Monday, March 15, 2010

Acts 14: Persistence through trials

The ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium and Lystra is a model of how to live the Christian faith in a fickle and hostile environment:

"Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands." (14:1-3)

When they meet with opposition to their message, Paul and Barnabas do not back down. On the contrary, it is precisely this opposition that prompts them to speak the more boldly. But, "When an attempt was made ... to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe ... and there they continued to preach the gospel" (14:5-7).

Like Paul and Barnabas, we too must be prudent. Though any of us might be called to martyrdom, we need not recklessly endanger our lives.

Their stop in Lystra seems, to me, reminiscent of Christ's final week in Jerusalem. Initially Paul and Barnabas are worshiped as gods, but some disgruntled Jews turn the crowds against them, and Paul is stoned and left for dead.

But the very next day he is up and traveling to preach in a new city. And when they return to Antioch in Syria and gather with the church there, Paul and Barnabas do not dwell on their trials; rather, "they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles" (14:27).

(Image: Nicolaes Pietersz. Berchem, "Paul and Barnabas at Lystra," 1650)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Acts 13: Christ, the goal of history

Paul's sermon in Antioch in Pisidia sweeps through the history of God's dealings with his people, from the time of Israel in Egypt and on through King David: "Of this man's offspring," Paul says, "God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised" (13:22-23).

The point is clear: All of history had been leading up to and pointing toward the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now, to some people, the idea that God would -- or could -- have shaped history like that probably seems ridiculous. But why? People speak loosely as if nature had some purpose in evolution; no one thinks twice in talking about human progress. And of course progress must be progress toward something, some goal. So if nature and humanity can work toward goals, why not God?

Want proof? Look at the prophecies, Paul says -- indeed, at the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. It's all about Jesus. The great King David himself was just a pale foreshadowing:

"For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses." (13:36-39)

We must respond to this proclamation not as "scoffers" (13:41), but like those who hear the word and beg for more (13:42).

(Image: Engrand Le Prince, Jesse Tree window in Church of Saint-Etienne in Beauvais, France, 1522-1524)

Acts 12: Hallucinations don't set you free

So Herod cuts off James' head, the people love it, and he thinks, "Hey, not bad -- let's try some more." So he throws Peter in prison and waits for a good time to kill him, too. But "earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church" (12:5), and God is not deaf to their pleas -- Peter still has work to do.

Now, Peter is under pretty tight security -- "sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison" (12:6) -- which makes what happens next all the more miraculous: An angel shows up, Peter's chains fall off, and they mosey on out of there in the middle of the night.

Peter initially takes the view that many modern people take toward all alleged miracles, like the Resurrection -- that there must be some natural explanation, he must be hallucinating: "He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision" (12:9).

But mere hallucinations don't set you free from very real prisons:

"When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, 'Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod.'" (12:10-11)

(Image: Gustave Dore, "St. Peter Delivered from Prison," 19th century)

Acts 11: There's always more

So the church at Antioch is booming, and Barnabas is sent from Jerusalem to check it out:

"When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." (11:23-26)

I'm struck particularly by one sentence: "For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people."

I can be a rather impatient person. If I can't master something in about 30 seconds, I'm prone to give up. So I appreciate the reminder that, even if your teacher is St. Paul himself, it can take a while to grasp the Gospel. The Christian faith is in its essence mysterious -- you're never going to "get it." There's always more.

As Chesterton wrote in the final chapter of "Orthodoxy": "the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me to-morrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven."

There will always be more to learn, to reach for, to wonder and marvel at. That's one of the great joys of the faith.

(Image: El Greco, "St. Paul," c. 1608-1614)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Acts 10: Power and humility

How easy it would have been for Peter to become puffed up.

Just a few years ago, he was a humble fisherman. But look at him now!

When he speaks, thousands hang on his every word (2:41); he heals the lame (3:7, 9:33-34); people "carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them" (5:15); he even has power over life and death (5:1-10, 9:36-41).

How easy it would have been for Peter to start thinking that he was pretty great. Maybe even as great as Jesus? After all, what could Jesus do that he couldn't?

And now this.

Peter is summoned to the house of a Gentile, a centurion named Cornelius. As he enters, "Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him" (10:25).

Now, I don't know what it's like to be worshiped. I'd imagine it could be quite intoxicating. But Peter doesn't let his mind become so muddled as to believe that his power is his own. He does not forget that everything he has, everything he is, is a gift from God, and that he acts only in the name and the power of Jesus.

Peter knows he is not the new Christ. He is only, as it were, the babysitter; Jesus had to go away for a little while, so he asked Peter to tend his flock while he was gone (Jn 21:16).

So he lifts up Cornelius, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man" (10:26).

And then he preaches to the Gentiles the Gospel of the true God-man.

(Image: Francesco Trevisani, "Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius," 1709)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Acts 9: The Way

So Saul, who had presided over the stoning of Stephen, "went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (9:1-2). Of course, it would be on the road to Damascus that Saul would have his famous conversion experience, but at the moment I'm more interested in the phrase used to describe the early church: the Way.

For Christianity -- or, the church -- is not just a belief system, or an institution, or a moral code, or a conversion experience; it's not just a heritage, or a set of rituals, or having Jesus in your heart; it's not just a book, or a building, or a big group of people. It comprises all these things, of course, but ultimately it is the Way -- a way of seeing, a way of living that ought to shape every facet of your existence.

It means devoting yourself to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers; it means
loving the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself; it means feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned; it means taking up your cross daily and following Christ.

It means answering the call of the Lord, even if, like Ananias, you're asked to minister to one who's been dragging Christians out of their houses and "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (9:1).

(Image: Pietro de Cortona, "Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul," 1631)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Acts 8: Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch

The Ethiopian eunuch seems to me a model of humility and simple wisdom.

When Philip, one of the seven chosen to serve in Acts 6, hears the eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah, he asks him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" (8:30). And the eunuch, more eager to learn than to appear learned, replies, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (8:31), and asks Philip for help.

The eunuch does not understand Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering servant:

"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." (8:32-33)

Who is the prophet talking about, he asks? "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus" (8:35).

Philip's method of scriptural interpretation follows the example set by Christ himself; recall, for example, his discussion with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk 24:27).

For, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, echoing St. Augustine, puts it, "the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New."

Then, understanding Isaiah's prophecy and the good news of Jesus, the eunuch does the logical thing and eagerly asks to be baptized.

(Image: Rembrandt, "The baptism of the eunuch," 1626)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Acts 7: St. Stephen the protomartyr

St. Stephen is known as the protomartyr of Christianity, the first to be killed for the faith. He is immortalized not only in the Bible, but also in that strange Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" (the "feast of Stephen," on which the good king "looked out," is Dec. 26).

He is a model martyr, boldly bearing witness to the truth in the face of fierce opposition.

Seized by an angry crowd and falsely accused of blasphemy, Stephen is not cowed; he preaches a long sermon summarizing salvation history from Abraham to his own time, ending with a blistering indictment of his accusers:

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." (7:51-53)

This pushes the crowd over the edge; grinding their teeth and stopping their ears, they rush upon him and drag him out of the city to stone him.

As he is pummeled to death, Stephen echoes Christ's own words from the cross: As Jesus had cried, "
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" (Lk 23:46), so Stephen calls out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (7:59).

And just as Jesus had prayed, "
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34), Stephen also is full of compassion to the end -- his last words are a prayer for his murderers: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (7:60).

(Image: Giorgio Vasari, "Martyrdom of Saint Stephen," 1560s)

Acts 6: Some things to some people

I'm sometimes depressed by my failure to live up to Paul's line about being "all things to all people" (1 Cor 9:22). Which is silly, because Paul himself says that there are varieties of gifts, service, and activities amongst Christians (1 Cor 12).

The Twelve acknowledge this reality when trouble arises regarding the care of widows in the early church. They decide: "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (6:2-4).

Different roles for different people. The church is not a monolith; rather, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in "Orthodoxy," it is a fantastic balancing act:

"Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England. This is what makes Christendom at once so much more perplexing and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire; just as Amiens Cathedral is not better but more interesting than the Parthenon. ... Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing of one emphasis against another emphasis. The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said, 'You shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchmen less experimental and swift.' But the instinct of Christian Europe says, 'Let the German remain slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental. We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.'"

(Image: G.K. Chesterton, photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1905)

Acts 5: Rejoicing in suffering

No sane person enjoys suffering. This has always been the case. And yet, it seems that we modern-day citizens of developed countries have become quite extraordinarily intolerant of discomfort.

I, for example, am inspired each summer to reflect in horror upon the fact that there once was no such thing as air conditioning.

Such daintiness was utterly foreign to the apostles, who, after being arrested and beaten for preaching in the name of Jesus, leave "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" (5:41-42).

I like to think that, if called upon to do so, I would be willing to suffer dishonor, beatings, and even martyrdom for my faith as the apostles did. But, in reality, I don't even want to sacrifice an extra 30 minutes of sleep in the morning to wake up and start the day with prayer; and as Jesus said,
"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much" (Lk 16:10).

If we want to be great witnesses like the apostles, we must first devote ourselves "to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42). If we wish to withstand some great trial in the hypothetical future, we must be willing to endure small sufferings in the present with joy. Regularly sacrificing some creature comfort -- food, drink, leisure -- is one way we may train ourselves.

(Image: Fyodor Zubov, "Ministry of the Apostles," 1660)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Acts 4: A lesson in boldness

So the Jewish leaders get annoyed with Peter and John healing and preaching and baptizing people, so they arrest them, throw them in a cell and haul them in front of the Sanhedrin the next day for questioning about how they healed a lame beggar.

And Peter and John are, for lack of a better term, pretty badass. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter is unfazed:

"Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead -- by him this man is standing before you well." (4:8-10)

The council orders them "not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus" (4:18) anymore, and Peter and John basically say, "Thanks, but no":

"Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." (4:19-20)

Then, having just conducted a clinic in boldness, they go and pray for more boldness in speaking God's word -- certainly a lesson for us never to let ourselves become complacent or self-satisfied.

(Image: Martino di Bartolomeo, "St. Peter," 1400)

Acts 3: The healing power of Christ

As Peter and John go to the temple to pray, they come upon a lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate; he looks at them expectantly, hoping for a little money:

"But Peter said, 'I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!' And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God." (3:6-8)

We see, of course, that the apostles have been empowered to carry on Jesus' healing ministry. But I think we must also see ourselves in this story, in the roles both of Peter and of the beggar.

Whenever we meet someone who is suffering -- whether physically or spiritually -- we, like Peter, must be willing and eager to do whatever we can, to give whatever we have, to help him.

And like the lame beggar, we must acknowledge our own infirmities and accept the healing power of Christ with humility and joy.

We can experience a healing no less dramatic than the beggar's each time we turn away from sin and toward our loving Lord. As Peter says in his second sermon: "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (3:19-20).

(Image: Gustave Dore, "St. Peter and St. John at the Beautiful Gate," 19th century)

Acts 2: The birth of the church

The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other followers of Jesus at Pentecost is sometimes called the birth of the church. Under the influence of the Spirit, the people begin to speak in tongues, and Jews from all over the world miraculously hear the words in their own languages, prefiguring the eventual spread of the Gospel to every nation. But others, witnessing one of the major turning points in history, mock the spectacle: "They are filled with new wine" (2:13).

There have always been scoffers.

But Peter protests and preaches his first sermon, the upshot of which is, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2:38).

Some have always been scandalized, or at least confused, by how strangely physical Christianity is. For it is not just "repent and believe" but "repent and be baptized" -- what could water have to do with the forgiveness of sins, with receiving the Holy Spirit, with being a Christian? And yet, "
unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5).

And after Peter's sermon about 3,000 people are baptized, and "
they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42). What was the apostles' teaching? According to tradition, it is encapsulated in the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


(Image: El Greco, "Descent of the Holy Ghost," 1604-1614)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Acts 1: Witnessing unto death

In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke's history of the early church, we see the apostles preparing for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the start of their ministry.

In the wake of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide, Peter cites Psalm 109, which says, "Let another take his office" (1:20). He continues:

"So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us -- one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." (1:21-22)

Lots are cast and Matthias is enrolled with the other eleven apostles, restoring the symbolic number of 12. He joins Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James in fulfilling the commission Jesus gave before his ascension: "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (1:8).

This is a weighty charge. The Greek word translated "witness" is the same word from which we get the English "martyr."

And according to tradition, nearly all the apostles bore faithful witness to Christ even unto their grisly deaths, whether they were beheaded or crucified or flayed or beaten to death. Only John got off easy -- he was just thrown in boiling oil and then exiled to an island.

(Caravaggio, "Crucifixion of Peter," 1600-1601)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Luke 24: The Resurrection and "resurrection faith"

There's a certain brand of self-described Christian -- they're often ministers and/or professors -- that says that the true meaning of Easter is the disciples' "resurrection faith" or some such thing that ultimately amounts to saying that Jesus never really came out of his tomb. The disciples' experience of the "risen Christ" was purely a psychological or spiritual phenomenon not to be taken in literal, physical terms.

If that was the case, Luke never got the memo.

In the final chapter of his Gospel, Luke seems at pains to hammer home the point that Jesus' resurrection is a profoundly physical event: Jesus was dead and buried, and now he's back, victorious over death, in the very same (albeit mysteriously glorified) body.

This is a tad unusual and hard to believe, as both Jesus and Luke realize -- and so they try to make it as clear and explicit as possible. First, of course, there is the empty tomb.

Then, when Jesus appears to his disciples and they think they're seeing a ghost, Jesus responds,
"Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (24:38-39).

As a sort of encore, Jesus asks for some food, and then eats a piece of broiled fish.

If these details are meant to convey only the disciples' "resurrection faith," and not the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, then Luke is a terrible storyteller -- and our faith is in vain, and we are still in our sins.

(Image: Raffaelino del Garbo, "Resurrection," 1510)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Luke 23: God's infinite mercy

There's an old tradition that the place of Jesus' crucifixion -- Golgotha or Calvary, meaning The Skull -- was so called because it was the resting place of Adam, and that as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, his blood seeped into the soil and touched the skull of our first parent.

Whether or not this is historically accurate is immaterial; the truth that it represents remains: The redemptive power of Christ's precious shed blood extends to all mankind. In his infinite mercy, the God-man willingly bore unthinkable pain and shame and the weight of all the sins of the world in order to save us from our sins and open the way to eternal life. God died out of mercy for us.

Of the four Passion narratives, Luke's most explicitly emphasizes Jesus' mercy: Even as he is nailed to the cross, Jesus prays for his executioners, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (23:34). And when one of the thieves crucified beside him humbly asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (23:42), he replies, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43).

May we always be grateful and never take his mercy for granted.

(Image: Fra Angelico, "Crucifixion of Christ and two thieves," c. 1437-1446)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Luke 22: Peter's denial, and ours

Peter's threefold denial of Jesus is one of the most poignant moments in the Gospels. Three times Peter denies that he even knows his own master. We wonder: How could he do that?

Only a few hours prior he had boldly promised, "Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death" (22:33), and Jesus had warned him that he would deny him three times. Peter knew better; he should have been on his guard.

And yet, in the courtyard of the high priest's house following Jesus' arrest, Peter denies his Lord once, and again, and a third time:

"And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him,
'Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.' And he went out and wept bitterly." (22:60-62)

"And the Lord turned and looked at Peter" -- what a terrible moment. What was the Lord's expression? I imagine him like a weary father telling a wayward son, "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed."

It is the same face of heartbroken love with which Jesus looks on us every time we deny him -- whether through words, when we downplay our faith out of embarrassment, or through actions, when we sin against him for our own self-centered, shortsighted gain.

We should know better.

(Image: Rembrandt, "Peter denies Jesus," 1660)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Luke 21: "You will be hated"

I have little instinctive sympathy with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a group that responds to every perceived attack on the Catholic Church -- no matter how trivial or silly -- with a prompt counterattack in the form of a sneering and sarcastic press release from its president, Bill Donohue.

I understand the impulse to defend the Christian faith and those who practice it, but this hardly seems the right way to do it. Too often, the Catholic League seems ignorant of Christ's own words: "You will be hated by all for my name's sake" (21:17). The implication is not, "So hit 'em back with all ya got!"

Rather, as Christ says in his Sermon on the Plain: "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!
Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets" (6:22-23).

As Christians, we should expect to face opposition and even hatred: It means we're doing it right. We cannot respond by fighting fire with fire, or feeling sorry for ourselves, or even feeling smugly superior. The early Christian martyrs went to their gruesome deaths singing hymns of praise.

If the church is under attack by the culture, we ought to feel sorry not for the church, but for the culture. Our response must be one of love.

The last words of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, were a prayer for his persecutors: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60).

(Image: Jean-Leon Gerome, "The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer," 1883)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Luke 20: No death, no marriage

Heaven has always been a bit of a stumbling block to me, probably because my mind is weak and heaven is, literally, unimaginable -- our imaginations can't make an adequate picture of it, because it transcends the realm of our sensory experience. I've always found it one of the hardest parts of the faith, because the idea of heaven seems riddled with difficulties and intellectual puzzles -- which will, I am sure, seem silly if I ever get there.

So I'm always interested when Jesus talks about heaven, like when he says that those in heaven "neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore" (20:35-36).

My gut reaction to this is always a twinge of sadness that, in heaven, my wife won't be my wife anymore. But then I wondered at Jesus' wording: "for they cannot die anymore."

Is death somehow intrinsic to marriage? Does marriage require death? No death, no marriage?

It sounded strange, even repulsive, at first -- but a moment's reflection revealed how obvious it was. For what are the ultimate ends of marriage? To confirm and strengthen the love between the spouses, to beget and raise children for the next generation, and to help the spouses get to heaven.

Well, if you're already in heaven, you no longer need help getting there;
there's no need of future generations in eternity (as St. Augustine says: "marriages are for the sake of children, children for succession, succession because of death"); and in heaven, where we will be utterly purified and in communion with the Trinity, we will be able to love our former spouses (and everyone else) more perfectly than we ever could on earth.

So I guess heaven won't be so bad after all.

(Image: Gustave Dore, "Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven," 19th century)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Luke 19: Living fearlessly

The parable of the ten minas ought to be a wake-up call for those of us who tend to be a bit timid in living the Christian life.

Jesus tells the story of a nobleman who gives 10 of his servants each a mina, a rather large chunk of money, to do business with while he was away.

When the nobleman returns, one servant reports that he has made 10 more minas with his mina. And his master replies, "Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities" (19:17).

Then another servant comes forward, saying, "Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief;
for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man" (19:20-21). Suffice it to say, the nobleman isn't quite so pleased with him. He commands: "Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas" (19:24).

Like the nobleman with his servants, Christ expects us to be bold, diligent, and fruitful in our lives as Christians. We must use the resources and opportunities he has given us to do his work, and to do it well. We can't just hang back, whether out of self-satisfaction, indifference, or fear.

The latter servant was too scared to take a risk with his mina. Therefore he was unprofitable. As Christians, we must overcome our own fears and insecurities and act boldly in Christ's name, lest we go before him one day with nothing to show for our lives.

(Image: Rembrandt, "The Parable of the Talents," 1652)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Luke 18: Childlike faith

"Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it," Jesus tells his disciples (18:17).

Our faith must be childlike, but not childish.

St. Basil the Great, a 4th-century bishop and theologian, commented on this saying of Christ's: "We shall receive the kingdom of God as a child if we are disposed towards our Lord's teaching as a child under instruction, never contradicting nor disputing with his masters, but trustfully and teachably imbibing learning."

Accepting the teachings of Christ and his church like a child does not mean shutting off your brain. On the contrary, children are insatiably curious, always yearning to know more, to understand more. And when they find a true authority, they know it, and they listen eagerly and attentively. So must we.

But receiving the kingdom of God like a child means more than accepting truths with docility. We must receive the kingdom with childlike joy and gratitude. Picture a child on Christmas morning, unwrapping a long-desired toy -- the wide glowing eyes, the shrieks of joy, the repeated shouts of "Thank you! Thank you!"

The kingdom of God is a gift immeasurably greater than any Christmas present we've ever received -- it requires proportionate joy and gratitude.

(Image: Carl Vogel von Vogelstein, "Let the Children Come to Me," 1805)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Luke 17: Doing our duty

The Christian life requires humility. We must be content to work in obscurity; we shouldn't expect a pat on the back for every good deed we do, or prayer we say, or temptation we resist -- not even from ourselves.

Rather, Jesus tells his disciples, "[W]hen you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'"

The Christian life is one of duty. When we love our neighbor -- or even our enemy -- with heroic and indefatigable love, it's nothing more than what Christ expects of his followers. We're not doing God a favor; he is not in our debt. Everything we have -- indeed, our very existence -- is an utterly gratuitous gift from God. He doesn't owe us anything.

Nevertheless, God sometimes chooses to reward his unworthy servants. If we ever find ourselves in that position, we would do well to recall the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Dominican priest who was one of the most brilliant philosophers and theologians of all time. Near the end of his life, Thomas was praying in a chapel and heard a voice coming from the crucifix which said: "You have written well of me, Thomas; what will you have as your reward?"

And Thomas replied, "Only yourself, Lord."

(Image: attr. Botticelli, "St. Thomas Aquinas," 1481-1482)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Luke 16: God and money

Jesus follows up perhaps the most puzzling parable in all the Gospels -- that of the dishonest manager (if you have any insight into that one, please let me know) -- with a perfectly straightforward teaching: "No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (16:13).

Straightforward but hard -- especially in a society that says wealth, pleasure, power, and esteem are the ultimate goods.

These are, of course, the false gods which Christians in every age are tempted to seek first, rather than the kingdom of God. There's nothing wrong with them in themselves, but they can so easily become tyrannical masters. They are addictive: If we're not solidly grounded in God, they will consume us, until our lives are nothing but a frustrating, fruitless, never-ending pursuit of the fleeting highs they afford.

Money is fine, but it's dangerous, and Jesus' prescription with respect to money -- repeated again and again -- is an attitude of (at least) profound detachment.

That's why I've never been sympathetic to "prosperity gospel" preachers like Texas mega-pastor Joel Osteen, who writes things like, "God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, and creativity."

Not only ought you to serve money, but God will help you? "God is my financial adviser"? There is pretty much nothing in the Bible that could even be twisted to suggest that. It's a recipe for spiritual ruin.

(Image: Evelyn de Morgan, "The Worship of Mammon," 1909)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Luke 15: The Crazy Shepherd

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?" Jesus asks (15:4).

"And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (15:5-7).

The obvious answer to Jesus' question is that no one would do this -- no reasonable shepherd would ever leave a flock of 99 to go searching for one lousy sheep. That would be crazy.

Fortunately, God is not like us. He is not bound by the constraints of prudence or economic necessity. Though he has absolutely no need of us, yet God loves each one of us with an utterly irrational passion. Thus, even in the darkest depths of our sin, when we have closed our hearts to him and fled his presence, he never ceases to pursue us, to search for us, to offer us his love and forgiveness.

All we have to do is admit that, in the truest sense of the phrase, we are lost without him, and let ourselves be found.

(Image: Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Catacombs of San Callisto, 3rd century)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Luke 14: The cost of discipleship

Jesus gives one of his hardest sayings as he talks about the cost of following him: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple" (14:26-27).

Now, it is unlikely that Jesus is speaking entirely literally when he tells us to hate our families, considering he elsewhere tells us to love our neighbors and even our enemies -- and certain of our family members may fall into both those categories.

But he is nevertheless saying something extremely challenging about the Christian life -- that we must put following him above all else, that we must love him more than our families and even ourselves. And it's not going to be easy. Even if we're not called to physical martyrdom, being a faithful disciple means dying to self and taking up our cross daily.

Being a Christian cannot be a once-a-week-for-an-hour-on-Sunday kind of thing. It means living every day, every breath, consciously in the presence of God, and working in all things to love and serve him and others.

(Image: El Greco, "Christ Carrying the Cross," 1580)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Luke 13: Bearing good fruit

Jesus' parable of the barren fig tree presents us with an image that is at once frightening, comforting, and challenging:

"A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?'
And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (13:6-9)

Jesus has just warned that we must repent or perish (13:2-5), and here he drives home the point, made earlier by John the Baptist, that we must "Bear fruits in keeping with repentance" (3:8), for each one of us is that fig tree.

The parable is frightening because it means we will be cut down and cast away if we do not bear fruit; comforting because it reminds us that God gives us every possible help and opportunity to do so; and challenging because it's our responsibility to put that grace to good use and actually bear good fruit, works of love that give life to others. Mere vocal repentance, or claimed conversion to Christ, is not enough.

It reminds me of that oft-quoted (and apparently unattributable) question, "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

(Image: Ficus carica, in Otto Wilhelm Thome, Flora von Deutschland, 1885)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Luke 12: Eat, drink, and be merry?

Hilaire Belloc, the great early-20th-century English writer, Catholic apologist, friend of G.K. Chesterton, and all-around crank, once wrote a poem called "The Catholic Sun," which reads:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There's always laughter and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

The spirit of Belloc's poem seems at first to be at odds with Jesus' parable about the rich fool, who stores up earthly treasures and says to his soul, "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry" (12:19), only to be upbraided by God: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (12:20).

But Jesus' parable cannot be a blanket condemnation of relaxation and earthly pleasures. After all, even God took a day off to rest after the six days of creation, and the Psalms say God made "wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart" (Ps 104:15).

Rather, it is the rich man's spiritual complacency and delusion of self-sufficiency that are the problems -- he "lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God" (12:21), Jesus says. We must instead store up "a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys" (12:33).

And we must remember that our earthly possessions and pleasures, while not our salvation, are all gifts from God. Belloc's poem is truly Christian, for he concludes his paean to laughter and wine with a prayer of thanksgiving: "Benedicamus Domino!" -- "Let us bless the Lord!"

(Image: Mr. Hilaire Belloc, The World's Work, Vol. II, June to November 1903)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Luke 11: "The most perfect of prayers"

I often feel overwhelmed by prayer. There are so many different methods, and I never know whether I'm doing it right, and on top of all that, it's just very mysterious.

But when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he makes it all seem so simple: "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation" (11:2-4).

The early Christian theologian Tertullian called the Lord's Prayer "truly the summary of the whole Gospel." St. Thomas Aquinas called it "the most perfect of prayers." And the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it "the fundamental Christian prayer."

It is, then, a worthy model for all of our prayer. We begin with worship, and only then move on to petitions for our spiritual and material needs. Whether we have a perfect understanding of prayer or not, we know that we ought to do it, and that God will be faithful, for as Jesus says, "everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened" (11:10).

(Image: Albrecht Durer, "Praying Hands," 1508)