The Conquest of Death

For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 
-1 Cor. 15: 21-22

God never undoes what He once does, nor unsays what He has once said. When man brought death upon himself through the sin of Adam, God’s plan of redemption was never to remove it, so that man would be immortal again. For man is such that he partakes in his own creation: God brings him into being, but he permits man, of his own free will, to have a hand in what he will finally become. Our first father could be said to have made sin and death a feature of humanity, and God would not revoke that.

Instead He showed His supreme majesty by transforming death into the means of life, and of a new and higher form of life. A truly masterful artist who finds a blot on his canvas won’t throw the canvas away and start over; he will incorporate the blot into his painting so that it seems to have been intended all along. God, who is the supreme artist, not only incorporates the blot that Adam made, but transformed it into the focal point of His masterpiece. Death is no longer only the supreme shame and punishment, but the path to glory and the new creation.  And this is done, not by a mere fiat of God’s, but through the obedience and humility of a Man; a Man who is God, but no less a Man for that, taking mankind itself into the eternal Godhead. He has not so much abolished death, but conquered it, subdued it, and forced it into His service.

Because Christ is risen from the dead, this fallen world of ours is no longer a dead end, but a pathway, which He has marked out, leading through death to our true home.

Authority in the Passion

The concept of authority has been on my mind quite a lot lately. There’s a whole lot to delve into there, especially since it’s a subject we moderns tend not to understand very well. We tend to think of it as either consented rule (which would make it synonymous with ‘counsel’ or ’employment’) or oppression. In fact, authority means the power to impose a moral obligation on someone to obey. A father, for instance, imposes bedtime by his authority; his child is obliged to obey whether he wants to or not. Likewise, if I own a book, and you try to take it, I can, by my authority as its owner, order you to return it and thereby impose a moral obligation on you to do so, whether you wish to or not. Even in our own, liberal society, a substantial part of the electorate explicitly does not ‘consent’ to rule by the President, yet (for now) we generally accept that they nevertheless have a moral obligation to follow his leadership and not try to set up their own, separate government.  

Now, with regards to the Passion of Our Lord, remember that Christ stands in place of mankind; in place of sinners. Therefore, it was necessary, as I understand it, for Him to be condemned by people who, humanly speaking, had the authority to so condemn Him. Had He been stoned, as St. Stephen, there would have been no ‘reparation’ on behalf of mankind; no connection between Christ’s sufferings and the guilt of humanity. Mob murder by those who do not have the right of judgement is only a crime, with no moral implications for those who are not involved. St. Paul was complicit with Stephen’s martyrdom since he was there, but Pilate wasn’t.

But Christ is suffering on behalf of and in place of all mankind. This great mystery requires that mankind as such should condemn Him, and thus it must be by those who have a right to speak for mankind. It must be by those who stand in authority over Him, and His execution must be by ‘legal’ means.

Who has authority? First of all, the high priest, whose duty it is to represent God to the people and the people to God. The Mosaic priesthood, centered around the Temple and descending from Aaron, was at the time the voice of God upon earth. It was the legitimate, true means of rendering Him worship and of speaking His word (corrupted and stagnant though it had become; Christ Himself reminded His hearers that the Pharisees “sit upon the throne of Moses” and so the people were to “do and observe all they tell you” (Matthew 23: 1-3). The authority remains, even in the hands of bad actors (as indeed is shown by the fact that the priesthood even remains after setting up idols in the Temple back in the days before the exile). Thus, Christ is first tried by Caiaphas and the elders, who condemn Him for blasphemy because He claims to be the Son of God and ‘makes Himself equal to God’ (keep that in mind). They have the right to condemn Him, though they obviously are not right to do so.

However, as Caiaphas says to Pilate, they don’t have the right to execute Him, under Roman law, and so they go from the Temple to the praetorium; the seat of the Roman governor. From ecclesiastical authority to secular authority. Note also that, while Caiaphas can condemn Christ as a blasphemer and cast Him out of the Temple, he cannot take His earthly life. That power rests in the secular, earthly authority of Caesar, represented by Pilate.

Here is something interesting (to me at least). Rome rules Judea, and indeed the whole world. But is that authority legitimate, given that they are an occupying foreign power? The answer to that comes when Pilate tries to evade the issue by sending Jesus to Herod: the subordinate ruler of Galilee and (as I understand it) the present claimant to the throne of David. Herod, however, declines his authority by sending Him back to Pilate, and Christ seems to deny it as well by refusing to speak with him (He does speak with Pilate, at least a little). There is no legitimate authority left in that throne.

The authority of Rome is then further confirmed in that most unfortunate outburst of the priests: “we have no king but Caesar.” In their zeal to kill Jesus, they deny God in favor of secular authority.

Thus it falls to Rome, the legitimate representative of Man on Earth, to condemn the Son of Man. Indeed, Christ Himself acknowledges that authority: “thou shouldst not have any power against me unless it were given thee from above” (John 19: 11). Which is to say, all legitimate authority, including the authority by which Pilate condemns Christ, comes from God. Were Pilate’s authority illegitimate (as was Herods and as was that of the crowd that sought to stone Him), he would have had no power over Jesus.

But then, another interesting point is that Pilate, of his own authority, doesn’t want to condemn Jesus. He is obliged to do so by the threat of the mob; the people. Note that Caiaphas had no such pressure, but rather orchestrated it. Secular authority is never as secure as it seems, and ultimately is always handcuffed by what the people will allow (call it consent of the governed if you like). It is, therefore, the people who condemn Jesus, using the legitimate government as their instrument.

Again, Christ is standing in place of mankind as a whole, taking on our sins and giving satisfaction for them. Therefore, He must be condemned by those who have the right of judgment.

And what is He condemned of? First blasphemy, by the priesthood, and then sedition, by the government. The same basic criminal idea breathed through two contexts. The condemnation is that Christ seeks to usurp or undermine legitimate authority.

Which is the very crime that Adam committed: “ye shall be as gods” (Genesis 3:5). Indeed, it is the basic crime behind all sin, seeking to set ourselves up as knowing better than God, as ruling in place of God, as denying and undermining His authority.

The condemnation was unjust because Christ, as the Son of God, is the one man in all the world who never has nor could commit that crime. He suffers and dies in place of those who do; namely us.

Some thoughts from ‘The Infidelity of the Future’

Today at lunch I refreshed my mind by reading St. John Henry Newman’s sermon The Infidelity of the Future. Some of his main points, with brief thoughts:

*The great evil of our time is the Spirit of Infidelity itself.
Has it never struck you as odd that we consider terms like ‘unorthodox’ or ‘unconventional’ to be complimentary, rather than, at best, merely descriptive? It seems to me that one of the basic assumptions of our age is that any established system is, for that very reason, a bad system that ought to be attacked (which, of course, is one reason why we often go to such lengths to pretend that old structures and standards are still the norm). We celebrate people simply for rebelling against established modes, even when those modes were objectively better than their rebellion, simply because we delight in disobedience (well, at least when it isn’t directed against ourselves). Such is the world in which we live.

*Christianity has never, before the present age, encountered a simply irreligious society.
For most of its history, Christian evangelism has been directed at converting people from belief in false gods to belief in the True One. It would be misleading to say that today it is about converting people from non-belief, since I don’t think there is any such thing. Rather, the peculiar feature of today’s superstitions and false religions is that they are mostly materialistic or at least atheistic: where the ancients said ‘fate’, they say ‘social influences’ or ‘genetic determinism’, and what the ancients attributed to the gods, the modern attributes to something like history or evolution. This means the first step is often convincing people that there is a God and that He is concerned about us; very few people today – in or out of the Church – really believe that.

*Evangelization does not primarily come through argument, but by the ecclesiastical spirit; by living the Gospel.
This isn’t to say that argument is irrelevant or that Catholics shouldn’t know their faith, but that the important part of calling others to Christ does not happen through argument, as if God were an intellectual proposition. Ultimately, He calls whom He wills and He works the conversions of hearts. Our part is to model and preach what we believe

St. Cardinal Newman, of course, puts all this a lot better than I do, so I encourage you to go and read his sermon. And whether you do or not, pray!

Sunday Thoughts

I sometimes wonder, as I’m learning the ins and outs of coding, how the individual programs and methods and the like would conceive of their existence. I can picture skeptical, hard-headed programs saying “all that’s really happening is that we take one set of 0s and 1s, compare it against another set of 0s and 1s, and readjust our own sets accordingly. Isn’t that so much simpler than positing some intelligent user who has some unimaginable purpose for us?”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, those 0s and 1s allow us to listen to this:

Of course, it is, at bottom, a series of logic gates programmed to act a certain way, just as even in person, it is, at bottom, a set of sound waves set on the air in a certain pattern.

Materialists of one stripe or another are fond of this ‘at bottom’ argument: “That nebula that you think is so beautiful and inspiring is really just a collection of atoms jostling together with no rhyme or reason,” or “what you call ‘love’ is nothing but biological processes.”

The question, though, is whether ‘at bottom’ is the same as ‘in the truest sense.’ And, as the example of the symphony indicates, there is a serious problem with that idea. The program that allows us to listen to Beethoven may be a set of simple logic gates ‘at bottom,’ but the only reason those gates are arranged as they are in the first place is for the sake of allowing us to listen to the symphony. That is, the symphony that we hear did not arise from those logic gates; they exist for the sake of the symphony.

It is the Aristotelian distinction of causes; the material cause (the logic gates) only exists because the Final Cause (the desire for the music) existed first. The material cause, in itself, is barren. In the same way, a series of electronic logic gates, if that is all you have and know, will get you nothing. They are only useful at all when you realize you can use them for a given purpose.

Thus, if you say “love is only biological processes”, it is at least as proper to say “those particular biological processes are really love; what love looks like on that level.” At best, they are equivalent. Because no one experiences simply biological processes, just as no one sees atoms; the experience of love or the nebula are the substance, the underlying mechanics the shadow.

And we’ll go one step further; we ourselves are in the same position as the programs; the things we do have significance beyond anything we can see or imagine. This is the idea of the Sacraments: seemingly simple material actions – words pronounced, bread consumed – but we trust on faith that they have meaning and effects that we couldn’t conceive of, any more than our sentient program could have imagined the symphony.

All created things, in fact, are like this; they flow into one another, not in the Eastern sense of being a single organism under different aspects, but in the sense that each, in its individuality, is part of something more than itself. I imagine that God enjoys the dance of the atoms for its own sake, but their interactions create the world of matter, which in turn creates the world of life, which leads to man, and the interactions of man create the family, then the nation, than the interplay of nations creates…well, who knows? Just as in a symphony each individual note and line may be beautiful in itself, but also goes to make up the whole, and just as in a good story every character and incident is properly placed to compose the whole, yet is no less itself for that, so God’s creation is a single, harmonious dance made up of things good in their individuality.

In other words, when speaking of things happening ‘at bottom’ it would be more accurate to say, not “this is only this” this but “this is also this.” It is part of the whole individual, glorious thing we call a symphony, or a program, or a nebula, or a man in love, which in turn is part of the whole, harmonious, glorious thing we call ‘Creation.’


Mass Meditations – Sacrifice and Coronation

Before going to Mass today, I brought up the Enthronement Ceremony for Japanese Emperor Naruhito, intending to watch it later, though I perused a few photos and brief footage from it.

In this frame of mind, I went to Mass and a number of thoughts went through my mind. I don’t know how much foundation or antiquity these ideas have; they are my own, though naturally informed by the writings of other men. Take them for what they are worth.

First is that the Mass is the participation in the Sacrifice of Christ. In all sacrificial rituals that I am aware of, and most notably the Jewish rituals, an essential part of the sacrifice is the eating of the victim. Thus, in consuming Christ’s Body and Blood, we are partaking in His Sacrifice, which is re-presented for us in the Mass (that is, Christ was sacrificed once and for all – God sacrificed to God – but by miracle that same event is mystically presented to us in the consecration of the bread and wine).

At the same time, it is also a coronation. Christ comes to rule over us, to take His rightful place as the Lord of our bodies and souls. His minister and representative bears Him in and presents Him to us for our veneration (traditionally, we bow to the Priest as the minister and bearer of Christ as he enters and leaves the sanctuary). Which, of course, is part and parcel with the Sacrifice. A sacrifice is an act of obeisance, a sign of submission to the authority of the Deity. Even more so in this case, the sacrifice offered and the Deity offered to are one, so that in partaking of the sacrifice, we also welcome our Lord in to rule over us.

Of course, just as a sacrifice is an act of submission to divine authority, so too is a coronation. The monarch is placed under the rule of the People even as he takes his place as ruler over them. He is ‘sacrificed’ in the act of taking authority, made into a type and figure of the people themselves. Which, of course, Christ also did in His Passion, becoming the new ‘type’ of humanity; Man sacrificed on behalf of Man to God, and God to God.

Here we’re touching on what I find to be a key theme in theological and philosophical matters; that as you approach the Divine, distinctions break down. Rather than reducing things into ever more precise and ever smaller taxonomic categories, apparently distinct things blend together into a common and irreducible whole. Sacrifice and Coronation are revealed to be, in fact, a single thing that we experience under different forms; namely, the submission of man to the Divine and the elevation of the individual to the archetype. The more you really look at God and Man, the more that apparently distinct things – male and female, individual and society, authority and obedience – blur and reveal themselves to be parts of a singular whole. This is what we should expect from Christian teaching, which holds the God is absolutely simple (in the sense that He has no ‘parts’; He is what He is), and that His act of creation is a singular, coherent act; not like how we build something where we say “I want it to do this, which requires this, but then I’d need that to compensate for the other…” For God, His action is absolute and simple; a singular, coherent whole of which we experience a little bit at a time. Thus, when we speak of His Wisdom, His Wrath, and His Mercy, we’re not describing distinct moods or acts of His, but rather how His singular nature strikes up against us in this particular moment.

We’re getting into very deep water there, which I’m not really qualified to navigate. To return to the Mass coronation and sacrifice, the core of it is, of course, the Consecration and distribution of the Eucharist, which is the actual participation in the sacrifice and ascension of the King. The ritual in the lead up to it is, like all such things, a matter of context. In a coronation, the pageantry and speeches, the ritual of it, is meant to place the king in context of his nation and people. A coronation must be done according to ritual, the repeated, traditional pattern born out of history, because a people are their history and their traditions (again, definitions turning to simplicity; a ‘nation’ cannot exist without history, religion, language, customs, and so on). The oaths, the speeches, the ministers are all a matter of context; recalling to the King and to the people what he is and what they are.

In the Mass, we begin with prayers confessing sins and begging pardon, then to proclamations of God’s absolute and singular sovereignty, then to the readings from Scripture, all meant to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Lord, recalling Who and What comes to rule over us, Who and What is sacrificed and Why. The Homily is meant to clarify the readings and other teachings. It is the human touch, the one thing which the priest himself contributes (for you can’t have a purely structured system; you need a man’s judgment and presence to ensure it works ‘on the ground’ as it were). This is followed by the Creed proclaiming the content of our faith, then petitions, then the consecration itself. Finally, just before the presentation and distribution of Our Lord Himself, the recital of the prayer that He Himself gave us. Then, after the distribution is the final blessing and (in the old form) the recital of the preamble of St. John’s Gospel, the most complete and concise summation of the Christian faith in Scripture. It is all a singular event directing to that union with Christ which is at once the participation in His Sacrifice, the reception of Him as King, and the being taken into His being.

You see, it is a singular event, but one that we can’t describe fully, so we have to ‘tack back and forth’ as it were, describing it now this way, now that. Pretty much all the things of God are like that; you can’t fully describe them in a single definition, you have to now emphasize one side of it, now the other, and always aware that you’re not getting the whole in. That is one of the signs that you’re really dealing with something of God. Real, natural things don’t fit into easy formulas; does the lover or the beloved command greater rule? But the more the lover loves, the greater the beloveds hold over him, and the more the beloved desires to be loved, the greater the lover’s hold over her. Is the individual or society supreme? But society can only exist through individuals, and is only as good as its constituent parts, yet the individual cannot survive or even come into being without a community and typically reaches his full realization only in the context of communal service. The greatest men are those who give of themselves in service.

The riddles of God are wiser than the formulas of men.