Sunday, November 25, 2007

Relics, Cremation and Organ Donation, Part 2

Pagans like fire.

I can hardly blame them. Among earthly things, fire is significant. It creates, destroys, warms, burns, breathes, lives, and dies. Its connection to the spiritual is apparent.

God appeared to Moses as a Burning Bush. The Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire upon the Apostles’ and Mary’s heads. Christians like fire too. Neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians would consider a liturgy without candles.

But Pagans sometimes worship fire and burn the dead. That’s where our similarity ends.

The practice of cremation has been widely adopted in contemporary times among Christians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks tersely of the issue: “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (CCC, 2300).

Not so in the early Church. From the earliest times, Christians buried their dead, in continuity with the Jewish practice. At first, this distinguished them from the practices prevailing in the larger Greco-Roman culture, although later a general cultural shift toward burial of the dead would take place. The practice of cremation was repugnant to Christians 1) because it was common among the pagans, and 2) because it appeared defiant of the Christian belief in the incarnation of God and the resurrection of the body.

During the Roman persecution of Christians, cremation of the martyrs was sometimes used as an official public mockery of these Christian beliefs.

That provision given in the Catechism ("provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body") is necessary, for it can certainly seem to so deny.

I’ll not be burning any of my relatives’ bodies nor requesting such for my own.

Relics, Cremation and Organ Donation, Part 1

In her first novel about Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters refers to the Christian Tradition of venerating the dead bodies of our holy ones as "a morbid taste for bones."


Nah, there's nothing morbid about us...


Anyway, Christian veneration of the bodies of the dead is as old as Christianity itself. It set Christians at odds with much of the ancient world around them, who, with a view toward hygiene, believed in getting dead bodies as far away as they could, as fast as they could. Burn them, bury them on the outskirts of town, just get rid of them before they spread whatever disease they died of.

Along come these strange little groups of Christians. We want to keep the dead nearby. Alright, we’ll bury them because we must, but not too deeply and not too far away. We want the graveyards here in the center of our community. Let’s go down to the catacombs to hold our liturgies on their tombs. And later, we’ll dig up the bones again and richly adorn them with gold and precious gems:

“We afterwards took up Polycarp’s bones – as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels and more purified than gold. We deposited them in a fitting place.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, c. 135).
Why such veneration for an empty shell?

Well, for one thing, the bones of the just have the power to heal and raise the dead:

“And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Eli'sha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Eli'sha, he revived, and stood on his feet” (2 King 13: 21).
But whence comes this power?

Those bones are no empty shell. “This would not have happened unless the body of Elisha were holy,” record the Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390), which further advise: “Do not seek after Jewish separations… or purifications upon touching a dead body…. For as to those who live with God, even their very relics are not without honor.”

It is, you see, because they live, and are not dead that their power remains with their bodies.

Fundamental to understanding our “morbid taste for bones” is the truth of the resurrection. Christianity is an incarnate religion. “I believe… in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” – so concludes the Apostle’s Creed. Ours is not a shadowy afterlife of wispy shapes and clouds. There, our flesh is restored, to burn or to exult, as the case may be.

Soul and body are one. The soul is the body’s life. They will be reunited.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Russia and the Pope

Those who follow Orthodox and Catholic relations are well aware of the recent meeting between the hierarchies of said Churches in Ravenna to discuss the “The Ecclesiological and Canonical consequences of the Sacramental nature of the Church.”

The meeting was really about the Pope.

In fact, most meetings between the Catholics and the Orthodox are really about the Pope. Or, anyway, he is the white-cassocked elephant in the room at such meetings. There is no more significant blockade to reunion between the Apostolic Churches than their differing opinions on the proper use of the Petrine office (if, indeed, they can even agree that the papal office is Petrine).

Those who follow Orthodox and Catholic relations are also well aware that, before the beginning of the Ravenna meeting, the Moscow delegation respectfully departed. The stated reason for their withdrawal was the presence of the Estonian Orthodox Church, which the Russians regard as under their jurisdiction, despite the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople granted them an independent status. The Ecumenical Patriarchate had no right to do so, according to the Moscow Patriarchate, because the Estonians fell under their territory. Yadda yadda yadda.

Maybe this was the Russians’ genuine, heartfelt reason for walking out of an ecumenical discussion. Maybe not.

Prior to the meeting, the Russian Orthodox Church launched a workgroup to independently formulate her position on universal primacy. Also prior to the meeting, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria (he who would later lead the way out the door at Ravenna) told Interfax that the Moscow Patriarchate will defend its own position in the dispute and there will be no compromise at the upcoming meeting. Fair enough. What is Moscow’s position? I eagerly await the results of their workgroup.

Meanwhile, the meeting at Ravenna is ended, its document published. Prior to its official release today, Bishop Hilarion (there’s that name again), posted the commission's final document on his website. This according to Canadian Press and confirmed by the Vatican.

In addition to posting the document, Bishop Hilarion added his own comment that the document was adopted without the presence of representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate at the meeting, casting doubt over whether it could be considered to reflect Moscow's view. He further wrote, "The Moscow Patriarchate will analyze the Ravenna document and present its conclusions in due course."

I await these conclusions alongside the results of the workgroup mentioned above.

That amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? Moscow was already working on its response to the conclusions of the Ravenna meeting prior to the beginning of the Ravenna meeting. It's probably just me, but I find that suspicious.

The Patriarch of Moscow currently heads the largest body of Orthodox Christians in the world. When the representatives of Russian Orthodoxy leave an ecumenical discussion, that leaves a massive body of Orthodox Christians unrepresented. It's a big deal. In practical terms, the Patriarch of Moscow is the most powerful man in the Orthodox Church. Now, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has more history and more honorifics, but not so much raw power. Turkey isn't exactly a hotbed of Christianity in any form.

There's that, and there's this whole idea of the "Third Rome." Quite a while ago - six hundred and fifty years or so - some Russian Orthodox Christians decided that Moscow was the true center of Christianity. Once, they acknowledged, this was Rome. Then, Constantine moved the capitol of his empire to Constantinople, thereby creating a "Second Rome." After the fall of this empire then, where were Orthodox Christians to look for their paragon of orthopraxis? These Russians looked around themselves and - lo and behold - found Moscow's domes the highest.

So, when the Russian Orthodox speak of independently formulating their position on universal primacy and uncompromisingly defending that position, I have to wonder whether they don't have something like the "Third Rome" in mind. Which is to say that the primacy belongs to them.

I'm certainly no expert on these goings-on. All I know is what I read in the news and a little bit of history, but - for whatever it's worth - here's what I suspect:

Maybe the objection about the Estonian Church was just a convenient way to step out of the ecumenical talks, leaving the Russians free to independently develop their own ideas about primacy - quite independent of the man in the white cassock.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Patron and Forerunner

Here are links to images of two recent paintings inspired by St. John the Baptist:

Patron by Katie Russell

Forerunner by John Russell

posted at: J & K Russell Studio

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Angel in my Backyard

In early grade school one day, I sat with my classmates in the church – although not at Mass – listening to a Franciscan brother talk about angels. He began his talk by asking us, “Who in here has seen an angel?” I raised my hand earnestly (while I assumed seeing angels was only natural, I still considered it an honor). To my surprise, this was not what the Franciscan wanted to see. He wanted to talk about believing what could not be seen. And I was ruining his speech. As I looked around, I noticed there were no other hands up. The good brother then explained that he had not meant a picture of an angel, and my classmates laughed. I then said, “No, a real angel. I’ve seen an angel.” There was more laughter. After an awkward moment and a quizzical look, the brother simply continued with his prepared speech saying, “No one has ever seen an angel….” This was the day I learned that people don’t see angels.

For years I have doubted both my memory and my senses. But I always clung to some hope that I really did see an angel.

I’ve told the story so many times that I remember it in the telling more than I remember the actual event. This has been a source of much doubt. Of course, many doubt things they only know stories about. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who believe, but have not seen.” Sometimes, we can and do doubt even what we have seen.

I was standing on something next to my sister Jessica. We were looking out into the backyard through the downstairs bathroom window of our old house. We saw a glowing white figure in long, glowing white robes carrying a staff and walking behind our house. It was after dusk. The figure was like a silhouette of light against the darkness, so brilliant that his features were indistinguishable. I ran through the mudroom to the kitchen where my mother was washing dishes at the sink. I tugged on her pant leg and asked, “Mom, can people see angels?” She said, “I suppose, if God wants them to.” I believe I then asked her if angels have wings and she said, “not necessarily.” I went back to the bathroom and told Jessica it was an angel. We continued watching him walk through the yard.

“At the highest extremity of the visible world are the blessed band of angels,” says St. Clement of Alexandria. Interesting, I think, that he considers the angels a part of the visible world. Sometimes people see angels. Abraham did. Lot did. Jacob did. Joseph did. Sacred Scripture is filled with folks encountering angels – always with some great purpose, it seems. Even in modern angel tales, the angel shows up to save someone’s life in a car wreck or perform a much-prayed-for task. Clarence had great purpose in appearing to George Bailey.

Seldom do we hear of an angel walking through the yard on a casual stroll.

Why would an angel appear to a small boy and his sister one evening with no apparent task? The question has occurred to me. I am not certain of any answer.

But, I will say, angels exist at all times, not only when they are performing tasks of biblical significance. “Angel” means “messenger,” but, as Augustine points out, this is their office, not their nature. Their nature is spirit. Sometimes they just be. Maybe the angel just wanted me to know he was there.

Actually, I sometimes wonder if this doesn’t happen all the time. How many experiences we dismiss as fatigue, faulty memory, or hallucination are actually experiences of the spiritual world? I suspect more than a few.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and All Angelic Powers

Today, as in every November since the fourth century, the Eastern Church honors all Angelic Powers, six-winged Seraphim, many-eyed Cherubim, God-bearing Thrones, Dominions, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. She honors the seven Archangels. The first three are known from Holy Scripture as Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Many of the Fathers give Uriel as the name of the fourth. There are various traditions about the names of the last three. Foremost among the angels and the leader of all heavenly hosts is St. Michael the Archangel.

In the film Gangs of New York, Priest Vallon points to the medallion around his son’s neck and says,
“Now son, who's that?”
“St. Michael.”
“Who is it?”
“St. Michael!”
“And what did he do?”
“He cast Satan out of Paradise.”
“Good boy.”

Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it (Revelation 12: 7-9).
The name Michael means, “Who is like God?” The name well signifies who Michael is. Satan claimed equality with God – “Michael” is Satan’s expulsion from heaven.

Western images of St. Michael often show him in furious combat with Satan, sometimes depicted as an enormous dragon (Rev. 12: 9), or sometimes as a horned, muscular, bat-winged man. Some examples of the latter:

Though defeated, Satan, in these images, appears well-matched to engage Michael in combat. In that central image - I can't say for sure - but it sure looks like Michael is running away to me.

I believe the truth is closer to this:

There - do you see him? that speck at the end of Michael's spear? - that is Satan. The petty black demon is utterly vanquished - not by Michael's might in battle, but by his mere presence.

Angels are spiritual beings; their way of battle is spiritual. St. Augustine says, “‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit.’”

Michael’s spiritual stillness, his singleness of heart, his oneness of vision – “always beholding the face of our Father who is in heaven” (c.f. Mat. 18: 10) triumphs over the frantic, grasping, envious, and vain energy of the morning star - Lucifer.

Once, Lucifer was the most brilliant of all Angels. Then he said in his heart: “I will scale the heavens; Above the stars of God I will set up my throne…. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will be like the Most High!” (Isaiah 14: 13, 14)*

The Lord’s rebuke is to make Man like the Most High. The Logos became Man to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pet. 1: 4; c.f. CCC 460). This Man, Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10: 18). And it was Michael who cast him down.

Brilliance is nothing to humility. The egocentric is nothing to the theocentric. Who can compare to God? “Lucifer” is nothing to “Michael.”

*The Church Fathers teach us that Isaiah’s taunt-song against the king of Babylon, from which this is excerpted, also, mystically, refers to Satan.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A lesson from Kroger

in today's junk mail:

Proving once again that, while holiness may be more costly, it yields the better fruit.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Bring the whole tithe" (Mal. 3:10)

Catholics, I know, are not fond of the subject of tithing. My father once wrote, “One sure way to clear a wide empty space around one’s self, short of igniting a stink bomb, is to bring up the subject of tithing.”

I have never heard a message about tithing in church and not also heard some complaint about how there’s too much talk about money in the church. Any talk at all, it would seem, is too much for some folks. And yet, they discuss little else once they leave sacred ground.

What is it that makes our skin crawl when the priest dares say that word: “tithing?” Is it that money is too profane a topic for discussion in the church, like toilet bowls? Or is it that money is too sacred a topic to profane it by bringing it up at church? Do we serve mammon and not God (cf. Lk 16:13)?

Perhaps we’ve just seen too many televangelists.

A tithe is a tenth, ten-percent: that’s what the dread word means. It also means the first-fruits. If you pay your taxes and your health insurance and your life insurance and your 401K first and give ten-percent of what remains, you’re still giving, but you’re not actually tithing.

This is kind of like what Cain did, as opposed to Abel.

"In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not" (Gen. 4: 3-5).

Cain only gave “in the course of time,” but Abel gave of the “firstlings.” It wasn’t that God liked meat, but not grain so much. It was that God wanted His children to trust Him and give first, not after they made sure they had enough for themselves.

Absolute trust in God is another unpopular topic.

But who says you have to tithe, anyway? The law is laid down in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Malachi, but that’s just Old Testament business, right? Once, in my ignorance, I confessed my failure to tithe to the priest, who quickly corrected: “That’s no sin. If that were a sin, the whole congregation would be in trouble.”

Difference of opinion as regards tithing is as old as St. Peter (cf. Acts 5: 1-10).

In the earliest Church, the Apostolic Church, nobody tithed. That’s because they didn’t have anything left to tithe on after “all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold and laid them at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:34, 35). In other words, nobody could give just ten-percent because they were all too busy giving closer to a hundred.

By the second century, gifts made to the church were seldom so extravagant. St. Justin Martyr (c. 160) wrote, “As for the persons who are prosperous and willing, they give what each thinks fit.” Tertullian (c. 197), unusually strident about other matters, laxly wrote, “If he likes, each puts in a small donation – but only if it is his pleasure and only if he is able. For there is no compulsion; all is voluntary.”

In old St. Peter’s day, folks were struck dead by the Holy Spirit for handing over less than everything (cf. Acts 5: 1-10) - quite the turn about in a mere century, it seems to me. The change in attitude did not go unlamented. St. Cyprian (c. 250) wrote:

"They used to sell houses and estates so that they might lay up for themselves treasures in heaven. They presented the proceeds to the apostles, to be distributed for the use of the poor. However, now, we do not even give the tenths from our patrimony!"

So it goes. So it is still going.

Now we call it one of the six laws of the Church: Catholics are obligated to “contribute to the support of the Church.” How’s that for vague? Yet, too many of us in the pews can’t in good conscience say that we do even this in a meaningful way.

Personally, I advocate a return to the good old understanding of the tithe – all that Old Testament business. After all, the Lord of hosts Himself says, “Bring the whole tithe… and try me in this… Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down blessing upon you without measure (Malachi 3:10)?” Even if it’s no sin not to, that ought to encourage each and every one of us to cough up the dough.

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