Jesus Is Real, And So Are Wild Bears

Black Bear Crossing Road

Brakes screeching. Cars swerving. My whole life flashing before my eyes. . . . Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. But I did almost get into a wreck yesterday on I-81 after dropping off our daughter Maddy at Virginia Military Institute. The cause of this near-collision? A bear! As plain as day, a medium-sized black bear ran across the northbound lanes in front of the car ahead of mine. It was the first time I saw a bear outside a zoo. Seriously. Now, I had it on good authority that wild bears existed. Not only have I seen numerous documentaries on the critters, but my wife spotted one several years ago in California, appropriately near Big Bear. However, in my just-over-half-century life on this planet, I had never seen one in its natural habitat . . . until yesterday. That experience got me thinking about what we accept and reject as evidence.

Occasionally someone, usually a person with an axe to grind against religion, will deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. Discounting everything written by his followers, some unbelievers claim there is no evidence that the founder of the largest religion on earth was real. Hogwash!

An honest historian looking at the evidence would have to conclude that Jesus existed. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-c. 100) mentions him in two passages in his Antiquities of the Jews. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56- c. 120) and the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (61-c. 113) both attest to Jesus’s life. So does St. Paul. So do all the Gospel writers. Extra-biblical Christian authors do to, including some who wrote at the same time as the New Testament writers. Whether or not you agree with their theological interpretations of Jesus, it is unfair to dismiss their works as evidence that Jesus was a real historical figure.

Finally, the existence of the Christian religion itself lends weight to the argument. The Church was founded by the closest followers of Jesus, the Apostles, most of whom suffered martyrdom for their belief in Jesus. Would so many “eyewitnesses” die for a lie?

It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Jesus existed. It turns out that wild bears do too.

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Five Reason for the Resurrection

Resurrection of Christ tapestry

The Resurrection of Christ tapestry, The Vatican Museum

Easter calls to mind brightly colored eggs, fluffy marshmallow peeps, foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies, frilly pastel dresses, and new suits with clip-on ties. These American traditions are worlds apart from the Palestinian tomb which Jesus vacated like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. It makes one wonder whether the Gospel story is even intelligible to modern hearers. Its profundity is lost in its familiarity. Most people, at least here in America, don’t doubt its truth. Rather, they miss its meaning.

Perhaps a medieval theologian can help bridge the gap between the first century and our own time. In his Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas gave five reasons for the death of Christ. First, the resurrection was necessary for divine justice, which exalts those who humble themselves for God’s sake. In the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin Mary sang, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

Second, the resurrection confirms our belief in Christ’s divinity. St. Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The opposite is true too. If Christ has been raised, then the preaching of the apostles has meaning and so does our faith. The fact that Jesus walked out of his tomb is evidence that he is God.

Third, the resurrection gives us hope that our bodies, like Christ’s, will be raised from the dead. St. Paul explained, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  In the Old Testament, the Hebrews brought an early sheaf of wheat as an offering to God, a part for the whole. The resurrection of Jesus foreshadows and promises our own at the end of the world.

Fourth, the resurrection helps us live better lives. Just as Christ rose from the dead, he calls us to live a new kind of life (Rom. 6:4). “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). The resurrection both inspires and empowers us to live good, godly lives.

Fifth, the resurrection completed the work of salvation. The death of Christ was not the end of the story, nor his burial. The death, burial, resurrection form a redemptive whole. Again, St. Paul says that Jesus “was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). No resurrection, no salvation.

The resurrection of Jesus isn’t like the story of the Easter bunny, which is neither true nor meaningful. The Good News that Jesus rose from the grave is both true and meaningful. And worth celebrating!

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Love and Mercy

300px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project

The Dutch Master Rembrandt van Rijn painted his masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son at the end of his life in the mid-1600s. Although it comes to us from a Reformed Protestant culture, the painting hangs in many Catholic Churches, especially in or near confessionals, because the image beautifully portrays the moment when a penitent receives the Father’s forgiving embrace. The judgmental elder brother who looks on needs that embrace too. We all do. Everyone one of us falls into sin . . . or jumps, whether sins of the flesh like the younger brother or sins of the spirit like the older.

The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The fifth century church father St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us what the parable teaches about God the Father:

He heals those who are sick. He raises those who are fallen. He gives a helping hand to those who have stumbled. He brings back him who has wandered. He forms anew unto a praiseworthy and blameless life those who were wallowing in the mire of sin. He seeks those who were lost. He raises from the dead those who had suffered the spiritual death. (Homilies on Luke, Sermon 107)

Lent is the season when we discover anew the Father’s love and mercy.

 

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Dingbats

jim drain fabric art1

Textile art has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world. It gets no respect. But to quote a Bob Dylan song, the times they are a-changin’. Jim Drain’s art exhibit “Zapf Dingbats,” which just ended at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami, shows the vibrant potential of this medium. Brightly colored fabric installations line the walls and four large sculptures anchor the exhibit, breathing life and hope into an age of uncertainty. The pieces include visual references to Edward Hicks’s painting The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts a Utopian future prophesied by Isaiah in the Bible. Drain also subtly includes political protest in his art. The title of the exhibition is taken from the symbols printed on sheets of fabric lining the walls. If typed in alphabetic fonts, the symbols would spell out [F-word] Trump! over and over. Drain has created complex, powerful pieces that remain colorful, playful, and optimistic. I’m glad I got a chance to view this exhibition the day before it closed. My visit to Nina Johnson Gallery was the last and best stop on my recent whirlwind art and culture tour of Miami. It will not be my last.

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Uncanny

charles-ray---baled-truck

Baled Truck, 2014
solid stainless steel
30 x 118 x 50 inches (76 x 300 x 127 cm)

There’s a story told about the French philosopher René Descartes. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life-sized mechanical girl inside. He’s so shocked he throws Descartes’ “daughter” overboard. (You can hear a podcast about this story here.) This apocryphal story illustrates the fact that our brains have trouble processing fake things that are too lifelike.

This phenomenon, called the “uncanny valley,” was first articulated in 1970 by a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori. The idea is that the closer robots (or wax figures) resemble human beings, the more it freaks us out. My daughter Nadine and I had such an experience this week on a trip Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland.

At Glenstone, there’s an entire room dedicated to the sculpture of Charles Ray (b. 1953).  One large piece called Baled Truck looks just like a vehicle that’s been crushed for recycling. Only, like Descartes’ daughter, it’s a replica. Ray made a three-dimensional scan of a compacted cube of twisted steel, rubber, plastic, and glass, then had over a hundred individual shapes fabricated out of stainless steel. These pieces were painstakingly reassembled, welded together, and painted. It took the artist six years. The final product looks like the original, only the surface is smooth, almost liquid, and it weighs twelve tons. In the same room is an eight-foot-tall female mannequin, uncanny because of her Amazonian size. She looks like any department store mannequin, but on a larger, unsettling scale.

However, the most troubling piece in the exhibit is Ray’s realistic sculpture of a little boy called The New Beetle. Made of stainless steel and painted white, the sculpture depicts a lifelike nude boy on the floor playing with a toy car. The boy is five, maybe six, years old, too old to be comfortable undressed. Yet he is lost in the oblivion of play. His lack of shame is counterbalanced by the viewer’s embarrassment in staring at the boy’s naked prepubescent form. My daughter, who is a pediatric nurse, was upset. “It’s pornography!” she said in an agitated voice. I felt uncomfortable too. Is it porn masquerading as art? There’s nothing overtly sexual in the boy’s posture or expression. What’s the difference between this boy and chubby nude angels in Renaissance paintings? And why do we Americans love depictions of graphic violence in movies and on TV but squirm when confronted by the human body?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. But like good preaching, good art should leave us with something to ponder long after the experience is over.

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A Light in the Darkness

light-in-the-darkness

The light shines brightest in the darkness. That’s what I thought recently when I read about Jamie Schmidt, a 53-year-old Catholic wife and mother of three, who sang in her church choir at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in High Ridge, MO. By all accounts Ms. Schmidt was a quiet soul. One of her fellow parishioners described her as “very simple, very modest, very quiet. If you ever needed help, she would be there.” On Monday, November 19, 2018, Ms. Schmidt stopped by a local Catholic supply store, perhaps to buy supplies to make rosaries for fellow parishioners, when the unthinkable happened. A gunman entered the store and herded Ms. Schmidt and two other women into a back room. He ordered them to undress, then began raping the women. When he attempted to force himself on Ms. Schmidt, she refused, so the assailant shot her in the head. She died of her wound later that day. This modern-day martyr reminds us that there are saints among us, who will shine like the stars in glory.

On this first Sunday in Advent, the second reading at Mass encourages us “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones (1 Thes. 3:13).  Advent focuses our attention in two directions: back to the first coming of Christ, which we celebrate on Christmas, and forward to his Second Coming, when “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus warns us: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap” (Luke 21:34). As the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are to watch and pray. If we do this, we too can become lights in the darkness.

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Christ the King

Christ the King

We live in an era of conspiracy theories, fake news, and alternative facts. In the past falsehood competed with truth. Now it’s confusion. We don’t have to be convinced of a lie to be led astray. It’s enough to become cynical and doubt that we can ever arrive at objective, absolute truth. Truth becomes relative and personal: “You have your truth. I have mine.” The person who shouts the loudest seems to get the most attention nowadays. Into this charred, postmodern landscape comes a stranger and alien, Jesus Christ. When he finally got his day in court, the judge wanted to know if he was indeed a king. He was, but he said his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:33-37). This world loves power, not truth. Jesus gave up his power to bear witness to the truth.

“So you really are a king?” Pilate asked.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (v. 37)

Citing other verses in John’s Gospel, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “In Jesus Christ, the whole of God’s truth has been made manifest. ‘Full of grace and truth,’ he came as the ‘light of the world, he is the Truth.” (CCC 2466) In other words, Jesus not only speaks the truth, he embodies it. Likewise, we are called not merely to acknowledge truth, to mentally assent to and affirm it, but also to live it. Again, the catechism says, “Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.” (CCC 2468). What is most needed in our day, both inside and outside the Church, are people who not only speak truth but live it.

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe or simply Christ the King. If Christ is our King, then our kingdom is not of this world either. This feast calls us to focus not on earthly power but on heavenly, not on the vicissitudes of human opinions but on divinely revealed truth, and not on shameful behavior but on virtue.

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” (Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas 19)

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