Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Most Important Thing in the World

Today is the most important day of the year, for the central fact of human history is that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and today we commemorate it.

God became man to make the ultimate offering of self-emptying love, for no greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his brother (John 15:13). By becoming man in the person of Jesus, God becomes our brother; he is then able on our behalf to take onto Himself the punishment due for our sins. As man, Jesus makes this offering to God the Father on behalf of all men; as God the Son, Jesus makes this offering of infinite worth, able to cover the sins of all mankind. And by his sufferings, we were saved; by his wounds we were healed (1 Peter 2:24; cf. Isaiah 53:5). But this was not the end.

For on the third day, the stone was rolled away, the shroud was found folded and set aside; the tomb was empty. And Jesus appeared, to Mary Magdalene, to Peter and the other apostles, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus: truly alive, eating and drinking, present to the senses, real to the touch. He is risen indeed!

I would draw your attention to the present tense used in that statement: Jesus Christ IS risen from the dead. He didn't rise from the dead only to die again later, as did Lazarus or Jairus' daughter. He didn't rise from the dead in some metaphorical or mythological sense, in a story set long ago which is now ended. Jesus rose from the dead permanently and definitively. And he did not merely return to life as he lived it before; he was not resuscitated. He was resurrected. He lives never to die again. His body is glorified, in a state beyond that which our bodies are now. He is now what we will be at the end of time. He is the first fruits of the harvest to come (1 Corinthians 15:20).

With his rising, he has conquered death, and the sinfulness of the world which occasioned it. We need no longer fear suffering and death, for suffering and death and sin do not have the last say. The final word is had by the Word Incarnate. He has overcome, and we can, too, if we put our trust in him and do as he bids us: to believe in him, to love our neighbor and God whole-heartedly, to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins, to follow his teachings and those of his Church, the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

On this most holy day of days, let us thank God for the gift of our salvation, won through the sacrifice of love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom be glory now and forever and unto the ages of ages.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

Today begins the great celebration of the Easter Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. All in preparation for that great feast of our redemption, Easter Sunday, when Christ rose from the dead, conquering sin and death and bringing life and salvation to the world. Let us consider the events commemorated today.

We hear of the central event of this day at every Mass. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: "Take this, all of you, and eat of it; this is my body, which will be given up for you." When the meal was ended, he took the cup, said the blessing, gave it to his disciples and said: "Take this, all of you, and drink from it; this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me."

Jesus had told the crowds, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you." Many wondered what this could mean -- "How could this man give us his flesh and blood to drink?"-- and as he insisted further, "Unless you gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you," many turned away. The Gospels tell us it was at this moment that Judas decided to betray Jesus. He could not accept his teaching on this matter. Peter, on the other hand, though he may not have understood at the time, did not leave, did not turn away. When Jesus asked if he, too, would go, Peter responded: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." That of which Jesus speaks is that which brings eternal life.

Just what is Jesus talking about? How can he give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink? He reveals the answer to us here, tonight, at the Last Supper. The Jews, in following the covenant of Moses, had offered animals in sacrifice to God in reparation for their sins. Now, Jesus would be offered as the definitive sacrifice, the one perfect, eternal sacrifice which would pay the debt for all humanity's sins for all time. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here's the key: when the Jews offered their sacrificial lambs in reparation for their sins, they would then eat the lamb that had been sacrificed. They would partake of that which had been offered to God so that they were sharing the sacrifice with God; in this, they renewed friendship with God. Just so, as Jesus was to be the Lamb sacrificed for our sins in this new and eternal covenant, in order to fulfill that which was foreshadowed and prefigured in the sacrifices of the old covenant, we had to partake in that which was being offered: we had to eat of the flesh of Jesus. And Jesus shows us how.

This bread and wine had been used as part of the Passover ritual, in which the Jews remembered that night when the angel of death smote the first-born of Egypt; but the Jews were saved by the blood of the lambs spread upon their door posts. Jesus takes these signs and brings them into the new covenant: he is the Bread of Life, his is the blood of the Lamb which saves, which fills the cup of salvation. These signs are brought together into one: the bread is the flesh of the Lamb, the Body of Christ; the blood is the blood of the Lamb, the Blood of Christ. By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we renew our participation in the New Covenant; we renew our friendship with God by sharing in the sacrifice offered him.

And that sacrifice which is offered is God himself! God, in the person of the Divine Word Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, was made man, and truly suffered, truly died, and truly rose. In Jesus Christ is both the sacrifice offered and the God who receives it. Christ is both man who is redeemed and God the redeemer. By our sins we owed God an infinite debt we could not pay; by God's justice the debt had to be paid. Only God could pay an infinite debt; but it was man who owed the debt. Thus God took flesh and became man, able to render payment on behalf of humanity, able to render infinite payment as God.

By that flesh we are saved. In eating that flesh and drinking that blood, we participate in that covenant and receive the very life of God. And it is truly the flesh and blood of Christ that we receive, for if it were not, we would not receive God. But how can God make bread and wine become his own body and blood? It seems so incredible. I ask: is it any more incredible than God becoming man? How could one believe one but doubt the other as "just too much to swallow" (no pun intended)? Just as in Jesus that which appears to be man is really God, in the Eucharist that which appears to be bread and wine is really God.

Today we remember the gift of that great sacrament by which we would perpetually remember Christ's sacrifice and re-present it to God in reparation for our sins. Tomorrow we remember the sacrifice represented by this sacrament. Today let us ask pardon for our sins, and give thanks for the sacrament of our salvation.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Habemus Papam! First Impressions

Pope Francis has been on the job for all of a week, but in some ways it feels like a year. Perhaps I should clarify: in the brief span of seven days, a boatload of punditry has spewed forth opining as to what this man's pontificate will be like, or should be like; how it compares, or will compare, to his predecessors; what decisions he will make, or should make; what his emphases will be, or should be; etc. I find this tiresome and premature. Are we so impatient that we can't simply wait and see and pray for this man who has been handed a most awesome responsibility? Give the guy a breather!

That said, as a few people have asked me for my impressions of the new Holy Father, I will give them, trying my best to avoid doing that which I have criticized above.

I loved the joke he cracked about the cardinals going to the end of the world to find a bishop of Rome. There was a touch of humility to it, and the half-grin on his face as he said it added to it.

He asked the people in St. Peter's Square to take a silent moment to pray that God bless him in his ministry. Very fitting for the Servant of the Servants of God.

He strikes me as affable and amiable and personable, something we tend to like in public figures.

His penchant for going "off-script," for suddenly diving into crowds to greet and bless people, seems a truly fatherly attitude.

I dislike the way in which some people are using Francis' election to take shots at Benedict, just as I disliked people using Benedict's election to take shots at John Paul. Every man, and certainly every pope, is different, with a unique personality, with particular characteristics. Opposing traits can each be good in their own way (as long as they're morally licit): the jovial, convivial type is not automatically superior to the shy, quiet type, nor is the professorial sort necessarily better than the natural preacher, nor is the casual fellow above the formal -- nor is it entirely impossible to find all of these traits in the same person but expressed in different moments.

Now for my one small bit of hopeful prognostication:

For decades in the Church in the Western world, one major division within the Church has been between what might be generally labeled as "peace & justice" folks and "personal morality" folks. There are those whose focus is on aiding the poor and denouncing violence, as the Church has always done, and those whose focus is on calling others (and themselves) to moral rectitude, particularly in the realm of sexuality, as the Church has always done. Both are promoting one element of the Catholic faith, but both tend to neglect the other, and in some cases even to dissent from it: I know a lot of P&J people who think the Church must change on abortion, contraception, fornication, re-defining marriage, etc.; and I know a lot of PM people who are far too eager to use the death penalty or go to war or who think torture is perfectly acceptable as long as you're torturing the right people. And worst of all, these two sides seem to get so stuck in their ways as to think, for example, that one couldn't possibly be both a lover of the poor and against gay marriage.

Pope Francis proves this notion wrong, and shows us how we can bring these two pieces back together. This is a man who washes the feet of AIDS victims and publicly opposes his country's attempts to re-define marriage. This is a man who denies himself the comforts of office so as to live in solidarity with the poor and who also denounces contraception as not in accord with our nature. See, folks? See how naturally these go together? See how easy this is?

St. Francis of Assisi, in whose honor the new pope took his regnal name, had a great love of the poor and a profound devotion to the Eucharist. He was a man of peace who, when he went to the Sultan, did not deliver a pluralistic message of "I'm OK, you're OK," but, out of love for Christ and neighbor, tried to convert him from Islam to Christianity. He was a man who encouraged the lay faithful to greater holiness and who had a deep respect for priests and gave complete obedience to the Holy Father. Yes, these things do go together. They're supposed to. It's called being Catholic. May Pope Francis show all of us how to be better, fuller Catholics.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Pope We Need

On Tuesday of this week, the 115 cardinal-electors will begin the process of fulfilling their most sacred office: the election of the bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff, the Holy Father; that is, the Pope. The princes of the Church will pray and reflect and deliberate about which among them would best fit the Shoes of the Fisherman for this time in the life of the Church. What will they be looking for?

Were you to listen to the voices of the professional public speculators, they will tell you (based on little more information than you or I have) that the cardinals will seek to find a figure from the Third World to symbolize the Church's burgeoning population there; or that they will determine which of the Italians is most palatable, so as to return the See of Rome to the hands of a native son; or that they will desire an "ideological moderate" who can bridge the gap between the fractious and contentious camps that divide the Church. (I'm more inclined to think that the divisions in the Church are less about "conservatives vs. liberals," or "conviction Catholics vs. cafeteria Catholics," but rather "the passionate vs. the apathetic." That's a subject for another time.)

Whether this is the case, I couldn't tell you. Some news reports from fairly reliable sources indicate that many of the cardinals' top priorities include cleaning up the Vatican bureaucracy, being able to engage the secular world, and being a good exemplar of strength of character and personal holiness. These are all certainly desirable traits, and I think they relate to a larger theological vision of the pope we need.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who taught us the truth, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and brought life to the world, is the Messiah promised by God to His people Israel. The Messiah was to unite in himself the three most important duties of Israel: priest, prophet, and king. He was to offer sacrifice for the propitiation of sin, to announce God's word to humanity, and to rule over it in justice. Not only that, He Himself is the sacrifice offered, the Word that is preached, the Justice that is rendered.

Christ established a Church to carry out the continuation of this mission. He established his Twelve Apostles as the cornerstones of His Church ("as the Father has sent me, so I send you"), and St. Peter as their head, the Rock ("upon this Rock I will build my Church"). He ordained that they (and Peter especially) should be the heads of His people, teaching them true doctrine, governing them in harmony and justice, sanctifying them through the sacraments. The Apostles were to carry on these messianic offices for God's people. The Apostles, in turn, appointed the bishops and priests who would follow them, and instructed them to do likewise. So the bishops, and most especially the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, from then to do today have carried on fulfilling the prophetic, kingly, and priestly roles of teaching, governing, and sanctifying, participating in the one prophetic spirit, the one priesthood, the one kingship of Christ.

The pope we need is the man who will best teach, govern, and sanctify the Church. The pope we need will spread the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ with passion and joy, teaching the truth with clarity and charity. The pope we need will rule the universal Church with justice, redressing wrongs and protecting rights, maintaining ordered harmony within the Body of Christ. The pope we need will be a model of holiness and devotion, fostering frequent reception of the sacraments and reverent celebration of their rites, bringing people to the fountain of God's grace and helping them to be properly disposed to their worthy reception.

Cleaning up the Curia would be a good act of governance. Encouraging the New Evangelization would be a good act of prophecy. Being an exemplar of holiness would be a good act of priestliness. Would it be nice if the man elected were from a Third World country? Sure, but only provided first, as with any potential candidate, that he fit the above description. I don't know which of the men entering the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday would best fulfill this role. I only pray that the Holy Spirit guide them into choosing him.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Addendum: On Transubstantiation

Thank you to my two colleagues who have reminded me that I am but a probie in the philosophical guild, and as such still don't understand everything perfectly. I moved too quickly in my explanation and made a mistake at the end.

I said that transubstantiation was an example of substantial change. This is not quite correct.

Matter is what individuates particular things: while my dog and your dog may both have the form of "dog," they are not the same dog because those two forms do not stand in (i.e. are not instantiated in) the same primary matter. The form and the matter together make up the substance. In any substantial change, the form (that is, that which makes the thing to be what it is) of the new substance is educed from the matter (that is, possibility of being) of the old substance. This is what allows us to say that there is some sort of continuity of being when things change, that things don't just pop into existence out of nowhere. In my attempts to explain act-potency, form-matter, and substance-accident, my examples involved just such instances of a new substance coming into being.

But because in the mystery of transubstantiation we have, not a new substance coming into being, but rather one substance becoming another, already existing substance or exisiting thing, the change does not occur in the same way, and thus cannot properly be called "substantial change." In the Mass, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ; they become Jesus. It's not that Jesus springs into being where He didn't exist before; but rather Jesus, already existing, now becomes present such that where the bread and wine once existed, He now exists--you can point to the species (appearances) and say, "That's Jesus."

The whole substance of the bread and wine becomes the whole substance of Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. And as we defined "substance" as "form plus matter," in order for the substance of the bread and wine to become the substance of Christ, that which was bread and wine must take on not only the form of Christ, but also the matter of Christ.

At best, we could say that transubstantiation is a very special and unique sort of substantial change that works very differently from any other instance.

Again, I reiterate that these philosophical explanations can be helpful in pointing us toward what happens in the mysteries of the faith, but they can never come close to exhausting them or wholly explaining them. Which is why it's so easy to get them wrong. :)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Aristotle's Three Pair

In poker, if you're holding three pair, there's a pretty good chance you're cheating. When it comes to Aristotle's philosophy, if you can get a hold of these three pairs, you'll go a long way toward understanding his system. And since Thomistic theology uses Aristotle's philosophy as a baseline, and since a lot of Catholic theology today still relies on the Angelic Doctor, it might be of use to be familiar with these terms.

From the time that the first inhabitant of Greece or its Mediterranean colonies began thinking about something other than his sheep herd and olive groves, philosophers have been racking their brains trying to philosophically account for the phenomenon of change. How is it that something that didn't exist before could exist now? And how can things undergo some alteration but remain the same thing? How is it that I'm still me even when I get my hair cut or my appendix removed? And how is it that when a fire burns a log, the log ceases to be log-ish and becomes ash? Why is it that in some cases of change, things continue to be, while in others, one thing goes out of existence and another arrives? What the heck is going on here!?

Philosophers tried different answers. Some took the view that what we see is an illusion. Parmenides said that all that is, is, and all that is not, is not, and anything that seems to be to the contrary is a mistaken perception on our part; for Parmenides, there is no change, only existing things. Heraclitus, on the other hand, took the exact opposite approach: there are no existing things, only change. The universe is in a constant state of flux, such that nothing can be said to endure; you can't step in the same river twice. (His student Cratylus corrected him: you can't even step in the same river once. Cratylus followed this to its logical conclusion, that all things, including all words, are meaningless, and he never spoke again, only moving his little finger to communicate with his friends.) Others tried to say that things kind of change, but not really, because everything is really made of the same stuff, just more or less condensed; for Thales, it was water; for Anaximenes, it was air, and so on. None of these answers proved satisfactory.

Then along came Aristotle, who made a very reasonable argument: we all can see as clear as day that it is the case both that things really exist and that they really change. There's no point in trying to talk your way around those facts; you're better served to explain them. He went on: if a thing changes, it must have within it the capacity to be that new thing. Aristotle called this potency. And if a thing really exists, it must have something within it that makes it to be what it is. Aristotle called this actuality, or act. Here's our first pair. Everything that exists has both the potential to be something else, and the particular determination that makes it what it is.

Closely related to this is the second pair. Every existing thing is basically a relation between the possibility-of-being, called matter, and the determining actuality, or form. Yes, these two pair are very similar conceptually, for good reason. Form is a type of act, and matter is a type of potency. Now, let's get a few things straight here:

1) When we hear "matter," we think "atoms, molecules, protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.," i.e. stuff. When Aristotle uses the term matter, he's not talking about stuff in this sense. When Aristotle uses the term matter, he's not talking about stuff in this sense. When Aristotle uses the term matter, he's not talking about stuff in this sense. When Aristotle uses the term matter, he's not talking about stuff in this sense. Yes, I just intentionally repeated myself, for the purpose of driving the point home. For Aristotle, matter is simply possibility-of-being, potential, potency. It's not stuff.

2) Form and matter never exist independently of each other. You while never find matter in the Aristotelian sense just floating around, waiting to be informed; nor will you find forms drifting like ghosts, seeking some matter to inhabit. The two never exist without the other. They only ever exist in some already existing substance.

And that introduces our third pair. Form and matter combine to make an existing thing, called a substance. The substance is that which "stands under" (substantia) all appearances as the real entity. This existing thing also has many qualities which are not essentially connected to the thing, but are only attached (accidens) to it by happenstance, and are thus called accidents.

Consider a piece of wood. It's substantially a piece of wood; that's what it is. It's accidentally green, or rough, or pine-fresh. If it were to sit out in the sun and turn white, it would still be wood; if it were smoothed off by an obsessive-compulsive beaver, it would still be wood; if it were sprayed by an ill-tempered skunk, it would still be wood. All of those would be accidental changes. The substance would lose the accidental form (that is, that by which the thing has that attribute) of greenness or roughness or freshness and take on the form of whiteness or smoothness or stinkiness.

Consider the same piece of wood, currently having the substantial form of "wood" and also having within it the potency to become ash; now it's burned by the fire; the fire thus educes from the matter (that is, the possibility of being something else) the form of ashes. The wood has undergone a substantial change. It is no longer the thing it once was. The wood's potency to become ash has now been put into act; a new form has arisen from the matter; the substance, along with its many accidents, has changed.

Aristotle accounts for all of the earlier questions we had about change while not violating our common perceptions.

OK, let's tie this all together by using another example we're all familiar with: bread and wine sit on the altar at Mass. By the ministry of the priest, through whom Christ works, the potency of the bread and wine to be something else is brought into actuality; the possibility-of-being (matter) receives a new form; the bread and wine lose the substantial form of "bread" and "wine" and gain this new substantial form of "Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ." The accidents remain the same--it is still soft and white and small and round--but remember we established above that the substance is separate from the accidents; one can change without the other being changed. Now, usually, in our experience, we see accidents changing and substances not changing, but philosophically, there's no reason a substance couldn't change without the accidents changing. This explanation for what happens at Mass by no means exhausts the mystery of the Eucharist, but the Church has said that it is a fitting way to describe the reality that what was bread and wine is bread and wine no longer, but rather it is Jesus Christ.

See, I told you philosophy comes in handy.

A Change of Format, and a Link

I realize that making a blog post on Monday titled "The Week in Review" is a little like the statement from the teacher in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "I've just decided that the tests we take on Fridays to determine what we've learned during the week will now take place on Monday before we've learned it. But since today is Tuesday, isn't doesn't matter in the slightest." I think, too, that, since I seem to have time to make only one post a week, it might be more worthwhile to take these opportunities to go more in-depth on topics, rather than hitting highlights. Let's give it a try.

Before taking off on that route, though, I want to mention an event from last week that you all have the opportunity to participate in without the messiness of time travel: video of last week's Aquinas Lecture, given by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, on the subject of baptismal theology in 13th century Italy, is available here at the DSPT website. It was quite interesting. Check it out!