Advent is a unique season of the ecclesial year and one that is uniquely misunderstood. It is not solely about the coming of the Lord as the Son of Mary, a baby in the manger. It is also about the coming of the Lord in judgment at world’s end. This is why it is a penitential season. And it is also why the first Gospel reading of Advent includes this from the book of Luke.
Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:36)
Be vigilant and pray, says the Lord Jesus. Why? So that we may have strength. Strength for what? Strength to escape “the tribulations that are imminent” and also to stand before the Son of Man. That is rather alarming. Please note that Jesus is not talking to just anyone here; He is telling this to His disciples, including the Apostles. Why should they of all people need to pray for strength to stand before Him?
This does not mean that He considered them to be unbelievers (Judas excepted of course). In fact I suspect that there are at least a few people who would confirm that strength is just exactly what one needs when he stands before God.
Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)
We will certainly die, for we have seen God. (Judges 13:22)
Now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord, our God, any more, we shall die. (Deuteronomy 5:25)
Do not the Lord’s words of warning sound very much in keeping with what Isaiah, Manoah, and all Israel thought when they were in God’s presence? “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31. So it makes sense, it seems to me, for this to be a penitential season. We are preparing to meet our God at His coming! Yes, there will be joy for His people but God is an infinitely awesome God. Who can have the heart to stand in the presence of such a great God? I think this is why Jesus tells us to pray that we may have strength to stand before Him. Advent is not only about Christmas. The Day of the Lord is both great and terrible (Malachi 3:23).
But who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can stand firm when he appears? (Malachi 3:2)
Maritain is a valuable antidote for the skepticism and subjectivism that is so prevalent today.
Conclusion IX – The truth of knowledge consists in the conformity of the mind with the thing. It is absurd to doubt the reliability of our organs of knowledge (Introduction to Philosophy, 129).
This reflects an objective epistemology. Our knowledge is true to the extent that it conforms to reality.
Maritain has some strong words for those who doubt the “the reliability of our organs of knowledge:”
[I]t would obviously be a waste of breath to attempt to demonstrate [the reliability of reason and the intellect] to them. For every demonstration rests on some previously admitted certainty, and it is their very profession to admit of none. … When they say that they do not know whether any proposition is true, either they know that this proposition at any rate is true, in which case they contradict themselves, or they do not know whether it is true, in which case they are either saying nothing whatever, or do not know what they say. The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence – even mental. That is to say, as Aristotle points out, such men must make themselves vegetables. No doubt reason often errs, especially in the highest matters, and, as Cicero said long ago, there is no nonsense in the world which has not found some philosopher to maintain it, so difficult is it to attain truth. But it is the error of cowards to mistake a difficulty for an impossibility (ibid., p. 128f.).
I’m not able to go toe-to-toe with such skeptics in an actual philosophical argument, beyond resorting to one of the three ways Maritain suggests (p. 128) for dealing with them: make a reductio ad absurdum. None of them actually lives in a way consistent with what they claim. They do not doubt whether the sun has risen. They do not doubt whether they are clothed. They do not wonder whether the eggs they’ve cooked are actually poison. Yet if they were really consistent with their claims, they couldn’t possibly eat for fear that they might be eating garbage. They couldn’t breathe for fear that the air might be toxic. They couldn’t love, because they might be misunderstanding the other’s expressions of hatred as terms of endearment.
Conclusion X – The formal object of the intellect is being. What it apprehends of its very nature is what things are independently of us (ibid., p. 133).
Again: objectively valid knowledge. We’re not trapped in subjectivism.
It is that which is, which causes the truth of our minds. Reason is capable of attaining with complete certainty the most sublime truths of the natural order, but with difficulty and only when duly disciplined (ibid., p. 131).
It is the error of the rationalists to suppose that all truth is easily attained. The history of philosophy (and see Maritain’s appeal to Cicero mentioned above) ought to disabuse us of this idea.
It seems to me that what Maritain describes in his epistemology, and earlier in his discussion of the reliability of the data we receive from the senses, is consistent with the fact of creation. I can’t imagine why a Christian would object to this. God created us in such a way that we are able to live in this world. We are well suited to it, and our bodies are adapted for helping us to live “truly” in creation. This is one more indication of the fact that God loves us: He has not made us or the world in such a way that we cannot live in it.
Here are some helpful observations about the nature of philosophy as a human endeavor. The author is the great French Thomist Jacques Maritain:
Philosophy is not a “wisdom” of conduct or practical life that consists in acting well. It is a wisdom whose nature consists essentially in knowing.
How? Knowing in the fullest and strictest sense of the term, that is to say, with certainty, and in being able to state why a thing is what it is and cannot be otherwise, knowing by causes. The search for causes is indeed the chief business of philosophers, and the knowledge with which they are concerned is not a merely probable knowledge, such as orators impart by their speeches, but a knowledge which compels the assent of the intellect. …
Knowing by what medium, by what light? Knowing by reason, by what is called the natural light of the human intellect. … That is to say, the rule of philosophy, its criterion of truth, is the evidence of its object. …
Knowing what? … Philosophy … is concerned with everything, is a universal science. …
Conclusion I.-Philosophy is the science which by the natural light of reason studies the first causes or highest principles of all things – is, in other words, the science of things in their first causes, in so far as these belong to the natural order.
(Introduction to Philosophy, pp. 64-69 passim.)
Philosophy is limited in the certainty that it provides only to the extent that it deals with questions that are not strictly within its purview, or which have to do with cases for which only probable answers are possible – e.g., application of ethical standards to particular cases (ibid., p. 70).
I like this summary of things:
The source of all man’s life is to be found in God. Through His strength and all-pervading power He maintains man’s growth and development and, as his ultimate goal, He constitutes that happiness which man of necessity pursues. Creator and goal, starting point and divine inspirer: this points to total dependence and asks for total devotion in return. Such a relation of dependence and devotion is the fundamental relationship between God and man. Man must acknowledge and express it, live by it inwardly and testify to it outwardly; for in this relationship is embodied his total human essence. He must completely surrender himself to God, and detach himself from everything which could impede that yielding. [A Handbook of the Catholic Faith, p. 304]
Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. Luke 10:16, NABRE
I came across this passage again in my regular reading today and it motivated this blog post. The important things to notice here are (first) that the authority of the seventy[-two] to preach and to heal was explicitly given to them by Jesus. They do not act on their own volition or initiative; rather they act on the authority of Christ. And the second thing to notice is how Christ confirms the authority He gives them: to hear them is to hear Him; to reject them is to reject Him.
We have here another reason for firmly holding that the Lord Jesus Christ founded a visible Church. Why? Because apart from a visible Church to whom authority is given by Christ, it is impossible to know who (among the many who claim it) speaks with His authority and who does not. We would be left with a blind judgment call. But it is evident that this is not what Christ intends for His people, since He makes clear both the fact that these seventy[-two] are sent to represent Him, and the fact that He considers one’s reception of them the same as his reception of Jesus Himself. “He who hears you hears Me.” This is what He says.
Apostolic succession matters. The visible Church matters. Apart from these institutions we are simply not able to distinguish those who only claim to speak for Jesus from those who actually have His authority. The alternative to the visible Church and apostolic succession is chaos concerning the message of the Gospel. If Christ founded no visible Church or if (per impossibile) that Church vanished somehow, then we can have no assurance about the content of the Gospel. It is not enough to be able to appeal to the text of the Scriptures; anyone can do that, and the bare appeal to God’s Word does not imply that one has authority from God to speak on His behalf. That is why we need a visible Church whose authority is vouchsafed by being passed on from one generation to the next. That is why Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:20-26). If it was understood that apostolic authority was to die with the apostles then eventually there would have been fewer than twelve apostles anyway (and eventually none at all). Hence it would have been superfluous to have replaced Judas if his office was not intended to be perpetuated. Likewise, it cannot be that the number twelve was itself the critical thing since Jesus Himself appointed St. Paul as a thirteenth member of the college.
It remains then that it was not mere numbers which mattered but rather perpetuation of authority; and this is why Christ founded, and we need, a visible Church. Christ’s Church speaks for Him and so we must listen to her.
If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
Do I want to be a follower of Jesus? Absolutely! More than anything! But those words are easier to say (or write) than to let His words in Mark 8:34 come home. Okay, if I want to be a follower of Jesus, then here is what I have to do. There are two parts to it, and neither of them are easy.
I must renounce myself. Following Jesus means following Him. It does not mean wandering off in any old direction that I happen to like; it does not mean being stuck in the ruts of a life lived according to the patterns and habits of my whole life. It means leaving the dead to bury their dead and following him (Matthew 8:22). Following Jesus means that He sets the agenda, and that I go where He goes.
I must take up my cross. As if it’s not bad enough that I can’t go my own way, I must take up my cross. It is pretty obvious what Jesus is talking about if we only look at His life. After being tortured, He had to carry the Cross on which He was crucified—the Cross on which He died. So too for me: I must take up my cross and follow Him. I must take up the pain and suffering that I experience (both at my own hands and at the hands of others) and carry it to my death. There is no other way. We must not expect happy lives free of pain; as Jesus said, those who have such things have their reward. To the contrary, Jesus calls us to take up our sufferings and burdens (whatever they may be) and to follow Him.
This is a hard saying. Who wants to suffer, anyway? Isn’t it much more pleasant to avoid suffering at all costs? Wouldn’t it be better to avoid all the hassles and pains of carrying a cross? Sure the heck it would! But that is not the life to which Jesus calls us. More than that: as his disciples surely knew, one who is carrying a cross is carrying it to his death—to his execution. A cross wasn’t just a heavy load to drag behind yourself over hill and dale; it was a gallows of sorts. So Jesus wants me to take up my cross (whatever it may be and in whatever it may consist) and follow him outside the city…to die. Lord, grant me such love for You that I will not shirk the Cross, and that I may freely and gladly follow You to the cross.
It happened that he was standing by the lake of Genesareth, at a time when the multitude was pressing close about him to hear the word of God; and he saw two boats moored at the edge of the lake; the fishermen had gone ashore, and were washing their nets. And he went on board one of the boats, which belonged to Simon, and asked him to stand off a little from the land; and so, sitting down, he began to teach the multitudes from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, Stand out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch. Simon answered him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and caught nothing; but at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had done this, they took a great quantity of fish, so that the net was near breaking, and they must needs beckon to their partners who were in the other boat to come and help them. When these came, they filled both boats, so that they were ready to sink. At seeing this, Simon Peter fell down and caught Jesus by the knees; Leave me to myself, Lord, he said; I am a sinner. Such amazement had overcome both him and all his crew, at the catch of fish they had made; so it was, too, with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. But Jesus said to Simon, Do not be afraid; henceforth thou shalt be a fisher of men. So, when they had brought their boats to land, they left all and followed him. [Luke 5:1-11]
There is something here that is astonishing to me, and I am not talking about the incredible load of fish that St. Peter and Co. were given. It is St. Peter’s reaction, and the Lord’s response to him.
I think I understand St. Peter. A sign beyond his personal experience has just come up and landed in his boat with dozens (hundreds?) of fish tails flopping about. His reaction feels like mine might be: “I am not worthy; I am a sinner.” How else would one respond to such an astonishing thing? When he asks Jesus to leave, it isn’t with smugness at all but rather with a profound recognition of his unworthiness to be associated with or even near Him. This is totally comprehensible to me, the perfectionist who is far from perfect. Sometimes I can hardly stand to be with myself because of my imperfections; how on earth could I possibly bear the presence of the Holy One of God, which would be a constant reminder to me of my weakness, of my flaws, of my sins? Depart from me, Lord. I am a sinner!
But here is the thing.
Jesus knows all this about St. Peter, and He knows it all about me. He doesn’t tell St. Peter to stop ragging on himself as though Peter was wrong to consider himself unworthy or to acknowledge his sinfulness. He does not say otherwise to me. What He does say to Peter, and I think by extension to each of His children, is: Do not be afraid. He accepts Peter as he is, He loves Peter as he is, He has plans for this Peter who will over and over again say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, even deny that he knows Christ at all.
Does He say any less to any of us? To me? He does not, because He loved us enough to die for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8-12). He knows that I am wretched. He knows that I am imperfect; His response to me when I say “Depart from me, Lord; I am a sinner” is the same one that He gave to Peter: Do not be afraid. Lord, I am not worthy. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. Lord, I am afraid; give me courage.
In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:16-30) the Lord Jesus demolishes the expectations of those who (not without reason) called themselves God’s chosen people. Just as Elijah was sent not to a widow of Israel but to a Sidonian woman, and just as Elisha healed not an Israelite leper but Namaan the Syrian, so He too was coming to announce a gospel that would be for all people and not merely the Jews. The people of His hometown were so greatly offended by this message that they sought to kill Him.
The good news of salvation is not just for the Church, either. It is for all people everywhere. There have been times and places (maybe this is one of them? And is this one of those places?) where Catholics have sought to hide the light of the Gospel under a bushel basket. Ironically this same kind of problem exists in the secular world as well. We have come a long way from welcoming immigrants to this country, from opening our arms to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I suppose that if I had my way I probably wouldn’t be writing about this subject again so soon after having just done so. But given the readings there really was no other option. Immigration is a particularly controversial topic today, and if we are going to think rightly about it we have to slow down and think rather than simply react. People don’t leave their native homes in order to go migrate someplace else for the purposes of wrecking that new home. They just don’t. That would be silly. No, they are coming here because they are seeking a better life for themselves and for their children. This is the same proposition that brought the first colonists here. It is the same proposition that brought millions of the downtrodden from Europe here in the last couple centuries. It is the same proposition that brought my ancestors here from Germany and the Netherlands and the British Isles and France (among other places). And now that we are here, now that I am here, shall we say — shall I say — “Immigrants go home”? Really? Seriously? True, our ancestors were here first (unless you include the natives…and we really should include them), but that is an accident of history. We have no better claim to this place than did our forefathers, and today’s immigrants have the same dreams as they. It is pretty shameful, in my opinion, for Americans of all people to be talking about stemming the tide of immigrants. I say that as one who not so long ago wanted to stem the tide by having the government force the flow into particular legal channels. But those channels are not keeping up. The immigrants are fleeing here for a reason, and we need to help them. No, that doesn’t inevitably mean opening the government’s larders to them, but it does mean giving them the same opportunities that our forefathers had. We have done it before, and we surely must do it again.