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Archive for April, 2014

spring treeThe image of a budding tree is one of spring’s most beautiful earmarks, as it shows nature filled with the promise of new life.

Christ’s Church — as well as ancient Israel, the great “womb” of the Church — is kind of like nature in that it goes through similar cycles of darkness and renewal.  The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was arguably one of the great episodes of renewal.

Pope John XXIIIAnd that brings me to the Council’s convener, Blesséd Pope John XXIII, due to be made a saint — along with Blesséd John Paul II — in a short while.

Pope John XXIII and Vatican II were most definitely progressive…though perhaps not in the sense in which some people understand the term.  Any time we are talking about such “progressive” issues as renewal and reform, we are talking about the someone or something in question becoming more what it is.  There is nothing more anti-progressive than for he/she/it to become something else entirely by giving up indispensable characteristics or trying to “conform” to something else.

So precisely what progress did John XXIII intend?  In brief, he saw the need to make the Church a more fit vehicle to bring the Gospel to the modern world.  Vatican II, therefore, was not so much about the Church getting with the times as it was about seeking new avenues and means by which the Church could sanctify the modern world.

During his tenure as a priest, Royal Italian Army sergeant, bishop, papal nuncio, and cardinal, Angelo Roncalli (Pope John’s birth name) had traveled all over Europe and into Asia Minor, gaining a fairly extensive experiential knowledge of the modern world and its troubles.  As pope, he became the first pontiff in 90 years to make pastoral visits within the Diocese of Rome, visiting troubled youth, prisoners, sick children, and others.

Combined with his expert knowledge of Church history and his deep pers0nal sanctity, he was able to discern that it was time for what he later called a “new Pentecost.”  Having spent a long time looking inward, the Church needed to open its doors to the world so as to bring to it the Good News, and with the same enthusiasm with which the Apostles came out of the upper room to the streets of Jerusalem (see Acts, chapter 2).

Undoubtedly, a major part of that was the amazing and disarming warmth, simplicity, and gaiety that Pope John himself exemplified…which brings us to our next topic: What, precisely, was the nature of his great mirth?

Pope John XXIII with Others

A photo of Angelo Roncalli (middle) as a seminarian in 1901

The answer is very simple.  It was nothing less than the joy of holiness…of the complete and superabundant freedom of having given up everything for the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42), the infinitely desirable Treasure that is Jesus Christ Himself.

The relationship he enjoyed with God was able to develop because of many years of discipline, asceticism, and prayer.  From the age of 14 (perhaps earlier), Roncalli had imposed on himself a very rigorous spirituality; this consisted, to name just one example, of self-mortification in the form of refusing to allow himself to listen to love songs!

Angelo_Giuseppe_Roncalli_Patriarch_of_Venezia_(1953-1958)It was precisely because of his holy detachment and total openness to the Holy Spirit that he was able, as pope, to discern the divine will for the modern age.  He was a man for Jesus Christ, and therefore a man for all of humanity and the whole world.  I would say that if he taught Catholics (or, rather, reminded us of) one thing, it was that a Church of and for Jesus Christ must be the same.

“Pope John XXIII, pray for us!”

All photos from Wikipedia, except for the first (yours truly)

P.S.  Here is a brief video (under 9 minutes) that does a much better job than I at portraying this great man:

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Noah2014Poster

Note: If you are interested in reading part one, click here

In his great book — which I have referenced before, and which I highly encourage people to read — “Love is Stronger Than Death,” Peter Kreeft makes the following observation about modern man’s scientific/technological dream:

The (immortality) Pill will be the fulfillment of one of our deepest and darkest dreams, the Oedipus complex.  Now we will be able to kill our father (God), and marry our mother (earth).  For without death, and with an earthly technological paradise (. . .) (w)e can now return with our phallic power of technology into our birth canal.”

Neither I nor Kreeft are suggesting that modern technology is bad.  But our technological pride and idolatry of “progress” has led to a certain rape of nature.

Original Sin

What we tend to forget, however, is that this is merely one manifestation of a phenomenon that has been going on since the beginning of human history.  When the first human beings defied God and thus fell from grace, they brought a curse upon the earth.

The harmony in which (our first parents) had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.  (CCC 400 — bold added)

The Bible is very clear that humankind has dominion over the earth.  But this is not, was never, and never will be a dominion of selfish use.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

Animals (. . .) plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.

God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image.

(CCC 2415-2417 — bold added)

Ray WinstoneDarren Aronofsky, co-writer/director of “Noah,” gives us a key example of the opposite impulse — the one given rise to by the Fall of Adam and Eve — in Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone).  At one point, we see him grabbing a live animal and biting off its head; he defends his action by saying that God put mankind at the top of creation, and therefore all other creatures on this earth serve man.

The implication is that as masters, we can do whatever we want with the rest of creation, no matter the cost to it.

Noah_Steward

But again, this is not the Divine directive.  The true nature of man’s dominion over the earth is more clearly reflected in the lives of Noah (Russell Crowe) and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly).  Their family takes on the role of stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation.  They use only what they need, and they devote themselves to tending the earth and its creatures as they would the Garden of Eden.

Why am I talking about all of this?  Believe it or not, it’s not because today is Earth Day.  The timing of this post is fitting, but purely coincidental (at least as far as my intentions go; I can’t say that God did not, in His providence, have something to do with it).  Many Christians took issue with “Noah,” labeling it vegan propaganda and a mistreatment of God’s Word by imposing modern environmentalist ideas onto it.

I hope, however, that I have demonstrated the film’s portrayal of concern for creation to be, in fact, perfectly Biblical and authentically Christian.

If not…

Jrrt_lotr_cover_design …take a look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”…

Chronicles of Narnia…or at C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.”

Tolkien and Lewis were both deeply Christian and very much immersed in the Biblical worldview.  They saw the connection we have been exploring very clearly, and it comes across powerfully in their work.

Let’s end with a bottom line that goes back to the Kreeft quote: Sin is about making ourselves God; when we make ourselves God, we become selfish and domineering; when we become selfish and domineering, our fellow human beings and the world entrusted to our care suffer.

I do have a little bit more to say about this subject in relation to the movie “Noah.”  But in the interest of a certain kind of “stewardship” over my readers’ eyes and patience, I’ll wait ’till next time.

All “Noah” images other than film poster obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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Before I begin, I should make it clear that Easter begins, rather than ends, on Easter Sunday — despite what retailers might have us believe (no offense intended to people in retail).

Gnosticism

There is an ancient religious-philosophical system known as gnosticism.  In a nutshell, gnosticism espouses the following general principles:

1. Matter is evil.  The material world, including our physical bodies, is created and ruled by a demon called the Demiurge.

2. Gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”).  Certain people — a very select few — are selected to be “saved” by becoming spiritual through a hidden, infused knowledge.  When they die, their true inner selvestheir spiritual souls — will break free from the prison of their physical bodies, and they will fly away to a realm of pure spirit.

ManicheansA related school of thought was Manichaeism, which flourished for a little while in the Near East during the early A.D. period.  St. Augustine of Hippo was a member of this school of thought for a little while, before converting to Christianity.

In his great work “Confessions,” Augustine shares an important insight that he gained after his conversion:

(. . .) and with a sounder judgement I held that the higher (I presume that he meant spiritual) things are indeed better than the lower, but that all things together are better than the higher ones alone (“Confessions,” VII:xiv — John K. Ryan translation from Image Books)

What was it about Judeo-Christian revelation that would have led him to that insight?  Well, for one thing, there is the Genesis creation account, which speaks of how God created the material world in all its splendor, climaxing in the creation of mankind…body and soul.

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. (Gen. 1:31)

ResurrectionBut with the Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, this point is super-eminently reaffirmed.

With the Resurrection, any form of Gnostic dualism is definitively refuted.

With the Resurrection, God reaffirms the goodness of His creation, and especially of humankind.

With the Resurrection, the value of the human body as part of a person’s identity is radically reaffirmed.

With the Resurrection, the material world (to which the body is necessarily related) is not only– and not to be redundant — reaffirmed in its goodness, but, as Fr. Robert Barron says, “rais(ed) (…) up to a higher pitch.”*

Indeed, the Resurrection is the wellspring of renewal — not just for humanity but for all of creation, created good but damaged by sin.  And in Christ, God has seen fit to make us leaders in this great renewal.

That doesn’t mean that we will be able to build a perfect world here on earth, of course.  But as we prepare for that Final Day when Christ ushers in a new heavens and a new earth (Rev. 21:1), we must strive to spread the truly good and liberating news of the Divine Love and its definitive victory in all we say and do, bringing it to bear upon our everyday affairs and upon the things of this world.

Kind of makes Easter seem more exciting than images of bonnets and baskets, doesn’t it?

Images from Wikipedia

http://www.lentreflections.com/why-easter-matters/

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Holy Saturday

Today is the day Jesus Christ, having died in the flesh, descends into the realm of the dead to free the just who went before Him in expectation of their promised redemption.  With that in mind, I wanted to share an ancient homily by an anonymous author:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes into them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.” And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying:

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

Image from Wikipedia

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I went to see “Noah” with low expectations, and for reasons that had nothing to do with religion.

I find that many of today’s movies set in ancient times do not take themselves seriously enough; they seem more concerned with catering to franchises and to viewers with short attention spans than with telling stories.

Noah_Lamech“Noah” kind of started out that way.  We meet Noah as a young boy just coming of age.  His father passes on to him the responsibility of stewardship over God’s creation; we meet the story’s villains, the “Sons of Cain”; Noah’s father is killed, and young Noah is left on his own…and this all happens in the space of about two minutes (not just in terms of movie “run time,” but in the time elapsing in the scene itself).

But as the film progresses, we see more and deeper character development and greater depth of story…particularly towards the end.

Anyway, I was very pleasantly surprised by the film.  I’d like to talk about three things, in particular.

Let’s tackle the controversy first, so as to then move on to “meatier” subject matter.  The controversy surrounding co-writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s version of the Biblical account of Noah pertains mainly to his amplification of the story with material that is not in the Bible.

Charlton Heston_The Ten Commandments

I would point out that this isn’t the first time this has been done in cinema.  One of the most beloved Biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” is filled with extra-Biblical material.  The period of Moses’ life leading up to his encounter with God in the burning bush makes up only the first two chapters of the Book of Exodus, and leaves a lot of gaps.  And yet this part of Moses’ story comprises the first hour-and-a-half to two hours of “The Ten Commandments.”

MidrashAs Fr. Barron points out in his very insightful review, this type of approach to the stories of the Bible has its roots ancient Israel.  The midrashim were a collection of literary elaborations on Scriptural texts that are often scant in terms of story details, characterization, etc.  They often included not only elaborations of the texts themselves, but the introduction of new characters and subplots.  I would agree with Fr. Barron that Aronofsky’s film is a nothing other than a modern midrash on the story of Noah.

Watcher

The most obvious example is the incorporation of “the Watchers,” a group of rock-like creatures who protect Noah and his family from their enemies.  According to Aronofsky’s interpretation, these are fallen angels who were imprisoned within matter as a punishment for disobedience.  In the end, by helping Noah and his family, they find redemption.

I can see why this part of the story would trouble people, only because its conception of the nature of angels is problematic at best.  But the mere fact that these rock-creatures are in the story is not, in itself, a cause for concern.  It is a “midrashic” element of storytelling with which the ancient Hebrews would undoubtedly have been familiar.

In my humble opinion, far from being an affront to God and to His inspired word, midrashic storytelling is a sign of the Divine Generosity.  Having created humankind in His image, He allows human storytellers to use their imaginations to fill in whatever spaces He has left in Scriptural narratives.  The one caveat is that any embellishment must be true to the core messages of the text, without either adding to or taking away from what God is trying to tell us through them…

…which brings me to the next aspect of the film I want to touch on: The ecological element.

Next time.

Midrash image from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search

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This is Valentina Lisitsa playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2, Movements 1, 2, 3.

Keep in mind that Beethoven was considering suicide at the time during which he wrote this song.  Facing his slowly approaching deafness, he sank into despair and depression.  He later credited his music for preventing his suicide.

Indeed, the power of art — both for the artist who pours his/her soul into it, and for the recipient whose soul it touches — can be inestimable.

By the way, if you have about an hour and a half — or would like to listen over time, in pieces — here is a great audio presentation on the nature and history of the imagination (which embraces art, music, literature, etc.):

http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/22_cslewis_imagination.htm

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We are a few episodes into ABC’s new drama “Resurrection.”  For those of you who haven’t seen it, I’ll summarize briefly: It is set in the town of Arcadia, Missouri, the residents of which suddenly find their deceased loved ones returning from the dead.

Thus far, we have met only one of them (possibly three, but that’s another story) — 8-year-old Jacob Langston (Landon Gimenez), who drowned in a nearby river 32 years ago.  Inexplicably, he wakes up in the middle of what appears to be rice field in China; once Jacob is repatriated back to the U.S., Agent J. Martin Bellamy (Omar Epps) is charged with taking him home.  Expecting a chauffeur job that will be done in a day, he is drawn into a mystery that will turn an entire community on its head.

It’s very interesting that in this show, the deceased return neither as disembodied spirits nor as “dis-ensouled” bodies (a.k.a. zombies); rather, they return to their loved ones just as they were before they died.

Color me over-analytical, but I think this resonates with us because of something deeply held in the human psyche for thousands and thousands of years.  We may be surprised to learn how closely the notion of immortality was linked with the body in the ancient world.  Most cultures believed in an afterlife of sorts, but for the most part this consisted of a sort of shadowy half-existence to which some mysterious remnant of the person went after bodily death.

AbrahamFor the early Hebrews, belief in a personal afterlife was not widespread…if it was there at all.  As we see exemplified in the story of Abraham, a man was thought to achieve immortality through his progeny.  A child, a parent’s own “flesh and blood,” was how one lived on after death.

LazarusBy the time of Jesus Christ, a belief in personal immortality had developed in Israel — and so had the belief in bodily resurrection at the end of time.  The Jews had the understanding that the body was not a mere “shell,” but expressive of the person; the separation of the soul and body was precisely what death was.  And so, the resurrection of the body would have been essential to the notion of personal immortality and the defeat of death.

And then when Jesus came to preach the kingdom to the world, one of the chiefest ways in which He showed His divine power was by raising people bodily from the dead.

07RESURRECTION-master675-v2I’m not saying that God is the One bringing people back in “Resurrection,” in the minds of the show’s creators.  The source of these resurrections is not clear, and in fact there are already some suggestions that perhaps what’s really going on is not what it seems.  My point is that when the community is confronted with a phenomenon that they clearly cannot explain, something that is most obviously bigger than any of the categories within which they live — in other words, when there is the hint of a miracle in their midst…well, to a few — like Joshua’s mother, Lucille (Frances Fisher) — this is a comfort.  But to most, it is a stumbling block.

Surely, they may comfort themselves with the thought of their deceased loved ones being in an ethereal “better place.”  But when they seem to have been brought back to them in the flesh, this confronts them with something greater than themselves in a way that is more real than the vague spirituality they may be used to.

MARK HILDRETH

Pastor Tom Hale (Mark Hildreth), a childhood friend of Jacob’s, is unsure what to make of his long-lost friend’s apparent resurrection.  At one point, he says to his wife, “I’ve spent the past 10 years preaching the miracles of God, and now that there is one right in front of me I can’t believe it.”

Even more telling is a later scene in the same episode, in which he is giving a sermon to his congregation.  We can see that he is in his element here; he speaks with great passion and conviction.

In come Lucille and Jacob, and at that point he freezes.  He is overcome with emotion and confusion, unable to speak.  This shouldn’t suggest to us that he didn’t believe in what he preached before.  But this personal confrontation with the miraculous has clearly taken things to a whole new level.

When I saw this, I was reminded of the following quote from C.S. Lewis:

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone.  “Look out!” we cry, “It’s alive.”  And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–I would have done so myself if I could–and proceed no further with Christianity.  An “impersonal God”–well and good.  A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–better still.  A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap–best of all.  But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband–that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall?  There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back.  Supposing we really found Him?  We never meant it to come to that!  Worse still, supposing He had found us?

– From the book “Miracles” (as quoted in “Jesus Shock” by Peter Kreeft)

Ultimately, an encounter with resurrection is an encounter with Christ.  In His glorified Resurrection, a Resurrection which admits of no further death, we find the very principle of our own resurrection.

So these are my thoughts for the time being.  If you haven’t seen the show, check it out.  It’s quite interesting.

Images from Wikipedia

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