Sunday, May 26, 2013

In persona di... Superman?

I like superheroes as much as the next guy. I still read comic books from time to time (mainly to help get my mind off marking assignments, reading curriculum update reports... and the odd break from a theology-heavy tome is good too) and I love the superhero sub-culture (I hope to go to San Diego Comic Con. one day). When I was at university doing my Media Studies/Journalism degree I even wrote a ten thousand word thesis on Superman as a Christ figure in popular culture. As a Catholic-Christian, however, my praise and worship goes to the super hero: the Lord Jesus Christ. My Lord is real and I do my best in life to live as He taught and to bring Him to others as scripture and the Church exhorts us. Superheroes like Batman and Superman are fictional, and while there can be a cult following of fictional characters such as these, they are - in the end - fictional and there for one's entertainment and should not be idolised per se.

Less than a day or so ago, I came across the following image on Twitter:

So what we have here is a priest celebrating Mass at what I'm told is a youth rally, wearing vestments (the stole and chasuble specifically) with superhero patches printed or stitched on (I'm not sure to whom the image belongs but it was tweeted by another Twitter user).

My first reaction was, "Wow. Cool!" So doing what any ordinary Tweeter would do, I favourited the tweet and retweeted it. It was this morning before Mass this morning, however, that I got a message from a very well respected Catholic apologist (a man that I have a lot of respect for myself and an admirer of the work he does) suggested that this was sacrilegious. After some thought and reflection, I'm inclined to agree.

I was left wondering whether there was a document outlining the norms for the liturgical vestments, and with the help of my friend, Mr. Google, I did find something... something from the Vatican website. From the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, there was this document, Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers. Here are a couple of extracts:

"Beyond the historical circumstances, the sacred vestments had an important function in the liturgical celebrations: In the first place, the fact that they are not worn in ordinary life, and thus possess a 'liturgical' character, helps one to be detached from the everyday and its concerns in the celebration of divine worship."  

"The form of the vestments, therefore, says that the liturgy is celebrated 'in persona Christi' and not in the priest's own name. He who performs a liturgical function does not do so as a private person, but as a minister of the Church and an instrument in the hands of Jesus Christ."

... and on the stole and the chasuble specifically:

After reading these things one gets the impression that the liturgical vestments are a big deal. Not only are their uses steeply vested in the Church's tradition, but there is a significance behind their use, and that is to present to the faithful "in persona Christi", the person of Christ. Wearing vestments with those sorts of images  detracts from the message of the Mass and furthermore the solemnity of the liturgical celebration. 

Let's be real for a moment: if a priest walks out on to the sanctuary wearing vestments with such things on him, what's he's really trying to do is say, "Look at this!" as opposed "We are in the presence of the Lord, let us worship Him" and for such images to appear on the vestments you could argue the point of idolatry, i.e. these fictional characters have infiltrated the divine liturgy and are being worshipped in the place of the Lord as God. That's what idolatry is: worshipping something or someone else as God.

I doubt this was the intention of the priest pictured here. If the context of the Mass was a youth rally then perhaps he, the priest, used these superheroes in order to appeal to the youth. I can't blame the guy for wanting to make things more appealing for the youth; Lord knows I've used superhero analogies and references in my lessons as a high school teacher to engage my students during some lessons, but this is after all the Mass we're talking about. If you want to make the Mass more appealing to the youth, then just keep it simple and keep it real: the Mass is about Jesus Christ. God's desire for us to be close to Him and for us to be united fully with Him in Heaven. The Mass is, as John the apostle saw it in his visions in the book of Revelation, Heaven on earth. 

As we read in scripture, Jesus Christ is the same "yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8); He doesn't need enhancing or to be made more appealing to anyone. It's as the old adage says, "If it ain't broke, then don't fix it". If anything, we must conform ourselves to Christ, not the other way around.

What are your thoughts on the image above? I'd love to hear what you think.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why did God give us Free Will?

A question that I'm often asked by my students concerns free will and God's omniscience, i.e. God knowing what we're going to do before we do it. The question is often posed this way:

"If God knows what we're going to do before we do it, then what's the point of free will? Why didn't God just make us all *sheep?"

*as in "an easily persuaded person with a malleable demeanour."

Before we answer that question there's something we have to understand about God's knowledge of the past, present, and future. God is omniscient, meaning He is all-knowing. God knows us as closely and as intimately as we know ourselves. God knows our pasts, our present, and our future; He knows what we're going to do before we do it. But hang on a second, if God knows what we're going to do before we do it, then doesn't that mean that things are scripted for anyway and we're under the illusion of free will? Doesn't that mean that free will is for null?

God's knowledge of all things extends to the nature of His existence. God is the creator of space and time and therefore is not bound to the laws of space and time, that is He exists outside of space and time. We exist in space and time and are therefore bound by the laws of space and time. We have a past, present, and  future; our past we can reflect on, we are conscious of the present, and we our future is being made by the decisions we and those around us make and have made. God, since he exists outside of space and time and is therefore not bound by the laws of space and time, sees every moment - past, present, and future - in a single "moment". Omniscience is to have infinite and unmeasured knowledge; while it would take us time to accumulate knowledge, for God all knowledge is already present. It is truly difficult to describe how God sees a life pan out because we can only use what's tangible to us to explain it, but this is how we typically understand it.

Back to Free Will...

God created mankind so that we may enter into a loving and intimate relationship with Him, and this is made possible through Jesus Christ (John 3:16; John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:4). It is not possible to enter into this relationship without free will; man cannot love God without free will.

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." - Revelation 3:20

Man must use his free will in cooperation with grace in order to be close to God. Heaven is perfect unification with God and the aftermath of walking with Christ in cooperating with holiness.

So back to the question: why did God give us free will?

We know very well that in life there are people that have used their free will for the good of others; they have used their free will responsibly. We are also aware that there are people that have used their free will irresponsibly and it is for this reason evil persists in the worlds today. Ultimately we are give free will by God so that we may do good and avoid evil. Our freedom to choose is described this way by the Church:

"Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude." - Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1731

"'God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him' (GS 17 § 1)." - ibid. par. 1743

“For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain 


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Cult of the Body: Is Working out Compatible with Christian Modesty?

I'm a gym junkie and I'm perfectly comfortable to confess that. I've been going to the gym multiple times per week for three or so years and in that time my health, strength and fitness have improved significantly. My physical appearance has also changed over those three or so years as - what generally happens with weights and resistance training - fatty mass is "replaced" with lean mass; more muscle.

This topic is sometimes brought up in my classes and there's always one students that asks, "Sir, why do you go to the gym? Isn't that vanity and all that?" So this question got me thinking and forced me to assess why exactly I was going to the gym. I had to then further prompt myself to ask myself, "Is working out compatible with Christian living? Is working out compatible with the Christian concept of modesty?"

There is a culture of vanity and immodesty in the fitness industry and I've certainly seen a fair share of it as a patron of a few different gyms over the past couple of years. Just this very evening I was at the gym and my attention was drawn to a younger man that "checked himself out" in the mirror in between each each set and strutted around like a male peacock showing off its tail-feathers. I could very easily be accused of the same thing since I'm a gym-goer, but the difference is your purpose for working out and exercising; the "why" behind it all. If you're going to the gym because you want to improve your physical appearance and draw more attention from the opposite sex (and a vast number of workout "gurus" exploit this base desire and build an empire on it), then you're working out for the wrong reasons. We read the following in scripture:

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." - 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

The context of 1 Corinthians 6 addresses sexual immorality, but there is more than one way to read verses 19 and 12: our body is a sacred place and it is given to us by God; we are stewards of our bodies and we are to treat it as a temple - a sacred place - so that we may glorify God with it. The Church teaches us this about taking care of our bodies:

"Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. 

Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance." - CCC, par. 2288

And here's where it gets interesting:

"If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for it's sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships." - ibid., par. 2289

To "idolize physical perfection" is to treat our body as God, i.e. we, in a narcissistic manner, treat and worship ourselves as God. This, of course, is diametrically opposed to modesty and the biblical understanding of the treatment of the human body. By idolizing the body, we fail to glorify God with or through our bodies, but rather we glorify our body as God; this is idolatry; idolatry is a mortal sin (Exodus 20:3).

In short: it is perfectly okay to workout or exercise to improve your physical fitness and to take care of your body. It is not, however, acceptable to place the value of our bodies above all other things, especially at the expense of our relationship with God and the needs of others.

"... for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." - 1 Timothy 4:8

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." - 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

To bring Christ to others.