Two weeks ago I made the point that art informs the way we think about the world, it forms our imaginations, and it influences our lives in a powerful way. That’s why it’s so important that we make sure only the best works of art, that truly reflects what is true, good, and beautiful. If it’s important for adults, then it’s even more important for children, because the movies, tv, music, and books that we take in as children influences us for the rest of our lives. When I was a kid, my mom struggled to get me to read. Instead of trying to force me, she tried to find something that I would get excited about. What finally caught on were a series of abridged classics that we would read together. She would read a chapter out loud, and then I would. This gave me a love for reading good literature, and I would go on to read the full and complete versions of many of those classic novels. The interesting thing is that reading those classics to me influenced my mom to read more classic novels, too.
One of the classics of children’s literature is C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis was a convert to Christianity through the influence of other Christian and Catholic writers, like G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. He didn’t become Catholic, but he did become a very effective defender of Christianity with books like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.
The seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia series, of which The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first, are explicitly Christian books that try to illustrate the truths of the faith through stories. The lion, Aslan, is the Christ figure. He has gone to other lands, but is prophesied to return one day to drive off the enemy, the witch, and restore the Kingdom. The story is told through the eyes of four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They live in World War II era England during the bombings of London, and are sent out to the country for their safety. They find an old wardrobe through which they enter the mythical land of Narnia.
If you’ve never read these books (and watching the movies doesn’t count) then you definitely should, no matter what age you are. If you’re a parent or grandparent, then you should get these books for your children or grandchildren and read it with them. Don’t just give it to them to read, read it with them. That’s a way of showing that this is something special, something different, and that we should pay extra attention to it. It’s best to form a Christian imagination and outlook on life when we’re children, so that we begin to think about life from a Christian perspective. However, as C. S. Lewis shows us, it’s never too late to start forming our Christian imagination.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote, “Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.” From the earliest days that Christian community used to come together in one place to worship God and to give Him thanks. Remember that the Greek word eucharistia means giving of thanks.
How did the early Christians understand this teaching on the Eucharist? In his letter to the Philadelphians, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.” St. Ignatius of Antioch died between 98 and 117 AD. In an early Christian work called the Didache, there is a description of the Mass, “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellows come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: in every place offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”
Finally, the first detailed account of the Mass in the early Church comes from St. Justin Martyr, who would eventually die for the faith. He wrote several works defending the faith. One of these, The First Apology, was addressed to the Emperor Titus Aelius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, who reigned from 138-161 AD, so it must come from that period.
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead” (St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chapter 67).
This description is remarkably similar to what the Church is still doing today. They gathered specifically on Sunday. They have readings from the Old and New Testaments, although they weren’t called that yet, and then the “president,” or presider, instructs and exhorts the people, reflecting on the readings. Then they rise and pray, bread and wine and water are brought up, and the presider prays over them and distributes them to the people, and the deacon takes some to those who are absent. Then a collection is taken up, so we can see that the collection is actually an ancient tradition of the Church. About the Eucharist, St. Justin Martyr clarifies, “For not as common bread and wine do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (chapter 66).
I’ve loved the legend of King Arthur since I saw the Disney version of the The Sword in the Stone, but my favorite version of the story is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book is broken into four parts. The first part is where Disney got there idea to show King Arthur as Wart, a squire to a young night, with the wise but fumbling magician Merlin as his tutor, who teaches him wisdom by turning him into various animals. It goes on to tell the story about Arthur becoming King of England and his Knights of the Round Table, who would be taught to use their skill in battle not for the own gain, but to defend the helpless. King Arthur dies in the end, but the legend is that he will one day return to reestablish the Kingdom.
King Arthur, of course, is a Christ figure. Christ is the true King who came into the world as a nobody, who came “to serve and not to be served,” and who came to teach us to fight for truth and goodness, to help others, and to put their good ahead of our own. He died, but He rose from the dead on the third day. He ascended into heaven, but we believe that He will come back again to fully establish the Kingdom of Heaven.
Before his final battle with Mordred, when King Arthur knows that he and his knights must die, even in victory, he takes a young page on the side and tells him this: “Now this king had an idea, and the idea was that force ought to be used, if it were used at all, on behalf of justice, not on its own account. Follow this, young boy. He thought that if he could get his barons fights for the truth, and to help weak people, and to redress wrongs, then their fighting might not be such a bad thing as once it used to be. So he gathered together all the true and kindly people that he knew, and he dressed them in armour, and he made them knights, and taught them his idea, and set them down, at a Round Table. There were a hundred and fifty of them in the happy days, and King Arthur loved his Table with all his heart.”
After telling the page about his idea, King Arthur tells him that they won’t survive the battle, except for one page, “This page was called Tom of Newbold Revell near Warwick, and the old King sent him off before the battle, upon pain of dire disgrace. You see, the King wanted there to be somebody left, who would remember their famous idea. He wanted badly that Tom should go back to Newbold Revell, where he could grow into a man and live his life in Warwickshire peace—and he wanted him to tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good. Do you think you could do that, Thomas, to please the King? The child said, with the pure eyes of absolute truth: ‘I would do anything for King Arthur.”
Like that young page, we have been taught the great idea of the King. This idea is the love and mercy of God who came Himself to suffer and die for our salvation, who rose again from the dead, and who will come again to establish His Kingdom of Peace. We are sent out into the world to spread that great idea, the Gospel, and to ensure, as King Arthur told Tom, “Thomas, my idea of those knights was a sort of candle, like those ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now—you won’t let it out?”
In the “Litany of the Sacred Heart” we call on the Lord by many different names and titles. Some of them come from the Bible and some come from Tradition to show the different ways that we can understand the Lord and His relationship to us. However, there are 4 names of the Lord that are perhaps the most common and that help us to understand who Jesus Christ is: Jesus, Christ, Son of God, and Lord.
In English, the name we know that Lord by is Jesus. That names comes to English from the Greek Iesous, which can also be spelled Ihsous (which is why the name of Jesus is often abbreviated IHS in Christian art and decoration). The Greek version comes from the original Hebrew name of Yeshua. This is the name that the Archangel Gabriel gave at the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it means “God is Salvation” or “God Saves.” God is the Savior and the source of salvation. He saves His people Israel from the enemies who would conquer and destroy them, he delivers them from slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon. Ultimately, God saves His people, and all peoples, from sin, death, and the powers of the Ancient Enemy, in the person of Jesus through His Death and Resurrection.
He is also called “Christ,” which we either give to Him as a name, like in Jesus Christ, or as a title, by calling Him “the Christ.” Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which in turn comes from the Hebrew Messiah, which means anointed or anointed one. In the Old Testament, priests and kings were anointed with olive oil, such as Aaron the High Priest, King David, to show that they are set apart for the service of God, or that they are chosen by God for a special task, or that they are blessed by God in a special way. The messiah’s of the Old Testament prefigure Christ and prepare for His coming. Jesus Christ was anointed by the Holy Spirit when He was baptized in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist. When we are baptized, we are united to Jesus and called to participate in His role as priest, prophet, and king; therefore, we are anointed at baptism with the Sacred Christ, to show that the Holy Spirit has also come upon us, that we are set apart for the service of God, and that we are called to a special task in the Church. We are also anointed in Confirmation, the ordination of priests and bishops, and in the Sacrament of the Sick.
Jesus is also often called the “Son of God,” throughout the New Testament, but the title is also used a few times in the Old Testament. It is used of King David and his heirs, as a description of an angel in the Book of Daniel, and of the people of Israel. To be a “Son of God,” is to be like God or close to God. The people of Israel were called to be close to God and to be an example of God’s ways to the nations. Angels are like God because they are spiritual beings. Jesus is the Son of God in a new and different way, because He is truly like God. In the Nicene Creed we say that He is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” We are also called to be Godlike, and in Baptism we are united to the true Son of God, so that we are adopted as sons and daughters of God, and so we can pray to “Our Father.”
Finally, we call Him Lord, as St. Thomas says after the Resurrection, “My Lord and My God.” The Jewish people revere the name of God, so they always replace the Holy Name with the world Lord, which, in Hebrew, is Adonai. Even in Christian Bibles, when you see the word Lord written in small caps, Lord, it is replacing God’s name in the original text. This title could refer to a human ruler, but it was usually reserves for God. So, when Jesus is called “Lord” this is actually a Divine title, such as Lord of Lords. When we call Christ “Lord” we mean that no authority is above Him, we promise to be obedient to Him, and we subject our will to His own.
Throughout the world Catholic Churches today will bless palm branches and take them home to display them in a prominent place; where they will slowly turn brown and become brittle. These branches remind us of Holy Week throughout the rest of the year and call to mind the suffering, death, and Resurrections of Christ our Lord. Palms already had a symbolic meaning in the ancient world, though.
In the ancient Mediterranean world the palm branch represented life and victory. The Greeks awarded a palm branch to victorious athletes, for example in the Olympic Games. This practice was brought to Rome around 300 B.C. In Rome generals who won great victories were awarded triumphal processions through the streets of Rome. The general was, for the day, elevated above all of the other citizens of Rome, but he wasn’t allowed to wear his triumphal regalia after that day. One of the symbols of his triumph was a crown woven from laurel branches. A servant would ride in the chariot with the general whispering reminders of his mortality to keep everything from going too much to his head. This is what St. Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we can imperishable one.” The crown of laurel or palm branches will literally “perish” as the leaves turn brown and decay, but the crown, or halo, of the saints is eternal.
When the Lord entered Jerusalem the people put palm branches on the ground along his path. The palm branches represented their hope for his victory in retaking Judea from the Romans and restoring the kingdom of David to Israel. Within a few days they would be calling for his crucifixion. The worldly victory that they wanted was as fragile as the palm branches they held, because all worldly kingdoms and empires eventually fade. The victory Christ wanted was a spiritual one, and the kingdom he brought about was the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Likewise, if we place our hopes in earthly victory, power, wealth, or honor we will be disappointed. We may achieve it for a while, but it will eventually fade. Instead, let us place our hope in God, Who desires to share with us the victory of the Cross.
St. Anselm lived in the 11th century and was born in Aosta in the Italian Alps. He joined the Benedictine Abbey of St. Stephen at Caen, France. He rose to become Prior of that monastery and latter became the Archbishop of Canterbury. While he was Prior at the Abbey of St. Stephen, the monks asks St. Anselm to write a meditation on God using pure reason and not relying on Scripture or Revelation at all. From this came two of the great works of medieval philosophy, the Monologion and the Proslogion.
In the second, St. Anselm gives a sort of argument for the existence of God, today called the Ontological Argument. Most arguments for the existence of God start with things in the world and seek to prove God’s existence from them or from their qualities and attributes. For example, in the Monologion, St. Anselm seeks to prove God’s existence through the reality of justice. The Ontological Argument is different because it begins with a meditation on faith in God and how faith might move to a deeper understanding of God. His argument was accepted by some, including St. Bonaventure, and rejected by others, like St. Thomas Aquinas.
The main point is that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived.” God is the greatest possible being, because He is the source of all perfection. God does not simply have justice, and goodness, and beauty; He is the source of all justice, goodness, and beauty. God isn’t another thing in the world; He is existence itself. God is infinite, which means without limit.
Do you think of God in this way? We tend to anthropomorphize God, to give Him human qualities, emotions, and we even picture Him in art as a wise old man. However, God is more farther beyond us than we are beyond a pebble. Since He is infinite, we have more in common with the pebble, which is finite, like us, than we have in common with God. Yet, God has condescended to become one of us in the incarnation, but without losing anything of what He Is. Through the Cross and Resurrection, God has even made us His adopted children. God is so far beyond us that we can’t even properly imagine a being as great as God.
“But surely,” says St. Anselm, “that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality—something which is greater [than existing only in the understanding]. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought were only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would be that than which a greater can be thought! But surely this [conclusion] is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality (Proslogion, 2).”
I’m not sure this actually proves the existence of God, or would be convincing to someone who doesn’t already believe, but thinking about this can teach us something about the God that we do have faith in. He is necessary! God must exist. We are not necessary. We are important, and have dignity, but we don’t have to exist. God didn’t have to create us, and we can imagine worlds where we never existed. If God truly is Existence itself, then He is necessary, and must exist in any possible universe for anything to exist at all.
Our parish mission is this week, and the theme is “The Life of Grace.” What does that even mean, and what is grace anyway? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following definition of grace in the glossary, “The free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children. As sanctifying grace, God shares his divine life and friendship with us in a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that enables the soul to live with God, to act by his love. As actual grace, God gives us the help to conform our lives to his will. Sacramental grace and special graces (charisms, the grace of one’s state of life) are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us live out our Christian vocation.”
Grace is how God acts in our lives and in our souls. It is His free gift to us. We don’t deserve grace, because we don’t have any claim on God, but He gives it to us anyway. As the Lord says in the Gospel of Matthew, “That you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust (5:45).” Grace comes first, and grace helps us to respond to our vocation, which simply means our call or purpose from God. That call or purpose is to become God’s adopted children. That is the Christian vocation, or call; it’s often called the “call to holiness.” We are called to be like Christ, children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ, but Christ is God, and we are not, so we need God’s help, His grace, to answer that call.
Sanctifying Grace is given in baptism and the sacraments. It is a habitual or stable grace, which means that it tends to stick around, and the only way to lose it is by committing mortal sin. Through it we share in God’s own life and become friends of God. It creates a supernatural disposition within us. We might say that someone has a disposition towards math, if they’re naturally good at math, or that someone has a natural disposition to creativity. This is a supernatural disposition which draws us towards God and enables us to act in the love of God.
Actual graces are the graces that God gives to everyone as a help or intervention. We receive many actual graces each day. It’s like a nudge or reminder from God. It could be something as profound as a call to conversion or repentance, and it can be as intimate as the desire to pray when I see the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on my office wall. A large part of living the Christian life is being upon to these nudges from the Holy Spirit and learning to cooperate with them.
In the mission we’ll talk about grace as it is lived out in the Christian life. The first evening, Monday, March 15, at 7:00 PM, “Only the Penitent Shall Pass,” will be on continuing conversion in our lives. The second evening, Tuesday, March 16, “Mary, Mother of the Eucharist,” will be on the Blessed Mother and the sacraments, focusing on the Eucharist, as the content of the Christian life. The third evening, Wednesday, March 17, “St. Joseph and the Mission of the Church,” will look at our call to support the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel and care for the poor.
A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Abbot Vonier
Since it’s the year of the Eucharist here in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, I’ve been rereading a book that we were assigned in seminary when we studied the theology of the Eucharist, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Dom Anscar Vonier, published in 1925. He was a Benedictine monk, and latter abbot, at the Monastery of St. Mary at Buckfast in Devon, England. In the book, Abbot Vonier sets out to answer a question about the faith, salvation, and grace, and in the process writes one of the very few great spiritual classics that were originally written in the English language. That question is, in his own words:
“Catholic doctrine says that Christ’s sacrifice, besides being an atonement, was also a salvation,--in other words, a buying back into spiritual liberty of the human race which had become a slave of Evil. But even this aspect of Christ’s divine act, though a perfectly human aspect, is still a universal aspect; salvation is primarily for mankind as a species; the entry of the individual into the redemptive plan remains still to be effected. How am I to be linked up effectively with that great mystery of Christ’s death? When shall I know that Christ is not only Redeemer, but also my Redeemer?”
He starts off by looking more closely at faith itself, then focuses in on the sacraments for several chapters, and dives in to the mystery of the Eucharist itself, speaking of the Mass, the Cross, Transubstantiation, the “Eucharistic Banquet,” and more. This is not a work for beginners, or for those who want a book that you can read through quickly one time and get the idea. This book requires slow reading, re-reading of difficult passages, pondering the depth of the Mystery of Faith, and an investment of time and attention. It is well worth the investment.
Abbot Vonier gives the beginning of his answer to that question later in the very first chapter, and then he proceeds to expand upon that answer. So, how are we effectively linked up with the mystery of Christ’s death? As Abbot Vonier writes, “The sacraments are essentially sacraments of the faith, sacramenta fidei, as St. Thomas invariably calls them; both faith and sacraments have that power of divine instrumentality which will open to man the treasure-house of Christ’s redemption.”
With great power comes great responsibility. You may recognize that line from the comic book hero Spiderman, or from one of the many movie versions of Spiderman. Spiderman really starts out as the ordinary teenage boy Peter Parker. Peter gets bitten by an experimental, radioactive spider during a school field trip to a lab, and he subsequently develops super powers. The basic story is about Peter Parker learning not to use his new powers for his own personal gain, because, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Do most people still believe that today? We certainly believe that other people have responsibilities towards us, but we stop short of saying that we have responsibilities towards other people. I like to talk about my rights and your responsibilities, but I don’t so much like to hear about your rights and my responsibilities. I’m exaggerating, of course. There are still a lot of people who feel their responsibilities to other people, to their family, and to the country, but we do talk a lot more about our rights than our responsibilities. Rights and responsivities always go together. If we have a right, then we must have a corresponding responsibility. We have the right to free speech according to the First Amendment to the Constitution. It protects our right to express ourselves in speech, writing, art, media, and even how we spend our money. We have a responsibility, then, to learn the truth, to speak the truth, and to stand up for those who have no voice of their own.
We have the right to own private property. That right is expressed by the Declaration of Independence and protected by the US Constitution. It’s also recognized by the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council teaches that private ownership of property “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom...stimulating the exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty (Gaudium et Spes, 71).” The right to property helps to ensure freedom because it allows people to care for themselves instead of relying on others or the government for their basic necessities. However, it also comes with a grave responsibility. Since we have the right to own things, we also have the responsibility to use well what we have so that it benefits that entire community and especially the poor. Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, “To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others (RN, 22).”
In the same way, if we have the right to speech, to property, to participate in government, to free assembly, to religion, or any other right, then we have a responsibility to use those rights well. Our rights don’t come from the government, even if the government recognizes them; they come from God, and He gave them to us for a reason.
I recently watched the 1988 movie Bernadette on Formed.org, and I highly recommend it. I’d never heard of this version before I saw it on Formed, which isn’t surprising because it had very limited distribution in the US, but apparently this is the telling of the story of Our Lady of Lourdes that is actually shown at the shrine at Lourdes, France (the French version, anyway).
As our parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Bernadette and her visions of the Blessed Mother are very important for our parish. Our Lady entrusted the message of God’s mercy and love to St. Bernadette, and that message has continued to reach new generations through the shrine at Lourdes, France, and the miraculous healings, both physical and spiritual, which take place there.
The movie appears to be very historically accurate, as far as I can tell, and the few reviews that I’ve checked agree. The director, Jean Delannoy, takes the story very seriously and begins with a promise that everything in the movie is based on the historical record and nothing is added to it. My one small complaint is that some scenes are a bit overly dramatic for my taste. It takes the teachings of the Church and Catholic spirituality very seriously and presents a Catholic family and community that that would be at home in the Church today, even though these events happened over 160 years ago.
The actors and actresses do a very good job. The portrayal of the two parish priests was very good, even down to their conversations with each other. They really sounded and acted like priests. The child actors and actresses were very good, as were St. Bernadette’s parents, but the actress who played Bernadette herself, Sydney Penny, stole the show. It’s not easy to portray a saint, especially a child saint, and show the genuine holiness of the saint while also showing that they’re a real person that any of us could know.
Remember that Our Lady of Lourdes Church has our own subscription to Formed.org, and it’s free for any parishioner to use. We pay for the subscription out of our Religious Education Fund, which is reserved to be used only for Religious Education for kids and adults. If you want to help pay for our subscription you can do it through our online giving on our website or by putting “Rel Ed” in the memo area of a check. It can be accessed on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, or on a smart TV, Roku, or Firestick. Just download that app for your device and follow the directions below. Once you’re logged in, just search for “Bernadette.”
To Sign-up for Formed.org
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.