Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mary, Mother of the Church

Over the last several posts I've examined Catholic teachings on Mary, from Old Testament typologies to New Testament references to the early church traditions and the four major Marian dogmas.

Yet these will seem insufficient for most Protestants to explain Mary's centrality in actual Catholic practice. It is easy to see the unprecedented distinction of the Annunciation and the magnificent faith in her Fiat. I can also readily concede her essential function in salvation history, for Mary was in a sense the gatekeeper of the Incarnation. But that only scratches the surface, only gets us as far as doctrine. Whence the rosaries, prayers, devotions, and apparitions?

The answer, naturally enough, lies in another set of typologies.

In my post on the Immaculate Conception, I wrote that Mary's "justly-celebrated fiat is one of the defining moments of Creation: the pinnacle of all the patriarchs, of all the prophets, and all the people of God." This is true on its own, but hints at a deeper truth.

On the one hand, the nation of Israel may be seen as a typology of Mary.

My Bible's study notes on Revelations 12:1 states that the image of the woman in labor, giving birth to the child Christ, is "probably a symbolic reference to the believing Messianic community." This is, on its face, a pretty clear attempt to avoid a Marian interpretation of the passage. However, that doesn't mean they aren't both true. Mary is the fulfillment of Israel -- she is prefigured not only by the Ark of the Covenant and by the Temple, but also to a certain extent by all the key women of Israel's history: Miriam, Rahab, Deborah, Hannah, and Bathsheba, among others. They are the threads in the tapestry of Mary's life.

The people of Israel were prepared from the days of Abraham precisely for the arrival of the Messiah. They were to be the nation through which all nations would be blessed. In the same way, Mary was prepared from before her birth to be the vessel of Christ's Incarnation, to be the woman through which all of humanity would be blessed.

There is another sense in which Israel prefigured Mary, for the history of the Jews is one of slavery and suffering, of a painful purification and ultimately redemptive suffering. Israel typifies Jesus, for He is the ultimate example of suffering unto goodness. But we cannot forget the words of Simeon when Mary brought the child Christ to the Temple:
Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed -- and a sword will pierce even your own soul -- to the end that thoughts from many hearts will be revealed (Luke 2:34-35).

This, incidentally, is what Catholics mean when they address Mary as "co-redemptrix." It is not a title to diminish Christ's sacrifice, nor to imply that Mary was in any way responsible for our atonement or salvation. It merely indicates that Mary shared in the suffering of her Son's agony. Can we begin to fathom the mother's anguish, as she watched them torture her Son, as she stood before Christ hanging on a cross (John 19:25) and watched Him take His final breaths?  Her soul was pierced by sword just as surely as his side was pierced by spear. 

Yet Mary does not suffer alone. She suffered just as all Christians are called to "take up their cross daily" (Luke 9:23), and for the same reason that Paul wrote, "in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His Body, which is the Church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Colossians 1:24).  Christ redeemed suffering, and conquered death. The stain of sin, the evil of fallen nature, has become in His hands a vehicle of perfect love. This is why the Church glorifies the martyrs, and why the lives of the saints are marked with suffering.

In this way, Mary is herself a typology of the Church.

This extends far beyond an understanding of redemptive suffering. Mary is truly the archetypal Christian. From her first appearance she expressed the Fiat, those undying words of faith: "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior," she cries in the remarkable Magnificat (Luke 1:46-47). Luke repeats several times during his early chapters that Mary "treasured all these things, pondering them in their heart" (Luke 2:19, 2:51, et al.), holding firmly on to the deposit of the faith.

Perhaps most notable is Mary's role at the beginning of the Gospel of John:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what to me and to you? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Whatever he says to you, do it (John 2:1-5).

Some Protestants have claimed that Jesus' words in this passage actually marginalize and diminish Mary. This strikes me as an error, if only because Christ could not have violated the commandment to "Honor thy father and mother." His address to Mary as "Woman" is actually considered evidence for the typological reading of Mary as a second Eve, and this passage is sometimes considered in that light. The question itself is sometimes translated as an almost bemused "What does that have to do with us?" (NASB) or the more notoriously dismissive "What have I to do with thee?" (as in the King James translation). In fact, the literal translation -- "What to me and to you?" -- is a well-worn Hebrew idiom that is basically an open-ended interrogative, meaning "Why are you here?" or "What is your question?" In this case, especially in light of Mary's response, the likeliest interpretation would seem to be a simple "What are you asking of me?"

Just before the Transfiguration, Jesus asks His disciples, "Who do the people say that I am?" (Luke 9:18) They respond with a litany of long-dead prophets. "But who do you say that I am?" The question is open-ended, and (importantly) precedes any statement by Jesus Himself that would provide an answer. This is the moment of the Petrine confession, the first point in the Gospels in which Jesus is revealed to be divine. "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16). Peter's confession was a leap of faith.

In the same way, Jesus' question to Mary at Cana is not leading but open-ended, allowing room for Mary's response of faith.  In this moment Mary does not presume to direct her Son, but merely expresses her reliance on His will and her readiness to obey, by placing her servants at His disposal. As a result of this, Christ directs the servants to fill the massive jugs with water and pour them for the guests, turning the water into wine. It is once again Mary's expression of faith that propels the next movement of the Incarnation: His first miracle, that launches His public ministry.

Mary is a typology for the church. But she is also the mother to another Type: Christ Himself.

Is it really necessary to cite the many passages in which Christians are called to model ourselves after Christ, to live in Christ, to clothe ourselves with Christ? Let it suffice to say, that as His disciples we walk in His steps.

If indeed Christ lived without sin, and if indeed we take Him at His word that He came "not to abolish but to fulfill" the Law and the Prophet, then we see that Christ obeyed the precepts of the Law. Specifically, He obeyed the commandment to honor His father and mother. This, then, is why Catholics honor Mary, for they seek to imitate His life in that manner too.

John never names himself in his Gospel, but only identifies himself as "the disciple Jesus loved." I suspect this is partly out of an almost coy modesty, but it is at least partly done to invite other Christians to walk beside Christ for themselves, to see through his eyes and bear witness to the Gospel. This invitation should help us understand a passage from John's account of the Passion. Hanging on the cross before His death, "when Jesus then saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, 'Woman behold, your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own household" (John 19:26-27).

Christ is a type for the Church, for the life of a disciple, and He gave to the great disciple the command to take the Mother of God into his household and honor her accordingly. This is Catholics mean when they speak of Mary's "spiritual motherhood of the Church." If we live in Christ, we will live out His respect for her, and treat her with the love and devotion proper for a child to give his mother. Mary is the mother of the Church.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 4

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be!  On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Romans 4:1-22 ~~ A long digression on the nature of Abraham's righteousness (with particular reference to Genesis 15:6), similar in content to Galatians 3:6-7, as well as Hebrews 11:8-19, though in sharp contrast with the text of James 2:21-24. Two brief thoughts on the passage as a whole. First, having established justification "by faith apart from the works of the Law," Paul is strongly interested in rooting this doctrine in the very soil of the Law itself.  Second, the contrast between Romans and James should remind us to avoid atomistic interpretations of Scripture. We are often tempted in exegesis to trim the infallible Tree, to prune away difficult passages and to graft more accessible doctrines onto those now-barren limbs. If anything, let us dive head-first into paradox, so we might understand the insight captured in these inspired texts.

Romans 4:2 ~~ "If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." There can be no pride in our own salvation, for we were not the cause of it, and indeed could do nothing prior to the divine initiative of grace.

Romans 4:4-5 ~~ "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited, as a favor, but as what is due." Salvation, taken as the initial moment of justification, is not 'due' in any sense to us. However, the passage does indicate that the wages of works are indeed credited as our "due," even as the rewards of faith are credited as righteousness.

Romans 4:6-8 ~~ Righteousness (blessedness) is for the forgiven sinner. This quote in particular serves as a Scriptural basis for Luther's maxim "simul iustus et peccator" (both justified and sinner), and does seem to point towards the later Protestant concept of 'imputed righteousness.'

Romans 4:9-12 ~~ Abraham was deemed righteous prior to his circumcision, in accordance with his faith. Therefore, Paul reasons, righteousness cannot be exclusive to circumcision, if only because such an understanding would disqualify Abraham.

Romans 4:11 ~~ "...the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised...." Both circumcision and baptism, its typological counterpart in the New Covenant, may be seen as seals of righteousness from the moment of conversion. However, failure to affirm the covenant by obedience -- circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac (cf. James 2:21), the Law, the sacrament of baptism -- would invalidate the original covenantal relationship.

Romans 4:14 ~~ "If those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified" (cf. Galatians 3:17). Those who receive the Law are neither exclusively nor assuredly heirs in the family of God (cf. Romans 2:13, Galatians 3:29).

Romans 4:15 ~~ "The Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation." This may well be cited as one of the more notorious and difficult anti-legalistic passages in the Pauline epistles, as well as a startlingly strong confirmation of the principle of judgment according to knowledge (though again, balance with Romans 2:15) . Paul maintains that the Law (greater revelation) entails wrath and judgment, for it reveals our state of sinfulness, and may even exacerbate actual sin by acting as a proximate cause on our rebellious natures.

Romans 4:17-18 ~~ These verses are fairly difficult. My NASB translation reads: "God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist," but marks in footnotes that the original literal read goes: "God, who gives life to the dead and calls the things who do not exist as existing." In one sense, this is decidedly a reference to the risen Christ (as well as his typological forbear, Isaac). It also hearkens to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, perhaps even in the Aristotelian sense of God as "unmoved mover" or "first cause" (as developed by Thomas Aquinas). We shouldn't forget that Paul, in addition to his apostolic office and divine inspiration, was also something of a genius.

Romans 4:19-21 ~~ The life of faith is one that contemplates the obstacles and doubts of this world (e.g., Abraham's frailty and Sarah's infertility) without growing weak or wavering in reliance upon God. Faith enables strength and thanksgiving. Paul correlates our faithful reliance on God with our hopeful assurance in His promises and His power to perform them).

Romans 4:25 ~~ Jesus "was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification." This verse seems have been taken from an early Christian confessional or doxology. I find this verse particularly interesting, because it treats the Resurrection (not the crucifixion) as the primary salvific event for our justification. This seems to correlate more closely with a Catholic/Orthodox understanding of "infused" or "imparted" righteousness, as well their teachings regarding the sacrament of baptism, which may almost been treated as a vicarious 're-enactment' of Christ's death and resurrection.

I've recently done some reading on the Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright, who is one of the major theological movers of the "New Perspectives on Paul." This lecture summarizes some of the "central issues" that are foundational to his exegetical framework. While I lack the education or exegetical experience to sit in judgment over his works, I find Wright's contributions to be quite impressive, both in balancing the excesses of certain doctrines and in drawing us into a fuller understanding of the Scriptural text. His summary of 'justification' (which concludes the lecture) has been especially valuable in reading Romans.  What's more, Wright's arguments strike me as largely unoriginal -- which, in my book, is an unmitigated good. If no one in the past two millennia had thought of this interpretive gloss, that would be much more cause for concern than if such a reading were rooted in arguments from the orthodox tradition.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: "The Ratzinger Report"

Since the publication of Luther's famous Ninety-Five Theses in the early fifteen century, the "war" between Protestantism and Catholicism has raged. It is interesting to note, however, that beneath this layer of open schism there are strata of internal disputes and borders disputes that complicate the matter considerably.

Joseph Ratzinger was a lecturer on church dogmatics when, in 1962, he was invited to participate in Vatican II as a theological consultant. He quickly won a reputation among the so-called "progressive" caucus, for his openness to adapt church practice and discipline to modern times. This bloc found itself in a particularly vexing dispute with the more "traditionalist" conference, who favored the older traditions, especially the Latin Mass. Ratzinger's reputation was secured when he became one of the founders of the progressive periodical "Concilium," that became one of the primary dogmatic disputants with the official Catholic organ of dogma: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office, formerly the Roman and Universal Inquisition.

However, some years later Ratzinger separated from this caucus and this periodical. He would maintain his openness to adaptation and "the modern times," but Ratzinger insisted that any progressive caucus must recognize the authority of Catholic Tradition (and not seek to reinvent everything anew) and the true spirit of Vatican II (without regard for some hypothetical Vatican III that would trump it). The Church must "remain true to Vatican II, to this today of the Church, without any longing for a yesterday irretrievably gone with the wind and without any impatient thrust toward a tomorrow that is not ours" (pg. 19).

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the rank of Cardinal and Archbishop of Munich. Four years later, in 1981, he was selected by Pope John Paul II to be the head and Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, Cardinal Ratzinger often found himself butting heads with his former progressive colleagues, as he sought to establish the post-Vatican II identity of the Catholic Church. Indeed, Ratzinger can be directly credited with moderating these divergent influences, and for reining in some of the more liberal doctrines that were promulgated (perhaps most notably by the liberation theology movement). By the time he was elected to the papal seat, succeeding Pope John Paul II and taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger was already the Dean of the College of Cardinals, and the most highly regarded theologian in the Catholic Church.

All of this should tell you just how important Cardinal Ratzinger was, even before his election as Pope. It should also give you some idea how significant it was when Ratzinger agreed to be interviewed by Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist with a focus on religious issues. This interview was doubly significant because it would last for several days, and would wind up not just as an article but as an entire book, from the most important theologian in the Church besides the Pope himself, speaking from a privileged position about the state of the Church. The interview was trebly significant because of the historical secrecy associated with the Holy Office, and the Cardinal's own reticence about interviews.

The book is fantastic.  The introduction, written by Messori, is in my opinion an exemplar of journalistic integrity and honesty. However, the content is the far more impressive aspect of the work. The text, taken almost entirely from Ratzinger's words in the interview, ranges a whole gamut of issues, from the very notion of the Church to the doctrine of sexual ethics, to the conflicts within the Catholic Church and their presumed resolutions.  Though it was published in 1985, it remains entirely relevant today, even in the wake of the debilitating crisis wrought by the child abuse scandal among American Catholic clergy and the far different circumstances faced by the now-Pope Benedict XVI.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Catholicism. The clarity and mental dexterity displayed by Cardinal Ratzinger is a genuine delight.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at
Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church

This was cross-posted at my book and film review blog, Worthy of Note.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book Review: "Reasons to Believe"

Scott Hahn is a former Presbyterian minister who converted to the Catholic Church and is now Professor of Scripture and Theology at the Franciscan University of Stuebenville. He has written upwards of a dozen books, on topics ranging from his conversion ("Rome Sweet Home") and his experiences in Opus Dei ("Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace"), to his appreciation of the Eucharist ("The Lamb's Supper") and the Sacraments ("Swear to God"), of the liturgy ("Letter and Spirit"), of the family ("First Comes Love"), and of Marian dogma ("Hail, Holy Queen").

Hahn addresses much of his writing for a Protestant audience, so he is perhaps best known as an apologist, a reputation reinforced by the stellar short work, "Reasons to Believe." The book is divided into three part: the first part addressed to non-Christians, the second part addressed to Protestants and non-Catholic Christians, and the third addressed primarily to his fellow Catholics.

The first part is fairly unoriginal, though I can hardly fault it for being so, as it covers most of the historically recognized and developed arguments for the existence of God, the legitimacy of faith, and the foundations of Christian Scripture and revelation. Hahn's prose is thorough and clear without getting bogged down in a philosophical mire, which is a credit to his craftsmanship. However, while most of the arguments are ostensibly geared towards a non-Christian audience, I suspect it was actually written for Catholic audiences trying to understand the philosophical underpinnings of their faith.

The second part is easily the best aspect of the work. Coming from a Protestant background, Hahn instinctively knows the rhetoric of Protestantism, and is able to present Catholic dogma in a way that makes intuitive sense to his audience. His five chapters delve into issues of Scripture and tradition, the communion of the saints, the sacraments, and the papacy. While he covers similar material in greater depth in many of his other works, this is a brilliant summary of the major points of contention.

I found the third part of the book less compelling, if only in comparison to the second. He introduces his own area of expertise -- covenant theology, the subject of his doctoral dissertation -- and examines the Catholic doctrine of the church through that lens: as the kingdom of God. The conclusion, however, is another high point. Hahn directly addresses Catholics and exhorts them to re-examine the dogma promulgated by the Council of Trent, which directly responded to the claims of the Protestant Reformation. Rather than identify justification on legalistic grounds of imputed righteousness (as Luther asserted) or the merit of works (as many Catholic chose to respond), the Council of Trent advocated a more relational understanding, sometimes called "imparted righteousness" or "divine filiation."

By faith and by the grace of God, we become heirs of the kingdom and can call ourselves truly sons of God. It is this righteousness, ours through inheritance, that is the basis of our justification, as well as our sanctification and future glorification.  It's a doctrine that all Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, could stand to understand and put into practice.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at
Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith

This was cross-posted at my book and film review blog, Worthy of Note.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mary, Queen of Heaven

In my earlier post on Mary's perpetual virginity, I mentioned how the Roman Catholic Church interprets the Ark of the Covenant as a typology, an Old Testament prefiguration of Mary in her role as Theokotos. There are two New Testament references to the Ark of the Covenant. The first, found in Hebrews 9:4, contains a description of the Ark and a brief explanation of its significance.  The second is found in the Apocalypse of St. John, better known as the book of Revelations. The seventh trumpet has sounded, and the twenty-four elders worship God "because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign" (Rev. 11:17).
And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth (Rev. 11:19-12:2).
The Ark of the Covenant was the single holiest object in the Jewish faith, which had disappeared after the destruction of Solomon's Temple. Its recovery was, next to the long-awaited Messiah, the most anticipated event of the Jewish people. Yet here, as the Ark is being unveiled, John swiftly transitions into describing a woman in the throes of labor pains, about to give birth "to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:5) -- a universally acknowledged reference to Christ. Is this a coincidence?  The Ark of the Covenant is revealed in the same breath as a woman giving birth to the son of God. Indeed, the entire chapter can be read as the story of the Nativity, seen in a cosmic light. Even the Holy Family's forced exodus to Egypt and Herod's slaughter of the innocents (recorded in Matthew 2:13-18) are obliquely referenced.

The most straightforward interpretation of this passage is that John is speaking of Mary. Both her prefiguration in the Ark of the Covenant and her status as Mother of God are directly referenced in this passage. In what exalted light do we now perceive Mary: clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, with a crown of twelve stars? Indeed, this is the very imagery employed in the iconography of the early Church.

Veneration of Mary as the "Queen of Heaven" relies on an Old Testament typological reading of the Davidic monarchy. Even from the first verse of the New Testament, Jesus is identified as "the Son of David." This title is most frequently used in the Gospel of Matthew, which focused on Christ's role as King of the Jews. One of the common elements shared by monarchies in the Ancient Near East, including the Davidic line, was a respect and veneration for the "Queen Mother." This was partly out of practical necessity, what with the prevalence of polygamy, but it was also derived from the tremendous respect and value these cultures located in families and in elders. This is, after all, the very culture from which we learned the Commandment to "Honor thy father and mother."

There are a few passages which hint at the role of the Queen Mother in court politics; the one cited most often is 1 Kings 2:12-20. After the death of David, Solomon ascended to the throne, "and his kingdom was firmly established."
Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king's mother, and she sat on his right. Then she said, "I am making one small request of you; do not refuse me." And the king said to her, "Ask, my mother, for I will not refuse you" (1 Kings 2:19-20)
There are several noteworthy elements of this story. First, Bathsheba was interceding on behalf of Adonijah, the king's brother, and the text indicates that the Queen Mother was regarded as an advocate for others. Indeed, Adonijah himself said that if Solomon would not refuse him if  Bathsheba made the request (2:17). Second, when Bathsheba entered, Solomon stepped down from his throne and bowed to meet her, demonstrating a degree of respect for the Queen Mother that would be inconceivable if applied to anyone else. Third, Solomon gave his mother a throne and set her up at his right hand, confirming her elevated rank and his filial devotion to her. Fourth and finally, he encourages her request and reinforces her intercessory role.

In this particular case, Bathsheba was being used by Adonijah as an unwitting foil in preparation for a rebellion.  However, the principle remains, as did the power of the Queen Mother. The 'lamenting prophet' Jeremiah is commanded to "speak to the king and the queen mother" (Jer. 13:18). This verse is commonly interpreted as referring to Jehoiachin and his mother Nehushta, the same queen mother who is given primacy of rank when Nebuchadnezzar exiled them to Babylon in 2 Kings 24:15.

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus, as the rightful heir to the Davidic kingdom, had a throne set for his mother Mary. This elevated station is confirmed by John's vision in Revelation, which reveals Mary in undeniably regal imagery. Her active role as the Queen Mother is seen and reinforced by a third Catholic dogma: the Assumption of Mary.

The assumption is the most recent of Marian dogmas to be defined, in the Apostolic Constitution of 1950, and it is the only one defined by the Pope speaking ex cathedra (that is, following the Vatican I formula of papal infallibility. In this work, titled Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII declared
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that 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.
I'll leave discussion of papal infallibility for a later post, but for now a few pointers.

The first thing to note is that this dogma does not affirm that Mary was taken up into heaven before her natural death. The Eastern Orthodox Church explicitly confirms the death of Mary in their parallel dogma ("the Dormition of Theokotos) and this understanding is actually shared by most Catholics.

The second point is that this doctrine affirms Mary's special relationship with her son Jesus, and also her son's steadfast devotion to the Law. Jesus sought to truly honor His mother, and her bodily assumption into heaven is a testament to that.

The third point, and this cannot be repeated enough, is that Christianity has always affirmed a bodily resurrection. The only special privilege allotted to Mary is that her bodily resurrection preceded the final resurrection shared by all believers. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the only reason for a separate dogmatic definition. The dogma of the Assumption affirms that Mary prefigures the whole body of believers, the entire family of God.

In this way, Mary is herself a typology for the Church.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mary, Full of Grace

In my last post, on Mary's perpetual virginity, I discussed the typological significance of the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the law of Moses -- the written Word -- as a prefiguration of Mary, who would bear the Word made flesh.

Exodus 34:29 tells us that when God wrote the words of the Law on the stone tables and gave them to Moses, "the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with" God. Moses' face shone so greatly from His Presence that he was obliged to wear a veil, to avoid blinding his terrified countrymen who gathered at the base of the mountain. 2 Samuel 6:7 reminds us that when these words were placed in a vessel of acacia wood, the resultant Ark of the Covenant was so unimaginably Holy that to touch it meant instant death.

With such passages in mind, what should we then think of the Jewish girl in whose womb the immortal Word (from whom the words of the Law had been derived) was made present in the flesh? What words can possibly begin to express the holiness of this, the Mother of God, the Ark of the New Covenant?

Catholics understand two categories of honoring a person or thing.  Latria is the worship and adoration due solely to God, and dulia the respect and veneration proper to created things. Mary obviously falls under the latter category, and yet she outranks almost everything else. No prior consecration of the patriarchs, the judges, the kings, the prophets, or the nation of Israel itself can compare to the honor and distinction bestowed on Mary, the Mother of God. She is utterly unique in Scripture. It is for this reason that Catholics consider Marian devotion to be hyperdulia -- proper to a created being, but beyond what would be accorded to almost anything else.

Even the angels accorded her exceptional honors. When the archangel Gabriel appeared at the Annunciation, the closest literal translation of his greeting is: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord with you." This is why "she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was" (Luke 1:28-29). Mary may be the only individual who isn't immediately struck dumb at the sight of an angel, and for whom the immediate reassurance of "Do not be afraid" isn't actually necessary. She is certainly the only one to be greeted by a title rather than a name.

The title itself is a linguistic mouthful. The original text, in Greek, is kecharitomene, which is the perfect passive participle of charitoo (grace, blessing, favor). The perfect tense has a pretty specific meaning in Greek: it connotes a present state of completeness, contingent upon a past action. Thus the phrase "it is written" uses the perfect tense: it was written in the past, but brought to perfection in the present (in the person of Jesus Christ). For those who want to research further, I found this article to be particularly valuable. Essentially, the salutation kecharitomene indicates a state of unique and perfected grace which had already been bestowed upon Mary and which would now be brought into completeness.

Confused?  So was Mary.

To understand this unique grace which had been bestowed, and was about to be brought to fruition, it's necessary to understand another typology with which Mary is usually associated. Jesus Christ often referred to Himself as "the Son of Man" and is often compared to the first Man, Adam. Indeed, Romans 5:14 explicitly states that "Adam... is a type of Him who was to come" -- that is, that Adam is a typology of Christ. "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22).

Just as Adam was a type for Jesus Christ, so the early Church treated Eve as a type for Mary

Consider again the significance of the Annunciation. God sought to come into flesh, to incarnate Himself and redeem humanity as Man. But this could not occur without the consent of Mary. By the very principle of free will that had caused Adam's fall in the first place, the divine plan of redemption was placed at the mercy of the young Jewish girl from Nazareth.

When Adam sinned, it was Eve who preceded him. Her sin led to his Fall. Thus, by that same typology, it would be the second Eve's faithfulness that would anticipate the second Adam's sacrifice. Her obedience at the Annunciation would enable His obedience in Gethsemane, even unto death.

Can we begin to fathom the cosmic pyrotechnics that accompanied her response to Gabriel? "Behold, the bond-servant of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word." Her justly-celebrated fiat is one of the defining moments of Creation: the pinnacle of all the patriarchs, of all the prophets, and all the people of God. By the free will of the first Adam, man separated himself from the Presence of God. Now, by the free will of the second Eve, God was made Present to again walk among men. This is the meaning of St. Jerome's dictum: "Death came through Eve, but Life has come through Mary."

This typology should explain Gabriel's salutation of Mary. She was full of grace, given in anticipation of this very moment. Eve had chosen the apple of her own free will, in a state of innocence. In this moment, this second chance for humanity, Mary was endowed with the same grace and freedom.

This is the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Protestants, take note: the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, not the conception of Jesus (an event celebrated as the Annunciation or the Incarnation). I'm rather ashamed at how long it took me to recognize the distinction.

The history of this dogma is particularly interesting. Though it was defined in 1854, the teaching that Mary had by the grace of God lived a sinless life had been held long before that time, arising from the early Church and recognized by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The reason it took so long to define dogmatically is because, for most of its history, this teaching appeared exclusively in the liturgy of the Church, and wasn't discussed in academic settings.

When Eadmer, companion to St. Anselm, published a tract on the subject in the early eleventh century, the long-standing teaching moved from the realm of doxology to the field of theology. This was especially the case at the University of Paris, where the doctrine was subject to heated debates between the Dominicans (best represented by the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas) and the Franciscans (notably the Blessed John Duns Scotus).

The debate focused primarily on three questions.  First, in what way was Mary sinless? Was she preserved from "original sin" (sin nature in toto) or merely from "actual sin" (that is, sinful deeds)?  It is for this reason that the Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes Mary as "spotless" without agreeing to the Immaculate Conception as Catholics define it. Second, what were the consequences of this sinlessness? This discussion mostly focused on whether Mary was subject to the usual sufferings of humanity -- especially the labor pains of childbirth -- and whether she ever entertained sinful thoughts or temptations.

The third question, however, was the bigger point of contention: at what point did her sinlessness take effect? Virtually everyone agreed that this sanctifying grace was endowed to Mary before her birth, but there was a good deal of controversy whether it was given at the moment of physical conception, or some indeterminate time after conception but before birth. Ultimately, the scholarly consensus arrived at a middle position. Relying on the insights of medieval scholasticism, and in contrast to the sometimes dualistic approach of the post-Enlightenment West, Catholic theology defines man as a holistic union of body and soul.  For this reason, Catholic theology distinguishes between "conception" simpliciter, in the purely physical sense, and "conception" in the broader sense, the moment at which the body is fused with a rational soul. Mary's immaculate conception is therefore interpreted as applying to the latter (sometimes called "animation"), since original sin is transmitted by flesh but pertains to our souls.

Once this consensus was reached, the dogma was solemnly defined by the Council of Basel, held between 1431–1449, and was recognized by all Catholic theologians. However, some time later it was determined that the Council of Basel was not a proper ecumenical council according to canon law, and therefore unable to promulgate dogma, and so the question was left up in the air for some time.  It wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that, with the nearly unanimous consent of the College of Cardinals and the bishops of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX defined the dogma in his apostolic constitution of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus:
We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.
By the atoning blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross, Mary was conceived and born free of original sin. This was not accomplished out of her own power, for she was still in need of a Savior (Luke 1:47), but was accomplished by the timeless and eternal God, in anticipation of the momentous choice she would face.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is considered theologically necessary not only in light of her role as the New Eve, but also in light of her role as Theokotos, Mother of God. Christians profess that Jesus Christ was a single person with two natures, human and divine. His divine nature was inherited as the only begotten Son of God. His human nature was inherited from His conception in the womb of Mary. If Mary existed in a state of original sin, that stain would have been inherited through the flesh by her son Jesus.

We might hypothesize that Jesus was Himself the subject of the sanctifying grace, to be preserved from original sin, but that would be tautological: could Jesus' blood have preserved His own state of sinlessness in vitro? Moreover, such a teaching would greatly diminish His humanity, since He would only be human in a cleansed and rarefied manner.

Rather, the Church teaches that God preserved Mary from conception in a state of innocence -- though it should be noted that this preservation was not yet perfection. By allowing her the chance to recapitulate Eve's fateful decision, to triumph in the face of temptation, Mary's humanity was glorified, as human nature would have been but for the Fall. It was this amplified and renewed form of human nature -- fully endowed with the sanctifying grace of God and perfected in the cooperative merit of Mary's faithful fiat -- that was inherited by Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mary, Ever Virgin

The miracle of the Virgin Birth is a lynch-pin of orthodox Christian faith. If you deny that Christ was born of a virgin, you deny that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby deny that He was born the Son of God.  You reject the miracle of the Incarnation, you reject the purpose of His life on earth, and you reject the meaning of His death on the cross. The Church stands united on this issue, overcoming all schismatic division: the Virgin Birth is one of the essential truths of the faith.

But many Christians are content to leave it at that. Most Protestants in my experience defend the virgin birth, but don't find anything particularly objectionable in the idea that Mary went on to marry Joseph and have other children (citing the brothers of Jesus, to which Scripture sometimes refers). As a Protestant I too wondered why Catholics insisted on her perpetual virginity.

There are some indicators of this doctrine even in the Scriptural account. At the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel informs Mary: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus." Mary's response is perplexing: the literal translation reads "How will this be, since I know no man?" As St. Gregory of Nyssa (younger brother to Basil the Great) pointed out, we should wonder why Mary didn't make the connection to her impending marriage to Joseph. The archangel only told her that she would conceive, in the future, and her response is to wonder how that would be possible -- even in the future. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox understanding is that Mary had pledged herself as a lifelong virgin, and that her betrothal to Joseph was in fact his pledge of guardianship.

It should be noted that this doctrine does not conflict with other passages in Scripture. There are several oft-quoted proof-texts that cite the "brothers of Jesus" (Matthew 28:10, Mark 6:3, Luke 8:19, and John 20:17, among others) as clearly contradicting this doctrine. But this reading fails to recognize that the Hebrew word translated as "brother" (adelphoi) was in fact a catch-all word for male kinsmen, which would include half-brothers, stepbrothers, first cousins, and quite possibly third cousins once removed.

As a brief side note, I sometimes marvel at those who think any verse could be an authoritative rebuttal to the dogma of perpetual virginity (or any other dogma, for that matter). Given the brilliance of the Fathers and the exegetical rigor of the Doctors who gave us Catholic tradition, don't we imagine that the early church would have noticed any obvious contradictions and not made such claims in the first place? Isn't it rather absurd to imagine that it took nearly two millennia for Christians to notice such verses?

The dogma of perpetual virginity arose out of the tradition of the early Church. The earliest reference to the dogma appears, somewhat obliquely, in a letter from Ignatius of Antioch (circa 108 AD). The earliest defense to the dogma appears in the second century, in a pseudo-epigraphical text now referred to as "The Protoevangelium of James." While the work is not canonical, it is cited approvingly by Origen in the third century as confirmation that the perpetual virginity of Mary was an accepted doctrine in the early church. Before this point, the only recorded dissent was voiced in the second century by Tertullian, who denied that Mary's virginity was preserved in partu (during birth), in order to affirm the physical reality of the Incarnation against the Docetist heresy. However, even the fact that Tertullian had to actively deny Mary's perpetual virginity would seem to corroborate Origen's conclusion that it was a widely held belief. By the fourth century, the dogma was attested by most of the Church Fathers, including Athanasius, Ambrose, and Jerome, and it would not be questioned until well after the Protestant Reformation.

None of this, however, addresses the question of how the early church arrived at this dogma in the first place. The answer to that relies primarily on a particular mode of Scriptural exegesis called "typological." This hermeneutic is best understood by St. Augustine's well-known dictum: "The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New."

If there is a single defining characteristic of the Jewish faith during the time of Christ, it was the Temple.  The original Temple was built by Solomon, the archetypal son of David, as the center of religious observance for the nation of Israel. But the Temple was not considered holy in and of itself. Its holiness was rather derived from the object it was built to house: the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple that only the High Priest could visit only once a year to offer a single sacrifice of blood and incense.

What then was this Ark of the Covenant? According to Hebrews 9:4, it was a vessel "covered on all sides with gold, in which there was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron's rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant." The Ark was constructed by Moses to hold the bread which gave life to Israel in the desert (Exodus 16:32), the rod of the the Priest who stood before God on behalf of the people (Numbers 17:10), and the stone tables on which the Word of God was written (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). Scripture and tradition confirm that the early church treated these three items as typologies of Jesus Christ. He is "the bread of life" (John 6:35), "the High Priest of our confession (Hebrews 3:1), and "the Word made flesh" (John 1:14). The Ark of the Covenant bore within itself the typologies of Jesus Christ.

If true, then by the same typological reading, the Ark of the Covenant would itself be a typology for the one who bore Jesus Christ come in flesh.  The Ark of the Covenant prefigures the Virgin Mary.

Do we begin to understand why the early church insisted on Mary's perpetual virginity? To borrow an analogy from Scott Hahn, a Presbyterian-turned-Catholic apologist, Catholics believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary for the same reason that most people wouldn't bring their fine china on a picnic. It's a matter of propriety.

For a period of nine months, the womb of Mary was quite literally the Ark of the New Covenant, the vessel which bore God in bodily form. Mary herself may be considered the Holy of Holies, as she was overshadowed by the power of the Most High (Luke 1:35). Yet, by the typology of the Temple, only one person was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, and that was permitted only for a single purpose. That purpose was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came upon her to conceive the Son of God.

It would have been inappropriate, then, for Joseph to perform the same duties as a husband, for this would have diminished the living Temple that was his virgin wife. The logic of this teaching does not imply, as some have said, that marriage is not a sacrament or that sex is not a blessing. It merely recognizes the specifically sacred function of this particular woman and this particular womb.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 3

But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 3:1-2 ~~ If indeed, as Romans 2 suggests, we are judged according to our knowledge of God, why then seek to know more of God?  "What advantage has the Jew? ...Great in every respect!  First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God." To be privileged with the Presence and grace of God is to be blessed, even if there are greater responsibilities that attend such gifts.  Paul discusses the other benefits of special revelation in Romans 9, particularly verses 4-5.

Romans 3:3-8 ~~ Paul lists a series of paradoxes.  If God demonstrated His "faithfulness" to us by the gift of special revelation, why do some not believe? If error proves the existence of truth, and "our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God," why is sin wrong?  How could God judge the world if His attributes are demonstrated by both the good and the bad that we do?  Why are we worthy of judgment if "through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory"?

Romans 3:7-9 ~~ Paul asks, quite logically, why we ought not commit ourselves to the antinomian heresy.  Why oughtn't we "continue in sin, that grace may abound" (Romans 6:1)?  Paul condemns this heresy, but asks the more pertinent question for those who are not so mistaken: "Are we better than they?  Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin."  There's an interesting side note on this, as well as the ideas of predestination and divine judgment found in Luke 22:22. Speaking of Judas, Jesus says to His disciples: "For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!"

Romans 3:10-18 ~~ A series of quotes from the Old Testament emphasizing the universality of sin and judgment.  These quotes are taken from the Psalms -- 5:9, 10:7, 14:1-3, 36:1, 53:1-3, and 140:3 -- as well as Isaiah 59:7.  It's easy to forget, however, that these quotes all speak of man in his native or "natural" state, absent the intervention and grace of God. In verse 10, Paul quotes Psalms 14:1-3 -- "There is none righteous, not even one" -- but in chapter 4:3 he quotes Genesis 15:6 -- "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Likewise, by the revelation of God there are some who understand; by the imago dei there are some who seek for God; by the faithfulness of God not all have fallen away; by the sanctifying grace of God there are some who do good.

Romans 3:19-20 ~~ The Law was given to the Jews but was of no benefit for the justification of their souls, for the Law only reveals sin but cannot take it away (Romans 8:5, Galatians 3:21).

Romans 3:23-24 ~~ This is one of the "classic" verses often memorized by kids who grow up in the Christian Church.  It is less appreciated as another example of Paul's astounding command of rhetoric. This is quite possibly the purest example of a transitional sentence.  Paul summarizes the doctrine of the universality of sin, and introduces the doctrine of justification by faith, in a single smooth turn of a phrase.

Romans 3:27 ~~ "What then is boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  Of works?  No, but by a law of faith." By what standard could we boast, but by a standard (of total reliance and dependence on God) that forbids boasting?

Romans 3:29-30 ~~ The unity of God is revealed by His just treatment of Jews and Gentiles: for both are justified in proportion to their faith in Him, without regard to the advantages of special privileges of knowledge.

Romans 3:31 ~~ The doctrine of justification by faith and the doctrine of Christian liberty (cf. Romans 7 and Galatians 3) do not "nullify the Law," but are together indeed the cornerstone of the Law -- the foundational understanding on which our reading of the Law must be based.

It is easy to rip Romans 3 out of the context of the surrounding passages and chapters, and treat it as a solitary affirmation of justification by faith. However, that context is always necessary. Justification by faith is the warm milk of our salvation -- necessary in infancy, but almost beneath our notice in our spiritual maturity. It must be balanced with understanding the rest of the message of Scripture, especially in this context the doctrine of of judgment according to knowledge (Romans 2), of inheritance according to works (James 2), of Christian liberty (Galatians 3), and most especially of divine filiation (Galatians 4). For we are justified by faith apart from works, but are sanctified and glorified according to the judgment of words and deeds, according to how greatly we reflect the glory of God, for we are by the blood of Christ heirs of the promise and sons of God.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mary, Mother of God

Of all the practices and principles in the Roman Catholic Church that are objected to by modern Protestants, the centrality of Marian devotion will almost always top the list. Not even the doctrine of papal infallibility can compete for that dubious honor. In the centuries following the Protestant Reformation, cries of "popery" and "Romanism" among anti-Catholic groups were often accompanied by accusations of "Mariolatry," and the charge is repeated to this day.

At the very least, a Christian organization that is distinguished primarily in public perception by devotion to a human woman cannot be as effective a witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Moreover, if the members of that Christian community mark their own faith principally by such devotions, I consider it a near-certainty that their faith would suffer as a result.

And yet... none of the above says anything against the truth of Catholic teachings on Mary nor against the moral quality of actual Catholic practice. Growing up in a Protestant community, I have often been concerned by the appearance of idolatry in certain Catholic dogma. But I had no way of knowing whether such teachings are informed by a genuinely Christ-centered attitude.

For the Ten Commandments direct to us to place no other god before the One God, and to not fashion idols for ourselves.  If idolatry is elevating a created thing above the Creator, then that definition would not apply to an offering of respect or devotion to a created thing as such, when offered to the extent it reflects the glory of its Creator.  Indeed, such respect may indeed be quite wholesome as spiritual practice: witness the Protestant devotion to the written Word of God.

The question thus remains: is this indeed the case with Catholic devotions to Mary?

One of the earliest title applied to the virgin girl from Nazareth was officially recognized by the Church at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, was on record supporting a recognition of Mary as Christotokos -- that is, as the "bearer" or "birth-giver of Christ." This was part of his broader theological platform, in which he argued that the human person of Jesus Christ was distinct from (but unified with) the divine person of the Son of God.

Nestorius' teachings were declared heresy and anathema by the Council at Ephesus, because it tried to separate the twin natures of Jesus Christ into two distinct persons, almost as a inversion of the Docetist heresy. Rather, the Council asserted, Christ is identified with the Son of God, the human and divine natures being unified in a single person.

Therefore, Mary's role cannot be limited to that of birth-mother of merely the human component, but must be treated in light of the entirety of her Son's being. In sum, Mary could not be merely Christotokos, but must be treated and recognized as Theotokos, the "bearer" or "birth-giver of God."

This conciliar decision defined a Marian dogma which was already in common circulation: the earliest known usage is in Origen's commentary on Romans in the third century, and the term appears throughout the works of the early Christian Fathers, including St. Athanasius and St. Augustine . It is an apostolic tradition in the sense most recognizable to a Protestant audience: it originated out of the common understanding of the early church, was defended by the highest bishops of the Church, and was declared to be dogma by conciliar degree.

This particular dogma should point those of us from the Protestant traditions to two particular realizations.  First, the doctrine that Mary was indeed the Mother of God should go a long way in elevating her in our eyes.  She was a young peasant girl from Nazareth who by God's grace was permitted to bear the immortal, inscrutable, transcendental Word Made Flesh. Her distinction is unique in Scripture, her role utterly unique in all of Creation, yet most Protestants don't seem to pay her that much attention.

Second, this dogma of Theotokos should help Protestants understand that every Catholic teaching on Mary arose out of a similar process, from consideration of her relationship to her Son, Jesus Christ.

Over the next several posts, I hope to considering Roman Catholic devotion to Mary from several perspectives.  Each post will explore a particular Marian dogma defined or set forth in the Catholic Church.  Each post will consider this dogma in light of a particular title accorded to Mary.  Each post will cover Mary's actual role in various New Testament passages, especially those considered important to the early Church. Finally, and crucially, each post will look at her typological role foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament. Most of these exegetical readings were unknown to me until recently, but they are the furthest thing from original, for they flow from the traditions of the early Church. I only hope I may do justice to them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Veneration of the Saints

Back when I was in first grade, my elementary school would celebrate the end of the school year with a demonstration of the sixth graders' science projects. It was awesome. It was particularly cool because I knew that one day I would be a sixth grader, and the prospect excited me.  See, from the perspective of a first grader, sixth graders fall into the same category of Big People as teenagers and adults, but unlike those two, being a sixth grader actually seems attainable.  Adolescence was just as distant a dream as adulthood at that point.

I bring this up because I think it provides some necessary perspective on our concept of "the saints." God has destined us for greater things than we can possibly dream. He created us, He called us, He justified us, and He will glorify us (Romans 8:30). We are therefore in the position of first graders in the cosmic scheme: even 'adolescence' (the interim glory of the intermediate heaven) is beyond our comprehension, let alone the 'adulthood' of the New Heaven and New Earth.

Fortunately, God gave us role models for our encouragement, that they reflect His glory in ways we might not have been able to otherwise comprehend, to allow us to glimpse even through the veil our future fate in His Presence. The saints are, by this analogy, in the position of the sixth graders: the testimony of their astoundingly holy lives gives us hope, for they are not so far removed from our own experiences as to be out of reach. Naturally, by now they've moved on to adolescence, but we remain children, and we can only see the testimony of their mortal lives.

One of the five "solas" of the Protestant Reformation was "Soli Deo gloria" -- "Glory to God alone," as opposed to glory to any created being. This is a noble idea, as far as it goes, but it can be easily taken to extremes.

Some virulent anti-Catholics cite Matthew 23:9 to attack Catholics who call priests "Father" as a term of respect. Yet they seem to forget the the passage ostensibly condemns any use of the word "father," presumably including its application to our biological male parent. This is nonsense.  Matthew 23 was a discussion of how to respond to the authority of the rabbis and Pharisees -- who, though they sinned against the commands of the Law they promulgated, still sat on Moses' seat and still commanded authority under Jewish tradition. Jesus' words were a call to humility and a reminder that authority owes its own legitimacy to God, and that pride has no place among those who are called to greater responsibility. His words do not undermine the commandment to "Honor thy father and mother," nor could Christ have contradicted the words of the Law, for by the Shema, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

The modern instinct for egalitarianism is necessary in a legal sense, for a free society requires an impartial rule of law. But in its cultural applications, this modern instinct is disastrous.  Peter Kreeft described it as a new manifestation of pride: rather than elevating oneself above all others, it would tear down all others who would dare to be elevated above oneself.

In a society such as ours, respect for authority is a practical necessity, just as respect for tradition is necessary in an age that venerates modernity at the expense of the past.

Glory belongs solely to God, but God has chosen to glorify us, His children.  Only Christ was the Son of God, but by His wounds we have been made sons of God, and brought into our inheritance.  Clearly we ought not worship anything other than the One True God, for that would be idolatry. But Catholic doctrine distinguishes between dulia (honor and veneration for anything created) and latria (worship and adoration pertaining to God alone), and surely this distinction should seem natural to us.  For I respect and admire Pixar studios for their near-unfailing ability to craft comic and dramatic masterpieces, but this is a far different kind and level and admiration compared to that which I bear towards my God.  There are degrees of honor and veneration that are appropriate to created things, to the degree that they bear witness to their Creator.

The Church has no power to make or declare saints.  The process of beatification and canonization are processes of recognizing saints -- that is, recognizing those whose lives were a dynamic testimony to the manifested fruits of the spirit, such that we know with certainty that they live now in the Presence of God. This understanding helps us understand why veneration to the saints is appropriate.

In the book of Revelation, John is visited by an angel, one who dwells in the very Presence of God.  The appearance of this angel is enough to drive him to his knees in awestruck wonder.  The angel cautions him not to worship him, for worship belongs to God and not to His servant, but surely John's reaction was understandable.  Our weak eyes are easily blinded by the sun.

The saints are those who lived to reflect the glory of the Lord, and God's glory shone through them.  How could we not respect and honor their witness? Those of us who grew up in a Protestant background understand the oppressive fear of committing idolatry, the fear of offending God by offering to others what is due solely to Him.  But when we see that honor is due to the saints precisely because of they manifested the glory due solely to the Lord, we should feel safe in offering our respect and appreciation for their lives.  Christ was the firstborn, but we have plenty of older brothers and sisters who, in following Him, lead the way for us.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Christian Case for Mardi Gras

I honestly can't believe I'm going to write this.

The season of Lent is a time of fasting -- abstaining from food for a time, abstaining from meat, sacrificing some of the comforts of life to reflect on the suffering and sacrifice made by God. The beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is one of the highest moments in the church calendar. It is also preceded by one of the lowest.

I've never attended a Mardi Gras celebration, but it is generally regarded as a time for general debauchery and mischief. It began as a single day -- "Fat Tuesday" is the French translation -- but in some places it is now celebrated as a multi-day celebration of venial sins, wherever they may be conveniently had.  In other places, it is a much more muted occasion, but the principle remains: before you're stuck fasting and devoting yourself to holiness, live a little!  Indulge your wilder side!

I consider myself a pretty straight-laced person, so the idea of 'Fat Tuesday' doesn't particularly appeal to me.  However, there is a moral principle at work, that I think bears closer inspection.

God created nature, and made it good.  Its current fallen estate does not and cannot override its original and intended nature: to be a vessel of God's love and care.  Our Creator is good, and the Creation bears His signature. We should not fall prey to Manichean dichotomies of God fighting against an evil material universe -- the image itself testifies to its absurdity.

Moreover, we live in a place and a time with unparalleled prosperity. In contrast with every other era of history, it is nearly impossible for an individual in the modern West to die of starvation.  In contrast with many other places in the world, a beggar in the modern West still carries more wealth than most of the population of the Third World. It is almost impossible to fathom the degree to which we are removed in material resources from most other peoples and places.  Likewise, it's almost impossible to fathom the degree to which we fail to appreciate it.

The meaning of a sacrifice depends on the value of the thing given up.  This is the foundation of all sacrifices -- from the ritual offerings at the Temple of Solomon, to the Passion of the Christ, to the modern practice of tithing. This is why Abel's sacrifice was accepted and Cain's was not.  This is why Israel was command to sacrifice the firstborn of their flocks, and why no lamb with spot of blemish would be acceptable. This is why monastics and ascetics are considered holy -- not because they renounced the evil things of this world, but because they gave up the good comforts of life to help them meditate on the mercy and humility of God.  This is why Catholic priests are called to a life of celibacy -- not because marriage is a bad thing, but at least partly because the voluntary sacrifice of one of life's great Joys testifies to their devotion and exclusive service to God.

If we wish to honor God with our sacrifices, we should realize the value of what we are giving up. When we fast -- when we abstain from food or any good thing either in quantity or in quality -- we should remember that we are sacrificing something that God created for our enjoyment.

If we reflect and realize that what we're giving up is in fact bad for us -- if it's an addiction, or an idol, or a sin -- then it shouldn't be the object of a "fast" but the object of a confession.  We wouldn't dump the contents of our garbage bags into the collection plate if we were honestly seeking to honor God.  If we did, there was probably something a bit off with our relationship with Him.  The principle remains the same.

When we first surrendered our lives to God, it was in consideration of God's grace and mercy and love, borne out of the realization that He first loved us and valued us, enough to send His own only begotten Son to live among us and suffer for us and die at our hands. I believe the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity makes nonsense of God's love -- for it we were totally depraved and utterly unlovable, how could God come to value us?  Rather, we are marked by His image and made in His likeness.  We were made for His Presence, but fell from glory, and God stooped down to raise us back up.

The Christian case for Mardi Gras is simple.  Before we fast, we should take a moment to remember just how good the things we're giving up actually are.  I do not say we should indulge in such things: for good things in excess make the best idols, and gluttony is a deadly sin.  But we can and we ought to find time to revel in the glory of God, revealed and imparted in His blessings and His bounty. Only then, in the full knowledge of the majesty and glory of God, and the beauty and goodness of His Creation, can we sacrifice the first-fruits of our lives with the knowledge that it is a worthy offering to the Lord.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Intercession of the Saints

A few days ago, one of my spiritual mentors died. He was a great man, a good man, both considerate and eager to laugh, and I flatter myself to consider him a good personal friend. The last time I saw him before he passed away, I asked him to pray for myself and one of my friends.

There is perhaps no Catholic doctrine that has been easier for me to accept than that of the intercession of the saints. For there is perhaps no practice more natural for someone from my background than the habit of requesting prayer from others, especially from spiritual elders. In this case, I had witnessed the fruits of the Spirit in his life, and I knew his wisdom was greater and prayer life more active than my own.  There is no shame in asking for help from someone who can give it willingly.

If we accept the dogma of the active communion of the saints, then it is no great leap to treat the one as you treat the other. The universal Church is comprised both of the Church Militant among the living and the Church Triumphant among those asleep.  Protestants have a habit of sending prayer requests to any among the living who will listen.  Shouldn't we do the same to the saints of the Church Triumphant?

This understanding even clarifies certain aspects of Catholic canonization practices that initially struck me as 'off.'  For instance, I always wondered about the idea of "patron saints."  But there is a very simple explanation.  If you have a prayer request for a particular issue, you go to the person who knows something about it.  This is not just for the sensation of camaraderie and espirit de corps, but because they would know what to pray for even if you didn't.

If, for instance, I needed prayer support for a ministry to at-risk youth in downtown Seattle, I would probably ask for prayer from the person in my church who dealt with such things.  If I needed prayer for family concerns, I'd ask someone else. If I needed prayer for a particularly challenging line of theological reflections, another person would be in the line of fire.

Individuals created in the image of God are each given the grace to reflect a particular aspect of God's nature in a manner totally unique to them. It shouldn't surprise us that, at different points in our lives, we may particularly need or desire to see one aspect of God more than another, and that the person who most reflected that would be most able to minister to us.

A while back, one of my friends was having trouble with her family. I've grown up with a pretty stable home life, so I didn't have any particular insight or any particular advice to share. As she spoke, she mentioned that her now-deceased grandmother had formerly filled that role that she was now filling, and told me how much she missed her grandmother.

If I had not felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit, I would have fled for the hills, but in that moment I knew instinctively what was about to happen. To be sure, I asked if her grandmother had been a Christian; my friend's immediate answer was "Yes."  I then asked her if I could pray for her family situation.  Specifically, I was going to pray about to her grandmother.

That was, without a doubt, the most carefully constructed prayer in my life.  I knew the 1 Samuel passage about Saul and the witch of Endor, and I took very seriously the idea that anything resembling communicating with the dead was fraught with spiritual danger. But my friend needed prayer, prayer that I didn't feel capable of offering, prayer from someone who could relate to her struggle.  She needed the prayer from her family's patron saint.

That was the first time I asked for prayer from a member of the Church Triumphant.

Why should we consider such prayers off-limits? Especially in light of my Protestant upbringing, I had both the knowledge and the desire to avoid such manifest spiritual dangers, so there was little danger of turning this intercessory request to a saint into anything resembling idolatry. I prayed with such trepidation, such fear of offending the holiness of God that I doubt I could have offended in that way.

This is not to mention the manifold benefits of such prayer requests.  Saints of the Church Triumphant dwell in the constant and immediate Presence of God. There are advantages to living in such a Presence, and total communion with God is certainly one of them. At this point, with this knowledge, you'd think most of our prayer requests would be directed heavenward.

My deceased mentor, a former pastor of my church family, is now living in glory. We may mourn for the separation, and mourn for his family, and at the hole that only reunion with him can fill. But you have to remember that he's probably skipping with sheer Joy at this point, so we can't really mourn for him. If anything, the natural reaction should be to envy him.  The Tenth Commandment said nothing against coveting thy neighbor's salvation!

In the meanwhile, though, as we wait and struggle (ecclesia expectans et militans), we still have friends and allies among those brothers and sisters in Christ who have preceded us. It might be nice if we could remember some of them.  Dan Dungan, pastor of my church family.  Stan McKnight, elder and deacon of the church. C.S. Lewis, one of the most thoroughly converted men in England. Frederic Bastiat, the man who taught me to see God's glory reflected among human communities.  St. Thomas of Aquino, patron saint of theology nerds.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 2

"Therefore, you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things."

Romans 2:1 ~~ One of the great rhetorical reversals in the Bible, alongside Ephesians 5:25 and Amos 2:6. It is too easy to proof-text verses out of self-righteousness, to apply a verse to disparage another. While judgment is necessary for moral living, I've found it to be a useful principle to treat God's Word as first and foremost an address to each person individually. When a passage is addressed to wives, it shouldn't be read by husbands; nor should a passage to children be read by fathers; nor should a passage against the Gentiles be read by Jews.  Of course there is a time and a place for reading such things, but doing so requires more maturity and discernment than I'm comfortable assuming I ordinarily possess.

Romans 2:3-4 ~~ Interestingly, this verse against judging others sheds some light on the grace of God that calls us to salvation. Paul wonders whether his audience sinned "not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance." I understand that hellfire sermons (such as Jonathan Edwards' archetypal "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God") may be effective evangelical tools for others, and while I've never found them useful myself I'm not willing to reject or repudiate them simply out of personal prejudice (I have the same response to Pascal's Wager).  However, it is vital to understand that mercy and grace underlie the heart of God's message and underlie the movement of our own hearts towards him.  Moreover, I find it interesting that this verse virtually conflates God's judgment with His kindness, tolerance, and patience, when most people would contrast the two.

Romans 2:6 ~~ God "will render to each person according to his deeds." This is a direct quote from Psalms 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12. It was also cited by Jesus Himself in Matthew 16:27.  The theme that we will inherit according to works recurs throughout the New Testament. Paul would return to the subject in Romans 14:12, 1 Corinthians 2:13, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Ephesians 6:8, and Colossians 3:25. John the Seer repeats those same words of Christ in Revelations 2:23, and the theme reappears at the end of his apocalypse, in Revelations 20:12 and 22:12. Finally, of course, the apostle James has a whole homily on faith and works in the context of salvation in the second chapter of his epistle. Protestant Christians tend to shy away from this theme, thanks to the whole "faith v. works" dispute with Catholicism, but the major theme is restated by so many leaders of the early church that it can't and shouldn't be ignored.

Romans 2:7-8 ~~ Those who persevere in doing good, seeking "glory and honor and immortality" will be rewarded with eternal life; those who persist in selfish ambition and disobedience will receive wrath and indignation.  It seems that the decision to pursue God -- however much or little we see of Him -- is made by faith operating through God's grace.  However, the consequences of that pursuit, whether in wrath or in glorification, will be determined by the degree of our obedience and virtue -- that is, by works.  The distinction between justification (to be made just, right with God) and sanctification (to be made holy, one with God) is in this passage crucial.

Romans 2:9-11 ~~ I find it slightly ironic and more-than-slightly challenging that, after establishing so central a distinction between Jews and Greek, in the context of both wrath and glory, Paul states that "there is no partiality with God." God's impartiality is somewhat foreign to our modern ears, conditioned by sweeping statements of human equality in courts of law. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required..." (Luke 12:48).

Romans 2:12 ~~ Here is a crucial (and oft-overlooked) verse on justification and salvation.  "For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the Law." We are judged according to our deeds, but in light of the impartiality of God, we are judged also according to the degree of knowledge of Him we possess in our hearts. Those who only know Him by general revelation will be judged by a far lower and far gentler standard than those who have received "the oracles of God" (Romans 3:1) directly, and even that will be less severe than the judgment incurred by those who are charged with teaching the Word to others (James 3:1).  Judgment is in accordance with the knowledge in our hearts.

Romans 2:14-16 ~~ These verses speak of a possibility of salvation for Gentiles who do not know the Law, and given that it speaks of them "doing instinctively the things of the Law," we can presume it refers to Gentiles who also have not yet received the Gospel.  I've written on the subject before (here), but it bears repeating: I believe it is possible for someone who has not heard of Jesus Christ to be saved.  Because they already have received the law (the Word) on their hearts, and Jesus is the fullness and fulfillment of that law (the Word made flesh), if they maintain their obedience and desire for that Word (if by God's grace they persevere in doing good, cf. 2:7), that obedience and desire is honored by God despite their lack of knowledge.

Romans 2:17-18 ~~ Those who receive the Law are confident in their ability to be a "guide to the blind" (to those who are unable to see or walk by themselves), a "light to those in darkness" (those who can walk, but are unable to see much at all), a "corrector to the foolish" (those who can both see and walk, but do both poorly), and a "teacher to the infants" (those who can see, but are unable to walk far at all).

Romans 2:17-24 ~~ Here, again, the principle of 2:12 is applied to the Jew.  Those who receive God's Word in its fullness will be judged by the fullness of His Word. Therefore the Jew is condemned by the Law.

Romans 2:27-29 ~~ The righteousness of the Gentiles (who lack such immediate knowledge of God) put the average (sinful) Jew to shame.  It is better to follow God's commands in light of our Christian liberty (the end of our slavery to sin, cf. Galatians 5:1) than to obey the Law without such consciousness.

The principle of judgment according to deeds and according to knowledge is a difficult one, and its difficulty is compounded by contrast with the classic Pauline (and Protestant) emphasis on justification by faith.  Nevertheless, these principles are compatible and mutually necessary for a full understanding of the Divine Economy (God's grace and His works among us), and thus I find it necessary to revisit and seek clarity in the midst of these confusing doctrines.