Happy Birthday, Mother of God!

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Giotto, Birth of the Virgin (1303)

Today we Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Happy Birthday, Mother of God!) When I was a Baptist, Marian doctrines were particularly difficult for me. I had been taught and believed “that the sole authority for faith and practice . . . is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” Emphasis on the word “sole.” Baptists inherited this doctrine (called “sola scriptura” in Latin) from Martin Luther and have it in common with almost all Protestant churches. How could I believe Mary was born sinless when the Bible says nothing about her birth? Doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception were “unbiblical” because they were extra-biblical. I used to preach and teach we must believe only what we find in Scripture.

As a Church historian, I felt uncomfortable with this principle because many foundational doctrines are not spelled out in Scripture, at least not as clearly as what we were required to believe. (Yes, required. If we didn’t believe them, we’d be considered “unsaved” and headed to eternity in hell.) The Trinity is probably the best example. Although grounded in Scripture, the doctrine developed over time. Here’s how I expressed the conundrum when I was still a Baptist preacher:

“If I didn’t already know the doctrine as it developed over time and as it is expressed in the creeds, and if I had only the Bible to guide me, Would I be able to arrive at the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed?  If not, I am left with one of two unsettling possibilities: either my doctrine of the Trinity is wrong or my doctrine of religious authority is wrong.” (You can read the full blog post here.)

I eventually concluded my doctrine of religious authority was wrong. “The Bible alone” is unbiblical and self-contradictory. The Bible never teaches the principle of Scripture alone. Quite the opposite. St. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:1-2). Where did St. Paul or any of the Apostles ever say, “All you need to believe is in the Bible”? Where did Jesus ever say that? He didn’t.

Think about that for a minute. Jesus never said, “If you want to know what to believe or how to live, all you need to do is consult written Scripture.” As far as we know, he never wrote anything, and he didn’t tell his followers, “Wait until the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are written and canonized and they will guide you in all truth.” Here’s what he told his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:1-2). In other words, Jesus told his followers to rely on apostolic tradition.

Most Baptists and other evangelical Protestants believe the Bible is inerrant. Every book. Every sentence. Every word. However, they don’t believe the table of contents is inspired. Ask Protestant ministers why they believe those twenty-seven books are inspired and not other early Christian writings, and they will start sounding very Catholic. They start quoting church synods and councils. In other words, they rely on Sacred Tradition. Why? Because the Catholic Church gave us the canon of Scripture. Baptists and other Protestants wouldn’t even know what books were in the Bible unless the Church had told them. The Reformer John Calvin saw this problem and invented a subjective and individualistic test of Biblical authority called “self-authentication.” It says that when a Christian reads the canonical Scriptures, the Holy Spirit speaks to his heart and reveals that they are true. (You can read a good article on this topic by a reformed theologian turned Catholic apologist here.)

This problem of self-authentication raises a similar conundrum to the one I mentioned earlier about the Nicene Creed. If I have only the Holy Spirit to guide me, could I pick out which twenty-seven books were to be included in the canon out of all the religious literature of antiquity if I didn’t already know which books were part of the New Testament? Hardly! No one comes to believe in the canon this way. Our parents give us a book with the title “The Holy Bible” stenciled in gold leaf on its bonded leather cover. They tell us that it’s God’s book and we should believe what’s in it. It’s given to us by tradition. And we believe it, because we believe those who gave it to us. The Holy Spirit can (and does) confirm the truth we find in Scripture. But the Bible itself is a product and gift of the Church. And we know that because Sacred Tradition works in tandem with, not against, Sacred Scripture. Tradition and Scripture are the two oars that, pulling together, move the Church along.

All that to say, I don’t need a biblical prooftext to celebrate the birth of Mary or believe God kept her free of original sin from her conception. I can celebrate our Blessed Mother’s nativity and believe the Marian doctrines for the same reason I can know and believe the Bible . . . because that’s what Sacred Tradition has taught me.

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Rest in Peace, Daddy

Dad and Travis

Robert John Moger, Jr. (1938—2018)

My earliest memories of my dad are him reading to me and pedaling me around the neighborhood on the back of his Schwinn bike. He spent lots of quality time with my brother and me, whether camping, boating, skiing, swimming, or just throwing a baseball in the backyard. He always had a story to tell, a joke to crack, or a riddle to puzzle over. He never worried about anything. His glass was always half full.

As a young man he served his country honorably in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Germany during the Cold War and liked to say he brought three things home from overseas: a new car, a new camera, and a new wife. I never asked him which one he liked best. I didn’t have to. He celebrated 59 years of marriage to my mother before he died. No stranger to hard work, my dad provided for our family. We never went without. His hand was always open to those who needed his help. Simply put, he was the most generous person I’ve ever known.

A man of strong faith, my dad believed in Jesus. He also believed in me and was never shy about telling other people about my accomplishments. I know he was proud of me. I know because he said so.

When his life on earth was over, death came as a blessing. He had suffered enough.

Rest in Peace, Daddy. I love you.

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Obedience

463px-St._Benedict_delivering_his_rule_to_the_monks_of_his_order

Some words are as old fashioned as my grandmother’s butter churn, words like clew (ball of thread), fandangle (useless or purely ornamental thing), popinjay (a parrot), and scapegrace (a rascal). A word not yet archaic but in danger of becoming so is the word “obey,” especially when used in reference to human behavior. Obedience is a good quality to have in children, employees, soldiers, and subordinates. However, it seems to cut so much against the modern, egalitarian grain that when we hear it commended, it can have the same effect as running one’s fingernails down a chalkboard. (Chalkboard is another word in danger of becoming archaic.)

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the archaic word “hearken” in Dom McCann’s translation. It means “to listen intently to” or “to obey,” and it appears in the imperative mood: Listen! Obey Obedience is a virtue not only for children and employees but also for monks, nuns, and anyone trying to live a spiritual life. In fact, St. Benedict, at the very beginning of his rule, speaks of the “labor of obedience” and the “strong and shining weapons of obedience.” Obedience is described as both a means of returning to God and an instrument of spiritual warfare with which we fight for him. Renouncing one’s own will is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s no wonder St. Benedict refers to it as labor. The word calls to mind images of chain gangs and delivery rooms.

What makes obedience joyful, though still difficult, is the knowledge that the one we obey is a “loving father.” It is unclear whether the reference is to God or the abbot. Likely it’s both, since the abbot (from the Aramaic “abba,” meaning “father”) stands in the place of God. Loving parents make it easier for their children to obey. The same principle applies to all leaders, whether employers, teachers, military officers, abbots, or abbesses. In God’s kingdom, love and obedience go hand in hand. With love, obedience still isn’t easy but it’s less likely to become extinct.

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Is receiving the Eucharist necessary for salvation?

Virgin Adoring the Host

The Virgin Adoring the Host (1852) by J.A.D. Ingres, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Before becoming a Catholic I struggled with many questions, including this one:

Is receiving the Eucharist necessary for salvation?

The knee-jerk Protestant answer is “No! Faith alone is all that’s required for salvation.” However, the Bible and Catholic theology disagree.

Here’s what Jesus said in John’s Gospel:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:53-54).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life” and “the sacrament of our salvation” (CCC 1324, 1359). Receiving Holy Communion at least once a year is therefore an obligatory Precept of the Church (CCC 2042).

Without receiving the Eucharist it would be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid mortal sin and remain in a state of grace. However, those who are baptized and have attained the age of reason but through no fault of their own, are unable to receive the Eucharist physically may partake of his body and blood spiritually by desire. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “One can be changed into Christ, and be incorporated into Him by mental desire, even without receiving this sacrament.” St. Thomas also explained that baptized children who have not yet attained the age of reason “desire the Eucharist through the Church’s intention, and, as a result, receive its reality.” Therefore, receiving the Eucharist is indeed necessary for salvation, but one can receive spiritually by desire as well as physically by taking Holy Communion.

It’s important to remember what the Eucharist is. It is Jesus himself. To receive the Eucharist is to receive Jesus.

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Ineffable Mystery

Ethiopian Trinity Icon

Pop quiz. What is the sum of 1+1+1? You’re thinking three. That’s correct in mathematics but not in theology. When it comes to the nature of God, 1+1+1=1!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Holy Trinity an “ineffable mystery” (CCC, 251). This mystery, taught in embryo in Holy Scripture, was birthed through the theological controversies of the first three centuries of Christianity. In 325, the Church Fathers at Nicea formulated the doctrine to combat the Arian heresy which taught that the Son and the Spirit are merely created beings. As Catholics, we profess every Sunday our belief in One God who exists eternally in three Persons when we recite the fourth-century Nicene Creed. Easy to say. Difficult to grasp.

We shouldn’t be surprised that some important truths of the Christian faith are difficult to explain and understand. The same could be said for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Logically, you’d think 0.999… would be just a tiny bit less than 1, but mathematically they are equal. There are many truths that are difficult to grasp!

Why should we believe in this difficult teaching of God’s Three-in-Oneness?

First, we should believe the doctrine of the Trinity because it’s true. While the doctrine of the Trinity surpasses human reason, it does not contradict human reason. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition both attest to its truth. The doctrine has stood the test of time, and the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world believe and profess it.

Second, we should believe the doctrine of the Trinity because it’s important. The Son and the Holy Spirit have been sent into the world to reveal God to us. God is love (1 John 4:8). The Son and Spirit are also love, because they are God. If the Son and Spirit were mere creatures, their ability to reveal God to us would be limited. Because the Spirit and Son are God, they can reveal the Father’s love to us in its fullness. When Jesus died on the cross, he wasn’t merely a martyr suffering unjustly. God was hanging on the cross, suffering with us and for us to show us his love. When Jesus, along with the Father, sent the Spirit to abide with us,  he didn’t send a created being that was lower than God. He sent us God himself. If the Son and Spirit were created beings, then God would be distant. Thankfully, the Son and Spirit are God, and we can relate to God the Father through them.

Happy Trinity Sunday!

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Queen of the Apostles

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Although the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title “Queen of the Apostles” first appears in the sixteenth-century Litany of Loreto, the concept is much older. In fact, its roots are biblical. Like Jesus, the Church was born of the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the Day of Pentecost, considered the birth of the Church, the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room. St. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us the Apostles were there praying “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).

In the famous painting of Pentecost above by the artist El Greco, Mary appears in the middle of the Apostles. Even though she is neither an apostle nor a priest, she too received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a flaming tongue above her head. She wears both blue and red. Blue symbolizes her virginity and red her motherhood. In her dual role she encourages all women: those called to the married life and those called to remain single. Mary’s presence in the Cenacle is more than coincidental. Without her there would be no Church. She is the spiritual mother of all the Apostles and their successors. Indeed she is mother of us all.

It is therefore appropriate on this Pentecost Sunday to pray with Saint Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850) this prayer to Mary Queen of Apostles:

Immaculate Mother of God, Queen of the Apostles, we know that God’s commandment of love and our vocation to follow Jesus Christ impels us to cooperate in the mission of the Church. Realizing our own weakness, we entrust the renewal of our personal lives and our apostolate to your intercession. We are confident that through God’s mercy and the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, you, who are our Mother, will obtain the strength of the Holy Spirit as you obtained it for the community of the apostles gathered in the upper room. Therefore, relying on your maternal intercession, we resolve from this moment to devote our talents, learning, material resources, our health, sickness and trials, and every gift of nature and grace, for the greater glory of God and the salvation of all. We wish to carry on those activities which especially promote the catholic apostolate for the revival of faith and love of the people of God and so bring all men and women into the faith of Jesus Christ. And if a time should come when we have nothing more to offer serviceable to this end, we will never cease to pray that there will be one fold and one shepherd Jesus Christ. In this way, we hope to enjoy the results of the apostolate of Jesus Christ for all eternity. Amen. 

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Freedom from Fear

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenThe Ascension (1775), oil on canvas. 81 x 73 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At 15, Lisa started becoming very anxious following her parent’s divorce. She and her younger brother lived with their mother and saw their father weekly. The arrangements were amicable. Shortly after the divorce her father had a stroke and was in the hospital for several weeks. Within weeks, Lisa started getting nervous when her mother went out to the shops—even for short periods (under an hour). She texted and rang her mother every 3–4 minutes to ask if she was alright, and when she was coming back to the house. Lisa’s story, related on a British medical website, illustrates a psychological condition called Separation Anxiety. It’s an extreme form of a common problem: the fear of abandonment. Many of us have worried about losing a loved one. It’s a common fear.

In Acts 1:1-11, the resurrected Jesus returns miraculously to his Heavenly Father: Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us as the disciples were watching “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). I wonder if the Ascension of Jesus filled them with wonder or fear. Probably both.

The first lesson of the Ascension was taught by angels who appeared to the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11). The ascension gives believers hope in the Second Coming. What goes up must come down. If Jesus had simply stopped appearing to the disciples, it would have created doubt about his promise to return.

What about Jesus’s promise to remain with his disciples? “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). How does the Ascension square with the Lord’s promise to remain with us? Jesus returned to heaven but his presence remains in several ways.

Because he is God, Jesus is present everywhere, even if we cannot see him. Theologically this is called omnipresence. His presence extends to all places. To God the Psalmist sings,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.

We see Jesus’s presence in creation and we hear it in the Word of God. In the pages of Holy Scripture, Jesus speaks to us and we meet him in its pages.

Jesus is also present to us in the Eucharist. The bread and wine of the Sacrament becomes his body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is our communion with him. The word “communion” comes from Latin, formed by the prefix com- (“with” or “together”) plus the root unus (“oneness” or “union”). In the Eucharist we become one with Jesus and each other.

Finally, Jesus is present to us in the Holy Spirit. Before ascending to heaven, the Lord promised to send the Comforter. This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (which we celebrate next Sunday) when the Spirit blew through the upper room like a hurricane and flaming tongues appeared. Since then, he lives inside all believers. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 694). The Bible says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 6:4). We should have no separation anxiety, knowing that we have been made children of God.

On this Ascension Sunday, let us remember Jesus remains with us.  Because he is with us, we can have confidence and freedom from fear.

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