Engaging the Gospel: Ascension of the Lord

Ascension of the Lord: Gospel – Matthew 28:16-20

Christ ascended into heaven and “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” preceding us into His “glorious kingdom” (Catechism paragraphs 663-666).

But Christ still dwells with us in His Church, which He took care to establish as “the seed and the beginning of the kingdom” on earth (669). Because His kingdom is to embrace all nations, so must the Church be universal, literally “catholic,” a word which derives from the Greek term meaning “universal” (830).

Just as the Father sent Christ as His Emissary, so does Jesus appoint emissaries – in Greek, apostoloi (858). Christ empowered His apostles to continue His mission all over the world, investing them with the authority to teach, sanctify, and guide His flock (857). He “promised to remain with them always,” revealing that “their office also has a permanent aspect” and that this “divine mission…will continue to the end of time” (860).

As a result the apostles designated successors, bishops, to shepherd the Church (861-862). Thus began the unbroken line, from the apostles through the successive Catholic bishops for two millennia, down to our own very day.

The preservation of this precious apostolic heritage makes the Church “catholic” in a more profound sense. The Catholic Church receives from Christ “the fullness of the means of salvation which He has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession” (830).

Question for reflection: In what ways do I try to draw others closer to the Lord?

Lent as our Spring Training

Lent is a privileged season for spiritual renewal – our time for spring cleaning within our souls, or literally, our spring training.

Aside from deepening our prayer life, we are called to embrace fasting and almsgiving.

These forms of self-denial are called ascetical practices, from the Greek askesis, meaning training for athletic contests.

The root word helps us to understand the “why” behind our Lenten observances. We do not give more of our time or resources simply for the sake of doing something extra, nor do we “give up” things just to feel the pinch of missing them.

Rather, we are letting go of ourselves, and our attachments, in an intentional way because we are working toward something, and Someone. We are striving to grow closer to the Lord by concretely repenting for our sins, and by participating in Jesus’ own self-denial.

One of the great figures of the 20th century Liturgical Movement, Pius Parsch, describes the true meaning of Lent:

…the mystery is re-enacted in each person’s heart: in your soul Christ is wrestling with the devil; or better, by the very fact that you are a member of the mystical Christ, you are involved in this fight….

Therefore we must re-live our Savior’s Passion in Lent…as disciples we must die with Christ in order to rise with Him as new men on Easter.

Parsch sees our supernatural life in God as the key to Lent:

I view Lent, indeed the whole Easter cycle, from the approach of a life filled with God. The Christmas cycle was dominated by the idea of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that was expected during Advent and established at Christmas and Epiphany. Dominating the Easter cycle, however, is the theme of supernatural life engendered, renewed, and perfected.

Fasting is a means toward the goal of a “more flourishing inner life” —

We must remember that we are members of Christ’s Body; by sin we defiled this Body, but now we will help to purify it.

Parsch emphasizes that our life in Christ is the whole point of our self-denial, or else it becomes meaningless:

The essential lesson contained in the Gospel discourse is that the fast should be a deep inward matter of the soul devoid of all selfishness or ulterior motivation….

Fasting of itself, therefore, is of no value; only when linked with the sacrifice of Jesus does it become useful and meritorious….

First we follow Him as the penitent par excellence into the desert of self-denial to fast with Him for forty days. Our fast will be spiritually fruitful if we keep it in unity with Him, if it is an extension of His fasting.

–The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume II

Honor the Gift of Sexuality

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2331-2400:

  • The Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” reflects the profound meaning of human sexuality; far more than a mere satisfaction of appetites, sexuality is ordered to God’s plan for us – our vocation to love and communion.
  • God created human beings as male and female, emblematic of God’s own attributes in our different, but complementary, ways; inscribed in our very nature, this physical, moral, and spiritual complementarity is designed for the lifelong union of man and woman in marriage.
  • Our sexual identity as male or female is not to be denied, but integrated properly within our entire being; this wholesome integration is what we call “chastity,” which enables us to live our sexuality in a morally healthy way, whether as unmarried people living in continence, or as spouses in fidelity to each other.
  • All Christians are therefore called to chastity; both a grace from God and a moral virtue that we diligently strive for, chastity empowers us for self-mastery, helps to regulate our passions, and safeguards our personal integrity.
  • Chastity lays the groundwork for, and makes possible, the true gift of self that takes place in marriage; having given themselves to each other totally, exclusively, and irrevocably until death, husband and wife become one flesh; in this way their sexual union expresses their all-encompassing marital covenant.
  • God Himself designed this intimate communion of spouses as the means of transmitting new life; through the gift of the marital embrace, spouses participate in God’s own creativity by conceiving children; sexual union is also for the good of the spouses, but that can never be separated from openness to new life.
  • Children are thus gifts from God, the natural fulfillment of the spouses’ union, not optional accessories to one’s lifestyle; spouses can responsibly decide to regulate their fertility, but must do so by moral means (e.g., periodic continence in NFP), not by contraception, which denies the gift of self and fails to work with God.
  • Because sexuality has such an amazing purpose in God’s plan, any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful; adultery is a grave sin since it violates the marital bond, hurts the betrayed spouse, and can lead to the tragedy of divorce, a rejection of the covenant that is detrimental to both the family and society.
  • Fornication is similarly a lie, for it speaks the physical language of union without there actually being a covenant; prostitution and pornography are destructive of human dignity because they treat others as objects; masturbation and lust are sinful because they are disordered pursuits of sexual pleasure for its own sake.
  • Homosexual activity is wrong because it is inherently incompatible with God’s design for our sexual expression and with the transmission of life; our brothers and sisters with homosexual orientation are to be welcomed and supported to live out the baptismal call to chastity and holiness.

Live Your Faith

Our culture constantly propagandizes us about sex, as if it were just a recreational activity that we engage in whenever and however we please, without consequences.

But there is a deluge of evidence to the contrary: broken hearts, devastated families, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases.

The truth is that sex is not a game; it is wrapped up in the mystery of the human person as created by God.

The Church teaches the full truth about sex, and however unpopular and countercultural it may be, only by honoring God’s gift in the way He intended can we find lasting happiness. If we have failed, the Lord is always eager to forgive us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Respect the Sanctity of Human Life

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2258-2330:

  • The Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” teaches us the inviolable sanctity of human life; because each of us is willed by God, Who endows us with an immortal soul, it is always wrong, in every circumstance, to kill an innocent person deliberately.
  • Anyone who intentionally kills an innocent person, cooperates in such a murder, or deliberately causes someone to die by indirect means, violates this commandment; the sin is compounded if the perpetrator kills a parent, sibling, spouse, or child, rupturing the family ties that should bind us in love.
  • For this reason, the Church has always condemned abortion, the direct taking of the life of an unborn child, as evil; each innocent human being, however small, has the intrinsic rights of personhood; hence it is gravely wrong to treat embryos as biological commodities, whether for research or in vitro fertilization.
  • Respect for a person’s bodily integrity likewise forbids the use of torture; kidnapping; hostage-taking; scientific experiments that violate human dignity or the moral law, or that are performed without one’s informed consent; and it also enjoins us to care for the bodies of the dead and give them proper burial.
  • Euthanasia – the deliberate ending of the life of the sick, handicapped, aged, or dying – is similarly a sin because of its intent to cause death; but it can be morally permissible to refuse “overzealous treatment,” and let a natural death come, and to receive palliative care, where the intent is to alleviate pain, not to cause death.
  • Suicide is a sin because we are not the lords and masters of our own lives; we have received life as a pure gift of God, to live it for His glory and our eternal happiness; but those who commit suicide are often suffering from mental illness that diminishes their moral responsibility; we entrust their souls to God’s mercy.
  • To protect the innocent from aggressors, the Church upholds the right of self-defense; it is legitimate to defend ourselves, even if the aggressor is killed in the process, because our intent is to protect innocent life; the Church raises her voice against the death penalty because criminals need not be killed to protect society.
  • Sometimes an aggressor on the international stage can be stopped only by waging war; there are strict conditions for a “just war,” e.g., the exhaustion of all other means, high likelihood of success, not unleashing even greater evils; the moral law still holds in war, so any military tactics targeting civilians are reprehensible.
  • We can violate this commandment in ways other than literally killing someone, such as failure to take appropriate care of our body, abusing alcohol or drugs, driving while intoxicated, or engaging in similarly risky behaviors that endanger the lives of others.
  • We can also inflict spiritual violence, so to speak, by influencing others to sin, either directly or indirectly, or by nursing a sense of anger toward others; anger is an emotion that we all feel at times, but it can become sinful if we want revenge, and it can morph into hatred, the sin of deliberately wishing evil upon another.

Live Your Faith

Do we sometimes overlook this commandment, believing that we’re in the clear if we haven’t killed anyone? But Jesus calls us to probe our hearts for the more subtle ways that we violate it.

We can slay others with cruel words and inflict emotional pain. We harm our own souls by holding grudges and letting ourselves be overcome by anger. We cause spiritual injury whenever we make light of sin or connive at it.

Politicians who promote abortion are effectively cooperating in the killing of innocents, and we have the moral responsibility to oppose them, not to turn a blind eye.

Keep Holy the Lord’s Day

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2168-95:

  • If we love God above all, and revere His holy name, then we will desire to give Him the public worship He deserves; this is the basis of the Third Commandment, that we are to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
  • The sabbath is vital to the divine revelation given to the people of Israel: the seventh day of the week was consecrated to God, in commemoration of His “rest” after the work of creation, His saving action of liberating them from slavery in Egypt, and their intimate covenant relationship with Him.
  • In keeping with the pattern throughout the Old Testament, the sabbath was a preparation for the coming of Christ; Jesus emphasized its true meaning by performing miraculous healings on the sabbath, freeing people from the shackles of sin and disease.
  • Through His Resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christ ushers in a new creation while completing His work of redemption; because both creation and redemption are intrinsically related to the sabbath, the observance of the sabbath was transferred to Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” at the dawn of the Church.
  • As the New Testament illustrates, the first Christians were already gathering on the first day of the week for the breaking of the bread; ever since then, for 2,000 years, the Sunday Eucharist has been “at the heart of the Church’s life.”
  • When we assemble in the same way with our parish family to celebrate the Lord’s Day, we testify that we belong to the Church that transcends time and space; like our forebears, we are nourished with the Word of God in Scripture and in sacrament, as we receive the Word made flesh, the Lord, in the Eucharist.
  • This worship is so crucial to our spiritual health, and our right relationship with God, that it is a grave obligation; if we deliberately fail to attend Mass on Sundays or other holy days, without a serious reason (such as illness), we commit a mortal sin and must seek the sacrament of Reconciliation.
  • God also gives us this commandment for the sake of our physical and emotional well-being; He commands us to rest from our usual daily grind of work and toil, reclaim our freedom from material preoccupations, and savor a foretaste of our eternal rest with God.
  • By being faithful to the Sunday rest from work, we can relax with family and friends, enjoy healthy recreations, set aside more quiet time for reflection, and reach out in charity to others in need.
  • Unfortunately, many have to work on Sundays because of the nature of their employment; while this is unavoidable in certain instances, employers and customers should not place excessive or unnecessary burdens on workers, and those who do work should still carve out time to keep the Lord’s Day holy.

Live Your Faith

Whenever we deliberately skip Mass on a Sunday or other holy day, just because we didn’t bother to go, we are telling God, “I’ve got something better to do.”

But nothing in the entire cosmos is more important than thanking God for loving me personally before time began; for creating me; for redeeming me; for forgiving me; for enlightening me with the fullness of His truth in the Catholic Church; for giving me His own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist; for desiring me to spend eternal life in unimaginable happiness with Him.

Only in the Mass can we render proper thanks and praise, because it is the very sacrifice of Christ to the Father.

Revere God’s Holy Name

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2142-67, 2808-12:

  • The Second Commandment follows logically from the First: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
  • By revealing His name, God establishes a personal relationship with us, entrusting us with an aspect of His divine mystery; if we fail to show the respect due to His name, we abuse and violate this gift of friendship.
  • God’s name evokes His majesty – YHWH, “I Am Who Am,” the fundamental ground of all being, encompassing every beauty and perfection; to protect the inviolability of the name of YHWH, the Jewish people have substituted the term Adonai (“Lord”) for it, lest it be pronounced unworthily.
  • When the Son of God became man, He took on a deeply significant name: “Jesus,” meaning “God saves,” sums up His work of salvation; the title of “Christ” conveys His “anointing” by the Holy Spirit as priest, prophet, and king.
  • Ever mindful of God’s sublime holiness, heroes of faith through the ages have been filled with zeal for His holy name; so should we, who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – the Most Holy Trinity.
  • Blasphemy is therefore a grave sin; it ranges from irreverent use of God’s name to expressions of mockery, contempt, or hatred toward God as well as toward the Church, the saints, and things consecrated to Him.
  • We also sin against this commandment when we do not keep promises or oaths made in God’s name; through such a failure on our part, we implicate God, so to speak, in our own lack of fidelity.
  • That is why perjury – the deliberate violation of an oath, or the swearing of a false oath without meaning to keep it – is so grave; God is Truth, yet we misuse His name to promote a lie.
  • For the same reason, we must refuse to take any oath that goes against the dignity of the human person or that harms our unity in the Church, the Body of Christ; we should not take any oath at all unless it is strictly necessary for the sake of truth or justice and administered by legitimate authorities (as in court).
  • Our name is likewise worthy of respect, for it reflects our dignity as a human person and a child of God; our unique individuality will radiate in a special way in His heavenly kingdom.

Live Your Faith

Blasphemy is sadly so common these days that we’re desensitized to it, no longer finding it shocking or offensive. We would react with righteous anger if anyone mocked or otherwise abused the names of our parents, spouse, or children. Yet do we even bat an eye when Our Lord is dishonored?

At a minimum we should guard our own speech and preserve reverence for His sacred name. If someone blasphemes in our presence, let us charitably ask them not to hurt us in this way. Let us also make reparation to Our Lord by offering our own acts of love.

Love God Above All

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2052 through 2141:

  • The Ten Commandments are our roadmap to true freedom, as opposed to the bondage of sin; it is no accident that God revealed them after liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to teach a new way of life for a free people.
  • Indeed, this context is vital to understanding the profound meaning of the Commandments: they were given during a “theophany,” or God’s manifestation to His people, and His forming an intimate bond, a “covenant,” with them.
  • The Commandments are a great gift because they describe what we must do to abide in this deep relationship with God; He loved us first, and we respond with love toward Him by keeping the Commandments; the first three regard our right behavior toward God, and the rest govern our relationships with our neighbor.
  • The First Commandment expresses this wholehearted relationship: “I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other gods before Me.”
  • We follow this commandment by adoring God, submitting to Him as the Lord of all, to Whom we owe everything; by daily conversing with Him in prayer, uniting our sacrifices with Christ’s perfect sacrifice; by keeping the promises we make to God; and by helping others to come to the fullness of worship in the Church.
  • Conversely, we sin against God when we prefer other things to Him, and treat them as gods; this is idolatry; our idols need not be the false gods of paganism, for we create modern idols all of the time – money, power, pleasure, sports, etc.
  • We sin against God’s love when we are indifferent to Him, spiritually lazy, ungrateful, or hateful toward Him; we sin against hope when we despair of God’s mercy and forgiveness, or when we presume upon salvation without real conversion; we sin against faith by doubting or rejecting Church teaching.
  • Dabbling in the occult is a sin – e.g., reading horoscopes, going to mediums, engaging in magic; we also sin by falling into superstition, treating our prayers or sacraments as if they were magical formulas; to avoid superstition, we must have a proper disposition of encountering God, not trying to control Him.
  • The sin of sacrilege denigrates sacred things or persons, and is especially heinous when directed against the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Christ; other forms of irreligious behavior include testing God because we question His love for us.
  • By definition, atheism is a sin because of its outright denial of God, and agnosticism, which won’t discern one way or another, similarly fails to give God His due; yet an individual’s level of culpability varies greatly according to circumstances, especially if one has been scandalized by the sins of believers.

Live Your Faith

Each one of us is personally addressed by God in the Commandments, as the Hebrew text makes clear. When God says, “You,” He is using the singular form, not the plural, underscoring the personal relationship He courts with every single one of us.

This prompts us to examine our consciences, and reflect upon how faithfully we have given love in response to the One Who has loved us so. What do I put first in my life, prioritizing above everything else? If it’s not God, it’s an idol.

 

Grace and Justification

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1987-2051:

  • Grace is the “free and undeserved help” that God gives us so that we can respond to His call to friendship and communion with Him; through grace comes our justification – being cleansed of sin and infused with God’s righteousness.
  • The Holy Spirit showers us with the initial grace of conversion, empowering us to repent, turn away from sin, and open ourselves up to receive God’s abundant forgiveness; not a single one of us can merit, or deserve, this initial grace, which is simply a sheer gift of God.
  • But justification goes well beyond just canceling out our sins; it extends to our total interior transformation, our sanctification, and even more radical, our partaking of the divine nature.
  • Our justification is so ardently desired by God that the Father sent His beloved Son, Who willingly endured death by the torments of crucifixion to accomplish it; as a result, justification is an awe-inspiring work of God, revealing the depths of His love and mercy toward us.
  • Through Baptism, we receive justification: we are incorporated into Christ, adopted as God’s children, and filled with his sanctifying or “deifying” grace, which draws us into the very life of the Holy Trinity now, and makes us fit to share His glory for eternity in heaven.
  • Sanctifying grace is an “habitual gift” enabling us to “live with God, to act by His love” (a state we lose by committing a mortal sin); besides habitual grace, God also gives us helps called “actual graces” at particular times, e.g., in the sacraments, graces for our state in life, and charisms, or special graces, to build up the Church.
  • Although the grace of God goes before us, and seeks us first, we have the free will to act upon that grace and draw closer to Him, or to fritter it away; God does not treat us as automatons, but wants us to be free and willing co-workers with Him.
  • Once we are members of the Body of Christ, we can merit additional graces for ourselves and others; even so, our ability to gather more graces is in itself due to the merits of Christ; His grace is constantly at work in us, supporting our own efforts every step of the way, and making our own “merits” possible.
  • Because we share in the intimate life of the Holy Trinity, we are all called to holiness, each and every one of us; our vocation to holiness is fulfilled in the Church, where we are fortified by the sacraments, illumined by the Truth, and inspired by heroic role models – the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
  • Just as the Church infallibly transmits the doctrine of faith, so does she hand on authoritative teachings on morals; in this context, the precepts of the Church enjoin us to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days; confess our sins at least once a year; receive the Eucharist at a minimum during the Easter season; observe the days of fasting and abstinence; and support the Church materially.

Live Your Faith

Our justification cost Jesus His life. If God Himself went to such extraordinary measures for us, we have no excuse for settling for mediocrity, or imagining that a lukewarm, half-hearted “getting by” is enough.

Instead, we are called to give a similarly radical response — nothing less than total commitment to God. Such an extreme spiritual makeover would contribute to our personal growth, and serve as a powerful witness of our faith. Just by living morally, we become highly effective evangelizers.

Engaging the Gospel: Baptism of the Lord

Gospel – Matthew 3:13-17: Jesus deigns to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness

From Pope Benedict XVI’s insights on this feast in 2008:

Basically, the whole mystery of Christ in the world can be summed up in this term: ‘baptism,’ which in Greek means ‘immersion.’

The Son of God, who from eternity shares the fullness of life with the Father and the Holy Spirit, was ‘immersed’ in our reality as sinners to make us share in his own life: he was incarnate, he was born like us, he grew up like us and, on reaching adulthood, manifested his mission which began precisely with the ‘baptism of conversion’ administered by John the Baptist.

Jesus’ first public act, as we have just heard, was to go down into the Jordan, mingling among repentant sinners, in order to receive this baptism. John was naturally reluctant to baptize him, but because this was the Father’s will, Jesus insisted…

This, dear brothers and sisters, is the mystery of Baptism: God desired to save us by going to the bottom of this abyss himself so that every person, even those who have fallen so low that they can no longer perceive Heaven, may find God’s hand to cling to and rise from the darkness to see once again the light for which he or she was made.

We all feel, we all inwardly comprehend, that our existence is a desire for life which invokes fullness and salvation. This fullness is given to us in Baptism.

Homily of January 13, 2008

Question for reflection: How have I surrendered to the embrace of God’s will?

The Greatest Gift

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From Pius Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace:

The Church foresees the entire work of redemption accomplished in the birth of Christ. In Christ we have received every good, in Him we have received God’s greatest gift.

Everything our faith holds as worthy of desire we obtain in Christ — divine adoption, the Church, the Eucharist, heaven…It is as though Mother Church wishes to pour out anew at Christmas the fullness of her grace-treasures.

Shouldn’t these reflections help in understanding the symbolism of the Christmas tree? Yes, shower your gifts, your joy, your kindness, and your love upon all, for these are symbols of Christ, the greatest Gift heaven itself could send us.

Vol. I: Advent to Candlemas, p. 138

May you have a blessed Christmas season!

Engaging the Gospel: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24 — Joseph obeys the angel and takes Mary into his home

St. Joseph serves as a model of profound faith and generosity of spirit, as Blessed John Paul II has reflected upon in Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer).

Calling the angel’s revelation to Joseph “the ‘annunciation’ by night” (19), the Holy Father links Joseph’s acceptance of God’s plan with Mary’s obedience as the handmaid of the Lord.

“Joseph not only heard the divine truth concerning his wife’s indescribable vocation; he also heard…the truth about his own vocation” (19) – that is, “to serve the person and mission of Jesus directly through the exercise of his fatherhood” (8). By taking Mary into his home, “he showed a readiness of will like Mary’s with regard to what God asked of him through the angel” (3).

Thus “Joseph surrendered his whole existence to the demands of the Messiah’s coming into his home” (26).

Pope Paul VI contrasted the sanctity of Joseph and Mary with the disobedience of Adam and Eve:

“We see that at the beginning of the New Testament, as at the beginning of the Old, there is a married couple. But whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary arc the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth. The Savior began the work of salvation by this virginal and holy union, wherein is manifested his all-powerful will to purify and sanctify the family — that sanctuary of love and cradle of life” (quoted in Redemptoris Custos 7).

Question for reflection: When has God led my life into an entirely unexpected direction?

Moral Law

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1949-1986:

  • The moral law arises from God’s Wisdom; reflecting the harmonious beauty of His design for us, it points out the right path for us to take for our own good, and our ultimate happiness in eternal life.
  • Its elemental expression is “natural law,” referring to the moral compass inscribed within human nature and discernible by our reason.
  • Implanted in our hearts by God, natural law serves as the building block of civil law and social norms of morality.
  • But since our human nature has been wounded by sin, our ability to discern this natural law readily, and with clarity, has been weakened as well.
  • God, ever desirous of drawing us to Himself, has devised another expression of His Law, through divine revelation; as St Augustine phrased it, “God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.”
  • The first stage of this revealed Law was given to the people of Israel: the Law of Moses, enshrined in the Ten Commandments, builds on natural law and teaches us about right and wrong.
  • Although the Law of Moses defines sinful behavior, it does not strengthen us to overcome it; hence the Old Law serves as a preparation for the fullness of revelation in Christ.
  • Christ gives us the New Law, the perfection of divine Law on earth; He fulfills the Law of Moses by deepening the meaning of the Ten Commandments and by purifying our hearts.
  • The Law of the Gospel is a Law of love; of grace, for we are empowered by the Holy Spirit and the sacraments to live accordingly; and of freedom as God’s children, not as slaves.
  • Expressed most vividly in the Sermon on the Mount, the New Law is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you,” and even more profoundly in Jesus’ new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Live Your Faith

The moral law is not a mere checklist of rules, imposed upon us from without.

Rather, it is deeply bound up in our design as human beings: we were created to live in intimacy with God, Whose perfect holiness is reflected in the moral law.

When we sin, we violate this very order within us, in ways that are self-defeating and self-destructive. But we have a sure way out through the grace of God, Who heals us and strengthens us.

As we grow in union with Christ, we become more like Him, and experience greater freedom to live the moral life that is best for us.

Sin

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1846-76:

  • Sin is failing to love God and neighbor; by insisting on our own way, even in violation of what is right, we set ourselves against God and turn away from His love; as a result, sin offends God.
  • This disobedience, rooted in pride, is not just a matter of breaking a rule; it reveals an excessive attachment to ourselves, our will, our desires, that injures our spiritual health and our relationship with God, as well as with others.
  • Sin has levels of gravity, a fact confirmed by 1 John 5:16-17; mortal sin, as its name implies, is deadly to the soul and imperils our eternal salvation; venial sin is a lesser offense, but still to be avoided.
  • Sin qualifies as mortal only if it involves grave matter (i.e., actions covered by the Ten Commandments), full knowledge (being aware of its gravity) and deliberate consent (freely choosing the evil); through fulfilling all three conditions, one commits a mortal sin, and thereby loses God’s sanctifying grace.
  • Honest ignorance, compulsions of an exterior or interior nature, or emotions that overwhelm our reason can all reduce our culpability; but a hard-hearted pretense of claiming not to know just exacerbates our sin.
  • If any one of the aforementioned three elements is lacking, it is a venial sin; even when venial sins involve minor matters, they strike at our charity, stunt our spiritual life, and over time, cause us to grow apart from God.
  • As with a bad habit, sin becomes ingrained; the more venial sins we commit, the greater our tolerance for sin, until it becomes all too easy to slip into mortal sin; our conscience can also be impaired by habitual sin.
  • Certain sins have been described as “capital,” from the Latin caput for “head,” because they give rise to other sins; the seven capital sins are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth.
  • God is eager to forgive us all of our sins, however grave, and restore us in His sanctifying grace; but if we persistently refuse to repent, and want nothing to do with His friendship, we spurn His offer of eternal salvation; this is the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven – not on God’s part, but on ours.
  • Although sin is inherently a personal choice, we can incur responsibility for the sins of others if we approve and support them, or if we don’t try to prevent their evil; thus sins can worm their way into society and institutions, leading to “structures of sin” that ensnare more people into wrongdoing.

Live Your Faith

A lively awareness of sin doesn’t make us wallow in guilt and self-loathing, but instead keeps us grounded in reality, and inspires us to praise God for His limitless mercy toward us.

As a loving Father, God wants to keep us safe and protect us from anything that would hurt us. Unfortunately, like rebellious children, we sometimes view His law as an unreasonable curb on our desires.

But if we develop the spiritual sensitivity to see how damaging sin is, we understand why it’s vital to take responsibility for our failings and seek the sacrament of Reconciliation. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners can we realize our great need for redemption.

Engaging the Gospel: Second Sunday of Advent

Gospel – Matthew 3:1-12John the Baptist calls for true repentance.

“St. John the Baptist is the Lord’s immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare his way” (Catechism paragraph 523).

As today’s Gospel makes clear, repentance is an essential part of preparing for the Lord’s coming. John confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t offer a sign of sincere repentance. John’s questioning of their intentions is likewise a challenge to each one of us.

The “call to conversion and penance” aims first and foremost at “the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” Without this, such penances [as fasting or receiving ashes] remain sterile and false” (1430). Real repentance involves contrition, or “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (1451).

The true penitents who came to John for baptism showed contrition by acknowledging their sins, which St. Basil the Great (d. 379) viewed as a prototype of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

St. Jerome (d. 419/420) used an analogy from the medical field to convey what happens in Confession: “If the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know” (quoted in 1456).

Let us prepare for our celebration of Christmas by making a good confession.

Question for reflection: What faults and failings should I bring before the Lord in a spirit of repentance?

Virtues

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1803-45:

  • Virtue, the “habitual and firm disposition to do the good,” has been classified into two types: human virtues, which we acquire by our own effort, and theological virtues, which are infused by God.
  • Of the human virtues, four are particularly important – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude; these four are called the cardinal virtues, from the Latin cardo for “hinge,” because the other human virtues revolve around them.
  • Prudence is not political slipperiness or diplomatic discretion; rather, prudence directs the use of our reason so that we know the right thing to do, and how to accomplish it in the right way; thus dubbed the “charioteer of virtues,” it plays an invaluable role in the working of our conscience.
  • Justice is the constant, unswerving determination to give what is due to both God and neighbor; this justice toward God is known as the “virtue of religion,” while justice toward neighbor safeguards human rights and advances the common good.
  • Fortitude, or courage, instills in us the resolve to pursue the good despite difficulties or adversity; this virtue helps us to fight temptation, endure trials, and rise above our fear, to the point of suffering death for a just cause.
  • Temperance enables us to achieve the right balance in how we use or consume things; with our desires kept to an appropriate level, we will not overindulge our appetites for the goods of this life.
  • The theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – are so called because they are irrevocably bound up in our relationship with God; as the underpinning of the Christian moral life, they also sustain our human virtues.
  • By the theological virtue of faith, we believe in God, and all of His revelation, and the teaching of the Church, because God is Truth; this is not simply a passive acquiescence, but involves a bold dedication to witness to the faith.
  • Hope is not a wishful optimism, or irrational naivete; instead, it is through this theological virtue that we desire heaven, and trust God – not ourselves – to bring us to eternal life by His grace, according to Christ’s promises.
  • Charity is not merely being nice: it means that we love God above everything else, and for love of Him, we love our neighbor; because this is the ultimate point of our existence, both now and for all time, Jesus made charity the new commandment, and it ranks as the greatest of all the virtues.

Live Your Faith

Our culture often scoffs at the idea of virtue, mocking it as hokey, and the opposite of all things hip and cool.

But that is a failure to grasp what virtue really is: virtue has its basis, both linguistically and philosophically, in the idea of excellence.

If we prize excellence in such fields as sports and entertainment, and hail the best performers as superstars, shouldn’t we also prize excellence in the art of living?

Virtuous people are the superstars of moral living. And unlike the ultra-competitive worlds of sports and entertainment, where only a few can make it, every one of us is called to be a superstar of moral living.

Freedom and Conscience

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1691 through 1802:

  • Professing the truths of the faith, and receiving the sacraments, are only part of the Christian life; we must also put our beliefs into practice, and act upon sacramental grace, through our moral conduct; by striving to emulate Christ in our daily lives, we grow in friendship with Him.
  • Moral living enables us to flourish as human beings, and leads us to the true happiness – “beatitude” – that all desire; this universal thirst for happiness comes from God, Who alone can ultimately fulfill it, if we choose to follow His path.
  • God does not force Himself upon us, but instead wants us to choose Him out of our own free will; He gave us the dignity of being able to decide whether to pursue His way of life, for our own good, or to reject it, to our detriment.
  • Our freedom is just one way in which we are made in God’s image; through our gifts of intellect and will, we dictate our actions, and thereby incur responsibility for them; as morally free persons, we merit praise or blame for our choices.
  • Bad choices actually end up undermining our freedom; when we deliberately choose to do wrong, we abuse God’s gift of freedom and become attached to sin, to the point that it becomes a type of slavery; but when we use our freedom rightly in service of the good, we become more and more truly free.
  • We judge the morality of our acts by the object (what we do) and the intention (why we do it); a good intention never excuses an intrinsically wrong action, because the end doesn’t justify the means; at the same time, a bad intention can corrode an otherwise good action (e.g., performing a work just to brag about it).
  • The circumstances surrounding our acts can increase or diminish the degree of good, mitigate or aggravate the evil, and affect our level of responsibility; but circumstances cannot make an inherently wrong act right.
  • Our emotions are neither good nor evil in themselves, but our will can let them influence us to right or wrong acts.
  • Conscience is our innermost core where we judge the morality of our acts, while listening to God’s voice; we are called to heed the moral law inscribed in our hearts, and recognize how to apply it in concrete situations; after an honest and thorough examination, we have a sacrosanct right to abide by our conscience.
  • But following our conscience does not mean that we can willfully set aside God’s law and make up our own commandments; rather, our conscience must be well formed by the Word of God and the teaching of the Church.
  • Conscience can make erroneous judgments, possibly through ignorance of the right course, or more seriously, because of culpable negligence in seeking the truth, attitudes hardened by sin, lack of charity, or refusal to undergo conversion.

Live Your Faith

Freedom and conscience are watchwords in our culture, but do we actually understand the full depth of their meaning?

Freedom is not license, but the ability to choose the good. Conscience is not a loophole, but a gift to guide our moral decision-making. God’s law is not designed to oppress us, but to empower us to live the most fulfilled life.

Consider the importance of rules in a game or sport: the rules make it possible to enjoy the game, or else there would be anarchy, and no game at all. Even so, God’s law sets the guidelines to ensure the best experience on the playing field of life.

Engaging the Gospel: First Sunday of Advent

With the coming of the new liturgical year, it’s a fitting time to begin posting about each Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Just as the ongoing Catechism summaries arose from an initiative at my parish, so did the weekly thoughts to encourage further engagement with the Gospel. This took the form of supplementary material to explore the Gospel’s theme, drawn from the Catechism and Blessed John Paul II or Benedict XVI, along with a question for reflection.

Accordingly, here is the one for Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent:

Gospel – Matthew 24:37-44: Be prepared, for the Son of Man will come unexpectedly.

The Church’s liturgical year begins with the season of Advent for a simple but profound reason: the liturgical year “in a certain way reproduces the whole mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption” (Blessed John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 10).

Hence the Church’s year opens by preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth, and it ends by recognizing Christ’s kingship over the entire universe. During Advent, as we recall His coming into human history, we logically also look ahead to his final coming at the end of time.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to be prepared, for the end will come unexpectedly — just as suddenly as the flood destroyed Noah’s contemporaries. Just as the flood marked a new epoch in the life of the world, so will the Second Coming radically transform all of creation.

“At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness…The universe itself will be renewed…Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, ‘new heavens and a new earth'” (Catechism paragraphs 1042-43).

“The form of this world, distorted by sin, is passing away, and…God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, in which happiness will fill and surpass all the desires of peace arising in the hearts of men” (1048).

Question for reflection: In what ways am I responding to the Lord’s call to “stay awake” and prepare for His coming?

Matrimony

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1601-66:

  • God is the author of marriage; by inscribing the complementarity of male and female into our very human nature, He created man and woman for each other, so that the two would become one flesh, in a lifetime partnership of mutual self-giving, for the procreation of children.
  • Faithful love between husband and wife mirrors the abiding love of God for His people; first developed by the Old Testament prophets, this imagery reached its fulfillment in Christ, Who weds Himself to the human race by becoming man, and invites us all to His eternal wedding feast in heaven.
  • It is deeply significant that Jesus’ first public miracle takes place at the wedding at Cana, symbolizing His active presence in the marriage of the faithful; thus the natural institution of marriage, known and celebrated by cultures from time immemorial, is elevated into a sacrament of Christian life.
  • The name matrimony derives from the Latin terms for the “state or condition of motherhood” — revealing that this sacrament is designed for the welcoming of new life, that the spouses may cooperate with God through openness to fertility, raising children in the faith, and forming a family that is a “domestic church.”
  • Christian marriage involves the total self-gift of each spouse to the other, in a covenant ratified by God; as a result, the marital bond, once freely entered into and consummated by baptized persons, cannot be dissolved; this is no man-made rule, for Christ Himself taught that marriage was to be a lifelong union of fidelity.
  • Because husband and wife are offering themselves to each other, the marriage celebration appropriately occurs during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when Christ gives Himself to us in the Eucharist.
  • This liturgical context illustrates that marriage is not strictly private, but rather a state of life – an order – in the Church; spouses correspondingly have duties and responsibilities to each other and to their children.
  • Mutual consent is absolutely necessary for the validity of marriage; if full consent is lacking on either part at the exchange of vows, they are not actually making a covenant, and there is no sacramental marriage between them; marriages can be annulled on this basis – not “divorce,” but finding that the marriage never existed.
  • As a sacrament, matrimony confers special grace upon the spouses; although they will experience the difficulties and trials of any relationship between flawed human beings, Christ imparts His grace to help them through the rough times, sustain their marital bond, and support their family life.
  • By striving to live out their marriage vows, spouses fulfill their vocation to follow Christ, accepting the crosses that come their way, for their mutual sanctification; husband and wife thereby become beacons of the covenant between Christ and His Church.

Live Your Faith

Marriage is not an arrangement of convenience for our own gratification, nor can it be arbitrarily redefined by legislative or judicial fiat.

The truth about marriage is much more challenging to us, but also a far nobler vision of what God wants for us.

He calls husband and wife to an exalted vocation, and equips them to fulfill it, if they would be open to His grace. While many will fall short of this ideal at one time or another, let us never forget that God is a party to our marriage.