Sunday, January 27, 2013

God as Father

Monday is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas. This reminds me to share something from his compendium of Summa Theologica that helps to explain God as Father.

God is pure spirit and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear that He has no gender in paragraph 239, “We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God.” One might conclude that there is no particular reason to call God Father other than our own sexist bias. Why not say “Mother”, “Divine Parent”, “Great Spirit” or “The Big Man Upstairs”?

Whenever I hear some refer to God as “The Big Man Upstairs” there seems to be a strong correlation between that title and a deficient (or non-existent) relationship with God.

I’ve heard it said that the reason we should call God Father is simply because Jesus called Him Father and we should follow suit. I suppose this is a reason, but it leaves me uninspired. Inspiration (for me) comes from reading St. Thomas Aquinas, and of course, other theologians who help explain Aquinas.
Before getting to Aquinas we can first step into some High Christology from John’s Gospel where we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). We also read, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). From here we can make some distinction between a word and an idea or a thought. Physical words are meant to express some other “thing”, idea or thought. The Word of God as described in John’s gospel is not a physical vibration from vocal cords formed by the mouth, tongue and lips; a thing of the air. We might say the Word of God is more like the “thought” of God.
We also should make a distinction between the thought and the thinker. If you were to think of yourself, you would have some imperfect image of yourself in your mind. If God were to contemplate Himself, there would be no deficiency in it; this would be a perfect thought or perfect image, or God himself. Going back to the beginning of John’s gospel, it can be helpful to use “thought” in place of “word”, so we would have, “In the beginning was the Thought, and the Thought was with God, and the Thought was God.”, “And the Thought became flesh (God incarnate), and dwelt among us,…”
What do these seemingly useless mental gymnastics have to do with St. Thomas? Chapter thirty-nine of his compendium of theology is entitled Relation of the Word to the Father. Aquinas relates a thought in the mind as a kind of offspring of the intellect when he says, “What is conceived in the intellect is a likeness of the thing understood and represents its species; and so it seems to be a sort of offspring of the intellect”. The intellect itself can resemble a mother, whose function is such that conception takes place in her. The thing thought about resembles a father since it acts on the intellect to make an offspring, which is the idea or thought.
Ø  An object, let’s say a bird, acts on the human intellect through sensory input from the sight, sound, smell, (taste?), and touch of a bird.

Ø  The bird flies away, but the idea of the bird conceived in the intellect remains as an imperfect image of the bird.

Ø  The image of the bird is a product (offspring if you will) of both the intellect and the bird itself.

Therefore, if the thing being thought of is God, it is God acting on the intellect resembling a father, so to speak. Now if God’s intellect were to contemplate and understand Himself, the thought conceived would be a perfect image of God better known to us as the second person of the trinity (the Word was God). Therefore, the thought, or the Word, or Jesus relates to God as a Son relates to a Father.

Although God has no gender, Father is the most reasonable term for us to use considering the logic above along with the kind of close family relationship God wants with us. The nature of God, the wisdom of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas all come together to give us a whole new perspective on that modern-day phrase…“Who’s Your Daddy?”

Saturday, January 12, 2013

To Know Christ Jesus – The Later Years

As you last recall, I recently finished a book called “To Know Christ Jesus” by theologian Frank Sheed. The book goes through the entire life of Jesus offering analysis you may not have run across in other literature, or heard in a typical Sunday homily. The last post highlighted some insights from the first thirty years of Christ’s life; this post will cover some things from the last three. Consider that this could be of immense use to you the next time you’re stuck in a game of Christian trivia, so here we go.

Ø  The public life of Jesus starts after the wedding at Cana. What were the very last words of Mary in the gospels? At Cana she says, “Do whatever he tells you.” If there must be last words from Our Lady, what could be more appropriate?
Ø  What really drove out the moneychangers during the cleansing of the temple in the second chapter of John’s gospel? Jesus was of average stature and He was “cleansing” with a whip made of ropes. It’s not like Jesus was 6’5” and 300 pounds. He did not have a knife, sword or spear. He was a carpenter, not a professional whip maker and there is no indication that His followers jumped-in to help. If buying and selling at the temple was a significant part of my livelihood, I might have grabbed a few friends and said, “Let’s take this guy out before he gets to our tables!”, but this was not the case.
What made the moneychangers scatter? Sheed suggests there must have been something in His manner as God that they could not stand against. Perhaps it was the blaze from God’s own eyes burning a fiery condemnation upon them.
Ø  What was the first record of Jesus saying He was the Christ? The woman at the well says, “I know the Messiah is coming” and the Lord answers, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (John 4:26). He had always avoided this direct statement until now. It is startling that this is first revealed by Him to a Samaritan, and a woman.
Ø  What was the most astonishing phrase to ever come from Jewish lips? After the beatitudes Jesus speaks of the law. “Moses said……, but I SAY to you”. This was unspeakable arrogance or madness, or – what? To make this sort of claim and not be stoned to death would indeed take a miracle worker.
Ø  What were the first words of kindness we hear from Jesus? When Peter tells the Lord to depart from him because he was a sinful man, the Lord replies, “Fear not” (see Luke 5:8-10). Peter did not know at the time that the more you were a sinner; the more you needed Jesus. It reminded me of JPII’s “be not afraid”.
Ø  What did Jesus do just before choosing the twelve Apostles? He spent the entire night in prayer (see Luke 6:12-16). Seems appropriate given the indescribable amount of permanent authority He would pass on to them.
Ø  What was the curious request of Jesus from the demons of Legion? “And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss” (Luke 8:31). Sheed speculates that demons not only torment humans, but may also torment each other, to the point where some would prefer the company of pigs to the company of other demons in the “Abyss”. It reminded me of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis when the older demon, Uncle Screwtape, was getting frustrated with the younger demon, Wormwood.

The case in which our Lord says of a demon, “This kind cannot be cast out, but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29) seems to confirm a higher and lower level of demonic power, yet even the highest fall subject to those who totally subject themselves to God.

Ø  What was the only miracle of Jesus to appear in all four Gospels? The feeding of the five thousand. Sheed remarks that the Gospels do not state that the loaves were first multiplied and then passes out; it was more the presence of the loaves that was somehow multiplied. Multi-LOCATION of loaves might be a more precise term than multiplication of loaves. This reminded me of the Eucharist as being more of a Multi-LOCATION of Jesus instead of a multiplication of Jesus.
Ø  For those who think the bread of life discourse is figurative language, Sheed mentions that figures of speech are used to make obscure ideas more clear. Eating flesh and drinking blood would be monstrous examples of figures of speech, and would NOT help to make things more clear. Jesus was not known for this kind of bizarre figurative teaching.
Ø  Why did Jesus seem so harsh to those that would not accept Him? “For unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). To those who truly want to do God’s will, the grace to accept Him would have been given. Remember that Jesus could read the heart. The failure to accept was sure proof to Jesus that they desired their own will, not God’s. His harshness was reserved for those who had set their will against his Father’s.
Ø  When was the only time the invitation from Jesus to “follow me” was refused? The rich young man went away sad in Luke 18, Mark 10 & Mat 19. Jesus must have been sad too.
Ø  Who was the only character in all the parables of Jesus to have a name? Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31). The name means “God has helped”.
Ø  One more piece of evidence that Satan is not omniscient is in Luke 22:3, when he entered into Judas, which ultimately led to the crucifixion of Jesus. Satan helping to bring about the death of Jesus, and thereby his own destruction, demonstrates a startling misjudgment on his part.
Ø  On the cross, Jesus says to His mother, “Woman, behold your son” and to John, “Behold you mother”. This is not merely a domestic arrangement. If He chose to say it at this time it must be a part of the redemptive process. John went on to live with Mary and one can only imagine the dinner conversation in that house and how much they must have learned from each other, but we would suspect John learned more from Mary by virtue of her immaculate intellect. John’s gospel is said to be of “High Christology”; since he spent so much time with Mary, it would be strange if it were otherwise.
Ø  For those who hold that the resurrection of Christ is a myth, Sheed points out that a myth-maker would surly elaborate on a spectacular emergence from the tomb, but there is not a word about it in the Gospels. The angel had rolled away the stone, but this was not to let Him out, but to let others in. His resurrected body would have been able to pass through a sealed tomb just like He passed through a locked door in the upper room later on. This is a body wholly subject to the soul, to which the matter of our world was no longer a hindrance. The glorified body was not even at the mercy of men’s eyes, since many did not recognize Him unless He willed it.
Ø  When is the first and only time we hear Jesus addressed as God? When doubting Thomas believes and says, “My lord and my God”.
There are many other such reflections in the book not mentioned here, but I’d like to end with a direct quote that relates to the very blueprint of the Church and The Great Commission. “Catholicity is in it, for catholic means universal, a word which brings together the two ideas of “all” and “one”. Here is the threefold “all” – all nations, all teaching, all days – brought into “one” – in Him”.

Monday, January 7, 2013

To Know Christ Jesus – The Early Years

Frank J. Sheed
1897 - 1981
I recently finished a book called “To Know Christ Jesus” by theologian Frank Sheed. Is there a better way to end the old year and start the new than getting to know Christ Jesus better? The book goes through the entire life of Jesus using all of the gospels in a chronological kind of way and this author has tendency to mention what is obvious, and yet not so obvious; you’ll see what I mean. It’s like someone giving you a tour of the life of Jesus, pointing-out things along the way that you did not notice or consider on other expeditions.

As a result one can get better at Christian trivia all the way from alpha to omega, so why not share for learning and for fun. Here are some insights, considerations and reflections from the life of Christ in the early years that might be new to you. Since this blog is geared a bit toward men and men are simple creatures, I often like to use bullet points and pictures.
Ø  Between the betrothal and a wife’s entry into her husband’s house, the marriage act was not customary among the Jews, but if it did take place, it was NOT sinful and a child born of it was legitimate. Only Josephs’ word of not being the father would have brought shame to Mary. All he needed to do was to trust God and take Mary as his wife.
Ø  What was the first wedding Christ was present at? Cana? No; the wedding of Joseph & Mary; He was already conceived and therefore present. No royal wedding had ever had a glory to compare with that. Today the poorest Catholic can have the same presence within the context of a nuptial Mass.
Ø  Mary had three months to spend at the house of Zechariah & Elizabeth, and Zechariah would have had access to the scriptures since he was a priest. In light of the supernatural events they had experienced in regard to the conception of their two children (Jesus & John the Baptist), never had three people better reason to carefully study the scriptures together. Imagine being a fly on the wall during that Bible study!
Ø  One more piece of evidence that Mary was not just “anybody”. She is the only person, human or divine, that can say to God the Father, “Your son and mine”.
Ø  Who were the ONLY ones who died to save Jesus from men who would slay Him? On Dec 28th we celebrate the feast of Holy Innocents; the boys slaughtered by Herod right after Christ was born. Sheed estimates that this would have been about 20-30 children given the size of Bethlehem. Sadly, this immediately reminded me of the 20 innocent children slaughtered in Newtown, CT also around Christmas time.
Ø  At age six Jewish boys began school. His school teacher was spared one difficulty His parents may have felt. No doubt the boy Jesus was a good student, but the teacher would not have known there was anything special about the boy or what the angel Gabriel said to His mother. It would have been a difficult secret to keep for so many years.
Ø  Imagine the boy Jesus reading the Old Testament, learning about the Messiah. It is hard to think the He did not discuss any of it with His parents as children would do. Imagine the dinner conversations! Once again, I envy the fly on the wall.

Ø  Thirty years old and not married? Men of Palestine usually married around age 20. Fathers of eligible daughters in the area must have weighed Him up and found Him more than worthy. Many must have wondered why He was not married by now, but His mother knew. It was probably the only peculiar thing about Him at the time.
Ø  To what human person did Jesus give the most praise? John the Baptist. “Among those born of women there is none greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Baptism was not something John had invented; almost all the main pagan religions had something like it as a way of spiritual cleansing. So what was special about John’s Baptism? Part of it was the insistence that the individual confess his own sinfulness.
Ø  Why did Jesus wish to be baptized if it was about confessing sins? The second thing Jesus says in all the gospels, after the incident at the temple when he was twelve, was “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mathew 3:15). It may have simply been because He saw John’s ministry and Baptism as a high point of the Old Testament and as a Jew, wished to submit Himself to it before proceeding to establish a new order.

Ø  After the baptism of Jesus, Sheed points out many interesting things about the duel in the desert between Jesus and Satan. The author reminds his readers that we humans do not have a fraction of the power and intellect of Satan, so he must have known that Jesus would probably not have fallen into his trap. Even we mere mortals get the feeling that if the goal was to get Jesus to sin, Satan could have done a better job.

So what might have been the real goal? Satan has a powerful intellect to be sure, but he is NOT all-knowing like God, so he may not have known exactly who Jesus was, nor had a clear understanding of the Trinity. Sheed suggests the real purpose of the temptation in the desert was to “study” Jesus, to learn more about Jesus through his answers and reactions, but Jesus would have known the real goal and left him frustrated, never giving any clear indication about who He was.

The early years covers about thirty years and the later only covers about three. I’ll continue with more insights from the later years in my next post. The baptism of Jesus is the luminous mystery that leads us to the proclamation of the kingdom of God on earth, a kingdom which requires a profound spiritual change from within to make possible. This would be the main theme behind all the teachings of Jesus in His public life in the last three years.