Sunday, April 29, 2012

One Fold; One Shepherd

In our journey to the Catholic Church our family had been through five Christian denominational changes before entering the Catholic Church. And in this process, we hadn’t even begun to touch the tip of the iceberg that is the crisis of disunity in Christianity – particularly in Protestant Christianity. And that’s because there are more than 30,000 different Protestant denominations in existence [which is probably a conservative number given that splits and divisions continue to occur within Protestantism].

The antidote to this poison of division of that exists within Christianity today can be found in the Gospel reading for today (4th Sunday of Easter, Year B):

                Jesus said:
                "I am the good shepherd.
                A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
                A hired man, who is not a shepherd
                and whose sheep are not his own,
                sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
                and the wolf catches and scatters them.
                This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the

                sheep. I am the good shepherd,
                and I know mine and mine know me,
                just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
                and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
                I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
                These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
                and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
                This is why the Father loves me,
                because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
                No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
                I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
                This command I have received from my Father." (Jn 10:11-18)

In the middle of this passage Jesus tells His disciples that part of His mission as the Good Shepherd was to lead the “sheep that do not belong to this fold” into His flock. This is a reference to the Gentiles, who up until this point were not included as part of God’s covenant people – Israel. Elsewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul tells us that in Christ the wall of division that existed between Jew and Gentile was torn down; and so in Him, we are ALL part of the one true Israel of God – the Church (see Gal 6:16).
What is interesting to note here is that Jesus makes reference to only ONE flock; and to emphasise the point, He ties this aspect of unity with His very own Person – “there will be ONE flock, ONE shepherd”. In putting it this way, Jesus is telling us that His flock is inseparably connected with Himself – a theme that St. Paul picks up on when He refers to the Church as nothing less than the Body of Christ.
But what does this unity entail? Is it some kind of abstract thought that only exists ethereally in the vacuum of a pipe dream? Not at all! Echoing our Lord’s words that there is only ONE shepherd, St. Paul tells us that there is only ONE Lord. For St. Paul, the fact that there is only one Lord logically means that there is only ONE faith, and only ONE baptism (Eph 4:5). Based on this fact alone, it is evident that what the Protestant Reformation gave birth to is far from what the Lord Jesus Christ established when He established His Church.
Rather, in establishing His Church, Jesus ordained Twelve Apostles as the fulfilment of the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (cf. Rev21:12, 14). As part of this process He gave St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 16:18-19) and in doing so bestowed upon him the authority to act as the Prime Minister of the King of kings (Isa 22:22) – aka the Vicar of Christ. Moreover, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus appointed St. Peter as His chief shepherd when He entrusted him with the threefold commission to feed His sheep (Jn 21:15-17).
So, just as Jesus linked the unity of His Church with His own Person; so too He linked St. Peter’s authority with His own authority. So, when Jesus said that His sheep would know Him and hear His voice, part of what this means is that Christ’s sheep would faithfully follow St. Peter, and with him the college of Apostles, as the ones to whom He imparted His authority on earth.  Our Lord emphasised this elsewhere when He said “Whoever listens to you, listens to me” (Lk 10:16). This Apostolic authority would be passed on to the successors of the Apostles (i.e. the Bishops) by virtue of the nature of the Apostolic office and the continuing mission of the Church on earth.
This unity of the sheepfold that Jesus talks about is evident only in the Catholic Church. And as Catholics, it is our duty (as St. Paul tells us in Eph 4:3) to maintain the unity that has already been established by Christ. We don’t do this in our own strength. Rather, we do it in the strength and grace that Christ gives us through the Sacraments.
This is something else that Jesus alludes to in the Gospel reading when He tells us that He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His Life for the sheep. If you read the passage again, you may note that it is through the laying down of His life that He will bring all the sheep into the one fold. This is an obvious reference to Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary. But Christ’s Sacrifice was not just an event that occurred 2,000 years ago. It is also an event that is made present to us every single time the Eucharist is celebrated. When we come together for Holy Mass, we are not only remembering what Jesus did for us 2,000 years ago – we are participating in something far greater than that. What we are taking part in is God making present for us today the once-for-all Sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And when we receive our Blessed Lord in Holy Communion, we are brought more and more into union with Him and with each other.
So, what is the antidote for the divisions that constantly seek to threaten Christianity? It is nothing less than the Lord Jesus Christ, the One Shepherd, who gives Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament celebrated through the ministry of His Holy Catholic Church. With this in mind, may we never cease to give thanks to our Good Shepherd who cares for His sheep and feeds us with His Precious Body and Blood so that we can be ONE with Him, and share in His Divine Life.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Catholic Necromancy - the Two-Legged Straw Man

I have had the experience, on a few occasions now, where I have encountered well-intentioned, but equally misinformed, Protestant Christians who have accused Catholics of being guilty of NECROMANCY. Basically, they claim that necromancy is communication with the dead, and because Catholics ask the Saints to pray for them, they are guilty of necromancy.

Having come across the argument again in the past couple of weeks, I thought that it would be a good topic to touch on...and in doing so, I hope to show that the accusation is nothing but a two-legged straw man.

The first leg is the redefinition of “necromancy” by those levelling the accusation. Necromancy is NOT simply communication with the dead (as our accusers propose). By definition, necromancy is communicating with the spirits of the dead in order to predict the future i.e. it is a type of “consulting” with the dead.

Understood properly, necromancy is forbidden in the Old Testament, and even called an abomination (see Deut 18:10-12). This is what King Saul was punished for when he sought to have the spirit of Samuel conjured up (see 1 Sam 28:7ff). The Holy Catholic Church takes God seriously on this matter, and continues to condemn the practice of necromancy, along with other occultic practices (e.g. CCC # 2115–2117).

The second leg of the straw man is that the TRUE Catholic position is misrepresented. Catholics do not “communicate” with the dead in the way that is purported, much less try to use the Saints to predict the future. Rather, what Catholics REALLY do is ask the Saints to intercede for us. We do this because we are firm believers in the Resurrection – not only of the Lord Jesus Christ, but also of all whom Christ has redeemed by His Precious Blood. We believe that whilst death marks the end of our earthly sojourn, it is not really the end. Rather, it is a beginning. Death is our passage from this mortal life to the fullness of Eternal Life in Him who is the Prince of Life. St. Paul put it this way – he said that in death, although we are “absent from the body”, we are “present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Elsewhere he said that if to live is Christ, then to die is gain (Phil 1:21) pointing to the fact that the life that awaits us after this natural life on earth far surpasses it.

Furthermore, the author of Hebrews tells us that the faithful who have gone before us are witnesses of the race that we are still running whilst here on earth (Heb 12:1). Now, you can’t be dead and be a witness at the same time. So, the Saints who look over us are certainly anything but dead. Also, St. John reminds us a few times in Revelation that there are real LIVE Saints in Heaven, and they even offer up prayers on behalf of God’s Church on earth (cf. Rev 6:9, 8:3-5, etc.). On this basis, to deny the doctrine of the intercession of the Saints is ultimately a rejection of the doctrine of the Resurrection.

One final thing to consider on this basis is what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-3). If the Saints are dead, and shouldn’t be spoken to at all (requesting intercession or otherwise), then I wonder how many non-Catholics would accuse Jesus of necromancy? This is because Jesus Himself communicated with Moses and Elijah – men who were long since dead.

When examined properly and in the light of authentic Catholic teaching it isn't difficult to see that the accusation of necromancy so often levelled against the Catholic Church is really unfounded and misinformed. And when worked to its logical conclusion, the accusation is shown in fact to be illogical. On the other hand, what it does do is simply affirm that what the Holy Catholic Church proposes for our belief remains consistent with God's work of Redemption in Christ Jesus.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Cross Unites Heaven and Earth

Today we find ourselves in the midst of the great Easter Triduum. Easter is the Church’s greatest feast, with its greatest climax on Easter Sunday when we celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church’s second greatest feast is Christmas. I mention this because Easter and Christmas really speak about the same thing i.e. both Easter and Christmas speak about the uniting of Heaven and Earth.
Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, the time when Heaven came down to Earth...the time when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
How is this true of Easter? Our parish priest, in his homily this afternoon for the Good Friday commemoration of the Passion, pointed out that the Cross of Christ speaks about the uniting of Heaven and Earth. The vertical beam speaks of Heaven, and the horizontal beam speaks of Earth – and where these two beams unite, where Heaven and Earth come together, is in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.  
Now what the priest said in his homily got me thinking a bit. But before I share my thoughts, I first need to take a little detour...
If you were a first century Jew witnessing the Crucifixion of Jesus, you would never have equated it with a sacrifice. That is because the Crucifixion by itself was not a sacrifice - it was an execution! Yet, as Christians today, we say that Jesus Christ offered Himself up on the Cross of Calvary as a Sacrifice – the Lamb slain for the sins of the world. Why is that? There has to have been something that transformed the Crucifixion into something more than an execution in the minds of the first Christians. What was it?
The event that elevated the Crucifixion from execution to Sacrifice was the Last Supper. In fact, the Last Supper wasn’t officially ended until Jesus drank the fourth cup of the Seder meal on the Cross and proclaimed “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30). What makes the Crucifixion more than an execution – what makes the Crucifixion a Sacrifice – was the fact that during the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and changed it into His Body; and He took wine, and changed it into His Blood. And more than this... it was His Body which was broken and “given for you” (Lk 22:19). In the same way, the Chalice contained His Blood – the “blood of the New Covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). So, it is the Last Supper which transforms our understanding of the Crucifixion from execution to Sacrifice.
Right now you might be wondering where I am going with this little detour...
Remember, I mentioned that the Cross speaks of the uniting of Heaven and Earth in the person of Jesus Christ. I took the detour because it was important to point out that the Cross cannot be separated from the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the memorial of the Crucifixion – in the Eucharistic celebration the once-for-all Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present for us here and now.
And what’s more, when we receive our Blessed Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament, Heaven and Earth unite. You see, when we receive Holy Communion, we are being united in a most intimate way with Jesus Christ. It is through receiving the Blessed Eucharist that we are made sharers and partakers in Christ’s divine nature.
But even more than this is happening. Each one of us who receives Communion individually also receives only one and the same Lord Jesus Christ. And because of this, when we are being brought into union with Him, we are also being brought into union with each other. Although each of us receives individually we are being brought into communion with each other – because Jesus cannot be divided (1 Cor 1:13; Eph 4:4).
This is what St. Paul meant when he said that the cup of blessing is our communion (sharing with each other) in the Blood of Christ; and the bread that we break is our communion (sharing with each other) in the Body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17). Not only is Heaven and Earth united when we share in Christ’s Divine Life through receiving Holy Communion – but, as St. Paul reminds us, the whole Catholic Church is united because of the common union which she is sharing with God.
Now, bringing this all back to the Cross....

The Eucharist is nothing less than the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ – the same Body and Blood which was given for us on the Cross of Calvary. And so we see that the Cross of Christ unites Heaven and Earth on so many different levels.
Now, isn’t that an AWESOME thing to ponder?