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.

How do you pray with the Scriptures?

The Bible is not an ordinary book. First, it is in fact a collection of many different books. Only the modern printing press allows us to conceive of them as one volume! However, these books are bound together, we believe, by a common Author working through various human authors. Therefore, it is more than just a historical record of information. The Scriptures offer us a chance to come into conversation with the God that inspired them, which we call prayer.

I first approached reading the Scriptures primarily from the perspective of “quantity.” When I sat down to read, I was looking to see how much information I could get through. This is how I read most other books. I knew people did pray with the Scriptures but wasn’t really sure how. For me, the primary change was realizing that I should have been focusing on “quality” of reading. The goal of prayer isn’t to read over as many words as possible. It is to discover riches that are hidden and to begin to savor them. This approach is classically called lectio divina (“divine reading”). It focuses on entering into the texts as a treasure house for prayer. A theological study of the Bible supports and nourishes this reading, but it stands distinct.

Divine reading begins by selecting a text. Again, the goal isn’t quantity, but quality. We read over a section and continue until we come across an idea or phrase that strikes us. It is important to be watchful, because we do not know when the Lord will speak! We begin to meditate and reflect on this. Maybe we imagine ourselves in the scene. We think of the way that it gives insight into our past, present, or future. We think of its implications for us. But, prayer can’t remain at only the level of personal consideration. When we turn this reflection into a conversation with God, it becomes prayer. Maybe the meditation inspires us to expression of praise or thanksgiving; maybe petition and intercession; or, maybe even to express sorrow for some event. We speak to God about our meditation on this passage. Then, we listen for a response. Contemplation refers to this phase of God’s response to our prayer. It is important to have some times of silence. Our goal isn’t just to fill up the space with our own thoughts and words. We need room for God to work. There is a need to be open if God is going to direct our prayer somewhere, and not to try to force the conclusion we want. If we find our attention wavering, we can return to the earlier steps and move back and forth. This cycle of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating forms the structure of lectio divina. It may happen over the course of five minutes, or an hour. In this, the riches of the Scriptures can be opened to us in a new way.

I’d like to end with one final note. While these four steps form the classic structure, there is an implicit fifth step that is contained in the practice. True prayer gives us inspiration for action. It doesn’t always mean starting some new routine—perhaps it might just be encouragement to persevere in our spiritual life. But, at the end of the time of prayer, it is very helpful to make a practical resolution. I think a lot of problems can come up if we ignore this. Often it leads to a separation between prayer and life. Going to prayer might become something completely divorced from everyday life, which is not healthy. Instead, I encourage you to end your prayer by asking God for a practical resolution. This resolution could be to continue a practice, change a habit, take a particular action, or even seek the answer to a question that arose during the time. It might mean some study or speaking to a spiritual director. In this final step, though, we can let the graces given through prayer take root and bear fruit.

A great resource if you would like to learn more about this form of prayer is Praying Scripture for a Change by Tim Gray. I highly recommend it.

God bless!