Holy Saturday and the End of All Things

Holy Saturday has always been for me a day of subdued joy. It is not yet the day of resurrection, but we are past the time of agony; the contest has been decided, but the victor not yet announced.

The Christian’s life is one of following Christ’s pattern. Even though he was the Son of God in person, he took on himself weakness and weariness, a life of loneliness and wandering; even though we are baptized into the Trinity and have become adopted children of God, freed from the sin of our parents, we live this life in frailty and sorrow. Christ died as a sacrifice for the world’s sins, and then rose in triumph over death; we will all die in union with him, offering ourselves to God, and on the last day we will rise in the likeness of his risen glory.

But between our bodily death and the day of judgment, we will live in Holy Saturday. The world will be unaware of our victory in Christ. Our agony will be over, the time of weakness and loneliness gone, but our triumph will not yet be apparent.

Easter is when we pre-live the end of the all things. This may be one reason why so many people feel more emotion at Christmas time, which has become wrapped up with family and gifts and wreathes and trees and on and on: Christmas is more in this world, because recalls the entering of God into this our vail of tears, and it brings us the solace of Christ here with us now. Easter is more glorious in itself, and of course it commemorates something that has already happened, but Easter is more about the future. Right now we are alive in the spirit, but still dead in the flesh, as Christ was during his earthly life. Of course the risen Christ is brings the resurrection of our souls, but the fact is that our ultimate conformity to the risen Christ will come on a day whose glory we cannot yet comprehend, with a joy we cannot yet comprehend.

Today, we contemplate the end of everything familiar to us and the expectation of unimaginable glory. It is not quite sad, but not yet the exhilaration that awaits us—a few hours from now.

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How “Lucifer” became a name for the prince of darkness

One of my students needed to know how “Lucifer” became a name for Satan.  I thought there would be an easy dictionary entry somewhere, but neither she nor I could find one source that tracks the evolution of the name, so I spent a few minutes this morning pulling the facts together from various places.  It was an enjoyable time—I haven’t had many opportunities over the past decade to indulge in my specialization.

It all starts with the idolatry of the Babylonians.  They worshipped the morning star (Venus in her rising before the sun) under the name of Istar.  So when the prophet Isaiah speaks the rise and fall of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), he refers to him metaphorically as haylayl, ben mishawmayim, literally, “shining one, son of the morning,” that is, the morning star (Isaiah 14:12).  The Septuagint translated haylayl as heosphoros, “morning bearer,” another name for the morning star, which in Greek is also called phosophoros, “light-bearer.”  The Vulgate translated the word as Lucifer, which is a Latinization of phosophoros and also names the morning star as “light bearer”.  When the Bible began to be translated into English, this word was simply carried over, so that until 1611 English Bibles also rendered the term as “Lucifer” (so says the OED).

Early Jewish traditions, which seem to pre-dating Christ, understood Isaiah 14 as speaking about the rise and fall of Satan.  We can see this interpretation reflected for example in the Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11 and in Life of Adam and Eve 12:1 and 15:3, and many other places.  While the term “Lucifer” or heosphoros occurs in the New Testament only in a positive sense (2Peter 1:19), the Jewish traditions regarding angels and demons are clearly reflected, and the general Jewish interpretation of the meaning of Babylon in Isaiah 14 comes out in Revelation (see especially 18:12, but it’s present throughout).  In the early centuries of the Church, the name “Lucifer” was not yet exclusively associated with evil, so that we even have a “Saint Lucifer” from the 3rd Century who died for the Nicene faith (celebrated in the Church’s calendar on May 20).  But Jerome passes on the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 14:12, and Augustine takes “Lucifer” as a proper name for Satan in his description of how one who was enlightened became dark.  So at least by the 4th and 5th Centuries “Lucifer” had become one of the Adversary’s proper names.

And there we have it!  There is more to the story, for sure, but that’s what came to hand from my personal library.

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St. Thomas Aquinas on a bizarre marital situation

Amidst the Amoris Laetitia debates, one thing I have wondered about is how people find themselves in the difficult situations everyone is discussing.  How does it happen that someone (a) enters a second civil marriage and (b) is obliged to keep up sexual relations and (c) requires the Eucharist to keep going?  I don’t have the pastoral experience to rattle off examples.

But while editing a translation of St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I came across one such case—not likely in this day and age, but a possible scenario nonetheless.  St. Thomas holds the position that exterior words expressing consent do not result in marriage if interior consent is lacking, but he raises this objection to his own view (Scriptum IV.27.1.2, quaes. 4):

Obj. 3: If someone is proved to have consented to someone else through words about the present, he is forced to have her as his wife, under pain of excommunication, even if he says that mental consent was lacking; even if he has afterward consented to another with words expressive of his mental consent. But this would not be the case, if mental consent were required for marriage. Therefore, it is not required.

Let’s pause and absorb this amazing scenario.  Billy Bob went through a wedding ceremony in which he did not intend to get married but managed to fool everyone there.  Despite all apperances, Billy Bob’s conscience requires him to admit that he did not marry that woman.  Later, Billy Bob went through a second wedding ceremony in which he did sincerely intend to get married, and his conscience requires him to admit that he is married to that woman.  But in the eyes of the law and of the Church, which can only go by what is perceptible from the outside, Billy Bob is married to the first woman and not to the second, and (at least under medieval law) he could be subject to severe penalties if he refused to live as a married man with that first wife—including physical intimacy.  He has not just a shadowy, self-judged duty to keep up his marital status with her, but an objective, legal, and ecclesially enforced obligation!

Now, surely Billy Bob is under unimaginable pressures.  The direction of today’s debates would suggest that he can arrange with his priest to receive communion while continuing in what his conscience tells him is an adulterous union:  this is the best that he can offer God in the circumstance.  But St. Thomas has a different pastoral suggestion:

Billy Bob could flee the country.  Or, if that’s too harsh, he could just submit to excommunication from the Church:

Reply Obj. 3: In such a case the Church compels him to stay with his first wife, since it judges based on what appears externally. Nor is it deceived in justice, although it may be deceived in fact. But that man should undergo excommunication rather than be intimate with his first wife, or he should flee to some other distant region.

Zowie.  I’m not sure how long the Angelic Doctor would last in today’s climate.

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Mysteries of the Holy Family

Immanuel Kant’s essay, What Is Enlightenment, explains for the modern world what “enlightenment” means.  To be enlightened, he says, is to become entirely independent in thought.  Children grow up depending on others for everything, of course, and even for their thoughts and opinions, but to be enlightened means that one throws aside childish dependence and thinks entirely for oneself. Something about the claim rings true, especially for our ruggedly individual age.

Yet without saying so explicitly, Kant’s position casts the family as a necessary evil.  We have to grow up in families, but they train us to live below our dignity by thinking like slaves.  To reach human perfection is to shake off the effects of family life.

Yesterday’s feast and today’s solemnity remind us that the family is a path to enlightenment; that childhood as such is a path to humanity and even beyond; that the bonds between parent and child are bonds indeed, but not fetters.

Along these lines, let me toss out three mysteries relating to the Holy Family:

  1. A parent can stand in for the child’s own will.

This is just a natural reality, but isn’t this a remarkable thing?  When my son had a life-threatening medical condition, I had to decide—on his behalf—what would be done to his body, what course would determine all.  Before my children were ever aware of their surroundings, I chose where they would live, and consequently what nation and what state would claim their citizenship, and as a result what laws they would be under.  Extending this natural reality, I even committed my children to God through baptism, and by so doing I brought on them all the obligations of a Christian.  It is an astonishing and wonderful thing that one human person can be so entrusted to another.

  1. The child Jesus had both a divine and a human will.

When I teach about the mystery of the Incarnation, students are typically ready with the formula they learned in their catechisms:  Jesus is one divine person in two natures, one divine and one human.  But they are typically shocked by the obvious implication that Jesus has a divine will and a human will, two roots of love, two ultimate centers of desire.  Of course, even Jesus’ human will is the human will of a divine person:  the life of the Word of God extends into time and space through the Incarnation, such that anyone who has seen the man Jesus has seen the Father.  Consequently, the love of the Word of God is replayed in the love of the man Jesus:  this man loving the Father is God’s own Son loving him through a human nature!  A human nature has been caught up into and, so to speak, included in the inner life of the Trinity.

  1. The previous two mysteries together make a third.

Joseph acted as foster father and Mary as the natural mother of the child Jesus.  When they circumcised him—an event commemorated as part of today’s feast, according to the current Martyrology—they chose God on behalf of the Word of God.  When they committed Jesus to the faith of Israel, they turned toward the Father on behalf of his own Son.  They were caught up into the mystery of the Incarnation, and for the brief period of his infancy they stood in for the theandric will of the God-man.  Now that just makes this parent break out in goose bumps.

God be praised for the family!  God be praised for the mystery of the Incarnation!  God be praised, I say, for the mystery of the Holy Family.

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Non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium

This is just a quick note to let my subscribers know I published this article over at the Catholic World Report:

Sometimes “religious obsequium” is translated “religious assent,” at other times “religious submission,” and at other times “religious respect”. What exactly are we being asked to do?

(Nils @nilshuber/Unsplash.com)
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Feser and Bessette: The authority of government

Feser and Bessette structure their argument for capital punishment carefully.  Their fourth general premise is that some wrongdoers deserve death, but they spell out as a fifth and separate premise the notion that someone has the authority to inflict that death upon the wrongdoer:

Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.

As I noted in my original post on the death penalty, the fact that someone deserves death does not of itself imply that any human being has the authority to impose it.  Accordingly, F&B devote an entire subsection of their argument to showing that the government in particular does have that authority.

However, I think there is a small gap in their case.  Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The authority of government”

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Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1

Feser and Bessette take on this moral question:  Is it ever OK to kill a human being, supposing the person is guilty?  And as we have seen, Feser and Bessette’s general approach to morality is that one must observe the teleology built into the natures of things—what a given thing is ordered toward—and then act in accordance with that teleology.  So it comes as a complete surprise that their moral argument never—not once—speaks about what a human being is ordered toward.  What would seem to be the key, namely the telos of the human person, is absent from their book. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1”

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Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas

As Feser and Bessete wind up their argument about punishment as such, they note that punishment has traditionally been considered to have several purposes:  in addition to retribution, it can also serve to deter future crime or rehabilitate the criminal.  “But,” they go on, “as our discussion indicates, for the natural law theorist, retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment: it is the fundamental end” (page 40).  Further down they make explicit what they mean: “For, all things being equal, we may punish even if we will thereby achieve no end other than retribution; but we may not punish if retribution is not at least one of the ends aimed at.”

However, still further in, F&B allow that “some traditional natural law theorists think” that we can’t “inflict a punishment merely to secure retributive justice,” and they go on to offer some citations from Aquinas (57).  It was only on my second read that I realized F&B are saying that Aquinas disagrees with them about punishment.  Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point:  “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2). Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas”

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Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment

To support the first and second premises of their general argument, Feser and Bessette must argue that punishment is a good thing.  Their case can be set out in four steps:

  1. We observe in the world that, for the most part and when things are working properly, people who act in accordance with the in-built teleology of things end up with pleasure and happiness while people who act against the in-built teleology of things end up with pain and misery.
  2. We reason that what happens for the most part and when things are working well reflects the natural teleology built into the world.
  3. We conclude that actions in accord with natural teleology have an ordering to pleasure and happiness while actions against natural teleology have an ordering to pain and misery.
  4. When someone acts badly but ends up without pain or misery, we see this as a violation of step 3 and so we inflict pain on him in order to bring things back into line with the natural teleology whereby bad actions are ordered to pain and misery.

Let me offer the argument in F&B’s own words.  It’s a lengthy text, but the argument seems so odd to me that I want the reader to see it spelled out—unless you’re in a hurry, in which case skip to the critique after these long quotations: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment”

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Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach

In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning.  They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.

The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind.  Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach”

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