Summary of Salvifici Doloris (on the Christian meaning of human suffering)

What follows is an executive summary of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter from 1984, Salvifici Doloris (“redemptive suffering”).

  1. Introduction (nn. 1-4)
    1. Suffering, like all human things, finds its true meaning in Jesus Christ. It is both a burden and a joy. Why it is a burden is evident; why it is a joy requires reflection into the mystery of redemption in Jesus Christ.
    2. Suffering is a constant theme throughout human existence. Human suffering is deeper than animal pain, because suffering is transcendent and involves a sense of injustice.
    3. Redemption came through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross: it came through suffering. Thus, our redemption is directly related to Christ’s suffering, and our suffering is linked somehow to our redemption.
    4. Suffering leads to compassion (“suffering” passio “with” com-), respect, and intimidation.
  2. The World of Human Suffering (nn. 5-8)
    1. Man suffers in many different ways, including physical, mental, emotional, and moral. While medicine can seek to ease physical, mental, and emotional suffering, it cannot approach moral suffering. We all suffer in different ways and to different degrees.
    2. The Bible is largely about suffering. People suffer in spite of their “election” by God, and people suffer when they stray from God’s “election” of them. Moral suffering is often described in physiological terms in the Bible.
    3. We suffer when we experience evil. In the Old Testament, the vocabulary implied that suffering is evil; with Greek (and the New Testament), language emerges that inverts the relationship: evil leads to suffering. What is evil? Christianity sees the Creator and creation as good, and sees evil as a lack, limit, or distortion of good. Man suffers because of a good in which he does not share.
    4. Suffering is a widespread phenomenon: we all suffer “in dispersion” throughout the world and throughout time. Suffering is an exile of sorts, a world of its own. Every personal instance of suffering is a small part of that greater world of suffering, but that whole world is present in each person’s suffering. Suffering also leads to solidarity and communion among those who suffer. In certain times in our history, suffering seems to be greatly concentrated, such as during famines or wars. During this era of nuclear weapons and possible mutual destruction, the amount of suffering appears proportional to the sins of our age.
  3. The Quest for an Answer to the Question of the Meaning of Suffering (nn. 9-13)
    1. Why do we suffer? Why is there evil? Man suffers and wonders why, and often suffers more deeply when he cannot find a satisfactory answer. Evil obscures our vision of God, sometimes to the point of atheism, as if to say, “an almighty and benevolent God wouldn’t allow this to happen, thus God is either not almighty or not good, which means He’s not God.” This confusion is often a reaction to so much undeserved suffering and unpunished evil.
    2. The Book of Job poses this question of suffering. Job’s friends think suffering is simply retribution for wrong-doing, a just punishment for sin. The Old Testament strongly supports that line of thinking: the existence of moral evil (sin) justifies the existence of suffering as punishment. To sin is to break the divine Law, it is to transgress against the divine Law-giver, God; it is an objective necessity that a just Law-giver should punish evil and reward good.
    3. Job challenges the principle that all suffering is the result of sin. God acknowledges that Job is innocent in the matter, but the suffering of the innocent remains a mystery which God does not reveal. While some suffering is punishment for sin, not all suffering is: it can be a test of righteousness. This all points to the suffering (Passion) of Christ in the New Testament.
    4. While the question is “answered,” it remains without a solution in the Old Testament, but there are indicators of a deeper meaning. Suffering as punishment (such as Israel endured when it strayed from her covenant with God) had an educational value as well. Punishment repays evil, but it also provides an opportunity to rebuild the good that was missing. Punishment is ordered towards penalty, but also conversion, mercy, and rehabilitation.
    5. The “why” of suffering is answered truly in the revelation of divine love: God gives the definitive answer and solution to the problem of suffering through the cross of His Son Jesus Christ.
  4. Jesus Christ: Suffering Conquered by Love (nn. 14-18)
    1. God “gave” His Son so that man might have eternal life and not perish. This “giving” implies a suffering: God did not just send His Son, He gave His Son. Jesus came to give us eternal life, which is the opposite of “perishing”: redemption, then, is about being saved from the eternal and definitive suffering of being separated from God for eternity.
    2. Christ does not just address this eternal, definitive suffering, but also our temporal suffering, both of which are rooted in an experience of evil. Jesus comes to save us from sin and death. Because of sin (ours or others’) we experience suffering. Death is a final destructive blow to our persons, soul and body: the soul survives, though separated from the body, and the body decays. It is the final experience of suffering in this world. Jesus saves us from sin by offering us Sanctifying Grace, and He saves us from death by His Resurrection which is a pledge of our future rising from the dead. In Heaven, there will be no suffering at all. Christ’s redemptive work does not abolish temporal suffering for us, but shines a redemptive light on it.
    3. Christ was well-acquainted with suffering in His Messianic work: He was around the suffering and the sick, and He became more and more isolated and the target of hostility as He approached the culmination of His work on earth. He spoke of this suffering to His Apostles many times, and rebuked Peter when he tried to prevent Him from facing His destiny: the Cross. He was fully aware of His mission and what it would entail, and the Scriptures prophesied the suffering He would have to face, as Jesus affirms several times. Jesus faced this suffering with full knowledge, in full obedience to His Father.
    4. The fourth Song of the Suffering Servant (in Isaiah 53) is a powerful prophecy of the One chosen by God to suffer for His people. It accurately depicts the events of His Passion and the depth of His sacrifice. In it, the Servant suffers for His people, to redeem and restore them. Only Jesus Christ, Who is true God and true Man, can take all the sins of humanity upon Himself in a complete and redemptive way. Jesus’ sufferings are truly human, but with a depth unmatchable by any other man, because He is Man and God.
    5. The Song continues, showing that the Servants suffers voluntarily and innocently. Jesus proves His love for the Father through His obedience to Him, going to the cross freely and innocently. He proves the truth of love through the truth of suffering. When Jesus says “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” from the cross, it is not because He (God the Son) is separated from or abandoned by God the Father; the Son and the Father are inseparably united. Rather, by taking the weight of all sin upon Himself, Christ perceived – in a way inexpressible by man (who can only perceive it by experiencing it himself) – the evil of turning away from God: the suffering of man’s separation, rejection, and estrangement from God. Christ’s Passion is the culmination of human suffering, but suffering has now been linked to love which can draw good from the suffering.
  5. Sharers in the Suffering of Christ (nn. 19-24)
    1. Christ, the Suffering Servant, gave suffering a new meaning and a redemptive quality. Not only is man redeemed, but suffering itself is redeemed. Thus, as every man shares in the redemption, he is also called to share in the suffering through which redemption was gained for him.
    2. The New Testament testifies over and over to the connection between participating suffering for Christ (persecutions specifically) and participating in His glory. He who identifies with Christ in His Passion and death is likewise identified with Christ in His Resurrection and glory.
    3. Suffering for Christ also means suffering for His Kingdom, which means suffering for others as well. This participation in suffering “makes us worthy” of that Kingdom, so we are in a sense repaying the infinite price of Christ’s Passion and death.
    4. Precisely because Christ identified His “glory” with his Crucifixion (particularly in John’s gospel), human suffering has a hidden glory in it. This suffering is a call for moral greatness and builds spiritual character.
    5. Suffering is a trial, but in our weakness, the glory and strength of Christ is made manifest, as St. Paul pointed out. Christ’s “weakness” in being “lifted up” in the Crucifixion was infused with power because of its redemptive quality. So too, Christians who suffer on account of Christ have no need to feel shame. Suffering leads to endurance, which leads to character, which leads to hope; thus, suffering is a call for virtue.
    6. Because the Church is the Body of Christ, that Body shares in the sufferings of Christ Himself. As St. Paul says, we “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, the Church.” This means that man’s suffering is joined with the Paschal mystery. The suffering Christ endured is by no means incomplete or insufficient, but our participation in it, as His Body, is what must be completed. Christ leaves this redemptive suffering open so that it can be completed in us. Christ’s Body, the Church, lives this redemptive suffering throughout its history.
  6. The Gospel of Suffering (nn. 25-27)
    1. There is a “Gospel of Suffering” written by the witnesses of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Mary, His Mother, is the foremost witness, because she was present at the side of Christ throughout His life, sharing in His suffering from Simeon’s prophecy through to the Crucifixion. Christ told His disciples to bear hardships, carry their own crosses, and deny themselves, all of which are a sharing in His suffering, and which join His disciples to Him. The promise of suffering (often in the form of persecution for Christ) requires courage and fortitude, placing hope in Christ and His victory over the world through His suffering. The fact that Christ retains the wounds of the crucifixion even on His resurrected body is a testimony to suffering being more that an encounter with evil.
    2. This Gospel of Suffering is also written by those who suffer with Christ, uniting their sufferings with His. Suffering has a revelatory character: it conceals a grace which draws a person close to Christ, resulting in a deep conversion by which the person is changed to the core. Suffering in the body also creates the opportunity for a display of interior maturity and spiritual heroism, setting an example of perseverance for others. Christ gave Mary a special motherhood over all men: as she was His mother in His suffering, so shall she be for all men in their suffering, teaching them to unite themselves to Christ. This interior process of uniting one’s self to Christ does not come easily, because of the great question of “why”. But Christ answers this question from the cross, saying “Take up your cross and follow me.” In this way, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed.
    3. Suffering is a source of joy because, with its salvific meaning uncovered, it is no longer an experience of uselessness and burden to others. Rather, the one who is suffering is actually doing their part to complete the sufferings of Christ in His Body the Church. Suffering provides an opportunity for grace.
  7. The Good Samaritan (nn. 28-30)
    1. The parable of the Good Samaritan, in answering the question “who is my neighbor?” teaches that love of neighbor means sensitivity to those who suffer. This includes sympathy and compassion, but extends most importantly to action. The Good Samaritan gives his all, even his very self, for the suffering other. This self-giving is at the core of Christian anthropology.
    2. Suffering creates an opportunity for others to show love. The natural human response is called being a “Good Samaritan”, but this act of love is a vocation and an apostolate when it is done with an evangelical motive driving it on. Thus, added to human solidarity are the Christian virtues (especially love of neighbor) which together overcome indifference to suffering. These acts of love are carried out by individuals, and not simply institutions, which can never replace the pure human element of compassion.
    3. Christ’s words in Matthew 25:31-46 provide a final perspective on suffering: in ministering to one who is suffering, we are ministering ultimately to Christ. All human suffering is an opportunity to serve Christ as we ought, which will be taken into account in the Final Judgment. Human suffering is revealed to be a conduit of grace, both for the one suffering and the one who ministers.
  8. Conclusion (n. 31)
    1. Suffering is supernatural because God has bound it up with salvation, and human because it is endured by all men. Through human suffering, men find their identity in themselves and in Christ.

Back in the ring

After a year-and-a-half hiatus, I’m back in action. I led the Bible study group at Rider University for a few years, under the chaplaincy of Fr. Joseph Jakub, but the needs of the Catholic Campus Ministry there changed — there was more interest in a men’s group (to go alongside the women’s group that met weekly), and despite being a man, running a “men’s group” is not my strength. So since the spring of 2013, I haven’t really been exercising my catechetical muscle.

Until yesterday. Some backstory is in order…

When I first moved down to the Princeton area nearly a decade ago, I was looking for Catholic fellowship with people my age. I found it in a few places, one of which was the graduate student Catholic fellowship at Princeton (despite not being a graduate student or a Princetonian). I enjoyed their company and conversation regularly for a few years, but not since moving closer to Trenton. Trenton and Princeton are not that far away, as the crow flies, but I don’t fly a crow, I drive a car, and New Jersey does not have the benefit that some of the mid-western states do… a grid of roads going north-south and east-west. No, in New Jersey, you need to make several turns just to get across the street.

A few Sundays ago, the former chaplain from Princeton, Fr. Tom Mullelly, celebrated Mass at my parish. I re-introduced myself to him after Mass, and I was happy to see he remembered me. He mentioned that there was another new chaplain at Princeton (replacing the one that had followed him). I decided a couple days later to send an email to the chaplaincy, introducing myself, dropping some names of people I’d known (most of whom, I admitted in the email, had surely moved on from Princeton by now). The reply I got back from the new chaplain started with “Unfortunately I do not know any of the people you mention below, as I am new to the campus this semester…” Heh.

“… however you and I know each other from the Archdiocese.”

The new chaplain for Princeton University’s Catholic Campus Ministry (the Aquinas Institute) is Fr. Bryan Page, from the archdiocese of Newark. It turns out I know him from several years ago, from a young adult retreat I went on back in 2008, at which he was a speaker. He spoke about the importance of taking decision-making seriously, and making good decisions, as adults: to decide is to cut off some possibility in favor of another (from the Latin decidere, “to cut off; to delineate; to settle on”).

The end result of a few more emails: I’ll be assisting him in the Wednesday night apologetics for the undergrads at Aquinas House. I attended last night to introduce myself, meet the students, and get a feel for the discussion. They’re bright, obviously, and just as interested in asking questions as they are in answering them. (Anyone who’s worked with students knows that it is harder to get them to ask a question than to answer one, because asking takes more initiative.) Our topic of conversation last night was the sacrament of Reconciliation. We tried to approach it in a Thomistic way, looking at arguments against it and countering with arguments for it.

Next week a seminarian will be leading a discussion on icons and images.

The week after that, I will be leading a discussion on Purgatory and temporal suffering. I’ll be making material available online beforehand, and sharing some of the fruits of our discussion afterwards.

Pray for me, and for Fr. Bryan, and for the seminarian, and for these eager students!

Do you have anything to share about Purgatory or suffering? Feel free to comment below.

Right thoughts, right words, right action

Rather than write a post about how I’m going to take up blogging again (and then not take up blogging again, again), I’m just going to write a blog post about something substantive: this Sunday’s second reading at Mass, from the end of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

In August of 2013, Franz Ferdinand released an album “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” which had a few singles that got a lot of radio time. One was “Right Thoughts”, which repeated the album title several times as a sort of chorus. Oddly enough, that song popped into my mind as I prepared to lector this Sunday morning at my parish. The first reading from Isaiah 5, containing the “friend’s song concerning his vineyard,” and Psalm 80 relate perfectly to Christ’s parable of the vineyard from Matthew 21; but, as is often the case, the merely sequential second reading struggles to find a place between the three. It tends to be overlooked come homily time.

Philippians 4 has no clear theme of harvest and justice, no metaphor of a vineyard. But it speaks of the nature of a well-tended vine, and of the attitude of its just tenants. The vineyard of the Lord should be a peaceful one, and it should be tended by those whose minds are concerned with excellence (in terms of truth, honor, justice, purity, love, grace, and praise) and whose actions are directed by the examples of the saints who have worked before them. The tenants will then not only enjoy the peace of the vineyard, they will enjoy the presence of the God of peace Himself. Note the miniature chiasm, or at least inversion of phrase, in verses 7 and 9: “the peace of God” … “the God of peace”.

[6] Brothers and sisters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
[7] Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[8] Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
[9] Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.

As for the Franz Ferdinand song, this reading highlights “right words” (that is, words of prayer), “right thoughts” (dwelling on excellence), and “right action” (modeled after the deeds of the Apostle).

Good Friday: The Reproaches (Improperia)

The Improperia (or “Reproaches”) are a series of antiphons and responses which are part of the Good Friday liturgy in the Roman Rite (although you may not have ever heard them). They are presented as Christ crying out to His people (contextually, the Israelites) for the injustices they showed their God after all the wonders God had performed for them.

Here is my own (somewhat loose) English translation of the Latin (and Greek) text:

O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you?  Answer me!

For I brought you out of the land of Egypt,
but you brought out* a cross for your Savior.

Holy is God!  Holy and mighty!  Holy and immortal!
Have mercy upon us!

For I led you through the desert for forty years,
and fed you with manna,
and brought you into a land of plenty,
but you prepared* a cross for your Savior.

Holy is God!  Holy and mighty!  Holy and immortal!
Have mercy upon us!

What more should I have done for you, that I did not do?
Indeed, I planted you, my precious chosen vine,
but you have become terribly bitter to me.
Indeed, you gave me vinegar to drink in my thirst,
and have pierced your Savior’s side with a lance.

Holy is God!  Holy and mighty!  Holy and immortal!
Have mercy upon us!

I scourged the first-born of Egypt for your sake:
yet you scourged me and handed me over.

O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you?  Answer me!

I plunged Pharaoh into the Red Sea and plucked you out of Egypt’s hand:
yet you handed me over to the high priests.

O my people…

I parted the sea before you:
yet you parted my side with a lance.

O my people…

I led you as a pillar of cloud:
yet you led me into Pilate’s palace.

O my people…

I rained down manna for you in the desert:
yet you rained down blows and lashes on me.

O my people…

I gave you saving water from the rock to drink:
yet for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.

O my people…

I struck down for you the kings of the Canaanites:
yet you struck the head of your King with a reed.

O my people…

In your hands I placed a royal scepter:
yet upon my head you placed a crown of thorns.

O my people…

I raised you up in great power:
yet you raised me up on a cross.

O my people…

* The Latin is the same for these two lines (“but you … your Savior”), but I have chosen to render them differently.

A Look at Pope Francis: lowly, and yet chosen

The episcopal motto of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio is “miserando atque eligendo”.  When I found that this afternoon, around 3 PM, I quickly made an effort to translate it.  The simple Latin phrase of three words is chock-full of meaning and should tell us a lot about Bergoglio – now Pope Francis.

Miserando is related to the verb miserere (to have pity on, show compassion to); it means “to be pitied; pitiable; miserable (i.e. in need of mercy)”.  I think it can be rendered as “lowly” or “humble” in this case.

Eligendo is related to the verb eligere (to vote, elect, choose); it means “to be chosen; elected”.  While the papal conclave might make us lean toward “elected”, I think “chosen” is a more fitting and general translation, although the word “elect” does hold great meaning in Christianity: those chosen by God are the “elect”.

Atque is a conjunction.  It means more than just “and”; it is closer to “and yet” or “and also” or “but still” or “but moreover”.

Very literally, this phrase could be rendered as “to be pitied, and yet to be chosen”.  I think “lowly, and yet chosen” is an apt (albeit slightly free) translation.  It means that Bergoglio identifies himself with the poor – with the lowly, the humble, the pitiable, les misérables – and that, in spite of (or because of!) this poverty, God has chosen him.

The Latin phrase comes from a homily by the Venerable Bede on St. Matthew (Homily 21):

Vidit, inquit, Jesus hominem sedentem in telonio, Matthaeum nomine, et ait illi: “Sequere me.” Vidit autem non tam corporei intuitus, quam internae miserationis aspectibus. … Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, “Sequere me.” Sequere autem dixit imitare. Sequere dixit non tam incessu pedum, quam executione morum. Qui enim dicit se in Christo manere, debet sicut ille ambulavit, et ipse ambulare.

This excerpt is found in the Liturgy of the Hours, on September 21 (the feast of St. Matthew), for the Office of Readings; here is the English translation:

Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: “Follow me.” Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men.He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: “Follow me.” This following meant imitating the pattern of his life—not just walking after him. Saint John tells us: “Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

When these words are taken out of this context and used as a motto on their own, I think it is proper to translate them as I have: “to be pitied, and yet to be chosen”, or more familiarly, “lowly and yet chosen”.

These words are a succinct summary of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), where Mary praises God for having lifted up the lowly.  These words embody the wisdom of God, who chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).  These words summarize God’s continual love and “preference” for the poor, especially as the Good Shepherd (Ezekiel 34).  In short, these words are a summary of the whole divine economy!

Bergoglio – Pope Francis – recognizes himself as lowly, but does not let his humility cause him to turn away from God’s wondrous choice of him.  Rather, he sees his poverty as a sign of God’s election, although the world might think it otherwise.  This is the way of the Church, the way of each of us: we must recognize ourselves as poor, as lowly, as “miserable”, as sinners in need of mercy, as people of unclean lips.  And yet God reaches out to us as He did to Isaiah (Isaiah 6).  God purifies us by His angel of mercy, by His Son Jesus Christ, touching our unclean lips with a burning coal from the heavenly altar, with an ember aflame with the love of Christ, and so removes our guilt and forgives our sin, and says to us, “Whom shall I send?  Whom shall I choose?”  And each of us, in gratitude for the gift, must have the humility to accept the gift and respond, “Here I am, Lord!  Send me!”  For, in the end, it is not us who choose God; He has chosen us (John 15:16).

Habemus Papam!

I was watching the CNN live feed at 2PM (Eastern Time) today.  I noticed the smoke coming out of the chimney before the commentators did!  It was grayish at first, but quickly grew whiter.  I tweeted “white?” and noticed a flood of tweets appearing: “habemus papam!” “white!” “white smoke!”

The interregnum is over.  It is only a matter of minutes until we know who has ended it!

Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina has chosen the name Francis.  His episcopal motto was “miserando atque eligendo” (lowly and yet chosen), which seems quite fitting.  Let’s see if he uses it as his papal motto as well.

A new foundation

In a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, there is a one saying which is a brief dialogue between two abbas:

Abba Moses: “Can a man lay a new foundation every day?”
Abba Silvanus: “If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment.”

Before - Green FloorWell, I can’t say I’ve laid a new foundation every day, let alone every moment, but my wife and I did lay a new foundation yesterday, from 8:30 am through about 6:30 pm.  It’s a cork floor made of interlocking tiles that we installed ourselves.

In the morning, we rented a table saw for the day from a nearby hardware store (the miter saw, which we had spied out the evening before, had been rented a mere 45 minutes after we left the store that night).

During - Floor with Insulation and Tiles on TopWe actually didn’t get started laying the tiles until 10 am, because of our deliberations and worrying and second-guessing and recalculating.  The beginning was excruciating, because we were having trouble getting the under-layer insulation to stay in place and getting the tiles to lock together firmly (with no gaps between them).  We finally decided to try the block-and-hammer method, to get the second row of tiles to fit with the first row of tiles, and it worked.  A couple thumbs were struck once or twice, but things started to come together.

On top of that, the Catechism Search Engine had some content delivery issues yesterday morning, which frustrated a fair number of subscribers to Flocknote’s “Read the Catechism during the Year of Faith” mailing list, and added a bit of anxiety and pressure onto my workload for the morning.  Thankfully it was resolved in a matter of hours.

Floor Vent with GapDespite not having used such wood-shop equipment since my high school days, I was able to successfully and safely navigate the table saw all day, with only one defect: the final piece we needed got a chunk taken out of it, so we had to substitute several smaller pieces instead.  This was the most painstaking part of the project, because we had to cut out a rectangular opening for the floor vent.  The small gap beneath the vent opening is the last piece we put in; there are two small pieces immediately beneath the vent (in the center and on the right).  The final pieceThe long piece along the top of the vent is connected to the tile on its left; you may be able to see a tiny gap at the right end of the long narrow piece and the tile to its right.  We put the final small piece in place, and it looked pretty close to perfect.

At long last, we put the air vent cover in place, and stepped back.  It looked… right.  It looked like we’d hoped it would.  Completed ventAnd even the hairline gaps between these carefully cut-out and squeezed-into-place pieces looked natural, like part of the cork tile pattern.  All in all, the long and exhausting day was a win.

So, it was a rewarding endeavor, a tiring day, and we got our taxes done in the middle of it.  And we celebrated with some local delicious Mexican food.  With meat.  (We’re not eating meat during all — well, mostly all — of Lent.  Yesterday was a cause for some celebration.)

And, no offense to abba Moses or abba Silvanus, but I’d rather not have to lay this sort of foundation every day, let alone every moment.  I’ll stick to the spiritual foundations!

Completed floor

Why is the altar a sign of Christ?

During the Entrance Procession, when the priest and his ministers reach the entrance to the sanctuary, they make a sign of reverence, a bow of the body to the altar.  (If the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament is in the sanctuary, then instead of bowing to the altar, they should genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament.)  Then the priest ascends to the altar and kisses it before going to his chair; the deacon kisses the altar as well.  On particularly solemn occasions, the priest may even bless the altar with incense.  Why is all this attention paid to the altar?  Because the altar is a sign of Christ; according to one of the Prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayer during the Easter season, Christ is the “sacerdos, altare et agnus” (“priest, altar, and lamb”) of His sacrifice.[1]

It is easy to recognize Christ as the priest and the lamb (that is, the victim); why He is the altar deserves some explanation to our modern minds.  St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century and spiritual father of St. Augustine, took the image of Christ-as-altar for granted in his treatise De Sacramentis, where he writes (without much explanation) that “the altar is a type [i.e. sign] of the body [of Christ]” (Book IV, 7) and then again almost as an aside, “for what is the altar but the type of the body of Christ?” (Book V, 7)

Consider first the composition of the altar.  Traditionally, the altar is made of stone and is immovable – although some countries, such as the United States, may use wood for the altar, provided it is “worthy, solid, and well-crafted.” (GIRM 301)  Why stone for the altar?  St. Paul speaks of Christ as “the supernatural Rock” that accompanied the Israelites in the desert during their exodus from Egypt, the Rock from which flowed water for their sustenance. (1 Cor. 10:4; cf. Ex. 17:6)  Sts. Paul and Peter identified Christ as the “cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6), and Jesus used this language referring to Himself. (cf. Luke 20:17-18)  The concept is found in Psalm 118:22-26, the very same psalm that the inhabitants of Jerusalem sang as Jesus entered their city.

Not only is Christ “that living stone” (1 Pet. 2:4), but we too are called to be “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2:5)  This means the altar is also a sign of the Church, made up of diverse people, living stones, gathered and built into one, in peace and unity.  St. Paul described the Church as being made up of those Jews and Gentiles who accepted Christ, and that Christ “is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one.” (Eph. 2:14)  Jesus “kissed [this altar, the Church] in the middle” with the “holy kiss of peace and unity” (Douay Catechism 125), so the priest imitates Christ in kissing the altar and in doing so, shows “a sign of his affection and close adherence to Christ.” (The Glories of the Catholic Church, p. 222)

Now consider what takes place on the altar.  An altar is a place of sacrifice, a place of offering something to God, a place of encountering God.  Jesus offered Himself on earth on the “altar of the cross,” and that offering is now made present on the Church’s altar.  The altar is related to our Lord’s Passion and represents the cross, so the priest bowing before the altar “signifies the prostrating of Christ in the garden, when he began his passion.” (Douay Catechism 125; cf. Matt. 26:39)  Jesus went so far as to identify the Temple (and its altar) with Himself:

Jesus [said], “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he spoke of the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21)

“For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? … For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matt. 23:17-19)

Jesus is the “gift” being offered on the altar, but He makes it clear that the altar makes the gift sacred; you certainly would not offer a sacrifice on an altar less dignified than the sacrifice itself.  That makes Jesus (Who sanctifies) both the gift and the altar.

Rev. Maurice de la Taille, SJ, meditating upon Christ as altar in his 1915 book The Mystery of Faith, illuminates further:

Those who desired to offer sacrifices to God, had to do so necessarily through an altar.  But Christ, the Victim of salvation, approached to God through Himself.  Hence He was also the altar of His own sacrifice.  For us too in like manner, He is the altar of every one of our sacrifices, for we can bring no offering to God except through Christ. (Chapter 5, Section 2)

Not only did Christ approach the Father through Himself as an altar, but now Christ is our altar through Whom we approach the Father.  St. Paul exhorted the Romans, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1)  This thought was taken up by St. Peter who completed it when he wrote that we are “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:5)  It is no accident that we offer our prayers to God “through Christ our Lord.”

In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, two prayers accompany the approaching and kissing of the altar.  As he ascends the steps to the altar, the priest prays that the Lord remove our iniquity so that we might enter the Sancta Sanctorum (“Holy of Holies”) worthily, with pure minds.  This prayer is not present in the Ordinary Form,[2] but the priest should still be aware of its sentiment as he approaches the altar of sacrifice.  In the prayer that accompanies the kissing of the altar, the priest asks God pardon for his sins, by the merits of His “saints whose relics are here” and of all the saints.  While this prayer is not found in the Ordinary Form, the Church has retained the ancient tradition of placing relics of saints within the altar stone. (GIRM 302)  This practice calls to mind the early history of the Church, when persecuted Christians used martyrs’ tombs for altars. (Baltimore Catechism III 937)  By kissing the altar above the place where the relics are reserved, the priest silently declares his union with and affection for the saints who have gone before him.  This kiss is a “holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16), a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14), for Christ and for His Church and her members.  It is a kiss by which we begin to learn that the liturgy is “the purest and most sublime school of love.” (The Splendour of the Liturgy, p. 38)


[1] According to Rev. Jean Danielou, S.J., this expression can be traced to St. Cyril of Alexandria and Origen. (cf. The Bible and the Liturgy, p. 130)

[2] In the Extraordinary Form, the Penitential Act happens before the priest goes to the altar, while in the Ordinary Form, the Penitential Act happens after he has gone to the altar.  This may explain this prayer’s omission from the Ordinary Form.

Theology on Tap (twice)

Every other Thursday evening I go to Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ, to lead a Bible study for the Campus Catholic Ministry there. I also try to show up for other events when I can, such as their Wednesday night dinners.

Yesterday they took a “field trip” to Cherry Hill, NJ, for a Theology on Tap presentation by Fr. Rob Sinatra, for the diocese of Camden. (We’re in the diocese of Trenton.) It was an enjoyable and educational evening, on the topic of “Why We Do What We Do” during Lent, putting great emphasis on the three traditional lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

In March and April, I will be driving out to Harleysville, PA, for the Theology on Tap events of the Metanoia Young Adults of Montgomery County. In March, it will be to get a lay of the land (and to listen to Fr. Dennis Gill’s presentation on the liturgy), and in April it will be to give my own presentation on “The Apostolate of the Laity”. Information about this talk will be forthcoming.

Lenten Lament: Parce Domine

They may not be up-beat, but they are definitely some of my favorite chants. I’m talking about the traditional Latin chants used in the Roman Rite during the penitential and preparatory season of Lent. I call them “Lenten laments”, and I would like to share a few of them with you over these next 40+ days. (Hey, it might get me to blog more frequently… what bloggers do you know who are giving up not blogging for Lent?)

For each lament, I’ll provide the Latin text, a rather literal translation, and then my attempt at a flowing translation (either one that rhymes or that adheres to the meter of the Latin… maybe both).

The first lament of the season is Parce Domine. This chant, “Spare, O Lord”, comes from Joel 2:17, which you probably recall hearing on Ash Wednesday:

Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'”

Here is the chant (an antiphon with verses) in Latin:

R. Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo; ne in aeternum irascaris nobis.
(Spare, Lord, spare your people; lest you be angry with us forever.)

1. Flectamus iram vindicem, ploremus ante Judicem;
clamemus ore supplici, dicamus omnes cernui.
(Let us bow before the avenging wrath, let us weep before the Judge;
let us cry out with words of supplication, let us speak, all falling prostrate.)

2. Nostris malis offendimus tuam Deus clementiam;
effunde nobis desuper remissor indulgentiam.
(By our wickedness we have offended your clemency, God;
pour forth pardon on us from above, forgiver.)

3. Dans tempus acceptabile, da lacrimarum rivulis
lavare cordis victimam, quam laeta adurat caritas.
(Giving us an acceptable time, grant, in the rivers of our tears,
to wash [our] hearts’ sacrifice, enkindled by joyful charity.)

4. Audi, benigne Conditor, nostras preces cum fletibus
in hoc sacro jejunio fusas quadragenario.
(Hear, benign Creator, our prayers, with lamentations,
poured forth during this holy fast of forty days.)

5. Scrutator alme cordium, infirma tu scis virium;
ad te reversis exhibe remissionis gratiam.
(Kind searcher of hearts, you know [our] bodily weaknesses;
to those returning to you, show the grace of forgiveness.)

Here is my translation which can be sung to the Latin chant’s melody:

R. Spare Thy people, Lord; spare thy people kneeling here before Thee;
lest Thy anger stay upon us forever.

1. To our knees we fall before Thy wrath, weeping tears of true contrition;
crying out in supplication, we call to Thee with sorrowful hearts.

2. By our sins we have offended Thee, transgressing upon Thy mercy;
pour down upon us from on high Thy gracious pardon, merciful One.

3. Cleanse the off’ring of our hearts, O Lord, in our tears and Thy charity:
now is the day of salvation, now is a most acceptable time.

4. O benign Creator, hear our prayers, bend Thine ear to our lamentations,
in this season of penitence, this holy Lent of forty days.

5. O, provident searcher of the heart, Thou Who know’st our ev’ry weakness;
grant Thy grace of forgiveness to those returning unto Thee.