Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Plant yourself like a tree

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

I’m not sure when it happened. It’s been this way for a long time. But, someone slipped in under the cover of night and moved the goalpost. There was a time when I could say something with such conviction, not only because I honestly believe it to be true, but I could also cite a paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church or a canon from the Code of Canon Law. There was no ambiguity, there was no need for any legal gymnastics to force a round peg into a square hole, there was just plain clarity in the teaching and position of the Church. I guess it no longer feels that way. Only the other day, someone asked me whether I was aware that a particular teaching had changed because Pope Francis had changed it. I was quite certain that he hadn’t and I was trying to convince the person of the same, but she wasn’t buying it. Instead, I received a stinging retort, “Father, you should actually update yourself!”

Yes, we seem to live in a world of shifting theological goalposts, where what used to be the perennial unchanging and solidly anchored teachings of the Church are now subject to supposed “changes” because the Church needs to move with the times. Society needs trendsetters, not theologians. Any resistance to adaptation with the latest fashion and fad would be condemned as rigid and intolerant. The Church that refuses to “update” its teachings is seen as being obstinately blind to changing fads and disrespectful of the feelings of certain groups of people.  The sole purpose of moving our goalposts is the fear that we will lose people; never mind, even if we are leading them to hell or selling them a lie. Being accepted by the media is more important than the truth. It’s strange that lying to someone isn’t considered disrespectful. The whole purpose is to ensure that everyone feels welcomed, un-discriminated, and un-judged, even though their aim seems to be way off the established parameters of the goal post. If their ball can’t reach the goal-post, we will just have to bring the goal post to them!

When push comes to shove, our Lord held His ground. He was not going to shift the goalpost just because it was unpopular, just because the crowds and even some of His own disciples were threatening to leave Him. These past few Sundays Our Lord had been speaking of Himself as “the Bread of Life”. He was of course setting the people up for what would be the most difficult statement to understand that He ever spoke. Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said that they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The real game changer is that He meant that not just merely in a symbolic way but in a literal manner. In today’s passage we read: “After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Christ said, ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’” Notice that He made no attempt to soften what He said, no attempt to correct “misunderstandings,” for there were none. Our Lord’s listeners understood Him perfectly well. They no longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If they had, if they mistook what He said, why no correction? On other occasions when there was confusion, Christ had explained just what He meant. Here, instead of attempting to correct any misunderstandings, He repeated Himself for greater emphasis.

He knew many would leave at that point and yet He persisted. “After this, many of his disciples left Him and stopped going with Him.” (John 6:66). Our Lord let them go. He did not chase after them to assure them He was just talking “symbolically” because they understood His words correctly but they could not accept it. This is the only record we have of any of Christ’s followers forsaking Him for purely doctrinal reasons. If it had all been a misunderstanding, if they erred in taking a metaphor in a literal sense, why didn’t He call them back and straighten things out? Both the Jews and His followers would have remained with Him had He only said He was speaking only symbolically.  But He did not correct these protesters.  Faced with the risk of mass desertion and the unpopularity of our position, many of us lesser mortals would have crumbled under the pressure and moved the goalpost to fit in with our audience’s perception and expectation. But our Lord didn’t. He held His ground.

So when you next read or hear from someone that the Church has rethought and changed its doctrines, well you can confidently tell the person, “No, the Church cannot change its doctrines no matter how badly some theologians or groups may want it to or how loudly they claim it can.” The doctrines of the Catholic Church are the deposit of faith revealed by Jesus Christ, taught by the apostles, and handed down in their entirety by the apostles to their successors. To change that would be to change Christ. The Church does not, indeed cannot, change the doctrines God has given it, nor can it “invent” new ones and add them to the deposit of faith.

However, this closure to public revelation doesn’t mean there isn’t progress in the understanding of what has been entrusted to the Church. It is true that the Church does not have the power to do the impossible, to change or delete divinely revealed truths. But it is also true that the Church has the ability to dispense individuals or the whole Church from observing certain ecclesiastical disciplines. Changes in Church legislation does not mean and cannot mean changes in Church doctrine. Furthermore, the Church has a duty to clear up obscurities and misunderstandings regarding the deposit of faith.  The Second Vatican Council through its Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum 11) explained, “The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down… For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”

One good example of this has to do with the doctrine of Transubstantiation (the teaching that at the moment of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine becomes, the substance of the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, though the appearances of bread and wine remain). This is a doctrine that had always been believed by the Church, but whose exact meaning was understood more clearly over time. The Bible clearly says this change happens, but it is silent about how it happens. The technical theological term “transubstantiation” was not formally adopted by the Catholic Church until the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215. This was not the addition of a new doctrine, but was the Church’s way of defining what it had always taught on this subject in terms that would be so exact as to exclude all the incorrect explanations.

So, if you are unhappy with some teachings of the Church because they don’t seem to match up to your expectations or approve of your present lifestyle, grow up! Don’t expect the world or the Church to bend backwards and move the goalposts to feed your sense of entitlement.  Catholics don’t have to follow every fad, fashion or new fancies of the world. We just need to follow St Paul’s command: "Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). Our anchor is Christ. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, our foundation. No matter what else changes or catches the fancy of man, the Gospel does not change. The Commandments do not change. The capital sins do not change. Morality does not change. Truth does not change. When they do change, or when man’s perception of them changes, it’s good to remember the advice of Margaret Carter, the beau of Captain America, narrated by her niece at her own funeral, “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong, is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.”

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Bread that I shall give is my Flesh

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

One of the greatest challenges to a preacher is to sustain and string together a series of homilies based on the various excerpts taken from Chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel, which we have been consecutively hearing for the past few weeks. At first glance, there seems to be repetition and nothing new to add, which of course, creates a predicament for us preachers, who have to struggle with looking for some novel theme to expand and expound. Sometimes it really feels as if we are looking for a needle in a haystack. But any careful and prayerful reading of the text would soon reveal that the passage is anything but repetitive. There is, of course, the recurring themes, of the Bread of Life, but there is also progression and development, with each passage taking us deeper into the mystery of this sacramental language; and thus, each week we are provided with another layer of understanding the mystery of the Eucharist.

At the beginning of the discourse on the Bread of Life in verse 30, the Jews had asked our Lord what sign He could perform so that they might believe in Him. As a challenge, they noted that “our ancestors ate manna in the desert.” Could Jesus top that? He told them the real bread from heaven comes from the Father. “Give us this bread always,” they responded just like the Samaritan woman at the well when our Lord told her of the living water that will forever quench her thirst. Here, our Lord replies with another “I am” statement, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” At this point the Jews understood Him to be speaking metaphorically. 

But in today’s passage, our Lord first repeated what He said, then went on to expand it by adding an additional element: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my FLESH, for the life of the world.” The Jews then asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  His listeners were stupefied because now they understood Jesus literally and indeed correctly. You can’t get more literal than this – “the bread that I shall give is my flesh.” He again repeated His words, but with even greater emphasis, and introduced the statement about drinking His blood: “I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I will live in him.” Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” No wonder, many of His own disciples left Him.  But He did not correct these protesters nor did He choose to re-eedit His words.

First, was our Lord speaking metaphorically when He told His disciples that His flesh was real food and that they would need to eat if they wish to possess eternal life? The issue plaguing the Lord’s disciples two thousand years ago, continues to be a stumbling block for Protestants to accept our Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. They say that in John 6 our Lord was not talking about physical food and drink, but about spiritual food and drink. They claim that when the Lord spoke of Himself as the Bread of Life, He was only speaking metaphorically. Thus, coming to Him is bread, having faith in Him is drink. Thus, eating His flesh and blood was purely figurative and merely means believing in Christ.

But there is a problem with that interpretation. The phrase, “to eat the flesh and drink the blood,” when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense. The other “I am” statements of the Lord, like “I am the door” and “I am the vine” make sense as metaphors because Christ is like a door—we go to heaven through Him—and He is also like a vine—we get our spiritual sap through him. But Christ takes John 6:35 far beyond symbolism by saying, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6:55).  He continues: “As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me” (John 6:57). The Greek word used for “eats (trogon) is graphically blunt and has the sense of “chewing” or “gnawing.” This is not the language of metaphor.

When trying to explain the Eucharist to the Roman Emperor around 155AD, St. Justin did not mince his words: "For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was eaten by the beasts in Rome around 107 A.D., also wrote: “The Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ” (To Smyrna 7:1). And then St Cyril of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture presented in the mid-300s, said, “Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm.” (Mystagogic 4:22:9).

What is obviously so “hard” about this saying is that it suggests cannibalism. If our Lord’s words are not meant to be figurative or symbolic, would this suggest that we are cannibals? The disciples were right to be scandalised and horrified by the prospect of cannibalism but they were wrong to identify it with what they were hearing. In fact, one charge the pagan Romans lodged against the Christians was cannibalism. Why? You guessed it. They heard that this sect regularly met to eat human flesh and drink human blood. Did the early Christians say: “wait a minute, it's only a symbol!”? Not at all.

While Holy Communion does involve eating human flesh and blood, it is not true that it is cannibalistic. How so? The Eucharist is life. Cannibals eat what is dead. The Christ whom we consume is alive. He is the Risen Lord, He is Life itself. Our reception of the Eucharist doesn’t destroy or change that in any way. Being alive, His body is still united with His soul. And because Jesus Christ is true God and true man, His divinity and humanity are inseparable.  In partaking of the human aspects of Christ (His body, blood and soul), we also partake of His divine nature. Christ’s risen body is not a resuscitated corpse like that of Lazarus, but an utterly transformed “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). Therefore, when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, he is receiving not just flesh but glorified flesh, a resurrected and transfigured “super body” that foreshadows the new reality of a new Heaven and a new earth. Cannibalistic practices don’t do that. Putting all these elements together, we arrive at the Catholic formula: “The Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We all consume our Lord when we receive Him in Holy Communion but it is also true that the Eucharist consumes us. When you eat food, it becomes a part of you. With the Eucharist, however, the opposite happens. We become a part of it, that is, in Holy Communion, we are made a part of the mystical body of Christ. In our Lord’s words, those who eat His flesh and drink His blood abide in Him (Jn. 6.40). The other Sacraments give us grace, the Holy Eucharist gives us not only grace but the Author of all grace, Jesus, God and Man. It is the center of all else the Church has and does.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Our Bodies are destined for Heaven

Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady

In one of only two dogmas ever declared infallible by the pope, Venerable Pope Pius XII definitively taught a reality of faith that slowly became better understood after centuries of theological reflexion and liturgical celebration: “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Though this dogma is the most recent, only defined and promulgated in the year 1950 (thus considered to be a modern dogma by Church standards), it is the oldest feast day of Our Lady, but we don't know how it first came to be celebrated. Its origin is lost in those days when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337). For two centuries, every memory of Jesus was obliterated from the city, and the sites made holy by His life, death and Resurrection became pagan temples.

After building the holiest monument in Christendom, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (marking the place of both our Lord’s execution as well as His entombment) in 336, other sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories about His mother centered around the “Tomb of Mary,” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. On the hill itself was the “Place of Dormition,” the spot of Mary's “falling asleep,” where she had died. The tomb of Mary was where she was buried but the tomb, like the Holy Sepulchre, is empty. Testimony of her Assumption. Today, we have two churches reputed to mark the spot, the Catholic Abbey Church of Dormition on Mount Zion and the Orthodox Shrine of the Tomb of the Theotokos at the foothill of Mount Olivet. Take your pick. But I’m partial to the Catholic shrine, not because it’s Catholic, but because of the testimony of tradition (Mount Zion).

All the feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary mark the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of redemption. But the feast we celebrate today is the crowning feast. A trophy, not one won by our Lady but by God Himself. The Assumption completes God's work in her since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God Himself should ever undergo corruption. The Assumption is God's crowning of His work as the Blessed Virgin ends her earthly life and enters eternity. The feast turns our eyes in that direction, where we hope to follow when our earthly life is over. The feast of the Assumption reminds us that our common human experiences are oriented in the same direction Mary took, eternal life in Heaven. This life, with all its ups and downs, is not the end of all. Today’s feast showcases the ultimate promise of our Lord that earthly experiences are not the end.

This feast teaches us that our bodies are ultimately destined for heaven — not just our souls. Our bodies will rise again to be reunited with our souls eternally. Hence this is the reason why the Church has always had great reverence for the human body, shown in a particular way by how she has cared for the bodies of deceased Christians by reverently burying them in anticipation of the resurrection on the last day. In the midst of a pagan culture that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body — a culture that thought the Catholic claim that Jesus rose from the dead was absolutely absurd — and cremated their loved ones, the Christians buried their dead full-body style in anticipation of the resurrection of the body. They would mark their gravesites with Christian inscriptions like RIP, requiescat in pace, “the body is resting here in peace,” resting until the resurrection, or depositus in pace, “this body is placed here in peace.” So the first Christians used this expression and the word “deposit” to communicate that this body was being placed in the ground only for a certain length of time — until when? — until Our Lord Himself came with the withdrawal slip for the universal resurrection.

Unfortunately, today we live in a neo-pagan culture that, as with their pagan ancestors, is beginning to cremate their loved ones more and more. This is a culture that no longer, practically-speaking, believes in the resurrection of the body, and very often, even takes our Lord’s resurrection for granted. As St. Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” In other words, if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, and if there is no resurrection from the dead, then let’s just throw the bodies into the nearest drain!

The devout Jewish women, who believed in the resurrection of the body, anointed Jesus’ in preparation for resurrection. If Jesus had been handled by pagan women, or if the Roman pagan soldiers had gotten hold of Him, He would most likely have been cremated. Imagine that! When the Lord would have been resurrected, everybody would have thought he were simply a ghost, and there would have been no way to prove otherwise, because there would have been no empty tomb and the urn in which he might have been placed after cremation, might just have been emptied in some other way. Likewise, if Our Lady had not been placed full-bodied in her tomb, but rather cremated, then the Tomb of Mary is a hoax, we might as well go home now. There’s nothing to celebrate. The bodily Assumption of Our Lady did not take place! The Church lied to you! 

In extreme circumstances, the Church permits cremation, as long as it is not an explicit denial of the resurrection of the body, but only “in extreme circumstances.” Cremation is always an exception. It is never the norm. Since the Church began to permit this “in extreme circumstances,” cremation seems to have become normative. This is simply because the person thought that the Church was absolutely fine with this now, or just preferred to be cremated, or simply to save some money — money that, strictly-speaking, most of the time, is not the money needed to put food on the table for example, but money they’d just rather hold onto, because, basically, they don’t see full-body burial for the real Christian value it is. My brothers and sisters in Christ, particularly those among our seniors who might think about these issues more than the younger ones would: if you’re thinking about being cremated for anything other than extreme circumstances, please reconsider. If you have the means, go and buy a plot. Show by your choice here that you choose the truth, that your body will be raised from the dead by the Lord, that you choose to die in the Lord and be buried in the Lord following His lead of being buried full-body style — and show to a world that accepts these truths less and less today, that you are a Christian in life and in death. If you have the means!

At every Mass, we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Here, we literally receive Our Lord’s risen body! Not a symbol of His body, but His real body and blood, risen from the dead. This is a real foretaste of heaven. Those who eat this body and drink this blood live in Him and He in them. This is the same flesh He took from the Blessed Mother, whose body now also reigns in heaven. Taking the Lord’s sacred body and blood within us, we may become more and more like Him. And if we wish to know how that looks like, Saint John Paul II tells us that “by looking at [Mary], the Christian learns to discover the value of his own body” (address, July 9, 1997). Mary, glorified in body and soul, show us who we are and what we are to become!