Sunday, October 30, 2011

Unity, Obedience, and Keeping Covenant

In the First Reading for today (31st Sunday of Ordinary Time), we read:
A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.
And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?
(Mal 1: 14b – 2:2b, 8-10)

So much can be said for this passage of Sacred Scripture, but verse 10 (see italics above) particularly struck me today. The prophet Malachi says that Israel had profaned the ancient covenant by being faithless with each other, and in doing so they destroyed the unity of being one people under God, who is the One Father of His people.
These words are just as true of Christianity today, which is terribly fractured and disunified. Rather than submitting to the authority of the Holy Church that our Lord Jesus founded upon the Rock of St. Peter, Christians around the world have broken faith with each other by doing (and believing) what is right in their own eyes.
Some of the clearest evidences of this are things like the Great Schism of 1054; and to a greater degree, the 16th century Protestant Reformation in which the Protestant Reformers, without any appointment by the Lord Jesus, rejected Christ’s Church and instead set themselves up as the authoritative leaders of Christianity.
The outworking of these sad historical realities is that Christians remain extremely divided. For example, Protestant denominations currently number in the tens of thousands. And as each individual Christian (or group of Christians) decides what is right in their own eyes, Christianity continues to splinter into more and more fractious denominations.
As Catholics, we rightly rejoice in the fact that we are part of the One Holy Church instituted by Christ. But before we get too arrogant about this, we would do well to acknowledge that the problem of insubordination exists within our own ranks too (albeit not to the same degree of schism). There are many Catholics today who openly challenge the Magisterium of the Church. Many examples can be cited, but one needn’t go further than the issue of contraception to see that this is the case.
The First Reading for today is a reminder to us that we are called to maintain the unity that Christ has established in His Church (see also Eph 4:3; CCC # 820). In today’s Gospel Reading (Matt 23:1-12), our Lord teaches us that an important aspect of maintaining this unity is by obeying the valid authority which has been established by God Himself:
"The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice." (Matt 23:2-3)

If this was what our Lord expected under the Old Covenant, how much more does He require of us under the New Covenant to obey the authority of the Church which is guided by God the Holy Spirit? Furthermore, our Lord reminds us that this God-given authority ought ALWAYS to be obeyed, even in the unfortunate cases where the authority is not necessarily practising what they are preaching.
Things like the Protestant Reformation ought to serve as a constant reminder to us of the danger of self-appointed authority which sets itself up against the Church’s God-given authority. When we fail to submit to the Church’s authority, we become responsible for creating dissension in the Body of Christ; we become responsible for breaking faith with each other; and so we become responsible for breaking God’s covenant (Mal 2:10).
So, when we find ourselves struggling with submission to the Church, let us pray for grace – that God would grant us the humility to remember that we as individuals are not the final authority on the Word of God. Rather, the Church founded by our Lord Jesus on the Rock of St. Peter is the pillar and foundation of truth. And because the Church is the Body of Christ – united with Christ her Head – may we always remember that when we submit to the Church, we submit to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Menorah and the Traditional Altar


What do the above two pictures have in common?
I’ll get to that...but firstly, in case you don’t recognise the pictures...the first is of the Menorah – the lampstand which stood in the Temple in Jerusalem; and the second is of the High Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Secondly, by way of an introduction to this blog was inspired by some good friends of ours who recently relocated and are currently living in Rome (and rather heroically I might add).  Anyway, they e-mailed us to let us know are very encouraged by their local Catholic parish which is unashamedly traditional. They even mentioned that the “church was done up properly with the 6 candles, three each side of the Tabernacle”. This is the traditional way for the altar to be set up i.e. with six candles – three on either side of the Tabernacle or Crucifix (as indicated by the High Altar in St. Peter’s).
I originally didn’t know why a traditional altar was supposed to be set up in this way...until I coincidentally came across the reason in a completely unrelated book earlier this week.
The traditional setting of the Altar is based on the Menorah – signifying that the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New; the central “candle” is Christ – because He is the Light of the World and the centre of everything that we as Catholics believe and practice.
Isn’t that just stunning?!? The longer I am Catholic the more I grow to love the faith that has been handed on to us from the Apostles and their Successors. It really is awe-inspiring!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dressed for a Wedding

In this week’s Gospel reading (Matt 22:1-14), our Lord continues the theme of Israel’s rejection of God and how the Kingdom is taken from them in the parable of the Wedding Banquet. In addition to some of the thoughts from last Sunday's Gospel reading  (Matt 21:33-43), today’s Gospel gives us a bit more food for mediation.

It is no coincidence that our Lord uses a marriage feast in this parable when He speaks about the salvation that He offers. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the marriage feast is used to refer to the Eucharist, either directly (e.g. Rev 19:7-9) or indirectly (e.g. Jn 2:1ff) – and it is in the Most Holy Eucharist that we most fully receive the salvation that our Lord Jesus offers us (Jn 6:53-55).

It is important to notice that the call to the Marriage Supper is a free call – because salvation is offered to anyone who comes to God asking, seeking, and knocking (Rev 22:17; Matt 7:7ff). But this is no “easy-believism” because salvation goes deeper than simply answering to an initial call. This is where the significance of the wedding garment comes in.

According to ancient custom, the host of the wedding would provide each of the wedding guests with a wedding garment. In this way, the wedding garment of Jesus’ parable refers to something that God gives to us so that we are worthy to participate in the Marriage Supper. However, according to St. John, in the Marriage Supper, the white garments that the Saints are clothed with are their own righteous deeds (Rev 19:8; it is also interesting to note that 19:9 bestows blessing upon those who are invited to the Marriage Supper, linking it back to Jesus’ parable). Furthermore, St. James tells us that faith without works is dead (Jms 2:26). This is exactly what our Lord Jesus is teaching in this parable when He speaks of the wedding garment. The person being reprimanded was certainly invited to the wedding, and he is even called “friend” (v 12). Although he accepted the invitation to the banquet, when he showed up he wasn’t dressed appropriately. And on this basis, he is actually cast out of the wedding banquet (v 13).

Tying this all together then, this should serve as a reminder to us that whilst the call of the Gospel is completely free – it requires more than a simple response of faith for salvation. The “more” that is required is a life of righteousness.  In other words, whilst we are certainly saved by our faith, we are not saved by faith alone. Rather, our faith needs to be accompanied by good works lest it be judged that our faith, albeit real, is actually dead.

And lest we grow proud in self-righteousness, we would always do well to remember that even our good works, although our own, are themselves a gift from God by His Holy Spirit working in and through us.

This means that our salvation – from start to finish – is completely and utterly a work of God’s grace (Eph 2:8-9). Which is why St. Paul admonishes us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work within us who enables us to have the desire to do good...and then to fulfil that desire (Phil 2:12-13).

So, when we find ourselves struggling to obey God as we walk with Him, let us look to the example of the Saints who are already clothed in white garments; let us ask also for their intercession as we pray to God for His help; and let us trust that when we ask in faith, God will be faithful in responding by giving us a greater measure of His Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Faithful Tenant

In Matthew 21:33-43 our Lord preaches the parable of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants. As our parish priest pointed out in his homily this morning, this parable is ultimately about just how forgiving and patient God is.
The first verses of the parable make it clear that the parable is an allusion to Isa 5:1-7 where the Lord tells the nation of Israel that despite all He has done for them, they continue to reject Him and that this would lead to their desolation.
Jesus’ parable emphasises that God was indeed extremely long-suffering with the nation of Israel. Although they repeatedly broke God’s covenant through their idolatry and rejection of Him, God sent many prophets to shepherd them back to faithfulness (Matt 21:35-36). Yet they continued to reject God and His call of repentance.
This ongoing rejection finally culminated when the leaders of Israel conspired to have the Son of God crucified (vv37-39; Acts 2:22-23). There could be no greater rejection of God than wanting Him dead, and given this, God would have been completely justified in turning His back on all of humanity and leaving us to our own devices which would ultimately end in our own self-destruction. But thanks be to God – where sin abounded, God’s grace abounded even more!!!  
In verse 41 we see that the Kingdom is taken away from the nation of Israel and given to those who will be faithful in bringing forth its fruit. Whilst it doesn’t appear so at first glance, this really is an act of God’s profound and unrestrained mercy – because God takes the Kingdom away from the nation of Israel and expands it to include all the nations (Gal 3:28). The beauty of the Kingdom of God is that it is not limited to one nation; rather it is global, it is universal, it is Catholic!
Another point to notice is that, by the way our Lord presents the parable, it is clear that this “new phase” of the Kingdom will never be reversed. We are continually reminded throughout the Scriptures that with the New Covenant God would also give His people the means to be faithful in keeping the covenant. Unlike Old Israel, who constantly stumbled and broke covenant with God, the Church – New Israel (Gal 6:16) – will remain faithful to God’s covenant forever (Jer 31:31-34). Unlike Israel of old, there isn’t any prophecy in all of Scripture which speaks of the Church ever breaking covenant with God. Instead, the Scriptures are emphatically clear that the Church will ALWAYS remain faithful. This is not because Christians are such wonderful people – it is because God has sent His Holy Spirit to lead and guide the Church into all truth (Jn 16:13).
This is one reason why we should never be ashamed of being Catholic. Despite all the attacks made against the Church by non-Catholics (Christian or otherwise), we can rest assured that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that Jesus established on the Rock of St. Peter will always stand firm (Matt 16:18).
The Catholic Church is the new and faithful tenant of Jesus’ parable; and by God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, she will always bring forth the fruits that God requires – the fruit of obedience which leads to eternal life.
One final point – coming back to the parable being about God’s unfathomable forgiveness...
Whilst not explicitly stated by our Lord Jesus in this parable, God is not done with Old Israel. St. Paul tells us in Rom 11:31 that through the ministry of the Church God will show mercy to Israel and graft them back into the Vine of the Body of Christ.