Monday, October 31, 2016

Devotional for Halloween

Reflection for the Eve of All Saints:

“All the angels stood around the throne
and around the elders and the four living creatures”  (Revelation 7 NAB)

Were you to gather all the ghouls, angels, princesses, witches, wizards, saints, and demons that will wander the streets tonight in one place, you would not find a much spookier gathering than what is described in the book of Revelation. We read of saints, angels, and these four creatures all bowing down to worship God and “the Lamb”, by which we can understand Christ, our Lord and God. And those creatures would make a pretty terrifying costume. Here is how the Bible describes them:
                “There were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being, and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight. The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, were covered with eyes inside and out. Day and night they do not stop exclaiming:
Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.” Revelation 4.6-8
                There is a terrifying harmony that exists in heaven, as described by the prophet, between the ceaseless, vigilant praise of these creatures (who represent, perhaps, the four corners of the earth or the four gospels) the praise of the elders who fall on their faces and cast their crowns down before the Lord, and the praise of all the various angels to God. It’s a constant repetition of praise and elation before God, something that seems completely alien to our lives here on earth. It’s a timeless vision that touches us on a primordial level: we fear the permanence of God’s glory. We hear about it, and the normalcy and change that haunts our lives is shaken.
                If there’s something that I find particularly redeeming in Halloween, it’s precisely the “dreadful” aspects that are like this. Ghosts, vampires, haunted houses, witches, wizards: They all point to dark sources of power that stretch beyond our ordinary human life. They look to an immortal world of permanence, a world where symbols and signs have power and significance beyond themselves. It’s not too different from the terrifying scenes of the book of Revelation: here such symbols and signs come to life and proclaim that they are the fundamental reality of our existence. They point to a reality that reaches beyond this life and into eternity.
                Saints, in particular, are people who live for this kind of reality. They don’t content themselves with the ordinary life. This mortal life seems not to touch them. It’s like the song of the terrifying creatures of Revelation course through their veins. They are surrounded by miracles. In our Church, we believe that they are so permeated with heaven that even their mortal remains, their bones and dead flesh, are consecrated and given the power to heal and grant great favors. Even the ground they touch becomes holy with an otherworldly essence, and believers feel it when they venerate their graves.
                Let us take tonight to honor this power. Let’s take tonight to think of the spiritual realities that reach beyond what we normally experience. And let’s stand in awe of the saints who have allowed themselves to be so enraptured by the terrifying, awesome vision of God that they have been permitted to join the company of those four living creatures who worship Jesus Christ, the Lord of death and life.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

10-Minute Catechism: Creation (Lesson 2)

10-Minute Catechism
Lesson 2 – Creation
Memory Verse:”For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate. How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?” (Wisdom 11:24-25 NABRE)
                So, in the last lesson, we talked about how God slowly revealed everything about himself to humanity in stages, and how the first stage of that relationship was Creation. We find the story of Creation in the first book of the Bible, and in fact, in the first verse of the first chapter of the first book: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth.” This is echoed in the first verse of the Gospel according St. John. “In the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Believing that everything around us comes, ultimately, from God is the most fundamental belief in the Christian faith, but it needs a bit of explanation.
                If you read the first chapter of Genesis, one thing that should hit you immediately is that Genesis reads quite a bit differently from a science textbook, which is alright, because it is NOT a science textbook. Instead, it builds the narrative of Creation much like you would describe a sunset: first, you would talk about the colors, then the background, the land, the creatures crawling on the ground, and finally, what it felt like as you stood on the front porch basking in the warm summer light. The chapter on the seven days of Creation are much the same way: it is a description of Creation told in the form of a story. The biblical story of creation decidedly NOT a detailed explanation about how the world, or even humanity itself, came into being. For the details, we have to look to scientific inquiry. The ongoing controversy between certain Christians and the scientific community over evolution really has no merit.
                Something else we notice about the Creation story is how it emphasizes the goodness of Creation. At the end of each day, the Scriptures tell us that God looked at what He had made “and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:24). At no point does God do any take-backs. He doesn’t look at humanity, even after all the sin and pain that humanity causes on the earth and say, “You know what, never mind, y’all are awful.” This comes to a fundamental belief in the Catholic Christian faith: everything that exists, in so far as it was created by God, is good. It continues to be good, willed by God, and beautiful in His eyes. (See the memory verse for today.) Sure, sometimes we misuse those creations, but they remain good in and of themselves, and even human beings, for all of our faults, are always loved and always worthy of redemption.
                Finally, and I think this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Catholic teaching regarding Creation, is that everything was created from absolutely NOTHING. In the very first verse we find that everything has its source in God, and from the first verse of John’s Gospel, we find that, in fact, the only source for our being is “word”. In other words, we are the result of God’s speaking. We have nothing at the center of our being except that God thinks of us and speaks us into creation.
                If you think about it, what this means is that, ultimately, we are just like dreams. Dreams rely, for their existence, only on the mind of the person who is dreaming. They have no reality outside of that person. In fact, it could be said that, relative to the person who is having a dream, dreams themselves don’t exist. We are God’s dream. Relative to him, and without him, we do not exist at all. We have no meaning, identity, or purpose on our own. We entirely belong to his reality. We are his thought.
                As we try to reflect on what this means for our lives, I think that it should, first of all, open us up to understanding the level of responsibility that we have as Christians to care for God’s creation, something that he considered ‘good’ and committed to our care. At the same time, I think it’s worth contemplating the ways that our good, and ultimately the good of everything else in the world, ultimately depends on its relationship with God. After all, we come from him and are in the process of returning to him: how could we hope to fulfil our function without him?

Additional Reading:
Catechism of the Catholic Church 282-289
Genesis 1:1 – 2:1
John 1

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

10-Minute Catechism : Which God do Christians believe in? (Lesson 1)

10-Minute Catechism
Lesson 1 – Which God do Christians worship? 

Memory Verse:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2 RSV-CE)

                A lot of people today say that they believe in God. A lot of those people who believe in God would also call themselves “Christians” in the general sense of meaning that they (occasionally) go to Church and claim to have a personal relationship with God. It’s worth asking, though, whether most of these people actually have a sense for who God is, or if they’re simply defining God as a sort of generic, benevolent Deity that they occasionally feel the need to ask for help from. In fact, Christians, if they’re going to be called Christians at all, believe in a very specific God with a specific personality and history.
                So who is this God? Well, saying that He is THE God might be true, but it’s also pretty unhelpful. Imagine you were talking to a friend about her new boyfriend. Let’s call the new boyfriend “John Doe”. If you asked, “Who is John Doe?” and she answered, “Well, he is THE John Doe!” she might have technically answered the question, but she really didn’t provide any useful information. Much more helpful, given the pervasive nature of social media, would be for the two of you to creep his Facebook timeline until you got a sense of the guy.
                Well, the same is true with the Christian God. Christians believe that God has a history, like your friend’s creepy bf John Doe, and it’s posted up all over the Internet….and in bookshops and hotel rooms everywhere. It’s found in an amazing collection of books called the Bible. And it tells a story of God slowly revealing himself to people until, finally, He comes himself to Earth to make everything plain.
                You see, according to the Bible, God is like a really good high school math teacher. The teacher doesn’t walk into class on the first day of ninth grade and say, “Ok. Let’s learn everything about Calculus.” No. Instead God revealed Himself step by step. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (the big book that contains all of the Catholic Church’s teachings) identifies three major stages of God’s relationship with people:

  1. Creation – God creates the world and everything in it, including the first people (Adam and Eve). At this point, God’s main focus is on teaching people to care for everything that He created. Man messes that up and God has to start over with Noah.  You can read about this in the first half of the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. 
  2.  Election – God chooses a specific group of people, the Hebrews, by calling Abraham, a man who lived in ancient Mesopotamia, to leave his home and move into the land that we now call Israel or Palestine. Abraham follows God’s call and so also chooses God in return. Through the law that he gives the Hebrews, he teaches the world what holiness really means.
  3.   Incarnation – God decides to go for the last stage of his revelation. He comes to Earth himself in the person of Jesus Christ around two thousand years ago, who was born and raised from the Hebrew people. The whole New Testament is about Jesus, but the basic story is contained in the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

         At each stage, God increases the level of intimacy with humanity. He goes from choosing a species (humans), to choosing a people (the Hebrews), to choosing a person (Jesus Christ), so that each time he comes closer to forming a deep, personal relationship with us. That final person, Jesus Christ, has a history, a past, and even a character that we can really connect with. It follows that to know God, we need to focus on studying this history by reading what is written down about him in the Holy Bible. 

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as we begin our study of your Holy Scriptures, help us to understand what you expect of those whom you have chosen for yourself. Give us a willingness to learn with humility, eagerness, and prudence, so that we may always make You the object of our study, and not our own prejudices and misconceptions. We ask this through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. 
Additional Readings:
Catechism of the Catholic Church 51-67
Genesis 1:1-2:2
Genesis 22:1-18
Luke 1:26-36; 2:1-21