Gregory the Great on “love the sinner, hate the sin”

From this Sunday’s (3rd after Pentecost) Matins commentary on the EF Gospel (Luke 15:1-10):

My brethren, you have heard in the Gospel reading that sinners and tax collectors approached our Redeemer, and that they were received not only into conversing with him, but even into sharing a meal with him.  The Pharisees, seeing this, were disdainful about it.  Gather from this that true uprightness has compassion, false uprightness disdain.  True, though, the upright are wont to have disdain for sinners, and rightly so; but disdain that comes from the tempest of pride is one thing, while disdain that comes from zeal for correct moral instruction is quite another.

They very well may have disdain for sinners, but they are not disdainful of them.  They give up on them, but they do not despair of them.  They incite coercive action against them, but they do so out of love.  For even if on the outside they pile rebukes on sinners by their moral instruction, on the inside they maintain nonetheless their soft, sweet care for them by their charity.  In their hearts they privilege over themselves the very people they so often correct; they more highly esteem the people they so scrutinize.  Quite clearly, by acting in this way, they keep guard both over their duressed pupils by their moral instruction and over themselves by their humility.

But in contrast, those who by their false uprightness are wont to be prideful do not stoop down with any mercy at all to the level of the sick people that they despise.  They become even worse sinners by the fact that they do not believe that they are sinners.  Certainly the Pharisees are prominent among that group, who judged the Lord for receiving sinners, finding fault in their parched hearts with the very fountain of mercy!  But they were sick, and because of their sickness they did not know that they were sick.  So that they might learn that they were sick, the Heavenly Physician attends to them with mild treatments: he imposes upon them with a palatable parable, wrapping a compress onto the swelling in their wounded hearts.

(from Homily 34 on the Gospels)


Gregory of Elvira on the sacrament of the Pasch

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For this Holy Thursday, a deep cut from the Latin Fathers.  What do you think – worth sharing with my RCIA groups?

Treatise IX of the ‘Origen Treatises’ of Gregory of Elvira (d. c392), in my own rough translation (since, to my knowledge, no English translation exists):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: This month shall be the beginning of months for you, the first month of the year.

All things which are established by divine counsel and judgment have their own principles from which they have their origin and beginning; they have reasons why they were needed to signify other things, and they do not lack rationales; and they have a secure order of time, so that no undifferentiated jumbling may disturb them.  And so, beloved brethren, the sacrament of the Pasch, which is now celebrated as the Passion of the Lord’s body, was not a sudden or unforeseen thing.  For anything that is new and outstanding and magnificent was revealed aforetime in the old law through a likeness, so that having faith in the new fact would be considered more commendable due to its being previously signified.

Thus, if you want to turn your attention to our Lord’s Passion through the image of a likeness once revealed in the past, there you will find that this lamb that was sacrificed in the Pasch was a figure of Christ who smote Egypt and freed Israel.  Jeremiah, a highly guaranteed prophet, calls the lamb our God and savior when he says: I was led to death like a spotless lamb without evil.  And his fellow Isaiah says: He was led like a sheep to slaughter; he opened not his mouth, like a lamb in the presence of its shearer; he endured his judgment in humility, and who will tell of his generation, since his life will be taken from the earth?  O what a lamb is this, of whom scripture says his birth cannot be told!

The sheep shall be a full-grown male, one year old; you shall take it from the sheep and the goats.  And you shall set it aside until the fourteenth day of this month, and the whole multitude of the assembly of the children of Israel shall kill it at evening.  Behold the great problem, almost impossible to disentangle: that a lamb should be sought that comes from the sheep and the goats, although it does not work at all for one common offspring to come from the union of non-corresponding animals!  If such a lamb as is described here cannot be found for the Pasch, how can the Pasch be performed when the right kind of lamb to be sacrificed at the Pasch is missing, i.e. one taken from the sheep and the goats?

And since we have already demonstrated that this lamb is considered an image of our God and savior, who clothed the bodies of the human race, mortal through transgression, with a robe of immortality – not only on the innocents’ account, but the criminals’ too – he is called a lamb that you shall take from the sheep and goats.  You ought to interpret from the sheep and the goats as our Savior himself taught in the Gospel: He sets the righteous like sheep at his right hand, and sinners like goats on his left.  And since the brief space of time does not allow us to set forth many examples, I must impute only summarily the rationale for how this lamb should be born from the sheep and the goats.

Now Ruth the Moabitess was from a sinner nation that blessed Moses had renounced, saying: Moabites and Ammonites will not enter into the assembly of God until the tenth generation.  But Boaz the Israelite was a righteous man from the lineage of patriarchs, from the tribe of Judah.  Therefore, as scripture testifies, he took a Moabitess named Ruth as his wife after the tenth generation. From her Obed is born, from Obed Jesse, from Jesse David, and from David according to the way of human generation is born holy Mary, from whom Christ took flesh.  Notice that his flesh has a twofold origin, i.e. from the goats of the sinner nation of the Moabites, from which came Ruth mother of Obed as I have taught, and from the sheep of the patriarchs, from whom was Obed’s father Boaz the righteous man, namely from the line of Abraham, from the tribe of Judah.

From him the spotless lamb, i.e. Christ our Lord, is called a lion from the tribe of Judah.  For it says: A lion from the tribe of Judah has conquered, David’s root.  And Isaiah says: A shoot shall come forth from Jesse’s rod, and a flower will rise from his root.  This Jesse is David’s father, from which root (i.e., line) a shoot (i.e., Mary) came forth, and from her rose Christ the flower.

And so blessed Moses, knowing this was a sacrament of Christ’s birth, said that this lamb to be sacrificed should be from the sheep and the goats, since if the Lord clothed himself in a human body only from Israel, whom the law calls sheep, and not from the sinner nations, whom the law treats as goats, the nations would have merited neither to believe in Christ nor to be saved, since they would not have the token of their flesh in Christ’s body.  Now, though, the nations are saved in Christ, since they have merited to have a pledge of their redemption in Christ’s body through his origin from Ruth, and thus Christ alone is found to be such a lamb as was sought from the sheep and the goats for the Pasch.

He is not killed more than once, so that the true Pasch of the Lord is celebrated.  It says This is the Pasch of the Lord; it does not say “of the people”, so that just as “Pasch” gets its name from “Passion”, so it is called the Pasch of the Lord, since in the figure of the lamb not the people but the Lord is sacrificed.  And so the blessed Apostle Paul also says, Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed.

But I confess it amazes me, beloved brethren, that when he said sheep, he specified male; for no-one calls a sheep male!  And yet here he says: It shall be a full-grown sheep for you, male, one year old, from the lambs and the goats.   When he specifies sheep, he points to Christ’s flesh, which the Apostle defined as the Church, saying: Christ’s flesh, which is the Church, from which all we believers in Christ are generated; he calls these offspring saints.  So he says “male” so as to show that this flesh is not womanly but manly, i.e. the flesh of the perfect man – since there is not male and female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Thus a spotless lamb is chosen so that Christ’s simplicity and innocence should be revealed in the figure of this lamb.  A male is sought, so that Christ’s unconquered strength should be confirmed.  A one-year-old is mentioned, since from the time when the lamb was baptized in the Jordan by John, when he said: Behold the lamb of God, behold who takes away the sins of the world, Christ suffered after an exact and complete time of preaching, as David predicted about this: Blessing the crown of the year of your kindness.  “Perfect” is also mentioned, since as the Apostle says, All the fullness of divinity dwells in him bodily.

“In the first month” is mentioned, since it was necessary that he who came to take away the sins of the world should suffer at the same time as was the beginning of the world, calling the end back  to its origins, so that all things that were lost in Adam were restored in Christ.  For he who is going to destroy something attacks the origin of its nature and cuts off its hope of renewed liveliness by thoroughly killing it at the root.  Thus the world was overthrown by the Lord’s passion in the very season of its origin, so that it would be broken along with the seed of all evils, just as the Lord himself says to his apostles in the Gospel: Rejoice and exult, for I have conquered the world.

He adds: You shall eat unleavened bread with bitter herbs, since the future would be bitter for the Jews, because they were going to kill their Lord and prince of life, whose living death (as I might call it) raised the dead.  Bitter indeed for them who came like a thief in the night.  Bitter the nails with which they pierced him.  Bitter the unleavened bread that they must eat forever.  Bitter the words with which they shouted: His blood be upon us and upon our children.  Bitter Judas Iscariot, whom they hired with a fee.  Bitter the thorns with which they crowned his head in sport.  Bitter the hands by which they shed the Lord’s blood.  Thus he mandates that it must be eaten with bitter herbs, since all the future things that they were going to do to the lamb, i.e. Christ’s Passion, would be bitter for them.  And since, as the Apostle says: The cross of Christ is foolishness to those who are perishing, but God’s strength for those who will be saved, and Christ’s scent is for some the scent of life unto life, for others of death unto death, so then as persecuting the Son of God was bitter for them, so the drink of gall and vinegar atoned for the bitterness of our sins.

As the doorposts of the house are painted with lamb’s blood, since the exterminating angel of Egypt could be hindered from houses marked with lamb’s blood, so we also cannot avoid the ruin of this world and enter the kingdom of God in any other way than through the sign of the blood of the Lord’s Passion; for Christ’s blood is salvation to believers, punishment to unbelievers.  For Egypt was in the likeness of this world, Pharaoh of the devil; the people of Israel bore the type of us.  So then just as that people was freed from Egypt through the sacrifice of a lamb, through the sacrament of the Pasch, so we believers in Christ are freed from captivity to this age and the tyranny of Pharaoh, i.e. the devil.  And as Pharaoh, who persecuted the children of the Israelites was overthrown and perished in the water in which the people were freed, so also now Pharaoh, i.e. the devil, perishes in the Savior’s shipwreck in the same water of baptism in which we are freed.

You will eat it roasted in fire, it says; for God’s word is always on fire.  And let nothing about it be overlooked; since there is nothing in Christ that can be rejected.  Its bones are not broken, since Christ’s strength is unconquered.  If anything remains, it is burned up in the fire, i.e. if a person cannot grasp something about Christ, let it be reserved for the Holy Spirit, since scripture testifies that the Holy Spirit came like fire upon the believers.

You shall eat the head and feet and its interior parts.  There is a triple rationale here, but in the interest of time it must be explained slimly.  The head is the beginning, the innards the meantime, and the feet the future: let the learned and erudite understand these things.  For the head is Christ’s Father, the innards are the divine Word himself who tells the Father’s bosom, and the Paraclete Spirit has the apostles as feet, through whom it runs announcing the truth.

Thus shall you eat: you shall have your loins girt and shoes on your feet, as we should walk with firm step and stable devotion in faith; staff in your hand, showing the most solid pillar of the cross by which we are supported.  You shall eat unleavened bread, and let whoever eats leavened bread die the death.  Did it seem just that if someone ate leavened bread they would die the death, especially since if leavened bread polluted a person, it would be prohibited not only at Pasch but at all times, since God orders his servants to be clean and purified not only on the day of Pasch but at all times?  But since we have said that Pasch takes its name from the Lord’s Passion, therefore this indicated that whoever believed in the Lord’s Passion and merited to receive the Pasch of his sacred body ought already to cast out the leaven of evil and wickedness from their mind.  As the blessed Apostle says: Cast out the old leaven, that you may be a new dough, the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Therefore, beloved brethren, who would not receive with all religion and devoted fear this Pasch of the Lord, prefigured through the law, admonished through the threat that whoever did not keep it would die the death, preached by the voices of prophets, awaited by our forerunners’ hopes, fulfilled through the apostolic preaching, accepted through faith in the Gospel, consecrated through Christ’s blood, ordered to the future resurrection – especially when scripture says: It is the Lord’s Pasch, i.e. the Lord’s Passion?  By his Passion the world is redeemed, the devil is laid low, Christ’s triumph is glorified.

This, I say, is the venerable and salvific sacrament of the Pasch, on which Christ the sun of justice killed the law of death but revealed to us a new and brighter day by his sun’s rising, on which cruel hell shuddered, on which heaven opened up by Christ’s resurrection.  Therefore, whoever celebrates the sacrament of such a gift with lawful observance is a companion of the apostles, is an ally of the prophets, fulfills the law, keeps the Gospel faith, honors Christ, magnifies God the Father, enlarges his hope for perpetual salvation, and acquires a glorious reckoning for himself; for he preserves the arrangement set down by God the Father Himself, which he willed and ordered to be kept in Christ.  To him be honor and glory throughout all ages.  Amen.

Well-meaning scientist condescendingly gets it all wrong

Today we welcome my wife Christina as co-author of this post!

Bill Nye is a hero to many millennials.  Once a mechanical engineer by day and stand-up comic by night, his ’90s PBS daytime show Bill Nye the Science Guy introduced our generation to biology, chemistry, earth science, astronomy, and physics in much more entertaining ways than our schoolteachers ever did.  In the past four years Nye has leapt back into the public eye for his Internet activism against scientifically-illiterate education and legislative proposals, especially in regard to climate change and evolution-vs-creationism.  When he speaks, millennials listen.

But Bill Nye is starting to go astray.  His weekly video commentaries on Big Think (“a YouTube for ideas”) nowadays frequently address questions that aren’t what most of us would call “scientific”, like free will, art’s relationship to science, and religion’s place in politics.  Earlier this week Big Think posted to Facebook an abridged version of Nye’s video from last September on what science has to say about anti-abortion laws.

The full video can be found here (we don’t pay for the fancy WordPress plan that lets us embed videos).

To spoil the ending: abortion opponents probably mean well and have sincere religious reasons for their beliefs, but their ignorance of what science says about fertilized eggs makes them want to pass laws that hurt women and distract society from more important crises.

The new video has been viewed over 8 million times in the past seven days, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that his arguments inform the scientific and moral outlook of many American 20- and 30-somethings today.  This is a shame, because Nye’s arguments are logically muddled and incoherent.  We say this not as scientists (which we are not) nor as religious believers (which we are), but as critical thinkers – the kind of thinking that Nye ought to be doing and teaching his viewers like he used to teach us about the world we live in.

Let’s walk through the transcript of the full video linked above.

Many many many many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans.  Eggs get fertilized – by that, I mean sperm get accepted by ova – a lot.  But that’s not all you need.  You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.

We have no idea whether “many many many many more hundreds” is an exaggeration or not, but of course Nye is right: not every fertilized egg implants, and plenty of them do simply die.  Nye introduces two distinct events: conception, the creation of a genetically distinct human organism when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and implantation, when the blastocyst (fertilized egg already undergoing cell division) attaches to the uterine wall and the mother’s medical condition of pregnancy begins.  Nye is apparently talking about implantation rather than fertilization/conception, and talking about it as a necessary step in the process of “becoming humans.”

Now Nye clearly doesn’t want to deal with any philosophical opinions about personhood, and neither do we.  But the scientific facts are clear: the fertilized egg contains a unique homo sapiens genetic sequence, and therefore it is a human distinct from either its father or its mother.   So clearly when Nye says “human,” he means something more than just a genetically human organism.  He means a human further along the pre-natal development process.  Let’s see if he’s about to make that clearer.

But if you’re gonna hold that as a standard – that is to say, if you’re gonna say “when an egg is fertilized, it therefore has the same rights as an individual” – then whom are you gonna sue? Whom are you gonna imprison?  Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her?  Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human?  Have all these people failed you?

Nye has switched to the legal discussion without clarifying when humanity begins.  (We’re not using the usual “when life begins” language, because he doesn’t use it, and we don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.)  Moreover, he has failed to distinguish some crucial categories: “die,” “kill,” and”murder.”  Sure, plenty of fertilized eggs die en route to the uterine wall, but not a single anti-abortion bill targets these eggs.  And how could they?  Those eggs aren’t murdered, since no-one deliberately intervenes to make them die; they’re not even killed, since no-one intervenes to make them die at all, deliberately or otherwise.  There’s not even a negligence claim to be made.  No-one even knows these fertilized eggs exist at all until well after they happen to implant.  All abortions are of implanted embryos, so abortions are of blastocysts that could well qualify as human by Nye’s own account.

It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding, and you apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

OK, first, that’s just really condescending.  Second, we also don’t know what you’re talking about: fertilization or implantation?  Death or murder?  We understand the science; we don’t understand your argument.

And so, when it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women.  You cannot help but notice – I mean, I’m not the first guy to observe this! – you have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance.

Another red herring here.  Again, we’re not here to debate the legality of these abortion laws, whether they’re “extraordinary” or not.  But what do European males as such have to do with any of this?  What in their European-ness is relevant here?  And what is it about their maleness as such that disqualifies them from being able to weigh in on women’s health matters?  To claim that only a woman may speak on women’s matters is a fallacious appeal to authority, and to cast aspersions on legislators’ reasons for proposing these laws is a fallacious appeal to motive.  Neither of them takes on the content of the debate on its own merits, but diverts attention to the circumstances of the debate.

I’m sorry, you guys.  I know it was written, or your interpretation of a book that was written five thousand years ago, fifty centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, they always have a baby.  That’s wrong.  And so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.

We have to say, Nye is correct that passing laws based on a belief that every sex act produces a child would be inconsistent with nature.  Unfortunately for him, we can’t fathom how any real person existing in the real world could honestly believe that.  Certainly any person who has had sex before, unless rather implausible odds are at play, knows that even unprotected sex often doesn’t produce fertilized eggs, whether or not they implant.  Nor does the Bible teach this in any of its 66-75 books.  We don’t expect Nye to have read the Bible cover-to-cover to figure this out for himself, but we do hope he would consult a slightly more authoritative source on Christian teaching than Monty Python.

Furthermore, we have here the fallacy of chronological snobbery, discounting the (wrongly characterized) testimony of something just because it is very old and dates from a time when plenty of beliefs were held that we now know to be factually unsupportable.  We know there are quite a few Christians who do take the Bible as a science textbook, and we agree they are wrong to do so.  But Nye doesn’t focus his critique on what the Bible teaches – he even concedes that he’s critiquing an interpretation rather than the book itself – but on the fact that it is so old, which in itself is neither here nor there.

It’s hard not to get frustrated with this, everybody.  I know – nobody likes abortion, okay?  But you can’t tell somebody what to do.  I mean, she has rights over this.  Especially if she doesn’t like the guy who got her pregnant.  Like, she doesn’t want anything to do with your genes.  Get over it.  Especially if she were raped and all this.  So, it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side.

We choose not to get sidetracked by the fact that law, of its very nature, tells people what they can and cannot do, and that this is precisely the lawmaker’s job.  Nor do we want to go down the rabbit hole of sexual ethics (though when it comes to preventing conception from rape, this article is worth looking at).  We do want observe that Nye here explicitly places himself “on the outside, on the other side” from the caricature of mainstream Christian thought, the straw man he has built for the purpose of this argument.  We also want to observe that it’s been quite a while now since Nye mentioned anything truly scientific, derived from empirical observation or experimentation.  A discussion that started with confusion over medical and legal categories has turned into something of a rant about telling people what to do.

We have so many more important things to be dealing with.  We have so many more problems.  To squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding – it’s very frustrating.

At least he’s bringing up the science again, though we’re no closer now to truly understanding the science as he has presented it or exactly how it’s relevant than we were up at the top.   And “squander resources” is an odd phrase to use here, as though if we all just agreed to let abortion be we’d be a lot closer to solving climate change.  Human endeavor isn’t a zero-sum game.

You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, for medical researchers looking diligently.  You wouldn’t know the process, you wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg – you wouldn’t have that without science.  So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t, it’s troubling.

We have no idea what Nye is saying here.  That there are no Christian scientists, or at least none who understand the process of conception?  Ah, but we’ve already established Nye’s own confused presentation of conception and implantation.  It seems that Nye’s point is simply that “science” – which apparently here means technological advances that allow us to observe very tiny things, and people who know how to do it – is how we know more about the process of conception than people fifty centuries ago did.  Which is true, and also irrelevant.

The only way these comments make sense in his argument is if he assumes that the anti-abortion legislators, or pro-lifers in general, or perhaps even his caricature Christians in general, don’t do science and know nothing about it.  But even then, what does he mean by “the next step”?  Presumably the point about implantation being necessary to gestate a human; but being a human and being a gestating human are not the same category, as we already said, and Nye seems to have a blind spot on this.  And that’s troubling.

Okay, let me do that again.  Let me just pull back.

If you haven’t watched the video, Nye is shaking off some frustration that he’s built up during that rant.  Maybe his argument will get more coherent from now on.

At some point we have to respect the facts.  Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective.  Just being objective here.  Closing abortion clinics, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies.  I mean, I think we all know that.

Nope.  Instead we have another non sequitur into sex education and contraception legislation.  Let’s just move on.

And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs, and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people.  I understand that.  But I really encourage you to look at the facts.  And I know people are now critical of the expression “fact-based.”  But what’s wrong with that?

So if you listen to Nye’s tone of voice, it’s clear that he really is trying to extend an olive branch to believers; it looks more condescending on paper than it sounds in the video.  But here’s his assumption again that “fact-based” and “faith-based” have some diametrical opposition to each other.  We happen to be believers, and also to be completely on board with the fact-based results of scientific inquiry.  Nye’s inability to envision someone in our position is insulting.  And anyway, we’ve repeatedly said that his “fact-based” account doesn’t establish the argument he needs to make his point.

So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do, and not pursue these laws that really are in nobody’s best interest.  Just really be objective about this.  We have other problems to solve, everybody.  Come on.  Come on.  Let’s work together.

We wonder what Nye means by “best interest.”  Scientifically?  Ethically?  In terms of public health, or individual health?  Since we’re limiting ourselves to the logical problems here, we don’t want to take on the ethical implications of the philosophical debate on personhood, though those of us who accept the argument that human-hood is coextensive with personhood would certainly say that abortion restrictions are in unborn humans’ best interest.  But here’s the thing: those who buy into this philosophical argument and those who don’t are both being objective about the scientific facts.  Facts alone don’t make an argument, anyway; they need to be paired with a philosophy that gives them order and argumentative shape.  Science tells what and how things happen; it cannot tell us what is right or wrong – moral categories Nye does accept, though he seems from other videos to consider them as products of societal evolution rather than as natural laws.

Nye must not simply write off believers as being uninformed or unserious about the biological facts.  It’s simply not true for many believers, and Nye seems to be chronically misinformed about the ways in which many Jews and Christians fully accept the findings of scientific progress and harmonize them with the tenets of their faith.

In the unlikely chance that Nye ever sees this post: Bill, we encourage you to take another shot at the argument you made in this video.  You built your reputation on being able to explain concepts in ways children can understand, and we think you owe it to your fan base, the future scientists and legislators of our society, to set aside all the non sequiturs and fallacious appeals and make a truly logical case.  We also encourage you to take the time to learn the most rationally coherent versions of why the “other side” believes what it believes, so that if you decide to make an argument against ignorance again, you can start from firmer ground.

Pope Gregory I on the road to Emmaus


Once again, from the 1960 Matins for today (Easter Monday); once again, my own translation.  There is some Latin wordplay in the second paragraph that doesn’t really work in English – but then, it doesn’t really work in Latin, either.

Dearest brethren, you have just heard that the Lord appeared to two disciples walking down a road, not quite believing in him but yet speaking of him.  But he did not show them a face that they would recognize.  So outwardly the Lord did to their bodily eyes what he was doing with them inwardly, in the eyes of their hearts.  For between themselves, inwardly they loved him, and they doubted: and the Lord outwardly came and was present to them, and did not show who he was.  So he showed his presence to those who were speaking of him: but he hid his recognizable face from those were doubting about him.

Indeed, he shared words with them, he rebuked the hardness of their understanding, he opened to them the mysteries of sacred Scripture which were about himself: and even still, since in their hearts he was yet a stranger to their faith, he feigned having farther to go.  By “feigned” [fingere] we mean “gathered” [componere]: just as we call a gatherer [compositor] of clay a potter [figulus].  For the simple Truth does nothing through duplicity: but he showed himself to them in the body in the same such way as he was with them in the mind.  They were to be tested as to whether, even if they did not yet love him as God, they could at least love him as a stranger.

But since charity could not be foreign to those with whom the Truth was walking, they invite him to their hospitality as a stranger.  And why do we say “they invite him”, when that Scripture says “they prevailed upon him”?  Evidently we should gather from this example that we should not only invite strangers to our hospitality, but even drag them!  So they set the table, they bring him bread and food: and they recognize God in the breaking of the bread, whom they did not recognize in the explanation of sacred Scripture.  So they were not enlightened by hearing the precepts of God, but they were enlightened by the doing of them: for it is written, “Hearers of the law will not be righteous before God, but doers of the law will be justified.”  So whoever wants to understand the things he hears, let him hasten to carry out in deeds what he has already been able to hear.  You see?  The Lord is not recognized while he speaks; he does permit himself to be recognized when he is fed.

Augustine in the Tenebræ of Holy Thursday

As we approach our annual remembrance of Our Lord’s Passion, we might read these passages of Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 54 and find it a fitting reflection on its own merits:

Graciously hear my prayer, O God, and do not disdain my pleading; look upon me, and graciously hear me.  These are the words of one who is hard pressed, who is anxious, who has been placed amid tribulation.  He endures much as he prays, wanting to be freed from evil.  It remains for us to see what kind of evil he is in – and, when he begins to say it, to recognize that we are there too, so that we might join our prayer with his as we share in his tribulation.

I am deeply saddened in my trial, he says, and I am greatly distressed.  Where is he deeply saddened?  Where is he greatly distressed?  In my trial, he says.  He has recalled the evil people whom he endures, and he calls this very endurance of evil people his trial.  Do not think that evil people are in this world for nothing, and that God can bring nothing good about from them.  Every evil person either lives so that he may be corrected, or lives so that a good person may be tried through him.

If only those who try us now would be converted and tried alongside us; yet, as long as they remain the kind of people who try us, let us not hate them, since we do not know whether one of them will persist in being evil to the end.  And frequently, when it seems to you that you have been hating an enemy, you have been hating a brother without realizing it.  We have been shown the devil and his angels in the sacred Scriptures, that they are destined for eternal fire.  Of them only should we despair of their correction, against whom we have a hidden battle.  The Apostle arms us for this battle, saying: Our conflict is not against flesh and blood (that is, not against people, whom you can see) but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of the world, of this darkness.  Perhaps when he said of the world, you understood demons to be the rulers of heaven and earth.  What he said was, of the world, of this darkness; what he said was, of the world of lovers of the world; what he said was, of the world of impious and unrighteous people; what he said was, of the world of which the Evangelist says, And the world did not know him.

Since I have seen unrighteousness and opposition in the city.  Pay attention to the glory of his cross.  That cross for which his enemies insulted him is now drawn on the foreheads of kings.  Its effect has proven its power: it made the whole world its home not by steel, but by wood.  The wood of the cross seemed deserving of ridicule to his enemies, and as they stood before that wood they kept shaking their heads and saying, If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.  He kept stretching out his hands to an unbelieving and oppositional people.  For if the one who lives by faith is the righteous one, then the one who has no faith is the unrighteous one.  So when he says unrighteousness, understand faithlessness.  So the Lord kept seeing unrighteousness and opposition in the city, and he kept stretching out his hands to an unbelieving and oppositional people; and yet he kept waiting for them and saying, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

But the now-anonymous compilers of the liturgical tradition that now gives us the matchless Tenebræ Matins and Lauds for the Triduum perceived a particular usefulness for this passage on Holy Thursday.  Consider the responsory verse they paired with it:

My friend betrayed me with the sign of a kiss: The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him: he made this evil sign, he committed murder through a kiss.  The wretch threw away his price of blood, and in the end he hanged himself on a tree.  It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.

Now, revisit the parallel passage from Augustine – indeed, the passages that directly precede and follow this responsory:

Do not think that evil people are in this world for nothing, and that God can bring nothing good about from them.  Every evil person either lives so that he may be corrected, or lives so that a good person may be tried through him.

If only those who try us now would be converted and tried alongside us; yet, as long as they remain the kind of people who try us, let us not hate them, since we do not know whether one of them will persist in being evil to the end.  And frequently, when it seems to you that you have been hating an enemy, you have been hating a brother without realizing it.

And now, if you can, take a few minutes to reflect on just how the Catholic tradition – indeed, the public prayer of the Church, a theological statement in its own right and the supreme expression of Catholic piety – holds in perfect paradoxical balance the legacy of Judas Iscariot.


The Venerable Bede: The Church at sea, the Lord on the land

From today’s (Saturday after Ash Wednesday) Matins reading (1960 edition):

Bede the Venerable on today’s Gospel: And when it was late, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and himself alone on the land. And seeing them labouring in rowing, (for the wind was against them,) and about the fourth watch of the night, he cometh to them walking upon the sea.

Again, my own translation:

The disciples’ labor at their rowing, and the wind against them, means the various labors of the holy Church, who attempts, among the waves of a hostile world and the breath of impure spirits, to reach the calm of the heavenly homeland like to a trusted harbor on the shore.  So it is well said there that the boat was in the midst of the sea, and He was alone on the land: since often the Church is not only afflicted but even defiled by the pressures of the pagan peoples so much that – if such a thing be possible! – her Redeemer seems for a time to have utterly deserted her.

This is the reason for that saying of her who is caught among the waves and storms of trials breaking upon her, and seeking the aid of His protection with a groaning cry: Why, O Lord, have you withdrawn so far away?  Why do you look away in times of trial?  Then she relates the saying of her persecuting enemy as well, adding in the continuation of the Psalm: For he said in his heart, “God has forgotten; He has turned away His face, He will not see it again.”

But He does not forget the prayer of the poor, nor does He turn away His face from those who hope in Him: nay, rather, He assists those who strive against their foes, that they might conquer, and He crowns them as victors forever.  That is why this also is clearly said, that He saw them laboring at their rowing.  The Lord certainly does see them laboring on the sea, though He Himself is situated on the land: since even if He seems for a while to delay expending his aid on those who are troubled, nonetheless He is strengthening them by the gaze of His kindness, so that they do not fail in their trials: and eventually, revealing His aid and conquering their adversities, He frees them like by treading upon the swells of the surges and calming them.

Augustine on hypocritical fasting

From today’s (Ash Wednesday’s) Matins reading (in the 1960 edition):

Augustine’s commentary on today’s Gospel: And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

My own translation – a little freer than I usually like, but the only way to produce a good English version of the Latin.

From these commands it is obvious that all our focus should be directed towards interior joys, lest by seeking outside for our reward we conform to this world and lose the promise of happiness – which is more stable and firm the more interior it is – by which God chose us to become conformed to the image of his Son.

But in this passage we should especially notice that one can be ostentatious not only in the splendid display of material things, but even in mournful drabness itself; and that is more dangerous, for it deceives in the guise of servitude to God.

So the one who shows off in excessively cultivating his body and in splendid clothing or other things is easily convicted as a devotee of the world by those same ostentatious things, and he does not mislead anyone with his fake image of holiness.

But the one who, in professing his Christianity, makes others’ eyes focus on himself by his unaccustomed squalor and mournfulness – when he does it by will, not undergoing it out of necessity – he can be appraised by his other deeds: is he doing this out of contempt for gratuitous cultivation, or out of some kind of ambition?

For the Lord commanded us to beware wolves in sheep’s clothing.  By their fruits you shall know them, he said.

So when the very things which, under this disguise, he either is pursuing or wants to pursue start to be taken away or denied him by some kind of trial, then it will inevitably appear whether he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a sheep in its own.

For if it is true that pretenders often assume a spare and minimal attire so as to deceive the gullible, a Christian should not on that account entice others’ attention with gratuitous adornments.  The sheep should not abandon their native clothing just because wolves sometimes dress themselves in it.

(St. Augustine, The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount II.12.40-41)