Monday, February 22, 2016

Second Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration of Christ

The Gospel reading in both Traditional and Novus Ordo Masses for the Second Sunday of Lent was the Transfiguration of the Lord, from Chapter 17 of the Gospel of St. Matthew (Traditional) or St. Luke (N.O., year C for 2016.)  Here is the passage from Luke, in the RSV-CE translation.  (I know the "official" translation for the United States is the RNAB, but I simply cannot bring myself to use it. Bad enough that I have to listen to it at Mass.  The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things magazine, used to call the NAB translation "unfortunate."  He was, of course, being charitable.)
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah,  who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah" -- not knowing what he said.  As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"  And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. Lk 9:28-36.
I have always found this account, essentially the same in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, to be both puzzling and slightly amusing in its depiction of Peter's reaction to the vision.  First, the puzzle: How did Peter (and, presumably, James and John also) know that the two men were who appeared with Jesus were Moses and Elijah (or Elias, in the TLM translation)?  Both had been dead for centuries, and we can be fairly certain they were not wearing name tags.  Was this knowledge simply placed in the Apostles' consciousness by Divine action?  That's the best option I can think of, since none of the Scriptural accounts tell us what happened.  Second, the humor: Peter's offer to build booths (or tents, or tabernacles, again depending on the translation) for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, resembles nothing so much as the babbling of an extraordinarily frightened man.  Luke even seems to make reference to this, noting that Peter spoke "not knowing what he said."  The common homiletic suggestion that Peter was trying to "preserve the moment" assumes, in my view, a most unrealistic degree of calm acceptance of the miracle on Peter's part.  Keep in mind that Peter was a manual laborer, accustomed to such tasks as repairing his fishing boat and sewing torn nets.  Confronted with the astounding vision of the transfigured Christ and his two unusual visitors, it seems natural that he would fall back on something he knew-in this case, suggesting the building of a temporary shelter, as a sort of defense mechanism against the power of the miraculous vision.  We see in this story and elsewhere in the Gospels plenty of evidence that Peter was, despite his clear position as the leader of the Apostles, just an ordinary man, a sinner like the rest of us, and here, his instinctive response totally missed the point of the whole event.  My reaction probably would have been even worse.  In any case, I tend to imagine Jesus doing a divine eye-roll at the apostle's tent-building suggestion, even though he must have known in advance that it would occur.  So much for the humor.

The homily I heard this week concentrated on the Father's command, (This is my Son...listen to him!), a sound and salutary point.  We were reminded, among other things, that the intended audience of the Father's voice was not only Peter, James and John, but all of us who live and have lived through the millennia since the time our Lord walked this Earth. We believe, after all, that Sacred Scripture is the living Word of God, through which the Triune God speaks to us every time we read or hear it, and it greatly behooves us to pay attention!

But as always with the Scriptures, there are layers of meaning here, and there is only so much that even the most effective preacher can say in ten minutes or so; thus, we are always called to enter more deeply into the Word than is possible during the short time allotted for the Liturgy of the Word and the homily.  In this instance, let's take a look at how St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the Transfiguration in his greatest work, the Summa Theologica.  Among many other points, the Angelic Doctor suggests that the Lord's glorified appearance was a foretaste of that which we all hope to attain, the resurrection of our own bodies in eternal glory and the "beatific vision" of Christ:
"Therefore it was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His clarity (which is to be transfigured), to which He will configure those who are His; according to Philippians 3:21: "(Who) will reform the body of our lowness configured [Douay: 'made like'] to the body of His glory." Hence Bede says on Mark 8:39: "By His loving foresight He allowed them to taste for a short time the contemplation of eternal joy, so that they might bear persecution bravely." Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.45.1 (Emphasis added.)
In addition, St. Thomas draws an allegorical (or is it anagogical?) comparison with the Lord's Baptism, in showing how both events, which he calls the "first regeneration" and the "second regeneration", reveal the Holy Trinity:
"Just as in the Baptism, where the mystery of the first regeneration was proclaimed, the operation of the whole Trinity was made manifest, because the Son Incarnate was there, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove, and the Father made Himself known in the voice; so also in the transfiguration, which is the mystery of the second regeneration, the whole Trinity appears--the Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Holy Ghost in the bright cloud; for just as in baptism He confers innocence, signified by the simplicity of the dove, so in the resurrection will He give His elect the clarity of glory and refreshment from all sorts of evil, which are signified by the bright cloud. Summa Theologica, III.45.4. (Emphasis added.)
Thus, as we enter the second full week of the discipline of Lent, aided by the exegesis of St. Thomas, the story of the Transfiguration gives us spiritual meat to replace whatever we sacrifice (including, of course, abstaining from meat at least on Friday, if not other days of our own choosing), by pointing our hearts to the purpose of our journey--to reach the eternal home where:
"[t]here shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever." Rev. 22:3-5.

God's blessings to all, for a holy and rewarding second week of Lent.

Laudator Jesus Christus!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Christ Cleanses the Temple: Respect for God's House

Yesterday's Gospel reading at the Traditional Mass was the story of Jesus running the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the Jerusalem Temple, from Matthew 21:10-17:
At that time, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, all the city was thrown into commotion, saying, Who is this? But the crowds kept on saying, This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus entered the temple of God, and cast out all those who were selling and buying in the temple, and He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the doves. And He said to them, It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But the chief priests and the Scribes, seeing the wonderful deeds that He did, and the children crying out in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David, were indignant, and said to Him, Do You hear what these are saying? And Jesus said to them, Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and sucklings You have perfected praise’? And leaving them, He went out of the city to Bethany and He stayed there.
The standard exegesis of this passage is the righteous anger of our Lord at the desecration of the Father's house, coupled with one of the many examples of the "chief priests and the Scribes" getting upset with him.  But an additional view is provided by the Readings from Matins for the same day, from a sermon by the Venerable Bede, Priest (emphasis added):
If, therefore, the Lord would not have to be sold in the temple, even such things as He willed should be offered therein, (On account, that is, of the greed or dishonesty which is often the stain of such transactions,) with what anger, suppose ye, would He visit such as He might find laughing or gossiping there, or yielding to any other sin? If the Lord suffer not to be carried on in His house such worldly business as may be freely done elsewhere, how much more shall such things as ought never to be done anywhere, draw down the anger of God if they be done in His own holy house?
 How much more, indeed!  It never before occurred to me, I am sorry to admit, that the way we behave at church should be measured by the criteria Jesus applied to the money-changers and merchants in the Temple, but now it seems obvious.  This should be a sobering thought for all the faithful, calling for an examination of conscience concerning all aspects of our actions before and after Mass, as well as how we dress for the occasion.  We are there for prayer, worship and, if properly disposed, receiving the Blessed Sacrament, not to attend a social club or be entertained.

Laudator Jesus Christus!

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Sheep and the Goats: Faith and Works

Today, in both the Traditional and Novus Ordo calendars, the Gospel reading at Holy Mass was the parable of the sheep and the goats, taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  Here it is, in the English translation used in the Traditional Mass:

Matt. 25:31-46
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: When the Son of Man shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory; and before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the king will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of My Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; naked and you covered Me; sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the just will answer Him, saying; ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You; or thirsty, and give you to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and take You in; or naked, and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And, answering, the king will say to them, ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of My brethren, you did it for Me.’ Then He will say to those on His left hand, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you did not give Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will and say, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for Me.’ And these will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life."
Shortly after my personal conversion experience nearly twelve years ago, converting to the Catholic Church from my Presbyterian heritage, I began my first extensive and serious reading of Sacred Scripture.  When I encountered this passage I found it to be a decisive refutation of the doctrine of "sola fide" advanced by Luther and others in the 16th Century.  If "faith alone" saves us, what is Jesus talking about here?  His words make it abundantly clear that we are required to act on our faith, not just profess and hold it, and that if we fail to act, by performing the corporal works of mercy, the result is "everlasting punishment."  He doesn't mention any exceptions.  In my further studies in preparation for becoming Catholic, I learned that while the Church absolutely does not teach that we can "earn" Heaven by works of mercy, it does teach, in harmony with the words of Jesus quoted above, that salvation can be lost if we fail to do them.

The parable also appears in today's Matins readings for the traditional Divine Office, as well as, somewhat to my surprise, an argument against "salvation by faith alone" in a homily given by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo--in the Fourth Century!  I had always assumed Luther et al. had come up with "sola fide" themselves, but obviously there were others who were arguing that erroneous position even back in the time of Augustine.  So here is what that great Saint and Doctor of the Church had to say about it:

Homily by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
On Faith and Works, xv. 4.
"If, without keeping the commandments, it be possible to attain unto life by faith only, and faith, if it hath not works, is dead, James ii. 17, how can it be true that the Lord will say to such as He shall have set on His left hand Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels? He rebuketh them, not because they have not believed in Him, but because they have not wrought good works. ..."
The parable of the sheep and the goats is not, of course, the only Gospel passage refuting the notion of salvation by faith alone.  Recall the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said:
"Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.' Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it." Mt 7:21-27
The same message is conveyed in the Sermon on the Plain in St. Luke's Gospel (Lk 6:46-49), but I won't restate it here.  I think you get my drift.  Unless we follow the Second Great Commandment, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and act on that Commandment by coming to the aid of our neighbors in need, all the faith in the world will not be enough by itself to open the gates of Heaven to us.

Let us take the opportunity afforded by the discipline of Lent to convert our hearts to obedience to Christ's teachings, in all things, especially performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  The Savior's own words tell us that faith alone is not enough to attain our eternal goal.

Laudator Jesus Christus!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

First Sunday of Lent: The Temptation of Christ

Traditionally, on this first Sunday of Lent, the Church hears and teaches about the temptation of Our Lord in the desert (or wilderness, depending on your Bible translation) by none other than Satan himself, the Father of Lies.  In the Traditional liturgy, the Gospel reading today is always from St. Matthew, as follows:
Matt. 4:1-11
At that time, Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread. But He answered and said, It is written, ‘Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took Him into the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He has given His angels charge concerning You; and upon their hands they shall bear You up, lest You dash Your foot against a stone.’ Jesus said to him, It is written further, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. And he said to Him, All these things will I give You, if You will fall down and worship me. Then Jesus said to him, Begone, Satan, for it is written, ‘The Lord your God shall you worship and Him only shall you serve.’ Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
(Copied from

In the Novus Ordo, this liturgical year is "Year C", so the Gospel is from St. Luke, but it is essentially the same story, although the order of the second and third temptations is reversed.

What interests me the most about this Gospel is how it shows us that even Lucifer, who possesses the highly elevated intellect of an angel (albeit a fallen one), remains unsure whether Jesus is in fact the Son of God, God made Man.  Tradition teaches that it was God's revelation to his Angels of his intention to incarnate the Son as a man to redeem humanity which led Lucifer to revolt against God in the first place, taking a third of the angels to Hell along with him; these we now know as demons.  Yet even so, Lucifer felt the need to subject Jesus to these temptations in an effort to make sure of His identity as the Son.  I think he was finally convinced after his temptations failed to have any effect on our Lord.

Another interesting and very important point for all of us to keep in mind is the Devil's obvious knowledge of Scripture, which at that time consisted only of what we now call the Old Testament.  This reminds us to exercise the greatest of care in discernment whenever we are presented with arguments or contentions about our faith and the Church, even when cast in Scriptural terms or context.

One of the best commentaries I have seen on today's Gospel comes from the illustrious Jesuit scholar Fr. John A. Hardon, of happy memory, whose teaching hearkens back to the days when faithful Catholics could actually trust priests of the Society of Jesus to present solid catechesis and Scriptural exegesis, rather than the Modernist claptrap that dominates that once great order today.

I quote here from Fr. Hardon's commentary, (with added emphasis in bold font,) followed by a link to the website where I found it, and I encourage you to read the entire thing:

"In the third temptation, the devil does not start by saying that you are the Son of God. Rather he took the Savior to a very high mountain. On the high mountain from which a large view of the surrounding territory could be seen for miles up to the horizon. Commentators on the scriptures tell us that what the devil showed Christ was not only the land and the buildings surrounding a physical mountain in Palestine. It was a global view of all the kingdoms of the world and their majestic glory.
It was the devil’s last effort to tempt the Savior. But this time it was a temptation that only the devil, as the prince of this world, could offer. He told Jesus, “All these things I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
What was the devil telling our Lord? He was telling Him that as the one who is lord and master of the earthly pleasures that the kings of this world over the subjects, he would give everything to Christ on one condition. All Christ would have to do is fall on His knees and worship the evil spirit.
The history of the human race is a history of a conflict between two powers, the power of the devil over the worldly possessions of our planet, and the power of God over the humble souls who are willing to sacrifice everything in this world rather than abandon their service of God.
This was enough. Christ’s reply has become one of the most known imperatives in the human language, “Begone, Satan!” The devil could just go so far, and no further. Christ told the demon, again quoting from the scriptures, that there are two kinds of adoration that human beings can practice: either adoring the evil spirit as the ruler of this world, or adoring the true God, who is the only One whom we may serve.
St. Augustine’s City of God is the masterpiece in Christian literature explaining through a score of chapters what is the only real warfare that had ever been fought in world history. It is a war between the City of God, whose Leader is Christ, the Son of God; and the City of Man, whose master is Lucifer.
We are so accustomed to thinking of idolatry as an ancient form of paganism that no longer exists. The exact contrary is the truth. Idolatry in the modern world is widespread. It is nothing less than the worship of Self, inspired by the father of lies who tells people it is their will which they are to follow; it is their choices they are to make; it is their world in which they are living, and not the fantasy that religious zealots picture as created and ruled by an infinite God.


Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the universe, protect us from the wiles of the evil spirit, teach us to follow your example of humility in submitting our wills to the will of your divine Son. He conquered the evil spirit and gave us the grace to follow His example. Amen.
 For the full text of Fr. Hardon's commentary go here:

 Laudator Jesus Christus!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday, Lent and Sacrifice

And so it begins, the annual period of penance and preparation for the great festival of the Lord's Paschal Mystery.  I hope everyone made it to Mass today, and that you were able to fight your way through the crowds of occasional Catholics who tend to help fill the churches on Ash Wednesday--and I would guess probably a fair number of non-Catholics, as well.  Indeed, the observance of Lent for many people has descended to the secular level, having been robbed of all or nearly all religious significance. 

I have a personal theory about this, and it has to do with the message of today's Gospel reading, which is essentially the same in both the Novus Ordo and Traditional Latin Mass.  You all know the drift:  Our Lord instructs the faithful during the Sermon on the Mount on the things to avoid in the "Lenten triad" of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, in addition to giving us the Our Father. Essentially, Jesus admonishes us against showing off:  don't stand around praying on street corners, don't heap up empty words in prayer like the pagans, and when giving alms don't let the left hand know what the right is doing. 

Yet hundreds of people descend on every parish on Ash Wednesday who rarely if ever darken the door any other day, perhaps with the exception of Christmas and Easter.  Why?  Forgive me if I suggest that for most of these, their purpose probably is not to reconcile with our Lord and his Church through a faithful pursuit of the Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, going to confession and attending Mass every week and possibly even some weekdays.

A goodly number of them are there for one thing, and one thing only: to get those ashes applied to their foreheads.  In my experience, after the imposition of ashes a significant number of people head for the exits, not even sticking around for the real purpose of the Mass.  Even those who stay, if they are occasional Mass-goers, probably are only there for the ashes.

Do any of these people comprehend and internalize the meaning of the ashes, as a symbol of dying to self and seeking to rise in new life with Christ through repentance and conversion of heart, or understand what Lent is supposed to be all about? I think not; if they did, they wouldn't be occasional Catholics in the first place.  It's all about the badge, a show-off sign for their friends and family and the public.  "Look at me, I'm holy." They will flaunt their badges, brag to their friends about how they are giving up chocolate or coffee or something equally trite, and disappear from church for the next six and a half weeks.  In other words, exactly what Christ warned against in the Gospel today.   I pray that at least some of these people might respond to the grace they received by attending Holy Mass and truly enter into the season of Lent with the purpose for which the Church gives it to us.

And speaking of that purpose...I just criticized as "trite" the giving up of chocolate or coffee, which seem to be widespread choices for Lenten "discipline", if my anecdotal experience over many years in the workplace, combined with references seen in the popular media, is any indication.  This sort of choice reflects two things, in my view: First, the aforementioned general secularization of the season, and second, the loss of the meaning of the Lenten discipline even among many nominally practicing Catholics.  In a secularized environment, where for most people Lent has become nothing more than a short-term variant of a New Year's resolution, giving up something relatively insignificant is an easy way to be cool and do a little showing off, just like getting the ashes on the forehead.  For those 25% or so of self-identified Catholics who actually go to Mass at least weekly, however, a more elevated understanding of the nature and purpose of Lenten sacrifice should be the rule, rather than the exception.  Sadly this seems not to be the case.

As an RCIA catechist I have had a number of chances to discuss this issue with inquirers, candidates and Catechumens over the past nine years, and I have been unpleasantly surprised at the usual reaction to my standard opening statement: "Lent is not about giving up chocolate!"  Wide-eyed shock is the prevailing response.  Even after an explanation of the need for genuine personal sacrifice, made with a disposition of sincere contrition and desire to grow closer to God, too many still appear not to comprehend.  The cause might be aided by a little more attention to the subject of sacrifice from the pulpit, not only during Lent, but all during the year, although you can probably guess how often that happens.  It seems that the Modernist reduction of the essence of the Mass itself into nothing more than a communal meal of self-celebration has had a similarly negative impact on the observance of Lent.  Fasting and abstinence were already reduced to a minimum by Paul VI in 1966, with only two required fasting days and abstinence from meat only on Lenten Fridays, rather than both Fridays and Saturdays, so the subsequent deterioration of Lenten piety in general is perhaps no surprise.  It behooves each of us to do our part to reverse this scandal, for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls, starting with ourselves and our families.

Laudator Jesus Christus!