Called to Community: Beckoned by the Trinity

Before the beginning is the Trinitarian life of community of the eternal Persons of God.  The life of the Trinity is an infinite explosion of giving and receiving love.   The spiration of the Spirit is the expression of the Father and Son’s profound love for each other.  Each Person of the Trinity pours forth love toward the Others and dances in the love of the Others. Each lives and dwells in the Others and, by sharing life, the Three constitute a community characterized by unity in diversity.  The interrelationship of the Persons of the Trinity is so complete that the Three are one God, that is, three loves in the same love.

The Trinity lives from, with, through, and for each Other.   From all eternity, this community of shared life has existed in a dynamic, mutually interdependent, and reciprocal relationship of self-giving love.  Historically, the eternal Three expressed the dynamus of their love in the outward movements of Creation, Incarnation/Redemption, Pentecost, and continue to do so in the ongoing life of the earth community and, in a special way, the Christian community.

The Triune God, a Mystery of intense inclusion, invites human beings to share in its communion of life and love, and, through this experience, to enter into community with others.  Just as the community of the Trinity exists in relationships of self-donation and self-differentiation, so, too, the Christian community entails each member’s giving of self in love to others and the flourishing of  members’ personal development.  True community embraces the individuation of its members and inspires them to contribute to the common good.    

Through His teaching and example, Jesus stressed the importance and value of community.  He taught His small band of followers to be together in love. Jesus responded lovingly to others’ needs and encouraged His disciples to do likewise. Today, Jesus’ call is to continue His self-donating way of being.  Love of Christ and the commitment to contribute to the growth of God’s Kingdom of love on earth through gospel living is what binds together contemporary Christians.

The following are some of this author’s reflections concerning the  meaning and value of Christian Community:

  • Community is a grace that involves collaboration with God and others.  
  • Community is about experiencing a sense of belonging.  In Christ we are, indeed, members of each other.
  • Relationships that nurture, encourage, and challenge us shape and enrich our shared life in community.  
  • Community involves carrying each other’s burdens, i.e., being there for each other in good times and hard times.  
  • Community means praying for and with each other.
  • Community and forgiveness go hand-in-hand.  This entails seeking reconciliation when we inflict pain on another and offering forgiveness to those who have caused us to suffer.  
  • Community is a discipleship of friends who together steward the talents and resources God has bestowed on them.  
  • In community, with courage and constantly renewed vigor, we quest together to serve the needs of God’s people by attuning ourselves to the signs of our times.
  • Hospitality is essential to Community. The spirit of welcoming includes honoring each other and creating ample space for differences among us.  

The Trinity constantly beckons Christians to community, which entails an ongoing commitment to walk the long journey in love together.  As Mercy foundress, Venerable Catherine McAuley, poignantly reminds us:  “Our mutual respect and charity is to be cordial; now ‘cordial’ signifies something that revives, invigorates, and warms; such should be the effect of our love for each other.”  Just as the cordiality of the Persons of the Trinity for each Other moves outward, so, too, Christian cordiality expresses itself in the mission of mercy to our world, which roots itself in the desire to respond lovingly and wholeheartedly to the needs of our time.  

In his text, Why We Live in Community, Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof, stresses that the “witness to voluntary community of goods and work, to a life of peace and love, will have meaning only when we throw our entire life and livelihood into it.” 1 Additionally, in an essay on community, Thomas Merton notes that community is God’s work.  He insists: “It isn’t just a question of whether you are building community with people that you naturally like; it is also a question of building community with people that God has brought together.”2

The story of  Christian community is ever unfolding.  Beckoned by the Trinity, as we continue into the future in the 21st century and beyond, let us encourage and inspire one another to dream dreams, share hopes, and seek and find creative ways to live mercifully by serving persons in need in our broken world.

 

1 Eberhard Arnold, Why We Live in Community (Farmington, Pa.: Plough Phing Co., 1996), p. 28.

2 Thomas Merton, “Building Community on God’s Love” reprinted in Why We Live in Community, p. 51.  

 

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Program at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

How to Study Theology (and not quit your day job)

When considering the possibility of taking some theology classes, or even pursuing a degree, it’s often the objections that hold sway rather than the movement of the Spirit. What can you do with that? Do you have a back-up plan?  Isn’t that a waste of money?

The pressure to do something practical that will lead to employment is immense.  And yet, our hearts are restless…The desire is there, but the justification is sometimes hard to come by.

Those who take the plunge give a wide variety of reasons for doing so – some quite specific, others barely communicable. Here are three reasons you might be considering the formal study of theology.

You work for the Church in some capacity and want professional development.

Whether you are a catechist in a parish, a permanent deacon, or a vice-chancellor of an archdiocese, continuing formation in the faith is crucial.  No ministry is minor. Though advanced study may or may not mean an increase in salary, it will bring an increase in confidence and a deeper relationship with Christ.

The beauty of theology is that its subject matter is infinite.

You’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of your Catholic faith and feel the need to know more.

Conversion is a powerful thing. When your faith is awakened, you crave a deeper relationship with the Lord and a greater knowledge of His revelation. Your desire to live your faith in your home and professional life is strong, but the know-how is lacking. Even twelve years of Catholic school is not enough!

The personal encounter with Jesus sparks a desire to learn everything possible about Him.

You feel God calling you to something, but you don’t know what it is.

When asked why they decided to study theology, so many students say that they really don’t know-they just felt that God wanted them to do it. Theology students range from traditional-age college students searching for their vocation to retirees looking to grow in the faith and serve in their parishes. The diversity among students is as great as within the Church herself.

So, you are feeling the call to study theology, but you can’t leave your employment. Or move to a new city. Or go into large debt. It is just too impractical. But wait – there’s more! It is, in fact, possible to study theology and not quit your day job! Here’s how.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology program makes it convenient and affordable to earn a theology degree, or just take some classes. The program is completely online offered in a self-paced environment with monthly start dates and offers the lowest tuition of any online Catholic theology program.

The college offers an array of programming, including a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts degrees in Pastoral Theology, Sacred Theology, and Advanced Diaconal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies, and a variety of certificates in Catholic theology at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels. For the neophyte, a non-credit course on The Catechism for Catechists is a perfect beginning.

New certificate programs in Black Catholic and Latino Catholic communities prepare pastoral ministers serving those populations, both of which are changing as they grow. Once predominantly African-American, the Black Catholic population now includes many refugees from Africa, making the population very diverse. Likewise, the Latino community is representative of a number of Spanish-speaking countries, each with a unique culture.

Mindful of both the ecumenical and ecological mission of the Church, Saint Joseph’s College has recently partnered with Gratz College of Philadelphia, to offer a joint Graduate Certificate in Jewish-Christian Studies starting March 1, and with the Laudato Si Institute in Granada, Spain, to provide an International Certificate in Christianity and an Integral Ecology starting April 1.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program is rooted in, and professes fidelity to, the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to combine faith with reason in the pursuit of academic excellence. Its faculty exemplifies its philosophy that effective ministry requires a solid theological foundation, grounded in solid Catholic doctrine, with a deep spiritual and pastoral orientation.

Every faculty member has received the mandatum from the bishop of the local Diocese of Portland.

So here is the fourth reason to study theology-because you can!

The Gospel tells us to “be not afraid” to “go by another way!” Studying theology may be the road less traveled, but it is one that is spiritually enriching and has practical applications for our work, both in the Church and in the temporal world. Saint Joseph’s College is a guide on that road, and we’d like to invite you to walk with us.

The choice to study theology may not get the enthusiastic nod from family and friends. It will require humility, and even a small martyrdom. It is “another way,” and an often unexpected one. But it is a path you do not walk alone-the SJC community accompanies you.

Carmina Chapp and Ann Koshute teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.
(Note: This article first appeared as sponsored content on Crux.

St. Anthony and Theology

One of my goals when teaching the lives and writings of the saints to an undergraduate audience is to take these figures “out of stained glass.” That is to say, I endeavor to teach this material in such a way that brings these authors to life. An image of a saint piously kneeling before the Virgin and Child can leave a somewhat one-dimensional impression upon the viewer. This impression is then reinforced as one becomes accustomed to it and does not probe its theological meaning.

Today the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, O.F.M. (1195-1231). St. Anthony’s feast day is particularly special to me as it is my onomastico or “name day,” and the imagery of St. Anthony with which we are most familiar has him holding the Child Jesus. This artistic motif is derived from an apparition that St. Anthony received of the Child Jesus, and it became part of his standard artistic depiction during the 17th century. Prior to that time, he was often portrayed with a lily (a symbol of purity) and a book (a symbol of the preaching for which he was renowned even in his own lifetime).

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480) (l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480)
(l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.

 

Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.

While theology is the diligent study of sacred realities, we can often stress the activity (diligent study) over the object (sacred realities). As a mentor of mine is fond of saying: theology is about transformation, not information. Few religious orders have incorporated this belief into their spiritual legacy as profoundly as the Franciscans and, in particular, St. Anthony was acutely aware that the goal of theology is eternal beatitude – not the accumulation of facts and certainly not an academic degree.

St. Anthony joined the Franciscans, after first becoming an Augustinian, while they were still in their infancy. He was the Order’s first reader of theology, or “official theology teacher,” and yet no manuals or scholastic disputations have survived from his work. What we possess from St. Anthony’s writings are a collection of sermons. Like many Patristic Fathers before him, St. Anthony was most concerned with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his homilies are rich examples of a probative explication of Scripture at the service of the conversion of souls.

Rather than provide a quotation from one of his homilies which demonstrates this point, I would instead like to share a letter which was written to St. Anthony by St. Francis. The occasion for this correspondence was the instillation of St. Anthony as the Order’s first reader of theology. The entire letter is the following:

“Brother Francis [sends his] wishes of health to Brother Anthony, my overseer. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as – in the words of the [Franciscan] Rule – you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ with study of this kind.”

Coleman 6 14 2

El Greco, St. Anthony of Padua (1577)

St. Anthony reminds us that theology is an activity which serves the Church, seeks the conversion of souls, and aims at our eternal communion with God. Without these goals, theology is just another collection of facts and figures like any other academic discipline. And if theology remains the latter, it can more easily “‘extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’” than inspire it.

A painting of St. Anthony which communicates this well is by the artist known as El Greco (a.k.a., Domenikos Theotokopoulos). El Greco combines the more traditional imagery of St. Anthony with that which will soon become standard. In doing so the artist reminds us that, for St. Anthony, theology is a lived activity; an activity of mind (book), heart (Child Jesus), and body (lily). The integration of these elements can be seen in St. Anthony’s posture, as he looks serenely upon a book which upholds the Child Jesus and holds a lily as if it were a pen. The senses gaze upon the sacred mysteries, which are then communicated through intellectual and physical acts. St. Anthony reminds us that the goal of theology is a living relationship with Christ which embraces every dimension of the human person, not simply an intellectual activity.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program. This post originally appeared on June 14, 2015.

Tradition and Communion

In last month’s post, I began by looking at a single word. I thought that I would begin this month’s post in the same vein. Vaguely recalling a line from Sesame Street, therefore, “today’s posting is brought to you by the word”…tradition. ‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin word traditio, which means ‘handing over.’ The word ‘traitor’ also comes from this word; as in someone who ‘hands over’ things he shouldn’t.

In today’s gospel proclamation (Jn 17:20-26), we get a sense of what has been ‘handed over’ to us. This passage comes from a portion of St. John’s Gospel known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (Jn 17). This is the prayer that Jesus offers to the Father during the Last Supper and, as Fr. Raymond Brown has noted, Jesus adopts the tone of “one who stands before the throne of God making intercession for us.” According to St. John’s Gospel, these are the very last words Jesus utters prior to his arrest.

At this crucial moment of Jesus’ life and ministry, he prays for us. We are the ones not present at the Last Supper, who will come to believe in him through the words of others (Jn 17:20). These words, handed down generation after generation, have come to animate – literally, to ‘give life to’ – our faith. And this handing on, this tradition, is of irreplaceable importance; because faith comes from hearing and believing. As St. Paul famously asked: “[H]ow can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14). Christians are not formed by nature. Perhaps living in a predominantly Christian culture can help formation, but it certainly does not guarantee it; nor can it replace the personal act of faith. The early Christian theologian Tertullian once wrote that “Christians are made, not born” (Apol. 18). And this ‘making’ begins with faith.

At some point in our lives, we heard the proclamation “Christ is risen” and we believed. The vast majority of Christians were not like Ss. Mary of Magdala or Peter or Thomas – he actually got to poke his finger into Jesus’ side! Rather, most Christians have believed because the good news of Christ’s resurrection had been handed on to them. Our faith, therefore, has a mediator. It comes to us through the mediation of the Church. She has handed on the faith – first in preaching, then also in Scripture – since the day of Pentecost, and does so throughout the ages.

Caravaggio ThomasIt is for us, therefore, that Jesus prays. And the content of his prayer is for our communion. He prays that his future disciples “may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, […] that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21, 22). He prays that his entire Church, spread across lands and languages, time and eternity, might be one – one as God himself is one! Jesus’ prayer for our communion, therefore, is a prayer that we might participate in God’s own Trinitarian life.

What has been handed over to us is not some sentimental nicety or material benefit, like the recipe for Mama’s sauce or the deed to a house. The tradition we have inherited is that through which we have been joined to Christ by faith. It has formed us into a new people, where “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). It calls us into communion with one another, and into that loving communion which is our Triune God. Jesus himself has prayed for this to the Father; i.e., “that the love with which you loved me may be in them” (Jn 17:26).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

A Peek Behind the Veil

The word “revelation” has its roots in a Latin word (revelatio) which means “to draw back” (re-) the “veil” (velum). Often we associate this word with the person who has gained knowledge. He or she has discovered something which was always present but unknown; like a tropical island or a chemical element. But what distinguishes a revelation from a discovery is that the latter can be made according to one’s own powers. The discoverer is the active agent in the process of detection. A revelation, on the other hand, needs to be given. It is the giver who is the active agent, who lifts the veil, and who allows the receiver to accept or reject what has been shown.

In today’s Gospel (Jn 10:27-30), Jesus offers his followers a revelation concerning his true identity. His disciples could not have “discovered” this on their own, nor are they compelled to believe what has been revealed. “The Father and I,” Jesus says, “are one” (Jn 10:30). It is difficult to describe, in both scope and depth, what this one little sentence must have inspired – or perhaps incited – among the Jesus’ Jewish audience. The Gospel states that at least some persons who were present “picked up rocks to stone him” (Jn 10:31). Indeed, to an audience accustomed to praying the Shema – “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” (Dt 6:4) – this statement would approach the height of self-aggrandizing sacrilege. But Jesus neither recoils at the threat of stoning, nor demurs from the accusation of blasphemy. Rather, he confirms his previous statement by adding that “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:38). In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples, if you will, a “peek behind the veil”; a glimpse of his identity which will only be known after his Resurrection and through the gift of the Spirit.

Christ Pancrator

Christ Pantocrator (mid-6th cen.) St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

This revelation of Christ’s personhood is not a matter of abstract dogma, or of learning a fact like so much other data available to us in this “Information Age.” The demons “know” that Jesus Christ is Lord (e.g., Mk 1:24), and yet they revile him. Jesus’ mission of salvation is an embrace of the human person. He conquered death so that we might come to him and receive new life. As St. Paul writes: “the Son of God…has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20; emphasis added). Nothing could be of greater importance for me, for my present life and eternal destiny, then Christ’s true identity. For if he and the Father are one, if he has conquered death, and if I am united to him as member of his body, then I too can proclaim: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55; cf. Hos 13:14).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Faith and Reason

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on May 4, 2014.

The belief that faith and reason are complementary ways of coming to know the truth, rather than antagonistic rivals or competitors for one’s allegiance, has its foundation in the NT itself and, ultimately, in a person rather than a text.

Photo by Leland Francisco

Photo by Leland Francisco

When the earliest of Christian writers were searching for ways in which to articulate the meaning of what we might call the “Jesus Event,” i.e., the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the first associations they made was between Jesus and the ‘wisdom’ [σοφία] or ‘reason’ [λόγος] of God. Drawing from the book of Wisdom, St. Paul refers to Christ as “the wisdom [σοφίαν] of God” (1 Cor 1:24). “All things were created through him and for him,” the Apostle states elsewhere, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17).

These latter remarks about Jesus, the identification of him with God’s divine wisdom, NT scholars agree pre-date St. Paul himself. They were, most likely, part of a hymn to Christ which the early Christian community used in their liturgical services. Thus, from the very beginning of Christianity, before the composition of the NT, Christians understood Jesus as the incarnation, the en-fleshment, of God’s divine wisdom; the wisdom by which God created, governs and sustains the natural world. The living embodiment of the ‘plan’ (ratio) according to which the cosmos was designed and functions.

A bit later in Christian history, around the year 90, this belief was given its classic expression in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word [λόγος], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3).

The Greek term for ‘Word’ [λόγος] in this translation can have many meanings: word, speech, language, an account or narrative, or an explanation. It can also mean, most importantly, ‘reason’ or ‘thought.’ So if we exchange translations, we can read the same passage as: “In the beginning was Reason and Reason was with God, and Reason was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” With his obvious linguistic allusion to Genesis 1:1 [i.e., “In the beginning…”], the author of the prologue is affirming the divine nature of God’s reason and wisdom. A few verses later, of course, the author takes the further step of associating this Reason with the person of Jesus: “And the Word [Reason] became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).

For the Catholic, then, as true now as was for these early Christian authors, it is in God, and especially through the person of His Son Jesus Christ, that Wisdom, Reason and Truth have their being. As Jesus said: “I am the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) and “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).

Understanding that the world was created according to divine reason, and that the seeds of reason are to be found in the entire created order, the Catholic tradition has long affirmed the human capacity, and supported the human effort, to discover truth in the natural world by the light of human reason. It is true that the early Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked the question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (De praescr. haeret. 7). But on that matter, and quite a few others, Tertullian was departing from the established Christian thought of his time. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, acknowledges that since truth cannot be opposed to itself, the truths of the faith cannot contradict those of science or reason (cf. Aquinas SCG 1.7). Faith and reason are not competitors, but the two complementary ways in which humankind might come to know the truth.

This point has been articulated throughout the Catholic intellectual tradition and, more recently, the Second Vatican Council stated that “methodical research, in all realms of knowledge, if it respects […] moral norms, will never be genuinely opposed to faith: the reality of the world and of faith have their origin in the same God” (GS § 36). Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II stated that faith and reason are two complimentary ways of coming to the truth because “the unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear” (FR § 34).

The mutual necessity of both faith and reason is nowhere more evident than in the discipline of theology. In examining the application of reason to matters of faith, St. Augustine once wrote: intellege ut credas, crede ut intellegas (‘to understand so that you might believe, to believe so that you might understand’) (s. 43.9). More than half a millennium later, the Benedictine archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, meditating on St. Augustine’s thought, would famously define theology as fides quaerens intellectum  (‘faith seeking understanding’) (Cf. Pros. 1-2).

In attempting to sum up this intellectual inheritance, this particularly Catholic way of viewing, inter alia, the relationship between faith and reason, many writers have taken to calling this hermeneutic

the Catholic “both/and.” As opposed to looking at the world and seeing a multitude of choices which demand an “either/or” decision, the Catholic “both/and,” being sensitive to false dichotomies, sees the value – and in many instances the necessity – of each choice: nature and grace, action and contemplation, freewill and providence, invisible grace and material signs, and, of course, faith and reason. From the Catholic perspective, therefore, the relationship between faith and reason has never been an antagonistic one. Rather, the Catholic sees the proper use of one’s intellect as an activity which draws us nearer to God by seeking His Wisdom.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Saint Anthony and Theology

One of my goals when teaching the lives and writings of the saints to an undergraduate audience is to take these figures “out of stained glass.” That is to say, I endeavor to teach this material in such a way that brings these authors to life. An image of a saint piously kneeling before the Virgin and Child can leave a somewhat one-dimensional impression upon the viewer. This impression is then reinforced as one becomes accustomed to it and does not probe its theological meaning.

Yesterday the Church celebrated the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, O.F.M. (1195-1231). St. Anthony’s feast day is particularly special to me as it is my onomastico or “name day,” and the imagery of St. Anthony with which we are most familiar has him holding the Child Jesus. This artistic motif is derived from an apparition that St. Anthony received of the Child Jesus, and it became part of his standard artistic depiction during the 17th century. Prior to that time, he was often portrayed with a lily (a symbol of purity) and a book (a symbol of the preaching for which he was renowned even in his own lifetime).

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480) (l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480)
(l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)

Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.

While theology is the diligent study of sacred realities, we can often stress the activity (diligent study) over the object (sacred realities). As a mentor of mine is fond of saying: theology is about transformation, not information. Few religious orders have incorporated this belief into their spiritual legacy as profoundly as the Franciscans and, in particular, St. Anthony was acutely aware that the goal of theology is eternal beatitude – not the accumulation of facts and certainly not an academic degree.

St. Anthony joined the Franciscans, after first becoming an Augustinian, while they were still in their infancy. He was the Order’s first reader of theology, or “official theology teacher,” and yet no manuals or scholastic disputations have survived from his work. What we possess from St. Anthony’s writings are a collection of sermons. Like many Patristic Fathers before him, St. Anthony was most concerned with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his homilies are rich examples of a probative explication of Scripture at the service of the conversion of souls.

Rather than provide a quotation from one of his homilies which demonstrates this point, I would instead like to share a letter which was written to St. Anthony by St. Francis. The occasion for this correspondence was the instillation of St. Anthony as the Order’s first reader of theology. The entire letter is the following:

“Brother Francis [sends his] wishes of health to Brother Anthony, my overseer. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as – in the words of the [Franciscan] Rule – you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ with study of this kind.”

St. Anthony reminds us that theology is an activity which serves the Church, seeks the conversion of souls, and aims at our eternal communion with God. Without these goals, theology is just another collection of facts and figures like any other academic discipline. And if theology remains the latter, it can more easily “‘extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’” than inspire it.

A painting of St. Anthony which communicates this well is by the artist known as El Greco (a.k.a., Domenikos Theotokopoulos). El Greco combines the more traditional imagery of St. Anthony with that which will soon become standard. In doing so the artist reminds us that, for St. Anthony, theology is a lived activity; an activity of mind (book), heart (Child Jesus), and body (lily). The integration of these elements can be seen in St. Anthony’s posture, as he looks serenely upon a book which upholds the Child Jesus and holds a lily as if it were a pen. The senses gaze upon the sacred mysteries, which are then communicated through intellectual and physical acts. St. Anthony reminds us that the goal of theology is a living relationship with Christ which embraces every dimension of the human person, not simply an intellectual activity.

Coleman 6 14 2

El Greco, St. Anthony of Padua (1577)

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Corpus Christi Makes the Church

The celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi is a good time to ponder, not only the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but our personal identity as Christians – the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist constitutes the fullness of communion with the Church. We are not fully initiated into the Christian faith until we are united sacramentally with Christ himself. It may seem odd to think of it as a sacrament of initiation since we continue to participate in the Eucharist, and in fact are obligated to do so long after we have been baptized and confirmed. How is it that, though fully initiated, we continue to participate in it?

We are human beings, susceptible to sin – very susceptible! The only way we can keep from sinning is by the power of God. The power of sin does not go away once we are initiated into the Body of Christ (in fact, it may get worse!). We are in a constant battle. Our initiation opens the door for us to God’s grace, giving us access to the power that we need to resist temptation to sin.

But we need to freely cooEucharistic Adorationperate in those graces and to return often to the font of those graces. We repeatedly bring our sinful lives before Christ on the cross to redeem us, so that we can live lives that are true to our identity as the Body of Christ, the People of God. (Notice that the first thing we do at Mass is the Penitential Rite. We acknowledge our sins in preparation for our offering of ourselves. We offer a contrite heart.)

The words and the elements of the Eucharist are the same as those used by Jesus at the Last Supper. We see how it is Jesus who gives the elements their spiritual power, making them his Body and Blood. The words of Jesus do what they say. We do things as God himself has told us to do so, showing respect for God as our Creator and Redeemer and Jesus as the institutor of the sacraments.

In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is remembered (in the anamnesis sense of the word) and celebrated within the context of a meal. We call it the Lord’s Supper, or the Paschal Banquet. This must be understood in light of the Old Testament sacrifices. Depending on the sacrifice, what was offered was either burnt up completely, thus given completely over to God as the smoke rose to heaven, or was eaten by the priests, who had been chosen by God for the purpose of making the offerings. At the Passover, each family was to offer a lamb in sacrifice and was to consume it completely. In fact, if one family could not consume an entire lamb, they were to come together with another family so that none would be left over (they were about to leave Egypt, after all). We see in these examples those who offer the sacrifices consuming that which is sacrificed.

At the Exodus, the blood of the lamb saved the lives of the first-born sons of the Israelites. The Eucharist was instituted at a Passover meal. The new meaning of the celebration is thus given by Jesus, who is the Lamb of God, slaughtered to free humanity from sin and to bring eternal life. In the Eucharist, the blood of the Lamb does the same thing as in the Exodus, but by virtue of our baptism, we are all considered “first sons” as we are all children of the Father.

The celebration of the Eucharist concludes with our consuming the sacrificial lamb, by receiving the Body of Christ – Corpus Christi, and being sent out into the world to go and make disciples of all nations. Our intimate union with Christ – both spiritually and physically, by the grace of the sacrament – enables us to bring the love of Christ to every person we meet. It changes us! It makes us holy, transforms us into other Christs – into Christians!

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Easter Changes Everything

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!

Alithos Anesti! Truly, He is Risen!

I have the distinctive pleasure of being paid to lead a class of students in reading the Great Books of the Western literary canon. I know, I know. It’s a dirty job, etc., etc. One text which I relish covering with the undergraduates is Dante’s Inferno and, while mediating upon what to share with you this Easter day, I was reminded of a particular scene from that work, the greatest of Christian poems.

Early in the Inferno, Dante the pilgrim and his guide, the Latin poet Virgil, arrive at the latter’s “permanent address,” Limbo. Limbo is described as the eternal residence of those

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets Gustave Doré (1832-83)

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets (Gustave Doré, 1832-83)

souls who, while on earth, did not sin but lacked baptism, “the door to the faith” (Inf. 4.36). While he is there, Dante spies the souls of many famous men and women from classical history and myth, such as Electra, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The existence of these non-baptized noble souls is not one of judgment, let alone torture. They live amid a cool and verdant meadow, high and bathed in light, resembling the enclosure to an open courtyard. While to the eye this place is one of beauty, to the ear it is far less so. What one hears upon entering this lush and pleasant pasture are sighs “of sorrow without torments” (Inf. 4.28). Though the pilgrim finds himself amid a collection of the greatest poets from classical antiquity, i.e., Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and his own guide Virgil, there is no singing in Limbo, no music. The souls in Limbo have lost something for which the scenery cannot compensate: hope.

What Dante the poet is trying to bring to life for us is an entirely and completely natural world, a world of nature without grace. As St. Thomas reminds us, the perfection of our natural desires cannot be fulfilled by natural ends alone. The human person is directed to an end which is beyond his/her capacity to achieve without assistance. Since eternal life with God is the end to which we are called and for which we were made, it is God who must do the assisting. Without God’s help, the best that human nature, and the entire created world, can offer is still not enough to satisfy our deepest desires and longings. To quote another famous theologian saint: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (August. Conf. 1.1). The scene which Dante has brought to life for us, therefore, is one which depicts the world without grace. At best, creation can be quite attractive and even beautiful. But without the gift of grace, the most stunning botanical courtyard can seem like a prison.

While in Limbo, Dante the pilgrim asks Virgil if any of the souls residing there have ever left it for eternal beatitude. Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) states that he was newly arrived when he witnessed the coming of the LORD “with the sign of the victory crown” (Inf. 4.54). That to which Virgil is alluding is the Christian doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell. The Latin poet states that after Good Friday, Christ “made blessed” (Inf. 4.62) the souls of the OT patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and kings. Unlike the Gentile non-baptized residents of Limbo, these souls were the recipients of God’s covenant and, while on earth, lived in the hope that God would fulfill his promises to Israel. Just as the permanent residents of Limbo lived without hope on earth and thus continue to do so in the afterlife, so too the transient residents of Limbo lived in hope on earth and continued to do so in the afterlife. The event which fulfilled their hope, and brought about the attainment of their deepest desires, was the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ inaugurates a new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first-fruit” (1 Cor 15:20, 23), a sign of the things to come which have begun in him. In being joined to Christ, we too become new creations or, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, after baptism “you are properly called Christs” (Catechetical Lectures 21.1). In being united to Christ, we become by adoption what he is by nature; i.e., sons and daughters of the Father.

Chora

The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (Istanbul, Turkey)

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the artistic representation of the mystery Christ’s resurrection is not a glorified Christ standing next to an empty tomb. Rather, the Resurrection (Anastasis) Icon depicts the Harrowing of Hell. In this image, the glorified Christ is seen clutching the hands of Adam and Eve, who represent all of humanity. At Jesus’ feet are the “doors of Hell,” which he has burst open, and those objects scattered on the ground are shrapnel from the metalwork of the doors. One might interpret them as those tiny but infinitely-numbered little things we do every day which keep Jesus out of our lives. In addition, at Jesus’ feet also lays what looks like a corpse. This, of course, is death itself, which Christ has conquered and destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15). The figures in the background on either side of Christ are the souls of those whom he has come to redeem. On the left, St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner) is closest to Jesus, and behind him are those OT kings who predicted the coming of the Savior: David (in the Psalms) and Solomon (in the Book of Wisdom). On right side are those patriarchs and prophets who lived in hope of God’s redemption, but predicted or prefigured Christ’s coming more obliquely: Abel, Moses, etc.

What these poetic and artistic representations, as well as the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell itself, should help us to recall is both our need for God’s grace and God’s most abounding love in providing it to us. It was not cheap. The price was the life of His only-begotten Son. But for those united to Christ by the grace which he has won for us, everything is changed. By grace, our human nature has been raised from sin and death. By grace, we can affirm, with Fr. Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” By grace, we have become adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. The Paschal Triduum is not just the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the story of our salvation. In short, Easter changes everything.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

The Ultimate Model of Sacrificial Love

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday tells about Jesus’ glorious entry into Jerusalem. The Jewish authorities were afraid that the people would declare him king, and with that the power of their leadership would be threatened. So the Sanhedrin plotted to put Jesus to death and Judas conspired against him. Palm Sunday is all about the passion of Christ that’s about to take place, all about sacrificial love.

The passion of Jesus was announced in John’s gospel when he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In this statement there is a tremendous paradox because to many of the Jews, the title “Son of Man” stood for an undefeatable world conqueror sent by God. So when he said that, they believed that the triumph-call of all eternity had sounded, that the might of heaven was on the march, and the campaign of victory had begun.

This is not at all what Jesus meant by “glorified”. By glorified, he meant “crucified.” When the “Son of Man” was mentioned, they thought of the conquest of the armies; he thought of the conquest of the cross.

EntryIntoJerusalem-DuccioAs Jesus rides into Jerusalem and he looks at the City, he sees what the people could not see. It is there on the outskirts of the city that the battle will end. He sees the staging of Satan. The Evil One has seized the heart of Judas and he has whispered in the ear of Caiaphas. Jesus knew that when the going got tough, his closest friends would run, and that his was not the glory of popularity, but the glory of isolation. It was glory because it was for us, and because it was instead of us.

Jesus knew that before the war would be over, he must be taken captive. He knew that before victory there would be pain. He knew that before the throne would come the cup. He knew that before the light of Easter Sunday, there must be the darkness of Good Friday, and before his ascent into heaven, there must be a descent into hell. At the very moment when the crowds of people would be cheering, Jesus would be in agony.

He would be in agony because this was his hour, the hour to which every word and every act in scripture pointed. Jesus would be in agony because He knew from all eternity past that this was indeed the time for the cross. It was agony for Jesus to do the will of his Father, but there was no other way. Jesus was not saved from this hour. He was saved for it, and so are we. What was the passion of Jesus? We are the passion of Jesus because in the end Jesus would rather go through hell for us than go to heaven without us.

Jesus made a decision, a decision that would change the course of history forever. His entry into Jerusalem would not be in anticipation of being crowned; it would be in anticipation of being crucified. It would be the ultimate example of supreme courage, knowing He was going, voluntarily and sacrificially to his death on our behalf, as our ransom, as our substitute.

Jesus came to the Jews with a new view of life. They looked on glory as conquest, the acquisition of power, and the right to rule. He looked on it as the cross. He taught that life comes only by death, that only by spending life do we retain it, and that greatness only comes through service.

Jesus was fighting a battle with the human longing to avoid the cross, but nothing is gained without sacrifice. Real courage doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means being terribly afraid, yet sacrificing out of love, doing what must be done for the good of others and for the glory of God.

This is what his passion was all about. Sacrificial love is what we see when we look at the cross. Sacrificial love is the goal of our Lenten journey – the only sure foundation for life, the only sure foundation for a family, a community or a kingdom. Sacrificial love is the only thing that we take with us when we leave this world, and the only thing that will last forever. It’s the key to conversion, the key to becoming just like Jesus.

So for those preparing to come into the church at the Easter Vigil and for all of us preparing for Holy Week, let this be our fervent prayer:

Take from us, Lord, that which continues to separate us from you: pride, greed and selfishness. Increase in us that which brings us closer to you: patience, humility and sacrificial love.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.