Theological Reflection: Funerals

Last month, I had the honor of assisting at two funeral liturgies only days apart. That in itself would not be so unusual; we have had many funerals since I arrived here in August. What makes this particular sequence of funerals stand out in my memory is the vastly different circumstances of the deceased. The first was a boy less than six months old whose parents awoke one morning to find him lying dead in his crib. The family were heartbroken, the parents inconsolable. Since no one in the family felt up to the task of reading during that liturgy, I proclaimed these words from the Wisdom of Solomon, which have remained in my heart:

The righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years … The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported—snatched away … Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.1

Wisdom 4:7-14

My pastor admitted during his homily that he did not have the words to take away their pain, when all they wanted was to hold their child in their arms again. All that he could give them was the assurance that God is greater than death. This he indeed proclaimed, and then fell silent. The last thing I remember is standing beside him for a long time in silence as the men and boys took turns, one by one, shoveling dirt into his open grave.

The second funeral was for a woman who had just surpassed her hundredth birthday. Our church was packed with her relatives, down to the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren, and they all congregated afterwards in front of the church, the kids eating cookies and playing, the adults swapping stories amid hugs and tearful smiles.

It would be hard to imagine two more different funerals! Though the liturgy was substantially the same, the fundamental difference is that the family in the latter case had many years to spend with the deceased. They felt that she had lived a long life and a good one. In the former, they felt that their child’s life had been cut short almost before it had begun; they mourned not only for him but for the future they had hoped to see, the years and memories that would never be. What can soothe a grief as enormous as that? I am sure my pastor was right in admitting that words could never be enough. As he also told me as we left the cemetery, the family would probably not remember the words we had said at all. They would, however, remember that we were there, and that we stayed.

It is only natural that the funeral of a hundred year old mother of many generations would be celebrated with more festivity, with sorrow interpenetrated with joy and laughter, than the unexpected, inconceivable funeral of a little baby. Yet the wisdom of that first reading is profound. Though they may not have been capable of receiving it then, I hope that the family do remember those words, for there is consolation and power in them: “The age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, understanding passes for gray hair, and an unsullied life is the attainment of old age” (Wis 4:8-9).

The Lord measures out a span of days for each one of us—“seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone” (Ps 90:10). When a life comes to an end, our human tendency is to judge it by its length, by their accomplishments, by the number of their descendants and the memories they made with those who survive them. We mourn the more bitterly for those who die early with none of these. But our prayer must be that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). Counting our days aright means, in part, judging the real value of our human lives from God’s perspective, who is unimpressed by our accomplishments or length of days. The real value of a life is that the one who lived was a child of God, His beloved, who loved Him in return as best they could. Thus our Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook teaches that

Holy Mother Church, who … generates to a new and immortal life the children who are born to her in Baptism, and nourishes them by the sacraments during their earthly pilgrimage, accompanies each of them at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him ‘into the Father’s hands.’ She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.2

When we die, all that matters is that the one who came from God is returning to Him. We, the Church, pray that the holy angels speed them on their way, that the Father receives them with joy, and that, “even if final purifications are still necessary in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment of eternal joy and salvation,”3 they will soon partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we hope to be reunited with them for all eternity.

As a priest, I hope to follow my pastor’s good example of keeping silent watch in moments of such extreme suffering and tribulation, being present with those who are in suffering and having the self-awareness to realize that many words will do more harm than good. At the same time, I hope to follow his example in simply and boldly announcing our faith that God is greater than death. And I hope to keep close to my heart and at the forefront of my mind—and to share it with those who grieve the loss of a loved one, when the time is right—that the value of each of our lives is determined not by our length of days or any of our accomplishments, but by the infinite love of God.


Footnotes

  1. New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2010).
  2. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 14.1.1.
  3. ALH, 14.1.2.

Theological Reflection: Sacrament of the Sick

Since the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has undergone a remarkable development in practice. Where once it was only given only to those members of “the faithful who … from infirmity or old age become in danger of death,”1 the Church, by means of this sacrament, now “commends to the suffering and glorified Lord the faithful who are dangerously ill [periculose aegrotantes] so that he may support and save them.”2 The specific reference to the danger of death in the 1917 Code is conspicuous by its absence from the 1983 Code. This change, in fact, as well as the change in the very name of the sacrament from Extreme Unction (or ‘final anointing’) to the Anointing of the Sick, was made “in an endeavour to make it clear that it ‘is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death,’”3 but for “any man sick among you” (Jas 5:14) whose illness is serious.

By extending the gift of this Sacrament to more of Christ’s faithful who are in suffering, including those with chronic illnesses and even mental illnesses which constitute a real share in the Cross, even though they may not place them in immediate danger of death, the Church implicitly acknowledges the dignity and the particular “vocation of the sick.”4 Indeed, “the sick, especially the chronically ill, share in the Church’s life and mission … United to Christ, the baptized and confirmed ‘sick person is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive passion.’”5 The Sacrament of Anointing is not only the means by which the Church intercedes for her suffering son or daughter to receive strength and healing, though it is certainly that; it also renews and deepens the sick person’s union with the suffering Christ, that they might “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24 DRA) by their own bodily participation in His redemptive Passion. Therefore the Church consoles the sick that their “sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.”6 

This affirmation of the dignity of the sick and of their participation in the Church’s mission precisely by means of their sickness is of critical importance in increasingly decadent, secular Western societies such as ours, which, through the habitual and legal practice of euthanasia, tacitly deny the value of suffering and degrade the dignity of the sick and aged. Often those who are chronically ill or disabled, particularly the elderly, can fall into depression and despair. They may feel that their life is as good as over, that they no longer have any role to play or any meaningful impact to make in the world. Against such diabolic lies, the Church insists with a mother’s solicitude that the sick may yet “contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ,”7 in particular “to offer their sufferings for missionaries,” by which offering “the sick themselves become missionaries!”8 Rather than only marking the end of a Christian’s pilgrimage through life and sending him on his final journey to the heavenly homeland, the Anointing of the Sick now serves to fortify and exhort a Christian soul in suffering to do their part in the battle for the world’s salvation, a part which they are uniquely suited to play: “Some work of noble note may yet be done.”9


Footnotes

  1. “Fideles qui … ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo mortis versetur.” Code of Canon Law/1917, c. 940, in Codex iuris canonici 1917, at Biblia Clerus, http://www.clerus.org. Translation mine.
  2. Code of Canon Law, c. 998, in Code of Canon Law Annotated (Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, 2004), 764.
  3. Code of Canon Law Annotated, 764. Inner quote is from Paul VI, Sacrosanctum concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (December 4, 1963), 73.
  4. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 12.1.7.
  5. ALH, 12.1.6. Inner quote is from Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1521; cf. also CCC 1294, 1523.
  6. Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, trans. and ed. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1983), 1.
  7. ALH, 12.1.5.
  8. John Paul II, qtd. in S. de Boer, “The Collective Anointing of the Weak,” Questions liturgiques 76 (1995), 74.
  9. Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses,” 52, at poets.org.

Theological Reflection: Confession

This week, I was approached by a woman at the RCIA who wanted to go to confession right away. Although she did not specify the reason (and of course I did not ask), I surmised that she had felt convicted by what we had been studying in the course of the lesson, and the gentle action of the Holy Spirit had moved her heart to repent and seek reconciliation with God and the Church. When she learned that I was unable to hear her confession right then and there, she asked me to help her make an appointment with the pastor at the earliest available time. 

The urgency of her desire to repent and be reconciled to God made an impression on me. In fact, just the day before, I had been in a similar position, feeling convicted by my conscience of a grave sin and in need of repentance and absolution. Because I am a seminarian and have personal connections with various priests in the vicariate, I was able to text a priest friend, drive out to his parish, go to confession that same hour, and stay for dinner. This woman felt the same compunction of heart, but did not have the luxury I did of such easy access to the sacrament of the Lord’s forgiveness. Although I could have passed her off to the parish office to make an appointment through the usual channels, I went to some extra effort as an intermediary working on her behalf to get her on the pastor’s schedule as soon as possible, following the pastor’s own advice: “Being pastoral means ‘more work for me.’”

This encounter highlighted for me the profound connection between the Sacrament of Penance and the overall process of conversion for candidates, such as this woman, who have previously been baptized in a non-Catholic ecclesial community. To be sure, the guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland state that “in preparation for reception and completion of sacramental Initiation, and at a time prior to and distinct from the Rite of Reception, [such] candidates, according to their own consciences, should receive the Sacrament of Penance,” since this sacrament “provides grace and help to continuing conversion.”1 The same guidelines indicate that “it is fitting that such candidates celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in a communal setting with other members of the Catholic community, especially during Lent,” which is in fact a normal and scheduled part of RCIA every year in our parish, although “it is also possible to arrange a communal celebration specifically for the candidates, or to allow them to approach the sacrament privately.”2 

To my mind, it seems pastorally desirable to make the latter option as freely available as possible to such candidates. This woman had the courage to approach me and make an appointment, but there may be others who are afraid to do so, or are perhaps unaware that they can even go to confession before they are formally received into the Church. Therefore, as a priest, I would like to let the candidates for RCIA know from day one that if they are baptized, they are invited to approach the Sacrament of Penance at any time. They are free to come to the regularly scheduled confession times of the parish or to approach me any time they see me and ask for a “quick confession.” I would make it my promise to them (and the parish as a whole) that, unless I am directly on my way to a sick call or a meeting, etc., I will always honor those requests. Furthermore, I would make it my goal to be present at the RCIA nights as often as I can, every week if possible, precisely to be available for such requests. (My pastor has been good at being present, but he was not there that night; if he had been, I’m sure he would have heard this woman’s confession on the spot!) It may be more work for me, but it will mean a lot to them. 


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 6.36.4. Cf. Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (1988),482; National Statues for the Catechumenate (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986), no. 36; Code of Canon Law, cann. 844 §4, 959.
  2. ALH, 6.36.5.

Theological Reflection: Holy Matrimony

When I told my pastor last week that we were doing a module on matrimony, he shared with me about a delicate issue which often comes up in his work preparing couples for marriage. Cohabitation is not only extremely widespread in our day and age, among Catholics as well as non-believers; it is commonly understood in the secular culture to be the “responsible choice,” a prudent way to test your compatibility with your partner in the close quarters of common life, a kind of trial run before “tying the knot.” Most young people of my own generation would not dream of getting married without first having lived together as a couple. Father Nelson remarked that he often struggles to know exactly what to say to these couples, who come in good faith asking to be married in the Church, yet who have sometimes already been living together for months or years. The pastoral judgment required is whether to insist that the couple separate, at the risk of driving them away, or allow them to continue living together (emphasizing the need for them to live as brother and sister in perfect continence) and risk their falling into grave sin, as well as jeopardizing the future health and longevity of their marriage.

Although cohabitation per se is not a sin, Father Nelson mentioned that couples who live together before their wedding day may be less free in giving their consent to the marriage as a result of their cohabitation. Even if they live together chastely, the lives of a couple cohabiting before marriage necessarily become more “entangled.” They have the same residence; they share common possessions, and perhaps finances and debts. There may be a concern on the part of one or the other party of where they will live or how they will get by financially if the relationship should fail. It is, moreover, a matter of fact that most cohabiting couples are also fornicating couples (the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults actually defines cohabitation as “involv[ing] the serious sin of fornication”1) and that “many children are born to these relationships, which are not founded on a permanent commitment.”2 All these factors and more can weigh on the minds and hearts of the cohabiting couple and tip the scales of their discernment toward marriage, such that one or both may no longer find themselves entering into the matrimonial covenant in utter freedom. 

Their prior living situation would also appear to shift the meaning of the sacrament from the beginning of a new life together as husband and wife to the mere “ratification” or “blessing” of an existing de facto union. Our Holy Father of happy memory, Saint John Paul II, stressed the following “basic principle: in order to be real and free conjugal love, love must be transformed into one that is due in justice through the free act of marital consent.3 Apart from the risk of diminished freedom, which can put the validity of the marriage itself in doubt down the line, another subjective danger to the cohabiting couple is that the habits of mind they will have undoubtedly formed during their time cohabiting before marriage will then carry over into their married life as husband and wife, blurring “the essential difference between a mere de facto union—even though it claims to be based on love—and marriage, in which love is expressed in a commitment that is not only moral but rigorously juridical.”4 An unmarried couple living together are free to separate at any time if the relationship becomes difficult or inconvenient (albeit to the great psychological harm of the abandoned spouse and any children of the union5). Human nature being what it is, the couple who have become habituated during their period of cohabitation to thinking “in the back of their minds that if things become really difficult, they can always go their separate ways”6 are naturally more likely to divorce.

If a cohabiting couple came to me as a priest for marriage preparation, I would apply the official pastoral guidelines of the Archdiocese of Portland: “Absent children, [cohabiting] couples should ready themselves for marriage by a time of domestic separation. Where a cohabiting couple already has children, the good of the young may require the couple to remain living together, but in chastity and continence.”8 If there are other special circumstances which make separation difficult or impossible in a particular case, I would allow them to continue living together (as brother and sister) as they prepare for marriage, but this would be exceptional. In general, I would require them to separate. I would take special care to impress upon all such couples (1) the need to be able to give their utterly free consent to the marriage and (2) the reality that, once married, their relationship will be permanently and essentially different. To this end, I would lead them through an examination of conscience to help them see if anything about their living situation is placing undue pressure on one or both of them to marry. I would also tell them unequivocally that cohabitation is by no means a kind of “trial marriage,” but a poor facsimile of married life which, far from preparing them well for their future as a couple, tends to set a couple up for future failure. I would tell them the best thing they can do for their marriage is to separate and “practice chastity until they are sacramentally or canonically married. They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible — and this fasting from sexual intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together.”9


Footnotes

  1. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 410, at https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/uscca/files/assets/basic-html/page-438.html.
  2. Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon” (May 4, 2017), 6, at https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/14211/documents/2017/5/050417%20AL%20Guidelines%20with%20Letter.pdf.
  3. Pontifical Council for the Family, “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions” (July 26, 2000), §22, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_20001109_de-facto-unions_en.html.
  4. John Paul II, “Discourse to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota” (January 2, 1999), qtd. in “Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions,” §22.
  5. Cf. Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D., “The pope seems to be missing the real dangers of cohabitation. It’s time for the Church to get serious” (November 18, 2016) at LifeSiteNews, https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/cohabitation-unions-a-risk-to-marriage-adults-and-children.
  6. Kansas Catholic Conference, “A Better Way: A Pastoral Letter to the People of God in the Province of Kansas Addressing Cohabitation before Marriage” (June 4, 1998), ed. Damian Lenshek, 8, at https://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/cis/cis308.pdf.
  7. According to a study reported in American Family Association Journal, July 1993, couples who cohabited before marriage had a 50 percent higher chance of divorce than couples who did not cohabitate.
  8. Sample, “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” 7.
  9. Ibid.

Theological Reflection: Confirmation & Holy Communion

In the Liturgical Handbook of the Archdiocese of Portland, great care is taken to emphasize the unity of the sacraments of initiation. For example, our parishes are instructed that “in teachings, discussions, and publications regarding First Holy Communion, it must always be clear that the candidates are, by Baptism, already members of the Body of Christ and living in communion with the Lord. They are to be welcomed into full Eucharist sharing,”1 which, as the Catechism teaches, “completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.”2 The First Holy Communion of children or new converts is to be understood as the crowning glory of their Christian initiation: the grace given in baptism, brought to “completion” in Confirmation3 and restored in the Sacrament of Penance4 is all for the sake of that “communion in the divine life”5 given in the Most Holy Eucharist.

Last weekend, I was able to participate in a Mass at which three of our young parishioners received the Sacrament of Confirmation. They were the last of this year’s cohort of confirmandi, who have been receiving the sacrament in groups of two and three at various Masses (to avoid large gatherings) since the spring. Closer to Advent now than Easter, I joked with them that they were coming in awfully late in the game! Later, however, after reading Mr. Clark’s comments about the restored order of the sacraments of initiation practiced in the Diocese of Honolulu, I reflected that all of our confirmandi come in rather “late in the game.” In the Archdiocese of Portland, children are to be enrolled in catechetical programs preparing for their First Communion “when they approach the age of reason,”6 which is understood to be at “the completion of the seventh year,”7 while “young Catholics who were baptized as infants are confirmed in the freshman or sophomore years in high school.”8 In practice, this means that our young people receive Holy Communion at age seven and Confirmation around age fourteen or fifteen – some seven or eight years later! 

The great delay seems to contradict the logic, described in the above quoted passages, by which Christian initiation presses on from one’s Baptism as an infant through Confirmation, by which the baptismal grace is completed, toward the sacramental union of one’s First Holy Communion, the telos and climax of the whole process. When I brought this up with him, my pastor commented that Confirmation is sometimes treated as a “carrot,” a prize which can be dangled in front of parents to entice them to bring their children back to Mass and enroll them again in religious education classes. Sometimes, he said, the families disappear after their children’s First Communion and we don’t see them again until Confirmation. There is a fear that if we were to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation practiced in the early Church, with Confirmation preceding First Communion, those families would never come back again! 

Apart from the questionable practice of withholding the graces of the sacraments from young people who need them in an effort to manipulate their parents into coming to Mass (if this is in fact the motivation of some), I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for these families’ disappearance in the first place might not be our own inconsistent sacramental logic. By and large, the Christian faithful understand the supreme importance of Holy Communion. When their children are admitted to Communion at age seven, but Confirmation is delayed until almost a decade later, they may wonder how important Confirmation really is. Taken out from its natural place leading up to and preparing for Communion, it seems a bit like a vestigial organ, of uncertain necessity. This may lead to the invention of new meanings for the sacrament in an effort to justify its continued importance, such as “marking the ‘coming of age’ of a candidate,”9 an interpretation which the Archdiocese has lately condemned.

The decision to restore or not to restore the ancient order is entirely up to the Archbishop. I know he has discussed it with his Presbyteral Council. As a priest, however, I can be mindful about teaching the people in my sacramental preparation programs about the ancient order of the sacraments, the essential unity of the three sacraments of initation, why we presently celebrate Holy Communion “out of order” (due to Pope Pius X’s desire for children to receive Communion at an earlier age), and why Confirmation is still necessary even after First Communion for the completion of baptismal grace. I also want to be careful never to treat Confirmation as a “carrot,” as my pastor said. If families are disappearing from Mass after their children receive their sacraments, then I want to visit them, like a good father, and ask them what happened. If we have an epidemic of disappearing families, then there are surely urgent problems in the liturgy, catechesis, adult faith formation, or the life of the community which need to be addressed and reformed. 


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 10.12.2.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1322.
  3. “Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace” (ALH, 9.1.4). Cf. also CCC, 1285.
  4. “This sacrament [Penance] is rooted in baptismal grace and leads toward complete reconciliation in the Eucharist” (ALH, 10.11.10).
  5. CCC, 1325.
  6. ALH, 10.10.4.
  7. ALH, 10.6.2.
  8. ALH, 9.8.6.
  9. ALH, 9.1.5.

Theological Reflection: Baptism

This morning at St. Mary’s, we celebrated the rebirth of three infants by water and the Holy Spirit. The ceremonies of Baptism were celebrated beautifully and with great joy by the families and their loved ones in attendance. Among the many splendid rites, I was especially struck today by the anointing with chrism upon the newly baptized infants’ heads. At once, the fragrance of the chrism seemed to fill the church and, since I was carrying the jar of oil and the cotton balls used by the priest for the anointing, lingered also on my hands for hours after. One child had been crying frantically since the water was poured over her head, but when she was anointed with the chrism, she became calm. The exultant prayer of the Bride in the Song of Songs came to my mind: “Draw me: we will run after thee to the odor of thy ointments!” (Song 1:3).1 Is there any odor more beautiful in the world than the smell of this Chrism of salvation, by which the Bridegroom of souls first draws us to Himself and makes us His own?

St. Thomas teaches that “in the sacrament of Baptism something is done which is essential to the sacrament, and something which belongs to a certain solemnity of the sacrament … The use of water in Baptism is part of the substance of the sacrament; but the use of oil or chrism is part of the solemnity.”2 Although inessential, strictly speaking, to the valid and licit celebration of the sacrament, it is most fitting that the newly baptized infant be anointed with chrism to signify outwardly the glorious, hidden reality of his new identity in Christ. The ritus explanativi provided before this anointing in the Rite illustrates well its theological meaning: “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”3 The use of sacred chrism here in particular, since it is employed also in the ordination of priests and the consecration of bishops, churches, altars, chalices and patens, emphasizes that the child has been set apart (analogously to the way that priests, churches, and sacred vessels are “set apart”) by Christ himself to be a part of “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2:9). By the “sheer gratuitousness of this grace of salvation,”4 the newly baptized child will forever be numbered among those blessed ones to whom the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom proclaims the mysterious words: “Holy things are for the holy!”

Sacred chrism, being a mixture of oil and balsam, also bears its own innate symbolism:

Olive-oil, being of its own nature rich, diffusive, and abiding, is fitted to represent the copious outpouring of sacramental grace, while balsam, which gives forth most agreeable and fragrant odours, typifies the innate sweetness of Christian virtue. Oil also gives strength and suppleness to the limbs, while balsam preserves from corruption. Thus anointing with chrism aptly signifies that fulness of grace and spiritual strength by which we are enabled to resist the contagion of sin and produce the sweet flowers of virtue.5

I wonder how much of this beautiful symbolism is understood by the Catholic parents and godparents who witness the anointing! Despite the otherwise excellent way in which the priest led the people through the Rite today and catechized them about its meaning, this anointing was given with no further explanation than the Rite itself provides. As a priest, I would like to preach often on this sacred anointing, since it expresses so much of what is given invisibly in Baptism and also of the future glory for which Baptism prepares these children: “However young, they are bathed in [Christ’s] light, his heavenly grace and his peace. Moreover, by making in Baptism as it were his or her first steps along the path of faith, the child is directed toward growth by grace in human and spiritual maturity so as to attain ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:1) and, knowing and loving him, to inherit his promises.”6 I would like the parents to smile and give glory to God in their homes when they catch the odor of the sacred chrism on their newly baptized little ones, recalling with holy awe that He Himself has now set their son or daughter apart, like themselves, “as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”


Footnotes

  1. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 66, a. 10, at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org.
  3. Ordo baptismi parvulorum (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003), no. 62.
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1250.
  5. Patrick Morrisroe, “Chrism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org.
  6. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 7.1.7.

The Seven Promises to “Him Who Conquers” in the Revelation of St. John

The revelation given to Saint John opens with seven messages to seven particular churches in Asia Minor. The evangelist is instructed by the Son of Man to “write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter” (Rev 1:19 RSV2CE).1 These messages, recorded in chapters two and three, have several features in common. Each is addressed to “the angel of the church” of that place (2:1).2 Each begins with a different phrase identifying the divine person who addresses them, such as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8) or “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18). Presumably these seven unique identifying marks given to the churches differ according to the particular church to which the Son is speaking, since He to whom David sang, “O Lord, you search me and you know me” (Ps 139:1-2) surely knows how best to disclose His identity to each individual church and each member thereof.

That there are seven titles given, however, would also seem to express something of the inexhaustible plenitude of the divine being which is at once revealed and hidden by each of them, since “Revelation uses numbers symbolically—that is, qualitatively rather than quantitatively” and “seven and ten normally represent completeness.”3 The mystery of “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) is infinite, utterly beyond our comprehension; He is glimpsed only “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) in the symbolic words and images of the titles He Himself has revealed to his servant John. The seven titles, even taken together, cannot begin to exhaust the mystery of God’s being, but they point to the perfection of that being which is beyond words.

Each of the seven messages to the churches also ends with a particular promise to “him who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν). This victorious one shall ”eat of the tree of life” (Rev 2:7); he will be given “the crown of life” (2:10), “hidden manna and a white stone” (2:17), and “the morning star” (2:26-28); he shall be “clothed in white garments” (Rv 3:5), made “a pillar in the temple of my God” upon whom is written “the name of my God” (3:12), and finally “sit with me on my throne, as I also have conquered and sat with my Father on his throne” (3:21). Each of these promises may be uniquely suited to the hearers of the message in that particular place; Ephesus, for example, was the site of the Temple of Artemis, who was frequently depicted in art as a fruitful tree, and it is to Ephesus that the promise to eat of the tree of life is given.4 Each of the promises, however, according to our limited human powers of comprehension, must also express aspects of the one infinite and ineffable mystery which is promised to all. Like the divine names, they do not exhaust the mystery; they point to its “unspeakable majesty and grandeur.”5

What is the essence of this gift which stands behind the seven promises? St. John of the Cross takes up this question in his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, a love song he composed in mystical ecstasy expressing the romance between the soul, conceived as Bride, and God the Bridegroom. Near the end of the Canticle, the bride sings:

There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me,
you, my life, will give me there
what you gave me on that other day.6

These words are spoken as she looks forward to her entry into eternal beatitude, “the consummation of the love of God, which she had always been seeking.”7 This consummation is twofold. God will show her that which she has long sought, “that is, to love God as purely and perfectly as he loves her.”8 He furthermore will give her a gift which, St. John says, is nothing less than “essential glory, consisting in the vision of God’s being.”9 Interestingly, the soul avows that God has given her this gift already “on that other day,” which is taken to mean “the day of God’s eternity … in [which] God predestined the soul to glory, decreed the glory he would bestow on her, and gave it to her freely from all eternity before he created her.”10 

As to the nature of this gift, this essential and eternal glory which God bestows and has bestowed and will bestow on his chosen and beloved bride, the “one who conquers,” St. John says it “is in point of fact the vision of God, but that which the vision of God is to the soul has no other name than ‘what.’”11 It is sheer, indescribable beatitude. He proceeds to quote “what Christ said of it to St. John seven times in the Apocalypse with many expressions and words and comparisons, for this ‘what’ cannot be understood by one word, nor at one time, for even with all these terms it still remains to be expressed.”12 As St. John of the Cross enumerates them, each of the seven promises seeks to express more perfectly what was inadequate in the last; “everything he said falls short of the mark,”13 and so another and another is added, like a lover’s stammering to express the unspeakable praises of her beloved. These promises, in the end, “cast the ‘what’ in very perfect terms, but they still do not explain it. This is a peculiarity of a thing that is immense: All the expressions of excellence, grandeur, and goodness are fitting, but do not explain it, not even when taken together.”14 

One thing more remains to be revealed. Who is the one who conquers, to whom the indescribable gift is given? In the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross, it is the lover, the bride. This insight accords perfectly with the theology of John the Evangelist, who elsewhere writes, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments … for whatever is born of God overcomes (νικᾷ) the world; and this is the victory (ἡ νίκη) that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes (ὁ νικῶν) the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:3-5). Faith in Jesus, shown forth in a life of love and obedience to His commandments, conquers the world and wins the indescribable prize of love’s consummation: everlasting life in union with Him.


Footnotes

  1. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010). 
  2. Cf. also Revelation 2:8, 12, 18 and 3:1, 7, 14.
  3. Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 28.
  4. Cf. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 495, fn. on Rev. 2:7.
  5. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 38:8,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 621.
  6. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 38:1, in Collected Works, 618.
  7. SC, 38:2, in CW, 618.
  8. Ibid.
  9. SC, 38:5, in CW, 620.
  10. SC, 38:6, in CW, 620.
  11. Ibid.
  12. SC, 38:7, in CW, 620.
  13. SC, 38:8, in CW, 621.
  14. Ibid.

Called to Communion: Pastoral Considerations for Same-Sex Attracted Catholics

It is well established that same-sex attraction constitutes an inclination of the sexual appetite which is intrinsically and objectively disordered.1 This paper is not intended to defend or explain this definition, a project which has been undertaken abundantly well already by scholars more apt to the task. Although it will be necessary to touch on these questions to some extent, this paper seeks rather in a pastoral spirit to find what hope may be offered to those faithful Catholics who experience same-sex attraction and for whom it “constitutes … a trial.”2 To be sure, Jesus extends to each one of us the call he offered to his first disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 DRB).3 The Catechism aptly recalls this divine invitation in the case of Christians with same-sex attraction, calling them to “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”4 However, it must be acknowledged that the cross weighs particularly heavy in their case, since their disordered desires are rooted precisely in that area which makes us most fully human: the sexual urge, which drives man to express at the level of the person—physically, emotionally and spiritually—his natural desire and capacity for self-gift and personal communion. Too often, therefore, the call to carry the cross and die to self in this area may be heard by same-sex attracted Catholics as an insurmountable challenge, akin to a permanent denial of that which is most human in them, that call to communion in which man most fully finds himself and realizes his human potential.5

It is not sufficient to ask Catholics suffering under the burden of same-sex attraction, who are seeking to live holy lives and submit faithfully to the Church’s magisterium, to merely bear their crosses without offering them also some grounds for hope that their deepest and most distinctively human aspirations—desires which are God-given, even if distorted by sin—may be fulfilled. This paper is an attempt to do just that. Drawing on the teaching of St. John Paul II, I will argue that those who suffer with same-sex attraction, being made for communion in the image of the Blessed Trinity, are called to a generous life of self-gift and may find their fulfillment as human persons in such a life, no less than those who experience the sexual urge in accord with the divine and natural order. I will then consider the Lord’s invitation to virginity for the sake of the kingdom in Matthew 19:12 as a “live option” for those who experience deep-seated same-sex attraction, arguing that, though they may fall into the category of those who are born eunuchs or made eunuchs by men, this in no way excludes them from also making a voluntary and generous offering of themselves to God in a life of committed spiritual virginity. This commitment constitutes a path by which such persons may satisfy their deepest inclinations to love and gift, entirely and without reservation, and live a fruitful life in generous service to God and his people.

Called to Communion

At the heart of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is the fundamental conviction that God, Who is Love, created man and woman out of love, for love.6 This concise statement reveals much about the nature and destiny of human beings, as well as the nature of God, our creator and exemplar. God subsists in an eternal and reciprocal exchange of love: the Father generates the Son in a perfect and eternal “event of absolute, self-surrending love,”7 giving over His own divinity to the Son, a totally free gift by which He gives Himself utterly and holds nothing in reserve; the Son, receiving the Father’s self-donation, gives Himself freely and perfectly back to the Father in an eternal, reciprocal, loving assent to His Sonship. The generative love of the Father begets the filial love of the Son in an “eternal interplay of divine freedom, since this filial disposition is the infinitely free response of love engendered by love.”8 Furthermore, this love engendered by love is fruitful in the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. Thus the Blessed Trinity is a communion of three divine persons in one Godhead constituted by an utterly free, eternal, perfect, fruitful, and loving exchange.

Because we are made in the imago Dei, we human beings are likewise “called to communion,” to fruitful self-donation and mutual belonging. In fact, man and woman, made in the image of God, constitute together an imago Trinitatis on the human plane, a “true and living icon”9 of the divine communion of love which is the Blessed Trinity. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says YHWH in Genesis 1:26. Commenting on this verse, St. John Paul II writes, “Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine ‘We’.”10 The pattern of God’s own inner Trinitarian life, of loving self-surrender and communion, thus becomes “the eternal pattern of the human ‘we’, especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.”11 It is precisely together that man and woman constitute an image of the Trinitarian communion of God. 

The complementarity between man and woman is thus written into human nature from the beginning as a fundamental and irreducible characteristic at the service of communion. It belongs to the “stamp” of the divine and Trinitarian nature which God has impressed upon us from the moment of the creation of our first parents. However, St. John Paul II distinguishes a still more fundamental sense in which we are made in God’s image. Prior to imaging the divine nature in the complementarity of the sexes, man is stamped with the imago Dei in the very fact of his being endowed with a rational nature, that is, with the capacity to know and to love. Man’s being made in the image of God at the level of his rational human nature is “prior, not only in the chronological sense, but rather in the existential sense”12 to his being made in the image of God as male and female. If we were not first made in God’s image by being rational, that is, capable of knowing and loving, then the Trinitarian likeness in the communion of human persons made possible by the complementarity of the sexes would be unintelligible.

This is well illustrated by the second creation account found in the book of Genesis. In the beginning, Adam stood alone between God and the rest of creation, a bodily creature like the animals, yet endowed with a rational nature like God. He experienced a radical need for communion, being made in the image of communion itself, yet found none of the animals capable of satisfying this need; he could know and love them, calling them by their names, but they did not have the capacity to know and love him in return. Therefore, the Lord says, “It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself” (Genesis 2:18), that is, a creature endowed with the same rational nature as Adam himself, such that she can know and love him as she is known and loved by him. To be sure, Adam realizes when he sees Eve—“bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23)—that he was not just seeking any other rational creature, but also a certain hitherto unimagined “communion of complementarities.”13 Man, before the creation of woman, could not have conceived of the great gift of the complementarity of the sexes; he could only desire one “like unto himself,” capable of making a free return of love for love. The creation of Eve reveals to him the possibility of a true communion of persons, not only in reciprocal knowledge and love, but in bodily, emotional and spiritual self-gift and mutual belonging, and thus a more perfect realization of the imago Trinitatis

Nevertheless, it should be a consolation to same-sex attracted Catholics that “the first and most essential aspect of [the imago Dei] is on the level of rational creaturehood.”14 If, through no fault of their own, such persons do not experience the natural attraction of man to woman or woman to man in the sexual urge, they are not for that reason excluded from the possibility of communion. Same-sex attracted persons are still “stamped with the image of God in love and gift” at the deepest level of their nature, and thus are both made for and capable of “the real warmth of rational human communion: the remedy for man’s deepest solitude.”15 In fact, John Paul II teaches that, since

the need for betrothed love, the need to give oneself to and unite with another person, is deeper and connected with the spiritual existence of the person … it is not finally and completely satisfied simply by union with another human being. Considered in the perspective of the person’s eternal existence, marriage is only a tentative solution of the problem of a union of persons through love.16

If their disordered experience of the sexual urge prevents them from seeking that communion in marriage, then persons who suffer from same-sex attraction may find a way of fruitful and generous self-gift in a different expression of betrothed love found in the tradition of the Church.

Called to Virginity

It cannot be denied that the intrinsic and objective disorder of same-sex attraction constitutes a real obstacle to giving of oneself in betrothed, spousal love in the normal way. This obstacle may be considered analogously to that experienced by the first two kinds of eunuchs mentioned by the Lord in conversation with his disciples in Matthew 19. This conversation occurs just after Jesus has spoken a prophetic word against divorce to the Pharisees: “Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so … Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Mt 19:8-9). It is in this context that the disciples shrewdly remark, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry” (v. 10). 

Without reading the disciples’ comment uncharitably, one cannot help but detect in their words a hint of utilitarian calculus, seemingly weighing the risks of a lifelong commitment which cannot be broken and judging it more prudent to remain celibate. Jesus, however, shifts the terms of the discussion with his reference to three kinds of eunuchs. There are eunuchs “who were born so from their mother’s womb,” he replies, “and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). His reply distinguishes between those who are incapable of marriage because of a physical defect (those “who were born so”) or else due to the action of another (those “made so by men”), on the one hand, and those who voluntarily forsake marriage “for the kingdom of heaven” on the other. Crucially, the Lord speaks to his disciples here not in the categories of expediency and convenience, as they had begun the conversation, but in terms of sacrifice and generosity: “He that can take, let him take it” (v. 12).

John Paul II’s interpretation of this passage is crucial for understanding Christ’s call to take up the cross of virginity for the kingdom as an invitation to loving and generous self-gift. “It is a characteristic feature of the human heart to accept even difficult demands in the name of love, for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person,” writes the Holy Father: 

the love for Christ himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, Bridegroom of souls, to whom he has given himself to the end … In this way, continence ‘for the kingdom of heaven,’ the choice of virginity or celibacy for one’s whole life, has become in the experience of the disciples and followers of Christ the act of a particular response to the love of the Divine Bridegroom, and therefore acquired the meaning of an act of spousal love, that is, of a spousal gift of self with the end of answering in a particular way the Redeemer’s spousal love; a gift of self understood as a renunciation, but realized above all out of love.17

Far from a life of self-indulgent “perpetual bachelorhood,” chosen to avoid the responsibilities and risks of radical self-commitment to a spouse, or else a resigned and bitter celibacy into which one is forced by some exterior or interior necessity, then, the choice to live virginity for the sake of the kingdom is a particular and radical kind of self-donation, a free gift of love made in response to Him who “first hath loved us” (1 John 4:19). Indeed, John Paul II calls this gift of self to God in spiritual virginity “an act of spousal love,”18 the essence of which is that “two people give themselves each to the other”19 in a quite absolute, irrevocable way, as Jesus insists in his dialogue with the Pharisees. It is an act of “the fullest, the most uncompromising form of love,” which “consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable ‘I’ someone else’s property.”20 The exterior form of the commitment differs for the spiritual virgin in that it is made not between two human spouses, but between a creature and his Creator; the “interior form” of the commitment in the human heart, however, insofar as it involves “the will to give oneself, entirely and without reservation, to God,”21 is the same. Therefore, it is an act truly capable of fulfilling man’s deepest and holiest aspirations to love and gift.

Furthermore, such a generous commitment of oneself to Christ the Head necessarily entails also a gift of self to his Body, the Church. The Head and the Body cannot be separated; neither then can one’s commitment to spiritual virginity for the kingdom as an act of betrothed love for Christ be separated from the supernatural and spiritual fruit of that betrothal, that is, service in charity to the members of His Body. The spiritual virgin is “to have a deep care for them, expressed in service, such that there is a real and enriching personal communion.”22 This service may take many forms. John Paul II muses that it might be expressed in “the relationship of a doctor with his patient, or in a teacher, who devotes himself with utter dedication to the education of his pupil,” or even by “great public figures or apostles [who] devote themselves to many people at once, people for the most part personally unkown [sic] to them, whom they serve by serving society as a whole.”23 It is for the individual to discern the particular path by which they will best serve the body of Christ, listening to the voice of God, the Bridegroom of their soul, with due attention to the needs of their community and loving, filial obedience to the Church. Finally, it must be reiterated that this life of service will only be personally fulfilling insofar as it is the spiritual fruit of the person’s betrothed love for Christ the Head. Service in itself is insufficient to slake the desires of the human heart, which desires not only self-gift, but “the giving of the individual person to another chosen person.”24 Thus the spiritual virgin’s life of service must be the fruit of their communion with the Lord, not a replacement for it.

This path of spiritual virginity is open to Christians who experience same-sex attraction, just as it is to those who experience the sexual urge in the natural way: “He that can take, let him take it” (Matthew 19:12). Whether these followers of Christ were made eunuchs “from birth” or “by men,” that is, from biological causes, psychological trauma, or other undiscovered reasons—and the Catechism acknowledges frankly that the “psychological genesis [of same-sex attraction] remains largely unexplained”25—the words of Jesus reveal that the dignity of making a free choice to give of themselves is not denied them by the fact of their condition. There is an irreducible difference between those eunuchs who are made so and those who choose to become so for the kingdom of heaven. Those who are made so have had no choice in the matter. Their choice lies in how they will live out their lives: seeking communion in vain by gratifying their sensual and sentimental desires, a quest which is doomed to failure since, as John Paul II puts it succinctly, “only if it is objectively good for two persons to be together can they belong to each other”26—or following the difficult road of “renunciation … realized above all out of love,”27 a daily death to disordered desires which enables a life of truly generous gift and communion.

Conclusion

In conclusion, far from condemning same-sex attracted persons to a lonely and loveless life, Catholic moral teaching acknowledges that such persons are radically made for communion and self-gift. In so doing, the moral tradition of the Church firmly rejects any notion that same-sex attracted persons are defined by their disordered inclinations, as if same-sex attraction constitutes a kind of fundamental identity distinct from that of persons who naturally experience the sexual urge as an inclination toward members of the opposite sex. Rather, the Church affirms that same-sex attracted persons share the same fundamental orientation as all other members of the human family, by virtue of their being rational creatures made in the image and likeness of God: the inclination to generous love, to self-donation, to communion. The Church further acknowledges such persons’ fundamental dignity and freedom to choose a way of life which will allow them to give of themselves to another, in accordance with their own objective good as human persons and the objective good of the other, as well as with the whole divine and natural order, and therefore in a manner which affords them the opportunity for real self-fulfillment as human beings in the image and likeness of their Creator. If the normal means of betrothed love, that is, matrimony, is closed to them, the Lord invites them to walk the path of spiritual virginity for the sake of the kingdom, a commitment to self-giving which is no less generous, no less radical, no less fruitful, and no less fulfilling of their deepest inclinations as human persons. Those who choose this path will no doubt encounter difficulties, but in daily renewing their commitment in love for Christ, “they can … gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection,”28 that eternal beatitude in which alone our hearts may all find their rest.


Footnotes

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2357-8.
  2. CCC, 2358.
  3. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  4. CCC, 2358.
  5. Cf. Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §24.
  6. Jeffrey Froula, lecture on Theology of the Body (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 15 January 2020).
  7. Margaret Turek, SD-5211: The Trinity – Course Reader with Commentary & Notes (unpublished manuscript, 2019), 134.
  8. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  9. Francis, Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love] (19 March 2016), §11.
  10. John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane [Letter to Families] (2 February 1994), §6.
  11. Gratissimam Sane, §6.
  12. John Paul II, TOB 5:3, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 148.
  13. Froula, lecture (15 January 2020).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 153-4.
  17. John Paul II, TOB 79:9, in Man and Woman He Created Them, 436.
  18. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
  19. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 96-7.
  20. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 97.
  21. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 252.
  22. Jeffrey Froula, lecture on Mystical Virginity (online, 20 April 2020).
  23. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 98.
  24. Ibid.
  25. CCC, 2357.
  26. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 131.
  27. John Paul II, TOB 79:9, in Man and Woman He Created Them, 436.
  28. CCC, 2359.

“He Has Become Visible for Us”: On the Christological Heresy of Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy

In the eighth century, there arose in the Christian East the new mania of iconomachia, an unprecedented movement in Church history characterized by its violent opposition to the ancient Christian custom of the veneration of icons of Christ, the saints, and the Mother of God. The rise of iconomachia constituted a decisive break with universal and apostolic tradition; indeed, replying to a letter from the iconoclastic Emperor Leo III, who had asked him why the six ecumenical councils held theretofore had said nothing about icons if their veneration was truly apostolic in origin, Pope Gregory II replied, “Do you not see that they … did not occupy themselves with that which is adopted and admitted by everyone?”1 The century of widespread iconoclasm was nothing short of a cultural revolution which took the Christian East by storm.

As with all such revolutions, the iconoclastic revolt can be interpreted according to many different lights and from a multiplicity of perspectives. For example, the sociological and historical angle suggests that Islam, Christianity’s principal rival in the East, with its stringent prohibition on the use of representative images in worship, might have exerted a gradual influence on the Eastern Churches, leading to the sudden and decisive break from their traditional iconodulia to fanatical iconomachia. No less a theologian and historian than Alexander Schmemann points to “the decision of the [Byzantine] authorities to reach a compromise with Islam”2 under Leo III as a historical cause of the iconoclasm which followed; in those days of the declining fortunes of the Byzantine Empire, many of the Christian faithful in the East were no doubt beginning to feel themselves inferior to their Muslim neighbors, “who presented themselves as the representatives of a purer religion.”3 Ordinary Christians may thus have been more susceptible to their claims that the worship of icons was to blame for their Empire’s apparently inexorable calcification and decline, “considered as the punishment of God for the idolatry of the people.”4 In this light, iconoclasm may have appeared as a progressive, reforming force, a movement to remove those falsifying corruptions which had accreted to Christian piety and restore Byzantine Christianity to the glorious purity of the apostolic faith. However, such analyses, while illuminating, must ultimately take second place to considerations of a theological and especially Christological nature, for the arguments employed by the iconoclasts to justify their radical position were ultimately founded on a misunderstanding or else misuse of the Christological teaching of Chalcedon on the natures of Christ. 

The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD—almost three centuries before the outbreak of iconoclasm—solemnly taught “that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation.”5 This concise definition served to dispatch both the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies which had hitherto plagued the Church. On the one hand, Nestorianism, which had already been condemned twenty years earlier by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, was definitively excluded by the Chalcedonian teaching that Christ is to be acknowledged “in two natures … without division or separation”; on the other hand, Monophysitism, that Christological overcorrection propounded by Eutyches and his disciples, was ruled out by the teaching that these natures are united in Him “without confusion or change.”6 As the definition of the Council explains, “The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one Person and one hypostasis.”7 This magisterial teaching on the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures, called the “Chalcedonian synthesis,” clarified definitively how Christ is to be understood at once as fully God and fully man.

Yet precisely this “christological problem [of the union of the two natures in the one divine person of the Word] was implied in all the discussions about images”8 of the iconoclastic period. The acts of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum of 754, the first official attempt to develop an adequate theological justification for iconoclasm, held that any iconographer who dares to make an image of Christ “either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.”9 Consequently, the one who makes the image and the one who venerates it alike are held “guilty of a double blasphemy–the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood.”10 

St. John of Damascus, an early and ardent defender of orthodoxy against the iconoclasts, argued in the beginning of his first treatise in defense of the holy icons that the iconographer “represent[s] God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as he has become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood … We are not in error if we make the image of the incarnate God, who appeared on earth in the flesh, and who, in his ineffable goodness, lived with human beings and assumed [our] nature.”11 This argument is founded on a truly orthodox understanding of the synthesis of Chalcedon, which confirmed that the visible human nature, assumed by the divine person of the Word, “came together in one hypostasis”12 with his invisible divine nature. Icons of Christ, then, do not represent the invisible and indescribable Godhead, which the iconoclasts were surely right in condemning; “if someone dares make an image of the immaterial and incorporeal divinity, we repudiate him,” St. John himself wrote elsewhere.13 Rather, they represent “what is visible in God (θεοῦ τὸ ὁρώμενον),”14 namely, the humanity assumed by the Word, which is not mixed with His divine nature, but is hypostatically united to His divine person. Therefore, one who venerates an icon of Christ truly gives worship to God, that is, to the divine person of the Word, made visible in the humanity He assumed.

It is most interesting that both the iconoclastic and iconodulist arguments, summarized here in their strongest forms (as set forth by the iconoclastic council and by St. John Damascene, respectively), were presented in the language of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. The council taught that

when … [the iconographers] are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? … They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead.15

Whether by malice or by ignorance, however, the would-be defenders of Chalcedon at this iconoclastic council were in grave error about what Chalcedon had taught. Their error may be seen plainly in the choice of words in the above quotation, that the humanity of Christ was “perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine.16 This formulation “seems to ignore completely the main assertion that Chalcedon had borrowed from the Tome of Leo: ‘each nature preserves its own manner of being’ and ‘meets the other [nature] in the single hypostasis.’”17 For this reason, lacking “the conception of a properly hypostatic union, implying a real distinction between nature and hypostasis, and making possible the preservation of the natural characteristics of the divinity and of the humanity within a single or personal hypostatic existence,”18 iconoclastic Christology regards the divine nature, and not the divine person of the Word, as the subject of the union. They have failed to assimilate that crucial distinction between person and nature, hypostasis and substance. Thus also their conclusion that the iconodules must regard the assumed human nature of Christ as  “a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own,”19 confuses the terms of Chalcedon, mistaking the human nature—assumed and hypostatically united to the Word, yet remaining distinct from the divine nature—for “a fourth person [in] the Trinity.”20 This, however, does not follow from a truly orthodox interpretation of the Chalcedonian synthesis, which holds that the human and divine natures are united in the person of the Word “without confusion or change, without division or separation.”21 

In the end, then, “while formally accepting the decisions of the councils of Chalcedon and of Constantinople” and framing their arguments as a defense of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, “iconoclastic Christology places itself clearly on Monophysite or Monothelite positions.”22 The necessary corrective to iconoclasm was a full and orthodox appropriation of the teaching of Chalcedon, above all that “the human nature of Christ is precisely hypostatized in the Logos’ hypostasis, and it is the latter that is represented in the image,”23 which was provided by such valiant defenders of orthodoxy as John Damascene and Theodore of Studium. In the words of that latter saint, “every portrait is, in any case, the portrait of a hypostasis, and not of a nature,”24 for one can only see a nature insofar as it is made concrete and individual in a person. It is precisely for this reason that icons of Christ to this day are inscribed with the letters Ὁ Ὤν, “He who is,” the Greek translation of the Divine Name. The holy icons of Christ are icons of a divine person, God the Son, “the visible of the Father,”25 made visible to us in the human nature He assumed. Therefore, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, 842, the holy Synod of Constantinople formally condemned iconoclasm and restored the holy icons to their places of honor in their churches—a feast that is kept in perpetuity in the Eastern Churches as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.


Footnotes

  1. Karl Joseph von Hefele, Histoire des conciles de l’Eglise, trans. Dom H. Leclerq (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1907),3:671-72, qtd. in Blagoy Tschiflianov, “The Iconoclastic Controversy—A Theological Perspective,” in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 38, nos. 1-4 (1993), 243.
  2. Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 200. 
  3. John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975), 174.
  4. Tschiflianov, “The Iconoclastic Controversy,” 231. Cf. L. Brehier, “Sur un texte relatif au debut de la querelle iconoclast,” Echos d’Orient 37 (1938), 17-22. 
  5. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 43rd edition, ed. Peter Hünermann (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), DS 148.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 177.
  9. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum, Held in Constantinople, A.D. 754,” from The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans. H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 543-44, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1996.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 179. Cf. Or. I, PG, 94, col. 1236 c.
  12. DS 148.
  13. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 184. Cf. Or. III, col. 1332 b.
  14. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 179. Cf. Or. I, col. 1245 a.
  15. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum,” at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1996.
  16. Ibid. Emphases mine.
  17. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 181-2.
  18. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 182.
  19. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum.”
  20. Ibid.
  21. DS 148.
  22. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 182.
  23. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 188.
  24. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 188. Cf. Theodore Studite, Antirrh., III, col. 405 a. 
  25. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV, 6, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, from Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885, at New Advent, http://newadvent.org.

The Priesthood of Christ and the New Covenant in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews

During the portentous year of 1517, when a certain young professor and Augustinian friar at Wittenberg was drafting his “Ninety-five Theses,” the same Martin Luther was also engaged in teaching a very popular series of lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews. The timing is more than coincidental. In fact, Luther’s commentary on this epistle, which has among its major themes the priesthood, sacrifice, and atonement of Christ, contains at least in seed form almost all the major theological concerns of the Protestant Reformers. In particular, Luther’s early interpretation of Christ’s priesthood advanced therein anticipates the later Reformers’ reconception of the ministerial priesthood of the New Covenant and of Christian worship generally. 

Luther’s commentary takes the form of a gloss on the text which closely follows the structure of the epistle. His comments of relevance to Christ’s priesthood begin, then, with Hebrews 5:1, in which the Apostle enumerates the characteristics of Jesus the High Priest: like “every high priest,” Christ was “chosen from among men” and “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”1 These three characteristics likewise form the backbone of Luther’s portrait of the priesthood of Christ. Sharing our human nature, Luther’s Christ stands in stark contradistinction to God the Father, a Mediator standing in the breach between fearful, sinful humanity and a wrathful God. “No other refuge is left,” he writes, “than that one sanctuary which is Christ, our Priest, in whose humanity alone we are protected and saved from judgment.”2 For Luther, the priesthood of Christ is principally to be understood in terms of this mediation, by which God’s wrath toward us due to our sins is satisfied:

As priest, Christ through his mediations between God and us … ‘protects us from all sins and the wrath of God, intercedes for us, and sacrifices himself in order to reconcile us to God.’ Luther expressly adds, ‘Now he makes us so secure in our relationship to God and gives peace to our conscience that God is no longer against us.’ … Everything depends on the fact that God has been reconciled.3

Christ in his humanity thus stands as mediator between mankind and “God the Father as a celestial child abuser … who unleashes violent fury on his Son for sins of which his Son is innocent.”4 This theology of the angry Father-God would be picked up and amplified by the later Reformers, particularly Calvin, and even find its way back into Catholic theology via Jansenism.

With regard to the final characteristic of Christ the high priest identified by the Apostle, that he is appointed “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins,” however, Luther does not choose to emphasize Christ’s bloody sacrifice of his own flesh in atonement for the sins of mankind, as one might expect. Instead, he interprets Hebrews 5:7 f., “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,” as referring to a bloodless, spiritual sacrifice of praise in contradistinction to the bloody sacrifices of the Old Law. “This text elucidates beautifully the mystery of the old sacrifices,” he writes, “for against the gifts and sacrifices which ‘the priests chosen from among men’ offered, Paul here sets the ‘prayers and supplications’ which Christ, who was mystically prefigured among them, offered … For Christ made the justification of the new law so easy that we can accomplish with the mouth what they could scarcely obtain with everything they had.”5

This is not inconsistent with Luther’s overall theology. Though he holds fast to a theology of atonement in which the wrath of the Father against us is expended on the innocent victim of His Son, Luther likewise holds to a dialectic of law and grace, Old and New, works and faith—one might even say flesh and spirit—between which there must be an “absolute distinction.”6 Of greater significance in Luther’s overall theology than the bloody offering of Christ’s body, then, is the spiritual offering of his “godly fear” (Heb 5:7), manifested in his prayers and supplications. One need not strain to detect here the germ of the doctrine of sola fide. Indeed, Luther states elsewhere that “the priesthood of Christ consists in taking on the evils of our own nature” and the punishment which is their due “and sharing with us the good proper to his own nature (his faithfulness).”7

What might be the role of the ministerial priesthood in the New Covenant, given these preliminary conclusions on Christ’s priesthood as our mediator and source of faith? This question hinges in large part on “the question of the mediation of the grace and knowledge of God … whether Christ alone is Mediator or whether Christ mediates along with the Church in its authoritative tradition, priesthood, and sacraments.”8 The Catholic tradition holds the latter, understanding the ministerial priesthood as partaking in the one priesthood of Christ; the Reformation may be seen in broad outline as a violent affirmation of the contrary position. Luther’s close contemporary, John Calvin, for example, who wrote his own commentary on Hebrews some thirty years later, is not shy in concluding that “[Jesus] is the mediator of the new testament” and therefore “there is no further need for another priest … When this office was attached to Christ, all other mediators were repudiated.”9 

The Luther of the 1517 lectures was not quite so direct. He writes of “the office of the new priest,” which is certainly not to offer sacrifices, as the priests of the old law did, but to stir up faith by preaching and teaching and “to point out the grace of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law.”10 Within three years, however, the implications of Luther’s Christological conclusions on the priesthood have for him reached their logical conclusion: “A priest should be nothing in Christendom but a functionary.”11 Likewise, Christian worship is to be a “sacrifice of praise,” understood not as a Christian θυσία αἰνέσεως, the fulfillment of the todah offering under the Old Law by our liturgical participation in Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of atonement, but as “prayers and praises … with the mouth.”12 The Christological conclusions reached by Luther in these early Lectures on Hebrews thus foreshadow the major concerns of the Protestant Reformation which would follow: salvation by faith alone, Christ as the sole mediator between God and man, and the absolute superiority of the New Covenant of faith over the Old Law of works, manifested in spiritual, vocal worship rather than vain “repetition of the same liturgical acts,”13 and leading ultimately to the abolition of the ministerial priesthood and the sacraments. 


Footnotes

  1. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).
  2. Martin Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, vol. 29 in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 167.
  3. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 222. Emphases mine.
  4. Margaret M. Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology” (unpublished manuscript, November 21, 2019), 3.
  5. Luther, Lectures, 175-176.
  6. Mickey L. Mattox, “Christology in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 107.
  7. Luther, Lectures, 142.
  8. Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (London: Cambridge UP, 2004), 28.
  9. John Calvin, Calvin: Commentaries, vol. 23 in The Library of Christian Classics, trans. and ed. Joseph Haroutunian (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958), 151.
  10. Luther, Lectures, 194.
  11. Luther, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate,” trans. C. A. Buchheim, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1998.
  12. Luther, Lectures, 176.
  13. R. Michael Allen, “The Perfect Priest: Calvin on the Christ of Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 124.