Sunday, August 28, 2011

Present Your Bodies as a Living Sacrifice

In his exhortation “Verbum Domini”, the Holy Father reminds us that the “the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives” (Verbum Domini, No. 52). He says this in the context of Sacred Scripture being most at home in the liturgy, because it is in the liturgy that we really encounter the Word of God.

This hit home for me in today’s Mass (22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time) in the Second Reading (Rom 12:1-2) and the Gospel (Matt 16:21-27).

In Rom 12:1-2, St. Paul tells us to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God; and to be transformed in doing so. 
In the Gospel reading, our Lord tells us that if we want to be His disciples we need to take up our cross and follow Him (Matt 16:24). As Christians, we are called to suffer for the sake of Christ. But for Christians, suffering is not a bad thing because it leads us to glory (Rom 8:17; see also Jn 12:23-26 where Jesus uses similar language to that of Matt 16:24-25). Also, because we are members of the Christ’s Body the Church, we are able to offer our sufferings up for the Church to complete what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings (Col 1:24).
We are no doubt familiar with the above passages of Sacred Scripture, but they really come alive for us when we relate them back to the liturgy.
In the liturgy of the Eucharist, we offer the gifts of bread and wine (the fruit of our hands) which are placed by the priest on the altar. We offer these gifts to God in thanksgiving (eucharistia) for all that He has done for us. But the fact that our gifts are placed on the altar signifies that what we are doing is far more than saying “thank-you”. An altar speaks of sacrifice. This means that when we offer our gifts, we are really declaring that we are offering ourselves, and all that has been given to us, as a sacrifice to God.

At the words of institution, the bread and wine are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ as the re-presentation (i.e. the presenting again) of the once-for-all Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary. In this action, the sacrifice of ourselves is united with the Sacrifice of Christ, and thus becomes a sweet-smelling offering which is acceptable to God (Phil 4:18). [After all, nothing we offer to God has any value apart from it being united to Christ]. Then, as we receive our Blessed Lord in Holy Communion, He slowly but surely transforms us into His own image (see here and here).

Perhaps one way of being reminded of this is to develop the habit of consciously offering our whole life – our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings – to God during the Presentation of the Gifts and the Offertory Prayer, remembering that as we do so we are offering ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God; which is our spiritual worship.  

"Why is Sunday the Christian Sabbath" - Taylor Marshall

This is a great blog by Taylor Marshall "Canterbury Tales" on why the Christian celebrates the Lord's Day as the New Covenant Christian Sabbath.

Obviously, it is only a primer, but still it is succint and gets the point across.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Justification – the Necessity of Works

A common, and unfair, accusation levelled against us Catholics is that we believe that we are justified by works. The reason that this accusation is made is because we do not adhere to Martin Luther’s doctrine of Sola Fide i.e. that justification is by faith alone and without any good works at all.   

In my days as a non-Catholic Christian, I firmly held to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. It was a teaching that I really didn’t question because, as far as I knew, it was the most basic and fundamental principle of Christianity. After all, wasn’t this the one thing that the Protestant Reformers rescued from the wicked “Papists” who for so long had led people to believe that we are saved by our works?
On one level, I missed the logical fact that to believe is itself a work. But more importantly, I failed to realise that the Catholic Church, as the pillar and foundation of truth, was actually right on the teaching of justification all along. Thanks be to God, He was gracious enough to allow me to see that Sola Fide is unscriptural and that the teaching of the Protestant Reformers was not in line with what the Church has taught since the time of the Apostles.
Just because we Catholics do not believe we are saved by faith alone, Protestants tend to think that this must mean that we believe we are saved by works. This is unfair reasoning at best, and really is not what the Catholic Church teaches. Rather, the Church teaches that we are in fact saved by faith, but that faith is not alone i.e. saving faith is necessarily and always accompanied by good works.

One of the “proof-texts” used by Protestants to back up their doctrine of Sola Fide is Eph 2:8-9 where St. Paul says:

“ grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But this verse should not be read in isolation, because St. James tells us quite emphatically:

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead...You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Jms 2:17,24

A reading of the entire passage in James 2 will reveal that in St. James’ argument, a “dead faith” is a very real faith (even the devils believe and tremble – v19); but it is a dead faith nonetheless. Following St. James’ thought, if justification is by faith alone (as Protestants suggest); then the devil himself would be justified by his faith. On the flip-side of this “dead faith” is a faith which MUST be accompanied by good works if it is to be living and life-giving.
Origen, writing early in the third century affirmed this when he said:

“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he professes to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in Him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James.” – Commentaries on John

So, how do we reconcile what St. James says about works and faith with what St. Paul’s teaching? One way of looking at the above verses is to perceive that St. James teaches us that we are not saved by faith alone, whilst St. Paul teaches us that we are not saved by works alone. Rather, we need to see that neither faith nor works stand alone. They stand together hand-in-hand and both are gifts from God. So, even though we are saved by faith AND works, it ultimately comes back to the fact that we are saved by God’s grace and God’s grace ALONE.
This is also echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  

“Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation...without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life but he who endures to the end. Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man...” CCC #161-162

“Our justification comes from the grace of God...” CCC # 1996
Interestingly, when one examines the Gospels, you will find that our Lord placed more emphasis on good works than He did on faith. His parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:1-14) bears this out when He speaks of the person without the wedding robe being case into outer darkness (v 12-13). Comparing this passage with St. John’s Revelation, we find that the fine linen garment “is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:8).

So if we desire to enter into the presence of God when our earthly sojourn is complete, let us never cease in our pursuit of holiness and good works in faith, without which we can never see God (Heb 12:14). And let us do so in faith, because without faith, it is impossible for our good works to please God (Heb 11:6).

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Beatitudes and the Virgin Mary

Earlier this week, I was praying the Rosary and meditating on the Luminous Mysteries. As part of the Third Luminous Mystery (i.e. the proclamation of the kingdom), I usually meditate on the Beatitudes. As I was working my way through the Hail Mary, especially the words which echo those of St. Elisabeth “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy Womb”, the connection with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) dawned on me.

Blessed is the Fruit of thy Womb – Our Lord Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of the Beatitudes because He is the Source of all blessing, the One from Whom all blessings flow. In this way, the Beatitudes find their fullest meaning in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But it was not only the Fruit of the Womb that St. Elisabeth said was blessed. In order to grow, a fruit requires a tree...and so in order to become a man, God needed Mary. Which is why St. Elisabeth's first beatitude was directed towards Mary – “Blessed art thou among women...”.
If the tree is blessed, so too is the fruit...and vice versa. In this way, if the Fruit of the Womb is blessed, then so too is Mary, from whose womb our Lord was made Incarnate. But Mary’s blessedness is of an infinite kind because she bore the Infinite and Divine Son of God. So Mary is not just blessed...she is MOST blessed because she is God’s greatest creation – the New Eve, spared from original sin so that she could give birth to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Since our Lord Jesus came to us in the Incarnation through the Virgin Mary; so too His blessings flow to us through her. And just as the Incarnation was all from God’s grace, we only obtain the blessings that Christ spoke of in the Beatitudes only by God’s grace. All we need to do is humbly ask. And the surest way of obtaining them is by asking through Our Lady because it is also through her that God pours out His grace upon us. Having recourse to Our Lady, and following her example, she will always, always, ALWAYS lead us to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Blessed art thou Mary, poor in spirit; teach us to be poor in spirit so that we might obtain the kingdom of heaven;
Blessed art thou Mary, you who mourned and suffered with our Saviour; comfort us in our affliction;

Blessed art thou Mary, most meek of all God’s creatures and Queen of Heaven and Earth; teach us to be meek that we too can share in this inheritance;
Blessed art thou Mary, most righteous; grant us a deep hungering and thirsting for righteousness so that we might be filled from above;

Blessed art thou Mary, most merciful; pray for us that we might obtain God’s mercy;
Blessed art thou Mary, most pure in heart; intercede for us before the face of God that we might grow in purity;

Blessed art thou Mary, lover of peace and handmaid of the Lord; teach us to love one another that we may be worthy to be called thy children and the children of our God;
Blessed art thou Mary, persecuted for the sake of righteousness; help us to seek first God’s kingdom without fear of the persecution that will come our way;

Blessed art thou Mary; reviled and falsely accused on Our Lord’s account; teach us to rejoice in our persecutions that we might be made worthy of the reward of heaven together with thee and all of God’s Saints.