Law.  In violating the command of God, man actually cuts himself off from the Source of his existence.  Instead, he attempts to find (or define) the source of his life somewhere other than God, namely man attempts to find this source in himself.  In doing so, he brings about his own destruction.  The only thing that will eventually save man from himself is the redemption won by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the same God that gave man his existence “in the beginning.”

 

The whole story of the fall obtains more clarity when we examine the serpent’s temptation of man.

 

“[The serpent] said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?’  And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” ’ ” (Genesis, 3:1-4).

 

It is interesting that the serpent accuses God of forbidding Adam and Even to eat of any tree in the garden.  This is a deliberate attempt to set up God as a tyrant that seeks to cut the couple off from all of creation (including the tree of life), the same creation that God had given as a gift.  At first, the woman repudiates this lie, clarifying that God’s command “not to eat” was restricted to but one tree in the garden.  The serpent’s next move is the most cunning.

 

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis, 3:4-5).

 

In his deception, the serpent tells the woman, “You will not die,” and implies that in eating of this tree the woman will find life and fulfillment.  After all, what is it to “be like God” if not complete fulfillment/beatitude?  “The serpent’s temptation, however, consists precisely in blurring the distinction in Adam’s and Eve’s minds between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life” (Called to Love, 105).  The serpent’s lie is twofold: (1) he claims that true life is found not from the tree of life, but instead from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and (2) he claims that God, by withholding them from this tree is preventing them from attaining life.

 

“The purpose of this maneuver, of course, is to make the first couple doubt God’s goodness.  After all, if the two trees really were identical, then the Creator’s commandment to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would be a blatant tactic designed to hold man back from attaining the fulness of life” (Called to Love, 105).

 

This is the exact opposite of God’s reality and purpose for man.  Instead of withholding life, he explicitly gave them life (and continues to hold them in existence), of which the tree of life is a sign.  The specific mention of the tree of life in the Book of Genesis indicates that God’s intention is for man to eat and drink of the gift of life.  God is not a tyrant, but a gift-giver, a giver of life.  He is prepared to give to man everything that man needs in order to be fully human, even his very own Son.  What he is not prepared to give to man is what he cannot in fact give, not because of a lack of desire or a lack of power, but out of metaphysical necessity.  God cannot give to man the ability to be something he is not.  Just as he cannot give man the ability to be a horse, God also cannot give man divinity properly speaking (though in the Paschal Mystery, man is divinized in a certain sense), simply because the creature can never be the Creator.  This does not contradict God’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence; on the contrary the Paschal Mystery only serves to exhibit the perfect power and goodness of God.

 

In the end, “the truth, of course, is that the two trees are not at all identical, and that the Creator has planned all along to let man eat from the tree of life.  God is not envious but generous, and he wishes man to live forever in the joy that comes from the acceptance of the divine gift” (Called to Love, 105).

 

God’s gift for us is the same as his gift to all of creation, to ability to perfect itself.  His gift to us is the ability to be fully human, and this gift begins with the act of creation.  One way of defining sin is the rejection of this gift, or the attempt to be something other than what we are.  In some cases, the sin of man is the attempt to be less than what he is, to be merely an animal (for instance, sins of sexual excess), whereas in other cases, man’s sin is the attempt to be more than what he is (for instance, the sin of cloning wherein man attempts to be the author of life).  Holiness, seen here as the opposite of sin, is the humble acceptance of God’s grace so man can be fully human and enjoy the vision of God face to face.  Comprehending this is parallel to comprehending the difference between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

 

The Prayer After Communion – Third Sunday of Lent

Listen to the new translation for the Prayer After Communion composed for the Third Sunday of Lent:

As we receive the pledge

of things yet hidden in heaven

and are nourished while still on earth

with the Bread that comes from on high,

we humbly entreat you, O Lord,

that what is being brought about in us in mystery

may come to true completion.

This is simply exquisite.  It emphasizes that the Mass is both a foretaste of and, in some mysterious way, a participation in the heavenly banquet.  That pledge which “we receive” is the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist which unites heaven and earth.  It nourishes us “while still on earth” and gives us a taste of “things yet hidden in heaven.”  Cardinal Ratzinger, in The Spirit of the Liturgy describes the present time (that which is after the Resurrection but before the end of the world) as the proper time for liturgy, for it is the great “already, but not yet.”  Only in such an era can something like a sacrament make sense.  Only in such an era can “Bread that comes from on high” be an efficacious sign of heavenly realities.

In the same book, Ratzinger speaks of how the liturgy is anthropological.  It took me several readings to fully understand the Cardinal’s words.  The explanation goes something like this.  We know that our completion (our “final cause” or telos) is to be found in God’s presence, that is, in heaven.  In other words, we will be most fully human when we are standing before God’s loving gave in glory with the angels and the saints.  Conversely, the souls of the damned are virtually inhuman, which is why even individual demons in the Gospel (though properly speaking these are fallen angels not fallen men) describe themselves in the plural: “We are Legion.”  In hell, all individuality is lost, for the self is given over to sin.  Said differently, sin consumes the person.  Think here of the character of Gollum in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  The ring, symbolic of evil, has all but claimed the identity of the wretched creature, so much so that Gollum refers to himself in the plural, experiencing the utmost of personality crises.  Rather than giving the self over to evil, we are to empty ourselves out for the summum bonum: God himself.  The Gospel paradox is: in giving ourselves away to God, we subsequently find our true selves.  This is because all fulfillment (all telos) is found in God.  From God we have come, and to God we must return.  The soul who gives himself to evil merely empties the self; absent is the promise and possibility of finding the self.

Moreover, the Mass is our participation on earth in the reality that constitutes heaven, for heaven is nothing more than the eternal worship of the Almighty God.  Putting these two things together, (1) if our fulfillment is found in heaven, and (2) if the Mass is a participation in the reality which is heaven, it follows that our fulfillment as human beings begins in the Mass.  It is in the Mass that we find our true selves.  It is in the Mass that we become that for which we are destined; it is here we become holy. This is simply an extended explanation of a sacrament as “an efficacious sign of God’s grace,” and this is what Cardinal Ratzinger means when he says that the liturgy is “anthropological.”

We return now ready to understand the Pray After Communion on the Third Sunday of Lent:  “We humbly entreat you, O Lord, that what is being brought about in us in mystery may come to true completion.”  I repeat that with which I started: this is simply exquisite.

It is so exquisite, in fact, that I hesitate to ruin it with the current, deficient translation.  I even thought of letting it go and simply recommending that people listen carefully this coming Sunday.  Alas, I am weak, and I cannot resist the opportunity to demonstrate just how deficient it is.  I won’t go through the Latin; rest assured that the new translation is much more faithful.  Without further adieu, here is what we will hear this weekend:

Lord, in sharing this sacrament

may we receive your forgiveness

and be brought together in unity and peace.

And with that, I leave you with that which has become my mantra as of late:

I feel like each Sunday this year presents a funeral of sorts … a passing of Mass texts that will never be heard again.  Rather than mourning this passing, my heart finds solace in the assurance that these texts will rise again in a more perfect form with the ‘advent’ of the new translation.  While we have a full year to pay our respects to the passing Ordinary, there is a rejoicing of sorts that the current Propers have reached the end of the proverbial line: their days are numbered, their time has passed, and blessed be God for that.

At least in terms of the Holy Mass, the 1973 ‘Prayer After Communion’ for the Third Sunday of Lent has met its maker, kicked the bucket, bit the dust, bought the farm, breathed its last, and indeed … croaked.  This is not a cause for mourning, but rather a looking forward to the day of resurrection; for the Latin soul of this prayer is indeed filled with grace, so when it rises again as the 2010 Prayer, it will be gloriously triumphant.”

 

Jesus is Hardly a Pacifist (Neither is St. Michael, nor Gandalf)

Whenever the Gospel scene of Jesus cleansing the Temple comes up in conversation, is it always entertaining to see people try to rationalize or explain away the anger that our Lord displayed.  There are those who will say that this is a demonstration of Jesus’ humanity, but such an explanation always seems to have an accompanying tinge of “perfect divinity, imperfect humanity.”  After all, when we say of someone, “He is only human,” we are usually doing so to justify an imperfect action or reaction, as if to say, “He is human, and therefore not perfect.”  Such an accusation of Jesus is misleading at best.  Yes, Jesus is human, fully human, in fact, as well as fully divine.  However, Jesus is perfect in his humanity.  Therefore, any reaction he gives is the perfect reaction to the situation that stands before him.  This is good news for the rest of us, for it demonstrates that humanity in both its core and destiny is fundamentally good, that imperfections found within all of us are the result of sin (both original and personal), and not the result of being human as such.  Therefore, the perfection that Jesus possesses in being fully human is a perfection that awaits us, God willing, in our glorified state.

 

What then, should we make of the anger demonstrated by Jesus in his cleansing of the Temple?  The first conclusion we can draw is that there is a place for a righteous anger in dealing with the problem of sin.  Of course, we should not mistake this kind of anger for the irrational, impatient, and reactionary kind that we so often demonstrate in our lives.  But Jesus is hardly a pacifist.  To get a better sense of righteous anger, it helps to consider a few examples.  The first we will take from the life of Jesus, the second from the archangel Michael, and the third from that master of myth, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Continue reading

Let Us Not Mourn the Passing of These Texts

I don’t know how many people have been keeping up with the forthcoming changes to the Roman Missal.  This has been a particular passion/hobby of mine lately.  At my home site, I am doing a weekly column of pieces explaining the new translations.  Thus far, I have discussed all the changes to the people’s parts and this Monday I will begin taking up the priest’s parts, starting with Eucharistic Prayer I.  (For those interested, the entire collection can be found here.)

Today at Mass the need for a new translation became crystal clear.  What follows is a comparison of the two prayers from the Mass.  First, the Collect.  What we heard at Mass just hour ago was,

Lord protect us in our struggle against evil.

As we begin the discipline of Lent,

make this day holy by our self-denial.

Not bad … at least there is some discussion of self-denial and discipline.  But listen to the new translation:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting

this campaign of Christian service,

so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,

we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.

Holy fasting … campaign … battle against spiritual evils … armed with weapons of self-restraint.  That’s the kind of Lent I’m talking about!  However, what really got me going was the Prayer Over the Ashes.  Here is the current “translation”:

Dear friends in Christ, let us ask our Father

to bless these ashes which we will use

as the mark of our repentance.

Lord, bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness

and bless all those who receive these ashes.

May they keep this lenten season

in preparation for the joy of Easter.

Before we get to the new translation, just for kicks, let’s look at the Latin: Continue reading

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