Monday, December 12, 2005

Mary Our Spiritual Mother

Something is happening in Christ’s church.

Along with the increasing unification and convergence of which the CEC is a part, comes a renewed interest in Mary and the role she has played within the church from its beginning. You see signs of it everywhere; from articles in Christianity Today to the cover of Time Magazine. It’s a natural part of the universal church’s trend toward a return to the ancient church; the church that existed before and after the Reformation and the tremendous splintering that followed. Many Protestant denominations have drifted a long way from the church that the Reformers envisioned and practiced, and some are beginning to look back at what was lost.

They are wondering if they threw the mother out with the bathwater.

It’s true: Protestants are realizing that there is something about Mary.

The Reformers Weigh In

People from Protestant backgrounds are often on the look out for “Mariolotry”; a worship of Mary as if she was a god. If asked about their suspicions they might say that any form of devotion to Mary falls into that category. They might think that the Reformers did away with all of that stuff.

History shows a slightly different picture however.

While the Reformers were rightly concerned with the extreme to which some Roman Catholics took Marian devotion, they believed that there was a need for moderating that extremity rather than ditching her altogether.

Let’s take a look at some quotes from prominent Reformers.

Ulrich Zwingli, founder of the Reformation in Switzerland, said “The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow.”

John Calvin, one of the more severe critics of Marionism, called Mary “the treasurer of grace”.

In Martin Luther’s last sermon at Wittenberg in January 1546, shortly before his death, he said “Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the holy Mother of God rather not to be honoured? This is the woman who crushed the Serpent’s head. Hear us. For your son denies you nothing.”

Did you catch that? He asked Mary to “Hear us, for your son denies you nothing”! Luther himself not only recognized Mary as a powerful intercessor, but asked her for assistance!

So what happened? If the Reformers themselves understood the importance of Mary’s role, and believed that she could make requests of her Son on our behalf, how have we come to be so biased against her?

God Gives Jesus His Mother

Advent takes us back to Christ’s first coming; in human form. From the beginning of church history there has been a mental struggle in believers to grasp the mystery of Jesus being both Man and God, fully human and fully divine. We may be able to voice agreement with this in theory, but there is still a real difficulty in accepting that God could actually also be as one of us. Although Christmas should be the time when we celebrate God coming to earth as a human being, we somehow lose sight of the delivery mechanism.

This year, let’s try to enter more deeply into the reality of awaiting him, just as Mary waited while He grew within her.

God came to us as a baby, through the auspices of a mother. If this was not significant or worthy of our contemplation, God would have chosen another method. He could have created Jesus fully formed just as he did the first Adam.

But He didn’t.

He chose instead to work through a human woman. He chose to allow her to gestate him, to bear him, to nurse him at her breast, to prevent him from crawling into the fire or under the wheels of a donkey cart, to teach him the Psalms, to help him learn to honor his Father…

He chose that Jesus be formed; physically, emotionally, and spiritually, in the structure of a family, with a human mother and father.

Mary even played a critical role in the launching of His ministry. At the wedding in Cana, she encouraged him to perform a miracle despite his reluctance, just as a mom of today might encourage her child to give the two-wheeler a try despite his insistence on being too little.
Why? Would God allow a woman so important a role without purpose? Would He risk giving a human so much responsibility without having a darned good reason? Or is there something He wants us to understand about the method He chose?

Jesus Gives Us His Mother

In the end, we come to Jesus on the cross.

Chapter 19 of John’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ final instructions:

26 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" 27 Then He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own household. 28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty."

The early church understood this to be an instruction for all believers in all ages, just as it did of the command to feed His sheep.

Jesus’ last request before dying was to give his Mother to us, his beloved disciples. And once He had given her to us and us to her, He knew that all had been accomplished.

How much emphasis do you think should be placed on deathbed requests?

Jesus final instruction was that Mary take us as her children, and that we take her as our spiritual mother. Earlier on, He told us to honor our father and mother.

Were Jesus’ final words meaningless?

Would God’s final instructions be trivial?

Have we honored His final request?

Are we obedient to the fourth commandment?

Mary in the Ancient-Future Church

So where do we go from here?

In recent discussions about CEC doctrine, Bishop Bates paraphrased a statement often attributed to St. Augustine: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.
We are called to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Bishop Craig urges us to deal with all other things with charity.

At a very minimum, the idea of honoring Mary should be met with charity.
And it is possible that Jesus would have us offer her more than simply that.

Sunday, June 5, 2005

The Sacrament of Confession

Sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. The key piece in this is that they were put in place by Christ. There is power in everything that Christ did, and told us to do.

Confession (also called the sacrament of reconciliation or penance) is the process of meeting with a priest to walk through a set of prayers and list the serious sins you have committed since baptism or since your last confession (if you’ve had one). A good way to prepare for confession is to review the Ten Commandments and the beatitudes, and see where you have been failing.
The sacrament of confession has been a practice of the church from the very beginning. The fathers of the church called confession “the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck of the loss of grace”. (The first plank is baptism, by which all our sins are forgiven.)

Alexander Schmemman says:

“The sacrament of penance… is the power of baptism as it lives in the Church. From baptism it receives its sacramental character. In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any ‘new’ absolution. But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ and excommunicate ourselves from His life, to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift which in Him has been given once and for all. And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and has been fulfilled.

Just as each Eucharist is not a ‘repetition’ of Christ’s supper but our ascension, our acceptance into the same and eternal banquet, so also the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the ‘newness of life’ which God gave to us once and for all.”

A sermon by St. Leo in the fifth century reads: “The omnipotence of the Son of God, whereby through the same essence He is equal to the Father, would have been able by the mere command of His will to rescue the human race from the domination of the Devil, if it had not been better suited to the divine operations to conquer the opposition of the enemy’s wickedness by that which had been conquered, and to restore our natural liberty through that very nature through which a general captivity had come about.”

God chose to use human beings, first Christ, then His priests, to administer His freedom. For physical healing He often works through doctors. For spiritual healing He works through priests, who administer the healing sacraments Christ gave to the church for this purpose.

We are part of a church which has been handed down directly from Christ, through Peter, in a direct line of succession via the laying on of hands in ordination. There is power in the authority of those who Christ himself has touched and equipped.

Many of us don’t really understand the idea of apostolic authority. Interestingly, Jesus ran into the same objections!

Christ said to the sick man with palsy: "Thy sins are forgiven thee." "And there were some of the scribes sitting there, and thinking in their hearts: Why doth this man speak thus? he blasphemeth. Who can forgive sins but God only?"

But Jesus seeing their thoughts, said to them: "Which is easier to say to the sick of the palsy: Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, take up thy bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, I say to thee: Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house" (Mark 2:5-11; Mat 9:2-7).

Christ wrought a miracle to show that He had power to forgive sins and that this power could be exerted not only in heaven but alsoon earth. He then transmitted that power to Peter and the other Apostles.

To Peter He says: "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Mat 16:19).

Peter was given the keys you see. Keys to lock and unlock.

The Council of Trent described the sacrament as follows: "So far as pertains to its force and efficacy, the effect of this sacrament is reconciliation with God, upon which there sometimes follows, in pious and devout recipients, peace and calm of conscience with intense consolation of spirit".

How wonderful that sounds! “Intense consolation of spirit”!

St. John Chrysostom pleads eloquently with the sinner: "Be not ashamed to approach the priest because you have sinned, nay rather, for this very reason approach. No one says: Because I have an ulcer, I will not go near a physician or take medicine; on the contrary, it is just this that makes it needful to call in physicians and apply remedies. We priests know well how to pardon, because we ourselves are liable to sin.”

Tertullian wrote of confession and repentance: “Therefore, while it abases a man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, the more does it cleanse him; while it condemns, it absolves. In so far as you do not spare yourself, the more, believe me, will God spare you!”

The idea of confession is hard. It’s embarrassing. But it makes you think about the doors you allow to be opened, and through the graces received, shut them back up.

The sacrament of confession can be a very powerful tool in resisting the enemy and staying spiritually clean. Please consider availing yourself of it soon.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Season of Lent

Lent is the Old English word for spring. In almost all other languages, Lent's name is a derivative of the Latin term quadragesima or "the forty days." 40 is the traditional number of days for discipline, devotion, and preparation. Just think of Moses on the mountain, Elijah on his travels to the cave of visions, Nineveh’s deadline to repent, and most significantly, Jesus' time in the wilderness praying, fasting, and experiencing the temptation that humanity faces:

For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning. (Heb. 4:15)

By the solemn forty days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. “To follow and imitate Christ more nearly and to manifest more clearly his self-emptying is to be more deeply present to one’s contemporaries, in the heart of Christ. For those who are on this narrower path encourage their brethren by their example…”

Rev. Lawrence E. Mick wrote that Lent is “radically baptismal”, which is right up TCC’s alley! He said that our current 40 day observation grew out of 3 original sources; an ancient 2-day paschal fast before Easter, the “Catechumenate” preparation for baptism of adults, and the “Order of Penitents” conversion process for baptized people who had fallen but were ready to turn away from serious sin.

As the Catechumen (those who were being prepared) went through the process, the rest of the congregation walked with them spiritually, renewing their own baptismal promises.
This idea of a second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, is at once holy and always in need of purification, and follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.”

Lent is a penitential season, and the 3 keys to penitence are prayer, fasting, and charity or almsgiving.

Fasting helps us “acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” Self-denial and acts of penance help us uproot the rule of sin in our lives, and in the world.

A common practice during Lent is to give up something we enjoy. By doing this, we discipline our wills so that we are not slaves to our pleasures. When we train ourselves to resist temptations that are not sinful, we increase our ability to resist temptations that are sinful.

Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence from meat. Abstaining from meat helps us remember the needs of the poor. Some families eat simple meals such as rice and beans on Friday, and give the money that would have been used for the meal to the poor. If you give up steak but eat lobster, you’re missing the point!

We don’t hear about charity as a Lenten practice as often as the other disciplines, however, almsgiving and charity are logical acts during this season, as they are outward signs and actions that our inner conversion is real and that we take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Isaiah 58:6-7 reads:

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Jesus’ call to conversion and penance does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes”, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false. Interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.

Fasting should be linked to our concern for those who are forced to fast by their poverty. Connecting charitable acts with fasting activities, for example, donating food we would otherwise have eaten to the hungry, brings a particular richness and depth of understanding to our Lenten experience.

Please consider incorporating the practices of prayer, fasting, and charity into your life this Lenten season, so that you can reach new levels of spiritual breadth and preparation.

This article contains excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church ©1994 and from Lenten Customs, Baptism is the Key by Rev. Lawrence E. Mick.