On the Fernández Document: PART I

Eamonn Clark

The Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, has published a summary defense of the apostolic exchortation Amoris Laetitia, which he helped draft. (English) The Archbishop is widely believed to be a close confidant of the Holy Father.

Though I had said in a former post that CRM would not be engaging further in debate on Amoris Laetitia, given that we have gone through some internal changes, and given the extremely significant defense which has been written by Abp. Fernández and the dearth of exhaustive and substantial counterarguments launched at this document specifically thus far, I publish here a commentary and exploration of this article in 3 parts, using the English translation linked to above (courtesy of Andrew Guernsey – used with permission).

–CHAPTER VIII OF AMORIS LAETITIA: WHAT IS LEFT AFTER THE STORM–

After several months of intense activity by sectors that oppose the novelties of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia – minorities, but hyperactive ones – or of strong attempts to disguise them, the war seems to have reached a stalemate. It is now worth pausing to acknowledge that which is concretely what Francis leaves to us as an irreversible novelty.

The claim about who is really the majority is debatable, but it should be remembered that in any case truth is not at the service of democracy. On we go then, into the body of the article to examine the “irreversible novelty.”

“THERE ARE NO OTHER INTERPRETATIONS”

If one is interested to know how the Pope himself interprets what he wrote, the answer is very explicit in his commentary on the guidelines of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Region. After discussing the possibility that the divorced in a new union live in continence, they say that “in other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible.” They then add that

“nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. AL 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351) (Bishops of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, “Criterios básicos para la aplicación del capítulo VIII de Amoris laetitia” [Basic criteria for the application of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia], Buenos Aires, September 5, 2016, 6)).”

It is not clear what the Buenos Aires guidelines intend from the text. What do they mean with regard to a declaration of nullity not being possible to obtain? If they are speaking about so-called “conflict marriages,” which a tribunal is not really built to investigate (albeit some progress is being made on the point), or where some situation makes approaching a tribunal literally impossible or extremely difficult due to external factors like distance or danger, that could be stated easily enough (and would surely make for an interesting conversation). If they are speaking about someone who petitioned a tribunal and received a denial of his or her request for a declaration of nullity, then the entire authority of the law and court is undermined and the rights of the other party in the prior union are trampled. How do mitigating factors for objectively wrong acts change the application of c. 915, which is not about subjective guilt? Do the bishops only have in mind private reception? How would the good intention of protecting children change the adulterous act itself, without falling into a consequentialist vision of normative ethics (condemned by the Church)? How would a person have firm purpose of amendment sufficient for absolution without at least formally intending to avoid adulterous acts, even though he or she sees the real possibility of failure, given the expectation of duress? What kind of complex circumstances do the bishops envision in their exceptions? Does “not feasible” mean “very difficult” or “impossible”? There are many questions and few answers in the Buenos Aires guidelines.

Francis immediately sent them a formal letter stating that “the document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.” But it is important to note that he adds: “There are no other interpretations” (Letter from the Holy Father to Mons. Sergio Alfredo Fenoy, Delegate of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, September 5, 2016). Therefore, it is unnecessary to expect another response from the Pope.

Because the Buenos Aires guidelines are ambiguous (and they themselves are interpreting the also ambiguous Footnote 351), it does not seem possible to make a reasonable claim that there is nothing left to discuss or explain.

It could be called into question that the pope would clarify his interpretation in a letter to a group of bishops. But, in fact, this has happened other times. To give an example, let us recall an incident about the interpretation of Vatican Council I. The German bishops responded to Chancellor Bismark, who argued that a Roman centralism had been defined that weakened episcopal authority. With their response, they rejected that interpretation of the Council. Pius IX endorsed the interpretation of those Bishops with a letter (March 12, 1875) and with the consistory of March 15, 1875 (DH 3112-3117). In a footnote to Lumen Gentium 27 the letter of Pius IX to the German Bishops is quoted, whereby its hermeneutical authority is confirmed.

Surely, nobody is questioning the competency of the pope to comment authoritatively on his own document. What is in question is whether this private letter legislates new law, or a binding and authoritative interpretation of existing law. I suggest that this has certainly not occurred – the Pope’s letter to the Buenos Aires region bishops has not even entered into the Acta, the normal place to promulgate such authoritative interpretations and legislation. But again, even if it were, there is such a lack of clarity in the Buenos Aires guidelines that it is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about what the text actually means even if it were promulgated authoritatively. The Holy Father could indeed write such legislation or give a new authoritative interpretation of existing law which contradicts past authoritative interpretation, or he could answer the pending dubia (laden as they are with citations which would adequately settle the matter), which, for whatever reason, he has chosen not to do.

Obviously, a letter from the Pope does not have the same weight as an Encyclical, but, as we see, it can have a great practical, decisive importance to explain the correct interpretation of a text of greater weight. If the Pope has received a unique charism in the Church in the service of the correct interpretation of the divine Word – the charism given to Peter to bind and to loose and to confirm his brethren in faith – this cannot exclude his ability to interpret the documents he himself wrote.

Here, the Archbishop draws a comparison between “the divine Word” and “the documents [the Pope] himself wrote.” There is some analogy, insofar as the pope can indeed write infallible documents. The proper object, however, of papal infallibility is nothing other than what has already been at least implicitly revealed by God through Scripture or Tradition and is in the deposit of Faith. The charism is usually used because there is some controversy that requires an infallible definition for the good of the faithful. (Normally, this is done through an ecumenical council.) The proper object of infallibility would certainly not extend to interpreting the pope’s own documents except inasmuch as they are themselves expositions of the deposit of Faith. This means that a pope could fallibly interpret his own intentions, let alone produce fallible utterances when enunciating anything other than the deposit of Faith in a universally binding way which does not contradict past teaching. In short: no, the pope is not infallible here. 

“PERFECT CONTINENCE”

St. John Paul II’s proposal to the divorced in a new union to live in perfect continence, as a requirement to make access to Eucharistic communion possible, was already an important novelty. Many resisted this step. Still some today do not accept this proposal because they believe it leads to relativism. On the other hand, we must note a later novelty in the language of Benedict XVI. While Pope John Paul II asked them to “assume the commitment to live in full continence” (FC 84), Benedict XVI proposed to them, more delicately, “to commit themselves” to live “as brother and sister” (SC 29b).

In the judgment of Pope John Paul II, this was permissible only if the possibility of scandal was morally certain to be excluded, in accord with the true spirit of c. 915 which aims at preventing the sin of scandal (and only indirectly at the sin of sacrilege). It certainly may be unwise for a couple to separate civilly, though one or both remain in another bond according to Divine and ecclesiastical law. John Paul II was also insistent, as was Benedict XVI, on continence. One is led to some head scratching by the Archbishop’s implied dichotomy between continence and living as brother and sister. Surely, brothers and sisters ought to be continent in their relationship, yes?

Francis recognizes the possibility of proposing perfect continence to the divorced in a new union, but admits that there may be difficulties in practicing it (cf. footnote 329). Footnote 364 gives a place to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation to them even when new falls are foreseeable. There, Francis calls into question priests who “demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice” (AL 312). And there he takes up an important statement of St. John Paul II, who held that even the anticipation of a new fall “should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution” (Letter to Cardinal W. Baum, 03/22/1996, quoted in the footnote.). Against this cautious precision of St. John Paul II, some seem to demand a kind of strict control of what others do in intimacy. We must heartily congratulate those who manage to live in perfect continence, enriching their daily cohabitation in various ways. But that does not imply ignoring that others have serious difficulties in achieving this.

There is nothing wrong with this except the implication that there is any opposition between the firm purpose of amendment necessary for absolution and “strict control of what others do in intimacy.” A confessor would indeed be bound to “control strictly” that a person not be “intimate” with someone other than his or her spouse according to Divine and ecclesiastical law. If there is not an intention to try to avoid this sin, there can be no absolution – the penitent does not have true purpose of amendment.

When the need to avoid scandal is spoken about, we must note that this only happens when people “flaunt” their situation as if it were correct (cf. AL 297). Otherwise, scandal would also be given when the first marriage has been declared null, since probably many who see them go to confession and communion do not know about the annulment. For that matter, neither could they know whether they live as brother and sister or not. The objective fault is not “manifest” insofar as it cannot be confirmed from the outside, and all deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let us leave this matter – in fact, unverifiable – to the intimacy of the discernment of the member of the faithful with his pastor.

The Archbishop’s argument is difficult to see through if one does not understand this key principle behind c. 915: the reasonable suspicion of obstinate perseverance in grave sin based on a reality which is generically publicly available knowledge. The primary concern of c. 915 is to prevent scandal, and its object, apart from those under some penalty, is those persons whose sufficiently manifest and exterior (or “objective”) conditions would be reasonably assumed to imply obstinate perseverance in grave sin if those conditions were actually known. To be sure, “good faith” ought to be applied in the distribution of the Sacraments. A priest ought not barrel into a litany of questions about the personal lives of every individual in his parish, confessional, or Communion line, but when an irregularity becomes known it must be addressed in a certain way which will indeed depend on the reality of what occurs in private – if they are continent, then they must be ministered to privately, or provision must be made to preclude scandal. If they are living “more uxorio,” then they must be helped to understand that they cannot present themselves for Holy Communion, for, if their irregular status were to become known (even if known only independently of their activity), which is certainly possible given human nature and the public character of civil marriage, then there would be grave scandal given and likely taken. If the couple has obtained an annulment, and they have a convalidation to regularize their union, then they have publicly removed the possibility for giving scandal in this way. That scandal may still be taken is possible, and adequate provision can and should be made, but there is no longer an irregular situation to discover or actually know: they are indeed not irregular, so no revelation or knowledge is possible to the contrary. The couple who practice continence in an irregular union have themselves the obligation at least to be sure that the possibility of scandal is excluded before their public reception, lest it become known that they are in an irregular union; people would have the reasonable assumption that they would indeed be living as married people, and scandal would be taken. It is the reasonable assumption of the grave sin that generally goes with such adultery, contingent upon the reasonable possibility of revelation of irregularity, which c. 915 aims at avoiding here – “flaunting” as the Archbishop envisions it need not occur for either to happen in most parish settings. (I have never been to Argentina, and so perhaps there is some unique situation there which allows for what the Archbishop says to make some practical sense.) Publicly civilly remarrying after a divorce without an annulment, and publicly receiving Holy Communion, certainly do seem to be “flaunting” in a way that is sufficient to cause plenty of gossip, loss of respect for the Sacraments and their ministers, and even imitation, should part or all of the truth come out.

The great resistance that this issue provokes in some groups indicates that this question, beyond its importance in itself, breaks a rigid mental structure, very concentrated in issues of sexuality, and it forces them to broaden their perspectives. This is why Francis asks pastors to help the faithful “to treat the weak with the logic of compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (AL 308).

The claim that the “conservative” approach has a concentration on sexuality is easily dismissed on account of the consistency of that approach with respect to other sorts of sins. On the contrary, the “liberal” approach seems fixated – it is only the sexual sins which warrant this special exemption from the timeless understanding of c. 915 and its predecessors. Why, for instance, does the secretive abortionist who has no other means of feeding his family not qualify for the same kind of exception as the divorced and remarried? He may indeed be faced with much pressure, have no easy options, and see a great good to be obtained by doing abortions, such as feeding his family. It would be immensely difficult for him to stop, and he could probably get away with nobody finding out that this is his business, if he doesn’t “flaunt” it… If he explains his situation to Father, could he too discern that he can go to Holy Communion, despite intending to continue performing abortions? Hopefully, it is clear that this would be totally inadmissible, not only because of the grave sin which is likely on his soul, but also because of the risk of someone discovering what has occurred – and that scandal being both taken and given due to the reality of such a decision by the parish priest who decided to give him a pass and implicitly confirmed him in his wicked practice. How much damage could be done! Further, we can ask if the abortionist could receive absolution without a firm purpose of amendment, viz., a real intention not to perform any more abortions? No. Presumably, the Archbishop would agree, but why then is there such a fixation on the 6th Commandment? In fact, the Archbishop will soon go on to argue that there are exceptions to the 5th Commandment (and the 7th), in addition to implying that there is one for the 6th. Why, then, can distressed abortionists not discern on the internal forum that they can present themselves publicly for Holy Communion? If we are going to be looser on c. 915, then we ought not be fixated on the sexual sins, right?

ABSOLUTE MORAL STANDARDS AND HUMAN LIMITS

Amoris Laetitia brings back a teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the application of the general principles: “The more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter uncertainty” (AL 304). Francis does not affirm that general moral laws cannot provide for all situations, nor that they are incapable of impeding the decision of conscience. On the contrary, he says that “[they] set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected.” However, “in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304). It is the formulation of the norm that cannot provide for everything, not the norm itself. And this applies not only to positive laws, but even to our way of formulating the natural law in its various expressions. In this line, the International Theological Commission, within the Pontificate of Benedict XVI, stated: “Natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision” (International Theological Committee, “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law,” Rome, 2009, 59.).

The teaching of St. Thomas being applied here is found in the Summa Theologica II-I, q. 94, a 4. In this Article Thomas is explaining, among other things, that the natural law is not always easily formulated in general principles which can account for every case. His example is the placing of goods in trust, which would normally require the holder to return those goods upon demand, though some wicked intention of the retriever might render the relinquishment of the goods unjust (cf. II-II q. 120 a. 1). The general formula “return entrusted property when asked to by the depositor,” does not account for the murderous intentions of one retrieving an entrusted sword. Needless to say, it would be quite easy to misapply this idea to suit one’s own purposes: one can simply claim, “The law doesn’t apply to this case.” The burden of proof, then, is upon the one who would claim that some widely accepted general formulation of natural law would not apply in a particular case. One situation which the general formulation against adultery would not seem to obtain would be the reasonably presumed but not entirely certain death of a spouse. Is it really a requirement of justice and chastity that one be absolutely sure that his or her spouse is dead? The Church does not seem to think so (see c. 1707), and attempting to remarry and living “more uxorio” while one’s spouse is hopelessly stranded on a desert island would not be the sin of adultery except in a material sense, with no guilt whatsoever. It remains to be shown, however, how the general principle fails in what seems to be its clearest application by Our Lord and by the Church throughout 2,000 years of legislation and moral theology, namely, to divorce and live “more uxorio” without proper certainty of nullity or dissolution (Pauline and Petrine privilege, etc.). One must also wonder if St. Thomas would agree with this application, given his brief and uncompromising treatment of adultery in the same text.

The absolute norm in itself does not admit exceptions, but that does not imply that its succinct formulation must be applied in every sense and without nuances in all situations. “Thou shalt not kill” does not admit exceptions. However, it raises this question: should taking life in self-defense be included within the term “killing” prohibited by the norm? Should taking food from others to feed a hungry child be included within the term “stealing” prohibited by the norm? No one would doubt that it is legitimate to ask whether these concrete cases are actually included within the narrow formulations of the negative precepts “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not steal.”

While there are cases where killing becomes legitimate, the 5th Commandment, despite popular translations, is definitely not simply about “killing” (“matar”), but about a specific kind of killing. The Hebrew “ratsach” does not mean to execute lawfully, nor does it mean to kill in moderate self-defense. It means, roughly, “to slay,” which is done through malice or negligence. Even if not fully clear in the text of the Decalogue itself, it is clear in its interpretation within Scripture and the constant authoritative interpretive tradition surrounding it. As for the 7th Commandment, there is no possibility of theft when the principle of the universal destination of goods makes into momentarily common property some object which is another’s property according to human law. We understand that taking a ladder from a hardware store without paying is not stealing if it is urgently needed to save a child from a burning building – even if there is no possibility of returning the ladder or making reparation. So these analogies do not seem to work so well… As John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor, the negative precepts of Divine law, when properly understood, do not admit of exceptions (see par. 52 and 56).

For this reason, it is also licit to ask if the acts of a more uxorio cohabitation should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of “fornication”. I say, “in its integral meaning,” because it is not possible to hold that those acts in each and every case are gravely immoral in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas, ‘uncertainty increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulteress’ a woman who has been beaten and treated with contempt by her Catholic husband, and who received shelter, economic and psychological help from another man who helped her raise the children of the previous union, and with whom she had new children and cohabitates for many years.

It is certainly odd that the Archbishop uses the word “fornication” (“fornicar”) rather than “adultery,” seeing as we are presumably not speaking of a couple with both partners being free of other presumed marital bonds (which, by the way, would not come under c. 915’s scope unless the fornicative cohabitation were sufficiently notorious or “manifest” and there was obstinate perseverance). The difficulty of the situation the Archbishop describes is granted – but one must wonder why such a woman did not approach a tribunal for a declaration of nullity so that she might marry the second man. In any case, the Archbishop is now walking back the proposition that there is an “exception” as for the 5th and 7th Commandments – now he is simply saying that there might not be sufficient culpability for grave guilt. So, which is it? Is there an exception to the rule, or is the rule simply not broken in a grave way?

The question is not whether that woman does not know that cohabitation with that man does not correspond with objective moral norms. It is more than that. Some claim to simplify the matter in this way, by saying that, according to Francis, “The subject may not be able to be in mortal sin because, for various reasons, he is not fully aware that his situation constitutes adultery.” (This is what Claudio Pierantoni stated in a recent conference, very critical of Amoris Laetitia in Rome on April 22, 2017.) And they question him that it makes no sense to speak about discernment if “the subject remains indefinitely unaware of his situation” (Ibid.). But Francis explicitly said that “more is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule” (AL 301). The issue is much more complex and includes at least two basic considerations. First, if a woman who knows the existence of the norm can really understand that not abandoning that man – of whom she cannot now demand a total and permanent continence – is truly a very grave fault against the will of God. Second, if she truly can, at this point, make the decision to abandon that man. This is where the limited formulation of the norm is incapable of stating everything.

Surely, it is difficult to imagine a baptized, sane adult not having internal access to the moral law against divorce and remarriage, as set down in all four Gospels, though perhaps a seriously deficient moral education could cause a Christian to be invincibly ignorant. A coherent explanation of such ignorance would have to be harmonious with the clear sense of, among other important texts, Romans 1(On the other hand, a person certainly could be invincibly ignorant of ecclesiastical law or matters of fact; for example, if an individual was unaware of his/her baptism and subsequently violated canonical form in attempting marriage, this would render the marriage invalid but not morally problematic in a subjective sense.) Instead of developing this point, he seeks to introduce a conflict of obligations – a situation which sometimes, it is true, can only be solved by recourse to one’s own practical wisdom. It remains to be shown, however, that there is not an objective hierarchy of obligations which can be appealed to; it seems that there is, as adultery comes under a negative Divine prescript, while care of children comes under a positive Divine prescript. This means that the former must never be done, while the latter should be done as far as possible without violating other more serious duties – like not committing adultery, which is itself contrary to the welfare of children in a variety of ways, lest we forget.

In any event, the specific and principal proposal of Francis, in line with the Synod, is not concerning the considerations on the formulation of the norm. Why then is this question part of his proposal? Because he calls for much attention to the language that is used to describe weak persons. For him, offensive expressions such as “adulterer” or “fornicator” should not necessarily be deduced from the general norms when referring to concrete persons.

The prudence of this is at least questionable in light of the uncompromising and “offensive” language of Our Lord. Nobody, of course, would suggest that “name calling” is an effective approach to saving souls, but delicate euphemisms are not always appropriate either.

But his emphasis is rather on the question of the possible diminution of responsibility and culpability. Forms of conditioning can attenuate or nullify responsibility and culpability against any norm, even against negative precepts and absolute moral norms. This makes it possible not always to lose the life of sanctifying grace in a “more uxorio”cohabitation.

That there is a possibility of mitigation of culpability for individual adulterous acts has not come under serious criticism as far as I know, although one should certainly be wary of overextending this possibility (which is surely not hard to do). What is different from individual instances of such behavior, however, is the intention to continue in it. When that intention occurs apart from some grave duress (or other mitigating factor), it seems that this would always constitute mortal sin (excepting those cases of invincible ignorance). It should also be noted that mere temptation does not constitute a mitigating factor, and the loss of some good (like financial support) is itself merely an external temptation until it actually damages the soul’s ability to function properly in decision-making. Further, we should recall that “subjective guilt” for such acts is not matter for c. 915, only for c. 916. Finally, we should at this point draw the distinction between a person choosing to do an act and tolerating an act being done on oneself. A woman may tolerate the sexual advances of a man in a non-marital union for some serious reason, but she may not internally consent. (It is more difficult to imagine this situation obtaining for a man.) These distinctions must be made in order to have a coherent discussion of the issue at hand.

PART II

First Friday: Thessalonians 4:1-8

Why is the Bible so boring sometimes? Consider today’s first reading. Read as it is written on the page, St. Paul seems to be repetitive, condescending, and platitudinous. This section of the letter seems to say, “You Thessalonians are doing a good job. I want you to keep doing well, and keep improving.” You hardly need St. Paul to tell you that you should try to do good. But, before we write off St. Paul, we might consider if the text has some hidden gems, that we only need the right interpretive key to unlock. In other words, the Bible might be boring sometimes, not because of how its written, but because of how we read it.

We might begin by remembering that this letter, like many if not all of the epistles, was likely intended to be read aloud. Thus, instead of reading it in paragraph form, we should look for certain structures that we would expect in an oral speech of the time period. One of those is what’s called a chiastic structure. A chiastic structure is essentially a “pyramid pattern” where a theme presented at the beginning is repeated in a modulated fashion at the end, often with repeated words; a second theme presented after the first one is then the second to last presented in a similar modulated fashion, and so on so forth. This reversed repetition circles a central theme in the middle. We might visually represent it like this:

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This kind of pattern is found throughout the bible as well as other oral works from diverse places and time periods. Here is one from the story of Noah:

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Here is one from Beowulf:

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Is there one in today’s reading? I actually think there are two. I also think that these chiastic structures, are part of a three part movement including Thessalonians 4:9-12, which together make a larger ABA’ pattern. So, instead of reading the passage in the block paragraph format, let’s try something like this:

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Clearly there is a lot here to unpack, and this is only scratching the surface. I also don’t want to pretend this reading of the text is necessarily the best. I am sure someone with more education would find an even better way to read this passage. But for our purposes, this helps us get a sense of how these words may have read to the ancient readers of this text. Not wanting to try to say too much and losing important things in the deluge, I won’t comment on everything I’ve picked out here, but only on some of the key moments of the text.

First, Paul refers to his audience as brothers. This is the same word as Jesus used in Matthew 23:8 when he said to the disciples that they are all brothers in the one Teacher (Himself.) Paul’s use of this term here and elsewhere shows the understanding that by receiving Christ’s word, the newly baptized also share in that brotherhood of Christ. More will be brought out on the use of this word later.

Second, the word used for “conducting yourselves” in Greek literally means “to walk.” So, when Paul is saying “How you should conduct yourselves,” he’s literally saying, “How you should walk.” Keep this in mind as we get to the end of the text.

The center of the first chiasm seems to be “to please God.” Right away, Paul is putting a context around the exhortation he is giving to his readers. We don’t “conduct ourselves” rightly for our own sake, we do it in order to please God; or, as the Greek word literally means “to win God’s favor and affection by being in moral agreeement with him.”

Moving on to the second chiasm, we see the phrase, “This is the will of God, your holiness.” Already, Paul is advancing his argument. In the first chiasm, he said that we “conduct ourselves” rightly in order to please God. Now, he’s advanced his argument by saying, “What pleases God is your holiness.” The word for holiness in Greek, when applied to believers means “being transformed by the Lord into His likeness.” Thus, we’re not just good because God likes it when we are good, and we like it when God is pleased with us. In fact, we are good because being good makes us more like God.

Next, I underlined the phrase “you know how to acquire a wife,” because it’s linguistically interesting. The phrase literally rendered might read something like “to know how to win mastery over your own vessel.” Clearly, this is an idiom of some sort, but there are actually two possible interpretations. The first is the one above, where “vessel” means wife and “win mastery” means acquire. This is certainly possible. St. Peter referred to wives as vessels (1 Peter 3:7) so there is certainly a precedent for this interpretation. However, there is another equally strong interpretation where vessel means one’s body. Hence, Paul is exhorting his listeners to gain mastery over their body. Personally, I prefer the second interpretation, given that the first seems to suggest that Paul is encouraging marriage, whereas in the majority of his letters he seems to promote celibacy as the ideal. However, both interpretations have strong scholarship behind them, and at this point there is no clear scholarly answer as to which 1st century Christians would have taken. It is also possible that Paul was aware of the double meaning here, and deliberately left it vague.

As we near the climax of this passage, we are given a clear contrast between the brothers and the Gentiles. The brothers follow the will of God for holiness. The Gentiles follow their passionate lust because they do not know God. It’s interesting to note that the language here mirrors this contrast. The word for will is θέλημά (Thelayma) and the word for lust is θυμία (Thymia). This similarity would not have gone unnoticed in an oral reading.

Now, having established a contrast between the brothers and the Gentiles, Paul does something interesting. Paul says, “not to take or exploit a brother.” This is striking because of the seemingly limited scope. Are Christians only not to exploit other Christians? How can St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles as he is called, seem to take such an anti-Gentile position? Keep this question in mind as we get to the end of the text.

Finally, we reach the third chiasm. I highlighted “mutual charity” in purple, the color I used for brothers, because the word used here is, “philadelphias,” or brotherly love. This is important because the sentence reads, “On the subject of mutual charity you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” The Greek word used for love here is agape.
Without knowing the Greek, one might think that mutual charity and love are synonymous here, and they might be! Or, they might not. Now, I want to be upfront and say that I have not found any commentaries which support the interpretation I am taking here, so take it with a grain of salt. And, if anyone finds work contradicting what I am saying here, I would certainly be happy to read it and revise my interpretation. But, my take is not that St. Paul is saying, “I don’t need to write to you about friendship, because God has already taught you about it.” Rather, St. Paul is saying, “I don’t need to write to you about friendship, or love among brothers, because God has already taught you a higher love.”

This brings us to our climax of the third chiasm. Paul writes, “Nevertheless, we urge you, brothers, to progress even more.” We’ve heard this language of even more before, in the first chiasm. Taking the interpretation given, Paul has just revealed what he means by “do so even more” or “progress even more.” He is calling them from a brotherly affection with each other into agape love, Christian love, the unbounded love of Jesus Christ.

It is finally at the conclusion where Paul tips his hand. Paul is calling them to live a tranquil life and essentially be good citizens so that they can conduct themselves properly toward outsiders. Here Paul resolves the dichotomy between the Brothers and The Gentiles or Outsiders. Remember, in the beginning we said that “conducting yourselves” can also mean “walk.” Perhaps, this part of the passage ought to be read as a call to live the law of Christ in faith in order to walk toward the outsider. Perhaps, this passage is not meant merely to distinguish between the brethren and the gentile, but to encourage the brothers to bring the gentile into the brethren. Essentially, Paul appears to be encouraging evangelism, first, by moving from a love among brothers to a universal love of and through Christ, and second, by living the law of Christ ourselves.

If this is what St. Paul is asking of us, I think that raises a lot of questions for us today. When we speak of evangelism today in our local parish, do we seem to be following the advice of St. Paul? Do potential churchgoers see Christians living a calm life of service to the community such that they know that our faith impacts the way we work and live? Do we hold ourselves up to the high standards of St. Paul, and thus attract possible converts by living an attractive life? Or do we try to sink to their level in order to be “relevant?”

Conversely, do we live the high demands of a Christian life for the sake of sharing the joy of the Christians life with others, or does our close-knit parish community become a clique separated from outsiders? For example, I remember a parish I was at once that had a meeting on evangelization that was trying to answer the question, “Why don’t we get more newcomers?” When asked what was positive about the parish, the people present said, “We are a small community parish with families that have known each other for ages and we want to keep it that way.” It wasn’t until someone pointed out the dichotomy between this sentiment and the desire to attract new people that those present began to realize the deep messaging problems they were having. These were certainly not bad people! Between them, they dedicated countless hours of service and underpaid employment to the parish out of love for God and their community. Any parish would be lucky to have people like them! However, what St. Paul is reminding us today is that God calls us not just to love our church family, but to love all people, in the hopes, that through our evangelism, all people are led to Christ, and all people are then members of our Church family.

 

Post by: Niko Wentworth

-References to Greek words in the passage were done through biblehub.com
-Chiastic structures for the Noah and Beowulf passages taken from the wikipedia article for Chiastic Structure
-Main image is “Paul preaching at the Areopagus” by Raphael

“Shallow Entry Point” – The Youth Dilemma

I recall quite clearly an encounter I had shortly after having been accepted as a diocesan seminarian at the tender age of 18. One of the older brethren was describing to me our upcoming annual retreat and convocation. He noted it would be pretty laid back, not too intense, and that there would be “more serious retreats” in seminary. “Okay,” I thought, “that should be no problem. I’ve been on plenty of retreats before.”

What I experienced was something quite at odds with what I was expecting… Sure, there was plenty of recreation, but every day also had Morning Prayer, Mass, Day Prayer, Holy Hour, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, conferences, private meditation, and sometimes a rosary or extra Holy Hour… All that was a bit overwhelming at the time, as the retreats I’d been on in high school contained very little prayer by comparison, and yet this was “not too intense,” etc. “What then,” I wondered, “will the serious retreats be like? And do priests really have to pray this whole breviary thing every day? Oh my goodness!”

Well, I survived, and looking back I can definitely agree with the older seminarian’s description. For the average man in formation or clerical ministry, basically all those disciplines should constitute a normal day. Mass, rosary, the breviary, maybe some study, Holy Hour… In fact, it is not realistic to expect oneself to persist in celibacy or to be effective as a physician of souls without such a regimen. A “serious retreat” then, should consist of mostly silence, prayer, and possibly some extra mortification. It should be a time to focus exclusively on fellowship with God and the improvement of one’s spiritual life, not strengthening your volleyball serve, learning to play the guitar, or finally making a move on your crush, as good as these goals might be.

This brings me to the issue at hand: the amount of prayer and silence at many, or even most, youth retreats and conferences, or even regular events at the parish. Some are so incredibly noisy and chaotic one must wonder if the point is to traumatize kids into practicing the Faith, as if the louder the keynote speaker says something, the more the Holy Spirit is there. This is not really what is going on, of course; the point is to make the Gospel and prayer accessible by providing a “shallow entry point” to largely unchurched kids coming from a noisy and hostile culture, and “breaking in” can be done effectively with such means.

Okay. There is merit to this. But how shallow is too shallow? And how do you gently push the “big kids” into the deep end?

I suppose I am, to some extent, a product of “shallow entry-point” praxis, and I have known it to reap lasting fruit in others as well. On the other hand, I have also seen the growth spring up and wither away with the sun. (Matthew 13:6, 20-21)

It might be helpful to take a look at St. John of the Cross for a moment.  A few tidbits from the beginning pages of Dark Night will be enough to get a clear sense of the problems which inevitably come with a one-size-fits-all shallow entry-point praxis.

“Sometimes they are anxious that others shall realize how spiritual and devout they are, to which end they occasionally give outward evidence thereof in movements, sighs and other ceremonies; and at times they are apt to fall into certain ecstasies, in public rather than in secret, wherein the devil aids them, and they are pleased that this should be noticed, and are often eager that it should be noticed more.”

“Furthermore, they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious.”

“These persons, in [receiving Holy Communion], strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices.”

One can only imagine what this great Doctor of the Church would say about the average American youth conference – surely, his tongue would be as a whip. In fact, John would argue that the violent noise and flashy lights are exactly the opposite of the way out of the beginning stages of spirituality for someone already accustomed to such things. What the beginner needs is a calm introduction and encouragement into small mortifications and deprivations of the senses which their charity is already prompting them to make. Staying up all night in Adoration is certainly a good thing – on a retreat. But such an experience might prove rather fruitless without some firm resolution to grow in a reasonable way in the practice of daily prayer, mortification, detachment from some creature or even from some sin. So-called “retreat highs” constitute a serious obstacle to such discipline, as they soothe one’s senses and trick the soul into thinking itself to have grown on account of feeling consoled, while there has often been no earnest commitment made to rise higher in the spiritual life. In fact, a person who allows himself to be satisfied with feeling holy and therefore does not seek to purge himself of sin and vice is actually likely to be regressing. In other words:

Sincere and interested kids might be allowing themselves to be fooled by their own emotions. (Would it really be a surprise that this happens in the spiritual life as well as in natural affairs?) Teens (and adults, by the way,) who are already intrigued and present a modicum of commitment ought to be led away from self-serving spirituality into a more disciplined and moderate spirituality ordered toward a careful generosity. (I say the generosity should be “careful” because all too often a person moving out of the early stages of the spiritual life will want to make big commitments which are often the product of an earnest explicit desire to be generous with the Lord but which rest upon a secret pride or simple ignorance of what the sacrifice they are making actually entails. This sets the person up for bitterness, despair, or, worst of all, hubristic pride in their spiritual disciplines. Unlike a normal, merely human relationship, we must never give the Lord more than what He wants.)

On the other hand, many kids showing up for retreats or youth group are not being prompted by charity to move forward because, tragically, they do not have charity: they are in mortal sin and are often attached to it. They are there because their parents made them go, and they want to leave as soon as possible. They have not even really begun the spiritual life in earnest. Trying to lead them into silence, solitude, and mortification would likely be a total overload and utterly repel them. Even kids who have made a break with grave sin are often still so overwhelmed by the frantic quest of the senses for satiation that the thought of a whole day without human communication or any entertainment would be enough to crush their spirit to the point of making the whole exercise a waste or even a damaging experience. This reality shows the sense of Paul’s approach with the Corinthians: “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not ready for it…” (1 Cor. 3:2) It seems that the quickest way to “hook” such kids might be to use the pleasant things they are already familiar with – loud noise, novelty, emotion, etc. There are, however, plenty of kids who will be even more repelled by such an attempt, especially if some imitation of the world is a bad imitation. They sense the lack of authenticity and figure that there couldn’t be something so great behind the mask, otherwise whatever it really is wouldn’t be pretending to be something it’s not. And these kids are on to something, aren’t they…

What to do? Here are some options which present themselves, arranged (in my opinion) from the most challenging to the least, though they are not mutually exclusive.

  1. Separate the kids who are more advanced, and give them more “solid food.” But how to go about this… What criteria would be used? Where are the human and economic resources for this? What social tension could be caused? What temptation would there be to “get into the holy group?” Etc. Perhaps something like this could be done informally and/or discreetly.
  2. Provide more variety at retreats and conferences. This is often difficult because of resources… Time, money, space, chaperones (!), etc. However, it might sometimes also be a function of a lack of expressed interest. Might there be some designated “quiet areas” at some larger youth conferences? Options for talks on more “difficult” subjects, like mortification? Perhaps…
  3. Provide different voluntary opportunities for more serious spiritual experiences throughout the year. Some high school kids really could benefit, for example, from an 8 day silent retreat, doing the Ignatian Exercises. Perhaps this number is small, and these things can be expensive, but the option ought to be there periodically. A lot of kids don’t even know that such opportunities exist – why are they not being informed? Even something communal could be done in a more seriously contemplative mode.
  4. Teach more about the spiritual life throughout the course of the year. This is practical, but those responsible for youth would have to put in the effort to learn and teach the basics of ascetical theology (in addition to other relevant things, like Scripture, fundamental morals, Sacraments, and so on). For the fringe kids who are only showing up to check the box to make Confirmation, this education would need to be extremely tactful but also assertive and frequent. Having a teen a grade higher give a talk before everyone goes on a Confirmation retreat is good; a series of letters to parents and those preparing for Confirmation which then are followed up with a one-on-one meeting with the pastor about their understanding of those letters and the spiritual life both in general and as it relates to their preparation for Confirmation might be better.
  5. Actively and tirelessly encourage kids to go to confession on a regular basis. Get Father to come by youth group once a month just for this reason. Seeing as not every kid could have a real spiritual director, as there are not enough clergy for the task (at least in America), this is the next best thing. Oh and they will have their sins forgiven too, making sure they are in grace and ready to make the most of whatever else is going on in youth group that day.
  6. Increase the use of neutral methods of attracting kids which lend themselves more easily to showing and providing the depth of the spiritual treasures of the Church, and decrease the use of other methods. For example, take the youth group hiking… This is basically what Our Lord did for three years with the Twelve. Get the kids involved with service to their own community (maybe not some far off land where their perceived use will far exceed their actual use)… Feed the homeless, visit the sick, etc. Have them step up to help with the parish’s broader life, especially liturgy. And so on. These are all activities that would satisfy a Borromeo or a Vianney but would also not be too much for the average 9th grader. In the meantime, try to strip away some of the kitsch and imitation of secular life that tend to deter (in the short term and in the long term) more than they attract.

Shepherding teenagers from various backgrounds and with differing levels of interest, maturity, and sensibility is undoubtedly a massive challenge which only grows with the numbers, and youth ministers are often under appreciated for all the work they do. But we ought to be able to admit that a monolithic (and therefore less work-intensive) “no child left behind” policy, where the lowest common spiritual denominators are always catered to, tends to stunt the growth of kids who are looking to go further but find no exterior means to do so; and this can sometimes result in their own eventual drifting away, as they see nothing beyond what they have already experienced and realize one day that what they have experienced is not as great as they once thought. Who wants to stay in the shallows forever? People will eventually look for a deep end to swim in, whether those waters are safe or not. There need not be a “youth dilemma” – we are a both/and kind of Church, after all. The pool should have a shallow end, but it can and should have a deep end too.

These are my thoughts and suggestions from my limited perspective. Please add your own in the comments!

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image source: http://www.sparhawk.info

The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

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I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

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And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

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Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

Adventures in Liturgy: Funeral, or Celebration of Life?

Recently, I was distributing Holy Communion during a Mass of Christian Burial. The coffin was to my immediate right, and the family of the deceased to my immediate left. The Communion Procession was moving in an orderly fashion, when suddenly there was a bottleneck. When I looked up to see what was happening, I couldn’t believe my eyes: having just received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, people were greeting members of the immediate family who were sitting in the front row. I was stunned! I whispered quietly, “Please keep moving, you are blocking the other communicants.”

How did we get here? Answering this question is simultaneously simple, and equally complex. While one may say people no longer know how to act properly in public, I propose that there are other realities at work as well.

The General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals states, Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.[1] Our worship, whether at a funeral or many regular parish Masses, has become so anthropocentric, that we have lost a grip on the reality that we gather to worship, praise, and thank God; instead we often make ourselves the source, center, and end of our liturgical celebration. At a funeral, we gather not for a celebration of life, but to encounter the mercy of God and the promise of eternal life found only in Christ.

Secondly, we live in a world without sin. To admit that there is sin in the world and that we are sinners does not mean that we are bad people. To admit that we are sinners and that there are acts that are objectively right or wrong, proclaims that we are human beings who need to be redeemed through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Death is a consequence of sin. The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sin.[2] To admit that we are sinners is to acknowledge that the deceased, and all those present, is truly human, and that God alone is the healer of our pain, and the source of forgiveness.

Death is very hard, and the reality of separation from those we love most dearly is heart wrenching. At the rite of final commendation and farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognizes the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. [3]We have come from God and we are returning to God: our origin is a reality, and to return to God our goal. Is this basic reality present to the minds and hearts of believers today? While life is to be lived and lived to the fullest of the potential God has given us, do we keep before us that our time on earth is not what gives us meaning, but rather that we are destined for God? The preaching, life, liturgy, and catechesis of the Church needs to proclaim loudly that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.[4] A celebration of life fails to lead us to embrace our true citizenship.

If the Liturgy truly forms our faith and shapes our living, our approach to death and the Rites of Christian burial may reflect more accurately that we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.[5]

Post by: Fr. Jordan Kelly, O.P.

Main image: A Funeral at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1850

[1] Order of Christian Funerals, hereafter OCF, #5.

[2] OCF, #6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Philippians, 3:20.

[5] OCF, # 71.

A Forgotten Sin

There is a strange and subtle fault that plagues human hearts. It is strange because it is committed only with other sins, and it is subtle because one already has forgiveness on his mind when he commits it and so is likely not to think it needs repenting from. What is this sin?

Presumption.

Presumption is opposed to the virtue of hope, whereby we desire and expect God’s forgiveness and help in obtaining Heaven. It is the contrary of despair… The presumptuous person throws aside the moral law on account of the excessive character of his hope. He expects too much from God: he expects a thing not promised. Salvation has not been promised to those who merely fulfill a formula (viz., announcing one’s sins in sacramental confession, for example) but rather to those who exhibit perfect contrition, which is the rejection of all to do with sin – its evil effects, its evil content, and its evil motivation – out of love for God (with the assumption of making confession soon, if not presently making one), and to those who at least have true “attrition” (fear of punishment) within the sacrament of confession itself. Presumption is a special kind of motivation… a “meta-sin” if you will. One is in danger of not having adequate repentance for the sacrament of confession to receive absolution if he fails to mention presumption, as he brings his lack of the fear of God into the confessional with him. For a valid confession, one must at least have true attrition – fear of punishment. The presumptuous person does not have this fear with regard to himself. (If you have just become aware of this sin in your life, you should assume that your prior confessions were valid unless you have a clear certainty that you were not really trying that hard to examine your conscience. Simply mention presumption in your next confession.)

To help understand this sin, here’s a natural, human form of presumption. Imagine a child who stays out well past his curfew. When he comes home, his parents are upset, but he apologizes for his lateness and they forgive him. Then, on their way to bed, they hear their son talking on the phone to a friend – “Yeah they were mad but they forgave me. I knew they would, that’s why I did it.”

Ouch. What parent wouldn’t then proceed with an even more severe punishment than what mere lateness merited?

Unlike an unsuspecting parent, God is wise to this game. A person has “too much hope” if he thinks that “God will forgive me” is an excuse for doing whatever he wants and then only confessing the faults he commits because of his expectation of forgiveness. He must also confess his motivation – presuming upon God’s mercy. In this sense, presumption is “an inordinate conversion to God,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is strange to our ears, but it is indeed what this sin is; a person hopes so much for forgiveness that his servile fear is entirely demolished and replaced not by filial fear but by disobedience.

Presumption is a daughter of pride. One who thinks he is so great as to deserve Heaven is likely to fall into halfhearted repentance, or even into no repentance at all. What a calamity! Pride can also lead to another kind of presumption, namely, the rash assumption that God has blessed one’s endeavors in such a way that failure will be impossible or at least improbable in the project one has undertaken. For example, a man decides to become a missionary in China. He prayed, but he did not seek the approval of any ecclesial authority nor take counsel with a prudent spiritual director. How does he know that this is really God’s will? He does not. He would be guilty of this secondary kind of presumption. So too would a person who thinks himself to have “the gift of healing” and so goes about laying hands on people without authentic discretion. This is presumptuous of God’s grace and also exposes the Gospel to ridicule.

Knowing you have committed this sin is not always so easy. There is a difference between the hope of forgiveness motivating a sin and the hope of forgiveness occasioning a sin… I have given an example of the former in the context of human relationships. An example of the latter would be something more like a child who has become used to his parents forgiving him and so loses some respect and fear of punishment. He does not consciously choose to violate their legitimate demands on him because he knows they will forgive him, but a kind of vicious habit has been ingrained nonetheless. Where is the line between these two cases? It might not always be so clear. What we can say is that a person who consciously makes forgiveness a condition of his sinful action has certainly committed this sin, and a person who has lost respect and fear of punishment is in serious danger of committing this sin.

To reiterate, presumption requires its own mention in confession, as it is its own distinct sin. Often a person will know he has done something seriously wrong by using “God will forgive me” as a motivation for sin but will not have the vocabulary to explain himself in confession. The word is “presumption.”

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Pope Francis goes to confession – via Catholic News Agency

Lord, It Is Good That We Are Here

“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)

I’ve seen people give Peter a hard time for not “getting” what was happening in front of him at the Transfiguration. Mark’s Gospel says parenthetically “he hardly knew what to say – they were so frightened.” But I think we need to give our first pope some credit where credit is due.

Peter was thinking quickly on his feet. So he intrudes into the conversation and asks whether he should build three tents. For us, this sounds odd, but for Peter, he must have thought he had solved the problem: this had to be the beginning of the end times. He might have picked up on how Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament festivals. He knew of the Jewish tradition that Moses and Elijah would come again before the end of the world. Now, since they’ve come, he was hoping Christ was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel and reap the much-anticipated harvest of souls. It was the Christological fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths.

They needed tents.

The Festival of Booths (Feast of Tabernacles / Sukkoth) is one of the three major feasts in the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 23:39). For a week, they would dwell outside in tents (“booths”) for seven days, reminiscent of their time dwelling in tents during their exodus sojourn. The timing of the Festival of Booths corresponded with a yearly grain harvest, wherein whole communities would work day and night (with the aid of a full moon) to gather in the harvest and do the work of threshing the grain. Removed from its initial agricultural context, the Festival Booths still looked forward to the harvest that was to come at the end of time. Although Peter’s exclamation of “Lord, it is good that we are here” is a fitting expression of eschatological rest, the tent-building suggestion might have been a little too much.

Peter figured out pretty well what was going on. However, Peter still did not know what he was saying. Where Peter erred was not his analysis – the event of the Transfiguration is the fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths – but his approach.

Peter approached the Transfiguration as a problem to be solved, not as a mystery to be entered into.

The Meaning of Mystery

So when Christians use the word “mystery,” we do not mean a problem without an answer. No, for Christians, a mystery is something that is so intensely knowable that it exceeds the powers of human comprehension. A mystery is so great that it encompasses the subject.

With a little help from the French personalist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, we should distinguish between “mystery” and its misused synonym “problem.” For Marcel, something is a mystery when the self is implicated in it. A mystery cannot be studied from a distance, but is experienced by entering further into it. Openness to mystery is openness to the whole of a reality.

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Gabriel Marcel, French Catholic Philosopher, 1889-1973

A “problem,” on the other hand, is something that “is placed in front of me, blocking my way.” To treat something as a problem is to purposely exclude yourself from it. It is a purely notional engaging of a situation, wherein one can find objective and finite answers with universal implications.

Problems are the stuff of scientists. Mysteries are the stuff of mystics.

Let me give you an example.

Once, my five-year old niece told me, “Did you know that, when I’m in the car, the moon follows me? It really does!”

Infected as I was by the spirit of abstraction, I told her, “It only looks like it is following you because it’s so far away.” I thought I could maybe explain to her how perspective works at such distances. To prove this, I thought I could set up an experiment, putting her in one car and her sister in another car. They would go separate directions and observe how the moon follows both of them. Then I could prove to my niece that, since the moon cannot possibly be following both of them, there must be another explanation. That explanation would be in the reality of the great distance between the earth and the moon, a distance that can be observed and measured. Science would win out over childish naïveté.

But before I could get anywhere to disprove her childish notion, she interrupted, “NO. The moon really follows me.”

In the face of such opposition, I thus abandoned my attempt to scientifically disprove her childish perception.

For my five-year old niece, the moon was a mystery; it really did follow her. The moon was so beyond her that, rather than disconnecting her, it implicated her in its path. However mistaken her understanding of perspective, she approached it with wonder. And she rightly would not let that wonder be extinguished.

To me, the moon was a problem that needed to be solved; it could be measured and placed conceptually at a distance. I knew that its movements and phases are configured to a different pattern than my sporadic movements. Instead of encountering the moon with her, I abstracted. Although technically correct (the moon does not follow you), my approach prevented me from being gripped by the mystery of the moon and sharing in my niece’s wonder.

Like my niece with the moon, a mystery is so beyond us, that we cannot help but be pulled into it. A mystery is so large that it necessarily involves the viewer.

In this way, God Himself is a mystery, being so far beyond us that, at the same time, He embraces us and loves us in our very being.

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

It is in this way that the event of the Transfiguration is a mystery.

Since mysteries overwhelm us, they implicate us – they require our response. Our response, then, to the mystery of the Transfiguration is not to solve the puzzle of Moses and Elijah’s appearance, but to enter deeply into the reality of what is before us.

Although technically correct, Peter’s approach prevented him from being gripped by the mystery. So while Peter was still speaking, a higher voice interrupts him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Through the mystery of the Transfiguration, we are meant to share in Jesus’ own prayer with the Father. By beholding the glory of Christ transfigured and listening to him, we become sons and daughters in the Son. By entering in to the mystery of the Transfiguration – by listening to God’s beloved Son – we become what we contemplate.

How do we enter in to the mystery of the Transfiguration? For us Christians, we go to the source and the summit of the Christian life – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we can look at the Mass just as a problem to be solved, a ritual to be analyzed, a puzzle to be deciphered. Or we can enter into the mystery of the Mass.

In every celebration of the Mass, we ascend the mountain with Christ, and we encounter something that overwhelms our understanding: God incarnate – the second Person of the Holy Trinity – comes to us as bread and wine. So great is the glory of Christ in the Eucharist, so utterly beyond us, that we are pulled into the mystery. The altar is our Mount Tabor, where we see His glory, not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of faith. Over the altar the Father’s voice mystically resounds, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We who enter into this mystery by receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion are enveloped by the cloud of the Holy Spirit. At Mass, we enter in to the mystery of God’s glory. He gazes on us, and we gaze on Him, and we become what we contemplate.

It is good that we are here.

 

Post by: Fr. Peter Gruber

Main Image: The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor

First Fridays: Leviticus 23

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘These are the festivals of the LORD which you shall celebrate at their proper time with a sacred assembly.’”

So begins the Old Testament reading for today. Following this introduction, the reading continues with God pronouncing the major feasts that would make up the Jewish calendar: The Sabbath, the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Offering of First Fruits, Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles. It may seem that this list of Jewish festivals may not appear to be particularly relevant to the modern Christian. After all, we don’t celebrate these feasts; so why did this passage and others like it make its way into our lectionary? What can we take away from them?

One reason why these readings are important to us is the historical background which they provide us about our ancestors in faith and the religious culture into which our Lord was born. The present is shaped by the past, so learning about the lived experience of those who preceded us and how they kept their traditions alive gives us a blueprint for doing the same today. For example, that the Festival of Weeks is a celebration commemorating the wheat harvest in Israel does not seem to be of utmost importance to the modern Christian. However, knowing that the Festival of Weeks was also known as Pentecost because it fell 50 days after Passover, in the same way as the Christian Pentecost follows 50 days after Easter, and that apart from being a harvest celebration, it commemorates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, allows us to enter into the liturgical importance of this festival. Understanding the relationship between the giving of the law at Sinai, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost allows us to see the gradual fulfillment of salvation history and the slow unveiling of God’s love throughout time.

But for this post, I don’t want to talk about the rich theological insights a close study of each of these festivals would give us. There are others who have done a much better job than I could. Interested readers could do no better than to check out the Berit Olam commentaries published by The Liturgical Press. Rather, I want to focus on the general theme present throughout the entire narrative, (which in the reading is presented in a redacted form.) That is, the elements of time and space, and how they are ordered to the worship of God. If you look at Leviticus 23:1-44, there are several phrases that you would find repeated multiple times. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” “The appointed festivals” or “sacred assemblies,” “Do no regular work,” and “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “Wherever you live.” I want to concentrate on these repeated phrases as revelatory of the kind of relationship God wants the children of Israel to have with Him and with each other. Finally, after looking at these, I want to address the seemingly out of place verse of Leviticus 23:22 which I think is central to the passage.

To begin, it should be noted that Leviticus 23 begins a new “section” in the book of Leviticus. The previous “section” dealt with the conduct of the priests, and now we have seemed to move on from that to norms of general conduct for all the Israelites. How fascinating that the first directive God gives to His people is a calendar! Even before the seemingly paramount sections on rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience (Leviticus 26), God gives very specific instructions for when to celebrate liturgical feasts. Furthermore, the passage makes it clear that this is a divine command. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” is repeated several times, reiterating how the giving of the calendar of feasts comes from God Himself. In fact, the chapter ends with God saying, “I am the Lord your God,” using the divine “I am” with which he first identified Himself to Moses to underline the sacred nature of the festivals just commanded. Furthermore, the repetition of “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “wherever you live” reflect the universality of these commands. These commands hold true, not just for the small group being spoken to, but for all of God’s people, wherever and whenever they are.

It is because of this that we hear repeated the command to do “no regular work” (in other translations, servile or laborious work). Is this command given because God disapproved of the work they Israelites did? Of course not. God commands that sacred days be days of rest as a reminder that these are not normal “work days.” They are days that we rededicate ourselves to the work of the Lord, that is, prayer. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day after the work of creation, we rest after our participation in that unfolding work of creation to remind ourselves of what that work is ordered to – God.

And that is what I think this passage reveals the most about God and about ourselves. Our work is ordered to our rest, which is itself ordered towards our relationship with God. As human beings, we are transcendent creatures. We have limited needs like any other animal; we eat until we aren’t hungry anymore, we sleep until we aren’t tired anymore, we seek shelter from the elements, and all the other basic necessities. But we also have unlimited transcendent desires. We have a desire for beauty, for companionship, for wholeness, for infinite joy. That is, we have a desire for God. God led the Israelites out of Egypt and he gave them the calendar of feasts not to satisfy their basic animal needs, but their transcendent human needs. God gave the Israelites a calendar of feasts and directions of how to celebrate them even before He finished leading Israel into the Holy Land because it was given to them for the purpose of worship, and so their time in the land and their use of it must be ordered to that purpose.

Do we find this to be the reality in our lives today? Do we order our time and our space to that reality? How often do we find our work encroaching into our time with God? How often are we tempted to skip prayer or even just healthy social activities in order to get work done because we think that is what is expected of us? Could you imagine what kind of a society we would be if our calendars were arranged around preserving the sacredness of the day of rest? Imagine if employers arranged work schedules in a way that not only provided employees with sufficient “days of rest” but also such that they could participate with dignity in community activities (both religious and other healthy communal gatherings.)

It is to that point which I think the, seemingly out of place, verse of Leviticus 22:23 is ordered. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” This is the “gleaning law” of ancient Israel, which essentially stated that those who owned and worked farmland ought not be so exacting in their harvest that those without land wouldn’t be able to find food should they glean from the field. In a passage about liturgical feasts, why would this command be placed in the exact middle? It’s true, the Festival of Weeks is a harvest festival and so making a point about harvesting is not completely out of place here, but it still seems a little strange.

However, reflecting on the idea that our time and resources are ultimately ordered to the service of God, we might find religious significance in the gleaning law. In some sense, the gleaning law made it possible for the poor to participate in the festival. It ensured that there would be food available after the harvest for those who begged in order to fulfill their basic needs. The poor would not have to worry if taking time off from their job for the festival would impact their ability to fill their needs. Just as a farmer has a right to collect the fruit of his labor from his field but not be so exacting that there is none left for others, an employer has a right to his employees time (for a fair wage of course,) but not to be so exacting in his demands that an employee does not have time or energy left for religious and community oriented activities in a respite from “regular work.”

As a reflection, we might ask ourselves, do we keep the “gleaning law” in our own lives? Do we ensure that every day we have several periods of time protected from the encroachment of our daily demands, our regular and laborious work? Do we use that time to concentrate not on our basic animal needs, but our transcendent human needs? What “mini-festivals” do we have planned in our day in which our focus is on prayer to God and charity towards our neighbor? Is our time away from the office ordered towards these higher things, or is it only a brief respite to prepare for the next day on the job? Essentially, do we work to live, or are we living to work? With these thoughts in mind, thanks be to our God, who takes care of our needs so that we can use this time on Earth to grow closer to Him!

 

Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857, oil on canvas

Shame of Thrones

Jesus said two of the three following things. See if you can tell which one doesn’t belong: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” “Anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “Fear not to watch people have gratuitous amounts of violent sex and graphically kill each other, for I say unto you, it is artistic.”

I refuse to apologize for the following rant.

Lately I’ve seen a few pieces critiquing Game of Thrones. One from The Week had a particularly good presentation of the reality of this show’s content. If you are unfamiliar with the show, first of all, what rock have you been hiding under? Second of all, can I join you? It sounds nice there – a place where you don’t know that a show replete with sadistic wizard porn and comically graphic violence is touted by countless critics as so “meaningful” and “artistic” that to date it has received over 600 nominations for major awards and has won over 200 of them. This includes winning 38 Emmy’s – the most ever.

It is perhaps not that shocking that it’s a critically acclaimed show. What is shocking, or at least should be, is that so many Catholics try to make a defense for it, which is the sin of scandal – and I mean scandal in the sense of “leading the little ones to sin,” not in the sense of offending sensibilities. After running across the articles mentioned above, I did some research. To my dismay, there is an entire tradition of Catholic GoT apologia and artistic intrigue.

Good riddance.

“Game of Thrones isn’t really pornographic.” Except for all the scenes which remove “real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” (CCC #2354) The big counter is, no, pornography necessarily means the creator has an intention of “manipulation towards the end of sexual arousal.” Never mind that one of the main actors thinks its pornographic. Never mind the tangential nature of many of these scenes to the plot. Never mind the disproportion of graphic depictions of women compared to men. (I could go on, but I won’t.) What really matters is that it’s obvious that such a high percentage of viewers are going to use these images for self-abuse and lustful thoughts, and the producers of the show know this and definitely exploit it for viewership, that it boggles the mind that someone would try to defend this garbage as – wait for it – “intended to elicit [a] heightened awareness of humanity.” I have a word for that so-called “heightened awareness” – lust.

“Game of Thrones presents a meaningful search for virtue.” Why is this, you ask? Because some characters occasionally do something self-sacrificial or heroic, and one character reads a lot. The author admits, however, “Unfortunately we don’t get a lot of learned intellectual discussion in Game of Thrones. . .” What we do get a lot of is rape, torture, incest, and meaningless nudity. If these characters are searching for virtue, they need to search harder. The producers of the show, however, are definitely searching for viewership to make money and advance their careers. Guess what sells? Vice, and one vice in particular.

“Game of Thrones has good writing.”  Let’s say that it does – which is disputable. So what? Maybe you like the writing in the Koran or the Communist Manifesto or the latest Dawkins screed. Does that mean it’s good for your soul? Would you go to the strip club because you like the music they play, even though you are imperiling your soul? That’s what this is like.

Sources could be multiplied, but why bother? I should add, however, that there are loads of people deeply enamored by the fact that one of the religions in the show is based off Catholicism. Great, just what we need. Are you really of the opinion that Our Lord thinks that’s “cool”?

I can hear the voices calling out… “But it IS artistic! There IS good writing! You just don’t GET IT! Look at the way – ”

I know. I’m a filmmaker. I get that there are some neat artistic devices, and I can appreciate that. But again, to say that justifies everything else is ludicrous. It would be like saying that since Jack the Ripper had style, it would have been worth letting him run free. As I’ve argued before, otherwise good art can be ruined by distractions.

“But there’s violence and sex in the Old Testa-”

And that’s written down, it’s not dwelt on, it’s true, and it’s relevant to our salvation history and therefore to understanding the Life of Our Lord and the meaning of His Church. So no, that does not work.

“But it’s not necessarily a sin to -”

And walking on the edge of a cliff is not the same as falling off. But sheep walk off cliffs. We are spiritual sheep, and watching a show like this is a spiritual cliff of dizzying heights. Pretending that we can relive the state of Eden before the Fall is nothing short of a delusional rejection of the reality of our wildly disordered concupiscence. Where is our shame? The Lord and His saints are with us while we watch these things, which should disgust us. Shame is exactly that virtue which alerts us to the threat or reality of such self-debasement.

Game of Thrones is popular because so many people got bored with less “interesting” programming. It could only sell after the old stuff wasn’t fun enough. This is how drugs work, by the way… Where does this downward spiral end? Red rooms? One can only speculate, but it will not be pretty. It will be shameful, and we might not even have the integrity to admit it.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: iron throne from Game of Thrones (taken from vox.com)

Did God Really Try to Kill Moses?

Remember all those times in Scripture when God gets so upset with His chosen specially representatives that He actually tries to kill them? You shouldn’t… It is not a frequent occurrence, and it arguably doesn’t even happen when Moses departs from Midian on his way back to Egypt. Let’s see two translations of the relevant passage and then dig in:

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him.25 Then Zippo′rah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.[1]

24And it happened on the way at the night camp that the Lord encountered him and sought to put him to death. 25And Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to his feet, and she said, “Yes, a bridegroom of blood you are to me.” 26And He let him go. Then did she say, “A bridegroom of blood by the circumcising.”[2]

When Moses departs Midian for Egypt, he is met at night by “the Lord,” who tries to kill “him.” Moses’ wife circumcises her son and touches Moses’s (or somebody’s) “feet” with it. She makes a declaration, and the Lord no longer seeks to kill Moses. This passage is so incredibly ambiguous and dense it is not possible to offer any definitive interpretation, but it is clear that it plays an important role in the Book of Exodus nonetheless by providing an example of how important covenants are to God.

These verses are incredibly peculiar for many reasons. One of these is the form of pronouns used. “Exodus 4:24 does not identify the direct object of the verbs ‘met’ and ‘kill.’”[3] Willis also explains that 4:25 does not say whose feet it was to whom she touched the foreskin. Is there some point to this ambiguous language, or is the reader somehow expected to know to whom the pronouns refer? Verse 26 repeats, seemingly unnecessarily, what was said in verse 25 about the bridegroom of blood.

Some more puzzles… Why would the Lord try to kill Moses or his son? If it is really the Lord, how could he fail? What is the nature and meaning of Zipporah’s actions and words? The questions are endless, and so too are the opinions of how to answer them.

At least it seems clear that the attack was related somehow to circumcision. But what exactly is the connection? What is the meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament?

“Great indeed is [the commandment of] circumcision, for there was not the slightest delay concerning it granted [even] to the righteous Moses.”[4] This rite was an all-important event. This cannot be understated. What baptism is to Christians, so circumcision was to the Jews. It began very early in their history and grew into a detailed ritual with manifold meanings. “Circumcision must have been widely practiced in the pre-exilic period. . . It was apparently in the period following the Babylonian exile that circumcision assumed great importance for the Jews, being one of their most distinctive religious rites, along with Sabbath observance.”[5] Eventually, it took on at least 3 distinct spiritual meanings, referenced elsewhere in scripture – circumcision of the heart, of the lips, and of the ears, which would indicate some spiritual good.[6]

However, in his whopping 214-page summary of the various positions on this passage, J. T. Willis points out that J. Coppens argues that while the most popular position regarding the text is that God wanted to slay Moses because of the failure to circumcise his son, it does not work.

“Coppens contends that this interpretation does not make sense, because (1) Moses had two sons; why would he have circumcised only one of them? (2) This son would be approximately forty years of age at this time, but the text presents him as an infant. (3) Why would Yahweh want to kill Moses, whom he chose and sent to deliver his people? Others understand this passage to mean that according to Midianite custom, Moses should have been circumcised just before his marriage; Yahweh wishes to kill him because he neglected this custom; Zipporah saves Moses by substituting the circumcision of their son for the father.”[7]

As will be shown, the ambiguity and strangeness of the passage allows it to elude any definitively authoritative interpretation. As Alter says, “This elliptic story is the most enigmatic episode in all of Exodus. It seems unlikely that we will ever resolve the enigmas it poses. . .”[8] Again: “Exodus 4:24-26 is among the most enigmatic verses in the entire book of Exodus. The episode is not framed in time or space, nor does it seem to be related to its context. Moses is “on the way,” but to where we do not know. The narrative concerns a meeting that seems to happen at night. This is no ordinary meeting but sounds not unlike the meetings of Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28:10-22) and Penuel (Gen 32:22-32).”[9]

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him.

The earliest Jewish commentators decided that it could not be God Himself trying to do the killing. “For, not only did that seem quite unlikely in the larger context, but it would have hardly been appropriate for God to ‘seek to kill’ anyone-if He sought to kill someone, then that someone would be killed!”[10] The Septuagint uses the expression “angel of the Lord,” and this is affirmed by several other ancient translations, including the Targum Onqelos, the Targum Neophyti, and the Fragment Targum (P), which refer to the assailant as “an angel of the Lord,” “the Destroyer,” and “the Angel of Death,” respectively. The Book of Jubilees also refers to him as a wicked angel.[11]

One ancient Jewish commentator says, “At the time that Moses had said to Jethro, ‘Give me Zipporah your daughter as a wife;’ Jethro said to him, ‘Accept this one condition that I will tell you and I will give her to you as a wife:’ He said: ‘What is it?’ Jethro said to him: ‘The son that is born to you first will be given over to idolatry [and, hence, not circumcised], those [born] thereafter can be given to the worship of [your] God:’ He accepted this condition … For that reason did the angel seek to kill Moses at the inn. . .”[12] This would seem to make some sense in light of the verse that just preceding which speaks of the firstborn being put to death as punishment for disobeying the Lord (4:23). “This dire threat [in verse 23], to be fulfilled in the tenth plague, also inducts us to the narrative episode that follows in the next three verses, in which the Lord seeks to kill Moses, and the blood of the firstborn intercedes.”[13]

The inn is specifically mentioned, and perhaps this is significant. “[In the inn or] ‘resting place,’ it probably does not mean a building, but the place where they rested for the night, whether under a tent, or in the open air.”[14] “And so, when, along the way, he [Moses] sought to take care of their lodgings and as a consequence neglected the matter of circumcising his son Eliezer, ‘… the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him’ [Exod. 4:24] .”[15] Kugel opines in a footnote on this passage, “Why would the Bible mention that this incident took place ‘at the inn’ unless it was to hint that the inn had something to do with the reason for the attack? Hence, this interpreter reasons, Moses, in taking care of finding an inn, neglected something more important. Note further that the Hebrew word for ‘inn’ (malon) sounds like the verb for ‘circumcise’ (mill), perhaps suggesting a relationship between the two in the story.”[16]

Ancient Christian authorities also have diverse opinions on the correct interpretation of this passage, which is no surprise. “We must also inquire who that being was of whom it is said in Exodus that he wished to kill Moses because he was setting out for Egypt. And afterwards, who is it that is called the ‘destroying angel,’ and who also is he who in Leviticus is described as Apopompeus, that is, the Averter. . .”[17] Augustine asks, “. . . [Whom] did the angel wish to kill?”[18] Augustine’s answer to this question is Moses’ son. He does not say which one, Gershom or Eliezer. He solves the problem of the missing antecedent by a reference to another text that does the same thing. “For the [87th] psalm begins at that point and had not said anything about the Lord or about that city whose foundations were meant to be understood when the psalm said, ‘Its foundations are on the holy mountains.’ But because of what follows, ‘the Lord loves the gates of Zion,’ the foundations, either those of the Lord or of Zion – ‘of Zion’ yields the better sense – are understood as the foundation of a city.”[19] However, Augustine admits that anyone who states that it is Moses who is the object of the threat “should not be strongly opposed.”[20] He appears to have had a strange translation in front him though, for he says of the following verses, “She does not say that ‘he drew back from him’ because she circumcised the infant but that ‘the blood of circumcision stopped.’ Not that it flowed but that it stopped – in a great mystery, if I am not wrong.”[21] We may say, without shame, that it is very possible that the great Augustine is indeed wrong.

Ephrem the Syrian has something to say about the circumcision, or lack thereof, that precedes the episode. “From the day [the Lord] spoke with him on Horeb, he had not been united to his wife, who was distressed; and she was under judgment because she had not put full faith in his word. [Moses] blamed her for keeping his son from being circumcised.”[22] These two reasons are why the angel appeared, he argues. If Moses had returned to the Hebrews, who had continued circumcision even in such perilous conditions for their children, he would be ridiculed for not having circumcised his son who was safe. Ephrem also states that it was the angel’s feet to which Zipporah held the freshly cut foreskin. Ephrem further comments, “He married Zipporah who bore him two sons: one he circumcised, but the other she did not let him circumcise. For she took pride in her father and brothers [who were uncircumcised], and although she had agreed to be Moses’ wife, she did not wish to adopt his religion … She thus allowed one to continue on the circumcision of Abraham, while forbidding the other [to be circumcised], through whom her father’s tradition of the foreskin would be preserved.”[23]

25a Then Zippo′rah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it…

Jerome and Augustine both see typological significance in the second verse of the passage. “As regards Moses, it is clear that he would have been in peril at the inn, if Zipporah, which is by interpretation ‘a bird,’ had not circumcised her son and cut off the foreskin of marriage with the knife which prefigured the gospel.”[24] It is to him then, a sign of celibacy. Augustine sees circumcision not just as a sacrament of the Old Law, but a prefiguration of baptism.[25] Even more specifically, he sees the flint as Christ. “Christ was the rock whence was formed the stony blade for the circumcision, and the flesh of the foreskin was the body of sin.”[26]

There are still many questions in this verse to be answered, or at least to be asked. “Whose feet are touched with the bloody foreskin? Perhaps Moses’s, but it could be the boy’s, or even the Lord’s. The scholarly claim, moreover, that ‘feet’ is a euphemism for the genitals cannot be dismissed.”[27] (The translation “touched Moses’ feet” is indeed a dynamic translation which has chosen an interpretation to help solve the ambiguity.)

25b – 26 …and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

Regarding specifically the exclamation “bridegroom of blood,” Cohen offers some thoughts. “Her thrusting of the foreskin at the feet [vatagga’ leraglav] of her husband is indicative of the fearful haste she felt impelled to employ and her profound anger at Moses for having endangered their son’s life. She verbalizes this anger in the problematic cry, ‘ki hatan damim attah li [literally: For a bridegroom of blood you are/were for me].’”[28] Cohen says that this condemnation was probably the expression of Zipporah’s anger that by threatening the life of their child (either Gershom or Eliezer) he acted irresponsibly. This could have been the last straw in what she had already seen as a strained marriage due to their differing religions. Her exasperated exclamation would be somewhat more understandable if this is so.

A very important question that has not yet been asked is: what is the meaning of physically touching the “feet” with the foreskin? Was it not enough to remove it? Perhaps there is some connection between this action and Abraham’s request in Genesis 24:2, which is followed by an oath about marriage. This is especially possible if “feet” really is a euphemism. Could Zipporah be indicating something of an oath by her action? Could she be atoning for some failure to uphold her marriage oath (which would presumably at least implicitly indicate the adequate provision for the protection of potential children), either on her part or on Moses’, as has been discussed? The 26th verse certainly requires that marriage be considered in the interpretation of the pericope.

As for the oddly repetitive language between vv. 25-26, the Anchor Bible offers a relatively simple solution. “The redundancy of vv. 25-26 should not disturb us. De Groot (1943: 14) compares 1 Sam. 4:21-22… So Exod. 4:26 should probably be translated ‘then she said’ or ‘that was when she said.’ The repetition in vv. 25-26 may simply put an emphatic end to the narrative, like 1 Sam 4:22.”[29]

Circumcision was one of the most sacred rites and responsibilities of the Jewish people during the time of the Exodus narrative. Eventually it became a distinctive mark of a Jewish man that he was circumcised on the eighth day. If Moses, the one who would become the prophet to whom there has arisen no equal after his lofty vocation was given to him at the burning bush, would neglect somehow in fulfilling this obligation to his own son then certainly there must be some kind of punishment, or at least an attempt or threat of punishment. Exactly how that punishment was enacted and exactly what Zipporah’s reaction was will be left open for interpretation until the end times. However it came to pass though, it is clear that such an enormously perplexing event is important, precisely because it is so perplexing. There would not be nearly as much interest in an ambiguously worded pericope were it a relatively boring one. Instead, there is immense attention paid to it by Biblical scholars since before the time of Christ because it seems that God would have His chosen servant – or that servant’s son – be put to death. (We see here a parallel with Abraham’s own son coming close to death because of his human father.) It is possible that the rest of salvation history, let alone the Exodus narrative, depends on Zipporah’s swift action. On this reading, God takes the sign of His covenant with Abraham so seriously that He is willing to put the “convenience” of His previously designed plan for salvation at risk.

Perhaps, not unlike the Abrahamic sacrifice of Isaac prefiguring the Cross, this episode may do the same. Just as God allowed for Isaac to be spared and had some other sacrifice made instead, here God allows for Moses’ son (or for Moses himself) to be saved but accepts the foreskin of his son in his place. Eventually, Jesus will accept his Father’s sacrificing of him, and he will let the Angel of Death attack him, with nobody able to make any other fitting sacrifice to take his place.

A final take away… Promises are important. When we marry someone, for example, we make a solemn promise with that person to love them as a husband or wife ought to. When God makes a promise, it is always of the most serious kind. It is even more serious than human life, as our reading from Exodus today shows: God would take the life of his servant Moses, or perhaps Moses’ son, to show just how much he meant what he swore to Abraham about circumcision when He said that one who was not circumcised on the eighth day would be cut off from His people. God would even risk the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery for this consistency and fidelity to His own word. This should inspire us not only to take our own promises more seriously, but it should tell us to take God’s promises more seriously. How lucky was the world that Zipporah cut the foreskin in time? How much more prudent would it have been though, for Moses to have made sure his son was properly circumcised according to the law. We must take the New Covenant seriously and abide not only by the Church’s moral teachings which articulate the New Law in the Spirit but also by the precepts of the Church: attending Mass every Sunday and on all holy days of obligation, providing for the financial needs of the Church as we are able, receiving Communion at least once a year during Easter, and going to confession once a year as well. If we neglect these things, are we counting on luck to save us just before we die? Perhaps we will have time to repent at the end of our life, but perhaps not. Do not count on the swift action of a Zipporah, count on fidelity to the New Covenant starting right now.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

[1] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 330-332. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[3] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 518. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[4] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 629. “Circumcision.” Vol. I. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

[5] Ibid., 630-631

[6] Willis, John T. 2010. Yahweh and Moses in conflict the role of Exodus 4:24-26 in the book of Exodus, 69. Bern: Peter Lang.

[7] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 330. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[8] “Exodus.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, 718. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

[11] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 517. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[10] Ibid., 518

[12] Ibid., 519

[13] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 330. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[14] Bishops and Other Clergy of the Anglican Church, and F. C. Cook. The Holy Bible: With an Explanatory and Critical Commentary, 268. Vol. I. London, 1871.

[15] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 518. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Oden, Thomas C. “Exodus.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 31. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 32

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 519. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[24] Oden, Thomas C. “Exodus.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 33. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 331. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[28] Cohen, Jeffrey M. 2005. “HATAN DAMIM– THE BRIDEGROOM OF BLOOD.”. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 12433 (2).

[29] “Exodus.” In The Anchor Bible, 220. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

Main image: Mount Horeb… By Mohammed Moussa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons