Sunday, December 27, 2009

St. Stephen's Day

Yesterday, Dec 26, marks the feast of St. Stephen the Deacon, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was appointed as a deacon by the church in Jerusalem to help organize the distribution of alms to the poorer members. He fell afoul of the Sanhedrin and was tried for blasphemy. He knew he was going to die, and like Socrates took the advantage to make a brilliant speech, haranguing his persecuters for fifty verses and accusing them of ignoring every prophet that God every sent them.

Stephen was dragged outside of the city to be stoned to death, and looking into the sky he saw a vision of God the Father, with God the Son at his right hand. This is one of the few explicit scriptural references to the Trinity, of course, and it is the forerunner of a great many visions of the Trinity that people were to have in the subsequent 2,000 years. And we are told, further, that "kneeling down, he prayed, Lord, hold not this sin against them."

This echoes Christ's words from the cross, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." But it's more powerful coming from Stephen. Christ had a very specific purpose for accepting torture and death at the hands of his enemies: the flogging, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion, and the death were necessary in order to atone for man's sins and to reconcile man to God. Every one of those strokes, and every moment of pain, every drop of blood, was necessary, for it had been foretold, "By his stripes we are healed." But Stephen had no such need to be executed; it was a pure injustice, a pure act of evil, unmitigated by any ultimate purpose. And yet Stephen went to his death uncomplaining, praying for his persecutors, that they might not be held culpable for their sin.

Stephen is a moral example for the rest of us, of how to act in the face of injustice, oppression and death. This doesn't mean, I don't think, that all of us are bound to accept the evil and oppressive things that people do to us, and go happily to our deaths. We have the right to try to defend ourselves, and not merely the right but the duty to try to defend others, from oppression, and for that purpose we have armies, police forces, and revolutionary movements. But the example of Stephen impels us to something deeper than mere pacifism. As St. Augustine says, we may resist evil and oppression, in our capacity as agents of political organizations charged with ensuring the public good, but we must do so with love for our enemies.

What does it mean to love our enemies? It doesn't mean leaving them free to do evil, and it doesn't preclude keeping them from doing evil, even by lethal force if necessary. It does mean that we should do so with no more resort to force than the demands of justice and security demand, and it means that we should always seek their correction and their ultimate good, not merely our own. As St. Augustine puts it in this Treatise on the Epistles of John, "The dove hath no rancor, but with beak and claws she fights for her young. Be fierce against evil, but have a fierceness without rancor: the fierceness not of the raven, but of the dove." We are bound to have mercy on our enemies, when they have been turned away from evil, and we are bound to hope, and pray, for their ultimate salvation.

If Stephen had had the ability he would have had every right to try and escape, and to try and resist his persecutors. But not everything that we may lawfully do, should be done in any particular case. Stephen chose a different way, and made himself an example of self-sacrifice and forbearance. Perhaps in this he was guided by the Spirit, who sought to make him an example of courage and mercy in the face of death, for succeeding generations. For courage, too, is demonstrated in Stephen's last words: he had no fear of death, for he knew that he was soon to wear the crown of a saint. And at the last, he had only love for his enemies. So great was his love for mankind that even in the face of death, his last thought was for his enemies' salvation. Such is the kind of perfect love to which we are called.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


A day late and a dollar short, as the expression goes. But I hope you all had a great Christmas.

I attended a wonderful Midnight Mass (actually at 8 pm) in the parish of All Saints in the Ashmont section of Dorchester. I love most things about this church and the services there, though it would be nice if there was a bit more participation from the congregation (e.g. during the Kyrie and the Gloria). It's so inspiring to see the ethnic diversity- the congregation is about 60% black and over 33% from the Caribbean Islands. I love the strong devotion to Our Lady that the services involve, always concluding with the beautiful Angelus. And I love the traditional language version of the Nicene Creed, and the formality of the worship.

This Advent, in preparation for the birth of Our Lord, I tried to deepen my spiritual journey in several ways.

I went to confession for the first time. This is a great gift that the Church offers to us, the ability to confess our sins to a priest and to be absolved. I'm saddened by the fact that so many people- particularly members of churches who don't practice the Sacrament of Confession- don't take advantage of this gift. Indeed, it was one of the greatest gifts the Lord gave us, the forgiveness of sins. The Church was wise when they developed this sacrament, because it's often very difficult to face up to the gravity and true nature of our sins until we share them with another person. And how beautiful and inspiring it is that the end of the confessional rite, at least for Anglicans, ends with the priest saying, "Pray also for me, a sinner." Because the priest is, also, human, also a sinner, and also in need as much as any one of us of the saving blood of Christ.

I also started for the first time, seriously praying to Our Lady, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. I love this refrain, modified from the Axion Estin: "You who are more honourable then the cherubim, you who are incomparably more glorious than the seraphim, you who inviolate brought forth God the Word, you who are indeed rightly called Mother of God, we magnify thee." Mary not only typifies the highest glory and honour that a pure human being (as opposed to her Divine son) can reach, but she has appeared in vision to countless people since her Assumption, and she has served as an example to us. In her virginity she helps us overcome the sins of the flesh, in her humility she helps us overcome the sins of pride, in her poverty she helps us overcome the sins of greed, and in her love for her Son, for John her adopted son, and for those who followed her son she helps us grow in love. Truly it was said of her, "Thou art all fair, my love, there is no flaw in thee".

I tried to fast once a week, in honour of Advent. Advent was traditionally a fasting season, and I think we would do well to revive that. Our Lord talked about fasting as something important, as a necessary spiritual discipline to help us overcome the flesh, and as with everything, He was right.

Finally, I made another donation to Catholic Relief Services, for their hunger relief efforts in southern Madagascar. More than anything else, Advent and Christmas should be a time of giving, and of charity. Christ said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (he is quoted thus in St. Paul). The Tandroy people of southern Madagascar have suffered for decades if not centuries from the vicissitudes of living in a harsh and unforgiving spiny desert, where often there is little water, little greenery, and the only source of income is the herds of cattle, sheep and goats. These animals often destroy much of the native vegetation, leading to further soil degradation and loss of agricultural capabilities. In some drought years there has been little green vegetation and hardly any food other than the introduced prickly pear cactus- if you're familiar with these, they are hardly a very substantial food. This is one of those drought years, in which the southernmost regions of Madagascar are enduring extreme hunger, and in which children (and adults, but especially children) are dying in large numbers from malnutrition. Please consider making a donation- you can call Catholic Relief Services and earmark your gift to "Madagascar Food Crisis".

Have a blessed rest of Christmastide.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"A new heaven and a new earth": (Late) reflection on All Saints Day

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away."

This All Saints' Day (Nov 1), I had the pleasure of hearing the beautiful reading from the Apocalypse of John, 21: 1-7.

This is one of my favorite scriptural passages, and one that I find myself coming back to over and over again. It's used (sometimes) on All Saints Day, and also on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28). The interesting thing, of course, is that the Feast of the Holy Innocents isn't fundamentally a feast about heaven: its subject is something quite different. Death- more specifically, "murther most vile". But a consideration of death leads us naturally into a consideration of what comes after death, and in this passage we are shown an arresting, striking, brilliantly realized and hauntingly mystical vision of what comes after death, and of the victory over death that Christ procured for us.

Let's take a close look at the multifarious images that St. John gives us, in this vision that he received on Patmos sometime in the late first century.

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more". In this single verse is implied the core of Christian teaching about nature, and about the physical world. And in it we see the refutation of many deep and dangerous errors that people fall into when they consider nature. It refutes all those who would hold either that the physical world and nature are inherently good or inherently evil, as well as those who would hold that the natural world is merely a plastic thing to be used and reshaped as we see fit, and those who would hold that the natural world is congruent with God. All these errors- Gnosticism, materialism, the modern technological cult of progress, pantheism- have been serious intellectual threats to Christianity in their time, and at some level they can't be refuted purely intellectually, they can be refuted only experientially.

The Manichaeans, and their medieval successors the Cathars, had at the very least a certain compelling logic and superficial attractiveness to their arguments, for any sensitive and thoughtful person, looking at this world, can see it is quite an evil and corrupt place, in which good is seldom rewarded and evil is often triumphant. But the Manichaean heresy fundamentally faded away, at least in part, because it foundered on the rocks of a challenge that wasn't intellectual but existential and experiential. If this world was created by the devil, then how can there be good in it? And if we are prepared to say that there is no good in the physical world, then what do we say to our spirit when it thrills to the strains of a beautiful piece of music, or to the sight of a songbird flying through the sky, or to the reddening rays of the sunset?

Ultimately we know at an experiential level that this world isn't purely evil, that it contains a lot of goodness, truth, and beauty, and that there is good in the physical things of this universe as well as in the spiritual things. And that is exactly why, at the end of all things, God will restore to us a new physical earth, better than the old one, and a new heaven too: and, too, why in eternity we can expect to be not disembodied souls, but full persons, with risen and glorified physical bodies. "It is sown corruptible, it is raised incorreptible" said St. Paul, and no doubt he had the same vision of the end of time as was given to St. John.

But if the world isn't evil, neither (anymore) is it inherently good, for it has been corrupted down to its core. This is a world in which living beings evolve through the brutal process of natural selection, in which the strong prey upon the weak, in which things inevitably decay and wind down. That is why St. John doesn't promise an 'improvement' of this old world: he promises not reform but revolution, and renewal. The world contains so much good that we know that it can't be the work of the devil, but it contains so much evil that we know that in its present state, it is deeply and permanently corrupt. Only the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, which contain all the promise of the old world and none of its corruptions, can satisfy our thirst for goodness, truth and beauty. Ultimately we are not going to achieve a perfect world, until Christ comes again: neither technological progress nor social change can overcome the realities of pain, suffering, and death. The world is good enough to rise again, but is fallen enough and bad enough that it can't rise again unless it is buried, and here we see that the materialist is as wrong as the Manichaean. "In this world ye shall have tribulation", Christ tells us: but he also promises us, through the vision entrusted to the Beloved Disciple, that we shall have a new and better world.

St. John says little specifically about heaven: as we all know, it's easier to describe evil than to describe good. The medieval and patristic period saw plenty of literature describing visions of hell in graphic detail, but descriptions of heaven were metaphorical and unconvincing, and as we all know Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio were greater works of art (though not necessarily better works of theology) than his Paradiso. And the reason is not far to seek: heaven, and perfection, are simply beyond our understanding. As St. Augustine says frankly, the peace of God passeth all understanding but His own. One way in which John does suggest its beauty and perfection is by describing it in negative terms. Heaven is a place where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away".

In this beautiful passage, St. John sums up some of the worst, most painful aspects of the world, and promises us, in luminary words, that the new heaven and the new earth will be without them. Death will be no more, because we will live for ever. Sorrow will be no more, for what can we be sorrowful about? Pain and crying have their place in our world, and it's a spiritually dead person that never feels either, but in the world to come neither pain nor crying shall have any place: "for the former things have passed away."

We can't fully understand what heaven is like, but we can understand it by contrast. Similarly, we can often only understand good by contrast with evil as well. We can't fully understand the peace of God, for it passes all understanding, but we can look at the horrors of war and know that God and Heaven are the antidote. We can do the same with sickness, hunger, and oppression. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."