Saint Athanasius

You surely recognize these beautiful words:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

These words emphasize the divinity of Christ, an essential truth of our faith.  The Liturgy also says: “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  The Gospels show us time and time again that Jesus came to proclaim his divinity, his oneness with the Father, so as to be the means of salvation.  Almost all of his hearers rejected this message, except for all but one of his disciples, and the centurion who noticed that he was the Son of God as he hung dead on the Cross.

The Arians, led by the priest Arius in the third century, also rejected that message – they did not believe in Jesus’ divinity.  They believed there was a time before Jesus existed, that he was not consubstantial with the Father, but rather was created by the Father.  This position denies the divinity of Christ, which is an unacceptable position for our faith.  If Christ is not divine, he has no power to save us, and we are still dead in our sins.  God forbid! – And he does forbid it!

St. Athanasius was a great champion of the faith against the harmful teachings of Arius.  But it was a hard battle.  He was exiled not once but actually five times during the fight against Arius’s teachings.  His writings are almost all a great defense of the faith and are so sound that Athanasius was named a Doctor of the Church.

We have St. Athanasius to thank for the wonderful words of our Creed.  We often say them, I think, without a whole lot of thought.  But we need to remember when we pray the Creed that each of those words was the result of dedicated work, intensive prayer, and hard fought defense against heresy.  Because of people like St. Athanasius, we may indeed come to share in the divinity of Christ.

Saint Joseph the Worker

In his encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II said, echoing the sentiments of the Second Vatican Council, “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that humankind, created in the image of God, shares by their work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of their own human capabilities, they in a sense continue to develop that activity, and perfect it as they advance further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.” (25)

The Christian idea of work is that through the toil of work, the Christian joins her or himself to the cross of Christ, and through the effects of work, the Christian participates in the creative activity of our Creator God. Today we celebrate the feast day for all Christian workers, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This feast recalls that Jesus himself was a worker, schooled in the drudgeries and the joys of the vocation of carpentry by his father, St. Joseph, who worked hard, as many do today, to support his family. 

In today’s first reading, Saint Paul, newly Christian, works hard at the task of proclaiming the Gospel. But we also know that, in order not to be a burden to those to whom he was preaching, and thus not to be an obstacle to their faith, he worked at the trade of tentmaking. In other places, St. Paul elevates human labor to a virtue, demanding that those who do not work should not eat, and decrying the inactivity of those who are idle, and busybodies. If work is a share in the activity of the creator and a share in the cross of Christ, woe to those who turn away from it!

Sometimes, it is true, work is far from blessed. There is, of course, a responsibility of the employer to provide a workplace that upholds human dignity. But often work seems less than redemptive. To that, Pope John Paul said, “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, humankind in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. They show themselves true disciples of Christ by carrying the cross in their turn every day in the activity that they are called upon to perform.” (Laborem Exercens, 27) 

And so we all forge ahead in our daily work, whether that be as a carpenter, a tentmaker, a homemaker, a mother or father, a laborer, a white collar worker, a consecrated religious or ordained person, or whatever it may be. We forge ahead with the joy of bringing all the world to redemption through creation, through the cross and Resurrection of Christ, and through our daily work. 

Saint Mark, Evangelist

Today’s readings

We aren’t completely sure who St. Mark was.  He might have been the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.  Some scholars say he might have been the one described in chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel, at the arrest of Jesus: “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”  But others question whether he ever saw Jesus in person at all.  We know that he was a companion of Peter and Paul in the missionary journeys, and that he was the first to write about Jesus’ life.  It is estimated that the Gospel of Mark was written around 60 or 70 AD, after the death of both Peter and Paul.  As you might expect since this was the first Gospel written, it is used as a source for both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.

Whoever Mark really was, I think the key idea for this feast today is that he was one who willingly embodied the command of Jesus that we have in today’s Gospel reading: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”  His missionary work, and his work as the Evangelist testify to his passion for the Gospel and his efforts to see that the whole world came to believe in Jesus.

What we celebrate on his feast day, though, is that the work of that command is far from complete.  There is so much of the world that has yet to hear of Jesus.  Some of them are in far off lands, others are in our workplaces, schools, and communities.  Because of that, it is imperative that we all continue the work of Mark and the other Evangelists.  We are the ones who have to testify to the Gospel in word and in deed, witnessing to what we believe in everything that we say and do.  Our life’s work is not complete until we are sure that those who know us also know the Lord in and through us.

“The favors of the LORD I will sing forever;” the Psalmist says today, “through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.”  May we, like St. Mark, sing of the Lord’s goodness in every moment of our lives.

I Believe in Life Everlasting: A Talk on Catholic Beliefs Regarding Eternity Given to the Clarendon Hills Interfaith Dinner

Today at Notre Dame we celebrated the funeral of a dear woman who has been part of our community for many years.  The funeral Liturgy provides a glimpse as to what the Catholic Church teaches about life, death, and eternity.  In particular, the prayer of commendation, which is said just before leaving the church says this:

Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our sister Helen
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
she will rise with him on the last day. 

Merciful Lord,
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servant
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ
and with you and with our sister for ever.

From this beautiful prayer, we can pick up two very important aspects of the Church’s teaching on eternity: first, for the baptized believer who has done her or his best to live the Gospel, a resurrection to life is assured – in “sure and certain hope.”  Second, that resurrection will happen together with all believers, and until then we wait, comforting one another with “assurances of faith” so that one day we can all “meet in Christ.”

So first, the believer has sure and certain hope of resurrection to life.  Many people erroneously believe that because of the Church’s teaching on works, and also the teaching on purgatory, the salvation of the believer is not certain.  But we believe that our salvation has indeed been won by Christ, and believe that those who accept his free offer of grace and friendship are indeed assured of their eternal salvation (CCC 1031).  The need for purification in purgatory is a separate matter; and I’ll ask you to bookmark that for a bit.*

Second, we believe that salvation is something we’re supposed to do together.  Yes, the individual believer has to choose to receive grace and friendship with God, but we live that grace and friendship in communion with the body of the Church, and it’s up to us as believers to encourage one another and bring one another to heaven.  This is such an important concept that the Church, in its instruction on marriage, insists that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love,” in effect, the spouses love one another into heaven (Gaudium et Spes 48.2, cf CCC 1639).  Even vocations to the consecrated religious life (monks, sisters, etc.) are ordered to the salvation of the person within the context of community.  As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule for monks, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72).  This desire for communal salvation is so great that the Church prays for it at every celebration of the Eucharist.  For example, this selection from Eucharistic Prayer I notes that the whole family of believers comes together to offer the sacrifice:

Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

And so we can say that Catholic eternity consists of assured and communal salvation for each believer.  But what does it look like?

At the moment of death, each person receives a particular, individual judgment, which corresponds to whether or not they have accepted God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  We see this biblically in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus relates a parable about Lazarus, a poor man, who is ignored by a rich man every single day of their lives on earth.  When they have both died, Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man goes to hell.  The rich man cries out for relief to Father Abraham, who replies: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.  Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:25-26).  Jesus was giving this analogy to show the choice that we must make: accepting God’s friendship means living a certain way, loving others and reaching out to them in their need.

Heaven, then, is a choice that leads to perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).  I always tell the children that I teach that God always wants us to be happy.  And if we want to be happy forever, we will always seek God’s will and do what he calls us to do.  That is the life that leads to heaven.

In heaven, we have communion with the angels and saints and all of the Church, but also and especially with God himself.  This communion is almost indescribable, although the Bible speaks of it in images: light, life, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.  Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians summed it up: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9, cf CCC 1027).  It’s hard to describe this communion with God because he is transcendent, and so unless he gives us the grace of a capacity to see him, it doesn’t happen.  We call this grace the “beatific vision” in which we are allowed to see God and share with him the joy of salvation (CCC 1028).

Now, we can’t talk about heaven without at least mentioning the other thing, and that is hell.  Because that’s where the rich man found himself, so because Jesus included it in his teaching, we know that it exists.  But what the Church teaches about hell is that it is in itself a choice.  To get there, one must completely reject God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  This is usually done through the act of unrepentant mortal sin: one knows the right thing to do, and actively chooses not to do it, and acts contrary to the good.  If a person commits a mortal sin, it can be forgiven through grace, but for the one who chooses not to seek forgiveness and chooses not to repent, the only other option is a life devoid of God’s presence.  And that life we call hell (CCC 1033).

But here’s the thing about hell.  We don’t really know if anyone’s there or not, well, except for Satan and his demons.  But since God doesn’t send anyone to hell – one chooses to go there freely – we can’t say for certain that there is anyone there.  The Church teaches that we definitely know that thousands of people are in heaven, because we call them saints.  The process of sainthood involves the recognition of miracles that happen after the saint’s death, indicating that the person is acting from the glory of heaven to affect the good of those on earth.  But the Church has never named anyone who is in hell, because we cannot know if, at the moment of death, an unrepentant sinner may have called out to God for mercy, repenting of her or his sins.  We know that hell exists, and we know that it is possible to go there of one’s own free will, but we don’t know that anyone has chosen that option.  In fact, we hope not.

To sum up Catholic teaching about the nature of heaven and eternity, I’d like to once again choose some words from the Church’s Liturgy.  This time it comes from the prayers for the dead, which can be said at the bedside of a dying person.  For them we pray:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!

May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints …

May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life…
May you see your Redeemer face to face.  Amen.

*Purgatory

So I referred to Purgatory earlier, and I said to book mark it.  Let’s come back to it now.  Purgatory is thought of as the final purification, in which the soul is made fit to be caught up into the life of God in heaven.  Now once again, every believer who has accepted God’s grace and friendship is absolutely assured of eternal salvation.  But if they have sins that have left them impure at death, they must be purified to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030).  The purification in purgatory is entirely different that the punishment of the damned in hell.  Purgatory is, instead, that “cleansing fire” that Saint Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).  This is why the Church prays for the dead, a practice that comes from the book of Maccabees in which we read: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46, cf. CCC 1032).

I tell people that Purgatory is really a gift.  It’s that time and experience of our spiritual life in which we are completely made ready for the life of heaven.  It’s kind of stereotypical for a Catholic to say this, but eternity can be likened to a party.  Those who freely accept the invitation freely offered enter in and enjoy the party.  This is heaven.  Those who reject the invitation outright are outside the party, and this is hell.  But imagine going to a party and you know that you’ve done or said something wrong to another person at the party, in particular the host.  You’re not going to be enjoying yourself with the guilt of that indiscretion on your heart.  So you need to do something to fix the relationship so that you can enjoy the party.  That’s what Purgatory is.  You still get to go to the party, but you have to make amends first.

Saint Polycarp, bishop and martyr

Today’s readings 

Saint Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the apostles. He is known to have accompanied Saint Ignatius of Antioch to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus concerning the celebration of Easter, which was quite a controversy in that time. He was known to be a man of faith and wisdom, and who lived by the injunction found in our first reading today: “Rely not on your own strength…”

Because he lived that way, he was able, at the age of 86, to accept martyrdom with the peace of a life lived with integrity and in the faith of Jesus Christ. Having been placed in the pyre for his execution, he prayed: “I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God. For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen.”

It is said that the flames did not even scorch him, that instead they formed a dome around him, and from it there was a pleasing aroma, like fine incense. He was later executed by being thrust through with a lance, with the praise of God on his lips. He could do that because he trusted in God’s promises, those promises of which the Psalmist sang today: “For the LORD watches over the way of the just, but the way of the wicked vanishes.”

Saints Cyril and Methodius

You might have been expecting to celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day today, but we don’t have Saint Valentine’s day on our current liturgical calendar.  Instead today we have the feast of two brothers: Saints Cyril and Methodius.  They lived in the ninth century in an area of Greece inhabited by many Slavs, and eventually they became missionaries to the Slavic people.

Cyril was known as Constantine until he became a monk very late in life.  Cyril and his followers invented an alphabet, known as the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in some form in modern Russian language.  Together with his followers, he translated the Gospels, the psalter, Paul’s letters and the liturgical books into Slavonic, and composed a Slavonic liturgy.

Cyril’s work was not universally accepted.  He faced opposition from German clergy in the area who denounced the Slavonic liturgy and their use of the vernacular language in preaching.  More than once, they went to Rome to answer charges of heresy and were exonerated every time.  While in Rome, Cyril became a monk, and fifty days later, he passed away.

His brother Methodius, however, kept the mission work going for another sixteen years.  He became the papal legate for all the Slavic peoples, was consecrated as a bishop and given an see in what is now the Czech Republic.  When much of their former territory was removed from their jurisdiction, the Bavarian bishops retaliated with a violent storm of accusation against Methodius.  As a result, Emperor Louis the German exiled Methodius for three years, at which time he was freed by Pope John VIII.  Legend has it that Methodius translated the whole Bible into Slavonic in eight months.  He died on Tuesday of Holy Week, surrounded by his disciples, in his cathedral church.

Cyril and Methodius worked long and hard, and in the face of much opposition, to make the faith known.  They made the faith accessible by inventing an alphabet and preaching in the language of the people.  We too are called to make the faith known, meeting people where they are, and explaining it in a way that makes it accessible.  The most honest way to do this is by living the Gospel so that we can be a witness for all to see – being people of integrity in our work, in our families, and in our communities.

Saint Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

We have been hearing from the martyrs a lot recently.  On Friday, we remembered Saint Blaise, a bishop and martyr who is the patron saint of those with illnesses, specifically of the throat.  Yesterday, if it had not been a Sunday, we would have remembered Saint Agatha, a virgin and martyr who was put to death in the third century.  Today we remember Saint Paul Miki and his 25 companions – religious, lay people, catechists, and even children – who were crucified on a hill in Nagasaki in the late sixteenth century.

Saint Paul Miki wrote, in his final moments: “The sentence of judgment says these men came to Japan from the Philippines, but I did not come from any other country.  I am a true Japanese.  The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ.  I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ.  I thank God it is for this reason I die.  I believe that I am telling only the truth before I die.  I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy.  I obey Christ.  After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors.  I do not hate them.  I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.”

The courageous deaths of Saint Paul Miki, his companions, and all the other martyrs we have brought to memory in these past days recalls the sacrifice that Christ made for us.  Their deaths point the way to our Lord, especially the deaths of Paul Miki and his companions, who like their Lord, were put to death on crosses.  May their courage and wisdom inspire us to live and die with faith in God’s mercy, and give us the grace to live our lives in witness to God’s love and Truth.