Good, Evil, & God: Understanding the Old Testament’s “Dark Passages”

Essay: Introduction to Scripture

rembrandt-abraham-isaac

In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God teaches mankind, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9 NABRE). The words of God in this passage, spoken through the Prophet, remind us that no matter how hard we try to come to a full knowledge and understanding of the ways of God in this life, we will still fall short. Modern skeptics argue against faith and the truth of Scripture with intelligent, well-researched, and well-structured arguments based on seeming inconsistencies found within the supposedly-inerrant Scriptures. The “Method B” approach of the modern, historical-critical skeptic zooms into snippets of Scripture and focuses on the origins, historical settings, and truths surrounding the text to understand it from a scientific viewpoint. Because of such a read, and forgetting that “[God’s] thoughts are higher than [our] thoughts,” a skeptic using this approach is unable to explain seeming contradictions scattered through the entire Canon of Scripture, or singular events or stories that stand in contrast to the full, revealed truth of God’s nature and essence. Particularly in the Old Testament, there are many different types of contradictions noted by modern scholars: the nature of God, the nature of good and evil, and the nature of the afterlife.

Today’s Office of Readings

I always start my day by offering the Morning Prayer of the church (as I’m obliged to do while in formation, and would promise to do if I am ever ordained.)

I usually don’t include the Office of Readings to start the day (I’m not obliged to do so), but I chose to this morning, and boy was I surprised! I picked a heck of a day to start.

From this morning’s Office of Readings (my emphasis added):

Second Reading: A letter to the Trallians by St Ignatius of Antioch
I wish to forewarn you, for you are my dearest children

Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the holy church at Tralles in the province of Asia, dear to God the Father of Jesus Christ, elect and worthy of God, enjoying peace in body and in the Spirit through the passion of Jesus Christ, who is our hope through our resurrection when we rise to him. In the manner of the apostles, I too send greetings to you with the fullness of grace and extend my every best wish.

Reports of your splendid character have reached me: how you are beyond reproach and ever unshaken in your patient endurance – qualities that you have not acquired but are yours by nature. My informant was your own bishop Polybius, who by the will of God and Jesus Christ visited me here in Smyrna. He so fully entered into my joy at being in chains for Christ that I came to see your whole community embodied in him. Moreover, when I learned from him of your God-given kindliness toward me, I broke out in words of praise for God. It is on him, I discovered, that you pattern your lives.

Your submission to your bishop, who is in the place of Jesus Christ, shows me that you are not living as men usually do but in the manner of Jesus himself, who died for us that you might escape death by belief in his death. Thus one thing is necessary, and you already observe it, that you do nothing without your bishop; indeed, be subject to the clergy as well, seeing in them the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, for if we live in him we shall be found in him.

Deacons, too, who are ministers of the mysteries of Jesus should in all things be pleasing to all men. For they are not mere servants with food and drink, but emissaries of God’s Church; hence they should guard themselves against anything deserving reproach as they would against fire.

Similarly, all should respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as all should regard the bishop as the image of the Father, and the clergy as God’s senate and the college of the apostles. Without these three orders you cannot begin to speak of a church. I am confident that you share my feelings in this matter, for I have had an example of your love in the person of your bishop who is with me now. His whole bearing is a great lesson, and his very gentleness wields a mighty influence.

By God’s grace there are many things I understand, but I keep well within my limitations for fear that boasting should be my undoing. At the moment, then, I must be more apprehensive than ever and pay no attention at all to those who flatter me; their praise is as a scourge. For though I have a fierce desire to suffer martyrdom, I know not whether I am worthy of it. Most people are unaware of my passionate longing, but it assails me with increasing intensity. My present need, then, is for that humility by which the prince of this world is overthrown.

And so I strongly urge you, not I so much as the love of Jesus Christ, to be nourished exclusively on Christian fare, abstaining from the alien food that is heresy. And this you will do if you are neither arrogant nor cut off from God, from Jesus Christ, and from the bishop and the teachings of the apostles. Whoever is within the sanctuary is pure; but whoever is not is unclean. That is to say, whoever acts apart from the bishop and the clergy and the deacons is not pure in his conscience. In writing this, it is not that I am aware of anything of the sort among you; I only wish to forewarn you, for you are my dearest children.

Today’s Gospel: In the Vineyard

Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinius

Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinius

Today’s Gospel is deeply meaningful to me. When our initial cohort of our Diaconate formation class was told, in the summer of 2016, that our formation was going to be extended by a year while the diocese opened the door for more classmates to join us, my brother classmates and I were initially swept by a variety of emotions – including some confusion and anger.

That eventually gave way to docility and acceptance.

For me, today’s Gospel was a big part of my own reflection and prayer around our formation “pause”. Today, I’m thankful for the rest of our class – those who joined us in the vineyard later in the day.

Our Peaceful Protest

In the midst of all of the protests (and rioting) in St. Louis right now (just follow the Twitter hashtag #stlverdict for a bit), it was refreshing and provided some good reflection to be able to be part of a peaceful prayer walk and “protest” yesterday. It was our annual Diocesan pro-life Mass and prayer walk to the abortion clinic in downtown Granite City.

After Mass, as we walked down Washington Avenue from the church to the clinic, I was reflecting on how nice it was to be able to exercise our rights to assemble, to march, to pray, and to protest – and to do it in such a way that everyone knew that we weren’t a threat, and that we wouldn’t misbehave or riot. In fact, we were lucky to have a police escort helping to keep the road clear for us as we walked the few short blocks.

I believe in peaceful assembly and protest, and was proud to be a part of how it’s done “well”.

It’s unfortunate that we have to pray and protest for a closure of a place that provides for the killing of innocent human life, but such is the nature of protesting against things that we believe are injustices in our society.

And we even made the local “rumor” mill on Facebook!:

profile-march

For what it’s worth, my second oldest was one of the vimps for the Bishop, serving his very first Mass (vimping alongside his older brother)! And he got to continue to “vimp” for the whole walk to the clinic, carrying the Bishop’s crozier as we walked:

Matthew Vimp

The Call is Sacred

Image: © lightpoet, Shutterstock

Image: © lightpoet – Shutterstock

I awoke this morning to the tail end of a dream in which I was sitting in the kitchen of the (three advisers back) lead adviser to the National Order of the Arrow Shows team. It wasn’t really his kitchen (I’ve never been to his house), but it was how I imagine his house to be in the hills of Pennsylvania, and the kitchen was the kitchen at my grandparents’ old house in Sikeston, Missouri (a very special kitchen to me).

In the dream, “Randy” and I were talking about the power of shows and theatre in culture, and why they’re so important in informing and developing the philosophy of a people.

Over the course of the conversation, “Randy” said something to me that stood out to the rest and then became the “soundtrack” of the rest of what I saw, thought, and felt in the dream:

“The Call is Sacred.”

In a moment in my own life and discernment when I’ve started to question “callings” of my own, hearing such an important adviser in my own life say, even in a dream, “The call is sacred“, triggered a lot of thinking and emotion this morning.

Calls are, in fact, sacred. “Small ‘s’ sacred” sometimes, but sacred nonetheless. They convey deep meaning, sometimes (often?) life-changing messages. Calls are special.

“Come, follow me.” – God

“Will you marry me?” – beloved

“Dad!” – child, scared, at 3 AM

“Could you help me with this?” – friend

“We need you to come into the office to talk about your test results.” – doctor

“Come, let us sing to the Lord.” – Psalm 95 (at the start of each day’s liturgy)

Respecting the Call

Sometimes in today’s busy world and culture, with our hectic schedules and distracted device-laden lifestyles, it’s easy to neglect or ignore calls, or miss them altogether.

How can I focus on listening more to the calls coming my way and responding appropriately to them? How can I better respect the call, reflect upon it, and answer well?

Pray. Listen. Discern.

There’s a reason, I think, that the message that, “The Call is Sacred”, came to me in a dream, in my “grandparents’ kitchen”, from an adviser who has meant a lot in my life and who led a team that meant so much in my life. It bolsters the message and causes it to echo in my heart.

Calls ARE sacred, and so are our responses to them.

The power of Christ’s blood

From the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop

Crucifixion_woodcutFrom the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop

If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. “Sacrifice a lamb without blemish,” commanded Moses, “and sprinkle its blood on your doors.” If we were to ask him what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.

If you desire further proof of the power of this blood, remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side. The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy Eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

“There flowed from his side water and blood.” Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolised baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit,” and from the holy Eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!” As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

-Second Reading in the Office of Readings (Liturgy of the Hours), Good Friday

The Triduum

The three holiest days of the church year.

Tonight, the table hosts a meal.
Tomorrow, the cross provides a place of execution.
Saturday, the tomb becomes a holding place for a man’s body,
a place of sorrow and of wondering.

But then, the table, the cross, and the bodies of men
become altars on which the daily sacrifices of life are
united to the eternal sacrifice of Christ the High Priest.

God renews His eternal “Yes” to mankind.
“It is very good.”
“I make all things new.”

The end leads back to the beginning.
The beginning of these three days is tied to their end.
The three days in one.
The pivotal day of eternity.

Which pattern? Adam or Jesus?

Image © rghenry – stock.adobe.com

After the switch of liturgical seasons mid-week at Ash Wednesday, it might be hard to remember that just last Sunday, the Gospel reading at Mass reminded us that “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon.” (c.f. Matthew 6:24)

In that Gospel, Jesus put before his followers the choice between serving the things of God, or being mastered by and serving the desires of the flesh on earth.

Fast forward to this weekend, the first Sunday of Lent, and we find the story of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden (the fall that led to Original Sin), contrasted against the story of Jesus tempted by the devil at the end of his fast of forty days and nights in the desert.

Between Adam’s temptation in the first reading and Jesus’s temptation in the Gospel, the second reading ties the two together:

Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one,
the many will be made righteous.”
– Romans 5:18-19

This Sunday, Adam is presented as the “type” (defined as “a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something”) of the one who fell for the temptation of the devil and chose the things of the flesh – the fruit of the tree in the garden that he had been commanded to avoid.

Jesus is presented as the new Adam, the true ideal who chooses the will of God and the ways of God, even through the three-fold temptation of the devil. First, the devil asks Jesus to turn stones to bread, calling upon his bodily hunger. Then, the devil calls upon Jesus’ trust in God’s word that he would command angels to bear him up and protect him, tempting him to throw himself from the parapet of the temple. Finally, the devil appeals to the power of God, tempting Jesus to worship him in order to gain all the kingdoms of the earth.

In this choice, Jesus faced the same reality he placed before his followers in last Sunday’s Gospel: Will you choose the things of God or the things of earth?

Adam chose the things of earth, Jesus chose the way of God. And immediately after this choice in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry in Galile and starts to call his disciples.

Through Adam’s disobedience, humanity encountered the judgement that stems from the effects of original sin. Through God’s choice to send his only son to save us, and through Jesus’s obedience and eventual crucifixion and resurrection, humanity enjoys the benefits of the in-flowing of God’s grace and Holy Spirit.

Our choice: Which pattern?

As our Lenten journey begins, we have the choice presented to us again, for the second Sunday in a row: Will we choose the ways and the things of the earth, or will we choose the ways and the things of Heaven?

Will we follow the pattern of Adam, or the pattern of Christ?

The deliberate sacrifices, penances, and spiritual exercises we invite into our daily routines in our Lenten journey present the opportunity for us to invite Christ more deeply into our hearts and minds. Let us pray for the grace to daily choose to conform our lives and our very being more toward his will.

In time, we might find ourselves choosing to sacrifice a little comfort in order to help provide for another person’s deeper needs, conforming to the pattern of Christ who avoided the temptation to turn the stones into bread.

In time, we might find ourselves trusting in God even more in the highs and lows of life, without taking risks or cutting corners and trusting him to save us when we throw ourselves from the parapets of daily life, following the pattern of Christ who trusted in God but did not put him to the test.

In time, we might find ourselves resting contentedly in what God provides for us and in the peace of his loving embrace, despite the trials of daily life. In this, we will find ourselves conforming more to the pattern of the Christ who wouldn’t worship Satan to gain the principalities of the earth, but instead kept his allegiance to the true God and thus carried all souls with him to the promise of eternal life.

Or, in time, we find ourselves falling more and more into the trap of the sins which pull us further into mammon: Pride. Envy. Wrath. Gluttony. Lust. Sloth. Greed.

In the desert of this Lenten journey, let us pray for the grace to see the moments of each day when we have the choice between God and mammon, between conforming to the pattern of Christ or conforming to the pattern of Adam. Let us pray for the grace to see the right choices, to carry our crosses, and to grow in our faith life and our journey towards God and heaven.

A final word, from St. Augustine…

While we are traveling the way of the Lord, you see, we should at one and the same time be fasting from the vanity of the present age, and feasting on the promise of the age to come; not setting our hearts on this one, feeding our hearts lifted up to that one.”
– Sermon 263A

So you think you’re going to heaven?

Ash Wednesday

Image © zatletic – stock.adobe.com

Years ago, when my wife and I were still dating (and definitely before we were married and had kids), I used to go to a coffee shop nearby almost every night. I’d spend time reading, writing, praying, and reflecting on my vocation in life. When we started dating, we used to start to go there together almost every night and just sit and talk for hours on end.

One Ash Wednesday, after attending evening Mass together and receiving our ashes on our foreheads, we headed to the coffee shop together.

As we walked in, another younger man who I had befriended – someone studying for ministry in a Protestant seminary, with whom I often enjoyed discussing faith topics and our different faith traditions – came up to Suzanne and me.

“So you got your ashes… Now you think you’re going to heaven?”, he asked.

I was taken aback. We had always had such wonderful, mutually respectful discussions. This was the first time had been rude, or forceful, or abrasive. I didn’t have much to say in the moment, as I was so shocked.

As the years have passed and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on his words and implication, some of what I might have said has formed in my head.

Rend your hearts, not your garments

In the readings for Mass on Ash Wednesday, we hear, “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13a), and “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them… When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you… When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting… But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.” (c.f. Matthew 6)

The Mass readings for Ash Wednesday certainly seem to discourage outward signs of fasting and almsgiving. But the very act of receiving the ashes means we walk out of the church with a sign of the start of our fast.

It’s important to remember, though, that it’s a sign that’s intended to remind us that we come from dust, and to dust we will return, to help kick-start our focus on our private self-denial and growth in faith that we seek during our Lenten journey. The ashes are a reminder of the call to continue our journey toward God – to turn back around and journey toward him if we’ve turned away – and to start our Lenten journey.

The ashes quickly fade, but the effort to rend our hearts begins anew, with a renewed focus and fervor, as our Lent begins.

Faith and works

I venture to guess that my friend was really getting to the heart of many of our prior conversations, which was on the age-old (500 years old?) discussion of the relationship of faith and works. I could go into essay-length writing here on that point alone, but I won’t… there’s a great summary of the “faith and works” discussion by Jimmy Akin over at Catholic Answers.

A Lenten journey

Ash Wednesday (and receiving our ashes) is the start of a wonderful journey. I’ve always been one to not know what I’m going to give up or do for Lent until I wake up Ash Wednesday morning.

Sometimes, especially when I was younger, it was self-denial – giving up something that I really enjoyed. That can often be very fruitful. One of the best examples of that was seeing my second-oldest son give up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (one of his favorite things in the universe) last year. He went through some tough temptations through Lent and had a hard time holding to his fast, but he held strong and grew in his own self-control and focus on other priorities through the experience.

In recent years, I’ve focused my journey on adding some activity to my day-to-day – something like reading the daily readings, or some part of the Bible each day, or going out of my way to do a few extra “good turns” for others each day, or resolving to take over some household chore that someone else usually does.

Conclusion

If my friend asked me the question today, “So you got your ashes… Now you think you’re going to heaven?”, my response would be something like, “I have faith in my new life in Christ, and I continue to work out my salvation by taking part in His sacrifice. I hope to be among the saints in heaven.” That’d inspire quite a discussion, I’m sure.

I hope and pray that your Lenten journey this year is a fruitful one. Let’s keep working together and supporting each other on this journey of faith, this journey to become better Christians, and to hopefully “see” each other in heaven someday.

“No divisions among you”

Today’s Second Reading, from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth, is very appropriate in our current world and political climate:

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters,
by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you.
I mean that each of you is saying,
“I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”
or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Is Christ divided?
Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

– 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17