Stump the Seminarian, Holy Week Edition

Today's question, from Ian, is a timely one. It gets to the heart of the Paschal Mystery, and the relationship between the Mass, the Last Supper, and Good Friday:
"The Mass is referred to as the “unbloody” re-presenting of the sacrifice on Calvary. But how do we square this description with the fact that the Most Precious Blood is present on the altar? The description seems to imply that we don't REALLY think the Precious Blood is, in fact, blood. Please help!"
The answer to this question should enhance our understanding of just what it is that we're celebrating this Holy Week. Read on.

The Most Important Moment in History: Why the Incarnation Matters

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel's message to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It also celebrates the Incarnation, which is brought about through Mary's faith-filled response (“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke 1:38). This is the greatest event in all of human history: the moment upon which everything else, even Christmas and Easter, is built. And it happens in a quiet way enjoyed only by God, His angels, and the Virgin Mary. God comes, not in an earthquake or a storm, but in a gentle wind, as the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, overshadows Mary (cf. 1 Kings 19:11-13).


The very fact that the Annunciation is such a quiet, private affair - known to us only due to the Virgin Mary's testimony to St. Luke - makes it easy to overlook its importance. But in truth, it's central to the faith: to all of Christianity, really, but to Catholicism in a special way. Fr. Robert Barron argues in Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith that a deep understanding of the Incarnation is what separates Christians from non-Christians, and Catholics from non-Catholics.
The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many of the ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade. And in many of the philosophies of modernity God is construed as a threat to human well-being. In their own ways, Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and Sartre all maintain that God must be eliminated if humans are to be fully themselves. But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.

And the Incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participated in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear. No philosophical or political or religious program in history - neither Greek nor Renaissance nor Marxist humanism - has ever made a claim about human destiny as extravagant as Christianity's. We are called not simply to moral perfection or artistic self-expression or economic liberation but to what the Eastern fathers called theiosis, transformation into God.

I realize that an objection might be forming in your mind. Certainly the doctrine of the Incarnation separates Christianity from the other great world religions, but how does it distinguish Catholicism from the other Christian churches? Don't Protestants and the Orthodox hold just as firmly to the conviction that the Word became flesh? They do indeed, but they don't, I would argue, embrace the doctrine in its fullness. They don't see all the way to the bottom of it or draw out all of its implications. Essential to the Catholic mind is what I would characterize as a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation through space and time, an extension that is made possible through the mystery of the church. Catholics see God's continued enfleshment in the oil, water, bread, imposed hands, wine, and salt of the sacraments; they appreciate it in the gestures, movements, incensations, and songs of the Liturgy; they savour it in the texts, arguments, and debates of the theologians; they sense it in the graced governance of popes and bishops; they love it in the struggles and missions of the saints; they know it in the writings of Catholic poets and in the cathedrals crafted by Catholic architects, artists, and workers. In short, all of this discloses to the Catholic eye and mind the ongoing presence of the Word made flesh, namely Christ.
This passage serves as the thesis to Barron's whole Catholicism series. Using sights and sounds, the spoken and the written word, he strives to present an Incarnational Catholic Christianity that engages the whole person, body and soul, including our senses.

St. John of Damascus
In seeing these connections between the Incarnation and religious imagery, Barron is following the lead of the greatest Saints of Christian history, perhaps most notably St. John of Damascus (St. John Damascene), in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images (Part I, II, and III). In Part III, he cuts right to the heart of the matter, showing the interconnection between the Incarnation, iconography, and the Sacraments:
Our Lord called His disciples blessed, saying, "Many kings and prophets have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear and have not heard it. Blessed are your eyes which see and your ears which hear." (Mt. 13.16-17) The apostles saw Christ with their bodily eyes, and His sufferings and wonders, and they listened to His words. We, too, desire to see, and to hear, and to be blessed. They saw Him face to face, as He was present in the body. Now, since he is not present in the body to us, we hear His words from books and are sanctified in spirit by the hearing, and are blessed, and we adore, honouring the books which tell us of His words. So, through the representation of images we look upon His bodily form, and upon His miracles and His sufferings, and are sanctified and satiated, gladdened and blessed. Reverently we worship His bodily form, and contemplating it, we form some notion of His divine glory. For, as we are composed of [90] soul and body, and our soul does not stand alone, but is, as it were, shrouded by a veil, it is impossible for us to arrive at intellectual conceptions without corporeal things. just as we listen with our bodily ears to physical words and understand spiritual things, so, through corporeal vision, we come to the spiritual. On this account Christ took a body and a soul, as man has both one and the other. And baptism likewise is double, of water and the spirit. So is communion and prayer and psalmody; everything has a double signification, a corporeal and a spiritual. Thus again, with lights and incense. The devil has tolerated all these things, raising a storm against images alone.
By the way, an excellent summary of John's thought can be found in this papal audience by Pope Benedict XVI. I should hasten to add one thing, in case there's any ambiguity: neither Fr. Barron nor John Damascene nor Pope Benedict are arguing that we should literally worship holy images, or treat them as if they were God. This is important to mention, since the English translation refers to “worship” given to images. But what's actually meant is explained in Part II:
It is evident to all that flesh is matter, and that it is created. I reverence and honour matter, and worship that which has brought about my salvation. I honour it, not as God, but as a channel of divine strength and grace. Was not the thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? and the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary? Was not the holy sepulchre matter, the life-giving stone the source of our resurrection? Was not the book of the Gospels matter, and the holy table which gives us the bread of life? Are not gold and silver matter, of which crosses, and holy pictures, and chalices are made? And above all, is not the Lord's Body and Blood composed of matter? Either reject the honor and worship of all these things, or conform to ecclesiastical tradition, sanctifying the worship of images in the name of God and of God's friends, and so obeying the grace of the Divine Spirit. If you give up images on account of the law, you should also keep the Sabbath and be circumcised, for these are severely inculcated by it. You should observe all the law, and not celebrate the Lord's Passover out of Jerusalem. But you must know that if you observe the law, Christ will profit you nothing. (Gal. 5.2)
The Incarnation makes matter indispensable to salvation. Without matter, you're not saved. So you can't have a “matter is evil,” “flesh is evil” worldview. Holy material things serve as a locus of encounter with grace, an avenue through which we reach God, and our salvation. Although that's true to a large extent even under the Old Covenant, it's true in a radically new way after the revolution of the Incarnation.

6 Early Christian Controversies That Protestantism Can't Explain

Nuremberg chronicles f 145v 4.jpg
Woodcut of St. Patrick, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
In an article entitled Saint Patrick the Baptist?, Stephen R. Button tries to claim St. Patrick for Evangelical Protestantism... or at least disassociate him from Roman Catholicism. Button is hardly alone: you can find similar attempts by Don Boys and others, some of them dating back several decades.

The argument tends to work like this. From Patrick, we have (in Button's words) only the “84 short paragraphs that make up both his Confession and his 'Letter to Coroticus.'” Baptist authors then mine these texts for any doctrines that Patrick doesn't mention explicitly, and then claim that he must have held the Baptist view. So, for example, since Patrick doesn't say who ordained him a bishop, Button concludes that Patrick must have believed that ordination came directly from God, rather than through the Church:
Patrick claimed to have served as a deacon, presbyter, and bishop. In his “Letter to Coroticus,” he wrote, “I, Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, resident in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop. . . . Most assuredly I believe that what I am I have received from God” (in R. P. C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick). While this may simply be a way of giving God all the glory, Patrick was silent regarding any formal education, ordination, appointment, or support by Rome or any other church, suggesting instead that his ordination came directly from God.
This position requires ignoring that Patrick is a Nicene Christian who quotes from the Latin Vulgate, speaks of the Romans as his countrymen, and is the son of a Roman Catholic deacon. It also means ignoring, or being ignorant of, the Mission of St. Palladius, the fourth-century Catholic mission to Ireland. More to the point, it requires ignoring the description of ordination given by Patrick himself:
What is more, when I baptized so many thousands of people, did I hope for even half a jot from any of them? [If so] Tell me, and I will give it back to you. And when the Lord ordained clergy everywhere by my humble means, and I freely conferred office on them, if I asked any of them anywhere even for the price of one shoe, say so to my face and I will give it back.

More, I spent for you so that they would receive me. And I went about among you, and everywhere for your sake, in danger, and as far as the outermost regions beyond which no one lived, and where no one had ever penetrated before, to baptize or to ordain clergy or to confirm people. Conscientiously and gladly I did all this work by God's gift for your salvation.
The rest of Button's arguments proceed just like this: Patrick doesn't tell us if he baptized infants or not, so he must not have; he doesn't tell us how he baptized, so it must have been by full immersion only. His favorite color must have been orange, too, since he doesn't say otherwise. Meanwhile, inconvenient details like Patrick's performing the Sacrament of Confirmation are passed over.

This odd Baptist St. Patrick argument highlights a very real problem within Evangelical Protestantism: its radical disconnect from the early Christianity that it wants to emulate.

In virtually every dispute in early Christianity, Evangelicals believe that (a) the Catholic party, the party in communion with and headed by the Bishop of Rome, was right; or (b) nobody was right. The way that (a) points towards Catholicism is clear enough: how likely is it that it was just a string of good luck that Catholics got all of these right? And if this points to the protection of the Holy Spirit, why would we assume that the Spirit suddenly switched teams in the 16th century?

But (b) is actually what I want to focus on today: those times in Christian history in which Evangelical Protestantism is an outsider, an alien party for whom the dispute doesn't make sense, or who views all parties as wrong.

To illustrate my point, I've chosen 6 early Christian controversies, each of them originating before the Council of Nicea, before Constantine, and before any of the other fourth century events that allegedly corrupted the Christian Church (and before St. Patrick, by the way). In each case, the Evangelical is left without a side -- either the whole debate is alien to his belief system, or he's left concluding that everybody is wrong:.

1. The Easter Dating Controversy

What happened: Most of the Church followed the Roman calendar, so that Easter always fell on a Sunday. The churches in Asia Minor, founded by the Apostle John, followed the Hebrew calendar, so that Easter always fell three days after the start of Passover. Pope St. Victor (189-99) ordered the Asian churches to get with the universal Church calendar. They initially refused, since the Apostle John, St. Polycarp, and others had used this calendar. Eventually, they switched to the Roman calendar.

What's required to understand the dispute: the debate is not over whether to use a liturgical calendar, but which liturgical calendar.  This points to an orderly, liturgical Church in the second century. As I've argued before, this dispute always shows the centrality of the papacy extremely early on: this is a second-century pope who feels comfortable intervening in Asia Minor to tell the Christians there to stop using a liturgical calendar set up by an Apostle.

What we don't hear: Anybody rejecting liturgical calendars as unbiblical, contrary to Apostolic practice, or otherwise unnecessary or undesirable.

2. The Diocletian Persecution

Bust of Diocletian
What happened: The Roman Emperor Diocletian was a pagan, but was not particularly hostile to Christians at the outset of his reign. In fact, he even had Christians in his retinue. All of this changed in 299 A.D. when Diocletian visited the pagan haruspices to divine the future. One of the Christians in Diocletian's retinue made the Sign of the Cross. Lactantius recounts: “At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted.” The haruspices were rendered powerless. A furious Diocletian ordered both the haruspices and Christians punished, and ordered that all Roman soldiers be forced to offer pagan sacrifices. This quickly escalated into the bloodiest persecution of Christians in Roman history.

What's required to understand the dispute: the importance of the Sign of the Cross. On one side, you have the Roman pagans, or more accurately, the forces of evil that they're messing around with: “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). On the other side, you have the Catholic who use “the immortal sign,” the Sign of the Cross, to vanquish demons.

What we don't hear: Christians siding with the pagans in denouncing Catholics for using the Sign of the Cross, or claiming that it's a pagan ritual dating to the time of Constantine (a particularly ironic claim, given that we've just seen that these pre-Constantinian pagans ruthlessly persecuted the Catholics for the Sign of the Cross).

3. Fasting and the Eucharist

What happened: A question arose about whether or not to receive the Eucharist on fasting days (called “station” days). Tertullian, in On Prayer, written between 200-206 A.D. approaches question this way:
Similarly, too, touching the days of Stations, most think that they must not be present at the sacrificial prayers, on the ground that the Station must be dissolved by reception of the Lord's Body. Does, then, the Eucharist cancel a service devoted to God, or bind it more to God? Will not your Station be more solemn if you have withal stood at God's altar? When the Lord's Body has been received and reserved each point is secured, both the participation of the sacrifice and the discharge of duty.
What's required to understand the dispute: the question is whether receiving the Lord's Body at the Eucharistic Sacrifice breaks the fast. For this question even to make sense, you must acknowledge that there are days of fasting, the Eucharist is the Lord's Body, and the Eucharistic Liturgy is a Sacrifice.

What we don't hear: Either side rejecting fasting, the Eucharist, or the sacrificial nature of the Mass.

4. Donatism on the Sacraments

What happened: During the Diocletian persecution (see #2), some Christians - including bishops and priests - renounced the faith, or offered pagan sacrifice. This lead to a Sacramental crisis: were the Sacraments performed by these lapsed priest still valid? The Donatists said no, arguing “that Catholic sacraments, including baptism and ordination, were powerless because they were performed by morally lax priests.” 

In contrast, the Catholics held that the Sacraments work ex opere operato (“from the work worked”), depending upon the grace of God rather than the priest's holiness. St. Augustine explained that this is why the Apostles rebaptized those who had received only John the Baptist's non-sacramental baptism (Acts 19:3-5), but didn't rebaptize those baptized by Judas:
You give the baptism of Christ, therefore baptism is not administered after you: after John it was administered, because he gave not the baptism of Christ, but his own; for he had in such manner received it that it was his own. You are then not better than John: but the baptism given through you is better than that of John; for the one is Christ's, but the other is that of John. And that which was given by Paul, and that which was given by Peter, is Christ's; and if baptism was given by Judas it was Christ's. Judas gave baptism and after Judas baptism was not repeated; John gave baptism, and baptism was repeated after John: because if baptism was given by Judas, it was the baptism of Christ; but that which was given by John, was John's baptism.
What's required to understand the dispute: the efficacious nature of the Sacraments (particularly the regenerative nature of Baptism), the necessity of valid Sacraments for Holy Orders, and the nature of the priesthood.

What we don't hear: that the Sacraments are just symbols, or that the Sacraments are unnecessary for salvation. 

5. Gnosticism and the Eucharist
Bernardino Campi, Holy Communion of Mary Magdalene (detail) (1580)
What happened: St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John, wrote a series of seven letters on his way to martyrdom. In one of them, his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he denounces the Gnostics for disbelieving in the Eucharist:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
Ignatius' letter shows that in the earliest days of Christianity, one had to believe that the Eucharist was actually the flesh of Christ. The Gnostics didn't believe this, and were cut off from the Church.

What's required to understand the dispute: the Real Presence of the Eucharist and the Oneness of the Church. The two sides of the dispute are the Catholics, who believe that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior; and the Gnostics, who deny this on the grounds that Jesus didn't actually have flesh. The Apostle John, St. Ignatius' mentor, denounced the Gnostics for their position in 2 John 1:7, labelling them deceivers and Antichrist.

What we don't see: Christians siding with the Catholics on the Incarnation, and with the Gnostics against the Eucharist.

6. The Donatist Anti-Popes

Paolo Emilio Besenzi, Saint Peter (17th c.)
What happened: Although Donatism (see #4) was a schismatic movement largely confined to North Africa, they sought to establish their credibility by establishing their own Bishop of Rome. St. Optatus of Milevis, commenting some decades later, compares Catholicism and Donatism on this point. First, he establishes that the Catholic Church can trace a continual lineage of popes, from St. Peter down to the present age (in his case, Pope Siricius):
You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim----each for himself----separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.

To Peter succeeded Linus, to Linus succeeded Clement, to Clement Anacletus, to Anacletus Evaristus, to [....] Siricius, who to-day is our colleague, with whom 'the whole world,' through the intercourse of letters of peace, agrees with us in one bond of communion. Now do you show the origin of your Cathedra, you who wish to claim the Holy Church for yourselves!
Optatus then contrast this with the Donatist lineage of antipopes:
But you allege that you too have some sort of a party in the City of Rome. It is a branch of your error growing out of a lie, not from the root of truth. [....]

How do you explain that your party has not been able to possess a Roman citizen as Bishop in Rome? How is it that in that City they were all Africans and strangers who are known to have succeeded one another? Is not craft here manifest? Is this not the spirit of faction----the mother of schism?

This Victor of Garba was sent first, I will not say as a stone into a fountain (for he could not ruffle the pure waters of the Catholic people), but because some Africans who belonged to your party, having gone to Rome, and wishing to live there, begged that someone should be sent from Africa to preside over their public worship. So Victor was sent to them. He was there as a son without a father, as a beginner without a master, as a disciple without a teacher, as a follower without a predecessor, as a lodger without a home, as a guest without a guest-house, as a shepherd without a flock, as a Bishop without a people.
Every subsequent Donatist Bishop of Rome could trace his lineage to Victor of Garba, but no further, thus disproving their pretense at being Apostolic in origin:
Since then, Claudian has succeeded to Lucian, Lucian to Macrobius, Macrobius to Encolpius, Encolpius to Boniface, Boniface to Victor. Victor would not have been able, had he been asked where he sat, to show that anyone had been there before him, nor could he have pointed out that he possessed any Cathedra save the Cathedra of pestilence; for pestilence sends down its victims, destroyed by diseases, to the regions of Hell which are known to have their gates----gates against which we read that Peter received the saving Keys----Peter, that is to say, the first of our line, to whom it was said by Christ: 'To thee will I give the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,' and these keys 'the gates of Hell shall not overcome.' How is it, then, that you strive to usurp for yourselves the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, you who, with your arguments, and audacious sacrilege, war against the Chair of Peter?
What's required to understand the dispute: The necessity of being in union with the Bishop of Rome, papal possession of the Keys of the Kingdom, and the importance of Apostolic Succession. The dispute was not over whether there was a pope, but who the pope was.

What we don't hear: Anyone treating the papacy as itself heretical, or even unnecessary. You also don't hear anyone defending the idea that you can simply declare yourself a bishop, which is one reason why the Baptist St. Patrick idea is so ahistorical.

Evangelicals tend to believe that Scripture is self-attesting and perspicuous (an unclear way of saying “clear”). In other words, you can pick up a Bible and understand what it means without needing a Magisterium to clarify its meaning for you. Therefore, they're putting themselves in a particularly untenable position when they proceed to say that all of the early Christians got Christianity fundamentally wrong in regards to the Eucharist or the other Sacraments, the Liturgy and liturgical calendar, the Sign of the Cross, the pope, Apostolic Succession, etc., etc.

On the one hand, they're saying that Scripture is so clear that anyone can grasp its meaning. But then their view of history requires believing that nobody grasped its meaning: that even in the midst of theological disputes over Scriptural questions, nobody figured out what Scripture was trying to teach. Even if you don't believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, that's an odd thing to believe: the Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, and but left us without any way of correctly understanding them until ... when, exactly?

For this reason, even if you are inclined to give zero weight to Tradition (contra 2 Thes. 2:15), you simply can't write off Christian history. If the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture to be understood in every age, history should evidence people correctly understanding Scripture in every age. That doesn't mean that there won't be folks who get Scripture wrong; it just means that we'll never be left with only people who get Scripture wrong. It's the difference between saying that Christ entrusted us to shepherds after His own heart, who have to fend off wolves in every age (Jeremiah 3:15; Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29), and saying that Christ abandoned us to the wolves.

All of this points strongly to the Catholic claim. Unlike Baptists or other Evangelical Protestants, we see Catholics in every age. And that's exactly what we should expect to see from orthodox Christianity.

Pope Francis: a Voice for Voiceless Christians


Pope Francis has once again show himself to be one of the only world leaders willing to give a voice to the Christians being slaughtered by Islamic radicals:
With pain, with much pain, I learned of the terrorist attacks today against two churches in the city of Lahore in Pakistan, which have resulted in numerous deaths and injuries. They are Christian churches. Christians are persecuted. Our brothers spill their blood only because they are Christians. As I assure you of my prayers for the victims and their families, I ask the Lord, beseech the Lord, source of all good, for the gift of peace and harmony to this country, that this persecution against Christians, that the world tries to hide, ends and there is peace.
I was there, and caught the end of his remarks (I posted the video below, in Italian). What struck me is that this is one of the surprising (and sad) ways that the papacy has been relevant in the twenty-first century:
Given all this, I'd encourage you to take seriously the very last thing that the pope said to us today: “Please don't forget to pray for me.”

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