Saturday, October 31, 2015

Where in Scripture Do We Find That Mary Intercedes for Us Before God?

Where in the Bible do we find we should go to the Blessed Virgin to have her intercede for us? Look no further than the Book of Esther. Who is the queen of heaven in Revelation? Is it not Mary? Esther is queen of the greatest empire at the time. According to The Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names, Esther’s name means: “star; she that is hidden.” Is that not Mary?

For brevity sake, I am taking this from The Bible and its Story. From the introduction to the book, we learn: “The Bible and its Story is a massive collection of images which illuminate the story of Scripture. The images are taken from modern paintings, illustrations, and other renderings of the ancient text. Together, The Bible and its Story serves as a pictorial narrative of the entire story of the Bible—from beginning to end. It compiles the best of modern artwork to bring the Bible vividly to life.” I do not think the author was Catholic; nonetheless, I find the book very helpful.

“Esther is Crowned Queen. And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins: so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti. (Est 2:17)” What woman in the New Testament was full of grace and highly favored in the eyes of God? What woman is crowned queen? Mary.

“Esther Robed in Splendor. The maiden in her gentleness and obedience found immediate favor with the chamberlain Hegai. He ‘preferred her and her maids unto the best place of the house of the women’. It was customary to give to each one of the chosen damsels whatever she might demand of clothes and ornaments for her adorning; but Esther left all this submissively to Hegai. Apparently she did not lose thereby, either in favor or in splendor of attire.” In the dictionary of Bible names that we are using, we find that “Hegai” means “venerable, a speaker, my meditations.” What woman in the New Testament is well known for her ponderings? What woman is the most humble, the most submissive? Which woman is robed in splendor? Mary.

“Esther Faints Before the King. Poor Esther summoned all her courage. She sent Mordecai word that he and all her people should gather to fast and to pray for her, that she and her maidens would fast likewise, and after three days of this solemn appeal to God, she would go to the king despite the law against it. ‘And if I perish, I perish’.” Although we do not find a reference to this in the New Testament in the strictest sense, we do find that Mary was “greatly troubled” by the words of the angel. Although the Blessed Virgin was without sin by the grace of God, she was still a human being. Were it not for the grace of her Son before the Incarnation, she also would have perished as the rest of her race. She did not set herself above others, thinking that she did not need their prayers; she welcomed all prayers on her behalf, and God answered those prayers—especially of her parents.

Our book continues: “This course was followed. The Hebrew Bible tells us only that, upon the third day, Esther appeared before the king’s throne and was pardoned by means of the golden sceptre. The apocryphal version narrates the occurrence at much greater length. It describes the details of Esther’s approach, leaning upon one of her maids, followed by another ‘bearing up her train,’ her face all beautiful, her heart anguished with fear.

When the king beheld her intrusion, he ‘looked very fiercely upon her; and the queen fell down, and was pale, and fainted, and bowed herself upon the head of the maid that went before her.’ ‘Then God changed the spirit of the king into mildness, who in a fear leaped from his throne, and took her in his arms, till she came again to herself’.” Because God is holy and just, many times we view that He looks upon our sinfulness fiercely. In a sense He does. God hates sin because sin is death, absence of Life, and He is Life.

“Esther Braves the King. The story of Esther stands first among the poetic books of the Bible. It is the story of her devotion to her race. She had been chosen as the chief wife of Ahasuerus, king of Persia; but because the Jews were prisoners in that land she had not revealed her nationality to the king or his courtiers. Haman, the king’s favorite, hated the Jews and secured from Ahasuerus orders to destroy the entire race. Esther, learning of this, resolved to save her people; but she might not go to the king until he sent for her, because the law said that whoever approached the king unbidden, should die.

For a whole month Ahasuerus did not send for Esther, and at length in desperation, as the time for the slaughter of the Jews drew near, she defied the law and went to the monarch. ?He spared her, yet she still feared lest her plea for her people might anger him, and so hesitated to tell him all. Instead, she invited him to a feast and then to another, ere at length she spoke in full. Her waverings, her fear, her heartrending anxiety have all been here conceived and expressed by the artistic spirit of Heyden.” Here we find the intercession of Esther on behalf of her people.

Was not Mary interceding for the human race in her fiat? Was she not interceding for her people during the wedding feast at Cana? Was she not interceding for her children in the Upper Room? “Esther. The beautiful Jewess Esther, heroine of the biblical book named from her, has always been a favorite subject for the painter, the poet and the romancer. Her story has long existed in two forms. The shorter version, preserved in the Hebrew and in the present English form of the Bible, is a vigorous, dramatic tale of how the entire Jewish race was brought nigh to destruction by the terrible venom of one man’s personal revenge, and of how the race was rescued by a woman’s devotion and her personal charm.”

Then the author continues: “The human element of the story is thus made much more prominent than its teaching of religion. Indeed there is very little of theological doctrine or ethical inspiration in the tale.” This, I very much disagree with. One must ask the question, “Why is this Book included in the canon of Scripture? What did God desire to reveal about Himself and salvation history?

Then the author continues on a more positive note: “This religious note is supplied by the ancient Greek version of the Bible, which contains many passages of prayer and parable not in the Hebrew. These passages are still preserved in the Catholic Bible but are by most modern editors relegated to the apocrypha, or omitted entirely. They cannot, however, be overlooked in viewing the story; for they have largely influenced both poets and painters in their depictions of Esther. She has become the ideal of gentle submissiveness, of tender womanhood forced into positions high and terrible, rising superior to her fears and accomplishing her mission.” Once again, we have a vivid picture of Mary.

“Esther Pardoned. Still following the spirited apocryphal account of Esther’s ordeal, we learn that King Ahasuerus ‘comforted her with loving words,’ assured her she should not die, and ‘held up his golden sceptre, and laid it upon her neck.’ Then Esther spoke, and with woman’s wit told him how his majesty had awed and overwhelmed her, ‘for wonderful art thou, lord, and thy countenance is full of grace’.”

I am going to conclude here. For the rest of the story, read the Book of Esther, with an eye on our Blessed Mother. I think it very well could lead to a deeper love and appreciation for our God, our Mother, and the Catholic Church—for we cannot “see” Mary if we cannot see her in the Catholic Church.
--Tommy Turner
Editor's Note: What Tommy is referring to is Typology, How the Old Testament Prefigures the New. It is a common practice for theological reflection.

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Watch At All Times, Praying

“But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man" (Luke 21:36). Does this not put a tinge of terror in you? Or is it just me? Often we become presumptuous, presuming that we have “made it,” that we have achieved. Perhaps we think we have achieved because we are baptized. Perhaps we think we have achieved because we think we are good. Perhaps we think we have achieved because we believe in God and in Jesus. Perhaps we think we have achieved because we are Catholics and have graduated from “all the necessary stages.” Perhaps we think we have achieved because we “think” we love Jesus. Jesus reminds us, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” “But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”

What does Jesus mean by “watch at all times”? If we must pray that we have the strength to escape all the things that will take place, does that not imply that we do not have the strength? Is it necessary to pray just once—or continuously? If we are to pray that we will be able to stand before Jesus, does that not imply we have not achieved? “Let your loins be girded and you lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks.”

From the Catena Aurea – Gospel of Luke, we learn from St. Basil: “Every animal has within itself certain instincts which it has received from God, for the preservation of its own being. Wherefore Christ has also given us this warning, that what comes to them by nature, may be ours by the aid of reason and prudence: that we may flee from sin as the brute creatures shun deadly food, but that we seek after righteousness, as they wholesome herbs. Therefore said He, take heed to yourselves, that is, that you may distinguish the noxious from the wholesome. But since there are two ways of taking heed to ourselves, the one with the bodily eyes, the other by the faculties of the soul, and the bodily eye does not reach to virtue; it remains that we speak of the operations of the soul. Take heed, that is, Look around you on all sides, keeping an ever watchful eye to the guardianship of your soul. He says not, Take heed to your own or to the things around, but to yourselves. For you are mind and spirit, your body is only of sense. Around you are riches, arts, and all the appendages of life, you must not mind these, but your soul, of which you must take especial care.

The same admonition tends both to the healing of the sick, and the perfecting of those that are well,
namely, such as are the guardians of the present, the providers of the future, not judging the actions of others, but strictly searching their own, not suffering the mind to be the slave of their passions but subduing the irrational part of the soul to the rational. But the reason why we should take heed He adds as follows, Lest at any time your hearts be overcharged, etc.” He goes on to add: “But carefulness, or the car of this life, although it seems to have nothing unlawful in it, nevertheless if it conduct not to religion, must be avoided. And the reason why He said this He shows by what comes next, And so that day come upon you unawares.”

St. Bede admonishes: “[If] a physician should bid us beware of the juice of a certain herb lest a sudden death overtake us, we should most earnestly attend to his command; but when our Savior warns us to shun drunkenness and [excess], and the cares of this world, men have no fear of being wounded and destroyed by them; for the faith which they put in the caution of the physician, they disdain to give to the words of God.”

Not only must we watch out for ourselves, but also our brethren. It is through them that we are strengthened. When we find others in union with ourselves, it makes us stronger. “Though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecc 4:12). This is one beauty of the Catholic Church. In His Church, Jesus teaches us unity. We can prevail as a Body, but not as individuals.
--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

How Does Jesus, Who Is Perfect, Become More Perfect in Sufferings?

Of course, we do not know what God feels or what He does not feel. I presume He feels because He
loves. We are also commanded to not grieve the Holy Spirit. I do not desire to delve too much into this because perhaps it is an area I should not wade into. However, the point I do want to make: God is Spirit; He cannot be tempted to sin; and perhaps He cannot suffer. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was made perfect through sufferings. How does Jesus, Who is perfect, become perfect through sufferings?

We know that God knows everything, even our thoughts. He even knows our feelings. However, in the Incarnation, we know that God also feels what we feel. He knows our ignorance. In the Incarnation, God becomes acquainted with our temptations, our hunger, our thirst; He feels our disappointments, our joys, our fears, etc. In essence, God becomes Man. Because in His Incarnation Jesus took on corrupted human nature, He made Himself susceptible to all things that we are susceptible to. It is perhaps possible that His Incarnation was, in a way, the first part of His Passion.

Because of the Incarnation, Jesus, the Son of God, proves to us that “He feels our pain.” He takes our sins, which He bears as a result of His taking on human nature, and on the cross He transforms our curses, our sins, our pains, into blessings. He does not take them away, for He commands us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. When we do—because of the consequences of His Passion, death, and Resurrection—we receive blessings of eternal life.

Jesus, because He took on human nature and endured every imaginable suffering, became more perfect—because God cannot endure death, since Life and death cannot co-exist. Who is man that God would lower Himself to this extent? How does man garner, in a sense, more love than the angels—for the Son of God did not become an angel in order to redeem the fallen angels? Who is man that Jesus, the Son of God, becomes man in order to redeem Him?

--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Dropsy and the Catholic Church

On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. In front of him there was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus spoke to the scholars of the law and Pharisees in reply, asking, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath or not?” But they kept silent; so he took the man and, after he had healed him, dismissed him. Then he said to them “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?” But they were unable to answer his question.

Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees. Why? Better yet, why was He invited? People could probably come up with a myriad of possible reasons why Jesus was invited by a leading Pharisee; however, there are two that prevail in my mind: 1) The Pharisee was legitimately interested in hearing Jesus, and 2) he desired to trap Jesus. Why did Jesus go? Now, the early Church fathers, it appears, are holding that the Pharisee(s) have ulterior motives. They very well could be right. That is definitely a possibility. However, there were some that believed, e.g. Nicodemus. Jesus knew men, knew their thinking; nevertheless, Jesus loved His neighbor. Hence, in my mind, Jesus went out of love, to teach people, to get people to repent. He did not go to put them down or to “make them look bad;” He went out of love for the Pharisees and for whoever else may be present.

In front of Jesus, there was a man suffering from dropsy. From my non-medical understanding of dropsy, it is a swelling due to the accumulation of fluids, possibly caused by an excess, an abundance, of impurities in the body that the liver and kidneys cannot remove from the body. It could be caused by problems of the heart, liver, kidneys, thyroid, etc. The word we will be focused upon is excess, an abundance. Now, we don’t know if the Pharisees brought the man, to see what Jesus would do, or if the man just appeared, possibly following a crowd that may have been following Jesus. I don’t think that that is really relevant. What is important is that the man was there and that he had dropsy.

The Scriptures tell us that the people were observing Jesus carefully; however, we do not know whether these people were Pharisees or the crowd. If the people were Pharisees, in all probability it was a staged event. If it was the crowd, they might have been interested in what type of miracle Jesus might perform. “Jesus spoke to the scholars of the law and Pharisees in reply, asking, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath or not?’”

Now, Jesus speaks to the scholars of the law and Pharisees because they would be the ones to harbor ill will, to be critical of what He was about to do. This could very well come about as a result of ignorance or a misconception as to the spirit of the law regarding the Sabbath. The thought of the “spirit of the law” might not have even occurred to them; they might have just viewed the law as: “This you do; that, you don’t.” This is the letter of the law. They wisely remained silent because they had been caught in a “trap” previously when they answered Jesus’ questions. Had I been there, I also would have remained silent.

Therefore, “[Jesus] took the man and, after he had healed him, dismissed him.” Because Jesus dismissed the man, it enhances the probability that the event was staged in order to trap Jesus, but we don’t know for sure. Why are we told that Jesus dismissed him? Why does the author of the gospel desire that we know he was dismissed? Is it so that we will wag our heads and think, “Oh, those Pharisees were terrible,” implying that we are better? No, I think it points to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After we are absolved, we are dismissed to go and do good.

St. Cyril surmises: “Disregarding then the snares of the Jews, He cures the dropsical, who from fear of the Pharisees did not ask to be healed on account of the Sabbath, but only stood up, that when Jesus beheld him, He might have compassion on him and heal him. And the Lord knowing this, asked not whether he wished to be made whole, but forthwith healed him. Whence it follows: And he took him, and healed him, and let him go. Wherein our Lord took no thought not to offend the Pharisees, but only that He might benefit him who needed healing. For it becomes us, when a great good is the result, not to care if fools take offense.” It appears that St. Cyril does not think this was a staged event. I do not think our saint is intimating that Jesus desired to offend the scholars and the Pharisees—for this would not be loving thy neighbor—but that offenses would occur. The Catholic Church does not desire to offend people; nevertheless, people are offended due to the good and love of the Catholic Church.

“Then [Jesus] said to them, ‘Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?’ But they were unable to answer his question.” I think we all grasp what Jesus was driving at, as did the Pharisees and scholars. Nevertheless, how does this apply to the Catholic Church, which does good? The Catholic Church, of course, is comprised of Catholics who have something called concupiscence of sin, and have been known to be sinful many times—hence, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think the Venerable Bede hit the proverbial nail on the head when he says: “By a suitable example then, He settles the question, [showing] that they violate the Sabbath by a work of covetousness, who contend that [Jesus] does so by a work of charity.

Hence it follows, And they could not answer him again to these things. Mystically, the dropsical man is compared to him who is weighed down by an overflowing stream of carnal pleasures, for the disease of dropsy derives the name of a watery humor.” St. Augustine supports this when he says, “We rightly compare the dropsical man to a covetous rich man.” I think that, in today’s culture, it would be appropriate to drop the word “rich.” This also applies to a covetous poor man. St. Augustine continues, “For, as the former, the more he increases in unnatural moisture, the greater his thirst”—referring to the man with dropsy—“so also the other, the more abundant his riches, which he does not employ well, the more ardently he desires them.”

St. Gregory enlightens us by saying, “Rightly then is the dropsical man healed in the Pharisees’ presence, for by the bodily infirmity of the one is expressed the mental disease of the other”—which we should take as pointing to each of us individually. Venerable Bede puts the finishing touch upon this: “In this example also, He well refers to the ox and the ass, so as to represent either the wise and the foolish, or both nations--that is, the Jew oppressed by the burden of the law; the Gentile not subject to reason—for the Lord rescues from the pit of concupiscence all who are sunk therein.”

Our epistle reading is one reason why I believe our Lord was reaching out in love to the religious leaders, aside from the fact that He was dining with them. St. Paul writes: “Brothers and sisters: I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie; my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are children of Israel; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” If St. Paul felt this way towards the Jews, how did Jesus feel towards them?” And to make the rose come to full bloom: If Jesus and St. Paul felt this way for those outside of the Catholic Church, how much more do they love those who are in the Catholic Church? Which takes us to our responsorial psalm, Psalm 147:12-13,14-15, 19-20:

R. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem. Glorify the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion. For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; he has blessed your children within you. R. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem. He has granted peace in your borders; with the best of wheat he fills you. He sends forth his command to the earth; swiftly runs his word! R. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem. He has proclaimed his word to Jacob, his statutes and his ordinances to Israel. He has not done thus for any other nation; his ordinances he has not made known to them. Alleluia. R. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem.

From my reading of St. Augustine regarding this reading from Psalm 147, it makes me believe this psalm was written while Israel was in captivity, in exile, because the saint writes: “Praise in unison, O Jerusalem, thy God. Abiding yet in captivity, they behold those flocks, or rather, the one flock of all its citizens, gathered from all sides into that city; they see the joy of the mass, now after threshings and winnowings placed in the garner, fearing nothing, suffering no toil nor trouble; and, as yet abiding here, in the midst of the threshing they send forward their joy of hope, and pant for it, joining as it were their hearts to the Angels of God, and to that people which shall abide with them in joy forever.” In his words, I visualize Catholics and the Catholic Church. One prayer which seems so fitting is Hail, Holy Queen.

The prayer mentions that we are in exile. It is not a prayer of despair, but of hope, of rejoicing. Our Blessed Mother, Mary, is Zion. If she is Zion, then her offspring is with her. It is not about one person; it is about community. Mary is exalted when her offspring is like her. She is the perfect image of her Son, who saves her. Because she is the image of Him, we see Him in her. Can you not see her praying, as her Son does, “If you don’t save them, cross my name out of the book of life.” When we are the image of Mary, God is glorified, especially the Son, and Mary is exalted also. God the Father is not pounding His fist, exclaiming, “Give Me glory! Exalt Me!” No, for we cannot help but glorify Him, exalt Him, because He has given us His Son, Who has redeemed us, bestowing upon us His divinity.

We are born of God in Baptism, and the Sacraments that Jesus has given us will make us like Him. Jesus was obedient to the Father; Mary was obedient to the Father; we are obedient also in that we desire to be obedient and are working, by His grace, to be obedient. This is through the work of the Sacraments. Jesus was obedient to His Mother; we try to be obedient to her by consecrating ourselves to her Son, through her. Parents, how do you feel when someone praises your child? Are they not also praising you?
--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Do We Really Desire to be the Image of Jesus?

In one of his prayers for the Great Jubilee, St. Pope John Paul II reminds us that 2000 years ago Jesus, the Son of God, became our companion on life’s path and gave new meaning to our history, the journey we make together in toil and suffering, in faithfulness and love. That caused me to conclude that, after His Ascension, Jesus continues this companion ship, this journey, in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is not the body of Jesus, but is the living Body of His Office—Christ. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus is the Christ; the Christ is Jesus. The Catholic Church is the visible Body of the living Christ, of which Jesus is the Head. When you look at the Catholic Church—not individual Catholics—you see Jesus, the Christ. For this reason, the world hates the Catholic Church. It is not difficult, if one puts their mind to it a little, to surmise why the world hates the Catholic Church. The world hated Jesus; it also hates the visible Body of Christ.

After feeding the five thousand, the crown sought Jesus in order to make Him king, for the purpose of making their lives easier, that they would no longer have to work for their food. They did not seek for Him in order to keep their souls from perishing. What are we searching for? Are we presuming that our souls are “saved” and therefore we should be rewarded by having an easier life, a “good” life, here on earth? Or are we realizing that we are in a foreign land, where the inhabitants are not necessarily friendly to our beliefs and often is very hostile? Do we see ourselves as needing the Catholic Church to aid and guide us toward the fulfillment of our goal, to strengthen us? For example, would we rather face ISIS alone, as individuals, or as a Church, exhorting and strengthening one another? Did Jesus come to save souls from perishing, or to make life easier? Are we, spiritually, aspiring to elevate ourselves, as though we as individuals are most important, or are we seeking to elevate others, working that they may—although perhaps undeservedly—benefit from the “good” that we may do, while seeking no credit for ourselves? Is this not what Jesus did? Do we really desire to be the image of Jesus?

We will either see the impossibility, or the great difficulty, of being the image of Jesus; or we will do “good” deeds sporadically, deeming this to be sufficient. For example, one may ascertain that loving your neighbor as yourself does not entail loving one’s neighbor as Jesus did, doing nothing but the essentials for Himself, but loving His neighbor as if His neighbor was Himself, to the point of giving His life for His neighbor. One may conclude that this is too strict, that it is not necessary, and that something short of that is sufficient—with the person being the authority of how short of that will be sufficient. We are not the authority; therefore, what assurance is there that will give us hope? Listen to one of the prayers of the Liturgy: “Look not upon my sins, but the faith of Your Church.” Does that not make you exuberant? Does that mean I can live a sinful life? No, because otherwise I would not be born of God in Baptism. A person born of God does not live as the first Adam but the second Adam. Is there any greater love than that which God has for man? Are the baptized not the children of God? Is not this why our Lord tells us to call no man Father? Because in Baptism we are born of God, “not of blood (man) nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man.” Is this not why we pray, “Our Father…,” because Jesus has clothed us in His divinity?

Because we see the impossibility—nevertheless, seeing the will of God—of being the image of His Son, does it cause us to engage in deep prayer, asking that He transforms us into this image? Or do we desire to leave room to “massage” the flesh—self? It is almost too alarming to pray for. We are, perhaps, afraid of what we might have to give up—because, truthfully, we do not want to give it up. Therefore, understandably, we do not pray—because God might answer the prayer. This makes it abundantly clear that temporal things might very well be more grand to us than eternal things. We know that this is not true, that this is not what we desire, but we cannot let go. We are exceedingly willing to climb the moral ladder, the “spiritual” ladder, but we cannot let go of our “worldly” things. We are often afraid of what God might call us to do. Although we do not think we are very attached to our possessions, that we would still be content without them, that is just not true. If it was true, we would give them up.

We know that we will be rewarded one hundred times over in eternal things, but we walk away sad because our possessions are great to us. Even poor people have “great” possessions that they are not willing to give up. That “great” possession might just be the desire to possess. Because we can see with our eyes, often “cataracts” form over our “spiritual” eyes, clouding our true vision. Jesus, the Son of God, came to serve, not to be served. He told His disciples, “Whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all.” Does that leave us room to think, “Well, I don’t want to be first; I just don’t want to go to hell?” Being “first” is not desiring to be above someone else; being “first” is aspiring to please God. Jesus is telling us that, if we desire to be the image of Him, we must become the slave of all. Is this not the image of the Son of God? Do we see the impossibility of it, nevertheless the necessity of it? Do we desire to be a child of God, the image of the Son? Prayer is of absolute necessity. The Catholic Church is of absolute necessity. We are stuck in a miry bog. The mind knows what to do; we just can’t get the body to do it. Because of this we pray.

For this reason, many consecrate themselves to Jesus through Mary. Our desire is to be the image of her Son. She is the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, and she is our mother. She knows what needs to be done. However, the consecration depends upon us becoming her willing slaves. Slaves only possess what their master gives them. Therefore, we turn everything over to her. We approach our Blessed Mother, saying, “Here am I with all my possessions; do unto me and them as you please.” We must not put limitations on it by thinking, “I will go this far, and not farther.” When something “bad” occurs, we view it as something she has put before us for our good. Trusting God is an impossibility for us without His grace. God tells us that Mary is full of grace. He gives her to us to aid us, that she may love her neighbor (us) and we, ours. I believe it was St. Theresa of Avila who said, “We don’t know if we love God; therefore, we must love our neighbor” (paraphrasing). We know we love God if we love our neighbor. How can we say we love God, who we cannot see, if we cannot love the one we can see? Therefore, we pray, and keep praying, for this love. Ask (and keep asking) and you shall receive. Seek (and keep seeking), and you shall find. Knock (and keep knocking), and the door will be opened.

The impossibility is only impossible for us, not impossible for God. This is why He gives us His Son, Mary, and the Catholic Church. Pride says, “I am able to do it.” Humility says, “Help me!” “Look not upon my sins, but look upon the faith of Your Church, the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ, of whom the Head is Jesus.” Then the impossible becomes possible. We, as individuals, do not do everything; but each of us do contribute in some way. We are active members of the Body. Yes, we do desire to be the image of the Son, and we shall be—as a group, a community, a Body. 

--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Monday, October 26, 2015

Freedom in the Catholic Church

I did not know freedom until I became a Catholic. Some people read the Bible liberally; some, conservatively. Some will read the Gospels and fall in love with Jesus; some may read them, and hate Him. Without the Church to guide you, help you in your reading, there will be a plethora of interpretations. You know what they say about opinions: They are like armpits; everyone has two. The same, I believe, applies to individual interpretations of the Bible.

When I was working in Nashville, a co-worker told me, “God has made it so easy in the New Testament; all we have to do is love.” I replied, “That is what makes it impossible; we cannot love to the degree that we are commanded.” He interpreted liberally; I, conservatively. Which is correct? Did the answer lie somewhere in the middle? Who is to say? How do we know we have done enough or are doing enough? Does it rely on what I think is true or what God says is true?

I recall the first time I began to read through the New Testament. I did not find the Gospel very good news at all. It appeared to me that the commandments of Jesus were more burdensome than those of Moses. With Moses, I thought, it was like a checklist: Do this; don’t do that. However, Jesus went further; He went to the spirit of the Law. For example, take the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. The reader, or hearer, would think, “Okay, I must not commit murder.” Jesus clarifies, “You cannot even get angry.” Which commandment is easier to obey? Did Jesus make the commandment impossible for us in order to imply: “See, you cannot keep this commandment; therefore, I am going to die for you so that it will be okay if you get angry”? What about the command, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”? Is He saying that He was going to die for so that we didn’t have to try to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect?

Take the two great commandments, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” First, do you love God because you think you love God, or must it be evidenced—all the time, without cessation? If it is sporadic, then we do not love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. What about the commandment second to it, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Does that mean to love yourself and then try to love your neighbor the same way? I do not think that is what Jesus meant. In what way did He love Himself? However, if you tell me that He fed Himself and then fed others, I will agree. But do we do that to all our neighbors, all the time? Absolutely not. We fulfill the commandment when we love as Jesus loved.

When I read the Gospels, I laid the Bible down in despair, with the thought that I did not have a chance. I knew I needed Christ, but I saw no hope. Many times I would pick the Bible up again, but would have to lay it down in despair once again.

I began to receive a ray of hope when I read Jeremiah 31:33, 34: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD; I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people, and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more” (emphasis added). I saw God doing everything and causing everything. I could handle that. What hope! What hope it was at the time—until I looked at the sins in my life. If God is putting His law in my inward parts, and in my heart He is writing it, why am I sinning? What is happening in me?

Being a protestant, I believed that, if you say the “sinners’ prayer” and meant it, you would be saved. I must hold the world’s record for saying the sinners’ prayer. Every prayer was different; perhaps I didn’t say the right words. Perhaps, I really didn’t mean it the other times; I better say it again to make sure. St. Paul would give me hope at the beginning of his epistles, but I would become disheartened when I got to the conclusions, when he exhorted people to be what they were, to accomplish with deeds what he had just taught. It was as though I had to be the Church, that everything was dependent upon my performing everything.

Enter the freedom of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is a Body. The brain does not do the job of the heart; the heart does not do the job of the intestines; the intestines does not perform the functions of the liver, etc. All parts of the body are required for the body to work perfectly. No part is “along for the ride;” however, no part is “saved” without the other parts being “saved.” The right lung does not attempt to elevate itself above the other parts of the body, but sometimes it may have to work harder in order for the rest of the body to function properly. We are on a journey, not as individuals but as a body. We must help each other.

When we go to Mass, we are praying for each other. When we sin, we make the Body ill, making other parts to work harder. When we go to Confession, it begins a healing process. If we cut our hand, the body feels pain, and the other hand has to work harder. When the healing process begins, it affects other parts and begins to heal the rest of the body. This is what occurs in Confession. Therefore, Confession is also part of loving your neighbor as yourself. Going to Mass is part of loving your neighbor because we are praying for each other and being strengthened in Communion.

In the Catholic Church, I am free to know what Truth is. As a protestant, I always had to wonder whether what I was hearing was true or not. There were differences between the various denominations; there were differences even in the same denomination. Was I in the right denomination? If the pastor taught one thing but I believed otherwise, who was right? Was it significant or insignificant? Who was the authority? All this disappears in the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, we have the Magisterium. We have freedom, peace, to know what truth is. We have freedom to know that we are truly forgiven; we do not have to rely on feelings. The Catholic Church is constantly loving God with all its heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving its neighbor as itself. As Catholics, we are cooperating in that love—if we are in union with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, we are rebels, rebelling against that love. Therein lies freedom and joy—in the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, the Gospel becomes joyful, full of good news, aiding me where I am deficient, and taking from my strengths to aid others in areas where I might be stronger. Just as in Exodus 17:12 when Moses needed Aaron and Hur to hold his arms up, we likewise strengthen each other.
--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why? Oh, why, St. Paul?

Why? Oh, why, St. Paul? For what purpose are you telling us that you are not ashamed of the gospel? Have you been accused of being ashamed? Are you saying that the Roman Christians were ashamed of the gospel? Are you saying that we are ashamed of the gospel?

Was St. Paul ever ashamed of the Gospel? No, that is what he lived for. He was accused of many things, but I do not think that being ashamed of the gospel he preached was one of those things. He faced death many times on account of the gospel he preached?

When I was a protestant, the preachers would be emphasizing the need to go out and not be ashamed to proclaim the gospel to nonbelievers. Was St. Paul implying that the Roman Christians were ashamed of the gospel in some way? Was he saying they were ashamed of the gospel because they held their Masses in catacombs instead of openly? No, he probably preached numerous times in those catacombs. In Verse 8 he had just expressed to them his thankfulness because their faith was being proclaimed in all the world. This manifests that their faith was not hidden, was not obscure. Therefore, why does he say, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome, for I am not ashamed of the gospel? They had to have heard the gospel because “[their] faith is proclaimed in all the world.”

Was St. Paul implying that the Roman Christians were ashamed of the gospel in some way? Yes. St. Paul was exhorting them because of their faith; however, he was showing them that they were exhibiting a shamefulness to the gospel by way of their manner of living. This can be concluded from Verse 18, where he speaks about wickedness suppressing the truth. Wickedness is deeds of death; sin is deeds of death. In Verse 17, the apostle asserts, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Life is deeds of goodness, of holiness. In deeds of life, the gospel is not hidden.

Is St. Paul telling us that we are ashamed of the gospel? Most assuredly. The Word of God is not composed of “dead” letters. It is alive and most powerful. Although we look back historically and learn, we must see this as being directed to us. St. Paul is alive today, for “he who believes in Me shall never die.” He is thanking God for all of us, because our faith, the Catholic faith, is proclaimed in all the world. St. Paul still serves God with his spirit in the gospel of His Son. He, without ceasing mentions us always in his prayers. He still longs to see us, that he may impart to us some spiritual gift to strengthen us. He also continues to be encouraged by our faith as we are with his. Hence, he is telling us that in many ways we are ashamed of the gospel. In what ways?

We are ashamed of the gospel when we cause division in the Catholic Church, when we are not united. The Head of the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ. When disagree with the doctrines and dogmas of the Church, we disagree with Jesus Christ; therefore, we exhibit that we are ashamed of the gospel. When we are not opposed to contraception, we are ashamed of the gospel. When we believe that there is nothing wrong with homosexual acts, we are ashamed of the gospel. When we believe the world is more accurate in some things than what the Church teaches as doctrine and dogmas, we exhibit that we are ashamed of the gospel. We are calling good, bad; and we are calling bad, good. Claiming to be wise with the Wisdom of God, we have become fools. We have exchanged the Wisdom of God for the wisdom of the world. Every time we sin, we conceal righteousness, the gospel, as if we are ashamed. One of the prevailing excuses people give as to the reason they do not go to church is that Christians are just as bad, if not worse, than they themselves. This is because Christians many times are ashamed of the gospel.

St. Paul is telling us that he is not ashamed of the gospel because he lives the gospel. Because he lives the gospel, he has joy. This is not a joy where he walks around with a smile on his face at all times, exhibiting “feelings” that he truly does not have. Was he smiling when he wrote to the Galatians? No, absolutely not. The joy he has is love of God and love of neighbor and serving them with joy. This joy comes from obedience to the gospel, living the gospel. It is a joy of belonging, belonging to a real family, a family that loves with the love of God—the Catholic Church. Does each person perfectly love like this? No, but each has a portion of this love, and knows where to direct someone for help in the rest, the full portion of this love—once again, the Catholic Church. One has to look at the Catholic Church as a whole. We are not a family that rebels, wanting our own way, desiring our way of thinking to be the right way; we are a family that loves, desiring the best for each other, making everyone else more important than ourselves. Individually, we may not have arrived at the goal yet, but we are growing into that by virtue of the Catholic Church and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Jonah and Psalm 130

Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor lock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it. (Jon 3:6-10)

The King, Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, rises from His throne, removes His godly robe, and covers Himself with the sackcloth of human flesh, human nature, in the Incarnation, and sat down in the ashes of His Passion and crucifixion, although remaining sinless. He preaches repentance to us and dies for us, exclaiming that God will repent and turn from His fierce anger in order that we may not perish.

Taking our sins upon Himself, He prays: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice! Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (Ps 130: 1-4, 7-8)

Why would Jesus pray this psalm when He is holy, without sin? Because He became man, taking upon Himself sinful human nature. It is for this reason that He had to endure His Passion and death. He had to nail sinful human nature to the cross in order that He may exchange it for us with His divine nature. It is because of this that we may call God the Father our Father. We take Christ’s divine nature upon us in Baptism and the Eucharist. We are not clothed with His divine nature; therefore, if God the Father is our Father, then we are of Him and need to be like Him, being what we now are. This is what the Mass is about and what the Catholic Church is about.

What about our Blessed Mother? Did she pray this psalm? She was conceived immaculately, was without sin, had perpetual virginity; did she need to pray this psalm, and did she? Absolutely, yes. Everything she was and did was a gift from her Son, the Son of God. Therefore, she prayed, and prays, every psalm with us.

Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
--Tommy Turner

Go, Jonah, Go!

Jonah is one of my favorite books of holy Scripture.  I do not know whether it is historical or parable; it does not matter.  The book is inspired, and reveals truths about God.  It is a story full of hope and love in spite of concupiscence.   There are times when I wonder if I have missed the will of God.  The book of Jonah gives peace in that regard.  It reveals how God directs our paths.  Let us begin with Jonah.
You have to love Jonah.  He is human; he is patriotic.  He is a prophet of God; he probably knows what Assyria—of which Nineveh is the capitol—is going to do to Israel.  If he does not, then it is certain that he knew Assyria was Israel’s enemy and knew how cruel they were.  When God tells him to go and preach destruction to Nineveh, he disobeys because he knew God was merciful and that, if they repented, God would be merciful to them.  Therefore, out of love for his country and his countrymen, he goes the opposite direction. 
 God, out of love for Jonah and the people of Nineveh, threw thorns and walls in the path of Jonah to get him through the maze he had created for himself.  Jonah did not love his enemy; therefore, God had to teach him, to mold him.
Peter Kreeft noticed:  “Ironically, every person and thing in the story obeys God except Jonah. The sailors fear God. The lots they cast tell the truth. The storm arises at God’s will. The fish swallows Jonah when God calls it. The Ninevites repent when Jonah delivers God’s Word. The plant grows up over Jonah when God commands it. The worm eats the plant when God brings it. Everything from large fish to worms obey God—everything except God’s own prophet!”[1]  However, let’s think about Jonah. Jonah is a type of Christ.  One may object, and say, “But he disobeyed God.”  That is true.  Adam sinned against God; nevertheless, he also is a type of Christ.  Do not look at every single deed under a microscope; look at the big picture.  Look at what he did.
Jonah was told to go; he did go.  He went the wrong direction, but he did go.  Jesus left the side of the Father.  Jonah gets into a boat; Jesus gets into a boat.  Now, a “boat” can signify different things.  It can signify the Church, Mary, or the cross.  In this story, it signifies all three.  Jonah falls asleep in the boat with a tempest ongoing, as does Jesus.  When Jonah is thrown overboard, the waters become calm; Jesus calms the sea.  Because of the “resurrection” of Jonah, people are saved.  The people of Nineveh had become aware of what had happened to Jonah; therefore, they took his message seriously.
When I was a protestant, we were taught that Jonah was evidence that God is God of second chances.  I do not see it in this view. I see the love of God not only to the people of Nineveh and the sailors but to Jonah himself.  God wills that all His people conform to the image of His Son.  God throws thorns and walls in the path of Jonah to lead him to repentance, to mold him more into the image of Christ.  However, this cannot be viewed as fatalism, for Jonah still had the ability, had he willed, for continued disobedience.  The sailors could have remained belligerent and not turned to God.  The people of Nineveh could have not listened to Jonah, thinking that their gods were more powerful than Jonah’s God.  Sometimes we are thick-headed; but, if we remain steadfast in the desire that God transform us through His Church and the Sacraments into the image of Christ, He will do just that.
I have just scraped the surface on the book of Jonah.  It is very deep, with many nuggets of gold.  When you read it trying to find Jesus in as many details as you can, you will truly be enriched.
--Tommy Turner

[1] Kreeft, P. (2005). You Can Understand the Bible: A Practical Guide to Each Book in the Bible (p. 150). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Loving Thy Neighbor in Marriage

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Although we must take this as marriage between a man and a woman, we must nevertheless first look for Christ in this. We know that Jesus is the second Adam, and we that that, when Jesus slept on the cross, His precious side was opened up and the Church was made. God the Father intended that the Son of God Incarnate should not be alone, but should have a helper fit for Him, a wife. Because He was holy, pure, it would be necessary that His wife was also. To show Her the immensity of His love, She would come from His side, flesh of His flesh.

St. Peter instructs us, “…You husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex…[1]  

Husbands are a type of Christ. Who is stronger, the divine being who took on human nature or the

Everything boils down to two commandments: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Really, what does “love your neighbor as yourself” look like? Jesus in His Passion, especially the crucifixion. He did not die to save Himself, but to save His Bride, to make her spotless, the Catholic Church. The Church did not die for Jesus; Jesus died for her. The stronger serves the weaker. The weaker vessel returns that love through loving obedience. I liken it to Exodus 21: “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.”[2]  

Do we not see Christ, the Husband?

I am looking forward to renewing myself for consecration to Mary. The thought occurred to me, “What greater human being is there than Mary?” Jesus is a divine being with a human nature, but the Virgin Mary is a human being. She is the Mother of God; who could be greater? The parent is stronger than the child, and is responsible for protecting, nourishing, and teaching the child. In the consecration to Mary, we are becoming a loving slave to Mary. However, when one contemplates upon it, who is really serving whom? Mary does not need our help; we need hers. In the way that a dutiful child shows its love through obedience, we become this type of “slave” to our Blessed Mother, trusting her to protect, nourish, and teach us, that she will bring us to the fruit of her womb, Jesus. This is “loving thy neighbor as yourself.”

When a man stands before the priest, desiring to marry the woman beside him, he is essentially saying, “Because I love you, I will no longer live to myself; I will only live for you, to elevate you above myself, to protect you, to nourish you—no matter what, no matter what you do nor what anyone else does. Is this not what Jesus does? Does Jesus ever leave His Bride? We may leave Him, but He never forsakes us. We may play the part of the adulteress; but, as in the book of the prophet, Hosea, He goes after us, to bring us back—if we are willing. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Is it lawful for Jesus to divorce His Bride?
human being? According to St. Peter, who is the stronger vessel, the man or the woman? It is to the man that St. Paul commands that he must love his wife as Christ loves the Church. This commandment he did not give to the woman.
--Tommy Turner

[1] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition (1 Pe 3:7). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
[2] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition (Ex 21:4–6). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida:

Saturday, October 3, 2015


             In this blog posting we will find the Church Fathers appearing as leaders in the struggle to preserve Apostolic Christianity, that is the teaching of Christianity that came entirely from the Apostles. The need for the early Fathers' skill in defining orthodox Christianity became crucial to the life of the Church. Had not the right Fathers come forward at the right time and place to reject heresies that were literally dividing the church in two, many of us might find ourselves members today of a "Gnostic" (pronounced "nahstic") or other heretical branch of Christianity.

Defining Heresy and Gnosticism

               Before going further into the Church's struggle against the first and most divisive and powerful heresy, i.e., Gnosticism, let us define "heresy" and its principal body of belief and doctrine as the Church came to speculate on it as early as St. Paul's "Pastoral Letters," i.e., 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, probably written by Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome before being executed as ordered by Emperor Nero (63 - 67 A.D.). First of all, we probably think of the meaning of heresy in the technical theological sense of the formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith. This derivation of the Greek word used in the New Testament for heresy, namely, airesis, is somewhat strange in that its usage in the New Testament does not connote what we think of heresy today, namely, the denial of dogma. Instead, airesis was used to denote "choice" or "thing chosen."

               This meaning was applied to the tenets of certain philosophical schools. In this sense it appears occasionally in Scripture to designate a religious party or sect. This was the use made of the Greek word for the "sect of the Sadducees" (Acts 5:17), and "sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5). The concept of Christian unity, essential to the early Church, did not favor the admission of sects, parties, or other divisive influences within the early Church. Paul uses the Greek word airesis in Galatians 5:20 when listing the most serious vices within a Church body, namely "dissensions" and "factions." In 2 Peter 2:1 the author condemns "false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies." This is the closest the New Testament comes to using our modern concept of heresy as the denial of dogma.

               Heresy, both the word and the concept, received a great boost in usage when inserted by St. Ignatius of Antioch (c.35 -c.107 A.D.) in letters he wrote while being taken under guard to Rome and his martyrdom in the colosseum. He warns the recipients of his letters to fiercely resist a Judaizing heresy with "Docetic" elements. Docetism, as the main heresy in the early Church, stood for the proposition that the humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ were apparent, even imaginary, rather than real. With the letters of St. Ignatius heresy entered the vocabulary and teaching of the early Church as a fixed doctrine -- which interestingly had as its target the repudiation of fixed doctrine. Notice that we call Docetism a Judaizing heresy. This means that it was preached mainly by early Christians who had been converted from Judaism, but who had not completely rejected those aspects of Judaism that were incompatible with the radical challenge of the Incarnation on their beliefs.

               Thus "heresy," which in the Greek airesis first focused on the naming of sects or parties, now became a dogma that gained steam as a false teaching rejecting authentic Christian dogma. More and more Fathers of the early Church found that Gnostic Docetism was a major source of confusion among early Christians. These first Christians believed in Jesus as Lord, but they were often swayed by Gnostics to believe, or at least to consider, Gnosticism's perverted teachings that Jesus was not truly of divine birth, life and death. As we turn next to the heretical teachings of the Gnostics we find that they preached Docetism as their major doctrine. They preached it constantly as they attacked authentic Christianity, which was based completely on the true and real Incarnation of Jesus, from his birth to his death on the cross and resurrection.

               We know much more about third- and fourth-century defenders of orthodox Christianity than we do of the first- and second-century Fathers. It was these earlier Fathers who struck out at Gnosticism as it had penetrated the early Church. First of course, St. Paul blasted the Gnostic teachings (without yet knowing or ever using the word "Gnosticism,") in his "Pastoral Letters" (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). Paul in these letters was simply telling his disciples Timothy and Titus, appointed by Paul as "supervisors" or "overseers" of the churches in Ephesus and Crete respectively (the word "bishop" had not yet arisen), to strike out strongly at "false teachings." Paul used "false teachings" rather than Gnosticism because he had not yet understood that Gnosticism was a new heretical movement spreading throughout the early Church. But he knew certain elements of the false teachings of Gnosticism and listed them in his Pastoral Letters, an example of which is the following excerpt from 1 Timothy:

"I repeat the request I made to you [to] stay in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to teach false doctrines or which promote speculations rather than the plan of God that is to be received with faith...They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to receive with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good... Whoever teaches something different and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes." (1 Tm: 1:1-4; 4: 3-4; 6: 3-4)

Gnosticism: The Essential Core of Heresy

               Now let's turn to an analysis of Gnosticism, which was to be the principal heresy in the early Church, and which has never really gone away. In confining our discussion in this posting to the "heresy of all heresies," i.e., Gnosticism, the leading Church Father, and in fact the first Church Father who focused his apostolate entirely on refuting Gnosticism was St. Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 200), Bishop of Lyons in today's southern France. It was St. Irenaeus' special task to answer very difficult and challenging questions, such questions as: Was Jesus truly God? Wasn’t he perhaps “less of a God” than the Father? Isn’t it possible that the Father just gave Jesus some share of his divinity at a later point in Jesus’ life, such as when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan? This category of Gnostic teaching was known as Adoptionism, meaning that God the Father “adopted” Jesus, a word which supporters of the heresy intended to be a metaphor to describe Jesus’ inferior divinity. Others argued that, even if Jesus was truly God, surely he wasn’t an actual human being like all the rest of us, was he? Isn’t it possible that he just looked and acted human?

               The early Church’s answer to such questions was of vital importance to the way in which Christianity was to develop. Was Christianity truly the unique religion it proclaimed itself to be in which the eternal God entered fully into the human condition by becoming a man in the person of Jesus? Or was Christianity just another version of the ancient religious myths, about which people in the Roman Empire had speculated for centuries. Many Christians who at first had followed Apostles like Paul left the church because of lack of a clear understanding of authentic Christian doctrine. Many offshoot bodies, formerly part of the authentic Church, existed for centuries in the East, until many Eastern ex-Christians were converted again – this time to Islam.

               The Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge”) were people who believed that they possessed a special version of secret knowledge about life reserved only for an elite few. There were many varieties of Gnostics. Some of them borrowed bits and pieces of their beliefs from Judaism, but they distorted Judaism, teaching that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was in actuality an evil angel who created the earth and human beings. The Gnostics believed that spiritual realities were of more value than earthly realities. For example, they mistrusted the human body, marriage and all material creation. Yet, there was a wide variety of Gnostic lifestyles. Some Gnostics ignored moral values and lived in communes where group sex was practiced and marriage was scorned as foolish. Other Gnostics, however, were ascetical, remaining celibate for reasons of “purity,” and adhering to strict dietary rules so as not to cloud their spiritual perception. Their main belief was that they, and only they, possessed a hidden, secret knowledge about how the soul, through manipulating the techniques they learned through this secret knowledge, could reunite with the true God, who existed above the heaven of the Jewish and Christian God. Usually they visualized this unification with the true God as a lengthy process of ascent through countless stages, each stage dependent on learning a piece of hidden gnosis, usually through the help of learned masters urging them along toward ever higher states of being.

               Gnosticism’s principal threat to the gospel was its teaching that God had not really become a human being in the person of Jesus. The Gnostics taught either that Jesus was simply a highly enlightened man or that he was an angel or spiritual messenger who only appeared to be a man. The latter teaching was the heresy of Docetism, which we have already considered. The bishops of the early church realized the danger Gnosticism presented and confronted it. The most skillful foe of Gnosticism, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, used as his main tool of refutation his treatise called Against Heresies. The aim of that work was to preserve the main doctrine of Christianity—namely, that God actually had become a man in the person of Jesus. Jesus was not an angel who merely appeared to be a man; Jesus truly was a human being while at the same time divine. The eternal Word, the Son of God, really had become human, and really did live among people on earth.

               Through the work of bishops like Irenaeus, Gnosticism as such began to diminish in importance. By the year 200 or so, most Christians were capable of distinguishing between Jesus as a divine messenger or angel, as the Gnostics taught, and Jesus as the man who was divine, as Christianity taught. But questions about the nature of Jesus’ divinity did not go away. Many people now wondered whether Jesus was of “equal divinity” to the Father. In other words, some Christians asked, was Jesus a great man sharing some degree of divine awareness, but not actually on the same plane as the eternal Father? If so, then Jesus would have been someone like the Buddha, who lived about five-hundred years before Jesus, namely, “enlightened” but not divine.

Arianism and the Council of Nicaea

Confusion about Jesus’ relationship to the Father as promoted as the Gnostics' basic doctrine was especially prominent in the East. In the early fourth century, an Egyptian priest named Arius taught the original first-century Gnostic doctrine that the Son of God was inferior in his divinity to the Father, or as he put it “a lesser God.” Arius was a skilled preacher and gained much support for his doctrine, even among bishops. A great controversy began to rage, known to us today as the Arian controversy. Arius’s doctrine is known as Arianism, which is the belief that the Son of God was created in time and is inferior in his divinity to the Father. The debate between Arian and non-Arian bishops became so heated and controversial, with divisions becoming ever-widening between ordinary Christians over this subject, that Emperor Constantine himself found it necessary to intervene. In actuality, Arianism was simply a revival of the Gnostic teachings that Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons had refuted over a century earlier.

               In the year 325, Emperor Constantine convened a council at Nicaea, located in today’s Turkey, south of the empire’s Eastern capital of Constantinople (named Istanbul today). Some 318 bishops came to the Council of Nicaea, but only five of them were Western bishops. By and large, it was still Eastern bishops who were involved in the great theological debates, although of course it was much easier for Eastern bishops to travel to Nicaea than it was for Western bishops. The leader of the traditional Catholic party, upholding the belief of the early Church as clarified by the Church Fathers, was a young deacon from Alexandria named Athanasius (297–373). St. Athanasius argued that it would be impossible to overcome Gnostic Arianism unless the Council arrived at a formula, or creed, which defined just what the relationship was between the Son and the Father. Athanasius believed that truths in the gospel sometimes need further explanation in order to be made clearer. He thus proposed using a Greek word -- homoousios -- not found in Scripture in order to make it clear what Christians believed about the relationship between Father and Son.

               That word is translated in today’s Profession of Faith as “consubstantial” so that the Son is said to be of equal divinity with the Father. To make this point clearer, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea, in writing their Nicene Creed, added that the Son of God is “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, begotten, not made.” In other words, the bishops emphasized that the eternal, preexisting Son was not created in time as the Arian-Gnostics taught, but had always coexisted with the Father.

Enter the Holy Spirit

Even though Constantine approved the Nicene Creed and proclaimed it the correct statement of Christian doctrine, not everyone agreed with it. In fact, it would be accurate to say that during most of the fourth century, Gnostic-Arianism was often the dominant viewpoint. It took fifty years or so after the Council of Nicaea before the Nicene Creed was fully accepted as orthodox doctrine. Even then, some bishops and priests found something of a loophole in the Nicene Creed because it had not said much of anything about the Holy Spirit, other than the bland assertion at the end of the Nicene Creed, “And the Holy Spirit.” Some of these “closet Arians,” we might call them, began to say the same things about the Holy Spirit that they had previously said about Jesus. They taught that the Holy Spirit was merely a divine messenger, not co-equal with the Father and the Son in divinity. St. Athanasius, now the bishop of Alexandria, rejected this false teaching on the Spirit, teaching that the Holy Spirit was fully and eternally God.

               But it was really three other Christian thinkers in the East who helped Christians better understand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. These three thinkers were Bishop Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) (known today as “St. Basil the Great”), his brother, Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c.395), and a monk named Gregory of Nazianzus (or “St. Gregory Nazianzen”) (d. 389). Because they all lived in the Roman province of Cappadocia (today’s Turkey, between the Mediterranean and Black Sea), they are commonly known in church history as “the Cappadocians.” The great contribution of the Cappadocians was to define difficult philosophical terms – capable of several different and confusing meanings – precisely. Then they applied the clarified definition of those terms to that most difficult to comprehend of all Christian doctrines—the Trinity. The Cappadocians cleared away a lot of the confusion surrounding the philosophical concepts of “person,” “substance” and “nature,” which had stymied the work of early Christian Apologists in their debates with pagan classicists. The Cappadocians showed that the Trinity could be understood as three divine persons in one divine substance. Contrary to what others were teaching, God did not have three different natures, but only one nature, a divine nature. Yet this divine nature was shared by three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Council of Constantinople

Despite what St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians taught, many bishops, who at least professed to believe the Nicene Creed on the co-divinity of Jesus with Father, stirred up confusion and controversy about the Holy Spirit, denying the Spirit’s full Godhead. (The original Nicene Creed of 325 ended with the vague statement, “And the Holy Spirit.”) This group of teachers who denied that the Spirit was of equal divinity with Father and Son, had the engagingly forgettable name, Pneumatomachi (Deniers of the Spirit), and their leader, at least at times, was Bishop Eustathius of Sebaste (c.300–c.377). Because this controversy, too, led to a growing division among Christians, a new Emperor, Theodosius I (reign 379 – 395) convened another council. As a result about one hundred fifty bishops, all from the East, met in Constantinople in the year 381 to settle their differences over the Holy Spirit. The “Creed of Constantinople” resulted from their deliberations. This creed is virtually identical to the Profession of Faith that we have today. The bishops at the Council of Constantinople agreed completely with the Nicene Creed, but they spoke more fully about the Holy Spirit than had the bishops at Nicea, fifty-six years earlier.

               They called the Spirit “the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets." Notice that the bishops did not say, “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son...” as we have it today in the Roman Catholic liturgy. As we shall see, these words were added later by the Western church and led to an angry debate between Eastern and Western theologians.

Another Controversy: “Mother of God” or ”Mother of Jesus?”

One would have thought that two great councils and two creeds would have settled all the doctrinal issues in the early church. Such was not the case. Gnostic heretics were still around (as they are today). The Gnostics stirred up a new controversy, even more heated than the Arian controversy had been. It started about the year 430 when Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople (d. c.451) disapproved of the title “Mother of God” as applied to the Virgin Mary. Nestorius reasoned that if Christians were to call Mary “Mother of God,” then Jesus would not be thought of as truly human. Nestorius wanted Mary to be called simply “Mother of Christ.” The problem with this was that as long as anyone could remember, Mary had been called “Mother of God,” and everyday Christians in Constantinople were angry that Bishop Nestorius was trying to change their faith.

               Nestorius had overlooked the fact that Christian doctrine is found within the day-to-day life of the church and its worship as much as it is in the lofty speculations of theologians. Nestorius did not give credit to what Vatican II would later call the sensus fidei, meaning “sense of the faithful.” This intuitive sense of the faith is that of ordinary believers, who in their prayers, devotions and day-to-day faith arrive at theological truths just as certainly as do bishops and popes. The faithful had long called Mary “Mother of God,” and it was offensive to them to have intellectuals in the hierarchy suddenly change this ancient title. Nestorius’s insensitivity to this sensus fidei set off another bitter conflict—calling for yet another council.

               The Council of Ephesus met in the year 431. The debate over Mary’s title was simply the starting point for the “real” debate about the person of Jesus. Was Jesus human or divine, or both? The Council of Ephesus endorsed Mary’s title as Mother of God. It also said that Jesus had both a divine and human nature joined together in one person. Yet, because the two sides at Ephesus were so opposed to each other, the bishops did not write a creed to express in formulaic language what they thought about Jesus’ divine and human nature. A later council would do that.

The Council of Chalcedon

The last of the four great councils of the early church met in the year 451 in Chalcedon (located directly across a narrow sea channel from Constantinople). The purpose of this Council was to issue a creed that would settle matters debated at the Council of Ephesus, twenty years before. More than five hundred bishops attended, including a delegation from the West. These Westerners brought with them a theological treatise written by the bishop of Rome: his Tome, or “great book,” written by Pope Leo I the Great (reign 440–461). Pope Leo the Great (the first pope to be called "the Great") was a highly skilled theologian in his own right. He sent his Tome to Chalcedon as the official statement of doctrine to be adopted by all the bishops in attendance. In effect, Leo’s persuasive theological skills made him appear to many bishops at the Council as the spiritual leader of the bishops of the Eastern Church as well as of the Western Church. While not all the bishops at Chalcedon agreed that Leo’s word was supreme, the majority at the Council nonetheless enthusiastically endorsed Leo’s Tome, exclaiming, “In Leo, Peter has spoken!”

               There was another reason Leo was said to be "Peter," i.e., the "successor" of St. Peter. Leo reigned during the height of the barbarian invasions throughout the developing Church bishoprics to the north of Rome, spearheaded by Atilla the Hun (the Hun king from 433 to 451), who was called "the Scourge of God." Whereas the Huns overran "Gaul," or the future conglomerates of all Western Europe such as France, Germany and the Low Countries, Leo dared to stand alone to stop Atilla as he proceeded to bring his marauding killer-soldiers into Rome. Leo simply showed up at Rome's northernmost "city limits" dressed in his papal robes, which were impressive to the ragamuffin, unwashed and illiterate Huns. Leo's stand led Atilla to think Leo must have been the last emperor of this most prestigious city-state of the greatest empire ever known. Atilla knew enough not to sack Rome and go down in history as a crude and degenerate usurper of "the glory that was Rome." Such historical underpinnings to the Church's ongoing struggle against heresy were important in keeping Christian doctrine alive and flourishing. After all, the Church had to have enough of a functioning bureaucracy from which to direct its struggle against Gnosticism. As that struggle continued, and as Peter's successors gradually came to be seen as the true unifying force and spokesmen for orthodoxy, as at Chalcedon, the Gnostics found themselves devoid of the influence they once had in the Church to speak as if they were actually knowledgeable of Christian doctrine. Their days in Western Europe were numbered, for several centuries, and they ceased fighting with the Church now that the See of St. Peter had strengthened its grasp on Rome and started forming scholarly institutions which could outwit the Gnostics. The heretics simply gave up on out-arguing the western Church on Christian doctrine and solidified their efforts at heresy by regurgitating their Gnostic propaganda in the East.

               Rome's prestige and its intellectual influence impressed and persuaded the bishops at the Council of Chalcedon. The Council voted to follow both what the Council of Ephesus had resolved and what Leo had written in his Tome. The bishops at the Council were thus the conclusive spokesmen for orthodox Christology, proclaiming unanimously that in Jesus the Son of God, two natures, human and divine, were united in one person. Jesus was thus formally declared by the Church to have been both fully human and fully divine. After these many years of struggle against Gnostic-inspired heresy, the early Church had finally achieved an authoritative doctrinal statement about the person of Jesus. The Creed of Chalcedon was accepted by the majority of Christians in both East and West. And whereas the creed used at liturgies to this day is called the "Nicene Creed," in reality it is the "Chalcedonian Creed," which amplified and broadened what the bishops at Nicaea had decided and written 126 years before Chalcedon. However, since the Nicene Creed was produced by the Church's first great anti-heretical Council in 325, followed up and underscored by all the other Councils we've considered above, it is legitimately considered the first major blow to Gnosticism, and thus the founding Council of the early Church's victory over the entire wave of heresy as it developed from the third century to the fifth. Even after Chalcedon, there appeared a look-alike Gnostic-heretical group, called Monophysites (from the Greek for “one nature”), which insisted that Jesus had only a divine nature and not an authentic human nature. The Monophysites were a minority remnant of the Gnostics that had caused all the trouble for the Church, as we have summarized it above. And Gnosticism, even to this day, has never really died off. They formed splinter churches, mostly in the East, and some of these dissenting churches are still with us today, denying how the majority Church of Chalcedon defined the basic Christian doctrine: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jn 1:14.

Conclusion: The "Old New Age"

In addition to serving as the first major heretical movement within Christianity, defeated by the Church, Gnosticism nonetheless is alive and well in today's secular society. This could be traced to the era called "the 60's," in which many, perhaps a majority of people who were the hippies of that era, have virtually adopted the view of Gnosticism that St. Paul condemned in his Pastoral Letters. For example, in writing to Timothy, Paul analyzes the errors of the false teachings he warns Timothy to avoid, such as, for example, "myths and endless genealogies." This was nothing less than a condemnation of the belief in reincarnation which is fashionable today.

               Similarly, where Paul condemns "speculations" as the fashion for the Gnostics' thinking, many people today lack the ability to use logic and reasoning in verifying their beliefs, and simply spout a summary of incredible beliefs contrary to clear thinking. And an entire industry of "health foods" has arisen as if in keeping with Paul's criticism of the Gnostic-heretics requiring "abstinence from foods that God created." Paul likewise tells Timothy to "[a]void foolish and ignorant debates, for you know that they breed quarrels." Paul must have had a futuristic vision of the "talking heads" on TV and the "pundits" who presume to be commentators by stirring up verbal in-fighting between various groups within society, so that it is difficult not to be condemned for accepting some "-ism," or being some sort of "-ist" that pegs one as hating or being prejudicial to a certain bemoaning group feeling sorry for itself because its multitude of "entitlements" are not provided by the government. And Paul's advice to Timothy is to be "gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness." Perhaps Paul had a vision of the current political campaigns in America, where one candidate criticized a heroic war veteran who had been taken prisoner in Viet Nam, on the grounds that he couldn't support anyone who had been "captured by the enemy."

               Paul summarizes many of today's lifestyles, when he writes, "People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure..." Are we sure that Paul did not have visions of 21st-Century America? He goes on by saying, "[F]or the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but following their own desires and insatiable curiosity will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths." Paul writes similarly to Titus: "Avoid foolish arguments, genealogies, rivalries and quarrels about the law, for they are all useless and futile. After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic, realizing that such a person is perverted and sinful and stands self-condemned."

               This welter of societal breakdowns may be traced to the Gnostic heresies of the "Old Age" that bedevil secular society as well as the Church, in today's "wonderful New Age."
--Tony Gilles

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: