“There is a magnetism about Jesus Christ. Even those who deny his divinity—deny the thing that Christians claim makes him important and influential in the first place—seem to seek any reason to be able to recognize him as important or influential, stopping short of acknowledging his divinity. People seem reluctant to abandon him or throw him by the wayside. They try to downplay his importance, but they know he is important. So they must find some other reason to admire him. We’ve all heard it many times before: Jesus was just a great moral teacher, someone who told us all to be nice to each other, and we can all learn from his example of niceness.
There are many people around the world who profess no religious belief in Jesus. “He was a great moral teacher,” they say, or “We can follow his example of togetherness and acceptance of everyone.” But they strenuously deny that he was God—in other words, they deny that he was what he claimed to be.
The problem is, if you deny his divinity, you run into a pretty thorny problem. This is a man who clearly claimed divinity for himself (see Luke 22:69; John 10:30, 10:38, 14:7-10). This is a man who, when faced with torture and execution, doubled down and assured his inquisitors that yes, in fact, he is the Son of God (see. Luke 22:70). Is it possible to deny this claim and still admire the man? If he is not God, is it possible to still look up to someone who claims such a thing for himself?
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When it comes down to it, there are only three options: 1) he was who he said he was; 2) he was out of his mind; 3) he was knowingly lying. This argument has been made before, most famously by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, and has been called the trilemma. How are we to interpret Jesus’ claims to be divine, and what implications does that have?
Logically considered, there are a finite number of possibilities, all of which are mutually exclusive and one of which must be true. What Lewis’s trilemma does is work through the possibilities and make a case for which one makes the most sense to believe.
The trilemma is not really an airtight argument for the divinity of Jesus. It does not demonstrate the truth of this claim by appealing to any authority, or by logically and systematically laying out the reasons for believing Jesus was God. It is more like an argument in favor of believing the divinity of Jesus. Pascal’s Wager comes to mind: while not a proof for the existence of God, it is a demonstration of the reasonableness of such faith. Lewis’s trilemma is a sort of deductive demonstration: there are three options, two of which do not make sense, so the correct answer must be the third. The question is: is he Lord, lunatic, or liar?
While this is typically called the trilemma, some have presented a fourth option: legend. Here we consider the possibility that the Bible is not historically reliable, so we cannot know for sure that Jesus (if he really even existed) ever actually claimed to be God, so the accounts would be simply legendary. This option is usually not included in the conversation, as it sort of defeats the purpose and undermines the question. We could easily end any historical conversation by saying, “Perhaps the matter in question never happened.” Think about it: one could ask whether or not the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally justifiable and be shut down by someone saying, “It never happened, so the question is irrelevant.” This contributes nothing to the conversation. As for Jesus’ historical existence, the evidence is far too great to deny it. We must accept the fact that he claimed to be God and approach the question from there.
No one can lay out the argument as well as Lewis himself, so here is the pertinent excerpt from Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
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The argument was also put forward in a somewhat different context by St. Thomas Aquinas more than seven hundred years before Lewis. In Lectura super Ioannem, in the prologue to the commentary on the Gospel of John, Aquinas says John’s reason for writing his Gospel was that, “after the other Evangelists had written their Gospels, heresies had arisen concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was purely and simply a man, as Ebion and Cerinthus falsely taught. And so John the Evangelist, who had drawn the truth about the divinity of the Word from the very fountainhead of the divine breast, wrote this Gospel at the request of the faithful. And in it he gives us the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and refutes all heresies.”
So is the speaker a lunatic? Is he deranged, without a grip on reality? If that’s the case, no one should be taking lessons on ethics (or anything else, for that matter) from this person. Someone without a firm grasp of reality should not be looked up to for any kind of advice and could not be considered a great moral teacher.
So is the speaker a liar? And if so, does it matter? Can’t we still trust that his moral teachings are sound? Frankly, no. Someone who would intentionally lie about being God is not someone who should be trusted to give ethical advice and guidance. This person would be a narcissist in the most technical, clinical sense; a selfish, self-serving individual, lacking in compassion. Not exactly the resume of a great ethical teacher.
It would seem that third remaining option must be true: Jesus is Lord.”
“Why do Catholics today celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus? After all, we don’t have feast days dedicated to any other organs of Jesus’ body. There’s no “Solemnity of the Arm of Jesus,” for instance, to honor His baptisms and Healings. So why a feast day for His Heart?
Biblically, the heart is “our hidden center.” Scripture refers to the heart more than a thousand times, often, as the Catechism (CCC) notes, in the context of prayer (2562-63). The greatest commandment of the Law is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:30). In speaking of the Sacred Heart, then, we’re referring to the person of Jesus, to his humanity, and to his love for the Father and for us, what the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) calls his “infinite divine-human love for the Father and for his brothers.” In a special way, the image of the Sacred Heart captures the moment in which that love was poured out for us on the cross, when a soldier pierced the side of Christ, and blood and water flowed out (John 19:34).
As the CDW notes, we find devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout the Middle Ages, but it goes from being a personal devotion to a liturgical feast in no small part in response to the heresy of Jansenism. In the words of Pope Pius XI, “the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was instituted at a time when men were oppressed by the sad and gloomy severity of Jansenism, which had made their hearts grow cold, and shut them out from the love of God and the hope of salvation.”
So what was the Jansenist heresy, and how was the Sacred Heart an answer to it?
Although the heresy of Jansenism is sometimes unfairly oversimplified, there were three particular features of the heresy that (inadvertently) produced disastrous effects. The first was a double predestination: that God destined some for heaven and others for hell, irrespective of merits. As Leszek Kołakowski traces in his book God Owes Us Nothing, Jansenist theology argued that God gives some people the graces necessary for salvation and withholds them from others (pp. 31-35). The result of this idea would be that some people are going to hell, and there’s literally nothing they can do about it. They aren’t saved—not because they refuse God’s overtures, but simply because God doesn’t want to save them.
The second feature regarded imperfect contrition, sometimes known as attrition. In simple terms: If I turn away from my sin out of fear of hell (rather than out of love of God), is that good enough to be forgiven? The Catechism (1453) now clarifies: by itself, “imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins”; however, imperfect contrition is sufficient to receive absolution through the sacrament of Penance, since imperfect contrition can be perfected through the sacramental graces flowing from the confessional. But the Jansenists taught the opposite: that even for a valid sacramental confession, a penitent needed perfect contrition. Worse, Jansenist priests “routinely withheld absolution, in the belief that few penitents demonstrated sufficient precision and adequate contrition.”
Third, because so few people could count on perfect contrition, Jansenists warned against receiving Communion frequently, in a misguided attempt to avoid the scandal of unworthy reception.
What was the combined effect of these three teachings? That ordinary Catholics doubted God’s love for them; doubted whether they were (or could be) forgiven, even after going to confession; and stayed away from the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion out of fear, thereby depriving themselves of sacramental graces. The resulting vision of God was thereby distorted. As Pius XI would later recount, “God was not to be loved as a father but rather to be feared as an implacable judge.”
This is an important insight, because it gets to the heart of the matter. It’s not just that Jansenism got the details of predestination or contrition or sacramental reception wrong. It’s that Jansenism got God wrong, in a fundamental way that many of us still get him wrong today.
Perhaps it is only fitting, then, that it was God himself who set things straight. While multiple seventeenth- and eighteenth-century popes vainly tried to quash Jansenism, Jesus intervened in an unexpected way: through a series of apparitions to a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). In the last and most famous of these apparitions, Jesus showed her His Heart and said:
“Behold the heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for me in this sacrament of love.”
Theologically, this is the corrective Jansenism needed. Jesus did not deny any of what Jansenism was getting right: that sin offends God, that so many of us seem indifferent to God, that we can slip into ingratitude toward God with startling ease. But rather than express this in terms of divine wrath, Jesus presents it as a tragedy of unrequited love. That is, sinners act this way not because God denies them the graces to do otherwise, but because they fail to appreciate the depth and breadth of God’s love for them. Jesus saw the same problem that the Jansenists saw, but he answered it with open arms and an open heart.
A great difficulty in believing in God’s love and mercy is simply accepting that God is so radically other. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea that the uncreated and unchanging God of the universe has a personal love for us. And so Jesus reminds us that He has a human heart, and with it, the full range of human emotions. Yet He is fully divine as well as fully human. Thus, our devotion is not just to the heart, but to the Sacred Heart. Jesus has at once the full experience of human emotions and the perfect vision of divine foreknowledge.
Pius XI illustrates the implications of this divine-human union in a beautiful reflection on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the one hand, he points out that it was chiefly “because of our sins also which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen” that the soul of Christ became “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In other words, what weighed upon Christ was not principally the looming shadow of the Cross, but the weight of our sins.
But there is a happy corollary to this idea: that when we read that “there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him,” this should also be taken as Christ foreseeing our acts of reparation to the Sacred Heart, that “His Heart, oppressed with weariness and anguish, might find consolation.” And so, the pope concludes, “even now, in a wondrous yet true manner, we can and ought to console that most Sacred Heart which is continually wounded by the sins of thankless men.”
This is a wonderful and mind-bending insight. The promise of the Sacred Heart is that our actions today are wrapped up (through God’s perfect foreknowledge) with Christ’s experience in Gethsemane, that we are either adding one more burden to Him through our sins, or giving Him one more consolation through our acts of love and reparation. And so (in yet another encyclical on the Sacred Heart!) Pius XI encouraged that “the Feast of the Sacred Heart be for the whole Church one of holy rivalry of reparation and supplication,” in which we hasten in large numbers “to the foot of the altar to adore the Redeemer of the world, under the veils of the sacrament,” pouring our hearts out to His. What better way can we celebrate the triumph of Jesus’ love over the cold justice of Jansenism and our false conceptions of God?”
Within Thy Sacred Heart, dear Lord,
My anxious thoughts shall rest.
I neither ask for life, nor death;
Thou knowest what is best.
Say only Thou hast pardoned me,
Say only I am Thine,
In all things else dispose of me:
Thy Holy Will is mine.
And may Thy Sacred Heart, dear Lord,
E’er be my counsel sure,
Led in Thy Heart’s obedience
To make my own heart pure.
And when Thou shalt come claim my soul
Then may we never part,
For there shall be my only joy:
Within Thy Sacred Heart.
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Love, O Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place our trust in Thee!! (for generations, atraditional part of McCormick grace at evening meals),
“A major part of [Jordan} Peterson’s program has been introducing Jesus as the archetypal perfect man. In his provocative work At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the late Jesuit theologian Michael J. Buckley notes the abiding prestige of Jesus Christ as a moral authority during—and despite—the Enlightenment. Even secular thinkers turned to Jesus for guidance on how best to live. This comes as a surprise, since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were marked by an unprecedented rise in secularism in Europe.
“No one denied the moral genius of Jesus,” writes Buckley. “The Enlightenment agreed that Jesus was a Jewish ethical preacher still illuminating a world in which tradition and Church had distorted his beliefs and maxims.” There was one outlying group of “interpreters” of the New Testament who had gotten it right, however: the philosophers. The philosophers rejected his divinity, but many identified Christ nonetheless (in Thomas Paine’s words) as “a virtuous and amiable man.” Many, like Paine, compared him to Confucius in the East and the ancient Greeks in the West. To these, Jesus was a pre-eminent ethicist. But the Son of God he was not.
The secular great moral teacher narrative is alive and well today, too, thanks to figures like University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson has captured the minds of many Christians. His project, taken in totality, is not perfectly harmonious with the Catholic worldview. (For a nuanced Catholic analysis of Peterson, see the work of Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek.) But in teaching the Bible from a strictly psychological point of view, Peterson has succeeded in making the Bible credible again to many a skeptic—at least as an ancient mythological text brimming with wisdom.
A major part of Peterson’s program (deeply inspired by twentieth-century psychiatrist Carl Jung) has been introducing the New Testament Christ as the archetypal perfect man. Many recent converts to Christianity have credited Peterson as the major factor, and thus his objective analysis of the sacred texts has made him, unintentionally, an important pre-Christian thinker for our times.
Non-believing historian Tom Holland has offered a similar pre-Christian service to the culture. Holland, in his book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, defends Christian values with vigor and conviction while defending the contention that Jesus’ crucifixion was the pivotal event by which West came to realize that even the “lowest of the low”—even a convicted criminal, humiliated and crucified by the highest authorities—possesses nonetheless the utmost dignity. In his more recent collection, Revolutionary: Who Was Jesus? Why Does He Still Matter?, Holland zeroes in with interest (now as editor) on the founder of Christianity, compiling a variety of essays from atheist, agnostic, and religious authors.
But can Christ be no more than an archetype, or a great moral teacher—or even just the perfect man?
In the final analysis, no—Jesus was infinitely more than these. He was God—goodness itself, apart from which there is no gold standard by which to measure the great moral sage from the self-imposing dictator.
C.S. Lewis had some things to say about this, famously. Jesus, in plain and clear words and language, claimed to be God. He must be Lord, liar, or lunatic. And we do not usually call con artists or lunatics great moral sages, nor do we call them archetypes of the perfect man.
Thus, as Lewis claimed back in the mid-twentieth century:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Some have challenged that a fourth L should be added to Lewis’s trilemma. Could it all amount to a fanciful legend? This seems hardly a viable option. For as the pre-eminent New Testament historian N.T. Wright has written, “We have got almost as much good evidence for Jesus as for anyone in the ancient world.” Scholars like Wright, Brant Pitre, Craig Blomberg, Richard Burridge, and Richard Bauckham have shown that the Gospels are biographical and intended—with impressive reliability—to convey real facts of history according to eyewitness accounts.
That Peterson and other secular figures are advocating for Christ as a noble character is a good thing. It offers our post-Christian culture a pre-Christian service. But it is not enough. We need to be absolutely clear about this. They do not teach the gospel. For they deny (or at least do not affirm) Christ’s divinity. So, as Christians, we should be always ready to extract the good from the bad. Just as we do with ancient pre-Christian thought like that of Plato and Aristotle, we should labor to make the necessary distinctions and corrections in modern pre-Christian thought, and we should be abundantly clear with ourselves—and others—about both.
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, often referenced as the C.S. Lewis of our times, gets right to the heart of it all. He writes:
“The only honest reason why anyone should ever believe Christianity, or anything else [is]: because it is true. It may also be helpful, comforting, challenging, relevant, responsible, creative, or dozens of other things; but none of those is the first reason why an honest person believes Christianity.”
Reframing this passage about belief in Christ demands no less: that we believe first because his claims about being co-equal with God are true. Jesus Christ is the everlasting God, and any spiritual system built upon a lesser Christ is barren. There are only two logical options: either take him at his word or dismiss him as a fraud. A lukewarm or falsely irenic Christology might as well be an atheistic Christology, and . . . well, in that case, it might as well just be a Christless atheism. For Christ—and there is no way around it—declared with unapologetic clarity and conviction that he was above even the Law (Matt. 5:17-48). He was clear about how he saw himself. These are not the claims of a great moral teacher. So it seems that the only real choices are God or nothing.
“”Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
If you have ever moved in Evangelical Protestant circles, you’ve probably been asked this question. A fundamental presupposition of Evangelical theology is that each person is called to a “personal relationship” with Jesus, and it is this relationship that brings us salvation.
Driving this “personal relationship” theology is usually evangelization. Most Christians seem to believe that making Jesus more directly accessible makes him more likely to be followed. If we can present Jesus as relatable, the thinking goes, it’s more likely someone will have a relationship with Him.
In recent decades, “personal relationship” theology has crept subtly into Catholic circles. It can be found especially in Catholic youth ministries as well as apostolates directed toward college students. In Catholic circles, this “personal relationship” theology is augmented with the understanding that a relationship with Jesus comes primarily through the reception of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and penance.
What’s often not made explicit—and perhaps often not even realized by those who promote it—is that “personal relationship” theology portrays Jesus primarily as a friend. After all, one doesn’t usually have a personal relationship with a king or a ruler, or even with a teacher. We most commonly have personal relationships with equals.
But this image of Jesus as a friend is not based in Scripture nor does it follow time-tested methods of evangelization. In the Bible, Jesus is called “friend” once: in Matthew 11:19, Christ notes that people say he’s a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
In John 15:14, Christ tells the apostles, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” and says they are no longer servants but “friends.” And in Luke 12:4, he refers to the disciples as “my friends.” However, other than these few references, nowhere else is Jesus presented as a friend.
Note that the Gospels do not shy away from giving Jesus titles and names. In Matthew’s Gospel alone he is referred to as “carpenter’s son,” “King of the Jews,” “Lord of the Sabbath,” “Physician,” “Son of David,” and “Son of God,” among a host of other designations. Most of His titles are prophetic or kingly, and “friend” is notably absent.
St. Paul does not present Jesus as a “friend” either. Then how does Paul portray Jesus? The answer provides a model for our own evangelization efforts today.
Let’s look at three Pauline passages: Colossians 1:12-20, Philippians 2:6-11, and Ephesians 1:3-10. All three are canticles and are the only three Pauline canticles included in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours (during evening prayer).
Colossians 1:12-20 (Wednesday, Evening Prayer)
Let us give thanks to the Father,
Who has qualified us to share
in the inheritance of the saints in light.
He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,
in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God,
the first-born of all creation;
for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities
—all things were created through Him.
All things were created for Him.
He is before all else, and in Him everything has its being.
He is the head of the body, the church;
He is the beginning,
the first-born from the dead,
that in everything He might be pre-eminent.
For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
making peace by the blood of His cross.
In this canticle, Christ is given several titles, including “firstborn of all creation,” “the beginning,” and “head of the body, the Church.” Each of these titles presents an exalted view of Christ as someone who is above creation and, in fact, in charge of creation. But it’s the title in verse 15 that is key: Christ is “the image [icon] of the invisible God.” In other words, when we see Christ, we see the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God himself. In theological terms, this is “high Christology,” meaning it views Christ above humanity and above all creation. Paul follows this up in verse 19 when he writes, “In him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The Greek word for “fullness” [pleroma/πλήρωμα] signifies a completeness or perfection. In Christ we have the one, true God made flesh.
Philippians 2:6-11 (Sunday, Evening Prayer I)
Though He was in the form of God,
Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied Himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form
He humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted Him
and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In this famous and beloved canticle, we begin with Christ “in the form of God,” that is, equal to God, as we saw in the passage from Colossians. But then there is movement: Christ is equal to God but he gives up that equality (“he emptied himself”), becoming man and even suffering the disgraceful death of the cross. Through this death, however, Christ is exalted and declared “Lord.” At His name “every knee should bow” both in heaven and on Earth. Again, we have a “high Christology.” Paul doesn’t see Christ as an equal, or someone who is simply a friend. He sees—and preaches—a Christ who is above all things. We don’t simply have a “personal relationship” with Him—we bend our knees to worship Him.
Ephesians 1:3-10 (Monday, Evening Prayer)
Blessed be the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,
that we should be holy
and blameless before Him.
He destined us in love
to be His sons through Jesus Christ,
according to the purpose of His will,
to the praise of His glorious grace
which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
In Him we have redemption through His blood,
the forgiveness of our trespasses,
according to the riches of His grace
which He lavished upon us.
For He has made known to us
in all wisdom and insight
the mystery of His will,
according to His purpose
which He set forth in Christ
as a plan for the fullness of time,
to unite all things in Him,
things in heaven and things on earth.
In this final Pauline canticle for examination, we see Paul’s vision of the work Christ has accomplished in the world. He has brought redemption and the forgiveness of our trespasses (v. 7). But most importantly, in Christ, all things in heaven and earth are united to him in the fullness of time (v. 10). Christ is presented as a cosmic figure who brings about the reconciliation of the fallen universe. Everything became disordered through the actions of Adam and Eve, but now everything is reordered to Christ as head.
The type of language Paul uses for Christ is, unfortunately, foreign to our ears. We’ve grown up thinking of Christ in the words of the Doobie Brothers song, “Jesus is just alright with me.” We live in a casual age that, at least on the surface, prizes egalitarianism. We don’t have kings or rulers; we’re all to be considered equals. So we’ve lowered Jesus to our level to make him more palatable and acceptable to those around us. Paul saw Christ as the Image of the almighty God who became man, died for us, and in doing so restored and saved the whole universe. We, on the other hand, picture Jesus—and present him—as a good buddy we can count on in times of trouble.
Has this new presentation of Jesus been effective as a means of evangelization? It seems that it has not, as our era has seen a precipitous drop in the number of practicing Catholics. A Jesus equal to us is simply not worthy to be worshipped or followed.
People today are looking for more than a good buddy. They want someone to look up to and to follow. As a culture, we’ve insisted on cutting down our heroes and leaders, but this has left a void in our hearts, because we were made to serve a king. If we begin to preach Christ as King and Lord of the universe, many may decide to follow Him. Not simply as their friend, but as their God.”
“It may just be a guy thing, but young boys love to tell stories of their scars. It’s always humorous when I’m at the middle school and I just ask, “Hey, where’d you get that scar on your forehead?” and then the kid launches into an excited description of that time he was having a rock fight with his friend, and then he proceeds to show me three other scars and tell me their stories too.
Scars have stories. Even Shakespeare recognized this when he writes in his play Henry V about the warriors that fought with King Henry at the Battle of Crispin’s Day. He writes: “He that lives through this day and comes home safe, will stand when Crispin’s Day is named and will strip his sleeve and show his scars and say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day!’” For these men who fought with the king, their wounds would be their badge of honor, a testament to their courage. And Shakespeare goes on to say that any man who, out of cowardice, stayed home on Crispin’s Day would “hold their manhoods cheap” when in the presence of those brave warriors who bear the scars of the battle.
Jesus, then, to show His courage, His victory, shows His disciples His scars. Have you ever thought how odd that is? I mean, if you’re going to resurrect into a perfect Body, why not get rid of those scars in the hands and feet? Why not look perfect?
Very simple – the scars are a visible reminder of what He endured for them. When they see the scars, they see the price of repentance – but also the Victory of Christ.
As an ancient homily from the second century says, “We had left a garden; Christ returned to a garden to be betrayed and a garden to be buried. See on His face the spittle He received in order to restore to us the life He once breathed into us. See there the marks of the blows He received in order to refashion our warped nature in His image. On His back see the marks of the scourging He endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon our back. See His hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for we once wickedly stretched out our hands to a tree” in the Garden of Eden.
And consider the words of St. Theodore the Studite: “The Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in His hands, feet, and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature.”
His wounds undo our wounds. His scars wipe away our scars. All of us have wounds and scars – we can’t get through life unscathed. Sometimes those scars are caused by other people: maybe we’ve been abused, treated poorly, bullied, hated, rejected. Maybe people we love have died. Maybe we’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, illness, fear. Maybe the scars came because we made bad choices: the guilt of our sin, the addictions we’ve developed, the broken relationships that we just can’t heal. All of us have wounds; all of us have scars. It would be impossible for any human being not to suffer or be wounded.
But wounds can either be healed or kill us. Wounds that are brought to Christ, the Divine Doctor, can be healed. Wounds that we hide, that we don’t treat, will fester and cause misery and unhappiness – and eventually the spiritual death of hatred.
We bring our wounds to Christ through prayer and Confession. Pray about it – “Lord, what are You teaching me through my suffering? How can You use it to make me more like You? What are You calling me to let go of? How can I trust You more?” This is bringing our wounds to Christ. Then, if the wound involves our own sin, we can bring it to the Lord in Confession. Sin is the biggest wound because it wounds our relationship with God – thus, Jesus’ first gift here in today’s Gospel is that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” comes through our faith in Him.
Life is tough, and sometimes we suffer. We suffer because of other people’s choices, we suffer because of our own bad choices and our sins, and sometimes we just suffer because we’re human. But when we get wounded, we can bring those wounds to Christ. He can forgive our sins. He can heal our wounds and make them, like His, signs of victory and triumph.”
“Scripture gives us many passages that call us to reflect on the role of the supernatural in our lives of faith. St. Paul encourages us to be open to the supernatural when he reminds us, “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything, holding fast to what is good” (Thess. 5:19-21).
Although Christ worked many miracles of healing, He did not encourage the search for miracles: “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given them except the sign of Jonah” (Matt. 16:4). Christ hints in a parable about Lazarus that even otherworldly revelations will not persuade the world: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 17:31). When the resurrected Christ addresses Thomas, He seems to be addressing us if we seek signs and wonders in our own day: “Have you come to believe because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).
Despite asking us not to rest our faith entirely on miracles and to not get swept up in pursuing them, Jesus used miracles to draw people to him and encourage their faith. Even in our modern world, for many people, miracles are a connection to the supernatural that might inspire or enliven their belief and participation.
From the beginning of Scripture, God reveals Himself to humanity in major moments, from interactions with Adam in the creation account to Noah at the time of the Great Flood, to Moses, upon whom he bestows the Ten Commandments. There are at least 120 instances of revelation (dreams and visions) mentioned in the Old Testament.vi
Perhaps the Bible’s most famous dreamer was Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, who shared his revelations with his family, which resulted in his brothers plotting his death (Gen. 37:1-11). In one dream, the brothers of Joseph gathered bundles of grain that bowed to his own bundle. In another, the sun (his father), the moon (his mother), and eleven stars (his brothers) bowed down to Joseph himself.
Revelations continue in the New Testament. At the baptism of Christ, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). At the Transfiguration where Jesus is transformed on the mountaintop and becomes radiant, the prophets Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). A voice from the sky again calls Him “Son.”
The most famous apparitions in Scripture are the numerous times Christ appeared to the apostles (1 Cor. 15:5) and other times to various disciples, including on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In the early Church, the deacon Stephen saw a vision of the heavens open and Christ at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7:55-56). The “visions and revelations” from the Lord (Cor. 12:1-6) are the impetus for the conversion of Saul (Gal. 1:11-16), setting him on the path to become Paul, the greatest missionary in Christian history. The final book of the New Testament, Revelation, relates the visions of St. John.
The revelations of the Bible received by prophets and apostles showcase a supernatural connection between the Church and the divine. Throughout Christian history, there have been stories of visions and divine messages, the most common being those attributed to the Virgin Mary. Some Protestants, skeptical of the power and significance that Catholicism affords her, may doubt these reports, but the scriptural basis for Mary’s role in her Son’s saving work cannot be ignored:
Through her God the Father sent Christ to us physically.
Elizabeth received the grace of God through the mouth of Mary (Luke 1:44).
Jesus’ first miracle—the wedding feast at Cana—and the beginning of his public ministry came at her request (John 2:4).
From the cross, Jesus entrusted her to the care of St. John and symbolically to the care of all believers (John 19:26-27).
Although Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5-6), St. Paul has no problem asking the rest of us (including Mary) to be subordinate mediators as he asks us to pray for each other (Rom. 1:9, 1 Thess. 5:25, 1 Tim. 2:1). When we embrace the messages of Church-approved revelations of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and reflect on the scriptural accounts of God’s tangible intrusions in the human experience, we appreciate more deeply God’s fatherly care for us and better understand His plan for salvation and our participation in it.”
Love, Lord, Holy Mary, all ye holy men and women, be near to me,
“Some people think of Jesus as a remarkable man but basically in the same category as Buddha, Moses, Confucius, and Gandhi: a good man, a holy man, but just a man.
This view, however, is hard to reconcile with what Jesus says and does. Jesus claims to be Lord over the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). Jesus forgives sins committed against God (Mark 2:5-12). Jesus says He is the one Who gives eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus says no one can convict Him of sin (John 8:46). Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter (Matt. 16:13-19). As Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli point out, “For a Jew, changing names was something only God could do, for your name was not just a human, arbitrary label but your real identity, which was given to you by God alone. In the Old Testament, only God changed names, and destinies—Abram became Abraham, Sari became Sarah, Jacob became Israel.”iii Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
And when His life was threatened and His enemies surrounded Him, Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” In attributing the sacred name of God, “I AM,” to Himself, Jesus was making Himself equal to God. His enemies understood this as blasphemy: “So they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.” (John 8:57-59). Given the claims that Jesus makes about Himself, is it reasonable to believe that Jesus was simply a holy man and wise teacher?
In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis answers no. In fact, he says this is the one thing we can’t say about Jesus. “A man who was merely a man,” Lewis writes, “and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice.” Lewis outlines three possibilities. Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. He could not have been simply a good person, a saintly sage.
Was Jesus a liar?
One possibility is that Jesus knew He was not God but said He was; in other words, He deliberately lied. But it is hard to believe that a man hailed throughout the centuries as a paragon of goodness could have spent His life intentionally misleading and deceiving His disciples in this way. If Jesus knew He was not God but claimed to be God nevertheless, He wasn’t a good person—He was the worst religious charlatan of all time. If Jesus lied to His disciples about being God, then He misled to their violent deaths those who trusted Him most. He also led billions of people into the sin of idolatry. No, if He deliberately deceived others about His identity, Jesus was not a holy man, but a deeply narcissistic and malicious person.
This is not how most people perceive the Jesus of the Gospels. His life was so radically unlike other religious hucksters who claim to be God (or a prophet of God). Con artists claim to be God in order to amass wealth and a harem of young women to be their brides. But the character of Jesus is radically unlike that of a con man. He amassed no wealth and did not have even one wife, let alone a harem. Jesus did not seek power—“My kingdom is not of this world,” He said (John 18:36)—but rather laid down His life as a suffering servant. Jesus did not act like a lying con artist.
Was Jesus a lunatic?
If Jesus was not a liar, was He perhaps just mistaken about His identity? Maybe He wasn’t a liar because although He was not God He really thought He was God. In other words, Jesus was massively mistaken, but not a deliberate deceiver.
If Jesus was not divine but honestly and mistakenly thought He was, then Jesus was not a wise person. He was, therefore, very unlike Confucius, or Moses, or a sage. Kreeft and Tacelli note, “There are lunatics in asylums who sincerely believe they are God. The ‘divinity complex’ is a recognized form of pathology. Its character traits are well known: egoism, narcissism, inflexibility, dullness, predictability and an inability to understand and love others as they really are and creatively relate to others.” But Jesus is radically unlike a lunatic babbling in an insane asylum. His moral teachings stressed the importance of loving your neighbor, forgiving your enemies, and caring for those in need.
Moreover, the way Jesus responds to the traps set for Him indicates not a raving madman totally disconnected from reality but someone with practical wisdom. Consider, for example, when His enemies bring to him a woman caught in adultery. They set a brilliant trap: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” If Jesus says she should not be stoned, then He is acting against the laws of the community and against the authority of Moses. His enemies could then accuse Him of heresy and rebellion. If Jesus says that she should be stoned, then He is acting against His own teaching to show mercy to others. His enemies can then accuse Him of self-contradiction. Whatever He says, His enemies think they have Him trapped.
Jesus replies, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In saying this, Jesus avoids acting against the Law of Moses, avoids contradicting Himself, and convicts those who want to stone her of their own sin. In the wisdom of His teaching and in the prudence of His actions, Jesus shows He is no madman.
Now, if Jesus was not a liar (because that would make him evil), and Jesus was also not a lunatic (because everything He says and does in the Gospel suggests otherwise), this only leaves the option that Jesus was Who He claimed to be: one with the Father; the Way, the Truth and the Life; and the Son of God.”
Do environmental conditions contradict what the Gospels claim?
CHALLENGE: Christians are wrong to celebrate Christmas on December 25. Jesus couldn’t have been born then. It would have been too cold for the shepherds to keep their flocks outdoors (Luke 2:8).
DEFENSE: There are several problems with this challenge.
First, the Catholic Church celebrates Jesus’ birth on December 25, but this is a matter of custom rather than doctrine. It is not Church teaching that this is when Jesus was born (note that the matter isn’t even mentioned in the Catechism).
Second, although most Christians today celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, this was not the only date proposed. Around A.D. 194, Clement of Alexandria stated Christ was born November 18. Other early proposals included January 10, April 19 or 20, and May 20 (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §488, §553). By far the most common proposals, however, were January 6 (ibid., §§554-61) and December 25 (ibid., §§562-68).
While the last was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church for use in its liturgy, the fact that the Church did not declare alternate proposals heretical shows the matter was not considered essential to the Faith.
Third, the proposals that put Jesus’ birth in the colder part of the year (November 18, December 25, January 6, and January 10) are not ruled out by the fact that there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night.
Ancient Jews did not have large indoor spaces for housing sheep. Flocks were kept outdoors during winter in Judaea, as they are elsewhere in the world today, including in places where snow is common (search for “winter sheep care” on the Internet). Sheep are adapted to life outdoors. That’s why they have wool, which keeps body heat in and moisture out.
Sheep are kept outdoors in winter in Israel today: “William Hendricksen quotes a letter dated Jan. 16, 1967, received from the New Testament scholar Harry Mulder, then teaching in Beirut, in which the latter tells of being in Shepherd Field at Bethlehem on the just-passed Christmas Eve, and says: ‘Right near us a few flocks of sheep were nestled. Even the lambs were not lacking. . . . It is therefore definitely not impossible that the Lord Jesus was born in December’” (ibid., §569).
The Prophecy of Immanuel
Could the Gospel writer have misunderstood the Old Testament prophecy?
CHALLENGE: Matthew misunderstands Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). It doesn’t point to Jesus.
DEFENSE: Matthew understands the prophecy better than you think.
The biblical authors recognized Scripture as operating on multiple levels. For example, Matthew interprets the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of the prophetic statement, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In its original context, it is obvious the “son” of God being discussed is Israel: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).
Matthew understood this. He had read the first half of the verse and knew that, on the primary, literal level, the statement applied to the nation of Israel. But he recognized that on another level it applied to Christ as the divine Son who recapitulates and fulfills the aspirations of Israel.
In the same way, it is obvious in Isaiah that on the primary, literal level the prophecy of Immanuel applied to the time of King Ahaz (732-716 B.C.). At this point, Syria had forged a military alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel that threatened to conquer Jerusalem (Isa. 7:1-2). God sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz the alliance would not succeed (Isa. 7:3-9) and told him to name a sign that God would give him as proof (Isa. 7:10-11).
Ahaz balked and refused to name a sign (Isa. 7:12), so God declared one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:14-16).
For this sign to be meaningful to Ahaz, it would have to be fulfilled in his own day—indeed, very quickly. It therefore points, on the primary, literal level, to a child conceived at that time (perhaps Ahaz’s son, the future King Hezekiah).
This was as obvious to Matthew as it is to us, but—like the other New Testament authors—he recognized the biblical text as having multiple dimensions, so the prophecy was not only fulfilled in Ahaz’s day but also pointed to Christ as “Immanuel” (Hebrew, “God with us”).
Is Christmas Pagan?
From Saturnalia to Sol Invictus, there is no shortage of theories
CHALLENGE: Christmas is based on a pagan holiday.
DEFENSE: There are multiple responses to this challenge.
First, which pagan holiday are we talking about? Sometimes Saturnalia—a Roman festival honoring the god Saturn—is proposed. But Saturnalia was held on December 17 (and later extended through December 23). It wasn’t December 25.
Another proposal is Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Latin, “The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”), but the evidence this was the basis of the dating of Christmas is problematic. The Christian Chronography of A.D. 354 records the “Birthday of the Unconquerable” was celebrated on that date in 354 AD, but the identity of “the Unconquerable” is unclear. Since it’s a Christian document that elsewhere (twice) lists Jesus’ birthday as December 25, it could be the Unconquerable Christ—not the sun—whose birth was celebrated.
Second, correlation is not causation. Even if Christmas and Sol Invictus were both on December 25, Christmas might have been the basis of Sol Invictus, or the reverse, or it might just be a coincidence. If you want to claim the date of Sol Invictus is the basis for the date of Christmas, you need evidence.
Third, that evidence is hard to come by. Even if the Chronology of A.D. 354 refers to Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25, this is the first reference to the fact, and we know some Christians held that Jesus was born on that date long before 354 AD.
For example, St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 240) stated in his commentary on Daniel that Jesus was born on December 25, and he wrote around a century and a half before 354 (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §562). Further, Sol Invictus wasn’t even an official Roman cult until 274 AD, when the Emperor Aurelian made it one.
Fourth, if Christians were subverting Sol Invictus, we should find the Church Fathers saying, “Let’s subvert Sol Invictus by celebrating Christmas instead.” But we don’t. The Fathers who celebrate December 25 sincerely think that’s when Jesus was born (ibid., §§562-567).
Finally, even if Christmas was timed to subvert a pagan holiday, so what? Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and celebrating the birth of Christ is a good thing. So is subverting paganism. If the early Christians were doing both, big deal!”
“The New Testament is replete with direct and indirect claims of Christ’s divinity. Perhaps the most famous is the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word of with God and the word was God” (John 1:1-3). Jesus is the word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is God.
Nevertheless, people have struggled to find places where Jesus himself claims to be divine. If you’re looking for a passage in Scripture where Jesus says, “Hey, everyone, I’m God!” you’re not going to find it.
Jesus does make such a claim several times, but it isn’t easy for us to see today, because we are not familiar with the first-century Jewish context he draws upon, and since these claims are somewhat veiled to our eyes, people can reinterpret Jesus’ words to explain away his divine self-reference. While such words can be explained away, his audience’s reaction to Jesus’ words isn’t so easy to dismiss.
Unless your view of the ancient world comes from Monty Python, people didn’t carry stones in their pockets just itching to stone someone. The charge of blasphemy was serious, and stoning was against Roman law. Therefore, the reaction of Jesus’ original hearers provides a solid indicator as to whether he claimed to be divine.
The high priest’s response
One example that I take up in my book concerns the reaction of the Jewish high priest to Jesus’ response during his trial before the Sanhedrin. The text reads:
The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But he [Jesus] was silent and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him and said to him, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?”’Then Jesus answered, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”At that the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as deserving to die (Mark 14:60-64; see also Matthew 26:61-66).
At first glance, it appears that the high priest is overreacting. Where did Jesus blaspheme? Some suggest that Jesus claimed the divine name for himself when he replied, “I am” (see Exodus 3:14). Saying the divine name aloud in the first century would have been a serious offense, but we know this is not the case from the parallel passage in Matthew, where “I am” is given as “you have said so” (Matt. 26:64).
Another possibility is that Jesus’ affirmation to being the Messiah was itself blasphemous. This option is even less likely since most Jews believed that the Messiah would be a mere mortal. Claiming to be the Messiah, therefore, would not constitute a claim to be God.
Why then did the high priest tear his robes in horror at Jesus’ words? Clearly, Jesus claimed something about himself that those present thought warranted immediate execution. But what? The answer may be found in Jesus’ use of the seventh chapter in the book of Daniel where the prophet receives a night vision and recalls:
As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened (Daniel 7:9-10).
Note that more than one throne was set up. One was for the “ancient of days,” namely, God, to sit upon, but what about the other? Keep this in mind as we continue with verse 13:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
In this passage, “one like a son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” and presents himself before God (the Ancient of Days) and receives universal and everlasting dominion over the whole Earth.
Who sits on the other throne?
These two passages together cause a certain amount of exegetical tension. If God is one, why set up more than one throne? Who sits on the other throne? Indeed, how can any creature be worthy to be enthroned next to God?
Babylonian Talmud illustrates this tension by recording a dispute between two rabbis who lived in the first decades of the second century:
“One verse of Scripture states, ‘His throne was fiery flames (Dan. 7:9), but elsewhere it is written, ‘Till thrones were places, and one that was ancient of days did sit’ (Dan. 7:9)! . . . “One is for him, the other for David,” the words of R. Aqiba. Said to him R. Yosé the Galilean, “Aqiba, how long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God? “Rather, one is for bestowing judgment, the other for bestowing righteousness” (Hagigah 2:1a-e).
Rabbi Aqiba understood this passage to refer to two thrones: one throne for God and the other for the Messiah, the son of David. Notice Rabbi Yose the Galilean’s response to Aqiba’s interpretation “How long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God?” However great the Messiah would be, according to Rabbi Yose’s perspective, being seated on a throne would be a profanation of the Divine Presence. Instead, he suggested, the two thrones should be understood as symbols for God’s judgment and the bestowing of righteousness.
Later in the passage, Aqiba eventually adopts this view. Others proposed that one throne was for God to be seated and the other was his footstool (Isaiah 66:1). In any case, the two thrones were for God alone. Another individual, even the Messiah, could not take the other throne without detracting from the glory of the one true God, since to be enthroned was to possess the authority to exercise dominion. It’s interesting that later rabbis did interpret Daniel 7 to be messianic, but they omit any mention of the thrones.
Jesus as “the son of man”
The prophet Daniel never tells us who sits on the other throne, but he does tells us that the “one like the son of man” presents himself before God (the Ancient of Days) and he receives an everlasting and universal dominion. Does this mean that the “son of man” is seated on the other throne? Daniel doesn’t say, but Jesus’ reply to the high priest does affirm this question: “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
The “son of man” does sit on the throne at the right hand of the Power (God) and comes with the clouds of heaven—and Jesus is that Son of Man who receives universal and everlasting dominion! No wonder the high priest tore his robes in horror. Jesus made himself equal to God.
To us who may not be familiar with the prophecies of Daniel, Jesus’ words seem to pertain only to his Second Coming without any reference to his divinity. The high priest’s reaction forces us to look deeper into the passage to find some warrant for his actions. In this case, the high priest is a hostile witness to the proper meaning of this passage.”
“Melius enim iudicavit de malis benefacere, quam mala nulla esse permittere.” “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” –St Augustine
“O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem.” “O truly blessed night! This is the night in which, destroying the chains of death, Christ arose victorious from the grave. For it profited us not to be born if it had not profited us to be redeemed…” “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer!” -“Exsultet” from the Easter Vigil
-by Father John Dowling, who is the pastor of St. Augustine Parish, Signal Mountain, TN. Father Dowling had been the pastor of Holy Ghost in Knoxville since 2014. His term at Holy Ghost was his second at the North Knoxville parish, having served there as associate pastor from 1987 to 1996 and as parochial administrator for the next year following the death of longtime pastor Father Albert Henkel. Father Dowling then became pastor of St. John Neumann in Farragut and was leading the parish when it constructed a large Romanesque church from 2006 to 2008. In February 2010, Father Dowling became pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade before his return to Holy Ghost.
A native of Savannah, Ga., Father Dowling also has a brother, Father Kevin Dowling, who is a priest in the Diocese of Nashville. Father John Dowling is a graduate of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga who went on to work for five years in the marketing and sales department of the Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Co. before entering seminary. He has written a number of booklets that include “Why Confess Your Sins to a Priest?” published by Liguori Publications in 1994. In 2005, the Fathers Dowling and Father Vann Johnston, now bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., received national honors for saving a father and two of his children from plunging over a waterfall while the three priests were on a hiking vacation in Montana.
“A doctor and canonized saint in the Catholic Church, Teresa of Avila, was making a perilous journey with other nuns and a priest to start a convent. Heavy rains turned into snow and sleet, the rivers were swollen, and the roads flooded. As they were going over a stream, the carriage swerved and stopped as it hung over the torrent. Afterwards, so the story goes, Teresa complained to the Lord about the perils that had been endured. He answered, “But that is how I treat my friends!” She replied, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
A crusty cousin of mine who had experienced a lifetime of hardships was told by her more pious sister, “Well, you know that God only gives sufferings to those whom he loves.” The curt reply: “Well, I sure do wish he’d lose his crush on me!”
From the educated and saintly to the more down-to-earth Christian, the problem of suffering beckons each person to penetrate its mysteriousness and discover its meaning. In fact, suffering seems to invite exploration of our own transcendence. John Paul II notes that “It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.”
Frustration, failure, rejection, physical pain, suffering, and death are common human experiences. Although we encounter much of this early in life, deeper questions about the human situation are often postponed until later years when plans, goals, expectations, and relationships are characterized by a greater intensity. We begin to ponder why some people experience more than their fair share of suffering. But since our experience of others’ misfortune is not first hand, we continue to go about our daily activities without fully probing the significance of physical and moral evil. It is inevitable, however, that some event immediately affecting us will become the occasion for deeper reflection regarding the mystery of human suffering. Why should there be talk about a “fair share” of suffering? Why should there be any suffering at all? Indeed, why did God let me suffer this? This more penetrating inquiry into the mystery of suffering which results from personal experience is but a prelude to more profound questions about the meaning of suffering. Why would God decide to create angels and men with the freedom to make choices that could result in their eternal damnation when he could have created and placed them in a condition of eternal bliss from the beginning of their existence? Why would God, who needs no one and is perfectly happy and fulfilled, decide to create angels and men whose freedom to choose will result in his own suffering and death?
The Catholic response to why God created the world can be summed up in two words: his glory. This glory, which is the very essence of his Being, is perfectly revealed through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to explain why this is true we must reject the temptation to limit our search to history and travel back beyond the cross, beyond the Fall, and beyond creation itself.
Certainly, we acknowledge that the cross was necessary to pay the debt the human race owed to God. In meeting sin and its consequences head on, Jesus, as the new head of the race, gives witness to the seriousness of sin. By his faithful obedience until death, he establishes a new covenant in order that a renewed and authentic humanity may receive and share the blessings and promises of the kingdom of God.
True as this perspective is, it begs the following questions. Why did God allow the first parents to break this relationship through sin? Indeed, why did he initiate this relationship at all? To begin to answer these questions, we must go back “before” time and “beyond” space to a God who is. As we delve into the inner life of God, we discover one who lacks and needs nothing. We encounter a God who is a community of persons, perfectly giving, receiving, and abiding in the oneness of his life and love. Then we ask, Why would God, who always experiences a total giving and receiving in a Spirit-breathed Father-Son relationship, want a relationship with men at all, much less one that he knows will be severed by sin?
The difficulty that one has in understanding a God who creates people who can freely choose to be forever separated from him pales in comparison to the awareness that we are in the presence of a God who freely creates a world that he knows will choose to kill him. There is no guesswork here. From all eternity, this all-sufficient God knows that his powerful act of creating will make possible an act of hatred and destruction against himself.
Here we reach the heart of the problem. To summarize the difficulty of the situation, we might put it this way: Why does God create, knowing the tremendous amount of suffering, both temporal and eternal, that will result from human choices, and the immeasurable suffering he will have to experience as a result of these same human choices, when he could have created everyone in heavenly bliss and prevented any suffering at all? Why would God, filled with life and love, decide to set in motion the necessary elements for his own death when he does not need that which he freely chooses to create? Ultimately, the question is not, Why do the good die young, the innocent suffer or bad things happen to good people but Why do bad things happen to a good God? To answer this fundamental question we must reflect on two possible alternatives to the way God chose to create.
Some wonder why God did not choose to create a perfect world where human beings would always be kind to one another. In this world there would be no need for forgiveness because there would be no possibility of sin. Everyone would always be loving. There would be no spiritual, emotional or physical pain. Then, after a predetermined time, God would simply take us to heaven where he would reveal the fullness of his glory and bestow upon us our eternal reward.
This scenario becomes problematic for two reasons. First, we cannot speak of an eternal “reward” if while on earth we could do no wrong-we had to do good. No one receives a reward for doing something over which he has no control. In addition, when men saw how beautiful the heavenly life was they would begin to ask the obvious question. If we had to do good while on earth, why did God waste our time placing us there? We could have been in heaven from the beginning. What was the point? People would begin to resent such a God who could have created them in the fullness of heavenly joy immediately-but did not. A heaven filled with people who doubt God’s wisdom and resent having lived a meaningless existence on earth would not be a perfect place.
Once the shortcomings of this “perfect” plan become obvious, we consider a second alternative. Why didn’t God simply create us in heaven from the very beginning? Certainly, this was possible. God could have given us bodies incapable of experiencing pain or death and souls filled with his divine life from the very first moment of our existence. Once filled with his most bountiful blessings, we would praise God forever. For all eternity we would realize that since we were created out of nothing, God’s power transcends human comprehension. Therefore, we would praise him eternally for his awesome display of might.
Since God does not need our companionship because he is perfectly fulfilled in his own Trinitarian giving, receiving and abiding, his generosity and internal freedom would be manifested by his decision to create. Since God alone is eternal, men would recognize that nothing outside of God could compel him to create. It would be obvious to all that no interior or exterior force compelled God to create. We would praise him forever for his most generous gift of life and magnificent expression of freedom. We would marvel that God could bring about such harmony in the midst of such diversity. Knowing how every.aspect of each person blends perfectly with all others would give us an overwhelming sense of security and comfort. We could rejoice for all eternity contemplating such a wise and providential God.
Still, although we who were created in heaven would truly appreciate God’s power, generosity, freedom, wisdom, and providence, we would forever ask the question, “How much does God’s creative power, generous freedom, inscrutable wisdom, and all-encompassing providence reveal about himself?” In other words, notwithstanding the power, generosity, freedom, wisdom and providence expressed in God’s creating angels and men in heavenly bliss, both would forever wonder if God’s life were greater still.
The most important question would still remain unanswered. “Does God love us? We know he created us and he didn’t have to. Yes, we know that he has the power to keep us in existence for-ever. Yes, we know that he can reveal to us exactly how we fit into his eternal plan.” But that which is most meaningful about a person’s identity would remain a mystery. Does this all-powerful and generous God who freely creates us according to a wise and providential plan truly love us? How would we ever know? What can God, who has everything and can do everything, do to prove that he loves us? In order to express love it must cost the lover something. God seems to be in a dilemma since of his very nature he is incapable of losing anything. How can God prove his love when nothing causes him strain or pain?
For all eternity God could say, “But look what I’ve given you here—billions of friends, beautiful scenery, effortless movement, immense power at your disposal and the freedom to explore my life forever.” Yet we would always wonder, “Yes, but what did it cost you? For that matter, what did it cost any of us? What sacrifice did anyone make in order for us to be here? There really is no evidence that you or anyone else in heaven is capable of love.” A heaven filled with people who doubt if God or others love them is not a perfect place.
God’s answer is to create a world that will nail him to the cross. The author of life will experience death on a cross in order to reveal how deep love is. Why is this so? Anything short of death itself would fail to reveal the depth of God’s love.
Creation, miracles, commandments, prophets, and kings would all fail to reveal fully a love that has no bounds. Even Christ’s birth and public ministry would fail to reveal perfectly the height, breadth and depth of God’s love. But in Christ’s death, justice and mercy meet. By Christ’s sacrifice on the cross sin is conquered, death is swallowed up, order is restored and justice is applied through the love and mercy of one who did not know sin and yet became sin so that we might become the very righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). By accepting death on the cross (Luke 23:46), Christ fully embraces the infinite love and eternal plan of the Father for himself and those “who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). By accepting death on the cross, Christ has revealed his sacrificial love for each one of us (Gal. 2:20). Through the humanity of Christ, and by reason of its union with the Word, creation is able to embrace and reflect the infinite love of God. As the Italian theologian Raniero Cantalamessa states in The Meaning of Christmas, “God wanted the Incarnation of his Son not so much to have someone outside Himself to love Him in a way that would be worthy of Him, as to have someone outside Himself to love in a way that would be worthy of Him, that is, without limit! . . . The Father had someone to love outside the Trinity in a supreme and infinite way, because Jesus is man and God at the same time.”
We now are prepared to understand the “necessity” of the cross of Jesus Christ. This is seen from two perspectives. First, from the perspective of human activity, God’s glory is more fully revealed in his handiwork, created and redeemed in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph.2:10). Insofar as Jesus Christ is human, we acknowledge that, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb.5:8-9). In order to be identified with the Son as children of God, we must listen to God when he tells us “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7), “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
In light of the cross Jesus becomes the new head of a renewed and authentic mankind capable of making its own contribution to the work of salvation. Paul’s words confirm this: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col.1:24). This ability for one who suffers to cooperate with Christ in the building up of his body, the Church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit does not detract from but rather manifests God’s glory. Irenaeus summarizes this first perspective: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Second, from the perspective of God’s self-revelation, by using the cross to redeem men and empower them to make their own contribution to the work of salvation rather than simply creating them in heaven, God better reveals his inscrutable wisdom. Everyone truly has his own place in the Father’s kingdom while at the same time realizing it has been prepared by Jesus himself.
Moreover, the paschal mystery alone enables God to reveal his absolute freedom. No greater freedom can be imagined than that which is expressed by the all-sufficient God creating a world from which he could derive no benefit, knowing with certainty that he would experience the weight of the sins of the world and death by its hands as a result of his choice. By redeeming men through the cross, God reveals a power and a providence that go beyond creating something good out of nothing and sustaining it. The cross of Jesus Christ has the power to bring good out of evil. It is difficult to imagine how God creates out of nothing. Even more difficult to imagine and impossible to comprehend is how God is able to incorporate the human capacity to choose evil into a wisdom, providence, freedom, and power that guarantees the victory.
In the cross of Jesus Christ, God reveals a love that goes beyond benevolence. On the cross the worst evil history would ever know was committed. On the cross the greatest love history would ever know was revealed. On the cross God grants us sinners an eternal acquittal at the same time that we are giving him the death penalty. The cost of this love cannot be measured nor its quality enhanced. In Christ, because of the hypostatic union (Christ’s divine and human natures united in his divine Person), man has been given the capacity to accept all that the Father can give (John 5:20) and perfectly reveal the Father’s life (John 14:9, 17:7-8). Jesus, being the Word and truth, is the wisdom of the Father and is capable of expressing God’s mysterious plan while accepting this same mystery himself and faithfully carrying it out. Ironically, by his sacrificial death Christ fully accepts and reveals the Father’s sacrificial love for the world (John 3:16). This death brings to fulfillment the meaning of the psalm that says, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).
Human suffering is indeed a mystery that never will be comprehended because it is related to the mystery of God’s love revealed through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Two passages from Paul help reconcile the Church’s teaching that the world is created for the glory of God with the mystery of human suffering revealed in the cross: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20), and, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The cross enables us to know a love and a power that go far beyond what the act of creating men in heavenly glory could reveal. It permits us to be drawn into an even deeper heavenly communion with a God who manifests his glory in such an extreme way. The more God reveals of his inner life, the more we can experience it. Rather than creating us in heaven God uses the cross to perfectly reveal his wisdom, freedom, power, and providence. It is God’s love and his merciful expression of that love which give the cross its radical power and conveys its ultimate purpose. Again, we call on Irenaeus as we summarize this second fundamental perspective: “The life of man is the vision of God.”
Because Jesus shares our humanity, the cross becomes God’s way of allowing us to cooperate in our own redemption. Because Jesus is one in being with the Father, the cross is God’s way of revealing a love the depths of which will take an eternity to explore. The Father’s “foreknowledge” of the love that the Son will embrace, empowering him to abandon himself to the Father’s will (John 6:38), to unite all things in him (Eph. 1:10), and to present the kingdom to the Father “that God may be everything to everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28), is the ultimate reason why God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
Through the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God reveals that “the glory of God is man fully alive” and “the life of man is the vision of God.” This revelation is anticipated at the Last Supper when Jesus says, “Now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (John 17:5). This revelation will reach its culmination with the Second Coming of Jesus, when God will be “everything to everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28). Between these two events stands the cross. The cross of Christ forever marks us as obedient disciples of Jesus who “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). It will enable a real communion of love to exist in heaven among people who have not simply been placed there by God but have loved one another joyfully, served one another faithfully, worked for one another tirelessly, prayed for one another, and contributed to one another’s salvation. Conversely, it will reveal the depth of meaning contained in the biblical phrase “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and, as the ultimate sign of contradiction, forever show why bad things happened to a good God!”
Love, His glory forever and ever!!!
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP