St. Monica, a praying mother

St. Monica (1465), by Gozzoli

St. Monica (1465), by Benozzo Gozzoli. (WikiPaintings.org)

I’ve slowly been trying to read through St. Augustine's Confessions in the original Latin for a while now. I’ve had to lay it down recently, but I hope to pick it up again soon. I am pushed for time today, but it being the memorial of St. Monica, Augustine’s pious mother, I wanted to share briefly. This is a passage from the Confessions that was especially poignant to me, having been a wayward son myself, and having a loving mother who prays for me without ceasing.

Woe is me! And dare I say that you were silent, my God, while I wandered further from you? Were you not then silent to me? And whose, but yours, were those words, which through my mother, your faithful one, you sang in my ears? These to me seemed only womanly advice, which would be embarrassing to obey. But they were yours, and I did not know. I thought you were silent and only she had spoken, but you were speaking to me; and in her, it was you who were being disdained by me, by me, her son, the son of your handmaid, your servant.

—St. Augustine, Confessions, II.3

[I am pretty sure this is my own translation, but I honestly don’t remember for sure (I posted it on my Facebook wall a couple of years ago). Tomorrow is St. Augustine’s memorial, and I hope to be able to share a little more.]

He welcomes me home by name

There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt. (Wikipedia)

One of the most poignant images to me of God’s forgiveness, in my struggles as a Christian, has been Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In his father’s house, the wayward son had everything, and yet he abandoned it. Even as he went, he took the bountiful gifts of his inheritance; and yet he squandered them.

And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

In that distant land, the son lost everything that he had. Sin is like that. It will take you further away from home than you ever intended to go, and take more out of you than you ever intended to give. It will take away your gifts and leave you in abject poverty. It never yields the harvests that it promises.

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

There is a lot of power in a name. Though we do not know the name of the lost son or his father, it is clear that theirs was a family of some wealth and prestige. Even above all the material wealth he had been granted, the son’s name — the name of his father and family — was certainly of more lasting worth. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). And yet the son had squandered and shamed that, too. He considered himself unworthy for his father to call him ‘son’; undeserving to bear his father’s name.

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

But the mercy and compassion of his father was overflowing. As the son returned, not only did the father accept his son back, but he saw him still a long way off, and ran to embrace him.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Not only did the father welcome him home — but he gave him his name back. The signet ring — the seal of the family — was the mark of his identity. He was his father’s son again. And the father rejoiced. He spared nothing — he clothed him in the most sumptuous robe; he killed the best fattened calf; brought out the best wine. For this was his son who was lost to him, and was found; who was dead in his sin, and was alive again. The language of resurrection here could not be more vivid.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni. (Wikipedia)

I don’t think it is any mere coincidence that we come to our priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the cry of “father”: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Just as the prodigal son returned to his father confessing his sins, we return to our fathers, and to our Holy Mother Church, and to our Heavenly Father, confessing ours. And though our earthly priests don’t always run to embrace us — often their words are stern and bear godly discipline — our Heavenly Father pours out His endless grace upon us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, our sins are absolved. And at the table of the Eucharist, we are again and again offered the choicest of all meats, the Body and Blood of the Lamb of God.

Today I returned to my Holy Mother Church heavy with guilt and shame, not deserving of the name that has been given to me. I laid down my sins, and by that boundless grace bought by Blood, they were absolved. But when I went forward to receive the Eucharist, a funny thing happened, that I don’t think has ever happened before. Deacon Ted, always quite reserved, communicated the Host to me, and greeted me by name: “The Body of Christ, Joseph.” And my friend Jan, bearing the Cup, did too: “The Blood of Christ, Joseph.”

There is a lot of power in a name. And hearing my own name, being recognized and welcomed at the Table, as I was again given Communion in Christ’s Body and Blood, it was as if Christ Himself welcomed me home by name. I am a child of this Church. I was sealed with the Holy Spirit, and received the mark of Christ as a member of His flock, as a child of God: the name of “Christian.” Though in my wandering I make myself undeserving of it, He always welcomes me home by name, and restores to me my identity, my sonship.

Eat my flesh and drink my blood: A crucial Gospel passage, the Catholic Eucharist, and bad Protestant commentary

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio. (WikiPaintings.org)

Often when it comes to the Scripture readings at Mass — especially in early morning Masses — I must confess, my eyes sometimes tend to glaze over a little and I don’t absorb them as well as I should. This is why it’s important for me to have read them beforehand, something I often don’t do in my hurry. But yesterday, in my recent commitment to greater spiritual study, I decided to take the time to thoroughly study today’s Mass readings, knowing that I wouldn’t have time in the morning. And it made an incredible difference. When it came to the Liturgy of the Word, the words of Scripture rang glowingly into my ear, like dear, familiar friends. Even in my undercaffeinated state, my mind grasped them and made connections, especially when Father Joe illuminated them in the homily.

The past few Sundays the Mass readings have focused on John Chapter 6, which culminates in Jesus’s proclamation, “I am the Bread of Life.” This is one of the most crucial passages in all the Gospels, not only for the good news of salvation, but even more particularly for the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54-55). Catholics read this, together with the narratives of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23), as an explicit statement of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, and of the Eucharist itself as the source and summit of our faith, the Sacrament through which we intimately encounter Christ and receive his graces.

Holy Communion

As a Protestant, of course, I didn’t read it that way. Much as I do at early morning Masses, my eyes glazed over and I saw only what I had always been taught. I could not see, despite Jesus’s best attempt to be frank and make Himself clear. Jesus saying that He is the Bread of Life is of course a metaphor. “Eating” and “drinking” Jesus just means, metaphorically, that we should consume and inbibe the Word of God. Of course He didn’t mean that we should really eat Him. The thought never even occurred to me; it would have startled me if it had — as it did the moment I first read it in the light of the Catholic explanation, at age thirty-something.

Once I saw that, there was no going back. I could never again read the passage and see anything but the obvious. I have a difficult time now even grasping at alternate, symbolic interpretations for the sake of argument. So I was taken aback to read the Protestant commentary on this passage in the study notes of my heretofore favorite Bible, the evangelical ESV Study Bible. This is by far the glibbest, most sectarian analysis I have yet found here. It exhibits either willful ignorance of the historical Christian (and Catholic) understanding, or wanton dishonesty.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

Institution of the Eucharist (1640), by Nicolas Poussin. (WikiPaintings.org)

I am hesitant to name names, but this is a matter of some import — the very underpinning of historic Christianity and of the Catholic faith. I am thankful that my ESV Study Bible at least gives ample credit to the contributors of each book’s study notes. The notes to the Gospel of John are by Dr. Andreas J. Köstenberger [1, 2], Senior Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — someone who should know better. I do not here aim to slam Dr. Köstenberger — I cannot fault the man, or the editors of the ESV Study Bible, or the executives at Crossway, for stating an evangelical interpretation in an evangelical publication for an evangelical audience. But I am here calling him out for some flagrantly bad commentary, that doesn’t even consider — even to reject it — a prominent theological view held not only by the majority of the world’s Christians, but by the entirety of the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation (as we have seen). It seems rather to reflect a desire to sweep the historical view under the rug, to pretend it doesn’t exist, has not been historically significant, and is not widely held to this day. This is not an uncommon evangelical tactic, but I expected higher of the ESV Study Bible and of Dr. Köstenberger.

The Bread of Life

Alvazovsky, Jesus Walks on Water (1888)

Jesus Walks on Water (1888), by Ivan Alvazovsky. (WikiPaintings.org)

This is a lengthy passage of Scripture — encompassing in its full context John 6:22-71, some fifty verses and 1,000 words. I encourage you to read the whole thing. The ESV translation of the text itself is solid, as I have found it to be elsewhere almost without exception. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize and paraphrase a bit.

This speech takes place very soon after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus fed the multitude (earlier in the chapter in John’s Gospel, John 6:1-15). The Apostles got in the boat to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walked on water to meet them (John 6:16-21). When the crowd — the Jesus groupies — realized where He’d gone, they flocked to Him and resumed asking Him questions (John 6:22-25). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:26-27)

Rembrandt, The Supper at Emmaus (1648)

The Supper at Emmaus (1648), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

The crowd still had food on the brain; their own stomachs, or what they could get out of Jesus materially or temporally: how Jesus could help them in their day-to-day lives and make them prosperous and healthy (not unlike many Christians today). Jesus urged them not to work for temporal, perishable food, but the food that He will give to them, the food of salvation. The crowd asked how they were supposed to work for this food (John 6:28). Jesus answered:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)

The crowd expected Jesus to perform a sign for them, as a prophet would, that they might believe in Him. Moses made manna, bread from heaven, fall to feed our fathers in the wilderness (John 6:30-31). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)

Okay, yes, Jesus is building a metaphor here — a beautifully rhetorical one. Manna came down from heaven from God, and it gave nourishment to the Israelites. The Son of Man came down from heaven, and will give life to the whole world. And…

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Christ (1585), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

In reading this passage and other similar passages, one should understand that in Greek, the person (i.e. first person, second person, third person) is contained in the verb. Writing only εἰμι contains the full sense of “I am.” So when the personal pronoun is added in addition (ἐγώ εἰμι, or egō eimi), it makes a strong, emphatic declaration. “Just to be clear, y’all: This bread from heaven I’m talking about? It’s me. I am the bread of life. Come to me and believe in me, and you’ll never hunger or thirst again.”

Verses 36 through 40 — containing the statements that God the Father gives Christ those who will be saved, and it is God’s will that Christ should lose none of them, and that all who believe in Christ should be saved and have eternal life — have a lot of bearing on soteriology, especially in discussion of divine election. I don’t gloss over them here to avoid that discussion, but because it’s not my point at the moment.

The Jews grumbled among themselves. “Who does this guy think he is, saying he is the bread of life and that he came down from heaven? We know his parents; he came from right down the road” (John 6:41-42).

And we come to the point of contention:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1602)

Supper at Emmaus (1602), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

And Jesus’s beautiful metaphor hit the floor with a sickening splat. What!? All this talk about being the bread of life; “believe in me and you shall never be hungry again” — and then He brought it back to the stomach, with a stomach-turning suggestion. He had so far been drawing the metaphor between the Israelites eating manna in the desert for their daily, temporary sustenance, and Himself being the true bread, with which they would never hunger or thirst again; that the work of receiving this bread is only to believe in Him. And then Jesus blew the metaphor away. “If you eat this bread, you will live forever. And oh, this bread is my flesh. That’s right. I want you to eat my flesh” (John 6:47-51). And the Jews understood His words exactly like that: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)

Here is where I will begin addressing Dr. Köstenberger's commentary. For the above verses, he writes:

living bread. The “bread” Jesus gives is his flesh (a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross). Jesus’ statement intermingles physical and spiritual truth. Jesus is not talking about literal “bread,” but he is the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him have their spiritual hunger satisfied. He becomes this spiritually satisfying “bread” by sacrificing his own physical body in his death on the cross, and in that sense he can say that this spiritual bread is my flesh.

Now, that is actually helpful. I had not thought of His “flesh” here referring to the Crucifixion; to giving of His flesh for the whole world, by which we are able to consume it. It is an important and valid point. In this sense the metaphor continues. But Köstenberger’s note does not address the more immediate point: Jesus just disgusted His listeners with perhaps the most repugnant notion possible in the Jewish world, one so unthinkable that the Torah doesn’t even address it: cannibalism; the eating of human flesh. So, presuming Jesus was speaking metaphorically, He is now going to clarify the misunderstanding, right?

No; in fact, He just made it worse:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

“Not only do I want you to eat my flesh, but I want you to drink my blood.” The Jews have one of the most hemophobic cultures on this planet; there is little that is more disgusting and offensive to a Jew than being expected to touch blood, let alone consume it. And Jesus did not use the standard Greek verb “to eat” here when he emphasized this eating and drinking: φᾰγεῖν (phagein) is the standard, classical Greek verb “to eat,” the way humans eat a meal. The verb here instead is τρώγειν (trōgein), used especially of animals eating or feeding, most literally translated as “to bite, chew, gnaw.” The ESV translates this word above and in the following verses as “whoever feeds on my flesh.” Jesus, in explaining his proposition, was possibly being vulgar. “You must feed (as a horse feeds) — you must munch — on my body.” At the very least, His use of this word removed any doubt that He was referring to a physical eating, not a spiritual or metaphorical one. If Jesus was aiming to turn off his followers, He was doing a fine job.

Now, this verse — verse 55 — actually conceals what appears to be a significant question in textual criticism. I haven’t studied it in depth; I have a feeling a lot has been written on it, which I’d be interested to read. But where Jesus said that His flesh is “true food” and His blood is “true drink,” there are variant readings for the word translated “true.” The variation is minor, only a single letter; but it significantly shapes how the verse is understood. Is the word here ἀληθς (alēthōs), an adverb, or ἀληθής (alēthēs), an adjective? The words are of course related; but the variation means the difference between “My flesh is true food” — as modern textual critics and translators have concluded — or “My flesh is truly food” — as the texts available to the King James translators (i.e. William Tyndale) read.

"aletho" in Codex Sinaiticus

The disputed word in Codex Sinaiticus. The original text reads ΑΛΗΘѠϹ (αληθως), but note the correction: an eta (Η) written in superscript over the omega (Ѡ) — and then erased.
(Source: CodexSinaiticus.com)

(N.B. You can skip this paragraph unless you want the fine, nerdy details of the textual variant. I for one love a textual mystery!) And the disagreement is meaty. While generally the oldest and most reliable manuscripts — Codex Vaticanus (4th century) and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century) being the best witnesses — give the adjectival reading, there is evidence of early confusion. Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to the adjective — and then re-corrected back to the adverb. The only two papyri extant for the passage — Papyrus 66 (ca. A.D. 200, one of the oldest of all manuscripts) and Papyrus 75 (3rd century) — also show the disagreement. Papyrus 66 originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to agree with Papyrus 75, which contains the adjective. Among the oldest manuscripts, the adjectival reading appears to have won the debate. But in the longer term, the Majority (Byzantine) Text, which came to dominate and is represented by the majority of later extant manuscripts, and formed the so-called Textus Receptus used in the King James translation — received the adverbial reading. In sum: I tend to think, as an educated amateur, that the question is significant enough to at least warrant a footnote in modern translations of the alternate reading. I think there’s a possibility that the adverb — “truly” instead of “true” — was the original reading. But NA27, on which most recent Bible translations are based, selects the adjectival reading; and they know a lot more than I do.

Whether ἀληθής or ἀληθῶς — the adverb is derived from the adjective — the meaning is clear and explicit. Both the BDAG and the LSJ agree: the adjective means “true, real, genuine.” I personally think the adverb makes for a funner translation: “truly, really, actually, in reality” — because I would love to translate this word “for real.”

Jesus said, “My body is real food and my blood is real drink” — or “My body is really food and my blood is really drink.” In response to the Jews’ question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus not only didn’t correct them, but restated his original statement even more explicitly. “If you want eternal life, you must actually eat my body and drink my blood.”

But of these verses, despite Jesus’s insistence and clarity, Dr. Köstenberger comments:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood cannot be intended literally, for no one ever did that.

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer. (WikiPaintings.org)

What? Really? No one ever did what? Of course no one ever fed on Jesus’s flesh while attached to His frame, literally gnawed it from His bone; but Christians have been literally eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking His blood for 2,000 years. Or does Köstenberger mean, “No one ever intended (that reading)”? In either case, this statement, quite ridiculously, skirts over the many centuries of history when all Christians — every great Church Father and theologian — in fact did interpret this statement literally. In disputed passages of other books of the ESV Study Bible, the commentators give their evangelical interpretation, and then politely explain why they believe the Roman Catholic understanding is false. To comment on such a passage as this, and not even note that the majority of Christians in the world, Catholic and Orthodox, have a very different understanding of it, is misleading and a disservice to even evangelical readers, who should be aware of such an important disagreement.

Köstenberger continues:

As Jesus has done frequently in this Gospel, he is speaking in terms of physical items in this world to teach about spiritual realities. Here, to “eat” Jesus’ flesh has the spiritual meaning of trusting or believing in him, especially in his death for the sins of mankind. (See also v. 35, where Jesus speaks of coming to him as satisfying “hunger” and believing in him as satisfying “thirst.”) Similarly, to “drink his blood” means to trust in his atoning death, which is represented by the shedding of his blood.

Yes, this is the way Jesus teaches. But in this speech, He made clear that the act of “eating” and “drinking” encompasses both physical and spiritual realities. To “eat” Jesus’s flesh and “drink” His blood does indeed have the spiritual meaning of trusting and believing in Him. But if the spiritual meaning were the only one Jesus intended, why His emphasis, to the point of revulsion, on physically “eating” and “drinking”?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

One of the keys to understanding Catholic theology — and one of the beauties, in its simplicity and complexity at the same time — is that just as this passage conveys both a physical and a spiritual sense, each of the Sacraments conveys both a physical and a spiritual effect. The Sacraments consist outwardly in simple, physical actions: washing with water, anointing with oil, the laying on of hands. And these actions not only symbolize a spiritual reality — the washing away of sins, the passing of authority and commissioning of duty — but they actually accomplish spiritually what they represent physically. It does what it says on the tin. Baptism not only symbolizes and outwardly represents the washing away of sins; but the physical washing with water, by the power of the Holy Spirit, actually accomplishes the spiritual washing away of sins. The consecration of Holy Orders by the laying on of hands not only symbolizes the passing of authority and binding to service; but it actually accomplishes the infusion of spiritual authority by apostolic succession.

And likewise the Eucharist, by the simple act of eating and drinking the consecrated Hosts, that have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, not only symbolizes and represents Communion in Christ’s Body, but actually infuses us with His grace. We literally, physically, spiritually share in Christ’s Body and Blood, in His humanity and divinity, in His eternal life, as He here made plain in this Scripture.

Köstenberger again:

Although Jesus is not speaking specifically about the Lord’s Supper here, there is a parallel theme, because the receiving of eternal life through being united with “the Son of Man” is represented in the Lord’s Supper (where Jesus’ followers symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23–32). This is anticipated in OT feasts (see 1 Cor. 5:7) and consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua. (WikiPaintings.org)

No way! You think? What an incredible coincidence, that Jesus would speak of eating his body and drinking his blood here, and then again at the Lord’s Supper! And both here and there, this eating and drinking is how one receives eternal life! Jesus said that one must eat his body and drink his blood to receive eternal life — and then at the Lord’s Supper, he offered the Bread as His body and the Cup as His Blood. Even when I was an evangelical, I understood the John 6 passage to be not only parallel to the Lord’s Supper, but an explicit reference, a foreshadowing.

After Jesus was done speaking, his disciples said to Him, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) “Jesus, that’s disgusting. Who wants to hear about eating your body and drinking your blood?”

But Köstenberger takes just the opposite interpretation:

It was a hard saying because they wrongly interpreted Jesus’ statements literally.

Yes, that’s the way they interpreted it; but if they wrongly interpreted His statements literally, Jesus had yet another opportunity here to correct them, when they directly challenged what He said. But instead He answered:

“Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

The words are not just spirit, they are also life. This reads as a continuing insistence that what He said before is what He meant. “But some of you still don’t get it.”

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Because they are disgusted and disillusioned by what Jesus had just said. And still Jesus made no attempt to correct them, if there were some misunderstanding.

But Köstenberger seems to suggest that this statement is not even connected to His prior speech:

Many of these early disciples were not genuine disciples of Christ, for they turned back. Their initial “faith” was not genuine and they were perhaps following Jesus only because of the physical benefits he gave, such as healing and multiplying food.

This just happens to be where John notes their departure. But emphasizing that these departures are in fact connected to his previous words:

So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

The context of this all is still Jesus’s “words of eternal life.”

Curiously, after all these explicit statements about eating Jesus’s body and drinking His blood, the Gospel of John contains no narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. All three of the Synoptic Gospels have it; why doesn’t John?

Veronese, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s)

Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s), by Paolo Veronese. (WikiPaintings.org)

I recently read a very compelling book review that deals with just this problem. In Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account, Msgr. Anthony La Femina proposes that Christ’s washing of the Apostles’ feet (John 13:1-20) — the central action of John’s narrative of the Last Supper, but something none of the Synoptics mention — is in fact an analogy for the institution of the Eucharist. According to La Femina, the footwashing narrative contains all of the elements of the institution of the Eucharist — the command to repeat the action, a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death, a reference to his betrayer Judas Iscariot, and covenantal language which La Femina says echoes the language of Near Eastern treaties. It seems a compelling thesis that I would like to read more about.

But as for Jesus’s speech in John 6:22-71, there seems little question about what Jesus meant: If He did not intend for His words to suggest an actual eating and drinking of His body and blood, He would not have emphasized this statement more explicitly when questioned about it, and He would have made some effort to clarify the misunderstanding when His disciples protested, if it was in fact a misunderstanding. Dr. Köstenberger’s notes in the ESV Study Bible seem not only to present a sectarian interpretation — which is expected — but to consciously ignore and dismiss the historical understanding of the passage. At best, they present unhelpful commentary, missing and dismissing obvious connections and leading away from a thorough understanding of the text rather than toward it.

Peccavimus: We have sinned

Piero della Francesca, The Penance of St. Jerome (c. 1450)

The Penance of St. Jerome (c. 1450), by Piero della Francesca. (WikiPaintings.org)

Today I discovered a new composer, and was immediately inspired to share him with my friends, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I’d translated the text of this overpoweringly beautiful and stirring motet. I thought it was worth sharing with you all.

I don’t know how many of you worldwide have access to Spotify; but I certainly hope many of you are able to hear this. Even if you can’t, I hope you enjoy the text. I highly recommend Spotify. With it I am able to explore and discover so much music, listen to whole records, all on a grad student’s budget.

This is from the CD TYE: Missa Euge Bone / MUNDY: Magnificat, from Naxos’s Early Music collection, performed by the Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly (one of my favorite ensembles). This is the motet “Peccavimus cum patribus.”



Christopher Tye (c. 1505 – c. 1572) was an English composer and organist, who lived right in the thick of the English Reformation. He served as Doctor of Music at both Cambridge and Oxford, and as choirmaster and organist of Ely Cathedral. He apparently had Protestant leanings, but served faithfully through the reigns (and religious tumult) of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Later in life he took holy orders and served as Rector of Doddington, Cambridgeshire. This motet was composed, I suppose, under the Church of England, but I’m okay with that. It hit me especially powerfully in the penitent mood I’ve been in lately.

I’ll translate it a little bit by bit. I wasn’t happy with the English translation on ChoralWiki.

Peccavimus cum patribus nostris, 
iniuste egimus, iniquitatem fecimus.
Tuæ tamen clementiæ
spe animati ad te supplices confugimus, 
benignissime Jesu.

We have sinned as our fathers,
we have done unjustly, and committed iniquity.
Nonetheless driven by hope of your mercy
We flee to you in supplication,
Kindest Jesus.

Qui ut omnia potes
ita omnibus te invocantibus 
vere præsto es.
Respice itaque in nos infelices peccatores,
bonitas immensa.

Who just as you are able to do all things
So to all who have prayed to you
You are truly present.
Look upon therefore us unhappy sinners,
O boundless goodness.

Respice in nos ingratissimos miseros, 
salus et misericordia publica; 
nam despecti ad omnipotentem venimus,
vulnerati ad medicum currimus, deprecantes 
ut non secundum peccata nostra facias 
neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.

Look upon us most ungrateful wretches,
O salvation and mercy for all;
for we despicable ones into your omnipotence come,
Having been wounded we run to your healing [or to the Physician],
Praying that you do not do according to our sins
Neither according to our iniquities repay to us.

Quin potius misericordiæ tuæ antiquæ memor 
pristinam clementiam serva, 
ac mansuetudini adhibe incrementum 
qui tam longanimiter suspendisti 
ultionis gladium, 
ablue innumerositatem criminum, 
qui delectaris multitudine misericordiæ.

Rather remembering your compassion of old
Retain your former mercy,
And add increase to your gentleness
With such long-suffering having held back
The sword of vengeance,
Wash away the countlessness of our offenses,
You who are delighted by a multitude of mercy.

Ingere cordibus nostris 
tui sanctissimum amorem, 
peccati odium 
ac cœlestis patriæ ardens desiderium, 
quod magis ac magis crescere faciat 
tua omnipotens bonitas. Amen.

Pour into our hearts
Most holy love for you,
a hatred of sin,
and a burning desire for the heavenly kingdom,
Which by your omnipotent goodness
Make to grow more and more. Amen.

The Assumption of Mary: Scriptures and texts

The Assumption

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

Today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrating the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. We Catholics believe that at the end of her earthly life, the Blessed Virgin was assumed body and soul into Heaven. The Assumption is one of the most controversial Catholic doctrines to Protestants, since it is one of the most poorly understood, one of the least obvious from Scripture, and one of the latest dogmata to be defined. Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a dogma in 1950; but that doesn’t mean that Catholics (or Orthodox) just recently made it up. The Feast of the Assumption has been celebrated in the East since around the beginning of the seventh century (ca. A.D. 600), and was celebrated in the West by that century’s end. (In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Assumption is known as the Dormition, or the going-to-sleep.) Belief in the Assumption is documented in apocryphal eastern texts as early as the third century; there were likely even earlier texts that don’t survive. And the idea has developed over the centuries in scriptural exegesis and in theology. It would take a while to give a thorough defense of the doctrine, but in this article I’d like to offer a few texts that demonstrate the doctrine’s ancient origin.

The Reason for the Assumption

Van Dyck, The Assumption of the Virgin (1627)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1627), by Anthony Van Dyck. (WikiPaintings.org)

The bottom line, theologically, of our belief in the Assumption is a logical progression: we believe, as the Church has since the very earliest days, that Mary was a perpetually a virgin and preserved from sin in her earthly life. We believe that by the prevenient grace of her Son Jesus Christ, she was immaculately conceived free from the stain of original sin. This gift was not on account of any merit of her own, but only of Christ’s overabundant grace and love for His obedient handmaiden and Mother. Mary was the firstfruits of Christ’s salvation: Just as He saves us and cleanses us from original sin through our Baptism, He saved Mary and cleansed her from the moment of her conception. Therefore, because she did not see the corruption of sin in her earthly life, her earthly body was not subject to the corruption of decay and the grave. The all-holy vessel that bore our Savior and hers into this world — the Ark of the New Covenant, as the Fathers hailed her — could not lie in any earthly tomb. And so at the end of her earthly life, Christ bore her to be with Him in Heaven.

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin (1580)

Assumption of the Virgin (1580), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

I used to think that the Assumption of Mary was just a fanciful story, the product of the Church’s overactive Marian imagination, a belief entirely extraneous to the Gospel of Christ. But today the Mass, and Father Joe’s homily, drove home to me how essential it is, and how precious and how beautiful. Mary’s Assumption doesn’t just mean that there’s something special about Mary. Even more important, it means there’s something special about us, about humanity; something worth saving even in this corruptible flesh of ours. It wasn’t mere coincidence that Pope Pius declared the Assumption dogma in 1950, to a despondent world that had witnessed the horrors of war, the depths of cruelty, genocide, and mass destruction. The world at that time needed to be reminded that there is something worth saving in us; there is something lovable and redeemable in humanity: the potential for peace and love and goodness and wholeness, not just depravity and hate. Just as Mary was saved and filled with grace, we too are called to be saved and filled with grace. Just as Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, we too are promised eternal life and bodily resurrection on the last day. Mary is the mark of that promise. Because of the grace poured out on Mary, we have assurance of the glorious future that awaits us also.

I can’t put it more perfectly than the liturgy of the Mass today:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give You thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For today the Virgin Mother of God
was assumed into heaven
as the beginning and image
of Your Church’s coming to perfection
and a sign of sure hope and comfort to Your pilgrim people;
rightly You would not allow her
to see the corruption of the tomb
since from her own body she marvelously brought forth
Your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.

In Scripture

The key scriptural text that demonstrates to us the Assumption is in Revelation:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. . . . And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. . . .

And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.

Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin (1530)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1530), by Correggio, painted on the interior of the magnificent dome of the Cathedral of Parma. (See detail at WikiPaintings.org)

It is clear even to Protestant interpreters that the male child is Christ Himself. All agree that the symbolism of the Revelation is taking place on several levels and layers: but if the Fathers are correct in their reading of Mary as the ark of Christ’s covenant, then certainly the juxtaposition of that ark, seen within God’s temple, with the mother clothed with the sun giving birth to the Christ is meaningful here.

Blessed Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, taught that in John 14:3, Mary is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to take us to Him:

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

Saint Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

If Mary was the firstfruits of Christ’s salvific grace and redemption, then we believe she was also the firstfruits of His resurrection. God did it “out of order” with Mary: He redeemed her from the moment of her conception; so it follows that He would bring about the rest of her salvation out of order, too. He brought her to Him, before the rest of us, as our promise of what awaits us all — to be our beacon of hope and our most gracious advocate on this side of humanity.

In the Fathers

Aside from apocryphal texts, the earliest Church Father to speak to the Assumption of Mary is St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403). He does not mention the Assumption explicitly, but the fact that he raises the matter of Mary’s earthly end attests that there was some question:

Tintoretto, The Assumption of the Virgin (1594)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1594), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

If anyone holds that we are mistaken, let him simply follow the indications of Scripture, in which is found no mention of Mary’s death, whether she died or did not die, whether she was buried or was not buried. For when John was sent on his voyage to Asia, no one says that he had the holy Virgin with him as a companion. Scripture simply is silent, because of the greatness of the prodigy, in order not to strike the mind of man with excessive wonder.

As far as I am concerned, I dare not speak out, but I maintain a meditative silence. For you would find (in Scripture) hardly any news about this holy and blessed woman, of whom nothing is said concerning her death.

Simeon says of her: “And a sword shall pierce your soul, so that thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Luke 2:35). But elsewhere, in the Apocalypse of John, we read that the dragon hurled himself at the woman who had given birth to a male child; but the wings of an eagle were given to the woman, and she flew into the desert, where the dragon could not reach her (Revelation 12:13-14). This could have happened in Mary’s case.

But I dare not affirm this with absolute certainty, nor do I say that she remained untouched by death, nor can I confirm whether she died. The Scriptures, which are above human reason, left this question uncertain, out of respect for this honored and admirable vessel, so that no one could suspect her of carnal baseness. We do not know if she died or if she was buried; however, she did not ever have carnal relations. Let this never be said!

. . . If the holy Virgin is dead and has been buried, surely her dormition happened with great honor; her end was most pure and crowned with virginity. If she was slain, according to what is written: “A sword shall pierce your soul,” then she obtained glory together with the martyrs, and her holy body, from which light shone forth for all the world, dwells among those who enjoy the repose of the blessed. Or she continued to live. For, to God, it is not impossible to do whatever he wills; on the other hand, no one knows exactly what her end was. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion [Adverus haereses], LXXVIII.11, 23 [PG XLII, 716 B–C, 737])

The first concrete testimony we have in the West to Mary’s Assumption is St. Gregory of Tours (c. 538–594), who cites an apocryphal Greek text, handed down to him in a fifth-century Latin translation, now lost:

Duccio, Assumption fragment (1311)

Assumption (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

Finally, when blessed Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was about to be called from this world, all the apostles, coming from their different regions, gathered together in her house. When they heard that she was about to be taken up out of the world, they kept watch together with her.

And behold, the Lord Jesus came with his angels and, taking her soul, handed it over to the archangel Michael and withdrew. At dawn, the apostles lifted up her body on a pallet, laid it in a tomb, and kept watch over it, awaiting the coming of the Lord. And behold, again the Lord presented himself to them and ordered that her holy body be taken and carried up to heaven. There she is now, joined once more to her soul; she exults with the elect, rejoicing in the eternal blessings that will have no end. (Gregory of Tours, Libri miraculorum I, De gloria beatorum martyrum IV [PL LXXI, 708])

Finally, to see the full flowering of the tradition of the Assumption, we turn to St. John Damascene (d. 749):

El Greco, Dormition of the Virgin (1566)

Dormition of the Virgin (1566), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

Your holy and all-virginal body was consigned to a holy tomb, while the angels went before it, accompanied it, and followed it; for what would they not do to serve the Mother of their Lord?

Meanwhile, the apostles and the whole assembly of the Church sang divine hymns and struck the lyre of the Spirit: “We shall be filled with the blessings of your house; your temple is holy; wondrous in justice” (Psalm 65:4). And again: “The Most High has sanctified his dwelling” (Psalm 46.5); “God’s mountain, rich mountain, the mountain in which God has been pleased to dwell” (Psalm 68:16-17).

The assembly of apostles carried you, the Lord God’s true Ark, as once the priests carried the symbolic ark, on their shoulders. They laid you in the tomb, through which, as if through the Jordan, they will conduct you to the promised land, that is to say, the Jerusalem above, mother of all the faithful, whose architect and builder is God. Your soul did not descend to Hades, neither did your flesh see corruption. Your virginal and uncontaminated body was not abandoned in the earth, but you are transferred into the royal dwelling of heaven, you, the Queen, the sovereign, the Lady, God’s Mother, the true God-bearer [Theotokos].

O, how did heaven receive her, who surpasses the wideness of the heavens? How is it possible that the tomb should contain the dwelling place of God? And yet it received and held it. For she was not wider than heaven in her bodily dimensions; indeed, how could a body three cubits long, which is always growing thinner, be compared with the breadth and length of the sky? Rather it is through grace that she surpassed the limits of every height and depth. The Divinity does not admit of comparison.

O holy tomb, awesome, venerable, and adorable! Even now the angels continue to venerate you, standing by with great respect and fear, while the devils shrink in horror. With faith, men make haste to render you honor, to adore you, to salute you with their eyes, with their lips, and with the affliction of their souls, in order to obtain an abundance of blessings.

A precious ointment, when it is poured out upon the garments or in any place and then taken away, leaves traces of its fragrance even after evaporating. In the same way your body, holy and perfect, impregnated with divine perfume and abundant spring of grace, this body which had been laid in the tomb, when it was taken out and transferred to a better and more elevated place, did not leave the tomb bereft of honor but left behind a divine fragrance and grace, making it a wellspring of healing and a source of every blessing for those who approach it with faith. (John Damascene, Homily 1 on the Dormition 12–13 [PG XCVI, 717D–720C]).

I think it’s telling that for all the thousands of apostolic relics churches around the world claim to have, no one claims to have any piece of body of the Virgin Mary. These beautiful reflections bring me to love my Holy Mother and cherish her Assumption ever more.

[Patristic texts from Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).]

Of good report

Murillo, Rebecca and Eliezer, 1650

Rebecca and Eliezer (1650), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8

I’m having a pretty good day. So I thought I would share a few good things that are going on now.

    The First Hebrew Primer

  • Part of my penance this week is to devote a considerable length of time to spiritual study — a burden on my time but a joy to my soul. And so, in addition to my studies of the daily readings and working my way through the Old Testament, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my Hebrew book, a study that would be of great benefit to my understanding of Scripture. I started working through the book (Simon, Reznikoff, and Motzkin’s The First Hebrew Primer) right before I began grad school, and got through the first few chapters — enough to know the alphabet — before the grad school monster clobbered me. I am reviewing now and planning to advance further, and I’m glad to find that I still have the basic skills I attained before (reading and writing right to left, understanding and writing the alphabet). It’s mentally exhausting, but exciting!

  • Just for the heck of it, I refreshed my memory of the Roman calendar, to date the headings of my Hebrew notebook (it was originally a Latin notebook). Hodie est dies Martis, ante diem XIX Kalendis Septembris, anno Domini MMXII, sive MMDCCLXV ab urbe condita. I should probably pick up the Hebrew calendar now, too.

  • Speaking of Latin: this is a pretty wonderful find on Google Books: A Copious and Critical English-Latin Lexicon (1849), by the Reverends Riddle and Arnold. Ah, I love free, old books, especially when they are as rich a trove as this.

  • Esplorazioni 1

  • Speaking of Rome: I received on interlibrary loan two massive red tomes — not from Rome, from Emory University; but originally from Rome: Esplorazioni sotto la Confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano (1951) — the official report of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican uncovering the tomb of St. Peter. This is it. Contained herein are a wealth of technical descriptions, diagrams, and photographs: this is the primary source on which all the books I’ve read so far are based. One challenge: it’s in Italian. But that will only add to the adventure of exploring the scavi in greater depth and unlocking their mysteries.

    (My desk is never really this neat. I shuffled off the contents just to take these pictures.)

    Below are a few quick snapshots from the books. I hope to be able to share some more highlights in the weeks to come.

    Esplorazioni 2 Esplorazioni 3 Esplorazioni 4
  • Do you like the paintings I post on here? WikiPaintings.org has fast become one of my favorite websites ever. The wiki’s goal is nothing less than to collect and catalog high-resolution images of the works of all the masters; to tag them and document them and share them. I post images from it almost daily. Whoever uploaded the great collection of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is singularly responsible for bringing him, in the course of a few months, from being unknown to me to being one of my favorite painters ever.

  • Ware, The Orthodox Church

  • I’m reading a wonderful book on the Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Timothy (Kallistos) Ware. I am not very far in (past the Seven Councils), but he is delightfully snooty toward the Roman Catholic Church and toward the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, who don’t count.

All right. There are many other great things to share, but I will save some for tomorrow! Other things to do.

Laid low and lifted high: On Reconciliation, and awards too!

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings.org).

It’s been a pretty brutal couple of weeks. I am pretty beaten up and beaten down. I haven’t had the energy or the motivation to write. I’m forcing myself even now. Because I don’t want to abandon this thing.

There is a lot of negative I could be focusing on right now; but this blog is meant to be about the positive, the beauty and the majesty and the glory of Christ and His Church. So all I will say is that I am hurting too much on my own right now to engage in the kind of knock-down, drag-out apologetic debate that I was courting before. I am tired, very tired, of spilling my breath and my words for Christians who are still living the battles of 500 years ago, still cultivating those ancient, festering wounds; who are more about division and separation in self than union and communion in Christ; who would rather reject their fellow believer in rancor and hate than love and forgive their neighbor in charity. I am tired of liberal friends and acquaintances misunderstanding and misrepresenting and deriding my faith; I am tired of a secular culture determined to call the black white and the twisted path straight; I am tired of politics in which even the lesser of two evils still looks pretty evil to me. I am really weary of this world.

But I am thankful for a Lord whose grace is sufficient for my every need, Whose strength is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9); Who even when I am most broken down abounds in the power to forgive and heal and save; Who is faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). I am thankful for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where His grace will always meet me at my lowest; for His Penance which guides me to restoration. I am thankful for His Eucharist, His daily, most intimate Presence; His blessed Bread of Life to nourish my soul. I am thankful for a pastor and confessor who will hear me, who is unsparing in his discipline but overflowing with Christ’s mercy.

I am thankful for my dear blog-friends, who have presented me with another award: the Reader Appreciation Award, to mark the appreciation of my readers:

Reader Appreciation Award

Both Foraging Squirrel and Jessica of All Along the Watchtower nominated me for this award; and for both of them I am very honored and grateful.

The rules for accepting this thing are that I thank and link back to those who nominated me (done), and pass it along to some other fine people. I have been detached from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks, but I will try to determine who hasn’t already received these; maybe even introduce someone new to our circle of blog-friends.

These blogs and bloggers are some that I genuinely appreciate and recommend:

  • The Reluctant Road – Somebody has probably already given him this, and I don’t think he posts these things anyway, but I always enjoy his blog. Before my conversion, evangelicalism was increasingly foreign to me; Anthony, as a fellow evangelical convert, tries to make sense of it and gently demonstrate some of the misguided paths it has taken. He’s a man after my own heart, in that he still loves the people and places he’s left behind and isn’t lashing out in anger.
  • Thoughts from a Catholic – Chris has many insightful things to say from the rational perspective of an engineer (God love the engineers; they keep us liberal artists from floating away). If you haven’t read his blog, you ought to check it out.
  • SatelliteSaint – A fellow pilgrim on the road to God, Tucker has deep and valuable and sometimes piercing insights into Christianity. He is a Protestant with affinities for history and tradition and the wider Church. I still haven’t quite figured out where he’s going, but that’s part of the enjoyment in reading.

I’m not supposed to say something else interesting about myself, am I? Good, because I’m afraid that tank is running a little dry right now.

Please pray for me, my dear friends.

Faith and Love

Giotto, Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, by Giotto (c. 1305), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

For the past little while, since I’ve been engaging with hostile Protestants, I’ve been increasingly troubled. Because to my Protestant-steeped brain, their reading of the Apostle Paul sounds correct—the way I’ve been raised up to read him. I’ve struggled to read the Catholic idea of “justification through faith plus works” in his thought (even though I know this is a Protestant misrepresentation), and aside from the few verses I’ve explicated, it has been disturbingly difficult. What if we Catholics have Paul wrong? What if Luther was right? What if he really does mean sola fide, justification by faith alone?

At the same time, I’ve been more comfortable with our reading of Saint James and of Jesus Himself; and I’ve recalled the charge I’ve heard all my academic life, that Paul preached a different Gospel than Christ. I’ve never believed that. Both Catholics and Protestants find ways to read Scripture to make it appear internally consistent to themselves; it certainly is possible. But it is very clear that Paul was thinking along different lines than either Jesus or James; he was confronting different problems. Jesus never propounded anything resembling justification by faith alone. It is very clear that Protestants, particularly the Reformed variety, emphasize Paul and sola fide to the exclusion of all other interpretations; they force Jesus and James into their own framework of sola fide. They likewise accuse us of the same thing, of forcing Paul into our framework of “works’ righteousness.”

I’ve been writing recently and vehemently that the Catholic Church does not teach “works’ righteousness”—that it is through our works, done by the grace of God, that we are saved, not by our works, done in our own power (see Philippians 2:12-13). God working in us, through our works, justifies us and sanctifies us; but I haven’t really thought about what it is that is actually occurring in us as this happens. Last night I read a piece by Bryan Cross of Called to Communion that has profoundly affected me; provided me with this missing puzzle piece I didn’t even know I was lacking; shone light on the key to the Catholic understanding of salvation; given the glue that binds together what Jesus said and what James said and what John said and what Peter said and what Paul said, what God has said throughout the entire Bible:

… It’s love. Love is the key. Not faith alone. Not faith and works. Because even if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, but have not love, I have nothing; I am just a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8). Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-26)—but what works? Works of love. Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, all soul, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). And how do we love God? We keep his commandments (John 14:15). Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).

This has been staring me in the face all along, and it hasn’t clicked. I’ve worn out the section on grace and justification in my copy of the Catechism (or at least I would have, if I were still carrying my paper copy)—and yet I haven’t seen it. The word “love” is used eleven times in that section alone; “charity” is used another eleven. Love—agape (ἀγάπη)—charity (caritas)—all three words refer to the same idea—is at the core of Catholic teaching; as it well should be, since it is at the core of Scripture.

Bryan brilliantly illustrated this to me clearly for the first time in his explication of the thought of St. Irenaeus (c. 125–c. 202) toward justification, and in his piece, which I hadn’t read before but read immediately following, on the soteriology of Pope St. Clement of Rome. Though our doctrine today is more fully developed, both early Fathers reflect these ideas. And if we read Paul with this understanding, then everything makes sense.

If we have faith, but have not love, then our faith is in vain. It is only having faith in love that accomplishes anything toward our justification. If we do good works, but don’t do them in love, then they are empty and meaningless. If we love God, we will obey His commandments. If we continue to disobey God, how can that be love? “If anyone says he loves God, but hates his brother, he is a liar. . . . God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:20, 16). “No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6).

The Reformers would have us believe that we are totally depraved; that even our good works are filthy rags before God; that the entire purpose of the Law was to prove that we couldn’t keep it, that we were morally bankrupt without salvation, and even with it, we are just and sinners at the same time (simul justus et peccator). And yet all throughout Scripture—in the Old Testament, and in the teachings of Jesus, Peter, Paul, James, and John, we are called to obedience and holiness (1 Peter 1:13-35). We are told again and again that we will be judged according to our deeds (Matthew 16.27, 1 Peter 1:17, Romans 2:6, Revelation 20:13)—and yet Protestants tell us that we are incapable of living by God’s Law; that our works do not matter as long as they are covered by Christ’s imputed righteousness. I have said before that I never felt much inclination as a Protestant to pursue holiness, feeling that my sin was “covered.” Now I see how starkly the Protestant view misses the main idea of Scripture: We are to obey God’s commandments, because we love Him, through the grace which He gives us by the Blood of Christ. It is through living in His grace, growing in His love, conforming ourselves to His image, that we are saved. Faith and works are both just active parts of that.