Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Two Advents of Our Lord

Today is the first Sunday of Advent!

Yep, it's time to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. But Advent is about much more than that. As we prepare for our celebration of Christ's birth into the world, we are called to prepare ourselves for his imminent return. The two go hand-in-hand, for we can only truly appreciate the significance of his first coming if we also understand the significance of his second coming; our celebration of his birth means nothing if we are caught unprepared for his second.

This is because, although his first coming was in poverty, humility, and peace - and most who were living at the time were unaware of it - his second coming will be all together different: in power, glory, justice, for all the world to see.

Regarding this second coming, Scripture tells us:
"[A]s lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Mt 24.27)

"[And] at that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens." (Mk 13.26-27)

"Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books... Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." (Rev 20.11-12, 14-15)

And so it is not without reason that the Church has ordered the Lectionary such that we Catholics are given, at the very first Mass of Advent, this solemn warning from Gospels to ponder:

"Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.  Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.  Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.' " (Mt 24.37-44)

The world is counting down the shopping days left until Christmas - a sign that the world does not have Christ's second coming in view. Let us instead, as we celebrate Christ's first coming into the world, be preparing ourselves for his second.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some Thoughts About Mary for Evangelicals

Evangelicals usually get a little nervous when a Catholic starts talking about Mary. 

But there is no need to be nervous! Mary - in many ways - is one of us. She's a member of the Church, a follower of Christ, and redeemed by his merits on the cross.

Mary was also the first person to whom God announced the arrival of the Messiah. She was the one through whom the Incarnated Son of God came into the world. Her flesh was connected to the flesh of the the God-man for nine months. She was one of the few, and probably the most intimate, witness of Christ's life before his ministry. And when many of Christ's followers fled during his passion, she was found right there at Golgatha, close enough to the cross for Jesus to be able to announce to her that John was her son, and that she was his mother.

It sounds as though Mary is a very significant figure in salvation history, and might deserve a little bit more attention than simply a song sung at Christmas about what she did or did not know. (Beautiful song, by the way)

Here are two things we can certainly learn from Mary:

First, Mary is an incredible example of faith. When the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would conceive  and bear the Son of the Most High, she did not get into a wrestling match like Jacob; she did not argue like Moses; she did not demand a sign like Gideon. She responded: "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to be as you have said." We are called to this kind of faith.

Second, a person's last words recorded in Scripture are often taken to be particularly significant. St John the Baptist's last recorded words are: "I must decrease, while He [Jesus] must increase." And St Thomas the Apostle's final words say of Jesus, "My Lord and My God!" Mary's last recorded words we find at the marriage at Cana. When the wine ran out, she turned to the servants and, referring to her son, told them: "Do whatever he tells you."

Let us follow Mary's example of faithfulness to her Lord, and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Call For Courage

Much of the evil in our world exists, not because too many people live their lives as though truth and goodness are absolutes, but because so few people do.

For every perpetrator of genocide, there are thousands of passive ones. For every celebrity who squanders his wealth, there is a crowd of gratified gawkers. For every person who publicly perverts our human sexuality and degrades the human body, there are too many who, by cowering in silence, give their assent.

We are told to think that it is when people believe something too strongly - too definitively - that violence becomes inevitable. We are told to believe that by sacrificing absolutes we can achieve peace. And yet holding that all beliefs are merely opinions does not breed peace but indifference. And indifference is but a fertile ground for injustice.

Peace is our goal, but we should accept nothing less than true peace. As long as there is injustice, there is no peace. As long as there is ignorance of the truth, there is no peace. As long as there is sin, there is no peace. As long as there be people who live here on earth outside the sheepfold of Christ, there is no peace. True peace is found only in Jesus Christ and in the Church that He established.

And so I call us to have courage, not to compromise; to seek truth, not amiable company; to love, not to ignore; to serve God, not man. Let us take truth and goodness seriously and live our lives accordingly.

We all, in one way or another, have become culpable, if in not our actions, then at least by our inaction, by our unwillingness to always stand up for what is right.

Kyrie eleison. St Athanasius, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Thomas More, please pray for us. Amen.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How the Early Christians Worshiped

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2.42)

An evangelical worship service these days usually goes something like the following: There's about 30 min of praise music led by a band, and then a 30-45min sermon. There might be short, extemporaneous prayers said by various leaders at the front at different points. The Lord's Supper is generally celebrated somewhere between once a month and a few times a year, and the bread and the wine is usually held to be merely symbolic.

The Catholic Mass has this basic outline: The Scriptures are read aloud, there's a homily, the congregation offers prayers together as a congregation, the Eucharistic prayers are offered by the priest to which the congregation responds with the great 'Amen', and finally the Eucharist is distributed to all baptized Catholics in good standing in the Church. The Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, is always celebrated, and it is held that the bread and the wine actually become the true Body and Blood of Jesus.

But how did the early Christians worship?

We actually know. St Justin the Martyr was a 2nd century philosopher who converted to Christianity. Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire, but Justin believed that this was the case largely due to misunderstandings of Christianity held by the Roman officials. So he wrote a letter around A.D. 150 to the Emperor which we refer to today as The First Apology. In it he explains the Christian faith of his day. At the end of this letter, he describes when and how Christians worshiped in his day:

[O]n the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (67)

Sound familiar? It's because its the same thing that Catholics do today, 1900 years later.

He also describes more clearly what the early Christians believed about the nature of the Eucharist:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. (66)

(Sidenote: He clearly believes that baptism does something, that it's not just a symbol. When a person is baptized, there is "remission of sins" and "regeneration".)

He calls it the Eucharist. He specifically says that the bread and wine are received "not as common bread and common drink", but that this food "is the flesh and blood of that Jesus". He then goes on to prove this by quoting Jesus when he said "This is my body" and "This is my blood" - words that evangelicals dismiss, without Scriptural warrant, as merely symbolic.

The Mass, the Catholic belief in the real presence - these were not late medieval corruptions. They have been there from the very beginning. Evangelicals are the ones who have done something new.

Evangelical worship would have been foreign to the early Christians. The Cathoic Mass, in its fundamental form, is how the early Church worshiped, as passed down from the Apostles.