Friday, December 31, 2010

Holy Mary, Mother of God and "the best of all possible worlds"

January 1st, The Feast of Mary the Mother of God
In the modern period, a most foolish philosophical theory came to be accepted by many, and even by many Christians. Gottfried Leibniz, one of those modern philosophers who will continue to be thought of as great until the Final Judgment, is credited for having coined the phrase “the best of all possible worlds.” He argued that the world in which we now live is the best of all possible worlds, a world which could not be better than it now is.
Leibniz’s primary reason for postulating this theory – that this world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds – is to attempt to build a theodicy: The Good God is not responsible for the evil in the world because the world is as good as it could possibly be, not even God could have made it any better or any less evil.
Against Leibniz’s theory, St. Thomas tells us that God could have created the world better than he did – though, of course, any particular nature cannot be better than it is without becoming a different nature; yet God could have created species of higher perfection than he did in fact create. Hence, “God can make something else better than each thing made by him.” (ST I, q.25, a.6) In this manner, the universe could have been better than it is, if God had willed it to be so.
There are three creatures, however, which could not be greater – the humanity of Christ, the beatific vision, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. On today's feast of the Mother of God, we consider this Woman, she than whom no greater creature could have been created. The Blessed Virgin is herself that “best of all possible worlds.”

Thursday, December 30, 2010

When did the star first appear to the Magi?

The Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12
Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” […] Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
We have already discussed the chronology of the events surrounding the Savior’s birth, yet we subtly avoided a most difficult question regarding the feast of the Epiphany – When did the star first appear to the Magi? This is connected with an additional inquiry regarding the time at which the Magi set out from their home country and the length of their travel to Bethlehem. Finally, as we will see, the massacre of the Holy Innocents seems to be related to the time of the appearance of the star.
First, we might ask a most practical question: What does it matter when the star appeared? Why should we be concerned at all to determine the time of the star’s appearance or the duration of the Magi’s journey? To this we respond that it will be good to know when the star appeared, because this will indicate something about the order of the manifestation of the Christ. If, for example, we were to conclude that the star appeared to the Magi two years before the birth of Christ (something which many modern scholars presume), we would have to admit that the Magi received the astronomical salutation before the Blessed Virgin had received the Angelic Salutation – is this fitting?
Moreover, we must say that, even prescinding from the practical value of this question, there is great spiritual value to pondering the events surrounding the Nativity. In much the same manner as St. Ignatius Loyola, who traveled to the hills around Jerusalem with hope of discovering which way Christ was looking as he ascended into heaven, we now will seek to glean from the biblical text some indication of the time in which the star was seen by the Magi.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Holy Innocents received the most excellent form of Baptism

 December 28th, Feast of the Holy Innocents
Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)
It is not possible to determine either the day or the year of the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents, though the Armenians believe it to have been fifteen weeks after the birth of Christ. We know that it must have happened no less than forty days after the Nativity, since Christ was presented in the Temple at that time – he had not yet fled to Egypt and the Infants had not yet been killed.
The reason their feast is kept December 28th, within the octave of Christmas, is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the newborn Savior. Hence, these first flowers of the Church, martyrs by blood alone, accompany the Holy Child Jesus who entered this world on Christmas day. As they were redeemed by the Birth of Christ, so we today celebrate their birth into eternal life.
These children were not saved without baptism, but they received instead the baptism of blood, through which they were cleansed of original sin and united to Christ’s Body. Washed in their own blood, in place of water, these infants received a non-sacramental participation in the saving death of Christ the Lord, and so share now in his glory. The baptism they received is the most excellent, greater even than the sacramental baptism of water.

Was John the Beloved assumed into heaven?

There was a very popular tale in ancient times that St. John the Evangelist was assumed bodily into heaven, not merely in the manner of Elijah and Enoch, but after the fashion of Mary. Many believed that St. John’s body was glorified, being perfectly united to his beatified soul, and enjoying the bliss of heaven proper.
St. Augustine had spoken against this myth in his Tractates on the Gospel according to John, but the legend of the assumption of John had persisted even into the fourteenth century, so that Dante also felt the need to correct the myth in his Divine Comedy.
The confusion arises from our Lord’s discussion about the Beloved Disciple with St. Peter in John 21:20-23, specifically, “Jesus saith to him: ‘So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? Follow thou me.’ This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: ‘He should not die;’ but, ‘So I will have him remain till I come, what is it to thee?’”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about...

December 25th, Christmas Day
On this Christmas day, we take a moment to meditate upon the Nativity of Christ our Lord. Here follows the revelation of the Birth of Christ, as it was given to St. Bridget.
"When I was present by the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem I beheld a Virgin of extreme beauty wrapped in a white mantle and a delicate tunic through which I perceived her virginal body. With her was an old man of great honesty and they had with them an ox and ass. These entered the cave and the man having tied them to the manger went out and brought in to the Virgin a lighted candle which having done he again went outside so as not to be present at the birth. Then the Virgin pulled off the shoes from her feet, drew off the white mantle that enveloped her, removed the veil from her head laying it beside her, thus remaining only in her tunic with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely over her shoulders. Then she produced two small linen cloths, and two woollen ones of exquisite purity and fineness which she had brought to wrap round the Child to be born, and two other small cloths to cover His head, and these too she put beside her. When all was thus prepared the Virgin knelt with great veneration in an attitude of prayer; her back was to the manger, her face uplifted to heaven and turned toward the East.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Harmony

There can be no denying it: There are very significant differences between the Nativity story given in Matthew’s account of the Gospel and that given in Luke’s. However, though the differences are great, they are by no means irreconcilable – in fact, we can see a marvelous harmony between the two accounts: Matthew tells us of St. Joseph’s experience, while St. Luke tells us of Mary’s.

First let’s point out the differences in the two accounts: First, there are differences in the genealogies (Matthew’s being of Joseph, while Luke’s is secretly of Mary). Second, there are differences in the angelic salutations. Third, there are differences in what happens immediately before and after the birth of Christ. Fourth, there are differences regarding who is present at and shortly after the Nativity.
However, there are also some important points of identity: First, the basic historical circumstances (the time and place of the birth) are identical. Second, both agree Joseph and Mary were betrothed when she conceived the Child. Third, in both accounts, the Christ Child is the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Fourth, Joseph and Mary were together when the Child was born.
Obviously, there are many more points of difference (notice, I say “difference” rather than “contradiction”) and also of identity, but those listed suffice for our purpose. We now turn to consider the Harmony of the Christmas narratives - A Gospel "harmony" is the stringing together of various Gospel accounts to show that they are indeed true accounts of one unified and continuous narrative.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Was Christmas necessary?

Christmas is the great season of gift-giving. A gift is seen to be all the more precious when we recognize this essential fact: it is a gift, it didn’t have to be given at all. Moreover, the gift becomes even more cherished when we realize that other gifts might have been given in its place, especially if we see that the gift we have receive is particularly suited to our needs and desires.
Christmas is not only a time of giving and receiving gifts, it is the time in which we recall the greatest Gift which God has given us – His Son. While it is true that “one ought never to look a gift-horse in the mouth”, it is also true that we Christians are called to meditate upon the Incarnation and the Birth of Christ –we are not doubting or a critiquing, we are meditating and wondering at the grace of God.
The Gift of Christmas is all the more precious when we recognize that it need not have been given at all – absolutely, it was not necessary that God should redeem us, nor less that he should redeem us through the particular means of the Incarnation. Even given that He chose to save us through the Incarnation, the whole mystery could have been accomplished in any number of ways. And yet, from among all these possibilities, from among all these possible gifts, God has chosen to give us this particular Gift – the Gift of His Son, the Gift of a Child; and, through this Messiah, the Almighty has given us salvation.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Did St. Joseph suspect the Blessed Virgin Mary of sin?

4th Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1:18-24
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
Great humility, devotion and piety are required of any who would hope to contemplate the great mysteries hidden in the inner life of the Holy Family. Far be it from any to approach so holy a home, so mysterious a union as the marriage of Joseph and Mary, without first  purifying one’s heart and mind of every vain and unworthy thought! It is holy ground we upon which wish to tread, and we must remove our sandals – that is, we must free ourselves from the spirit of the world and of the present age; an age in which marriage and family life so terribly shipwrecked – with simplicity of heart and purity of mind, we look to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and we ask: What was St. Joseph really thinking, when he had intended to put Mary away secretly? Did he perhaps suspect the most holy Virgin of sin? Did he perceive the gift he had received?
In matters so highly sensitive, we will not rely upon our own reasoning, nor less on the reasoning of the modernist biblical “scholars” of our day – men who know little of true piety – rather, guided by the expositions of St. Thomas Aquinas and the learned scholar Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, we will look to the sound interpretation given by the Fathers of the Church.

Monday, December 13, 2010

When you cannot find a spiritual director

Feast of St. John of the Cross, December 14th
After a long period of searching for a good spiritual director, St. Teresa of Avila rejoiced to find the holy young priest, St. John of the Cross. And, although she was 52 and he was only 25, she entrusted herself to his guidance. St. John of the Cross is the image of a good director, merely thinking of him makes us desire and pray for more holy directors.
On the feast of St. Teresa of Avila (October 15th), I wrote a short post regarding what qualities we ought to look for in a spiritual director. In response to this, several people wrote asking what ought to be done if a suitable director could not be found, or if the director desired could not fulfill this role due to a lack of time. I had promised to write a second article to address this situation, and it seems fitting that we take the opportunity provided by the feast of St. Teresa’s spiritual director, St. John of the Cross, to consider this troubling and all too common scenario: Recognizing the importance of spiritual direction and the lofty qualities required of a director, what ought we do to if we cannot find a spiritual director?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Did John the Baptist doubt that Jesus is the Christ?

St. John the Baptist in prison

Gaudete Sunday, Matthew 11:2-11
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
It is not at all uncommon (or surprising) to find modern(ist) biblical scholars claim that St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah, doubted whether Jesus is truly the Christ. Often, they will present their theory in highly psychological terms: John, in prison, nearing his execution, wonders whether his life has any real meaning or perhaps if he has misunderstood his vocation. In this distressing state of existential doubt, the Baptist questions the Lord regarding whether he truly is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
These biblical scholars present John the Baptist as a reed swaying in the wind, blown about by the happenings of the world and the persecution he know faces. But Jesus said, “This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” No, St. John was not a reed swayed by the wind, he was a prophet and more than a prophet – and he rejoiced to see the fulfillment of the Promise.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do Catholics worship icons?

December 4th, The Feast of St. John of Damascus
St. John Damascene is hailed as the Church’s great defender of icons and iconography. He is often considered the last of the Eastern doctors and is renowned for his Summa Theologiae, which is titled, De Fide Orthodoxa.
The influence of this holy doctor, which was great in his own time, is yet a light to the Church in the modern world – we require icons, sculptures, and sacred music in our Liturgical prayer as well as our personal devotion.
The Second Council of Nicaea stated the faith of the Church – “We define that […] the representations of the precious and life-giving cross, and the venerable and holy images as well […], must be kept in the holy Church of God […], in houses and on the roads, whether they be images of God our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ or of the immaculate Lady the Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of all the saints and just.”
And why do we reverence icons? Because, as St. Basil the Great teaches, “the honor given to an image goes to the original model.” (De Spiritu Sancto, 18,45)

Friday, December 3, 2010

St. Francis Xavier and the necessity of baptism for salvation

December 3rd, The Feast of St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier, the great apostle of the Indies, is said to have baptized over one hundred thousand persons. By the clarity of his doctrine, the force of his many miracles, and the witness of his love, Francis Xavier won countless souls to Christ. And yet, we live in an age in which the missionary zeal of Francis Xavier is undermined by the presumptuous and suspect speculation of many theologians – unfortunately, it is certain members of his own Order, the Society of Jesus, who have most confused the Church’s tradition.
If baptism is not necessary for salvation, if people can be saved without faith in Christ and the Sacrament of Faith, if the predication of the Gospel does not really make a difference for the salvation of pagans, then St. Francis Xavier’s life was ill-spent. If, on the other hand, the missionary work of Francis Xavier really did (and does) matter, then it is clear that baptism is necessary for salvation.