Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Part Three: the World, the Flesh and Vatican II.
The Twenty-Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
The Holy Prophet Nahum.
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12:24 PM 12/1/2013 — If you are among those who like to prepare for the Divine Liturgy by reviewing the Scripture readings to be sung that Sunday—and I know there are a few that do—you are most likely confused, since the Gospel lesson we just heard is not the one you were expecting. The ordinary Gospel for the Twenty-eighth Sunday after Pentecost is the parable of the Wedding Banquet, which we heard back on the Fourteenth Sunday. As you may recall, for the Fathers of the Church, that parable was an analogy of the role of Jews and Gentiles in the history of salvation and, for that reason, is always read on the Sunday of the Forefathers, just two weeks before Christmas; so, to avoid its being heard three times in quick succession, the Typikon of the Byzantine Tradition directs that it be displaced today by the Gospel traditionally assigned to the Thirtieth Sunday: St. Luke's account of our Lord's meeting with the rich young man, which we've looked at in years past when the date of Pascha causes us to observe a Thirtieth Sunday after Pentecost. Why is any of this important? It's not, especially since we're going to continue today with St. Paul and his obsession with the Satanic.
When we last left our perfervid Apostle, he had wrapped up his brief but incendiary missive to the Ephesians, in which he tried to get them fired up about the Devil in their midst; only, he wasn't speaking figuratively like we do when we use that phrase. He wanted them to put a face to their evil, and he gave them one, encouraging them to see themselves as an army doing battle with an invisible but very real enemy. In his own underhanded and deceptively bounderish way, he wanted them to stop blaming themselves for all their spiritual and moral struggles as they sought to eek out some semblance of a Christian life in the middle of a debauched and corrupt pagan society, a circumstance with which we can relate. Rather than becoming too introspective and brooding over their dispiriting situation, he wants them to see themselves as an army, with the secular world around them as a foreign enemy against which they must defend themselves.
Back when Pope Benedict resigned, I had mentioned to you something of his struggle to convince people that the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council had been grossly misinterpreted in many of the reforms that followed it, and that theme has been taken up in recent weeks by Pope Francis as well, albeit in a very different style and with a different emphasis. Pope Benedict was concerned mostly with liturgical reforms, convinced that the changes that had been made in the name of the Council after it was over were not, in fact, the reforms for which Council Fathers had called. Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, has little interest in liturgy, as you can no doubt tell; but, his view of the Council is the same: rather than seeing it as a radical break with tradition, as so many did at the time, he, like Benedict, reminds us that it can only be properly understood in the context of the whole of Church history, not a break with tradition but a building upon it; hence, his rather frequent and often alarming—to some people, anyway—references to the Devil and his work in the world. Those are easy to miss because he interlaces them with all these platitudes about the poor and being nice to people and being welcoming to sinners and so forth, all of which was said by our Lord anyway; and that's what gets the attention of the press whenever he opens his mouth. As one of my old seminary professors recently observed, he says all the right things; he just talks too much.
One of the problematic ideas that came out of that difficult period of confusion after the Council was this notion that the Church needed to engage the world. What the Council Fathers meant by that was that the Church could no longer think in old fashioned categories if it was going to effectively recognize and confront the very new threats that were being leveled against it by the secular world. What that was mistakenly interpreted to mean, however, was that the Church needed to somehow become open to the secular world and compromise itself to accommodate the world's new anti-Christian values. Hence, there were—and still are—people running around arguing that the Church must re-examine it's “rules” about things like divorce and remarriage, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, so forth and so on. Pope Francis, in his recent Apostolic Exhortation concluding the Year of Faith, reminds us that these are not “rules” of the Church; they are the teachings of Christ, part of the Deposit of Faith founded on Divine Revelation in the Scriptures and in the teachings of the Fathers; neither the Church as a whole, nor he as an individual, have any power to change them.
What I always found remarkable was how this weird notion—that the Church needs to be open to the world rather than confront it—is diametrically opposed to what's in the Scriptures. An ecumenical council may have the authority to tweak the Mass a little bit; it doesn't have the authority to rip the Epistles of St. Paul out of the Bible. And those who misinterpreted the Council ended up, in the end, falling into two categories: those who came to believe that everything that had been taught by the Church in the past was now up for grabs, and those who came to believe that, because it had broken with Tradition, the Council was invalid and had to be rejected; and both are still with us today. And this is why I feel it's important that we not gloss over these Apostolic readings as incidental.
Paul never visited the town of Colossae. It was an insignificant wool and weaving center, and the Church there was founded by a friend of his named Epaphras; but Paul, through correspondence, helped to direct his friend in the establishment of the Church there and continued, in that fashion, to be involved in its development. The Apostle's letter to the Colossians, from which we read today, was written before his letter to the Ephesians; but, we read it afterward because, in it, Paul completes in retrospect the thoughts he shared with the Christians in Ephesus, in a little less fiery way. Msgr. Knox's translation makes it a little clearer than the one in our Epistle book:
...thanking God our Father for making us fit to share the light which saints inherit, for rescuing us from the power of darkness, and transferring us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. In the Son of God, in his blood, we find the redemption that sets us free from our sins. He is the true likeness of the God we cannot see; his is that first birth which precedes every act of creation. Yes, in him all created things took their being, heavenly and earthly, visible and invisible; what are thrones and dominions, what are princedoms and powers? They were all created through him and in him; he takes precedency of all, and in him all subsist. He too is that head whose body is the Church; it begins with him, since his was the first birth out of death; thus in every way the primacy was to become his (Col. 1:12-18).
I just repeated the entire reading for you. Yes, we are living in dark times; yes, we are beset on every side by a secular world that seeks our eternal ruin; yes, that secular world is guided by a dark force of great power that has committed himself to our eternal damnation; but, even this dark world is ultimately subject to the one who created it. In spite of the Devil's rebellion and his designs against our salvation, even he was created by God through Christ and, therefore, he cannot triumph. Christ holds the primacy, and Christ is the head of the Church. And as long as we are part of the Church, and faithful to her, then we are protected.
It doesn't mean we're not going to have a hard time. If that were true, St. Paul wouldn't have had to write all these letters. The Devil was able to rebel because he, like us, was created with free will, like all the angels. His free will allowed him to rebel against God; our free will leaves us exposed to being tempted by him and having to struggle against his attacks; hence, God becoming a man in the person of Christ and putting himself in the cross-hairs, shedding his blood and giving to us his grace through the instrumentality of the Church he established. Even so, Christ warned us that it would not be easy, that the battle must continually be fought, and that we should not be surprised or depressed when we feel ourselves on the loosing end of this skirmish or that. After all, he says in John's Gospel,
If the world hates you, be sure that it hated me before it learned to hate you. If you belonged to the world, the world would know you for its own and love you; it is because you do not belong to the world, because I have singled you out from the midst of the world, that the world hates you. Do not forget what I said to you, No servant can be greater than his master. They will persecute you just as they have persecuted me; they will pay the same attention to your words as to mine [in other words, none]. And they will treat you thus because you bear my name... (John 15:18-21).
And I'm sure you'll agree with me that there are a lot of things that are worse that can befall us than having to endure a little persecution because we bear the name of Jesus Christ.