Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let it Be - Theology in the Beatles???

The longer I have been Christian, the more I am learning that God often speaks to us in the simple things of everyday life. Of course, that doesn’t detract from the primary means of God speaking to us – through the Church and the Scriptures, and particularly in the liturgy. If anything, it actually gives emphases to just how special God’s primary means of communicating with us is.

One of the things that helped my journey to the Catholic Church was Marcus Grodi’s “The Journey Home”.
I would often listen to the conversion stories of various people (Protestant or otherwise) who would “come home” to the Catholic Church. I would listen with intent, and I often wondered whether what these people were saying about what the Catholic Church ACTUALLY teaches was simply too good to be true; and whether Protestants returning to the Catholic Church were really like the Prodigal Son returning home (to use one illustration). I distinctly remember on one specific occasion, I was listening to the Journey Home in my car on the way to work. I remember coming to the end of the programme and wondering “Is God calling me home to the Catholic Church?” Anyway, as I changed the function from CD to radio, what happened brought tears  to my eyes – the station was playing the iconic song by New Zealand artist, Dave Dobbyn...and the very first words that came out of the speakers were:

“...welcome home, from the bottom of my heart”.

[If you would like to hear the whole song, click here – it really is quite stunning; and it makes me homesick every time I hear it].
Despite all the Scripture I was reading, and the Catholic theology that I was increasingly becoming convinced of, this little experience was extremely powerful – and I have no doubt that God was using it to confirm to me that the path that I was on was the right one.
Another secular song that had a huge impact in my journey, and still holds a special place for me now as a Catholic, is the Beatles hit “Let it Be”, especially the opening stanza:

When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom

“Let it be”;

And in my hour of darkness,

She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom

“Let it be”.

Whether intentional or not, the above lines are loaded theologically. Firstly, the words spoken by Mother Mary are called “words of wisdom”; which is in line with the teaching of the Church Fathers that Lady Wisdom of the Proverbs was an allegorical reference to Our Lady – or as St. Augustine called Mary the “Seat of Wisdom”.  
Secondly, the words “let it be” echo Mary’s “fiat” – when she said to the Angel Gabriel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Whenever I listen to this song, it reminds me that as children of our Holy Mother Mary, the surest way to learn to submit ourselves completely to God’s will is to imitate her example. Following her, we will learn to echo her words “Let it be done unto me according to your word”; and she in turn will unfailingly lead us to the Lord Jesus Christ. As St. Louis Marie De Montfort reminds us: 

“Now, Mary being the most conformed of all creatures to Jesus Christ, consequently, it follows that, of all devotions, that which most consecrates and conforms the soul to Our Lord is devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin, His holy Mother; and that the more soul is consecrated to Mary, the more it will be consecrated to Jesus Christ” – True Devotion to Mary, no. 120

Sunday, September 18, 2011

God's High and Heavenly Ways

The Old Testament reading for today (25th Sunday of Ordinary Time) is taken from Isaiah 55:6-9:

“[6]Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
[7] let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
[8] For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
[9] For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Often verses 8-9 are quoted referring to how God’s ways and thoughts are beyond comprehension for us. This is certainly true, because God is infinitely greater than we are. But what these verses call us to is not a resignation that God is incomprehensible; but rather they call us to action – to seek to know God’s ways and God’s thoughts, and then to shape our lives by them.
This is affirmed by the preceding verses where Isaiah exhorts us to seek the Lord while there is still opportunity. He calls for the wicked to forsake their wicked ways and the unrighteous to forsake their unrighteous thoughts; and instead to pursue God’s ways and God’s thoughts.

When the Prophet refers to God’s ways and thoughts as being as high as the heavens above the earth in comparison to our ways and thoughts, he is speaking about the purity and holiness of God’s ways compared to our own ways, which are often tainted with sin.
In other words, what the Prophet is calling for is repentance – a forsaking of wicked ways and thoughts and a turning to pursuing the holy ways and thoughts of God. Isaiah is calling us to forsake our earthly way of thinking and life so that we can attain to God’s heavenly way of thinking and life. St. Paul echoed this in His call for us to set our minds on “things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2).

Humanly speaking, this is impossible. But God has not left us without hope. With Him all things are possible (Matt 19:26). Isaiah tells us that when we turn to God in this way, He will have mercy on us and He will abundantly pardon.

Furthermore, God has also given us the Sacraments. When we receive the Sacraments in faith, especially the Blessed Eucharist, we receive the grace to grow in His ways and thoughts.

The Sacraments are no mere empty sign. When we realise that in the Sacraments we are receiving Christ Himself, it is then that we experience the power of the Resurrection – the power of God to conform us to the image of Christ (Phil 3:10).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Vengeance Reversed

Often as we meditate on the Person and Work of our Lord Jesus Christ, we see how through Him, God the Father accomplishes a reversal of sin and its effects. St. Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is the New Adam who obeyed where the Old Adam fell; and so Jesus also reverses the effects of the sin of the Old Adam (Rom 5:12-20; 1 Cor 15:22).

We see a similar reversal in the Gospel reading for today (Matt 18:21-35; 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time). In the course of the passage, St. Peter asks our Lord:

“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” – Matt 18:21

Our Lord responds by telling St. Peter in verse 22 that we are to forgive not seven times, but “seventy-seven times” (as the NRSV puts it).

As 21st century Christians, we often see this as meaning that our Lord was teaching us that our forgiveness of the faults of those who sin against us should be without limit. Now, this is certainly true, as clearly emphasised by Jesus in the subsequent parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). But, as St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended in his Spiritual Exercises, to really grasp the depth of Scripture, we need to visually transport ourselves in our imagination to the time of the original audience.

St. Peter was a Jew, and as such he would have been well-versed in the Old Testament Scriptures. We often take for granted that we have the Sacred Scriptures so readily available to us. [As I sit at my PC, I can count 16 different Bibles that I have on my desk and bookshelf]. In St. Peter’s time, they didn’t have this sort of access to the written word. Much of what they knew was committed to memory, and probably mostly from the readings that they would hear at the Synagogue Sabbath liturgy (much like the way we hear the Scripture readings in any given Mass).

It isn’t unlikely that when our Lord uttered these words, St. Peter’s memory would have been stirred to recall an account in Genesis where Lamech, in uttering words of revenge, says:

“...I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” – Gen 4:23b-24

In the Septuagint, the Greek words used in the above passage for “sevenfold” (πτκις) and seventy-sevenfold” (ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά) are the same Greek words used by St. Matthew in Matt 18:24 for “seven times” and “seventy-seven times” respectively.
[The Septuagint is the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek – and it is the version that St. Peter would have been most familiar with].
So, we see that our Lord was most certainly reminding St. Peter that there is to be no limit to our forgiveness of others – just as there is no limit of God’s forgiveness towards us based on the merits of the once-for-all Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary. But more than this, He was also pointing to the fact that He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17); and as such, in His Person and Work, He reverses the vengeance of Lamech, and in its place emphasises the love and forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.  
May this stir within us then the desire, not to follow the example of Lamech in seeking vengeance when we are wronged; but rather to be true children of our Father who, even though we have grievously sinned against Him, so loved the world that He gave His only Son for the forgiveness of these very sins. As St. Paul says:
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Rom 5:7

Thanks be to God for His unfathomable love.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Do This in Remembrance of Me

Earlier this week, I was having a discussion with a lady who is currently examining the Catholic faith. Her questions are probing, which is encouraging because it shows that she is seriously trying to come to grips with what it is that the Catholic Church really believes.

We started talking about what our Lord meant when He said of the Eucharist “Do this in remembrance of me”. Her background, like my own, is Protestant and the common argument amongst Protestants against the Catholic notion of the Mass as Sacrifice, and the doctrine of Transubstantiation, is that when our Lord said “This is my Body...this is my Blood” He meant for it to be understood figuratively...based on His instruction to do it “in remembrance” of Him.

Well, what did our Lord mean when He said this? What would the notion of “remembrance” have for a Jew of Jesus’ day? For the Jewish people, the idea of celebrating the Passover as a “remembrance” was one in which the people celebrating the remembrance would consider themselves as if they were present in the actual historical event – as if by the power of God they had transcended space and time and the Passover events were made present to them thousands of years later.

Even Keith A. Mathison – a respected Protestant scholar, and also the assistant editor of the ESV Reformation Study Bible – recognises this when he states:

“Understood within the Passover context, this phrase [“Do this in remembrance of me”] points to the idea that the congregation becomes contemporary with Christ’s act of redemption.”

 “...remembrance is not merely mental recollection...”
 “Those who reduce the Lord’s Supper to an act of mental recollection are imposing modern modes of thought on the text of Scripture.”
– Given for You by Keith A. Mathison

St. Augustine spoke of the same concept in the context of the liturgy. Referring to the Easter liturgy, he reminds us that although the Lord has died for our sins once for all, yet “we have the liturgical solemnities which we celebrate as, during the course of the year, we come to the date of the particular events. The historical truth is what happened once for all, but the liturgy makes those events always new for the hearts that celebrate them with faith. The historical truth shows us the events just as they happened, but the liturgy, while not repeating them, celebrates them and prevents them from being forgotten...we say that Easter happened once only and will not happen again, but, on the basis of the liturgy, we can say that Easter happens every year.”
It is in this context that the liturgy of the Mass is a Sacrifice. It is not repeating the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary – rather, it is the once-for-all Sacrifice of God the Son being made present for us today. This is possible because God is not bound by time – He transcends time and space. This is one reason why Catholic churches have a Crucifix in the Sanctuary – it is a reminder that in the Mass, we are really present at the foot of the Cross.
And when the priest elevates the Host and the Chalice, the Lamb of God is being lifted up and drawing us to Him for our redemption. Our only reasonable response then is to kneel in humility before Him and acknowledge that we are not worthy to receive Him, but if He only says the word, we will be healed.