Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Real Issue with Catholic Doctrine

Easter is only a couple of weeks away now, and this Easter will mark the second anniversary of God graciously receiving me and my wife into His Holy Catholic Church. Although I have only been Catholic for two years, both my hands would not be enough to count the number of debates that I have had with Protestants regarding what the Catholic Church REALLY teaches. And in every single debate, the thing that I encounter, without fail, is that Protestants have been grossly misinformed about Catholic doctrine.
In fact, just this week, I came across a Protestant gentleman (no doubt well-meaning) who purported that the Catholic Church uses the Rosary in an attempt to subversively teach her faithful that Jesus is dead and Mary is alive! This is based on the underlying (false) assumption that Catholics place Mary on a higher level than Jesus Christ. The allegation is that because a set of Rosary beads contains a Crucifix (a Cross with an image of the Crucified Jesus) this is meant to show that the Catholic Church really wants Catholics to believe that whilst Jesus is still dead on the Cross, Mary is our only hope because she is alive and in Heaven.  
Of course, if you are Catholic, you are probably shaking your head in disbelief, because one of the greatest truths we hold to as Catholics is that Jesus Christ did not only die on the Cross for our sins; but three days later, He rose again according to the Scriptures. In fact, that is ultimately what this whole Lenten season is about. It is about preparing us for Easter – which is the Church’s greatest feast because in it we celebrate the Resurrection of our Blessed Lord! Not only that, but for us Catholics, every Sunday is a Resurrection Sunday – which is precisely why we don’t worship on Saturday, the Old Covenant Sabbath.
Right now you might be wondering where I am going with this. Tomorrow is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, and the Gospel reading will be taken from Lk 1:26-38. As I was reading this passage earlier today, one verse in particular struck me as being the real (albeit subconscious) issue that Protestants have with Catholic doctrine (even after you have cleared up all their misconceptions).
In Luke 1:37, the Angel Gabriel declares to Mary: “With God nothing will be impossible.”
It’s that simple. Everything that we as Catholics believe ultimately comes down to this one point – NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD!
You don’t believe that in the Eucharist the bread and wine are transformed into the Real Body and Blood of Jesus? NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD!
You don’t believe that in matters of faith and morals, the Pope cannot teach error? NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD!
You don’t believe that the waters of Baptism wash away our sins? NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD!
You don’t believe that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin? NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD!
You don’t believe that the Catholic Church has remained faithful to the teachings of Jesus handed down through the Apostles? NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD! 

You see? The issue is always the same. Before everything else, the real question that we all need to answer is this: “Do we believe in the power of God?”
And by God’s grace, may our response always imitate that of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Let it be done according to Thy word”.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Good Works are God's Grace

The readings for this past Sunday (Fourth Week of Lent) were 2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; and Jn 3:14-21. Upon first glance, the common thread between these three readings might not be completely evident. For ease of reference, here are the readings:

2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23

In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD's temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.
Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
"Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled."
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
"Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!"

Eph 2:4-10

Brothers and sisters:
God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ - by grace you have been saved -,
raised us up with him,
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
that in the ages to come
He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them.

Jn 3:14-21
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

In the first reading, we read that Cyrus, king of Persia, decreed that the Israelites were to go and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem – which had previously been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. But what is particularly important about his decree is that Cyrus emphatically states that his directive came from God Himself.

In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us that we are saved by faith through nothing other than God’s grace. In other words, we are not saved by our own works. Now, this isn’t the same as saying that we are saved by faith ALONE apart from works, as suggested by Martin Luther (and subsequent Protestantism) because St. James clearly taught that faith alone is dead if it is apart from works (Jms 2:14-26). Ultimately, faith and works go hand in hand. So what is St. Paul saying here? He is saying that we are saved by God’s grace through faith and that the purpose of God’s redeeming us in Christ is so that we might live lives filled with good works (making good works coupled with our faith necessary for our salvation).

Finally, in the Gospel reading we are told that those who live the truth live in the light because they are not ashamed of their good works being made manifest. But, that’s not all that St. John tells us. He says that the good works of those following Christ are “clearly seen as done in God”. All the good works that we as Christians perform are done in God – this is because it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in and through us (Gal 2:20).

In light of the above, what we see Holy Church trying to remind us of is that any good works we do are done only by the grace of God working in our lives. Faith and works are necessary for salvation – but we need always to remember that faith and works are both gifts from God – and that is why St. Paul tells us that we can’t boast in ourselves, but rather that our boast should be in God and God alone.

St. Augustine put it this way:

“Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due...Our merits are God’s gifts.”
The Council of Trent affirmed this when it stated:

“The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.”

It is no mistake or coincidence that the Church has declared the above passages to be the Scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent either. Because it marks the mid-point of Lent, it is a good opportunity to reflect on how we have been tracking in our Lenten commitments. For some of us, it might mean that we haven’t been as faithful as we would’ve liked and so it becomes an opportunity to redouble our efforts going forward. For others, it might mean that we can look back at a fairly successful Lent so far – but before we start to think too highly of ourselves, these readings come as a timely reminder that if we have been faithful in our Lenten commitments, it is only because we have been co-operating with God’s grace in our lives – and His grace is the ultimate source of all the good works that we do.
So, at this mid-point in the Lenten season, let us keep praying for one another. We should especially take the time to thank God for the ways that we have been faithful thus far, and ask Him to continue to help us in to be faithful in the remainder of our Lenten journey towards Easter.
And last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget that we have God’s great gift of the Saints in Heaven, and especially our Blessed Mother Mary, whom we can ask for help as well. As the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us and know our struggles, they love us and want to see us succeed in our walk with God. So, may we never cease to ask them for their intercession on our behalf before the Throne of Grace.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Weakness of the Cross

In today’s Gospel Reading (3rd Sunday of Lent – Year B), we read of Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem temple:

Since the Passover of the Jews was near,
Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves,
as well as the money changers seated there.
He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,
and spilled the coins of the money changers
and overturned their tables,
and to those who sold doves he said,
"Take these out of here,
and stop making my Father's house a marketplace."
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,
Zeal for your house will consume me.
At this the Jews answered and said to him,
"What sign can you show us for doing this?"
Jesus answered and said to them,
"Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up."
The Jews said,
"This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?"
But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead,
his disciples remembered that he had said this,
and they came to believe the Scripture
and the word Jesus had spoken.
While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover,
many began to believe in his name
when they saw the signs he was doing.
But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all,
and did not need anyone to testify about human nature.
He himself understood it well.

(Jn 2:13-25).
Various “entrepreneurs” had turned the temple into a marketplace – making profit from those who came to worship God. In His zeal for true and unadulterated worship to God, Jesus chased these people and their wares out of the temple. In doing this, the Jews understood that Jesus was adopting a position of authority, which is why they asked Him: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” At this point, Jesus lifts the minds of his hearers to the greater reality of what the temple signified i.e. the Temple of His Body. He tells them that the sign He will give them is His death followed by His resurrection three days later.
In this context, St. John adds an interesting “footnote” to this episode where he tells us that many of the Jews subsequently believed in Him because of the signs that He was doing – referring to Jesus’ displays of power in the many miracles He was performing. But St. John also tells us that Jesus would not entrust Himself to them because He knew what was in them. Many of the same followers who were believing on Him at this point would later abandon Him when He would teach them about the necessity to eat His flesh and drink His blood (see Jn 6:66). But I think that by referring to these other signs that Jesus was performing, St. John is encouraging us to think a bit deeper about what is going on here.
To help us with this, Holy Mother Church has given us 1 Cor 1:22-25 as the Second Reading for today, which sheds some light on the Gospel reading:

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
In this reading St. Paul tells us that the Jews constantly required signs in order to believe, as affirmed by St. John in the Gospel reading. And in echoing Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading, St. Paul tells us that the sign offered for the Jews is “Christ crucified”. But St. Paul tells us that this sign is a stumbling block to Jews because they saw the Crucifixion as a sign of weakness and not of power. Their problem was that they were seeing things from a human perspective, and not from God’s perspective. In actual fact, the Crucifixion is a sign of the power of God; and even if this is a sign of weakness on God’s part, His weakness is far greater than ANY display of human strength.
How does God make this power evident? St. Paul tells us elsewhere (Rom 6:3-4) that by the Sacrament of Baptism, we are united to Christ in His death and resurrection – and the effect of this is that our slavery to sin is destroyed in His death; and by His resurrection we are born again to a newness of life in the Spirit. This is the power of God!!!
With this in mind, we can see what St. John was alluding to in his reference to the other signs Jesus was performing. St. John was telling us that whilst the Jews believed in Jesus because of His miraculous signs of power, these were only a means to an end. The true sign would be Jesus crucified, which would also be a sign of contradiction and a stumbling block because it seemed to display defeat instead of victory, and weakness rather than power.
The Jews wanted to see signs of power; but they were not looking with the eyes of faith. St. John reminds us that it doesn’t take much to believe in Jesus when He is performing powerful miracles; but it takes true faith to look to the Crucifix and see God’s power in this sign of weakness and utter helplessness.
So today, and throughout this Lenten Season as we prepare for Easter, may we look to the Crucifix and be reminded of the power and love of God on display for us weak sinners. And may we never cease to give thanks for this immense gift of His power that He has bestowed upon us, because it is through being united to Christ’s suffering and death that we will also be united to Him in glory.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Lesson of the Transfiguration

In today’s Gospel (Second Sunday of Lent – Year B), we read St. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant. (Mk 9:2-10)

A significant point about the Transfiguration is the fact that Jesus told His disciples not to tell anyone about what they had see until after He had risen from the dead. Why would Jesus give such a peculiar instruction when He clearly intended for Sts. Peter, James, and John to experience this momentous and glorious occasion?
To understand this, we need to understand a bit of the context.
Six days prior to this, after Peter had affirmed that Jesus was the Son of God, Jesus began to teach them that He was going to suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter rebuked the Lord for thinking such a thing saying that it would never happen. It was in the context of this doubt and unwillingness to believe that Jesus must be killed that the Transfiguration took place.
And so, Jesus took the three disciples up Mt Tabor with Him and revealed to them His glory. This showed them that He truly was who He said He was. Then an interesting thing happened. Moses and Elijah appeared and began to talk to Jesus. About what? St. Luke tell us that they were speaking to Him about His pending death in Jerusalem (see Lk 9:31) – the same death that He Himself had been teaching them about; the same death that the disciples were so sceptical about.
The fact that it was Moses and Elijah is significant because they embodied all the teachings that the disciples, as faithful Jews, held as true and authoritative i.e. Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the Prophets.  
But then something of even greater importance takes place. The mountain becomes engulfed in a cloud, and a voice from Heaven declares: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!” Suddenly, the vision disappears and the disciples are left alone with Jesus in His normal human state, with His glory veiled once again.
What just happened here? Remember, prior to the Transfiguration, the disciples were disbelieving of Jesus’ teaching that He would undergo suffering and death in Jerusalem. Upon hearing Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus of His impending death, it is likely that they would have been more receptive to Jesus’ words because they held Moses and Elijah in a high and authoritative regard. But God removes Moses and Elijah from their sight and leaves them Jesus. This was to show them that as much as they were prepared to listen to the authoritative teachings of Moses and Elijah, Jesus was the fulfilment of all that the Law and the Prophets taught. Even more so, Jesus was greater than Moses and Elijah. Which is why God says: “This is my Son – listen to HIM!” In other words, it is as if God is saying: “You were prepared to listen to Moses and Elijah? Great! Now, here is my Son, the One whom Moses and Elijah prophesied of. Here is my Son, who is greater than Moses and Elijah. You were prepared to listen to Moses and Elijah? Great! Now, listen to my Son!”
Jesus purpose for taking the disciples up on the Mount of Transfiguration was so that they could overcome their doubt and believe what He was telling them about His mission to go and suffer and die in Jerusalem. This is probably why Jesus also told them not to blaze this miraculous event all over the place until after His Resurrection. To do so could have an endangering effect on His mission.
I think that the way this passage concludes shows that Jesus’ intention had its desired effect. Notice that once they had come down from the mountain, the disciples were no longer questioning or disputing Jesus’ teaching that He was going to suffer and die. Now their focus shifted to what Jesus meant by His “rising from the dead”. For the answer to this question, the disciples would have to wait until that magnificent Easter Sunday morning when Jesus would rise gloriously from the grave to claim His victory over sin and death.