You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

Sex is great

Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?

I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.

Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.

The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).

There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?

Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.

That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.

Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.

Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.

The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.

We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.

The end of the Sacraments?

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It has long been a fascination to me that Jesus tells us that “in the resurrection they are neither married nor given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34-35). Marriage is fundamental to the building of a healthy society, which is one of the reasons that it is worth fighting for. It is a gift that God establishes in creation, most notably in Genesis 2:24, prior to the fall. So why would it be something absent from heaven? Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that marriage is an icon of the love between Christ and His Church. We are saved through our marriages — the one and only thing that the New Testament directly calls a Sacrament, musterion (Ephesians 5:32). If marriage imparts that kind of grace, why would it cease in the life to come where grace is to abound?

This question struck me anew this week in reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. The fourth book is entirely taken up with devotion to Christ in the Holy Eucharist, yet early in Chapter 11 Thomas says that for all its gloriousness, the Eucharist is but a temporary gift:

In truth, I possess and adore Him Whom the angels adore in heaven — I as yet by faith, they face to face unveiled. I must be content with the light of the true faith and walk in it until the day of eternal brightness dawns and the shadow of figures passes away. When, moreover, that which is perfect shall have come, the need of sacraments shall cease, for the blessed in heavenly glory need no healing sacrament. Rejoicing endlessly in the presence of God, beholding His glory face to face, transformed from their own brightness to the brightness of the ineffable Deity, they taste the Word of God made flesh, as He was in the beginning and will remain in eternity.

Thomas is saying that there will be no Mass in heaven because what the Mass gives us is only a foretaste of what heaven offers all the time. We need the Mass here and now because of our separation from God and our need for the merits of His Son to be applied to us. Once we are in heaven, there will no longer be any separation between us and God because we will have been washed clean and made holy. We will not need the Mass because every moment will be like the Mass, filled with the presence and gift of God.

To a certain extent, I see the point that Thomas is making. It applies equally well to all the Sacraments, including marriage. If the reason for marriage in this world is to draw us into the intimate life of family and reveal to us the love between Christ and His Church, than heaven need not have marriage because everyone will exist as one family and everyone will know the true intimacy of being one with Christ as His Bride. It is like asking whether or not there will be art in heaven.  What all great art points to abstractly will be there concretely. There will not need to be art because everything will be what art exists to point out to us.

Yet I cannot help but feel like this is an incomplete picture for reasons both personal and theological. The personal reasons are admittedly more pressing. The Mass is the most beautiful and holy thing there is. How can there truly be a heaven without it? Marriage, for all its hard work and its ups and downs, is an amazing adventure. I dare not imagine a heaven in which I will not know my wife as my wife, in which she will just be one more of an endless line of holy sisters and brothers.

The personal reasons are the ones that keep me awake at night, but the theological reasons are the ones that keep me from thinking my objections are merely sentimental. The Scriptures do not tell us as much as many people would think about what heaven will be like, but what they do tell us paints a picture that is hard to describe as anything other than sacramental.

Scott Hahn wrote a wonderful little book some years back called The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. In that book, he argues fairly persuasively that the complex picture of heaven and the life-to-come presented by the Book of Revelation is best understood in liturgical terms. There is a constant Eucharistic feast going on in heaven that will one day be translated back to earth when the two come together at the end. The Mass that we participate in now is more than just a foretaste; it is an actual participation in this never-ending heavenly liturgy.

The same argument, it seems to me, can be made for what marriage will be like in the age to come. There will be no new marriages contracted, but that does not have to mean that marriage itself will be swept away like a glass of water being poured into the ocean. Rather, the marriages of the faithful will be redeemed and perfected and thereby shown the part they have always played in the overwhelming reality of the married life of heaven in which Christ is constantly being made one with His Bride.

We can extend this out to the other Sacraments as well. I need not act as a priest in heaven since the great High Priest who is Our Lord will have it covered, yet the truth is that my priesthood here and now is a participation in His and I do not expect that to disappear once I am with Him. Baptism will not be needed in heaven, yet the mark of the Baptized will remain the sign of our citizenship in the Kingdom. Even Anointing of the Sick and Confirmation will have some place of crossover, though our faith will not need strengthening there nor will there be any more sickness to heal.

Heaven may be the end of the Sacraments, but in the here-and-now the Sacraments are the beginning of heaven. The Sacraments are not merely tools for the conditioning of our faith but real and true places of entry into the life of God. There may not be set Mass times on Sunday mornings in heaven, but that is only because all of heaven is singing the Mass all the time. There may not be weddings in heaven, but that is only because every marriage finds its perfect place in the marriage feast that is forever celebrated at God’s table.

Photo from Southern Orders here.