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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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[32] Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Reading:  2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4-10 / John 3:14-21

The first sentence of our reading from 2 Chronicles gives us the setting:  “In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  God’s people had broken their covenant with the Almighty and thus had forfeited divine favor and protection.  Israel had fallen and now the same fate would come to Judah.  The demise of the remaining Jewish kingdom of Judah extends through the apostasy of their last four kings, culminating in the Babylonian invasion and the exile of God’s people in the Jewish diaspora.  They had lost everything and were no longer a nation of their own.  Many years later the Persian king Cyrus the Great would conquer the Neo-Babylonian Empire and authorize the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the exiles would then return to their homeland.  The history of salvation had seen God’s people start out as a family and then become a tribe and still later a nation.  Now there is a transitioning into a religion.  They would have limited rule of their own, but only as supervised or oppressed by others— a situation which would last through the Roman acquisition of their territories and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

It was in light of the diminished power of the tetrarch Herod (who imagined himself a king) and the Sanhedrin, many who were fearful stooges for the occupying power that the Jewish people longed for a Davidic Messiah who would vanquish their foes by force of the sword.  When Jesus entered the stage of world events, the religious leadership saw him as a threat to their position.  Many of the people were drawn to him and yet they quickly became despondent when he emphasized a heavenly kingdom over an earthly one.  He was not the kind of Messiah they wanted.  His message of loving and even forgiving their enemies infuriated the zealots.  When it came to the legal requirement of carrying a soldier’s armament, he urged them to do so for two miles (while the law said no more than one).  They wanted someone who burned with hate like themselves.  It seemed that instead of a military liberator, Jesus was a friend of Romans.  Indeed, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate wanted to set him free, but though bribery, disappointment, and fear, Jesus would be condemned to death.  The cry of the crowd, “We have no king but Caesar!” would ironically signal how the fall of Israel and Judah were now complete.  A new people would come forward, made up of not only the Jews, but from all the nations— all who would believe in Christ and in his kingdom.

The second reading emphasizes how this new kingdom comes in the person of Christ.  “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.”  The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is also one with the kingdom— the New Israel or New Zion or New Jerusalem.

The psalm echoes the longing of God’s people in Babylonian exile.  They struggled to maintain their identity while surrounded by pagan believers and their stories about false deities. The Babylonians worshiped several gods, the chief one being Marduk.  Much to the chagrin of the Hebrews, the Babylonians were true idolaters, positing the presence of their deities in their statues and temples.  As they became increasing enculturated, many were tempted to abandon the faith of Abraham.  The prophets urged them not to forget and to stay faithful to the true God that had called them.  The exile would last some seventy years.  “Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you! How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten!”

Turning to the new dispensation, while much of the Jewish leadership would renounce Christ, there were a few that did not.  Among them were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  Jesus told Nicodemus that “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  This was and is the essential Christian kerygma.  When God’s people were sick and dying from snake bites, Moses had crafted a serpent on a staff or pole.  Those who looked upon it were healed.  The serpent was a sign of death; but this sacramental changed it into a means for hope and life.  Jesus would be lifted up upon a cross, also a sign of despair and death.  Nevertheless, the redemptive work of Christ and his subsequent resurrection changed it for us into a sign of hope and eternal life.

Salvation is based upon an acceptance of Christ.  He is the source of grace.  There is no other way to the Father.  We are saved, not because we are good or faithful but first because Jesus is goodness and is faithful to the mission given him by his Father onto the Cross. He is the LIGHT in the darkness.

The darkness is Satan and yet he masquerades as light.  Indeed, one of his names is Lucifer, meaning light.  He is the false light that would lead us astray.  He is the dark force that numbs consciences to the truth.  Jesus gave sight to the blind, healed cripples, gave hearing to the deaf, restored lepers, raised the dead and yet the hearts and minds of the religious leadership were closed to him and they rejected him.  Indeed, they wanted him dead and gone.  How blind could they be?  How deaf to his message?  Is it any different today?  The Church speaks out for the sanctity of human life and for the dignity of persons— and yet the leaders of this world are still quick to hate and so selfish that even babies are disposable.  Many people say they believe or are enlightened but they remain in the grips of bigotry and violence.  Many say they care and yet they promote pornography and an industry that reduces people, especially women, to the level of meat or flesh.  Separated from God, we do not know how to be good.  The devil exploits this darkness.  He distracts us from Christ.  He breathes his cold breath over hearts that should be warmed by sacrifice and grace.  There are all sorts of attacks against the Church and believers who witness with conviction.  Why?  “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.”

We must shine with the LIGHT of Christ, even if it should illumine that which in ourselves still needs repentance and conversion.

  • Have we ever blamed God for problems and faults of our own making?
  • Do we really believe that God is always faithful and ready to forgive us?
  • Do we place greater confidence in the world than in the values of the Gospel?
  • Are you stumbling in darkness? What is the true light of our lives?
  • What forces around us desire to extinguish the light of Christ in our souls?
  • How have we helped others to find their way as believers or are we stumbling blocks?
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We are Men and Women, Not Angels

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Biology uses the word “species” to refer to us as “homo sapiens.”  Thomistic philosophers sometimes use it in a different way, speaking of our species as human, albeit as composites. Angels and human souls are without matter, but every material composite has two parts, prime matter and substantial form. The substantial unity of a composite being demands that there can be but a single substantial form. The substantial form in human beings, men and women, is the soul.  This soul is exclusive of any other soul.  However, we are kindred to one another as a species or class.  Material composites know individuation because of their extension or dimensions.  By contrast, angels have no matter and are not composites; thus, every angel as a spiritual entity is a distinct species unto itself.

There is no marriage between angels.  There is no reproduction.  There is no complementarity of gender.  All we can say is that they may have traits that we usually associate with one gender over another.  But even that may be an oversimplification.  What do we know of what angels do or angelic character?  When we try to figure them out we illustrate them as naked human bodies with wings attached.

Why do I make such obscure academic observations?  It is because many seem to be confusing the human with the angelic.  What makes us human men and women is fixed; nevertheless, many are arguing that gender is simply a matter of choice.  While it would not include the quality of gender, angels by their intellect and will determine their unique species at the moment of their immediate creation outside of space and time.  We come to exist in time and within material creation.  We classify pure spirits as angels and even rank them but no one angel is like any other.  Some transgender people today are treating their humanity in a similar way, refusing to be labeled as either male or female.  But do they have this authority, particularly since gender seems to be fixed?  Do they have freedom or choice to embrace legal fictions?

Gender identification is today often called into question and debated.  Growing numbers seem to suffer from a sexual disorientation.  Many feel that they have a gender sense that is in conflict with their bodily composition.  Some have sought to have a legal designation to reassign their gender.  Others have sought through surgery or chemical intervention to change their gender.  The Church would traditionally view such efforts as absurd. The divine determination is taken for granted.  You are what you are… every body part and every cell… your basic DNA… all of it speaks to your identity as a man or woman.  This is the lens through which we know ourselves and how we look upon the world.  We relate as men and women in all our associations and friendships, even in our chaste relationships.

Gender is a differentiation we share with others.  Men and women are human but they come in two sexes.  These qualities are combined with many others, some shared and others unique to our identity.  Here I speak not so much about the accidentals that distinguish us but rather those qualities or elements that defy measurement or calibration.  We are finite creatures but the spark of the infinite both gives us life and keeps us in existence.

The Mystery of Gender Permeates Body & Soul

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An accepted tenet of my classical training is that substantial forms inform all prime matter.  It is within this sphere that we usually discuss creation.  Christians believe in an ordered universe.  God is the source for an intelligent design.  We are not the result of a cosmic accident.  The substantial form is where we locate the properties and unity of an object.  The substantial form for the human person is the immortal soul.  If this soul organizes our constitution and gives us our identity then the soul must also include the element of gender.  Sexuality is not isolated to the body.  There is also a spiritual component.  There is no generic human soul and then male or female accidental renderings of humanity.  Unlike the substantial forms of things, each human soul while having commonality with others is unique.  Since the human soul has no parts it is indestructible and survives the death of the body.  We will be reconstituted in accord with our souls.

Separatist or dualist theologians argue against traditional Christian sexual morality because they treat the person as an operator in a robotic body.  The soul is distinct and not necessarily connected to the body.  They do not regard the body as the real you.  Materialists might have some regard for natural law, but often contend that morality is whatever men want it to be.  They argue that there is no soul that actuates or vivifies you.  They further insist that there is no spiritual operator running a robotic body— there is only the body. Since they judge everyone as merely thinking and loving meat, there are no eternal consequences for our actions to worry us.  They would say do as you want because tomorrow you will be nothing but worm-food.

My own view is one of an intense integralism.  While we are spiritual-corporeal composites, I would place a greater weight upon the composite itself over the body and even the soul.  Bodies without souls are corpses.  Souls without bodies are ghosts.  Neither is a condition to which I look forward.  Our hope in Christ is for the resurrection of the dead, body and soul.  Not angelic beings, it is essential to our personhood and identity that there be a restoration.  The soul is a higher principle in that it has no parts that can break down.  However, our constitution is set as a creature that bridges the material and spiritual worlds.  We are not mere animals.  Alternately, we seem to have little or nothing in the way of angelic powers.  Just as the soul informs the body; the body shares information with the soul.  There are apparent parallel operations between the intellect of the soul and the elements of mind and intelligence found in the organic (the brain).  There is an interposition between the spiritual and material.  Soul and body function as a profound unity.  I suppose this is why spouses can speak of each other as soul-mates.  There would be no marriage if men and women were not sexual beings.  However, this meaning cannot be reduced to the same denominator that defines cats, dogs, horses and other animals.  There is a transcendent factor that permeates the central axis of persons.  Everything the soul or body wants or does reverberates in the other.  Gender or sexuality permeates the whole.

 

Sexuality is Who You Are Not What You Do

We are sexual beings.  Even the celibate knows himself as either male or female.  The word sex is often wrongly reduced to activity.  It is actually expressive of our identity or who we are.  It is for this reason that the U.S. Bishops went forward with the “Marriage Matters” campaign against so-called same sex marriage.  Marriage is an exclusive bond between a man and a woman.

Reductionists perceive sexuality as an action and one that can be measured or judged.  It sacrifices the element of mystery as a quality of a person’s inner being.  It is also narrowed to consequences.  Pregnancy and birth are inhibited as one would a disease.  The prospect of a stable or singular relationship is often spurned in favor of momentary pleasure or a thill that might employ any number of sexual partners or none at all.  People “have” sex instead of “being” their sex.

I recall a paperback fantasy story (the title escapes me) in which those cast in hell became more bestial.  Everything and everyone became more eroticized in hell.  Women became more endowed in breasts and curves.  The men discovered that their genitals grew and they lost almost all self-control.  One man tried to sneak into heaven but raced back to hell when he observed the gradual disappearance of his male sex organs.  Despite these peculiar elements, the author tried to avoid the more grievous vulgarities in his composition so as to promote certain moral truths. While interesting fiction, I would contend that he got the situation basically wrong.  We become more and not less of what we are with judgment in the afterlife; men and women in heaven will never stop being male or female.  Joseph is still the foster “father” of Jesus and Mary will always be the blessed “mother” and the New Eve.  There will be no concupiscence in heaven.  There will be no marrying or giving in marriage— except for the marriage banquet of the Lamb.  There will be perfect self-control.  There will be unity in Christ.  We will relate to one another as brothers and sisters, men and women— not as sexless drones.

While angels may be without gender, such is not the state of human beings.  Male and female is how we are made and it is how we will be remade.  God’s grace will perfect us but we will still be who and what we are.  The divine economy will give us a share in immortality but God will not unmake our identity.

Frequently in these arguments, critics will point to St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ “there is neither male nor female.”  This does not mean that men and women are interchangeable or utterly the same.  What it does say is that men and women alike are called by Christ to be disciples.  We all have the capacity for faith and to benefit from the saving graces of baptism.  I have engaged in past debates where critics used this passage to argue for women’s ordination.  However, it does not apply to anything more than our universal priesthood in baptism.  The tradition coming down from Christ and the apostles is that the ordained priesthood is reserved to men.  Men are seen as living icons for Christ.  They signify the divine bridegroom at the altar with the Church as his bride.  A woman priest would suffer from the same critique as would same-sex marriages:  the marriage analogy would be transformed into a lesbian caricature that could only feign priesthood.  The true priesthood, the Mass and sacramental absolution would be lost.  Gender is not an accidental element but a substantial quality of human identity.

An Over-sexed World Does Not Understand Sex

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Analogies scratch at the surface of truth and reality.  Nevertheless, they do allow a certain degree of illumination.  We speak of heaven as an eternal banquet.  We view the relationship of Christ to his Church as akin to the marital bond of a husband to his wife.  Just as there can be no gluttony in heaven, neither can there be lust.  The imperfections in human desires and activities can have no part to play in their eternal dimension.  While we are broken, the moral life demands that we strive toward something of the perfection that awaits us.  Food means physical life.  Marriage means the life of children.  Food gives satisfaction.  Marriage brings the joy of marital union.  God will sustain us and he will feed us with his very self.  Ultimately, the measure of our unity is within the peace of Christ.

It may be that marriage finds itself in trouble within the modern world because people do not know what marriage and sex is really about.  Failure to appreciate the truth damages relationships and makes the marriage analogy incomprehensible.  There is confusion because many refuse to admit that they might be wrong.  Just as certain virgins are anxious about telling others about their inexperience; those with active sex-lives may be reticent to admit that they are regularly engaged in something that they really do not understand.  Persons are often reduced to a means to a selfish end.  Sex is treated as recreation or as something to release tension.  While it should be expressive of a bond, it should not be regarded as bondage.  The abuse of sexual union leads to a whole assortment of ills.  That which should draw people together and make possible personal integrity can inadvertently fragment personalities and cause rifts of infidelity and frustration.  If one has a negative experience of sexual behavior, particularly when it is abusive, then how can he or she imagine that it is good, joyous and holy?  There may be no sexual intercourse in heaven; however, this does not mean that such loving coupling cannot point to a profound intimacy between the divine and the communion of the saints.

Our culture is erotically saturated.  Pornography has gone largely mainstream.  Sex pollutes the media entertainments and advertising.  Many people claim that they have to have it, giving impetus to a drug market where all sorts of dysfunction cures are prescribed.  Nevertheless, while there is a focus on fantasy and the mechanics of human sexuality; there is a paucity of reflection upon ultimate meaning and the theology of the body.  If human sexuality is reduced to an accidental then it might no longer matter… serial marriages, multiple partners, same-sex unions, fornication and even adultery are shifted to the periphery of social life with minimal moral importance.  However, the traditional Western philosophical and religious critic would lament that this is all a lie.  Human sexuality is not accidental and gender is not interchangeable.  There must be a genuine complementarity, sufficient gravity in importance and a lasting permanence.  Our gender identity is a core substantive element.  The union of men and women is not between two half’s but rather two whole’s.  It builds upon who they are, making them (together) something new.

 

The Dark Secret

What is the presumed dark truth that remains largely unspoken by the churchmen desiring a “paradigm shift” in reference to those in irregular unions being invited to receive the sacraments, i.e. the Eucharist and the penitential absolution?

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I suspect that despite objections to the contrary, they really do not believe that there is any lasting bond (sacramental, natural or spiritual) associated with the marriage of men and women.  There was a priest I knew, died some years ago, who ridiculed the very notion that there was a lasting spiritual change in the spouses akin to the sacramental character imprinted upon the soul of men ordained to the priesthood.  While I agreed that sacerdotal ordination was “forever” and that marriage was “until death do they part,” he spurned the notion of any real but invisible tie between spouses other than a psychological one.  His view seemed to me as overly Anglican, as does the Orthodox compromise of penitential marriage.  My thinking upon the question remains unchanged.

Marriage is a perpetual bond.  Our Lord insists that it remains in effect as indissoluble as long as the spouses are alive.  Further, while marriage ends at the threshold of this world and the next, we should all appreciate in Christ that love is stronger than death.  There is something about the connection that changes spouses in an irrevocable way.  They might marry again after a spouse dies; but a mysterious quality remains from the first union.  Something changed with the bond that does not revert back to what it was before.  Given that marriage is reflective of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the Church, this struck me as a necessary truth.  Our Lord will never abandon or divorce his Church.  Spouses give something to the beloved that is singular and that creates a union that is unique and unrepeatable.  A second marriage may have its own value and particular traits; however, while not maligning a second chance at love, the first bond (if real, and in certain cases even when suspect) has a residual or lasting impact or impression.  I am talking about more than mental memories; it is as if the body itself has its own remembrance.  Further, what we do in the flesh has a powerful interplay with the human soul and identity.

Matthew 19:3-9:

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

C. S. Lewis has this to say in Letter 18 of The Screwtape Letters:

The Enemy described a married couple as “one flesh.” He did not say “a happily married couple” or “a couple who married because they were in love,” but you can make the humans ignore that. You can also make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes “one flesh.” You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of “being in love” what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured. From the true statement that this transcendental relation was intended to produce, and, if obediently entered into, too often will produce, affection and the family, humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call “being in love” is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy. The error is easy to produce because “being in love” does very often, in Western Europe, precede marriages which are made in obedience to the Enemy’s designs, that is, with the intention of fidelity, fertility and good will; just as religious emotion very often, but not always, attends conversion. In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-colored and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result.

 

Who Can Be Saved?

I am a bit perplexed by recent soteriology debates.  One group assumes a form of universalism wherein most if not everyone will ultimately be saved.  This contingent hopes that hell is the afterlife’s ghost town, populated by a few like the devil, Judas and Herod and maybe with a Nero, a Hitler and a Stalin.  The other side contends, much in line with Scripture and the private revelations of saints that only a few will be saved and that hell is a crowded abode of souls anguishing in eternal hell-fire.  While we can hope the devil is lonely, it seems to me that we should merely acknowledge the reality of heaven and hell and leave it entirely to God’s merciful providence and justice as to where he will assign us.  Nothing about God’s generous mercy will be compromised if most souls should be damned.  After all, we have always spoken about salvation as a gift which we cannot merit and do not deserve.  I would not be surprised if God should save many that men would count as condemned.  We are fortunate that God and not men make such determinations as we struggle to love and forgive as we should.  Those who count baptism and Church membership as sure signs of being saved should be on guard against the “yeast of the Pharisees.”

Jesus tells us: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Is it not enough that we admit our sinfulness, ask for forgiveness, and invoke divine grace through faith in Christ— walking in right relationship with God and striving to take a few of our family and friends to heaven with us?

We come into this world wounded in the womb.  We cannot save ourselves.  The world would beguile us with false treasure and empty assurances of safety and success.

Jesus speaks to us the uncomfortable truth: “‘Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:23-26).

Jesus gives us hope but not what some posit as an absolute assurance.  If he were to do any other, then malice could wrongly find excuse for the exploitation and satisfaction of vices.  Except for the Christ as the source of holiness and the virgin preserved from sin; there are some questions that must not be answered on this side of the grave.  It is so terribly hard to be good.  It is easy to love those who love us and to want those things that give us immediate pleasure.  More difficult is trying to love those who are hard to love and embracing those things wrapped with the crown of thorns.  As believers we have moments of grace that seem to enthrall or intoxicate us.  We feel as the great saints must have felt within the intensity of their mysticism.  But the joy is fleeting.  The veil comes down.  Suddenly the moment is gone.  We have lost the oasis and only have the dry sand of the desert.  The sense of loss is terrible and we are tempted to fill the vacuum with something less, anything that will take away the terrible sting of loss.  Once we have had a taste of genuine joy, we want more and we want it in never-ending abundance.

Our primordial parents brought death into the world.  Does this mean that in the evolution and battle of life that they were immortal?  It is true that they could have been.  No matter how the first man or woman was formed, it was their choice in sin that damaged the immediate trajectory of creation.  Even if mortal or physical death had remained, great theologians have speculated that it would have been entirely redefined— nothing as we now experience it.  The door between this world and the next closes abruptly.  We cannot see clearly to the other side.  There is so much pain and isolation.  We are afraid.  We are also naked and we know that we are naked.  Had our first parents remained in the full flower of grace, death might have been no more a struggle than our walking from one lit room into another.  They journeyed with God as a people in perpetual contemplation, desiring to cross the threshold from this world to the next with a hope to fully possess God and to have him possess them.  Unfortunately, they broke this peace for themselves and for all who would follow.  That peace is only restored in Christ.