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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Why be Christian?

I was invited to the rectory of Mary Queen of Peace parish last Sunday to offer a talk to a group of young adults (they have a group that meets about twice a month). It started with a delicious dinner and a warm mug of tea, and then we proceeded to the living room to chat about the topic "why be Christian?" When I had spoken with the pastor of the parish a bit earlier in the day he jokingly answered, "Why not?"

Jokes aside, of course, it is a little more than that. In our world of increasing pluralism people are coming in contact with other religions and philosophies at an increasing rate. A question like "Why be Christian?" probably would not have even been asked by most people in the Middle Ages, for example, who lived their whole lives in a single village. While the *qualitative way* a person lived their religion might have seen a lot of variation, the actual *fact* of "being Christian" was probably rarely questioned. Not so any more.

Behind the question of "why be Christian" is really the question "what makes Christianity different from other religions, and why do those differences matter". And behind these questions is another issue: are the religions of the world really different from each other at all? Some people, for example, have bought into the silly notion that "deep down, all religions teach the same thing". What I find amazing is that this is actually an empirical statement — you can actually do the research to find out if this claim is true — but that most people who make this statement have never really done the research. All they've done is put their faith in someone else who made the statement, making it a kind of creed, the basis of their own "religion"! Let me also add, on a personal note, that I *have* done extensive research on the various religions of the world, and I can *assure* you that NOT all religions are fundamentally the same. They all ask the same questions, but they don't give the same answers, and therefore no one has the right to give themselves permission to be lazy when facing the question of religious belief.

Now with regards to what makes Christianity special, let me offer just one obvious example: Christ. And not just Christ as a good man or a prophet, but Christ as the only-begotten Son of God, Christ as the Word of God incarnate. And once we accept that Christ is God, we are immediately led to affirm the Trinity as one God but in three Divine Persons, who live in an eternal relation of mutual love. Behind the teachings of the Incarnation and the Trinity is a fundamental statement about the nature of God: that God is Love. Not simply that "God is loving", but that God *IS* love, he is made out of love, love is his core subtance and nature. NO OTHER RELIGION IN THE WORLD SAYS THIS.

Once we see that the Christian Christ (and is there really any other?) is actually part of the Trinity, we still need to ask ourselves if it really matters. And yes, it does. If the Word of God was able to become incarnate as a true human being, like us in all things but sin, it implies that we, in turn, can be raised up to enter into a communion of love with the Trinity. In other words, we can become like God. The Christian Christ, in his very being, is a statement of the glorious salvation God wants to share with us. By his resurrection he showed that death is not the final end. That being said, heaven is not simply going to be some sort mere garden of perfect (but earthly) pleasures; nor is it going to be the annihilation of the self in some kind of disincarnate nirvanna experience. No, my friend, Jesus didn't just rise, he rose *as himself*, keeping his true personality intact; and he ascended into heaven (and is there now) *as himself*, including in his human nature.

The bottom line: if you compare the different religions, you will see that Christianity offers the most complete understanding of salvation. It offers a vision of salvation whereby we become sharers in the divine nature, without losing the essence of who we are and without diminishing the grandeur of God. It also offers the means of attaining this salvation, through commitment to Christ. Without taking anything away from the good things found in other religions, and without denying the ways in which Christians themselves have not lived up to these high ideals, there is simply no other religion that measures up to these promises. Accept no substitutes!

The nature of free will

I just got off the phone with Dr. Scott Hahn a few minutes ago. I had called him up to discuss some ideas in his book Reasons to Believe, which I had reviewed a few days ago on this website. We started discussing salvation history (particularly the priestly kingship of Adam), jumped over to the idea of natural evil as understood by David Bentley Hart (whose book The Doors of the Sea I also once reviewed), got into discussion of Maximus the Confessor how parallels between his ideas and those of Cardinal Ouellet, and then rounded it off with a good discussion of ecclesiology. Whew! It was...exhilarating!

One key part of our discussion had to do with the exact nature of the sin of Adam and Eve, and just how free they would have had to be truly capable of whatever sin it was that they committed. Dr. Hahn made a passing reference to the monothelite heresy, and just how deadly it was to a Christian understanding of salvation. I could not agree more.

Just what was the monothelite heresy? It taught that while Christ had two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, he only had one will. In some ways, the argument makes sense. After all, if Christ had two wills, a divine will and a human will, doesn't that mean that he could have, at some point, made contradictory decisions? For many, it seemed that the only way Christ would possess unity in his action is if he had only one will (obviously, the divine one).

And yet...as I teach my students, if monothelitism is correct, it implies that human free will is actually a kind of disease. Having free will would actually be a kind of defect present in human nature that can never be truly elevated within the context of our divine adoption in God. Indeed, it would imply that human beings aren't really capable of true moral goodness. After all, if Christ must exclude having a human will as part of his moral perfection, it implies that human free will never be capable of truly perfect love, *even if aided by grace*. In other words, according to monothelitism, all human love is somehow necessarily counterfeit.

Yuck.

What is worse, since Love is the very essence of the divine nature, it implies that we can't ever *really* possess the indwelling of the Trinity in our souls, and we'll never *really* be capable of participating in the divine nature when we are in Heaven. The best we'll ever get is a kind of natural goodness, a kind of eternal "consumer love", rather than a real participation in the total self-giving sacrificial love with which God loves us (and which was shown to us in Christ on the cross).

Double-yuck. Personally, I want the glory! And, happily for me (and all of us), God wants it for us. For the Church rejected monothelitism as a false vision of Christ's nature. Jesus had a divine will, but he also had a human will. In this way we catch a glimpse of what it means to truly be free. Real freedom is the capacity to act in the most loving way possible, all the time. The divine will only ever points to that, and by having a human will Jesus also shows us that we humans are not automatically cut off from being able to act in the most loving way possible as well. Oh, it sure isn't easy: that's why we say that saints lived lives of "heroic virtue".

Yes, my friends, Christianity is a religion for people who want to be heroes! But what is amazing is that this teaching of the Church actually means that, even in what appear to be just the simplest things, we can already live true heroism. Stuff as simple as telling the truth, staying faithful to your spouse, being moderate in your diet, not getting envious when good things happen to others, keeping your temper, and so on, are elevated to the status of true acts of worship of God.

Wow.

And that means one last thing: that holiness of life is for EVERYBODY. Not just for the nuns in the convents and the priests in the pulpits. If any life situation can be lived heroically, then we have a great opportunity — but also a great challenge. For if we can, in theory, love perfectly, then why don't we?

Time to put our human will in Christ's divine will! Amen!

Astral travel

A lay student of mine at the seminary contacted me asking about the attitude of the Church to "astral travel". He writes:

The question is regarding "les voyages astrals" (astral travel): how do we explain this and what is the moral evaluation of this...How can I explain this to someone in a concrete way?

First of all, we need to come to a common understanding of the meaning of the term "astral travel". Assuming this article from Wikipedia can be taken as a decent starting point, it refers to a way of interpreting out-of-body experiences. Strictly speaking, an out-of-body experience is a form of sensory (or para-sensory) experience which, in theory, cannot be explained with reference to the common 5 senses located in a particular place in a physical body. A classic example is that of a person who experiences a vision of things within a room as though he were floating up in a corner, i.e. from a physical perspective different from where his body is actually located.

As a category of out-of-body experiences, astral travel typically means the "projection" of the mind/soul/self outside the body as some form of ghost. While this usually means the "ghost-self" then roams the world, astral travel sometimes means that the "ghost-self" actually enters into another realm of existence (sometimes called the "astral plane"). Because an "astral plane" is actually parallel to our physical universe, the experiences found there may be very bizarre, even indescribable.

From the perspective of the Church, there are two questions that need to be asked about astral travel: (1) does this phenomenon actually exist? and (2) should we pursue attempts to experience this phenomena?

From the point of view of the existence of astral travel, this is really more of a scientific question than a doctrinal one. On that level, there is no question that people report having lived astral travel. However, because their experiences cannot be independently verified, it is impossible to determine if astral travel has really occurred, or if some other, more mundane explanation is in order (such as hallucinations). There is a part of our brain that is responsible for associating the sense of self with a particular sense of place, and if the functioning of that part of the brain is chemically modified (such as by hallucinogens) the individual will feel as though his mind was no longer strictly associated with his body. But so what? Just stop eating those special mushrooms, and all will come back to normal.

Stronger evidence could be found for actual astral travel if a person were to return from a "journey" with some sort of knowledge that is only explicable from an extrasensory perspective. Again, however, even if some sort of preternatural phenomena is at stake, there could be other explanations such as telepathy or clairvoyance. Indeed, certain Biblical descriptions of divine visions resemble descriptions of astral travel, but while the Bible does affirm these visions came from God it is very discreet regarding how these visions actually work. St. Paul, for example, cites the following case:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Corinthians 12: 2-4)

Did the man "astrally travel"? Did he merely have a vision? Was he actually temporarily physically assumed into Heaven? We have no way of knowing, and the Bible itself is deliberately vague. In short, then, while the Church is open to the theoretical possibility of the existence of astral travel as a preternatural phenomena, it is no more open to it than to the theoretical possibility that underneath the dust the Moon is actually made of green cheese.

The official agnosticism regarding the existence of astral travel, however, does not mean the Church doesn't have something to say about whether or not we should pursue such experiences. In this regard, I think it is fair to say that the universal tradition of the Church is that we should not.

First of all, for all the reasons cited, it is likely that astral travel does not exist and we are simply wasting our time.

More seriously, however, there is also the reality that the preternatural realm does exist, and that not all of its residents are good. Demons, for example, are preternatural beings, and at least some of them possess a special power to deceive through false visions. Deliberately opening oneself up to preternatural influence for the sake of special experiences and secret knowledge is actually part of the occult (which means "hidden" or "secret" in Latin). At best, a sin of pride is involved because there is an attempt to go beyond the natural modes of knowledge without deliberate reference to God or God's initiative. At worst, it is a form of passive Satanism, because typically any "hidden knowledge" which comes from God would come through the gifts of the Holy Spirit (such as the gift of knowledge) — meaning that attempts to bypass the Holy Spirit in the pursuit of occult knowledge are actually openings to the Evil One.

Finally, there is the basic counsel that not all knowledge is fruitful. As St. Paul wrote, "'Knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up." (1 Corinthians 8: 1b) In his great chapter on love, he also writes "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." (1 Corinthians 13: 2) My own personal hero, the great St. John of the Cross, regularly counsels people that while the spiritual path may involve visions, these are never to be sought and are typically to be ignored. The only real measure of a true spiritual life is not found in the preternatural, but in the supernatural i.e. in God, particularly in his grace. The measure of grace, however, is love — because God is love. Choosing to pursue fruitless & dangerous pseudo-experiences rather than living a life of communion with God and neighbour in love is really just a kind of idolatry, and an insult to God. Personally, I am looking forward to the Resurrection, where with a transfigured body I will be able to experience more fully and directly the beauty of created things. In the meantime, though, I just want to learn to stop being so darned selfish and to turn towards my neighbour with Christ-like charity. The rest is just so many distractions.

4 basic questions

It seems to me that there are 4 basic questions that any religion needs to be able to address:

(1) Who is God?
(2) If God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?
(3) If God *is* all-good and all-powerful *and* there is evil in the world, what is God doing about it?
(4) If God *is* all-good and all-powerful *and* there is evil in the world *and* God is doing something about it, how do we get with the program?

Catholicism, in a nutshell, is an answer to those 4 questions. What follows is my attempt to give an "in-a-nutshell" summary of the Catholic response.

Who is God?

God is a pure spirit, the Supreme Being, who always has been and always will be; he is omnipotent and omniscient. These and other attributes of God may be discovered by the use of human reason as it reflects philosophically on the universe and the place of man in that universe (see Romans 1:20).

There are attributes of God that can only be known through God's own special revelation, however. These are: (1) While there is only one God, He is a Trinity of Persons; and (2) God is Love. The latter teaching does not mean simply that God is *loving*, but that God is actually Love itself; love defines the very substance of God, such that you could say that God is "made out of" love.

This reality of "God is Love" goes a long way to explaining the Trinity itself. If God really is Love in his fundamental substance, then there are at least 3 things that are co-eternal within God: a Lover, a Beloved, and the Love between them. After all, you can't actually love without someone *TO* love, someone to whom we offer the best of ourselves, who then (ideally) loves us back. If God really *is* love, He lives the same dynamic: the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the Love between them — all co-eternal and sharing the same essence and substance, because all are part of the dynamism of Love that is God.

As for us, we encounter God, even before we are aware of him, as our Creator. After all, if he didn't give us the gift of existence in the first place, we wouldn't be encountering him any other way! The Catholic Church teaches that everything that exists (that is not God) was created by God, and is sustained in existence by God. This latter point is important: the relationship between God and Creation is not like that of a painter to a painting, but more like that of a singer to a song. The painter can hang the painting on the wall and forget about it, but a singer cannot do the same: the moment the singer ceases to sing, the song itself disappears. The song depends on the singer for its continued existence, just as the universe depends on its Creator for its continued existence.

And so why did God create the universe? More importantly, why did he create us? In a nutshell, for the same best reason why a singer sings: for the sheer joy of it. And the amazing thing about the rational creatures that he has created (i.e. angels and human beings) is that they can, in turn, join in the song! The nature of God is intimately joined to the purpose of our existence: by being capable of free will we are also capable of love, which means that we share, in some small way, in the very nature of God. We'll never become other gods, but the fact that God is a communion of loving Persons opens the door to us joining in that communion, growing more and more in godliness for all time — a godliness defined by perfect Love.

If God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?

To tackle this, we need to get a grip on the word "evil". Usually "evil" is divided into two categories: natural evil, and moral evil. The latter arises from an improper exercise of free will, and I think is fairly easy to grasp. The former is more subtle: it, in turn can be sub-divided into physical evil and metaphysical evil. And if at this point you are going "huh?", just stick with me.

Catholic tradition teaches that evil does not actually exist in itself, because evil is actually a privation. In other words, evil is not a "Something", it is a "lack of Something", just like cold is a lack of heat, or blindness is a lack of the ability to see.

In this context, the worst possible evil is actually non-existence itself, i.e. the total lack of any existence at all. The greatest possible good, on the other hand, is to lack nothing, and indeed to not be capable of lacking anything. This is one of the reasons we say that God, the greatest good of all, is necessarily eternal: if He were capable of non-existing, he would not be the greatest possible good. An interesting side-consequence of this is that it also implies that God is, in his nature, a fundamentally joyful being.

Now for us human beings, or indeed any created thing, we are somewhere on this scale of existence. We definitely are not "nothingness", but at the same time we are not "necessary" beings: we *could* fall back into "nothingness" if God were to stop "singing" us into existence. So we possess a true and definite goodness, thanks to the mere fact that we exist, but it *is* a limited existence. The fact of this limited nature in created things is called "metaphysical evil".

"Physical evil" is a bit easier to understand, at least initially. It includes things like meteor strikes, tsunamis, forest fires, disease, and other powerfully destructive forces in nature. When we encounter them, they risk increasing our experience of "lack" on some level. What is interesting, however, is that physical evil, for it to be a physical evil, has to interact with some metaphysical evil on some level. People drown in floods; ducks do not. It is a physical evil from the point of view of human beings, but ducks are largely indifferent to them, because they possess a nature better adapted to the overflowing water. Strictly speaking, any of the natural phenomena previously mentioned can actually be seen as something good — it all depends on your perspective! For a physical evil to really be considered a physical evil, it needs to coincide with some limitation present in the creatures with which it interacts, such that (due to that "metaphysical evil") the targets of the force in question have an increase in "lack" due to the interaction.

Get it?

So if a loved one gets ill, the immediate question might be "where did the illness come from", but the existential question is really "why are we affected by illness at all?" Which then begs the question: what is God's plan to do something about this metaphysical evil?

Which brings us to the problem of moral evil.....

The created universe contains many non-rational things: clouds, rocks, trees, and so on. Their natures are limited, not only by what they are, but by their incapacity to grow in their "essence" (even if some external characteristics can change). But rational creatures are different: because they possess free will, they have the capacity to love, however imperfectly, and so they have the possibility to more perfectly participate in God's nature as the God-who-is-Love. And because the capacity for love can itself grow as it is exercised, it is possible for rational creatures to "grow in godliness" through the practice of genuine love, a process called "divinisation".

Now what is interesting about human beings is that we are composed of both matter and spirit. Our faculty for free will rests within our souls, but the body is also a true part of what makes us human. We therefore bridge the gap between the non-rational creation and God. It is a very early teaching of the Church that the first humans, who had not yet sinned, were called by God to act as a kind of "natural priesthood", "binding" creation to God such that God could more perfectly lead the non-rational things to a greater "being" through us. The expression the Bible uses to describe this is "God who is all in all".

Unfortunately, our earlier ancestors chose to "bind" the universe, not to God, but to Satan, the "opposer" of God. For this reason humans remained in our metaphysically weak creation; we lost the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and we placed creation into a kind of bondage to the Evil One. Moral evil can truly be said to be the worst evil, because it prevented the curing of our metaphysical evil and therefore subjected us to physical evils, in some cases worse than what they might have been otherwise.

Now with regards to the Devil/Satan/Lucifer/whatever-his-name-is, where did he come from? Catholic tradition teaches that he was an angel, originally created good, but that he chose to become evil through his own choice. His sins are Pride and Envy. For Pride, he tried to become like God without God, by directing his love towards himself rather than to God (in effect, trying to become his own personal trinity). The disastrous consequence of this, for him, was the loss of the grace of the Holy Spirit, a metaphysical lack made permanent by the nature of the choice itself. As for Envy, this is a sin he directed to all other rational creatures (angels and human beings) who still retained the capacity to grow in godliness — looking upon this in others created the "pain in the heart" that defines envy, and he sought to ruin the capacity for love in these others.

This is the sorry state of affairs into which the world fell. Theoretically God could have just annihilated the universe and started over, but that would have simply increased the evil even further (as nothingness, as stated before, is actually the worst possible evil). So rather than re-create, God chose to redeem the world.

If God *is* all-good and all-powerful *and* there is evil in the world, what is God doing about it?

This third question is really the big one. Rather than go into detail regarding the Abraham, the prophets and the entire ministry of Jesus, let me just focus on the central element: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This historical moment is at the heart of the work of Salvation. But how?

To understand Jesus' death, we need to understand what death is, and why it is so fearsome. When a living thing dies, it slides backwards on the scale of existence, because it now lacks something it had: life itself. Death is always an evil, then, because it is a lack of life for something that otherwise once was alive. For humans, though, death is even more dramatic, because we face the possibility of not only the loss of our biological life, but our inner rational life itself. Without any hope of some sort of afterlife, we face the extinction of the thing that really makes us human: the life of love that we have led. As much as animals shirk from death and seek to survive, the natural human horror of death therefore goes even further, as an attempt to reject the possibility of our very annihilation. But death still comes to us all, which means that the pall of despair hangs very heavily over much of human existence. Faced with such a bleak outlook, many choose to simply reject the value of leading a life of other-centred love in the first place (after all, what's the point if it's all going to disappear anyway?) and human existence becomes truly nasty and brutish.

Now with regards to Jesus, we need to keep in mind something very special about Him: that he is both perfectly God and perfectly human, "like us in all things but sin". In Jesus God became incarnate, emptying himself to truly take on our human nature. As such, he became subject in some manner to the limitations imposed by this limited human nature (a process called kenosis), including the law of death. But Jesus' death became the "death which trampled on death", by redeeming us and setting us free from the slavery of death.

How did it do this? We need to understand that Jesus' death was both willed by Satan and accepted by Jesus. Satan could not resist seeing Jesus killed, because (even if Satan didn't understand Jesus' true divinity) Jesus was clearly the Beloved of God — and Satan hates God (which explains the brutality of his death). Jesus, however, laid down his life as an act of perfect love, as he himself said: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15: 13) And it is true! To face what otherwise seems like annihilation of our very being, for sake of love, truly is a sign of the greatness of that love. And that love is so great that it makes us more into the image of God than ever before — so much so that it can overcome the very backsliding into nothingness that death otherwise represents.

In accepting to die for us, out of obedience to his Father, Jesus actually completed the "priestly" work of our first parents, breaking the chains that bound the physical world to Satan and re-attached them to God himself. This is why Jesus' death is called a "sacrifice", and New Testament refers to Jesus as the "great high priest". And while his body sat in the tomb, Jesus descended among the souls of the previously-dead to bring them the Good News that death itself was now conquered. For those who had not irrevocably damaged their souls through mortal sin, the possibility of entering into the communion of love of the Trinity now opened up.

Now while Jesus' death dealt with repairing the problems created by the failure of our first parents, setting the universe free from its bondage to Satan, there was still the problem of the metaphysical evil present in our basic human nature to deal with. The answer was the Resurrection. Jesus, during his ministry, brought a number of individuals back to life by his healing power, but they all eventually died again. Jesus, on the other hand, did not just rise in his body, but that body was also *glorified*, becoming the first piece of material creation to enjoy that perfect communion with God that overcomes all metaphysical evil. For example, Jesus ate with his disciples — but he didn't *need* to eat. It is a life of possibilities without limits.

Jesus promised to return again one day, and Christians are waiting in joyful hope for that great day, because Jesus' return is about a lot more than the mere geography of "where he is". When Jesus comes again all sources of deliberate evil (e.g. the evil angels) will finally be driven out of the universe, and the universe will be flooded with God's presence and power such that the universe will be "set free from its bondage to decay" and "God will be all in all". Jesus, therefore, is God's ultimate answer to the problem of evil, and he brings salvation to us in all its forms, moral and metaphysical.

If God *is* all-good and all-powerful *and* there is evil in the world *and* God is doing something about it, how do we get with the program?

The meaning of human existence, revealed in Jesus Christ, is to turn away from self to love God and love our neighbour in complete selflessness. Living in this way means growing in godliness even in this life, which fills our hearts with the hope that conquers despair. But how do we do this in practical terms?

The first critical element is to repent, i.e. to turn away from the things which God has revealed are sinful. There is no point in trying to attach ourselves to God if we keep weighing ourselves down with sin. But God knows that this is still a struggle for us, so many means of grace are made available to us to help us: the preaching of the Gospel, the encouragement of Christian fellowship, and (most importantly) the sacraments. I might also add that repentence is not just a one-shot moment of time (although it is sometimes given to us in particularly strong moments), but is a habit of mind and heart that continuously tries to avoid any nostalgia for past sin and which tries to dig out present sinful habits no matter how deep their roots. Repentence is a process, above all, of loosening the chains of sin that trap us.

Another critical element is to enter into the sacramental economy. The sacraments are amazing things: in them, God uses material elements as a means to communicate his grace to us. Baptism, the gateway to the other sacraments, cleanses us of sin and makes us into a new creation, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit restored as per God's original plan for humanity. Confirmation builds us into the community of the Church, the Eucharist orients us towards Christ in a concrete way, Anointing of the Sick helps us face the reality of sickness and death with hope, the sacrament of Reconciliation helps us to concretely grow in humility and moral perfection, human erotic love is elevated to something spiritual through Marriage, and our need to be held together by some form of leadership is satisfied by having leaders graced with the sacrament of Holy Orders. When we are really and truly able to live the sacraments and their related liturgical elements, we are already getting a foretaste of the "heavenly liturgy" that will be celebrated in the universe once Jesus returns.

A final critical element is the undertaking of good works. Good works are not a means to "earn heaven", as nothing we can do can merit such an amazing gift. What they are, however, are a means to being into the world the very Love that is God. Love cannot be mere sentiment: it must lead to concrete loving acts, or else it is dead (cf. James 2). In performing such loving works, however, we not only grow in godliness ourselves, we also communicate God's love — indeed, his very nature — to the universe itself, foreshadowing that great day when the Beloved One sweeps up all of creation into the movement of love between himself and his Father.

The Assumption matters!

Normally I meditate on the Glorious Mysteries when I pray the Rosary on a Wednesday. Today I saw a new dimension of the mystery of the Assumption of Mary that I never noticed before.

First, a quick recap on what the dogma of the Assumption actually is. It is a dogma of Catholic faith that "the Immaculate Virgin...on the completion of her earthly sojourn, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory". (Lumen Gentium, no. 59) For the rest of us, when we die our soul may go the Heaven but our body goes into the ground to await the general resurrection of the dead. For Mary, however, her body was *also* "assumed" into Heaven.

This dogma is not universally held among Christians. The Orthodox generally agree with it, but they prefer to emphasize the "dormition" of Mary, i.e. the fact and manner of her death. The Protestants, however, do not accept the dogma of the Assumption. The "Biblical" Protestants (like the Evangelicals) usually outright deny the dogma, while the Anglicans often have a more neutral stance. For both groups, however, the rationale is based on the fact that the Assumption, as such, is not mentioned in the Bible. For them, this means one of two things: either the Assumption never happened, or it doesn't matter even if it did happen.

I'll be honest, I can sympathize with the difficulties of the Protestants. As a Catholic I have no problem believing in the existence of an extra-biblical Tradition that complements Scripture and perfects our knowledge of it, so the fact of the Assumption I do not doubt. But there is that whole "so what" factor that is harder to deal with. It's very nice that Mary's body was assumed into Heaven — good for her — but does it really matter?

As it turns out, yes. The dogma of the Assumption reminds us of a very important element of Christian faith — our resurrection. I don't mean the resurrection of Jesus, I mean our own resurrection at the end of time. There are many people today who consider themselves Christian but who, in practical terms, do not believe in a personal resurrection from the dead. Sure, Jesus rose from the dead, but this is not seen as having any universal impact or dimension for us. It turns out that there were some early Christians who thought the same way, and St. Paul had to correct them:

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Cor 15: 12-23)

The Assumption, if it is real, is a direct challenge to those persons who think Jesus' resurrection was unique to him. Mary, while she is the perfect disciple, is nevertheless just as human as you and me. If the power of the resurrection can extend beyond Jesus to include her, and not just in her soul but in her body, then there is no reason why it can't extend to the rest of us as well.

Why Catholics receive the Eucharist

A few months ago I got an email from a friend of mine:

[My boyfriend and I] went to Easter mass together and afterwards he asked me WHY Catholics receive Eucharist? Why do we "eat the body".... and although I understand that Jesus asked us to during the last super I'm kinda at a loss for explaining beyond that point. Why was it important for Jesus to offer us Eucharist?

Here are four key points to keep in mind when approaching this question.

POINT #1: The Mass is a "memorial"

Why institute the Eucharist during the Last Supper, i.e. during a Passover meal? The Passover meal, for the Jews, was not just a chance to sit down and eat. It had (and still has) a deeply religious significance. A key point to retain is that the meal is a "memorial", which doesn't just mean we remember what happened, but that somehow, mysteriously, by doing the ritual the past is "made present". Take for example these lines from the ritual of the Passover meal:

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt."

The Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed not only our fathers from Egypt, but He redeemed also us with them, as it is said: "It was us that He brought out from there, so that He might bring us to give us the land that He swore to our fathers."

It is like we go through the Red Sea with the original ancestors. Jesus instituted the Eucharist - "Do this in memory of me" - because he wanted it to work the same way: to cause us to be "doing something" not only in the present, but through the ritual action to be bringing something, some event, from the past into the present.

POINT #2: The Mass is also a "sacrifice"

There were already sacrifices of bread and wine in the time of Jesus. In the book of Genesis we see the encounter between Abraham and the priest-king Melchisedek:

Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. (Genesis 14: 18)

Bread and wine were already considered sacrificial items, then. By using them, Jesus is showing that he is both a priest (in the order of Melchisedek - see Psalm 110) and a king (i.e. the Messiah). He is taking an already familiar ritual act, but he is going to invest it with a new meaning.

But Jesus is going to do more than make a sacrifice of bread and wine: he is going to connect that sacrifice to his death on the cross. "This is my body, given up for you....This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all mankind."

POINT #3: Let's do the time warp again

When we do the Mass, we are doing both a "sacrifice" and a "memorial". Each Mass is like another Passover meal, so in other words, when we do the Mass, it opens up a time warp just like the Jews believe the Passover meal does. But what does it open up a time warp to? To the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Each Mass is a sacrifice, but it isn't a re-run of the sacrifice on the cross - it IS that sacrifice, being made present in 2003 thanks to the ritual action. It doesn't transport us back in time, it takes what Jesus did on the cross and brings it forward in time to us.

By going to Mass, it is as though we were sitting at the foot of the cross the day Jesus died on it. And when he died, tremendous power was unleashed into the world. The Gospels relate some of these: the veil of the Temple is torn; an earthquake; some of the dead rising from their tombs. Amazing stuff. So when we do the Mass, we ask God to channel that power for our own needs today. Next time you attend Mass, listen to the words of the Eucharistic Prayer (the long prayer the priest says that includes the consecration). You'll hear things like:

May he make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints.

Lord, may this sacrifice, which has made our peace with you, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.

Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth.

Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you. (i.e. our intentions!)

Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters, and all who have left this world in your friendship.

These are good things to pray for, and I only took them from Eucharistic Prayer #3! We don't have to only pray for these things at Mass, of course, but the whole point is to take the spiritual power of Christ's sacrifice and apply it to these things.

POINT #4: The "real presence" of Christ, and why we take communion

Up until now we've been confining ourselves to a discussion of bread and wine. But in fact we don't offer the bread and wine, we offer the Body and Blood of Christ. We start with bread and wine, like Melchisedek did, but by doing the ritual Jesus asked us to do it is not just the sacrifice on the cross that comes into our present, it is Jesus himself. The bread and wine become his Body and Blood. Jesus is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just like Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, he is himself "made present" in the bread and wine by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I should point out that the Holy Spirit does not leave afterwards! If he did, the Body and Blood would probably revert back to ordinary bread and wine. It is the continued presence of the Holy Spirit that guarantees the presence of Jesus. When you look at the tabernacle in church, and genuflect in its direction, you are not just acknowledging the presence of Jesus, you are also genuflecting at the presence of the Holy Spirit sustaining the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

What this means, though, is that when we receive Holy Communion we are receiving much more than bread and wine. We are receiving the very presence of God into us, and we are being filled with the Holy Spirit. We walk out of there as living tabernacles of God's presence in the world.

This is an awesome gift. But it is also an awesome responsibility, and it shows why we can't just let anyone take communion, as difficult as that is to accept sometimes. To *receive Jesus* we have to already be *with Jesus*. To receive the *Body of Christ* in communion means we have to already be part of the *Body of Christ* on Earth, i.e. a member of the Church. And we can't be a member on our terms, but on the terms of Jesus as one of his disciples (so no taking communion if we are in a state of grave sin). The Eucharist is both a comfort and a challenge.