Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Understanding faith in God via Catholic topics (1)

The Catholic Church is structured the way it is because it believes that when God intervenes in human life, such as when he reveals his presence; he not only leaves behind the words that are exchanged but also tangible gifts. In other words, God never comes “empty handed,” and he does not expect the faithful in return to live only upon the words of his prophets, or of Jesus Christ.

The tangible generosity of God is abundantly clear throughout the Bible. From the moment of creation to the ministry of Jesus Christ, God provides tangible and real gifts of goodness along with the words of those who proclaim Him. God provided creation itself and material abundance to Adam and Eve. God provided specific direction of how to approach, worship and house his earthly presence to the patriarchs and the priests of the Israelites. God’s prophets performed tangible miracles of healing on God’s behalf. God made gifts of the prophets themselves, living breathing people who carried out his will, rather than only giving continuing words of exhortation to the people. God gave people both religious practices and rituals and secular teaching for following the right paths, such as how to make a verbal contract through witnessing. God provided a place, the Mercy Seat of the Ark, and the Meeting Tent, where people could come to his prophets, notably Moses, with both their religious and their secular problems and receive counsel. These are just the highlights of the clear record that God has of bringing not only his words of instruction, comfort and exhortation, but also tangible structures, both physical and ritual, as gifts that magnify and continue the grace that God has bestowed.

In my recent 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit post about Wisdom, I cite as one example that God appears to King Solomon in a dream, and offers him anything that he asks for. King Solomon asked for wisdom in the form of an “understanding heart,” and God granted him that request. God did not simply instruct King Solomon, leaving only God’s words of advice to recall, but God actually infused King Solomon with the tangible gift of Wisdom, that did not exist previously and that could henceforth be seen most clearly by all who observed King Solomon.

Judaism continues to understand that God has given them tangible gifts in addition to his words. For example, the Sabbath is a continuing gift by God to Jews as the day of their rest, when neither work nor worries should concern them. Compare the difference in a gift where if God had said, “You ought to take time off from work on a regular basis,” and then leave it up to humans and oppressive bosses to obey that or not, versus the gift of a mandated day of rest once a week. The Sabbath is an example of a continuing tangible gift that is real, physical, and measurable and not just the citing of scripture about what one should or should not do.
Likewise Islam contains gifts from God that are beyond the gems of God’s actual words, but are also tangible and measurable. One example is the prohibition of usury. Again, God could have given “good advice” that one should not charge usury, and then leave it up to humans and oppressive money managers to obey that or not. But God gives the Muslims the gift that they will not be oppressed by usury, period.

The early Christian Church which is by definition the Catholic Church likewise looked for and identified the continuing gifts of God that have been given to them. Recognizing that Jesus Christ, Savior, is the gift of God to all of humanity, the Apostles and disciples who were all drawn from their Jewish faith foundations understood very well that it was not only the words of Jesus Christ, or his washing of the stain of original sin, that God gives to them. Exactly as Moses created at God’s behest ritual and physical structures so that God’s gifts can be shared with the faithful, the Apostles and disciples, and after them the early Church fathers, identified what tangible gifts Jesus Christ brought with him to “furnish” the faith.

Consider the Last Supper. Jesus had the Apostles hire a room, one with a table, couches, and all the service needed for dinner. They did not have the Last Supper by standing up in the air, with no physical furnishings, with no shared custom, and instead only the words of Jesus to linger in oral and then book form. Jesus role modeled not only the love of God and God’s teachings, but also how to “furnish” the faithful with the physical and ritual structures that are also the true gifts of God. Thus Jesus did not eliminate the sacrificial altar; he fulfilled it and gave to the disciples the form and the ritual of the furnishings of how future worship of God should take place: the altar in the Catholic Church that at each Mass commemorates the Last Supper.

How often have good Christians today said, “I wish I could have been there when Jesus was alive, and have seen him and spoken with him?” Well, the gift of God is that at every Mass one is there with Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. God always thinks ahead, just like in the gift of the Sabbath, so that future generations are not deprived of his gifts. It’s not like God allowed only Adam and Eve to celebrate the Sabbath and then no one else, or the first generation of Israelites got a day off each week, but next generations do not. God intends that ALL the faithful Christians be able to attend the Lord’s Supper, to be in the physical presence of Jesus Christ, generation after generation. I am astounded by how many Christians, both Catholics and not, fail to understand this gift. When one celebrates the Sacrifice of the Mass, one is invited to be present at the Lord’s Last Supper, in his physical presence, and in the presence of the faithful Apostles and saints. Every time someone misses Mass they are not attending an opportunity to be in the physical presence of Jesus Christ as he celebrates the Last Supper!

Somehow many Christians, as a result of the Reformation, and also the corrupting influences of self congratulatory modernism, view Jesus Christ in only two dimensions: 1) what he taught, and thus what words and role modeling he provided to be “like Jesus” or “following Jesus” and 2) that he provided the pathway for salvation. But there is a third dimension of Jesus Christ, which is that he was a real person who brought real gifts from God by which to furnish the faithful and the Church in their lives throughout the generations.

Thus the sacraments and the structures of the Church, both physical and ritual, are the Church’s discernment of what actions of Christ are demonstrations of continuing, real gifts that God has given to be carried forward. Because Jesus instructed to continue to perform the Last Supper in memory of him, this is exactly what the Church has done. This is why each Catholic Church has a consecrated altar, which is the Last Supper table. That is why each Catholic Church has a tabernacle, which houses the hosts (sacred bread) that is the actual presence of Jesus Christ at each Last Supper. No one “misses out” on having been the good Apostle at the Last Supper because the Last Supper is real and alive, with Jesus Christ present, at every Catholic Mass, regardless how humble the surroundings and regardless how many generations have passed since the first Last Supper.

So sure, Christians who are not Catholics and who “only believe in the scripture” are accepting God’s gift of salvation. But goodness gracious, I do not understand the bitterness regarding the Holy Eucharist by many toward the Catholic Church. Such bitterness and rejection is a profound blindness and missed opportunity. It is like the child who sees only the one gift provided by their father under the Christmas tree, and ignores the other gift by the same father. The child says to the father, “I only need this one gift!” Well, sure, but the father gave the child two gifts; why would the child not want to even open the second gift from the father? That is how it is when those who have an extreme view of Jesus Christ having brought “only” his words and his salvatory power totally miss out on the additional gifts provided by God through Jesus Christ. In a way it is like Jews who do not celebrate the Sabbath. They still believe in God and they still merit the graces of their faith, but it’s like they are saying, “Hey God, I don’t want the day off each week!” This is what it is like when Christians who demean the Holy Eucharist consider the sacrament to be “not essential to their salvation, and actually an ‘addition’ to ‘the faith.’” Huh? I continue to be astonished that people cannot discern the difference between following Jesus and accepting his salvation message and accepting a gift that Jesus himself left for them, wrapped, “under the tree,” and not even unwrapping it to look inside. Jesus left the gift of being with him at the Last Supper, with his physical and living presence, for every generation after him and there is that gift, every day at one’s local Catholic Church.

Preaching, prayer, communal worship and Bible study are joys of the word of God. I will write more about them in future topics. They do not “compete” with the other gifts that God has given through Jesus Christ, which is to be invited to be at his table, in his physical presence, through all generations, available every day and every place on earth where a Church and a priest celebrating the Mass can be found. That is why I never attend non-Catholic worship services, not because they are wrong, but I miss too much not being at the Lord’s Table. Even if I have to listen to the most listless and ineloquent sermon, ha, I would not trade being at even the most prayerful and heartfelt Christian service with the chance to be that day once again in the physical presence of Jesus Christ as we are once again at the Last Supper in the communion of the faithful, as good Apostles taking our place in front of the table.

I hope that you have found this enlightening and helpful. I could write much more on this topic, but I want to keep these topics high level in making their general point. Here my point is to understand that God always gives tangible gifts that can be the joy and benefit of each generation of believers; God does not expect people to live only with the verbal and behavior implications of his words, and ignore the other gifts that he likewise leaves wrapped under the tree. Think about it. For example, every country that has a Catholic Church has, by definition, in their midst, the table set for the Last Supper with the physical presence of Jesus Christ. Even if that country is not Christian they have the benefit of being gracious hosts of the physical presence of Jesus Christ, seated at the Last Supper, in their midst! Those who attend the Sacrifice of the Mass are accepting the continual invitation of God to participate, even two thousand years later, at the actual Last Supper in the physical presence of Jesus Christ. And, unlike Elvis, Jesus never “leaves the building.” Thus the faithful Christians and who are not Catholic, but attend their own places of worship, can rather than criticize, be heart warmed that not only is Jesus present wherever the two or more gather in his name, but he also has the table set nearby.