Jesse Tree 2: Adam and Eve

[From the online Jesse Tree.]

A reading from the book of Genesis (1:26-28):

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

During Advent, the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer. Every night there is more darkness. If we look around we just see darkness, but if we look up we see frosty pin-pricks of light. When we see the gigantic sky, the moon and stars that God arranged, we may wonder: If God is so powerful and great, why does he pay any attention to little things like us?

Adam and Eve

The Bible says that God made us more important than the moon and all the stars and everything in the night sky put together. He made us in his own image, which means that we can know God and love him, which no star or animal or plant can do. Just as God is the king of the whole world, he made us kings over all the animals and all the fish and everything else that lives on the earth or in the sea.

Why did God make us kings? He made us kings over the world so that we could lead the whole world back to him. Everything that came from God needs to go to God, and we are supposed to bring the world to him.

How can we bring the world to God? It is very simple to say, but very hard to do. What would happen if a king gave himself to God? Wouldn’t that king’s whole kingdom be a gift too? We bring the world to God by giving him ourselves. If we trust God for everything we need, praise God for all his wonderful works, and love God above all things, then the whole world becomes a gift to him.

Prayer

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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Jesse Tree 1: Alpha and Omega

[From the online Jesse Tree.]

A reading from the book of Genesis (1:1-5):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Advent is the time every year when we tell a story. It is a long story, about many different people and many different times. It is a beautiful story, sometimes sad and sometimes happy. It is also a story with the happiest ending you can imagine, because it is the story of how Jesus came to save us.

Our story begins at the very beginning of the whole world. The very first book of the Bible says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) God made the light and the darkness; God made the sky and the sea; God made the dry land and all the plants; God made the sun and the moon and the stars; God made all the birds and all the animals. Everything we see around us came from God, because God is the beginning of all things.

Then the Bible says: “On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) This doesn’t mean that God was tired and needed to rest. No, it means that God wants the whole world and everything in it to rest in him at the end of time. Just as everything begins in God, so too everything ends in God.

Alpha_and_OmegaThis is what our Advent story is about: how everything that came from God will go back to God in the end.

Our ornament today is the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In the very last book of the Bible, God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 21:6) This ornament reminds us that God made everything and that everything was made for God.

[If Advent begins on or after November 28, proceed directly to the next ornament now.]

Prayer

O Lord, we beg you, come before us with your inspiration and accompany us with your help, that our every prayer and work may always begin with you and through you be completed. Amen.

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Introducing the Jesse Tree

Nothing says “Advent” for me like the Jesse Tree.  For years now, I have talked through the story of salvation every December with my children using ornaments on an old cloth tree.  But what is the Jesse Tree, exactly?  Here’s how I have explained it to my kids (with a few bigger words because you’re not a kid):

JesseTreeQ. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree.

Q. What do you do with a Jesse Tree?
A. Hang ornaments on it telling the story of salvation history.

Q. Why do we hang ornaments to tell the story instead of just telling the story?
A. The Jesse Tree is a mnemonic device; we easily remember a set of pictures arranged on a tree where we might have difficulty remembering a set of words on a page.

Q. Why is it called a Jesse Tree?
A. Because of the messianic prophecy in Is 11:1 about the “stump” of Jesse. Continue reading “Introducing the Jesse Tree”

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Marriage and Martyrdom

As you may have noticed, the blog is on the back burner these days.  We began the home school year here in the house, classes begin at WCC next Tuesday, and baby Matthew continues to be an intense little man.

Nonetheless, I want to toss up at least a quick thought on the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Liturgically, he is celebrated as a martyr, as one who died for the faith, and traditional commentators explain that because he died for the truth he also died for the Truth, which is Christ.  One wonders how far the argument can stretch, and whether anyone at all who dies “for the truth” is a martyr.

But before we go too far in that direction, let’s recall the specific truth for which John died.  John, who called himself “the friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29), was beheaded because he said loudly and publically that Herod Antipas should not have divorced his wife and married another woman who herself had been in a previous marriage to his own half-brother.  He died for the truth about marriage.

The close connection between marriage and Christ is worth pondering in our day–as is the connection between a public stance and martyrdom.

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Theology at thirteen

David
Photo credit: Hannah Voboril

If I were a carpenter, I hope my kids would have hand-crafted furniture; if I were a shoe-maker, I hope all my kids would have wonderful shoes. Since I am a theologian, I try to make sure my kids don’t miss the one thing I have to offer them. I often talk about the faith at the dinner table or on Sunday mornings before Mass, and I bring up current issues and talk about them in light of Catholicism. But because I work for a living, my wife ends up doing their catechesis. My contribution tends to be spontaneous rather than planned.

While I was driving a trailer load to the dump today, one of those spontaneous moments popped up. My thirteen-year-old son David usually talks non-stop about programming and tech news, but today he suddenly began to talk about how strange it is that God does not make decisions: God knows everything that is going to happen, David reasoned, including what he himself is going to do. Continue reading “Theology at thirteen”

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No need to drop “Benedict” from the “Benedict Option”

Over at Crisis Magazine, Austin Ruse has written a nice piece about the “Escriva Option.”  I get Ruse’s weekly Letter from the UN Front, but their tone is so hyper that I usually ignore them.  This article, however, is worth a read:  he urges that one way to pursue Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is by following St. Josemaria Escriva.  The more ways we can get of describing and approaching what is needful in our times, the better.

But there is one point where I want to take issue with the article.  He makes a big deal of saying that laypeople should not look to religious orders for the way to live the lay state:

The question becomes: is St. Benedict a proper model for the laity? Whether there is withdrawal to the mountains or not, the implication of the Benedict Option is that laymen can somehow follow a monastic model. Certainly there are third order Benedictines, there are even third order Trappists, though I suspect they are chattier than those behind the walls. But, laymen need not ape the practices of those we may think are spiritual athletes to live out our vocation as laymen.

Continue reading “No need to drop “Benedict” from the “Benedict Option””

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Quaeritur Utrum Sim—The Problem of My Existence

My attention was recently drawn to studies on whether prayer really works.  Scientists track a bunch of people with problems who pray about them, follow a control group of people with problems who don’t pray about them, and compare results to determine whether Anyone out there is listening.  This clear and simple approach eliminates the guesswork in religion.

Since my attention was on the question, I began tracking how many times I said “yes” to my children’s requests as compared to how many times I said “no.”  The results were discouraging.  Children approaching me have about a fifty-fifty chance of getting what they want, and younger children have even slightly worse odds.  It’s pretty much what you would expect from flipping a coin.  But the experiment has led me to an important conclusion:

I don’t exist.

At first I was deflated, even though non-existence, according to experts, is something I have in common with God.  But then I realized that, as a non-existent person, I do a lot of important things for the family.  At our place, you see, Nobody cleans the kitchen floor regularly, Nobody tends the garden, Nobody reads to the girls at night—the list goes on and on!

And the beauty part is, I have discovered a phenomenal time-saving technique.  Instead of fielding requests from my kids, I give them each a quarter and tell them “Heads means ‘yes,’ tails means ‘no.’”

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Same-sex marriage denies the reality of traditional marriage

On more than one occasion, an advocate of same-sex marriage has asked how I can tell other people that their marriages are not real.  My response has been that that the street runs two ways:  his promotion of same-sex marriage tells me that my marriage is not real.  Every time, my conversation partner has been truly and sincerely mystified by my claim.  How on earth can his claiming his marriage take anything away from mine?

It’s hard to explain briefly.  It’s hard to explain even at length, because by the time we are having this conversation we have hugely different background assumptions at work and we hear very different things when we hear the word “marriage”.  Nonetheless, in recent posts I have tried to sketch out at least some of the background for my claim:

1. Only if there is such a thing as a human nature can masculinity and femininity be an expression of something deeper than mechanical structures.  (I have also meditated here on one way our imagination can hinder us from seeing that human nature is real.)

2. Only if masculinity and femininity are real can marriage be a body-and-spirit, organic union of persons.

3. Only if marriage is a one-flesh, organic union of persons can there be such a thing a natural (as opposed to conventional) marriage.

To someone who has really grasped what I was saying in those previous posts, I can explain why claims to same-sex marriage do in fact take something away from traditional marriages.  What follows is sheer fiction, a little parable I just made up to illustrate what I’m thinking.

Once there was a man named Victor who had three boys and raised them as a loving father.  Victor was wealthy and generous and became a benefactor and mentor to a lot of other young men, to such a degree that he became famous for his altruism.  He reached old age and passed away, leaving a great legacy behind him, a happy family and a host of grateful friends.

So legendary was Victor that it became a mark of honor for a young man to have been associated with such him.  People made a big deal out of having had him as a mentor, calling themselves “sons of Victor.”  Victor’s natural children began referring to themselves as the “natural sons of Victor,” and saying that others were not “real sons of Victor.”

The others became upset:  they did not like any appearance of one-ups-manship.  So they sued Victor’s natural children, saying that the three boys were taking away their right to sonship.  Eventually a court declared that everyone who had been helped by Victor was just as much his “son” as anyone else, and that these people had every right to that title and whatever it implied.  The whole country was moved by these proceedings, and soon it was considered a hateful and intolerant thing to claim that some people’s sonship was “real” and others’ not.

And they all lived litigiously ever after.  The end.

In my little story, some people’s claim to be children of Victor took something away from others’.  The three natural children were of course denying real “sonship” to others:  they claimed natural sonship and argued that everyone else only had “sonship” by stretching the word to include a nice but artificial arrangement.  The others could have objected, “We’re just trying to claim our own, not taking anything away from anyone else.  How does our claiming our sonship take anything away from yours?”

But when the others prevailed, the implication was that Victor’s original three boys were only his “sons” in the sense that anyone else could be.  Their natural and biological relationship was made equivalent to an artificial and conventional one.  In the end, Victor’s three natural children were told that their sonship was less than what it had really been.

That’s the point about same-sex marriage.  The body-and-spirit union of man and woman is a natural thing, and everything else called “marriage”—whether it be two men, two women, two men and a woman, or whatever—is an artificial arrangement.  When we insist that both are equally “marriage,” then we mean that there are no natural marriages, only artificial things based on our preferences.

[Some people who agree with me in principle may object that the “sons of Victor” story is not quite on target, because honorary sonship is “not natural” while same-sex marriage is “unnatural”.  I understand, but every analogy limps.]

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How I can drive a car AND oppose same-sex marriage

In following the same-sex marriage debate, I’ve come across this odd objection:  If you are opposed to what is “unnatural,” then don’t use cars or telephones.  It’s the kind of argument that makes you cringe, because you know the person so rushed as to say it will probably not have time for the slow work of thinking; not everyone advocating same-sex marriage would be so sloppy.  But let’s take just a moment to untie this thing.

Logicians—who are all about the hard work of thinking—distinguish between being “contrary” and being “contradictory”.  To be contrary to something is to be at the other end of the spectrum, against it, the antithesis:  white is contrary to black, light to darkness, good to bad, hard to soft, beautiful to ugly, and so on.  Contraries are always on the same spectrum but at opposite ends.

On the other hand, to be contradictory to something is simply to be not that thing, to be other.  A tree is not light, but neither is it the antithesis of light; it just isn’t light.  To be orange is not to be soft, but neither is it opposed; it just isn’t the same thing.  To be black is not the same as to be good, but neither is it the antithesis of good.  Contradictories are not always on the same spectrum as each other.  Often, they are not each other just because they are on different spectrums altogether.

When we talk about “natural” vs. “unnatural,” we’re talking about contraries, things that are actually opposed to one another, in competition with each other.  Natural relates to unnatural the way light relates to dark or good to bad.  A same-sex marriage tries to be what marriage is but fails in key respects:  it is on the same spectrum as natural marriage, so to speak, but stands away like black from white.

But when we talk about cars and telephones, we’re talking about the contradictory of “natural”:  they are not “unnatural” but simply “not natural”.  A car is not natural the way orange is not soft.  A car or a telephone is something more like “natural” than, say, a two-by-four nailed to an apple, because a car or a telephone is built to extend our natural abilities while a two-by-four nailed to an apple is neither here nor there in relation to nature.

So, the punchline:  I can be opposed to the “unnatural” while being fine with the “not natural”.  I can oppose same-sex marriage and blog at the same time.

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How marriage is a “one flesh” union

In my last post, I said that husband and wife are “one flesh, one organism, biologically related.”  This claim is at the heart of the Church’s opposition to governmental recognition of same-sex unions, but it is hard to understand.  How are the two “one flesh” when one of them goes to the office and the other to the grocery store at the same time?  How are the two biologically related when they are not even cousins?  How are they “one organism” when one can die without the other?

To break into the problem, we have to look at how humanity and biology are related in general.  Human beings are rational, that is, they have a spiritual dimension that allows them to see the true and choose good or evil.  And yet human beings are at the same time bodily and biological, sharing common ground with animals and even with plants and micro-organisms.  We tend to think of these two dimensions as glued together somewhat awkwardly, with the rational part being the “real me” who tries, sometimes with more success and sometime with less, to control and direct the biological part.

But in fact our rationality shoots all through our biology and vice versa.  We share eyeballs and the neurology of vision in common with higher animals, and yet we see in a rational way:  we enjoy the structure and beauty of art in a way that animals simply do not.  We hear music in a way that animals do not.  We have desires for food and sex like animals do, and yet the goal of growth in virtue is to have these desires shot through with rationality so that we desire in a rational way.  Going the other way, our reason is helpless without imagination based on the senses, and our immaterial will needs the prodding of animal desire to prompt it into action.  We are not rational over here and biological over there:  we are rational-biological.  That’s what we mean when we say we are rational animals.

Marriage is a wonderful instance of this general fact.  Biologically, a man and a woman are each incapable of reproduction without the other, each deficient in instincts for life without the other, and each in need of the kind of emotional stimulus and support the other provides.  When a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, they share a single biological function, namely reproduction, becoming in a way one organism.  This establishes an ongoing relationship in which their many other levels of complementarity come into play:  even after the child is conceived and born, the man and the woman continue to play complementary roles in a single action, both the action of completing what they have begun by getting the baby to adulthood and the simple action of living their everyday lives.

But the biological reality is shot through with rationality.  Masculinity is not just a way of begetting children but a way of being human; femininity is not just a way of performing a biological function but a way of being rational.  The joining of the two in a single biological function is at the same time a spiritual giving of each to the other expressed through the body.  The emotional needs each supplies actually tie in to the life of virtue and growth toward God.

Consequently, a union can fail to be “marriage” from either direction, by failing in rationality or failing in biology.  On the one hand, even sexual intercourse does not bring about a marriage if the man and the woman do not will that it should:  rape lacks the consent of one party entirely, and shacking up lacks the seriousness of consent demanded by the occasion.  To be entirely clear:  rape and fornication and adultery are all unnatural because the rational part is missing.  Human beings are both rational and biological by nature, and a union that lacks the rational side falls short of the natural even if the correct body parts do all the right things.

On the other hand, the most intense will to union does not bring about a human marriage without that sharing of a single biological function in the reproductive act.  Same-sex activities in bed, heterosexual activities that don’t involve actual union, and all that kind of thing are also unnatural because they lack one side of the human rational-biological unity.

All of this should, I hope, clarify the Church’s response to the standard objection about heterosexual couples who cannot conceive children.  Since their sexual activities are infertile, how are they different from a same-sex couple in bed?  Simply put, the infertile heterosexual couple does not separate the rational and the bodily.  They consent to their union as rational beings, and they share a single organic function as bodily beings; they are united in soul and body.  The fact that their shared organic function is defective does not hinder their sharing it and so becoming one body:  it just means that their one flesh is defective in some way that prevents offspring.

Here’s a far-out analogy.  Suppose men and women were made each with one leg, and suppose that in marriage they became “one flesh” in such a way that each supplied a leg for the other so they could walk.  Now suppose that one of them has a bad ankle, and he limps.  This doesn’t mean that they don’t walk together as one, but just that they limp when they do.

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