Monday, February 7, 2011

The Catholic Mass

Since Christmas I have been pondering the statement someone made about Evangelical church services being so much livelier and upbeat than Catholic mass. Some Fundamentalists seem to dismiss Catholic worship as “too serious, too ceremonious.” They do not grasp that the Catholic mass is not a “service” at all nor (as many Protestant services) a gathering of like-minded Christians meant to inspire them in their Christian walk, to make them feel good and uplifted. Yes, both Catholics and Protestants go to worship God, but Catholics attend church for a vastly different reason than do Evangelicals. Here is my attempt to explain Catholic mass:
The Catholic Mass
Daily at a Catholic solemn celebration of the mass, God’s children are summoned to bow and worship before the Emperor, the Creator of the infinite universe. The magnificent, glorious sacrament, especially on the Lord’s Day, displayed in the rites and liturgy is a miracle so full of awe that it should awaken in us a holy dread.
In His mercy, Christ provided an earthly place where our disguises, our veil of hidden sin, is exposed that we may face our demons. Our brokenness should be felt and at the same time assuaged. God’s special presence in the Tabernacle is a place of solace for the deepest yearnings of the human soul. A place where we can mysteriously transcend our physical life here and enter an epic heroic spiritual battle to make us saints. Yet, in the company of the Blessed Trinity and so great a cloud of witnesses, we face ourselves and our fallenness in a state of rapturous grace and thanksgiving.
Within the walls of a Catholic church, Christians meet their own Gethsemane. 

Weary from a world of loneliness, abuse, pride, violence, hatred, greed, gluttony, Relativism, deception; filled with agonizing regrets of things we have done and things we failed to do, revulsion at our wretched secrets, the lustful pornographic images bombarding our eyes at every glance both from the technology we allow in our home and outside it, Catholics escape to mass searching for the antidote to the sickness of sin. Exhausted by wickedness and in desperation to receive God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, we flee to Christ in His Sanctuary, we dip our hands into the holy water, cross ourselves and humbly submit, bowing before God. 
At the beginning in the Penitential Rite, we are encouraged to do the unthinkable in today’s culture, to boldly, courageously confront that no pilgrim has a happy ending to his earthly story, for all roads lead to physical death.We admit aloud that we have sinned against God and plead for His mercy. We face humanity’s iniquity and it’s life of disappointment and suffering. As the tax collector looking up to heaven beat his breast, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we kneel before the unspotted victim, the One Mediator, the loving advocate and high priest who intercedes before the Father for us crying, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis!” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.) 
Statues, paintings and stained-glass windows with Jesus, Mary and the saints stand with their arms outstretched reminding us that all is not lost--the broken reed He will not break. Catholics behold the suffering Savior on each crucifix and are reminded that by His stripes we are healed. And in the cosmic struggle, we find peace and thanksgiving. We learn to rejoice, even in the deepest sufferings knowing that He too understands our weakness and pain. Forgiveness, peace and joy are the ultimate destiny for those who gather within His protection and follow the way of the cross. 
The Catholic Church stands as a beacon and bulwark, a refuge for the bruised and bleeding hearts struggling for their eternal souls and those of their loved ones. 
After receiving God’s forgiveness we praise and worship Him in the Gloria. Then we begin the Liturgy of the Word which not only includes the written Word but the spoken Gospel through the Homily. Protestants are unaware how saturated the mass is in both spoken and sung scripture. 
Then the Eucharistic Celebration : the breadth and length and height and depth of the mass is a staggering reality of faith that few Catholics themselves are able to comprehend.
The word Eucharist, the source and summit of all Catholic worship, means “thanksgiving” and Catholics should be keenly aware that it is within the protection of His loving, merciful Sacred Heart, we find ourselves humbly contrite, repentant and forgiven.
Catholics enter the Holy Communion--not symbolically but sacramentally--with Christ into His Passion and become one with Him in the Mystery of Salvation. Through the Eucharistic celebration of the bread and wine, St. Paul reminded us that we are proclaiming “the Lord's death until he comes.” I Cor. 11:26. Therefore, Catholics are brought into a timeless celebration that reveals the Alpha, the beginning and genesis, through the Omega, the end of all things. Our earthly existence is caught up and time itself vanishes as we, with the host of heaven-- the saints and angels and archangels--join in the magnificent, glorious adoration of the Trinity. 
The Liturgy of the Eucharist brings us near, to witness the Last Supper, His Gethsemane, His suffering, and the Lord’s death on the cross, that one final sacrifice of Jesus Christ. With our spiritual eyes we behold the perfect Son of God spreading out His arms to engulf the tragedy of sin and absorb its everlasting consequences for us. There, we are with Him succoring Him through the eyes of the church, His mother and ever virgin Mary and we are in Him in an unfathomable mystery.
The transformation we experience in each mass should be one that brings freedom from the constraining skin of sin. We glory in the shedding of our wickedness and then are able to more fully absorb His mighty power and love. That is what brings us to the summit of Thanksgiving.
We die with Christ that His Soul will sanctify us, His Cross will save us, the blood and water flowing from His side will wash away our sins and we will, as He be resurrected as a New Man. 
As Jesus broke Himself on the cross and we partake of that heavenly manna, the fractured body of Christ, we become part of His suffering and death. We too become broken to our own wills, our own rights and desires. With Him abiding within us through the Eucharist, we rise from receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord off of our knees as Princes of the Kingdom, Knights of His Table Like little Christs, in the newness of a resurrected life, we go out into the world carrying His salvation message to become the light and salt of the world. We bring hope and our prayers intercede for those in darkness. 
If our spiritual eyes could be opened in a Catholic church, we would see a hospital for those trying to survive the war of sin. Some sitting in the pews like zombies are spiritually oblivious to the war, others understand that they are part of a terrible combat being waged for their souls--clashing in a struggle for eternal life or eternal death. This is the place where the feeble, impotent, cowardly find courage to reach for the sword of the spirit. 
But here the victory is assured and with each humble repentance and submission to God, there is utter euphoria. “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:7. When the battle for an individual soul rages, the Catholic Church is right there with the host of heaven--angels and archangels battling along with the heavenly saints for each person. Then when the priests blesses us in the name of the Trinity, we each should experience the everlasting peace that passes all understanding. For the war has been won at the Cross. 
This is the Catholic mass. It is not for inspiration but for transformation.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Catholic and Reformed Conceptions of the Atonement

Apr 1st, 2010 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
As we enter into the three most sacred days of the liturgical year, when Christ entered into His Passion and death, it may be helpful to consider the difference between the Reformed and Catholic conceptions of Christ’s Passion and Atonement.
Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11)
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena
The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect, on Christ the Son. In Christ’s Passion and death, Christ bore thepunishment of the Father’s wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In the Reformed conception, this is what it means to bear the curse, to bear the Father’s wrath for sin. In Reformed thought, at Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father transferred all the sins (past, present, and future) of all the elect onto His Son. Then God the Father hated, cursed and damned His Son, who was evil in the Father’s sight on account of all the sins of the elect being concentrated in the Son. (R.C. Sproul says that here.) In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, through Christ’s having already been punished for them, the elect can never be punished for any sin they might ever commit, because every sin they might ever commit has already been punished. For that reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, this would entail universal salvation, since it would entail that all the sins of all people, have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.
The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. The Father was never angry with Christ. Nor did the Father pour out His wrath on the Son. The Passion is Christ’s greatest act of love, the greatest revelation of the heart of God, and the glory of Christ.1 So when Christ was on the cross, God the Father was not pouring out His wrath on His Son; in Christ’s act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father, Christ was most lovable in the eyes of the Father. Rather, in Christ’s Passion we humans poured out our enmity with God on Christ, by what we did to Him in His body and soul. And He freely chose to let us do all this to Him. Deeper still, even our present sins contributed to His suffering, because He, in solidarity with us, grieved over all the sins of the world, not just the sins of the elect. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Nor did demons crucify Him; it is you who have crucified Him and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.”2The Passion is a revelation of the love of God, not the wrath of God. The fundamental difference can be depicted simply in the following drawing:
One problem with the Reformed conception is that it would either make the Father guilty of the greatest evil of all time (pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man, knowing that he is innocent), or if Christ were truly guilty and deserved all that punishment, then His suffering would be of no benefit to us.
A second problem with the Reformed conception is the following dilemma. If God the Father was pouring out His wrath on the Second Person of the Trinity, then God was divided against Himself, God the Father hating His own Word. God could hate the Son only if the Son were another being, that is, if polytheism or Arianism were true. But if God loved the Son, then it must be another person (besides the Son) whom God was hating during Christ’s Passion. And hence that entails Nestorianism, i.e. that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human. He loved the divine Son but hated the human Jesus. Hence the Reformed conception conflicts with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Father and the Son cannot be at odds. If Christ loves men, then so does the Father. Or, if the Father has wrath for men, then so does Christ. And, if the Father has wrath for the Son, then the Son must have no less wrath for Himself.
St. Thomas Aquinas says:
Christ as God delivered Himself up to death by the same will and action as that by which the Father delivered Him up; but as man He gave Himself up by a will inspired of the Father. Consequently there is no contrariety in the Father delivering Him up and in Christ delivering Himself up. 3
There St. Thomas explains that there is no contrariety between the Father and the Son during Christ’s Passion, no loss of love from the Father to the Son or the Son to the Father. The Father wholly and entirely loved His Son during the entire Passion. By one and the same divine will and action, the Father allowed the Son to be crucified and the Son allowed Himself to be crucified.4
One question, from the Reformed point of view, is: How then were our sins paid for, if Christ was not punished by the Father? Christ made atonement for the sins of all men by offering to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him. Hence through the cross Christ merited grace for the salvation of all men. Those who refuse His grace do not do so because Christ did not die for them or did not win sufficient grace for them on the cross, but because of their own free choice.
A second question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: St. Paul tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a true.”5How should we understand the curse, if God the Father is not pouring out His wrath on His Son? St. Augustine explains clearly in his reply to Faustus, that what it means that Christ was cursed is that Christ suffered death.6Christ took our sin in the sense that He willing bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse. Death is not natural. But Christ took the likeness of sinful man in that He subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross for our sake.
A third question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: How then should we understand Isaiah 53? What does it mean that:
Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. .. And the Lord was pleased to bruise him in infirmity: if he shall lay down his life for sin, he shall see a long-lived seed, and the will of the Lord shall be prosperous in his hand. Because his soul hath laboured, he shall see and be filled: by his knowledge shall this my just servant justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53;4-6, 10-11)
This means that Christ carried in His body the sufferings that sin has brought into the world, and that Christ suffered in His soul over all the sins of the world, and their offense against God. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He grieved over them all, in solidarity with us.  That is what it means that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He suffered the consequences of sin (i.e. suffering, grief, death), by entering into solidarity with us, entering into our fallen world, and allowing Himself to suffer in it with us, for us, even by our hands.
If one watches the film The Passion of the Christ from the point of view of the Catholic conception of the atonement, the experience is very different from watching it from the point of view of the Reformed conception of the atonement. The film is available online, in 12 parts of ten minutes each; below is the first part. Try watching it from the Catholic point of view of the atonement.