The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, January 16, 2012

God With Us

In recent years I've encountered a surprising number of people who claim to be agnostic. But when I question them about their beliefs, I discover they are actually something else. Unlike the agnostic who claims ignorance as to the existence of God, these folks believe in God's existence but see Him as a hands-off God. Their view of God is really a kind of variant on the watchmaker analogy. Within the complexity of creation they see the hand of the designer, but believe that, after designing the universe and setting it all  in motion, He simply sat back passively and observed the results. God, in other words, is content to watch it all play out but would not lower Himself to get involved in the daily messiness of His creation. And so, to their way of thinking, the universe just chugs along, apparently doing what God designed it to do.

Because of the complexity and vastness of the universe, they also believe that we human beings, living as we do in our infinitesimally tiny corner of that same universe, are truly insignificant and can really have no effect on God's creation. Nothing we do could possibly result in any measurable change. As they see it, God is unwilling, and we humans are unable, to get involved.

The god they envision is more like a model railroad enthusiast. After putting his little world all together, he enjoys watching everything run smoothly, just as he intended. We are like the tiny model people standing on the platform of the model train station, simply the byproducts of some grander process. Their god is not a loving god, and we are not loved into being. We are simply there.

This kind of thinking, at least from my own observation, eventually results in the same kind of despair I often encounter among atheists. Perhaps the only thing worse than believing in no God, is believing in a god who doesn't love, a god who considers us no more than cosmic flotsam.

I don't know why I seem to encounter these beliefs more frequently, but I suspect it's at least partly the result of what people are taught in school these days. Perhaps too all those books by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins have had an impact, as had all that talk about intelligent design. I believe most people find it easy enough to reject doctrinaire atheism, but not so easy to accept an omnipotent God who loves us so much that He not only became one of us but also died for us. Belief in the latter puts a lot of pressure on us as individuals and as a people. After all, how does one respond to such love? Perhaps that's why so many choose not to believe it and create instead a god who demands little if anything of them.

Of course we Christians do not and can not hold such beliefs. Indeed, central to our faith is our belief in the Incarnation. As Christians we believe that God not only got involved, but got very personally involved, in His creation when He became one of us in the Divine Person of Jesus Christ. We also believe He prepared the world for this Incarnational event through His active involvement with many others who preceded Jesus' coming into the world. The story of God's relationships with these predecessors is for us the story of salvation history. It's a story of sacred covenants, one after another, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. It's a story of God's relationship with a People, a People He chose, and from whom would come the Savior of the World, His only Son, Jesus Christ. And it's also a story of God's Church -- One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic -- as His lasting gift to all of humanity. For it is through the New Covenant Jesus made with His Church that God continually makes Himself present to us.

This is why, for Catholics, the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." This is why the Eucharist is at the very center of our Catholic Christian worship. It is through the Eucharist that God makes Himself really present to us. It is through the Eucharist that we can share intimately in the Divine life of Jesus Christ, becoming one with Him and, through that same Communion, becoming one with each other. Yes, we are a Eucharistic people and a Eucharistic Church, a Church formed through the installation of the Apostolic priesthood at the first Eucharist in the upper room in Jerusalem, and continued daily throughout the world by the successors of those same Apostles.

It's no accident that Jesus introduced the New Covenant at the Last Supper, the First Eucharist, with the words:
“Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you'" [Lk 22:19-20]
St. Paul, of course, is explicit when he describes the Eucharist:
"Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself" [1 Cor 11:27-29]
And we find near unanimity of belief in the early Church when it comes to the Real Presence of Jesus' Body and Blood in the Eucharist. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), for example, preached the Real Presence again and again:
"That Bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend His Body and Blood, which he poured our for us unto the forgiveness of sins" [Sermons 227].
"What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the Body of Christ and the chalice [wine] the Blood of Christ" [Sermons 272].
"...I turn to Christ, because it is He whom I seek here; and I discover how the earth is adored without impiety, how without impiety the footstool of His feet is adored. For He received earth from earth; because flesh is from the earth, and He took flesh from the flesh of Mary. He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless he first adores it; and thus it is discovered how such a footstool of the Lord's feet is adored; and not only do we not sin by adoring, we do sin by not adoring [Commentary of the Psalms 98:9].
Sadly, some of our Christian brothers and sisters reject this belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, a belief held by virtually all Christians, all members of the universal Church, for its first 1,500 years. The Reformation really did very little in the way of reforming the universal Church -- such needed reforms came soon thereafter but from within the Church itself. Instead, the reformers ended up creating a whole slew of splinter churches, each with its own set of beliefs and modes of worship. The result is today's countless denominations, each claiming to possess the truth. How did St. Paul put it?
"But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth" [2 Tim 3:15]
A thousand different churches cannot all be the "pillar and foundation of the truth." No, Jesus desired unity among His disciples, but we have shattered the unity of Christendom. No Christian can believe this is what Jesus wanted when, on that night of the first Eucharist, he prayed:
“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me" [Jn 17:20-23].
Even on that night, however, there was already disunity, a disunity that would lead to Jesus' arrest only hours later. And Judas wasn't the last. Even Peter, who would go on to lead the Church in its infancy, failed on that same night and denied that very Creative Word of God who had loved him into existence. The early Church was plagued by heresies, and most of these related to the very person of Jesus Christ. But the Church prevailed, just as it has prevailed through all the disruptions and calamities since. It has survived countless attacks from within and without and through it all kept the deposit of faith intact. 

Since Jesus' prayer is always efficacious, we can only believe that this unity for which He prayed will one day come to pass. This is why the Catholic Church has been so active in pursuing unity through a real ecumenism that, at its heart, protects the truth. How blessed is the world that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have devoted so much of their papacies to the unity for which Jesus prayed. 

I really believe that the ever increasing persecution experienced by Christians throughout the world today will drive us toward each other and lead us ever closer to that desired unity. The Roman world watched Christians respond to persecution with joy, saw God's love shining through their lives, and wanted to taste whatever it was that brought joy from suffering. They ended up tasting it in the Eucharist, through which He remains with us. After all, he promised not to leave us -- "I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you" [Jn 14:18] -- and through the Eucharist He comes to us daily.

And so it will happen again as in the midst of it all, God continues to give us signs through the work of His Holy Spirit. And the Spirit blows where it wills...

All of this reminded me of Joan Carroll Cruz' book, Eucharistic Miracles, a wonderfully fascinating description of some of the Eucharistic miracles through which God has blessed the world and led so many people to come to know Him and believe.

Pray for unity.
God's peace...

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