Christ's Mission seen in the First Temptation

After fasting forty days in the desert, Jesus was tempted by Satan. Three specific temptations are recounted in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Each temptation, of course, is a temptation of the human nature of Jesus against His divine nature. They almost seem like they are building to something, each specific temptation being more significant--almost more grandiose--than the previous. However, the first temptation is so rich in symbolism and in real significance that it reveals (in retrospect) almost the entire Mission of Jesus.

The temptation is to turn the stones that are laying around on the ground into bread. During His fast, this would have been a significant temptation for Jesus, just on a physical level. Furthermore, it is difficult to see what could possibly have been wrong in the act itself. After all, it was through Jesus, as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, that both the wheat and the rocks were created. If He, the Lord of all, were to turn the one into the other, what harm could that possibly entail?

Most people explain this temptation as a matter of misuse of power. It is, kind of, but the significance of the temptation, especially in its particulars, goes much further than that.

The reason that Jesus could not give into this temptation is that He became a man in order to offer Himself on behalf of all Men. This aspect of His mission has two elements that intersect with this particular temptation. The first has to do with the nature of bread and the second has to do with the nature of the Son.

During the Last Supper, when Jesus would institute the Mass, He would turn bread into His Body, for our consumption. It's significant that He would use bread. Bread is not something that just occurs naturally; rather, it's the result of human labor applied to the wheat which is given by God. Thus, the mixture of human work with something from the earth is a significant aspect of the sacramental form of the Holy Eucharist. We even make a point in the Mass of identifying the elements as being both from the earth and from human labor. If Jesus were to turn rocks directly into bread, it would violate the significance that bread would later play in His Eucharistic plan.

Jesus' own words in response to Satan even contain a hint of foreshadow, but a foreshadow that is only recognizable as such after the Last Supper: "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" At the Last Supper, Jesus would give Himself, the complete Word of God, Who "was with God" and Who "was God," to us in the form of bread, by turning bread into Himself.

At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turned water directly into wine; however, when He did so, He first made the servants do something, even if something only as simple as going and fetching the water to fill the jugs. These jugs were about half the size of a common fifty five gallon drum and there were six of them that had to be filled. The servants wouldn't have been able to carry them full, so they were filled in place. All the water--some 120 to 180 gallons of it--were carried to the jugs to fill them. The point is that, even in this miracle of turning water into wine, Jesus was sure to make human work a part of the process.

The mystery of this temptation, and the reason that it represented a temptation against Jesus' Divine Nature, goes even more deeply, though. Jesus became Man so that He could give Himself, as a man and on behalf of all men, entirely, unreservedly, to the Father. Every act of the Human Nature of Jesus, in order to enact His plan of salvation, had to be directed to the Father's Will, with nothing reserved for Himself. For Jesus to use a power He possesses by virtue of His Divine Nature in order to gratify a desire of His human nature, would have been a deviation from that plan. This simple act of turning stones to bread for consumption in the desert--whether at the behest of Satan or not--would have represented a failure in the salvific mission of Jesus.

But we are called to strive for the same perfection that Jesus demonstrated. That's why fasting is such an important aspect of Christian spirituality. Jesus showed a perfect submission of His human nature to His divine nature, and therefore to the Father's will. We're called to nothing less. In order to move our submission to perfection, we need to be ready to give up everything. Regular periods of prayerfully denying our human impulses--the good ones, like eating--is a powerful way to exercise our submission to whatever God will call us to.

St. Valentine - more needed than ever

This weekend (this past Friday) is St. Valentine's day, secularized as just "Valentine Day." St. Valentine is a third-century priest or bishop, reputedly martyred for marrying Christian couples in an age when marriage was forbidden by the Roman emperor. This reputation is what has made St. Valentine's day the "day of love" in modern culture.

More than ever, in the coming decades, we will need the example of St. Valentine--especially his example of martyrdom--and his intercession to protect Christian marriage. The current phase of the same-sex so-called marriage battle is that the states are falling, one after another, in giving in to the demands of the homosexual culture for the extention of marriage to homosexual couples. This is tragic enough; however, it won't be too long before that same culture is demanding that every tradition of marriage bow to their desire for status and recognition of their perverse arrangement. A time is coming, in the not-to-distant future, when the call for the right to obtain legal recognition for same-sex so-called marriages will change into a call for the disallowance of anyone to obtain a minister's license (for marriage purposes) unless that minister is willing to officiate the marriages of same-sex couples.

This movement, to force the acceptance of same-sex couples through the force of government, has already begun. For example, there are already movements to prevent federal funding from being used by adoption agencies that would not place children with same-sex couples. Recently, a woman who runs a photography business was told that she must either close shop or accept business for the wedding of a same-sex couple. While there are those who, hearing this prediction (that the homosexual community would call for the banishment of marriage traditions that exclude same-sex marriages), would say "No way! That'll never happen. We don't want to impose on other religions!" there are already those who would say "Well, yes, that should already be in place!"

The time is near, when Catholic priests (and Christian ministers who would be unwilling to officiate so-called marriages of same-sex couples) will be unable to obtain state licenses to officiate marriages at all. Let us pray to St. Valentine, now more than ever, for the survival of the true married love that he died protecting.

The antidote to Obama-care: It isn't conscience laws

Predictably, Obama-care has put millions of Americans into the position of watching their money get spent on products to which they're morally opposed. Of particular notariety at this point is the Health and Human Services mandate related to preventive care. Basically, the law is written so that employers over a certain size (in terms of workforce) must provide health insurance that covers a basic set of preventive care products and services without copayment on the part of the employer. The Department of Health and Human Services gets to be in charge of the list of products and services that count as basic preventive care. Predictably, with a Democrat in the White House to appoint the director of the DHHS, birth control products are considered preventive care. The list includes birth control drugs that are abortifacient in nature, as well as morally problematic procedures such as sterilization.

A number of companies and organizations, especially quasi-religious organizations, that are engaged in ongoing lawsuits over the application of the mandate. There is some hope that they will be successful on the basis of already-existing religious freedom laws, and the most popular appeal to the wrongness of the mandate itself is an appeal to freedom of religion. The argument goes that religion is not just something practiced within the walls of a church building. One's religion affects how he faces, and interacts with, the whole world. Therefore, the constitutional prohibition against laws "respecting an establishment of religion" (which means laws whose object is the operations of a church) extends naturally to all aspects of the practice of a system of faith by individuals in the broader world.

While religious freedom is important, and conscience clauses are perhaps needed in a number of laws, ultimately, protecting one's freedom to engage the world according to one's beliefs cannot be a matter of exception. It has to be built into the fabric of the laws and of how we think about civil government. With regards to this, Pope Leo XIII has already formulated the right understanding of freedom needed to protect against such invations to privacy as the DHHS mandate. Here is what Rerum Novarum says. It's a bit lengthy, but the full read is worth the time:

5. It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man's little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.

6. What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation, for the brute has no power of self direction, but is governed by two main instincts, which keep his powers on the alert, impel him to develop them in a fitting manner, and stimulate and determine him to action without any power of choice. One of these instincts is self preservation, the other the propagation of the species. Both can attain their purpose by means of things which lie within range; beyond their verge the brute creation cannot go, for they are moved to action by their senses only, and in the special direction which these suggest. But with man it is wholly different. He possesses, on the one hand, the full perfection of the animal being, and hence enjoys at least as much as the rest of the animal kind, the fruition of things material. But animal nature, however perfect, is far from representing the human being in its completeness, and is in truth but humanity's humble handmaid, made to serve and to obey. It is the mind, or reason, which is the predominant element in us who are human creatures; it is this which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute. And on this very account - that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason - it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time.

7. This becomes still more clearly evident if man's nature be considered a little more deeply. For man, fathoming by his faculty of reason matters without number, linking the future with the present, and being master of his own acts, guides his ways under the eternal law and the power of God, whose providence governs all things. Wherefore, it is in his power to exercise his choice not only as to matters that regard his present welfare, but also about those which he deems may be for his advantage in time yet to come. Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future. Man's needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.

8. The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man's own industry, and by the laws of individual races. Moreover, the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces. Those who do not possess the soil contribute their labor; hence, it may truly be said that all human subsistence is derived either from labor on one's own land, or from some toil, some calling, which is paid for either in the produce of the land itself, or in that which is exchanged for what the land brings forth.

9. Here, again, we have further proof that private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature. Truly, that which is required for the preservation of life, and for life's well-being, is produced in great abundance from the soil, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and expended upon it his solicitude and skill. Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature's field which he cultivates - that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right.

10. So strong and convincing are these arguments that it seems amazing that some should now be setting up anew certain obsolete opinions in opposition to what is here laid down. They assert that it is right for private persons to have the use of the soil and its various fruits, but that it is unjust for any one to possess outright either the land on which he has built or the estate which he has brought under cultivation. But those who deny these rights do not perceive that they are defrauding man of what his own labor has produced. For the soil which is tilled and cultivated with toil and skill utterly changes its condition; it was wild before, now it is fruitful; was barren, but now brings forth in abundance. That which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it. Is it just that the fruit of a man's own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.

11. With reason, then, the common opinion of mankind, little affected by the few dissentients who have contended for the opposite view, has found in the careful study of nature, and in the laws of nature, the foundations of the division of property, and the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature, and as conducing in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquillity of human existence. The same principle is confirmed and enforced by the civil laws-laws which, so long as they are just, derive from the law of nature their binding force. The authority of the divine law adds its sanction, forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another's: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife; nor his house, nor his field, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his."

A careful reading will establish clearly the Church's intention that men have, not only the right to private property, but the full right of disposal over their own wages. That's the crux of the problem with Obama-care. Obama's health care concept steps into men's private lives and deprives them of that basic right over their own wages. It violates the Christian principles of private property--principles, it should be pointed out, that were fully supported by the underlying assumptions of the Founding Fathers if the United States.

If the United States were to return to those principles, it would find that the issue of the HHS mandate will have disappeared entirely, since there would be no Obama-care. Unfortunately, while the Catholic contingency of the nation should have been leading the charge to oppose Obama-care on those grounds, with copies of Rerum Novarum rolled up in their fists, most prominent Catholics, instead, stood around and debated whether or not the law would exclude tax-funded abortions.


I really want to trust the Church - but in some things they don't make it easy

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recently released a report of their review of the Holy See, in relation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Holy See is a signatory. The report, in addition to criticizing the Holy See for how some bishops around the world have handled reports of priests being involved in acts of child abuse, more than suggested that it's time for the Church to change its teaching on certain subjects if it wants to get a clean bill of health vis-a-vis human rights--especially where children are concerned.

Some people are surprise at this. Even some people who are insiders within the Vatican are surprised at this. Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office, expressed surprise. He questioned whether we were dealing with "an inability to understand, or an unwillingness to understand." He said, "in either case, one is entitled to amazement."

I'm not sure I agree. For my own part, I'm not amazed, nor even surprised. That the Convention on the Rights of the Child would eventually be used in attempts to pry children away from the world view and the moral convictions of their parents' generation seemed all too obvious to those who bothered to read the Convention itself in 1990. To be sure, a lot of the articles of the Convention are really good things; however, there are several articles that are either problematic on their face or, at least, could pose problems depending on their interpretation and implementation. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

More to the point, though, is that the actvities of the United Nations, as a body, have for decades demonstrated two particular traits in their underlying principles:

1) a solid grounding of international law in a strictly secularist world view

2) a complete lack of regard for the principle of subsidiarity

Given these two principles as a starting point, it is not difficult to predict the behavior of various United Nations committees on certain topics. The character of the recent report on the Holy See--what that represents in terms of the committee's willingness to interfere in the upbringing of children--was predicted when the Convention was first rolled out in 1990.

What we might have been entitled to some amazement at, is that the Holy See would have signed the Convention in the first place. In truth, the Holy See's friendliness to the United Nations--not just as an idea, but as a specific body--has been puzzling to me ever since the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, which was when I became old enough to form opinions about such things.

But the Church's response to certain events in the world--both locally and globally--has been difficult to understand in matters not specifically pertaining to the United Nations, too. A case in point is the support that the bishops in the United States seemed to give for the basic idea of the health care plan that eventually became Obama-care. Rather than recognizing how dangerous the bill was at its very roots, the bishops haggled over things like whether citizens would be forced to pay for abortions. As was predicted even before the bill was passed, one of the most significant effects of the law, with regards to trying to protect the unborn, is that we're not, anymore. That is, we're no longer trying to prectect the unborn. Significant resources, time, and energy have been diverted from the primary task of attempting to protect unborn babies from being killed to the less direct task of trying to protect our rights to not pay for the killing of unborn babies. This trajactory was as obvious to many of us as the trajectory of a football is to a quarterback before he releases the ball. Yet, for some reason, the bishops in the United States were generally supportive.

Aside from teachings per se--beliefs and moral principles from which we're not permitted to dissent without violating the integrity of our Catholic identity--there is always a question prudential judgment in how to engage the world to accomplish certain goods. For example, we know that we're commanded to care for and feed the poor. Some people think the best way to do that is to pass myriad laws that establish a heavy, omnipresent welfare state so that the needy always have somewhere to turn that is all but guaranteed to not run out of resources. Other people think that an overly generous welfare state exacerbates the problem by inviting chronic dependency and fails to address the real needs of individuals and families because it's administered by regulation from a distance instead of through personal interaction at the local level. These people think the best way to help the poor is to encourage generous donations to the churches and other organizations that are involved in charity work on a local level, and then go out and volunteer time to those organizations.

This difference in view point is often used by those attempting to pass new welfare laws as evidence that those voting against the laws "don't care" about the poor. This same dynamic often plays out in laws relating to other social issues, including immigration, education, and (of course) health care.

One would like to be able to rely on the Church for wisdom and circumspect analysis when it comes to such prudential jugdments. For example, when Obama-care was being debated, it would have been nice to know that the United States bishops would highlight the dangers of pushing the regulation of health care and health insurance to a central model, as well as the violations of the principles in Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum represented in the general outline of the plan. Instead, the bishops gave full support to a model of central, heavy-handed regulation as long as they felt there was a one-time promise to not fund abortion with tax dollars.

When the Church (or segments of its hierarchy) makes what would appear to be such obvious blunders in how it engages the world--from expressing dismay at the tone and content of the Committee on the Rights of the Child report to supporting the general outline of Obama-care--it gives off an aura of naivete and gullibility. One would expect, especially after a thousand years of getting batted around by emporors, that the Holy See would be more reticent than it has been in signing itself up formally for public review by secular bodies. One would expect the Church's hierarchy, generally, to be more reticent about supporting a centralization of regulatory control over individuals' decisions in something as personal as health care. At least for me, this kind of behavior on the part of the Church's hierarchy makes it difficult to give the Church much credibility when it comes to those prudential judgments.

The necessity of God for human value

One of the trends in modern preaching (at least in modern Catholic preaching) is to emphasize the value of each human person as someone that God wills to draw towards Himself. To be sure, this is an important component of Christian theology. However, I think sometimes there is a temptation to let this notion overflow into a sense that the human person has value a priori, which is to say, externally of any valuing of that person by God, Who created that person.

We should once in a while re-read and remind ourselves of some of the more sobering points Jesus made in the Gospel. One of these is the absolute necessity for God in any equation of human value. What is the value of the human soul without God? The single most prevalent image that Jesus gives us is that it is trash, to be discarded and not even thought of. The human soul without God is the wedding guest who is left outside in the street, with not even a thought given by the Groom or His guests. The human soul without God is the chaff that gets separated from wheat by the work of the winnowing fan. The human soul without God is the weeds gathered into bundles during the harvest, to be burned.

Why is this important, though? If God values every human person, then why did He see fit to use such imagery in His parables? I think there are two reasons: One is to help us understand the urgency and importance of evangelization, relative to those who have not yet received the grace of God in baptism. Jesus used ideas and images that the people He was speaking to understood, and one of the things they got was the idea of a batch of wheat having a certain amount of chaff. The more chaff there is in the wheat, the less wheat there is after the winnowing process. God--in the image of the land-owner, farmer, etc., desires a bountiful harvest of souls. Of course, we know that it's not just about the numbers with God. God has a special care for each and every one of us. But if we don't allow ourselves to be used by the Holy Spirit to convert the world, then we are contributing to the chaff/wheat ratio of the harvest.

The other reason is to help us recognize our own depravity and to protect us from a sense of intrinsic value that could lead us to pride. Only God Himself has intrinsic value; the value of everything else, including ourselves, is extrinsic: It derives from something outside of ourselves. God is the "something outside" when it comes to the value of the human soul. Some people look at this idea with something like distain. Their attitude is "Hey, if you don't value me for me--if you need God to give me value--then I don't need your consideration." This attitude is probably more prevalent in the modern age, when we think differently about the relationship between regimes and individuals, than in any other. It's a dangerous manifestation of pride. The person who thinks he doesn't need God for his own value is not likely to turn to God.

Sometimes it feels awkward to reflect on certain passages of Scripture--especially of the Gospel--and what they seem to imply. The consistent theme of absolute dependence on God is one of those messages that doesn't fit our modern thoughts about the individual. In our age of self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-help, and self-definition, the call to recognize a deep and absolute dependency on another is difficult to respond to. This is even more true when the the other is a person and not just some cosmic life-force energy-unity impersonal universal drive.

But the Gospel is there to give us the whole picture--not just part of it. God wants our actualization/fulfillment/realization/help/definition, and he wants us to have all of that completely. He wants us to live abundantly. That's why He lovingly tells us that He is the path--the only path--to an abundant life.