Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

[Week 7 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: True Faith]

Is magic real? If so, what is its truest expression? These questions stand at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.” The story is set in the 1800’s in an alternate history of England in which magic once existed. It follows various scholars of magic as they seek to reawaken the practice. I found this book fascinating, and in large measure because of the reflection that it offers on living faith. (Note: there is also a miniseries adaptation available on Netflix. It is not bad, but varies in a number of ways from the book and loses some of my favorite parts).

The first two paragraphs of the book provide a good context for how we can make a parallel with faith:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused on leaf to tremble upon a tree, made on emote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

After this, the chapter describes how one of the meetings was disrupted by the question of why they never practiced magic, and the many excuses offered by the members of the society. They saw practicing what they studied as undignified and beneath their social station. Here we can see a parallel with the strength that faith once possessed in England, and the way that many of the “gentleman-theologians” of the 1800s had continued to study faith, but merely as something historically interesting, and not a living part of their life. Modifying the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can first ask “Is faith real?” Then, “What does its true expression look like in our lives?”

Is faith real?

I think many people discount faith because they think of it in terms of “blind faith.” I dislike this phrase because I do not think it is accurate to Christian belief. “Blind faith” implies believing something without evidence, and can easily lead into unhealthy or destructive expressions of belief. Although it is true that faith ultimately requires a step of belief, we do not make this step “blind” but can look at motives of credibility (reasons to believe). We might look at the predictions of Christ in the Old Testament (existing long before Jesus walked the earth) or accounts of His miracles. But, I think the most compelling is to look at the Resurrection and the transformation of the Apostles.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then why does Christianity exist? Some religions were the development of folk myths that did not face any particular challenge from the surrounding culture (eg the belief in the Greek gods). We can look at other religions that were accompanied by gains in wealth, military power, or public prestige in their early years. While it is true that after the time of Emperor Constantine Christianity became publicly accepted and there was the temptation to profess faith simply for its worldly benefits, this was almost 300 years after the time of Christ and cannot explain the origins of Christianity. The early followers of Christ had to embrace serious public difficulties in accepting the faith.

We have many writings from the first century of Christianity (many overlapping with the life of the Apostles) that we can look at – St Polycarp of Smyrna, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Irenaeus of Lyons, St Justin Martyr, or the letter of the Roman Governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan (to give a few examples). So, it is not credible to say that the account of Christ’s life was manufactured hundreds of years after His lifetime when there was no means of knowing the truth.

Most of all, I think we have to look at the transformation of the Apostles. St John Chrysostom points out that we have to wonder why they were afraid to follow Jesus while He lived (running away at the time of the crucifixion), but were bold to profess Him after His death. Why suffer and die for something you knew was a lie? Likewise, the claim that they all had the exact same hallucination and all held firm to it to the end seems hard to believe. These could have been disproven in the early years by presenting the body of Jesus still in the tomb. I think the most credible explanation is that they did encounter the risen Christ, and this was the source of their transformation. Therefore, we are not asked to accept a “blind faith,” but one that rests on solid witness.

What does faith’s true expression look like in our lives?

This leads us to our next question in regards to true faith: its lived experience. Returning to “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” we see that even if some of the magicians believed that magic actually had existed, it had no impact in their life. They felt more pressure to follow the social conventions of their time than what they studied. This is likewise a great challenge to us today. The obstacle to faith in many people may not be historical questions about the Resurrection, but the poor witness that we as Christians sometimes give. St James writes in the Bible that, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). True faith is built upon confidence in the words of Christ, and it is expressed in allowing transformation in our life. Too often we hold back in fear from letting go of the worldly promises for happiness: power, popularity, possessions, or pleasure. We see the good fruit of faith in the lives of saints and holy people we know, but aren’t ready (or sure) how to follow them.

I don’t write this to discourage anyone in their faith, but for encouragement to embrace the season of Easter. The transformation of the lives of the Apostles is not described as happening in a single day. Instead, Jesus spends forty days with them until the Ascension, strengthening them in their new-found faith. He then instructs them to spend nine days in prayer before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (the fiftieth day). It is at this point that we see them sent forth to begin preaching.

So, if our assessment of our life of faith right now leaves us feeling down, let us remember that Easter is not a single day. It is a season that stretches across those same fifty days that the Apostles experienced. It is a time to ask the Lord to give us strength and confidence, as well as a deeper outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is difficult to do alone, and so I am going to change the focus of my reflections leading up to Pentecost. During Lent I looked mainly at our personal spiritual life. During Easter I will look at the mission of a parish and how connection with our parish helps to nourish this transformation of faith. God bless!

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 4

Merry Christmas! I write this in the midst of our celebration of the Christmas Octave. The manger scene is a fitting scene to consider for our final step of the classic “lectio divina” method of praying with Scripture- contemplation. Here we refer not to the human act of prayer, but God’s response. It may be a felt inspiration/guidance or not. However, with faith and hope we take time to listen for God in our prayer. Our goal is not only an interior monologue of our meditation and prayers – we seek a dialogue in which we encounter God’s voice. Just as the figures around the manger gaze in receptive adoration of the birth of the Christ child, let us remember to leave time for contemplation in our prayer to allow space for God to act!

Weekly notes from Facebook-

Monday: Silence can scare us, and drive us to want to fill up the space with noise or busy-ness. However, silence gives a space where relationship can grow and a gift can be received. Our prayerful time with Scripture should include not only reading, reflecting, and expressing our reflections in prayer, but also silence and open receptivity to God.

Tuesday: St Teresa of Avila, one of the master teachers on prayer, describes the difference between human cooperation in prayer (what we have been discussing in the first three steps) and God’s response. Here are some of her words on this topic from Way of Perfection (ch. 31): “I still want to describe this prayer of quiet to you in the way that I have heard it explained and as the Lord has been pleased to teach it to me. . . . This is a supernatural state and however hard we try, we cannot acquire it by ourselves. . . . The faculties are stilled and have no wish to move, for any movement they make seems to hinder the soul from loving God. They are not completely lost, however, since two of them are free and they can realize in whose presence they are. It is the will that is captive now. . . . The intellect tries to occupy itself with only one thing, and the memory has no desire to busy itself with more. They both see that this is the one thing necessary; anything else will cause them to be disturbed.”

Wednesday: Often we are tempted to rate our prayer as “good or bad” based on whether we feel a certain way at the end. While at times we do experience a sense of inspiration, this isn’t the only time that God is active. The response we “feel” can depend on many factors (what is going on in our life at the time, emotional state, etc). If we have spent the time seeking conversation with God (despite distractions), we can be confident that God is at work in our life to guide us by His grace!

Thursday: Yesterday I spoke of not trying to force a particular response in prayer and not to evaluate prayer just on our emotional response, but that doesn’t mean we should have low expectations! As we wait in joyful anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Christ tomorrow, it is good to remember that we should approach prayer with an expectant faith, confident God will be present and active in whatever situation we may be!

Friday: (no post on this topic, as it was Christmas day!)

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 3

The third step of Lectio Divina is prayer. This may sound strange, since isn’t this whole process about praying with the Scriptures? The distinction here is not just doing something in a prayerful manner (eg reading or reflection), but actually talking with God. In our first steps there is a danger of just staying trapped in our own mind or thoughts. Here we need to turn that interior monologue into a dialogue with God. After reading and reflecting on the Scripture passage, what do we want to say to God? What do we want to ask God? For whom or what do we want to pray or give thanks?

Monday: Our ability to make tasks “routine” is often a good thing (eg we don’t want to spend as much time thinking about how to tie our shoes now as we did when we first learned!). However, this can lead to struggle in prayer since we can become less engaged with our conversation with God as our words become habitual. This can happen with formulas of prayer (like the Our Father) or even with our own patterns of thought if we make use of personal prayers. So, let’s look at the types of things we say in prayer, and remember what they really mean! I will guide the reflections this week along the structure of the beginning of Mass, since this is something that has become “routine” for many of us!

Tuesday: We make the Sign of the Cross as we begin Mass, and usually at the beginning of our personal prayers. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and to Whom we are speaking: we are a baptized child of God and are speaking with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! This connection of relationship is important to remember as we move from reflection on our Scripture reading into conversation with God.

Wednesday: After the Sign of the Cross comes the Penitential Rite, in which we ask pardon from God for failings “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” Was there something in the Scripture passage that reminded us of a need to ask pardon? We can ask the Lord to give us the grace to learn from our faults. Honesty about failures helps to build a stronger relationship with God. And, although this is an important step, we remember that sorrow for sin is not the only step of prayer. Sometimes we might be tempted to skip saying sorry, but at other times we might be tempted to spend all of our time wallowing in our failures. Instead, we take the time to ask forgives so that we can clear the path to move forward.

Thursday: The Gloria comes after the Penitential Rite at Mass. Here we express our praise and thanksgiving to God in words that are drawn from the message of the angels to the Shepherds at Christmas. This is definitely the longest part of the opening rites to Mass, and I think that this is an important lesson. If we struggle with this prayer, the problem is probably not that the Gloria is too long and needs to be shortened, but that we need to grow in our awareness of gratitude and praise! After reading the passage of Scripture we we can speak with God about what ways it inspired us to give praise or thanks.

Friday: The final part of the introductory rites of Mass is the Opening Prayer or “Collect.” After having called to mind to Whom we are speaking in the Sign of the Cross, asked pardon for sins in the Penitential Rite, and given praise and thanks to God in the Gloria, we now “collect” together our prayers to ask God for what we need and for the needs of the world. What petitions come to our mind based on our meditation on the Scripture passage that we just read?

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 2

The second step of the “lectio divina” method of praying with the Bible is called “Meditation.” This word can be used to mean many different things, and nowadays often is used in terms of what we spoke about last week – mental preparation for prayer in order to focus our attention, etc. However, in the classic sense this word refers not just to mental preparation, but to prayerful reflection and consideration of the Scripture passage. Last week we sought to read through the passage and pay attention to where we felt called to “go deeper.” The first step was like searching for spiritual food, and now in meditation we begin to chew and digest what we encountered. Our prayer to the Holy Spirit is important here so that it can be more than just human reflection or talking to ourselves in our head. What does this passage seem to be saying to us? How does it connect with or shine light on other parts of the Scriptures? What does it tell us about Christ, the Christian life, or heaven? All of these questions can help us to enter into a conversation with God, which we will discuss next week! Below are some daily reflections I posted on Facebook-

Monday: Can a word in Holy Scripture have several senses? St Thomas Aquinas considers this question in the beginning of his famous work called the Summa Theologiae/”Summary of Theology” (Q. 1 A. 10). He answers that yes, a word can have several senses, because God is able of speaking on many levels at once! St Thomas speaks of the literal sense of the text, and then three levels of spiritual meaning – the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The rest of this week we will be looking at each of these for an aid to our meditation and prayer with Scripture!

Tuesday: The first “sense” of Scripture that St Thomas Aquinas identifies is the literal or historical sense. We may be tempted to skip over the account itself to look for other meanings, but taking the time to consider the scene in depth may help to shed new light on it. A method that could be helpful here is one we spoke of last week – the encouragement of Ignatius Loyola to put ourselves somewhere in the scene as an observer or participant. This can help us to understand the text in a way that prepares us for deeper spiritual senses contained within it!

Wednesday: In addition to the literal/historical sense of a passage, St Thomas identifies three spiritual senses. The first is the Analogical Sense, insofar as “the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” The Old Testament prepares for what happens in the New Testament. For example, St Paul sees a symbol for baptism in the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10), and St Peter sees one in Noah’s Ark (1 Peter 3). In a related way, we may even see analogies within the New Testament itself (eg Jesus being lost in the Temple for three days in Luke 2 and Jesus being in the tomb for three days). So, one way of meditating on a passage is considering what analogies/connections it may have with other parts of the Bible!

Thursday: St Thomas’ second spiritual sense is the Moral Sense, “so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do.“ This is probably the most common one that comes to our mind, as it involves asking how the passage at hand can guide us in living a Christian life.  Our temptation can often be to try to change Christ into our own version of Him, but here we are invited to let him renew our way of thinking and acting so that we can be transformed into His image.

Friday: The final spiritual sense has the oddest name… the Anagogical Sense! St Thomas says this refers to “so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory.” In other words, how does this passage direct us to better understand the life of heaven? For example, the healing of the blind or lame may invite us to reflect on the joy of being set free from what binds us here. This sense can especially help to nourish our hearts with hope and desire when we are tempted by discouragement or sadness!

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 1

This year our Advent study is on praying with the Bible, using the book “Praying Scripture for a Change” by Tim Gray as a guide. This book is my favorite introduction to “lectio divina,” the classic method of entering into a prayerful dialogue with the Scriptures. I hope that these reflections also help as a general aide in growing in prayer during this holy season.

The first classic step is “Lectio” – “reading.” It is important to begin with the right mindset. Our goal in prayerful reading is not just “getting through” the book, but savoring its content. This can be challenging for us since we often are focused on efficiency in our life. Instead, we should focus on growing in our relationship with God. We should take some time to reflect on when/where/how we will prepare to pray to help focus and avoid distractions (although the most important thing about praying is to actually pray! Don’t put off prayer just because a situation isn’t perfect), and then begin our reading with prayer.

If you are wondering what to pray with, I recommend the upcoming Sunday Gospel (which can be found at usccb.org under “Daily Readings”) or just reading through one of the Gospels chapter by chapter.

As we read, we should pay attention to what strikes us in the passage. Maybe it is a verse that encourages and inspires us, or a verse that challenges us or confuses us. Our goal at this point isn’t to begin to process it, but to discern where God is calling us to enter into our meditation and prayer. The remaining steps will guide us in how to respond to this passage.

Throughout this week I shared a number of additional thoughts on Facebook, which I will list below. Next week we will consider the second step: Meditation. God bless!

Monday: We can’t completely avoid distractions in prayer, but we can take measures to stay focused. St Charles Bellarmine offered this challenge at the last synod he attended, and I offer it as an invitation to reflect on the place, time, posture, and environment that might help us to enter into prayer: “Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected?”

Tuesday: Another key way that we can help to be attentive and focused in our prayer/reading is to begin with a prayer. Here is a classic prayer to the Holy Spirit, drawn from Psalm 104:30 – Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. “Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.” O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Wednesday: Here is a very helpful reminder from the Catechism about dealing with distractions in prayer – sometimes we get flustered by them, when really what is needed is a simple response! “To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified” (CCC 2729).

Thursday: St Ignatius Loyola often recommends in his Spiritual Exercises that the reader imagine themselves in a scene of the Scriptures. We may be an onlooker, or place ourselves in the role of someone in the scene. This can help us to enter into the passage that we are reading and spark details to bring to meditation and prayer.

Friday: A final piece of advice for this week to help engage and focus on the text we are reading is to see the way that it connects with the Old or New Testament. St Augustine wrote, “This grace [ie, the salvation of Christ] hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament.” The parts of the Bible are interconnected, and so looking for connections to other passages is another approach we can take during our reading to help prepare for our meditation.

Mary as the Woman

At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary notices that the wine has run out and makes this need known to Jesus. His response to this request might strike us as a little harsh: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). It doesn’t take very developed social skills to know that referring to your mother simply as “woman” is not considered polite! However, Mary responds without taking offense, and tells the servers to do whatever Jesus tells them. So, maybe there is more at work in His comment than a sharp rebuke…

In fact, the title of “Woman” has a wide Biblical significance. The first use of it is to refer to the first woman, Eve. It is then used again shortly after the Fall in the first promise of the Redeemer. God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers…” (Genesis 3:15). This title, then, points to the mother of the Messiah. The beginning of the first creation was a husband and wife, while the beginning of the re-creation will be a mother and son. Therefore, it speaks of Mary as the new Eve – the new “Woman.”

Jesus refers to Mary as “Woman” a second time later in the Gospel of John. While hanging on the Cross, Jesus entrusts His apostle John to Mary with the words, “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26). Here we again can see a connection with Mary as the new Eve. Jesus is entrusting her with the care of the infant Church (just as He likewise entrusts us with the care of her in the next verse).

The common link between these references is her role as the new Eve. Since the miracle at Cana is Jesus’ first public sign (John 2:11), it is the beginning of His work of redemption that will conclude with the arrival of His “Hour” on the Cross and His Resurrection on the third day (on that note, I think it’s also important to notice that the account of the miracle begins, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana…”). What might first strike us as a rude comment, then, is in fact a reference to how this request ties into the whole of God’s plan. Hopefully this post has helped you to better understand this passage, and some of the Biblical foundation of Catholic devotion to Mary. God bless!

Counsels in Contrast to Commandments

Everyone is generally familiar with the Ten Commandments as classic guidelines of the moral life. However, it wasn’t until seminary that I encountered the concept of “evangelical counsels” (ie, counsels from the Gospels). This phrase refers to invitations that are made to us to work closer to Christ. They are not strictly required, but are avenues of new life.

I think this distinction is important because unfortunately many times we get focused on just trying to stay above the water (ie, obey the commandments). We want to balance a relationship with God with as much focus on worldly things as we can, which can be a painful battle that doesn’t bear a lot of fruit. Likewise, many people identify Christianity with merely trying to avoid certain sins. This misses the truth about what the faith really is, and what it offers us.

The counsels of the Gospel, in contrast, invite us to step away from the edge and venture more fully into the life of Christ. They invite us to go beyond what is strictly required, and experience a freedom and joy that only comes with setting aside our fear of the Cross. When someone lives out the counsels we see transformation in them and in the world. Our hesitation to follow these counsels is what often gives others the dull impression of Christian life.

One of my favorite Gospel examples of this is the encounter between Christ and the rich man (see Mark 10:17-22). He asks Jesus what he should do, and Jesus starts by listing the commandments. When the rich man says he has been fulfilling these, Jesus, “looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The rich man goes away sad at this counsel. Notice that the Gospel points out the personal nature of this invitation from Jesus by mentioning the look and love that Christ had as He spoke these words. They did not come from a desire to take something away from the man, but from a deep knowledge of how to fulfill the desire of his heart. Unfortunately the rich man takes this as sad news. He is bound by his wealth, afraid to let it go even when it is an obstacle for him.

I might write another post described the response to such a call of entering consecrated life (as a religious brother/sister or monk/nun), but each of us experiences the call at times to live our Christian life more fully. Often this call asks us to set aside something that we have come to rely on in an unhealthy manner, and set forth with a new freedom. Are you experiencing a call like this in your life right now? We must ask ourselves if we will respond with sadness and fear, or confidence and faith.

Do Christians have to follow everything in the Old Testament?

[Note- I know it’s long, there is a summary at the end!]

People often ask questions along the lines of, “The Bible commands people to do x/y/z. How can you believe that?” While the Bible has many beautiful parts, it is true that there are some that are challenging. Questions about these may come from Christians trying to better understand their faith, or come as challenges from non-Christians. I’ve seen billboards sponsored by anti-religious groups that put these passages on display as a way to discourage faith. However, I do think there are good answers to these questions, and already have written a little about this here.

Today I want to look at another part of the answer – the difference between the Old and the New Testaments in the Bible. Sometimes it seems that the person asking the question doesn’t have a sense of the difference in how we approach these two sections of the Bible. The “Old Testament” refers to all of the inspired books written before the time of Christ, and corresponds to the books revered by the Jewish faith. The “New Testament” refers to the writings inspired after the time of Christ written by the apostles and other disciples.

The reason that this is relevant is that most of the challenges I see based on difficult passages tend to come from the Old Testament, while the Christian scriptures would be more identified with the New Testament. Thus, it seems like an easy answer would be to say that any text quoted from the Old Testament is now invalid for Christians – like a lawyer trying to appeal to an outdated version of the law (the early writer Marcion actually tried an approach somewhat like this). This response, though, does not really fully respect the teaching of Christ. He reaffirmed some portions of the Old Testament, while not binding us to follow everything it contains. Here are a few key points about how Jesus spoke of the Old Testament.

1. Jesus affirmed that He was not abolishing everything in the Old Testament: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). In other places He teaches the continued validity of some of the commandments of the Old Testament (eg, Luke 18:20). The important word here is that He came to “fulfill.” This is different from simply repeating old laws, and different from simply creating completely new ones. It is about bringing the commandments to the purpose they had from the beginning.

2. Jesus showed that some teachings in the Old Testament needed to be understood in a deeper light. This is most clear in His “Sermon on the Mount” in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. He repeats a similar formula to this one: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). The Ten Commandments given to Moses taught basic truths, but that did not mean that was the limit to what God desired for our behavior. There is much more to the love of God and neighbor than simply avoiding murder!

3. Jesus showed that there were commandments in the Old Testament that flowed in part from hardness of heart. For example, when asked about divorce Jesus said, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). In other words, we should recognize that the Old Testament teachings were steps along the way to perfection, not the final reality. I also think it is very important to realize that this sort of correction is already included in the Old Testament itself. For example, God says to the prophet Ezekiel, “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked? … Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” (Ez 18:23). Or, in Isaiah: “‘What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure.’” (Is 1:11). So, even in the Old Testament itself we see evidence that God is preparing for a fulfillment of the Old Testament commands to coincide with their true purpose.

4. In addition to these forms of elevating/restoring given commandments, Jesus teaches that some parts of the Old Testament will be replaced. In regards to worship, He tells the woman at the well, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4: 21, 23). As The Letter to the Hebrews also shows the way that Christ’s offering on the Cross fulfills (and hence replaces) the offerings of animals in the Old Testament. As Catholics we believe that this new worship is connected to Jesus’ command to continue what He did at the Last Supper (“Do this in memory of me,” Luke 22:19), which is what we do at Mass.

5. Finally, I want to end by saying that Jesus ultimately entrusts the Apostles with the responsibility of discerning what is still required. We see this in the Acts of the Apostles as they address the dietary restrictions and the question of circumcision (Acts 11 and Acts 15, respectively). While I only referenced a small number of the teachings Jesus gives on the matter, even the full list would not address every part of the Old Testament! Here we see one of the reasons why Catholics believe in a continued teaching authority that exists in the Church.

Summary: This is one of the longest posts I have written, even though it barely scratches the surface! Therefore, I thought I’d end with a tl;dr type response from the great Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 100-105). The Church has basically concluded that commandments in the Old Testament can be broken down into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral commands came from the demands of doing good and avoiding evil, and still bind – often with a deeper explanation given by Jesus. Ceremonial commands had to do with the worship of God, and are fulfilled in the worship of the New Testament centered on the offering of Christ on the Cross, replacing the old practices. Judicial commands covered other aspects of life among the Israelites concerning community order, and weren’t about enduring questions of good/evil. These were only intended to remain for a time, and were annulled by the coming of Christ.

I hope this helps in some way to clarify how we understand the Old Testament as Catholics. When someone questions a particular passage, it’s essential to take the time to understand how it fits into this larger picture. God bless!

The Road to Emmaus and the Mass

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday Jesus appeared to two disciples walking to the city of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They did not recognize Him, but spoke of their discouragement about His death. Jesus explained the preparation for this in the Scriptures, and then was invited to dinner as they reached the town. At dinner He performed the blessing and then disappeared. This has been one of my favorite Resurrection appearances since hearing it explained at one of our Diocesan Emmaus Days retreats (the retreat name comes from this passage). It helped me to understand the structure of the Mass, and how to find God in it.

The Mass has two principal parts—the Liturgy of the Word (Scripture readings, preaching) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the consecration and distribution of the Body and Blood). We see both of them echoed in the appearance.

Jesus first spends time speaking with the two disciples about the full meaning of the Scriptures. He shows the way that the Old Testament prepares the way for His work, and how to see God’s plan through it all. The disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” This is what we seek today when we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word: that the Lord may open the Scriptures to us and set our hearts afire!

However, at this point the disciples had still not recognized Jesus. It was getting late, and so they invited Him to dinner. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” These are not random actions they describe—taking the bread, blessing, breaking, giving. These are the actions Jesus had done at the Last Supper, when He said, “this is my Body… this is my Blood.” They hearken back as well to the feeding of the multitude, after which He explained “my flesh is true food and my blood true drink… unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (see John chapter 6). In fact, it appears that Jesus chose to celebrate His “first supper” after the Resurrection in the same way as the Last Supper! It is in this moment that they finally recognize Him, but then He disappears from their sight. Why? I think the Catholic answer is very profound: because He remains present now under the appearance of the bread and wine. His True Presence does not leave, merely manifests in the new way that He will remain with us until the end of days.

So, when we celebrate Mass, we commemorate not just the Last Supper but also this “first” Supper. Jesus is not dead in the Mass, but alive. When we receive Communion we don’t encounter an inactive body but a living Person. Normal food is broken down and transformed into part of our body when it is consumed. This is different in the case of the Eucharist. Because Jesus is alive, what happens is that bit by bit our old self is broken down and transformed into Who we receive: Christ. Alleluia!

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.