Category Archives: theology

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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The True Vine

Christ_the_True_Vine_icon_(Athens,_16th_century)

Christ the True Vine (icon), 16th century,  Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece.

I read in the newspaper this week there is a global wine shortage caused by unusually cold and wet weather in Europe, resulting in the smallest grape harvest since World War II. This wine-related news was on my mind as I read the Gospel for this fifth Sunday of Easter (John 15:1-8). In this passage, Jesus uses symbolic language of the vineyard to explain his relationship with his followers. In one of his famous “I am” sayings, our Lord describes himself as the “true vine” and encourages his disciples to “abide” in him. Abiding in Jesus results in bearing fruit. Those who do not bear fruit are removed from the vine.

How do we abide in Jesus? That is, how can we stay connected to him? This question gets to the heart of salvation. To be saved initially, under normal circumstances, we must repent, believe, and be baptized. To maintain our salvation, to stay connected to Jesus, we must repent, believe, and confess mortal sin whenever we become aware of it. The consequence of not staying connected to Jesus is catastrophic: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (v. 6). Although troubling, the language of damnation is unmistakable here.

In the very next verse after the Gospel reading, Jesus says “Abide in my love” (v. 9). Thus, Jesus equates abiding in him with abiding in love. In 1 John 4:8 we read, “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Love is not a sentimental feeling, but a self-giving, self-sacrificing action. If you want to know what love looks like, gaze at Jesus on the cross!

Jesus reveals his love to us through his Word, which tells of his sacrificial death, and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The same Jesus who said “Abide in me” meets us in the Sacrament of his body and blood. The vine is both a Christological and a Eucharistic symbol. As Catholics, we believe that “in the communion . . . the faithful receive ‘the bread of heaven’ and ‘the cup of salvation,’ the body and blood of Christ who offered himself ‘for the life of the world’ (CCC, 1355). One important way to stay connected to Jesus and his love is through frequent reception of the Eucharist.

Although there may be a shortage of wine this year, there can never be a shortage of God’s love.

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The Problem of Evil

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 April 2015.  EPA/NARENDRA SHRESTHA

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 April 2015. EPA/NARENDRA SHRESTHA

On April 25 a major earthquake struck the mountainous country of Nepal. The death toll stands at 3,300 confirmed dead and is expected to rise. Thousands were injured. Thousands more are homeless. How could a good God allow such suffering?

It’s a serious question and one of the biggest objections to belief in God. It’s called the Problem of Evil and it’s as old as the Book of Job: Why do bad things happen to good people? Or to put it another way: If God is good, why does he allow evil to exist?  There are no easy answers, but a few truths can help us understand.

First, evil is not a thing that God created. God made the sun, moon, stars. He even created worms and        mosquitoes. But he never made anything called “evil.” Evil is simply the absence of good. Evil is a wrong choice or the result of a wrong choice. It’s not something God made.

Second, free will allows for the possibility of evil. God could have created a world without free will. However, in his goodness God decided to allow spiritual beings (angels and humans) the ability to choose. When we choose to do wrong, it’s evil. God could stop us from choosing evil, but then we wouldn’t have free will and that would be even worse. Even natural evils like floods and earthquakes are ultimately the result of moral evils. God created the world and pronounced it good. Adam and Eve chose to sin (moral evil) for which God punished man with physical evil (suffering and death). All of creation was also affected by the fall of our first parents. The world was no longer a safe place.

Third, God provided a solution to the Problem of Evil in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. God loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us in order to defeat the power of evil. His ultimate plan of salvation is not only to save people who turn to him in faith but also to restore all of creation and reconcile it “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). God’s answer to undeserved suffering is the cross of Christ, the most undeserved suffering.

Many people have rejected faith in God because of the reality of suffering. But what are they left with? They still have their pain and sense of injustice. But they have no comfort, no faith, and no hope that wrongs will eventually be made right. Without belief in God, the world is simply a bad place and there’s no way to make sense of out it. In fact, without belief in God concepts like “good” and “evil” make no sense. How is unbelief better than believing in a God who allows evil to exist but promises to bring good out of evil for those who love him (Rom. 8:28)? How is unbelief better than believing in a God who becomes man and joins us in our suffering in order to save us? It isn’t.

It may be difficult at times to believe in God when we are confronted by evil and suffering, but it’s better than the alternative.

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