Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Catholic at Wheaton? Panel Discussion

Hey guys.  In light of Thanksgiving, I'm not going to write an update for this week--I'm going to spend time with my family!  But, I am going to provide a link to an audio recording of a panel discussion we held at Wheaton College.  The Ecumenical Society (of which I am a part) hosted a discussion entitled "Catholic at Wheaton?" in which 5 Catholic students from the college answered questions that our Protestant brothers and sisters had about Catholic spirituality and the experience of being Catholic Christians in a strong Protestant environment.  It's a lot of fun to listen to--hope you enjoy it!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Guide Me Into All Truth

So I’ve been talking a lot about Catholic priests lately.
For me, the whole authority issue was really the deciding factor for my conversion.  For some people, they need to be convinced of the Eucharist or the Church’s teaching on justification or some other specific issue.  I needed to be convinced of the Church.  Is it really what it claims to be?  That is, does it really have authority from Christ himself?  If it did, then the burden of the proof was on me to align my beliefs on all of those other things with whatever the Church taught about them.  But I wasn’t so convinced the Church had that authority in the first place.

What authority does the Church claim, exactly?  She claims the authority to administer the Sacraments (more on those later), and the authority to teach, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Christ.  To ask a question typical of Wheaton College students: is this biblical?

So, Catholics claim that Christ was given authority from God the Father, and that before leaving earth he passed on this authority to the Twelve Apostles, who then, before they died, passed the authority onto others so that now, 2000 years later, there are still people on this earth with the authority Christ gave to the original Apostles.  In Scripture, we read that Christ gave the Apostles the authority to forgive sins, to teach and baptize in his name, and to “bind and lose”.  He even went so far as to give Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 16:19.

Who knows what all that means.  

One thing that was crucial to me was to realize that these were actual events, things that Jesus said to actual people—and the people he chose to say them to were the Twelve Apostles that he had chosen.  I hadn’t realized that I had been bringing a specific way of Biblical interpretation to the text.  That is, I subconsciously (or consciously) read all of Jesus’ words as if they were spoken to me.  Matthew tells us in chapter 18 of his Gospel that Jesus told the disciples that “whatever (they) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever (they) loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus told the Twelve Apostles that they had authority to forgive sins (John 20:22-23) and that the Holy Spirit would come to guide them into all truth.  I assumed—without warrant—that those words were spoken to me, too: All Christians have the authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins; all Christians will be guided into all truth; all Christians have the authority to bind and loose.

There was really no valid reason for me to assume that.  I simply took it for granted.  And when I began to realize that most Christians, for most of time, did not take that for granted, I was stopped short.

What if Jesus really did give the Twelve Apostles a special authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins, a special authority to make decisions that will be bound and loosed in heaven, a special promise of the Holy Spirit's role in guiding them to all truth?

I knew that I did not have the authority to withhold Christ’s forgiveness of sins.  I had no reason to believe that I was able to make decisions to bind and loose that would be echoed in heaven.  And the more I looked around, the more I became aware of the thousands and thousands of disagreements about the truth of the Gospel, and the more I doubted that the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into “all truth” was really a promise given to all Christians.  At least, not the way I had originally interpreted it.  Either the Holy Spirit was a schizophrenic, or the promise of Christ to the Apostles actually meant something drastically different than I had believed.

I decided to err on the side of my misinterpretation of Scripture.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Christ, the One Priest (And All the Others)

In my last post I mentioned that the priesthood of Christ—and the privilege of certain men to share in this priesthood—is the primary condition for the Mass being a holy sacrifice.  Let’s go back to the Last Supper and see what happened in addition to the institution of the Eucharist on that holy night.

John’s Gospel gives us a very different story of the Last Supper than the Synoptic Gospels.  Instead of the institution of the Eucharist, John tells us the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  All of my life, I had been taught the moral application of this story.  “Jesus was so humble that he washed his disciples’ feet; we need to follow his example and serve others.”  This is certainly a valid reading of the text, but—dare I say it?—a secondary reading.  The primary import of Jesus’ actions in this passage is not to give us a nice moral example to follow, but is rather to anoint the twelve Apostles to his priesthood.

An interpretive jump?  I don’t think so. 

The washing of the disciples’ feet recalls how Moses was commanded to wash the feet of Aaron and his sons in order to consecrate them to the Levitical priesthood.  Exodus 40 says that God told Moses to “anoint [Aaron] and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest… [so Moses] put water in [the basin] for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet”.  Further, when Jesus tells Peter in verse 8 that “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me,” the word translated “part” is the Greek word meros.  This alludes to the “portion”, meris, which the Levites had in the Lord God alone. Thus Jesus fulfils the type of the Levitical priesthood by anointing the Twelve for priestly ordination through washing, explaining that this washing is necessary so that they may have a part in him.

And who is he?  The Great High Priest, as we talked about last time.  The priesthood to which Christ anoints the Twelve is Christ’s priesthood.

Hebrews tells us that Christ is the only priest of the New Covenant.  Nevertheless, even Protestant Christians find no inconsistency between understanding Christ as the one priest of the New Covenant, and the fact that we are all made priests in this covenant.  Consider the Apostle Peter’s words in his first letter:

“…like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:5, 9)

So what is the nature of this priesthood, in which we all share?  Well, first of all, we offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  Our sacrifices are not acceptable to God based on our own merits, but they are made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Also, our priesthood is for the purpose of presenting God’s sacrifice to the people, rather than the other way around. “You are…a royal priesthood…that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you…”

All of this is true of the priesthood of the ordained, as well.

The Church is the Body of Christ.  Christianity is an incarnational religion; we take seriously the significance of the body, the fact that humans are not pure spirits but exist physically.  Every Christian is called to bring the Gospel of Christ to the world and to offer up prayers and our bodies as “living sacrifices” to God.  The priesthood of the ordained—the men you see consecrating the Eucharist at Mass—incarnates a specific element of the Gospel; namely, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, made present for us in the Eucharist. Christ, at the Last Supper, instituted the ministerial priesthood and thereby gave authority and power to the Apostles and those whom they chose as their successors to act in his name, in persona Christi, to bring to earth throughout all of time his one unique sacrifice on the cross, through the Eucharist.  This is why, on the one hand, bread and wine do not turn into the body and blood of Christ when just anyone tries to consecrate them, and why on the other hand they actually do become the body and blood of Christ when an ordained priest consecrates them.  Christ has given certain men a unique role in bringing his grace to the world.

And this is precisely what the Catechism says:

“The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church.  The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood: ‘Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.’”

Catholic priests act for the good of the people on behalf of God; they bring Christ’s sacrifice, his forgiveness and his mercy, to us in a physical tangible way, so that we can see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste his grace. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Time for another update, eh?

So one of the reasons I waited so long to update is because at this point in my story the chronology becomes a little jumbled because… I read the Council of Trent.  This brought up issues of justification, sacraments, apostolic succession, church authority, and….

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Which is what I want to talk about today.

A pastor friend of mine had encouraged me to read the Council of Trent in order to find out what the Church said about justification and specifically, the Mass being a sacrifice.  Any good Christian knows that there is only ONE sacrifice that can atone for sins, and that is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross some 2000 years ago.  So the fact that the Catholic Church claims so unambiguously and irrevocably that the Mass is a sacrifice clearly is evidence that the Church is not guided by the Holy Spirit and infallible in the interpretation of Scripture.

Or, it is evidence that the Church really has been given (and has maintained) the full treasury of the faith.

Obviously, I subscribe to the latter point of view.

So what does the Church mean when it talks about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?  How can that possibly be consistent with Scripture that claims, in no uncertain terms, that there is one sacrifice for sins?

Well, let’s see what Scripture tells us about this one sacrifice.

Growing up, I was always familiar with the idea of Christ being our Passover Lamb.  I understood the analogy and significance of Christ being our “new Passover meal,” although I did understand this in a metaphorical sense.  Just as the Passover Lamb was slaughtered, and its blood covered the people of Israel so that the angel of the Lord would pass over them and not kill their firstborn, so Jesus was slaughtered as a sacrifice for sins and his blood covers all who believe in him so that through his blood, we are justified before the Father. 

However, I didn’t realize (or didn’t count as significant) the command in Exodus 12, when God institutes the Passover meal, that in order for the sacrifice to be complete the Israelites must “eat the flesh that night….(they) shall let none of it remain until the morning” (Ex. 12:8, 10).  Also, God clearly tells the Israelites that this feast shall be kept as “a statute forever” (Ex. 12:14).

To sum up the “new” parts of the Passover meal that I learned: not only did the blood of the lamb cover the people of Israel, but this was a feast that would be kept forever (by God’s command) and in order for the Passover to be completed, the lamb’s flesh had to be eaten.

So, when Luke tells us in Luke 22:15 that Jesus said to the Twelve, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” we understand him to be not replacing the Passover Feast (since God has told us that it will last forever), but participating in it, fulfilling it if you will.  And what does he do?  Does he sacrifice a lamb?

Well, yes and no.

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Hmm.  This is confusing.

So Jesus offers the Passover meal—which somehow is himself (“this is my body, this cup is my blood”).  But why bread and wine, rather than either a) a lamb, or b) himself?  This must be symbolic.  The bread and wine must represent his body and blood, which is being related to the Passover Lamb since the Twelve would have understood the significance of the Passover Lamb as the sacrifice that saved the Israelites from death.

Except, then what’s the point of using bread and wine?  Why don’t we just keep using a lamb, since we already understand that as symbolically pointing to Christ’s sacrifice anyway?

Let’s listen to the answer that the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us.

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:19-20

Who the heck is Melchizedek?  Must be pretty important, since he is mentioned 8 times in the book of Hebrews, and in the Psalms too. 

The only time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament (except in the prophecy of Psalm 110:4) is in Genesis 14:17-24.  He is mentioned as a king of Salem and a priest of “The Most High God,” and his sacrifice as a priest of God is….

Bread and wine.

There are two priesthoods of the Old Testament, the Levitical priesthood that offered animal sacrifices, and this priesthood of Melchizedek, that offered a sacrifice of bread and wine.  We know that Christ fulfills the order of the Levitical priesthood by offering himself as the lamb offering, but Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that he also fulfills the priesthood of Melchizedek—which is a priesthood offering bread and wine—and that he is a priest after the order of Melchizedek forever

Forgive me for quoting at length from the letter of the Hebrews, but I do believe that Scripture’s explanation of the matter is far more convincing than my own.  J

“Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron?... For it is attested of (Jesus),
  For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,
  so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
   The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews  7:11, 17-25

So Scripture tells us that Jesus is a priest forever.  Specifically, a priest after the order of Melchizedek.  What does a priest do?  What makes a priest different from a pastor?

A priest offers sacrifice.

We know that the sacrifice Christ offers to God on our behalf is the sacrifice of himself, his death on the cross.  The letter to the Hebrews, however, tells us that though this sacrifice was a “once for all” sacrifice, somehow Christ is a priest forever, always living to make intercession for us.  And, after the order of Melchizedek, his sacrifice must somehow involve bread and wine.

This post is getting long, so I will explain in my next post how the Last Supper involved not only the institution of the Eucharist, but also the institution of the new priesthood, the priesthood of Christ, which is the condition for the Mass being Christ’s own sacrifice.  Suffice it now to say that Christ explains in John 6:55 that his “flesh” (using the word that specifically recalls the “flesh” of the Passover Lamb) is “true food, and (his) blood is true drink,” and in the same chapter he makes the claim:

 “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." John 6:51

Jesus is the bread of life and the Passover Lamb; the Eucharistic Meal, celebrated at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is not another sacrifice in addition to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is rather the same sacrifice—the fulfillment of the sacrifices offered by Melchizedek and the priests of the Levitical priesthood—brought mysteriously into our lifetime.

We know that Christ, as a priest forever, offers himself—his one sacrifice—continually to God the Father, on our behalf.  The letter to the Hebrews tells us this plainly.  The Mass is the great privilege Christ has granted us, as his people, to celebrate this sacrifice “in remembrance” of Him.

Remembrance: from the Greek word anamnesis, signifying not only calling to mind, but making present.

At the Mass, Christ makes present for us, in the sacrifice of bread and wine, His one sacrifice, after the order of Melchizedek, of himself on the cross.

At the Mass, we do not offer another sacrifice, but we fall before the throne of grace and experience firsthand the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of us all.  That is why we believe that the Eucharist is truly Christ’s body and blood; we believe we are truly eating our Passover Lamb. 

At Mass, we—with confidence—draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.