The arrival of November signals that the year is winding down. Today, All Souls’ Day is dedicated to remembering our departed loved ones. The past becomes present, and perhaps, even for a few moments, we relive some of those times we experienced with our loved ones. Still, the past cannot be retrieved, nor can the future predicted. Only the present moment can be grasped.
It is not generally known that, until 1955, Hallowe’en was listed on the Church’s liturgical calendar. Today, Halloween, as it is spelled and widely understood, has morphed into a major secular holiday that is anticipated by mid-October or before. In sales, it rivals those of Christmas. The public is barraged with images of diabolical and cruel evil spirits or monstrous creatures that wreak havoc everywhere they go, and with the ubiquitous colors of orange and black. The social media run the gamut to show their fascination with Halloween from the light-hearted trick-or-treating to ghoulish expressions. Men and women suit themselves up to imitate famous people. One day of fun can pass harmlessly if the history of the day is also explained to children who are curious about the origins of customs.
For the past several weeks, our reflections have focused on the suffering Lord according to St. Paul’s hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. This week, we shall expand on the last two verses in this hymns: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(vv 9-11).
In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-11), universal redemption is proclaimed. Jesus saves all men and women by canceling out Adam’s pride and disobedience with humility and obedience. As a result, all men and women are liberated in spirit and in truth accompanied by our cooperation with God’s grace not to refuse the grace of redemption. Christ’s redemption is revealed in verses 2:5-11 In this reflection, we will consider verses 6-8.
Jesus predicted his passion and death to fulfill the prophecies through the mouths of the Old Testament prophets. In fact, centuries before Christ, the prophecies predicted that the expected Messiah would be despised and rejected by men. What literary artist could have conjured up the precise details of his denouement? The logic of Good Friday is an oxymoron, the story, wild and appalling. On Palm Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem knowing that he will suffer. The events of the three-day ordeal confront us as creative chaos. The most explicit of these uncanny prophecies are found in Isaiah chapters 50-53, but at least one hundred of them are scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ passion and death may be considered on two levels, the human and the divine. The human context for the fulfillment of these prophecies is in to be found in a familiar source of suffering—human malice. But over the centuries, the idea of the Suffering Servant-Messiah ran through these prophecies. Verses in the New Testament support those in the Old. The parallels present a singular and compelling case because no historical figure other than Jesus has fulfilled them. What do the prophecies ascertain about the last week in the life of Jesus? In the passages cited below, the first reference refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, the second to their fulfillment in the Christian Scriptures. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king riding on an ass (Zech 9:9/Mt 21:5). Betrayed by a friend (Ps 41:9/Jn 13:21), he was sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zech 11:12/Mt 26:15; Lk 22:5); these pieces of silver were given for the potter’s field and cast in the temple (Zech 11:13/Mt 27:9-10). His friends deserted him (Zech 13:7/Mt 26:56), and others gave false witness about him (Ps 35:11/Mt 26:60). In his last hours, he was spat upon and scourged (Is 50:6, 53:5/Mt 27:26,30), struck on the cheek (Micah 5:1/Mt 27:30). The Messiah was called the sacrificial lamb (Is 53:5/Jn 1:29 who was given for a new covenant (Is 42:6; Jer 31:31-34/Rom 11:27; Gal 3:17, 424; Heb 8:6,8,10;10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20), He was despised, rejected by men (Is 53:3:1-6), the one who bore “our griefs” (Is 53:4,6); “and with his striped we are healed” (Is 53:5). In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the divine plan of the Incarnation and the paschal mystery hovers over universal redemption. Christianity proclaims that Jesus saves all men and women by canceling out Adam’s pride and disobedience with humility and obedience. As a result, all men and women are liberated in spirit and in truth accompanied by our cooperation with God’s grace not to refuse the grace of redemption. Christ’s redemption is revealed in verses 2:5-11, and the remaining part of this reflection will consider this hymn from its soteriological aspect.
Last week’s reflection on suffering and beauty introduced the topic with the many questions it raises. In Part Two, let us reflect on the mission of Jesus and two modern-day figures who died for their respective causes.
In the fictionalized stage play, “Amadeus,” the British writer Peter Shaffer puts an intractable question in the mouth of Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s older and senior colleague at the imperial court: how can an all-good and loving God bestow the gift of genius to a foul-mouthed buffoon like Mozart, while giving a devout Catholic like Salieri only enough talent to recognize his mediocrity? So embittered is Salieri by his perceived injustice, that in the play, this patron saint of mediocrity renounces God and vows to destroy Mozart. (In real life, Salieri did try to help Mozart, if somewhat reluctantly.) Who of us is not perplexed by the mystery of suffering? Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, suffering does violence to the person and to groups of persons. It comes from ourselves, from the malice of others, from places, events, and unfulfilled expectations. In the aftermath of disaster, parents sob over their innocent dead children; faith is shaken. How did Rose Kennedy sustain the tragic deaths of four children and still hold on to her sanity and her faith? The year 2011 has presented to us one unnerving challenge after the other and from every imaginable source. Why are good people weighed down by injustice? To whom shall we go for answers? For consolation? Not even music can calm our spirits beyond the moment. Who of us dares to give facile answers to its universal and ubiquitous presence? Reality itself gives the unwelcome but truthful response: when everything has been done to remove suffering, and it persists, a person either deals with it or suffers more intensely from fighting it. Grave suffering re-arranges the whole of one’s life, whether through natural catastrophe, illness, or loss of a loved one. Maturity begins with accepting the fact that struggle is an integral part of life, but with it comes the invitation to grow in compassion, wisdom and love. Questions about suffering inevitably lead to questions about God. Where is God in it all? A powerful and all-loving God would not permit suffering to happen. Therefore, God must be a sadist or an impotent entity. Such inescapable questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because they affect us at the very core of daily living. And yet we do sense a ray of light in the darkness that holds meaning for us. Stories with happy endings are not just for children. Despite setbacks and “in the face of despair,” Christian hope “is possible only in the light of redemption . . . in the coming of absolute love that identifies itself with suffering and with the sufferers of the world” (Walter Kasper, “The God of Jesus Christ,” 161-62). Jesus suffers in solidarity with us: “The Incarnation of God’s solidarity with the poor in every form has a catastrophic logic; if he takes it seriously, it will bring him to the cross” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Glory of the Lord” VII:138). Yet, Jesus was not a passive victim. He did not seek out suffering for its own sake. He was weighed down with suffering, from the obtuseness of friends and the malice of his enemies, from fatigue, distress and loneliness, and from a shameful death. In human terms, his life was an appalling failure. The quest of humanity that suffers and dies is the quest of the God-Man who also suffers, dies, has compassion on us, and who is raised on high in Resurrection glory by his Father (Kasper, 161). In the end, by enduring death, he trampled on death and triumphed over the grave. A skeptical culture questions the fact that Jesus is the world’s redemptive hope. On September 14, why does the Catholic Church celebrate this scandal as a triumph? If the cross leads to diminishment and loss, in what way can an instrument of Roman torture be considered a triumph and the tree of life? What is the significance of Jesus’ suffering?
Care for God’s beloved creation presupposes a universal purpose of the earth’s goods. Stewardship brings with it responsible freedom “to respect creation and to promote an environmental culture that is based on respect for ethical values, the protection of life, an economy of solidarity and sustainable development.” (Benedict XVI: “Pope Encourages Ethical Ecology,” June 7, 2007). The issues are all of the same cloth, and attending to one without the other distorts the unitary view of the earth. Environmental imposition of contraceptives, abortion, genetic manipulation of human beings, and other distortions of the ethical norms that affect the care of human beings, must be rejected.
Through their fateful decision, our first parents lost their original innocence, abdicated their preternatural bliss, and incurred exile from the garden. Seduced by Satan’s lie, they grasped at what belonged to God alone. They proposed to step into the place of God. In a flash, harmony shattered into cacophony, and order into disarray. Of this tragedy, St. Paul writes: “Through one man, sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and this death has passed into all men because all have sinned in Adam” (Rom 5:12). Sin’s rancid odor requires cleansing that brings the fragrance of holiness. In God’s mercy, the right purpose and order of creation would be re-established: God as creator, man and woman as creatures. If the story of humanity is a love story or the failure of love, then all theology, in one way or another, probes this truth in terms of sins against love. Modern skepticism has declared sin to be a medieval notion. In fact, the word sin is in danger of extinction. This so-called logic goes as follows: ‘of course, men and women make mistakes, or mistakes are made, but there is no culpability, no sin. We are victims of circumstances incapable of being held responsible for our choices and actions.’ Such is the non-judgmental culture, rife with relativism. Despite attempts to banish sin from the collective consciousness, it remains a firmly-held belief. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves,” writes the Beloved Disciple (1Jn 1:8). Sin disrupts our relationship with God breaking the bond that exists between creator and creature. Today, sin is institutional, structural, and personal. We see it in warring nations, in the battle of the rich and greedy over the poor and weak, in heart-breaking starvation in one part of the world and unbridled affluence in another, and in the killing of developing infants in their mothers’ wombs. Sin brutally expresses humanity’s inhumanity on others. If we think about it, sin is about the will to power, the will to dominate others. Because of the first sin, the Word of God assumed the condition of a creature to bear the guilt of the world in order to restore the fallen Bride to divine friendship and restore her original beauty.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World urges men and women build a better world, upholding the inviolable God-given right to life, promoting the dignity of every person, and advancing the common good (#33-46). This mandate however is initiated in the Garden of Eden (Gen 1:26-27). In the beginning and out of love, God brought time out of eternity and the spark of life that burst forth into the void. Here, “the reality of creation as a whole has become a monstrance of God's real presence” (Hans Urs von Balthasar: “The Glory of the Lord” I:420). Beauty “sheds its light outward from it; here is “the masterpiece of divine fantasy, which puts all human fantasy to naught” (Ibid., I:172). Creation sings with unique eloquence: He created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being” (Heb 1:3). God contemplates, blesses, and pronounces it as “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
Beauty is the face of love, and love is the soul of beauty. Faith remains incomplete without these attributes. Beauty as love makes demands on our patience, time, and energy. The way of beauty is an easy road to travel when all is going well. But what of those days when we feel trapped within our own circumstances, when we are overcome by financial, psychological, physical, or otherwise. As we try to work through our problems, casting all one’s cares onto the Lord is essential. The more frequently the spirit casts one’s cares onto Providence, the more beautiful one’s faith. Didn’t St. Paul confess: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10)? The hours of each day may seem ordinary, but in fact they become extraordinary if we live them in the assurance of this wisdom. Every hour is the raw material for an active and lively faith. Faith is challenged not so much in believing tenets, which we already hold, or in the good that we already do. Every hour calls us to leave our self-centeredness and “fly” toward Christ, the object of beauty and love. Together with truth and goodness, this flight away from self has always been, and continues to be, an essential part of Catholic faith—beauty as love. Mary of Nazareth clearly understood her dilemma when confronted by God’s messenger. With an enlightened intellect, with an alert intuition that sized up the facts, she freely gave herself over to the master planner without knowing the details of this self-offering. After all, she could have refused God’s proposal. The way of beauty may include feelings of skepticism. It was logical for Peter, who loved his Lord, to protest that he had just let down the nets and had caught nothing; but Jesus told him to do it again. The catch was almost too heavy to haul in (Lk 5:1-10). When Jesus commands Peter to come and walk on the water without fear, Peter steps out to do so. But when, with the onslaught of the strong wind, he takes his eye off the Lord, he begins to sink. His cry, “Lord save me,” is his act of faith that is certain (Mt 14:22-33).
Last week, we reflected on an essential aspect of active and lively faith. As with the first disciples, the soul is transported by what it sees, hears, and touches, and by everything that Christ reveals in his very person. In the process, the soul is filled with joy. Moved by love, the heart takes flight toward Christ and wishes to unite the self with him. This week, we will focus on conversions to the faith, and next week, we shall discuss daily conversion of the heart.
Christian discipleship in its very origin and essence is synonymous with a dynamic movement from self to the beauty of Christ:
How does a person come to perceive Jesus Christ as the beauty beyond all other beauties, and taught in the Church’s incarnational theology? Many readers of this column were born into Christianity; many were born as Catholic Christians. Perhaps some have been raised with no religion at all. One could say that we have inherited the tenets of our family, however expressed. As we mature, so too the invitation to a mature faith. Deciding to follow Jesus as his disciple is the most important choice of one’s life because it is a person’s most fundamental and personal decision. How is it that St. Peter and so many others through the ages have proclaimed Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16)? For the moment, let us set aside this question and consider how we come to love and embrace something beautiful, person, place or thing. Natural beauty is a more eminent kind of beauty and can be directly intuited, but enjoying artistic beauty requires guidance. When you hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, for example, why is your attention arrested? It is because the music, of itself, compels you in a conspicuous way to listen. The music attracts, and as you begin drawing near to it, you are enjoying the experience. Every time you hear the Fifth symphony, you listen with an increasingly open mind and heart. Its beauty has such credibility that you may respond: ‘I know that this composition is a thing of rare beauty. I love to listen to it and want it to be part of my life because it transports me upward beyond myself to itself.’ This example somewhat resembles the movement that takes place when a person decides to become a totally committed disciple of Jesus Christ. One is transported, one ‘travels’ from the self, to be united with him, and through him, with the Father and their Holy Spirit.
In what sense can we speak of the beauty of Christ? In the next few reflections, this topic will receive our focus. When something beautiful reveals itself to you, whether animate or inanimate, and you perceive it as beautiful, you allow yourself to be drawn to it. You are transported from your self to the beautiful. You may be in a stationery position, but your attention is captured by the beautiful thing. This dynamic movement, uniting your very self with the beautiful, has made you a better person for that experience. The common parlance refers to it an ‘aha’ experience. Experience with the beautiful prepares us for the encounter with the beauty of Christ. Not so with ugliness unless an artist like Shakespeare is portraying evil personified in a masterful way. The Bard’s depiction of ugliness urges us to repudiate it.
In the classical tradition, beauty, goodness, and truth, are considered identical triplets. They are interior to one another, but beauty is their external appearance; beauty, their outer expression. Beauty is the mortar that holds them together. Love assumes all three. Love crowns all three. In the classical tradition, beauty, truth and goodness are upheld as transcendentals (Lat: trans scendere, to climb across or to leap over). They leap across all categories, divisions, and distinctions of being; they “spill over to encompass every level of being, surpass all the limits of essences and are coextensive with Being." (J.B. Lotz, “Transcendentals,” 4: 240- 41).
Good taste is restrained. Bad taste is excessive, vulgar, and often offensive. Our culture, especially the visual media, is drenched in bad taste. It is a philosophical axiom that whatever is received is received according to the capacity of the recipient. Objective beauty is grasped in the manner proportional to the power of the imagination. Developing good taste begins in early childhood and varies with the faculties of the individual. A child exposed to the arts tends to receive the classics in a more positive way than a child who is raised without them. Similarly, one who has developed a vivid imagination is generally more susceptible to the attraction of beauty than those with less development. There are exceptions. On several occasions Glenn Gould, the famous J.S. Bach keyboard interpreter, told the following anecdote when asked how he came to love the composer so early in life. His response was remarkable: when his mother was pregnant with him, she regularly played classical music, especially Bach’s. He attributed his love for Bach to his mother. Within limits, the adage, “taste may not be disputed,” is valid due to the many factors that form and mold our taste such as character, temperament, education, age, gender, and choice of friends, leisure and entertainment, culture and the arts. According to aesthetic subjectivism, every eye sees differently, and every taste senses differently. Therefore, the perception of beauty involves a subjective judgment, varying with the individual's eye, taste, time and circumstance. In aesthetic criteria, objective norms are given short-shrift, playing a minor role. However, the adage that ‘taste may not be argued’ (or colloquially, ‘to each his own’), has its limits. Sound taste is not arbitrary. It is not an absolute contention that taste may not be disputed or questioned, thus removing objective criteria from judging a thing. Taste has to do with particulars of the truth. Sound taste knows the difference between what is sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. Good taste applies dispositions and judgments of the mind that reveal one’s choices. It applies to table manners and caring for the body. Public courtesy is essential to good taste. Loud conversation and the casual use of cell phones in close areas like public transportation exemplify a striking lack of public courtesy. A nose in the perfume industry and a sommelier in the wine have acquired the sense of delicacy. These experts, who know when something is too much, too little, or just right, have transformed their industries into art forms. They have cultivated the art of impeccable taste. What is impeccable taste? A person who “develops his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful” (Von Balthasar, Theological Aesthetics, 481). He observes that “an eye for quality is analogous to the eye of the connoisseur, which can infallibly distinguish art from kitsch, and excellent quality from average or merely good quality” (Ibid., 482). The words of Hebrews 5:14 support this position: “But strong meat is for the perfect; for them who by custom have their senses exercised to the discerning of good and evil.” An alternate translation renders the verse: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Before the sixth century B.C., the objective basis of beauty lay in the ideal proportion of the perfect human body. The measure of the perfect man was the measure of all things beautiful. The design of the Parthenon exemplifies this balance, symmetry, and proportion. The Ancients and pre-modernists were aware of aesthetic disagreements, especially in works of art, but they could not ignore the evidence that “things are not beautiful because they delight us; we enjoy things because they are beautiful” (F.J. Kovach, “Aesthetic Subjectivism and Pre-Modern Philosophy,” 211). Some reasons for disagreement may attributed to prejudice, religious education, nationality and cultural differences, close mindedness, immaturity or ignorance, excessive familiarity with a thing of beauty, dark mood, or illness. (Ibid., 211-14).
Beauty pleases, delights and gives deep satisfaction, but, however integral to daily life, beauty remains largely misunderstood. Does beauty lie ‘in the eye of the beholder?’ Many people hold that criteria for judging beauty depends primarily, if not entirely, on subjective judgment. Or, is beauty objective? Doesn’t a thing have to have beauty within it before the eye sees it? Aren’t sound, color, and taste objective? Isn’t color actual when it is seen, sound, when it is heard, flavor, when it is tasted? An understanding of beauty stands or falls on the interlocking question: whether beauty is subjective or objective.
The experience of beauty in body, mind, and spirit is a universal human need. Beauty penetrates to the psyche’s deepest levels and offers meaning to life. A thing of beauty uplifts the human spirit if the pleasure is derived from what is morally sound and aesthetically honest.