Part 1: Jesus CHrist in Shakespeare's Plays
"Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences.
The supreme question about a work of art
is out of how deep a life does it spring?”
— James Joyce
Catholic culture is unique among Christendom. It is the only church spread throughout the world; we are the universal church. Catholics get our name from the Greek word ‘katholikos’, which means universal. The Orthodox churches are mostly state churches, while the Protestants often have protested the church in strongly Catholic-influenced societies. Thereby Protestant groups take on the cultural traits of their points of origin, whether Western Europe or America. Protestants remain profoundly monocultural in contrast to the more universal Catholic church.
It is our liturgy — the way we worship God publicly — which helps the Catholic church maintain consistency across the seas and the centuries. In every mass, we experience the word of God with the same form of worship as the early Christians of the first centuries after Christ. Let us talk about how Catholic culture teaches us to recognize our catechism in Shakespeare, and in doing so, we will often come back to our liturgy, which unites us with the saints in heaven and on earth.
Divine Images in Earthly Symbols
According to Catholic teaching, the world is a revelation of God. The natural world is filled with images used to reveal and explain supernatural truths. Anything created can be used to explain God, whether in the stars and skies, or in the seas and storms, or under the sun and moon, the universe is teeming with images that can be used to explain truth about God.
Catholics are taught our faith through every image that the Good Teacher can use; images like water, air, blood, trees, stars, shepherds and many more are available. Even though there are so many images at our disposal to consider and discuss, if we considered them all we would surely run out of space and patience, therefore let us consider only one image, the tree of life. We will use the tree of life to show how symbolism affects Catholic understanding of God. The tree of life will be sufficient to give us a pattern to understand the various symbols and images Shakespeare uses in his plays.
Trees are abundant in nature, but the tree of life is a symbol particular to Jewish scripture. It is mentioned eleven times. Three times in the first few stories of Genesis, four times in Proverbs, and four times in Revelation. The tree of life is in paradise, it is mentioned by Moses the Prophet, by King Solomon, the son of David, and does not appear otherwise until the last book of the bible by John the Revelator. What is going on here?
In nature, trees are a source of life. Trees consume carbon dioxide and provide oxygen. Humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Trees bear fruit. Humans eat fruit. Trees grow best if fertilized, healthy humans provide that fertilization. More so, big trees can be cut down and used to provide shelter for homes or caskets for graves. We can build our homes out of trees to protect our lives, we breathe thanks to the air that trees filter and provide, and the food trees bear allows us to live longer lives. Human life is intimately bound up with trees, and it is marvelous that divine revelation subtly realizes our need for trees to provide us with life. Trees are a symbol for all life, particularly human life. They are fundamental to our ecosystem; the basic need for life on earth.
What is the worst thing people could do with trees? Use them as instruments to torture and kill people. That is a double crime against nature. For one, a tree is cut down, killed from its life and in the trees sacrifice for humanity, it is used not for good but evil; the tree is used not to protect life but inflict death. The very design of a tree is for preserving life and humanity, and yet, when we use trees to create instruments for killing and hanging, we use trees in the opposite reason of what they were designed for.
Let’s not even consider the symbolism that when God came to this earth, when the creator took on the appearance of a creature, we killed him by nailing him to a dead tree in the form of a cross. Let’s consider instead why scripture has eleven mentions of the tree of life. It is not complete. We’ve talked earlier about the importance of twelve — is God incomplete in his revelation? Is there one book missing? Were the Christians wrong in adding the Book of Revelation to the Jewish scriptures? Seven is surely better than eleven. The answer lies in the former point we didn’t want to consider. The cross is a tree of life. A tree of eternal life. The fruit from that dead God-man hanging on that dead tree in the shape of a cross is eternal life. The cross is the twelfth tree; the cross completes divine revelation for the soul’s salvation.
When Adam and Eve are cast east of Eden and the tree of life is hidden from our eyes, it was because we couldn’t eat of it in our sinful state. We cannot live forever disobedient to God, so we could not eat of the tree of life in the garden of Eden. But Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, after living a life perfectly obedient to his Father, completes that obedience as man when he says “Yet not my will be done but yours”. This is why heretical cults, cults who pick and chose what aspects of divine revelation they want to believe, whether Arians or Jehovah’s Witnesses, they miss in their theology profound points necessary for the fullness of Christian faith. If Christ is not both God and Man, if he is not fully divine and fully human, then mankind is forever disobedient. But because Mary agrees to give God human flesh, when Christ is conceived by the Holy Spirit and incarnate of the virgin Mary, he is fully human. A person is one, not divided. Jesus is fully one with God and he is fully one with humanity. He is that bridge for man to the divine; he is the way. If he remains divine and not human, humanity is still fallen. It was not a man who utters those words in the garden of Gethsemane, but a god. If he is human and not divine, he is born sinful inheriting the fallen nature we need freeing from. The mystery of the incarnation somehow — by God’s design and Mary’s agreement to the divine plan — is only complete if we protect the mystery. Once we minimize the mystery, either by saying Jesus cannot be God or he cannot be man, we minimize divine revelation and begin to destroy the faith. Our teachings only make logical sense when we maintain the whole of divine teaching, and not minimize it through human teachings. Humans can only pass divine revelation along; we are witnesses not creators. Because divine revelation is from God, certain aspects may appear confusing on a surface level, but we can trust in God — like American dollars say — that he will give each generation his wisdom to respond and refute the doubts and questions which always assail the church in every generation. Christ did not flee doubts from Thomas, he came to him and said, “see that you may believe”. Similarly, we can trust our savior and beg for eyes to see how the divine revelation is true in each and every circumstance. Thomas’s doubts provided Jesus an opportunity to reveal himself, and Thomas ended by making one of the most beautiful proclamations in all of Scripture, “My Lord and my God”. But Thomas would never had an opportunity to doubt, had not the fullness of the truth about the resurrection been passed along to him by the other apostles. If we keep the mystery in its fullness, only then do the facts of divine revelation and eternal life make sense. The moment we attempt to minimize Jesus somehow, whether we ignore his divinity or his humanity, the fullness of truth cannot be found. Catholic faith is all or nothing. We cannot pick and chose what parts of divine revelation we believe. We can only witness to divine revelation and show how it is true always. The Catholic faith makes sense of the world, but at times we might have to beg “help my unbelief!” and only then will we be granted eyes to see. Once we see, we’ll find it is the most reasonable and logical way, for God is truth and Jesus is logos and the church has been his for two thousand years, across the seas and the centuries.
Catholic testimony is Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Only by maintaing both points, do we keep the fullness of Catholic faith. The moment we try and explain something so our human logic can understand it, we find the other aspects of divine revelation no longer make sense. Jesus inherited divinity from his father and humanity from his mother. The mystery of the incarnation is that God is still one in three persons. The moment we try and grasp the mysteries of divine revelation, we break our heads in madness. But if we hold to the divine mysteries, in tact, as they have been passed down through the apostles, the divine mysteries make sense of all the facts about eternal life. For facts about earthly life, we can go to earthly sources; for facts about eternal life, we must go to divine sources. This is the crucial issue. The true church is only a witness to divine revelation, and not a creator of truth. We only testify. We only pass this testimony to humanity, allowing humanity to chose or reject God. This is why man-made doctrines are so dangerous, they belong in man-made things but not divine truth. We are like Mary who must agree to the fullness of God’s revelation, and not pick and chose the parts we want. Mary did not agree to a child and ask for a girl. She simply said, “let it be done according to your word”. The church is the testimony of divine revelation for all the world. By our testimony, we show divine revelation is the key to unlock all the riddles of this world. This is why it is so important for the church to protect this divine revelation. If we do not protect it, the testimony of God disappears; it might disappear little by little or whole chunks at a time, but it will disappear. It is most important to uphold this testimony of the mysteries, because once we try to minimize the mystery through man-made doctrines — like the Arians of yesteryear or the Witnesses at your door, or any other person who picks and choses what they believe — the truth suffers and the world falls into confusion again. The collateral damage is significant. The fall affects not one person, but the whole world suffers the consequences.
This is one example of how Catholics catechize each other through the symbols of the natural world. Starting with trees, we remember the tree of life in the garden of Eden and see the cross of death on Calvary outside Jerusalem. Any symbol can be used to teach about God. As we see the remarkable consistency of God in small things, like trees and water and blood, we trust him for the more complicated things, like Christ’s nature, the person of God, and the indissolubility of marriage. The Catholic life is a life long growth to understand the symbols of this world, the symbols in scripture, and the symbols in our liturgy — these are the keys to unlock the riddles of the world. Our mysteries make sense of life. Our mysteries are facts — incomprehensible facts but revealed facts. We only understand them by carrying them out logically and testing them in all areas. As Chesterton notes, keys and locks are complex and fit perfectly, the riddles of the world are still answered perfectly by the Catholic faith thousands of years after Christ’s life. The symbolism of the world is our Catholic practice in poetry and logic. We see how the poetry of nature is logical with all of Christian teaching. We see because we believe — creation was created to reveal the Creator; the universe is made to shine the Maker. In preserving the truth about our mysteries, our faith is the one which preserves the fullness of truth. The better we know this faith, not only the better we understand Shakespeare, but the more we understand life.
Let’s consider how the tree of life might be expressed in popular culture nowadays. This will be practice for Shakespeare's plays. Let’s take a popular movie from recent years, Guardians of the Galaxy. This movie is profoundly influenced by Catholic thought. One hint is when the Raccoon echoes a line from Chesterton’s book, The Man Who Was Thursday, in the last scene of the movie, “Thieves respect property; they merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it”. Another hint is in the Shakespearean language of one of the guardians. Another hint is the guardians of the galaxy are sinners of all kinds, whether thieves or kidnappers or killers, but they are transformed by a common purpose. Another hint is in the words of salvation and heroes spoken throughout the movie. But the best hint is in the character “I Am Groot”.
“I Am Groot” is one of the guardians, the one who is a walking tree and doesn’t say anything except “I Am Groot” throughout the whole movie. The only exception to his speech is his last words when he changes “I Am Groot” for “We Are Groot”. Whether Groot is ‘root’ or ‘good’ or a combination of the two or something else, I do not know. What I do know is “I am” is the most famous statement in Holy Scripture.
We’ve talked about how everyone has names, and these names have meaning. Why is “I am” so important? Because it is the name of God. It’s a description of who he is; God is pure essence. He is who he is. And nothing else.
When Moses encounters God in a burning bush and asks for his name, God simply says “Yahweh” — I am who I am. In the gospel of John, written to highlight Christ’s divinity in case cultural gaps allow us to miss this point in the other three gospels, John records Jesus saying frequently, “I am”. Whether he says “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world” or “Before Abraham was, I am”, Jesus identifies himself with God by simply saying “I am”. The people of this time recognized it, some charged him with blasphemy and sought to kill him, while others worshiped him as God.
But “I Am Groot” is the only one of the heroes to die in the movie — spoiler alert! He dies by wrapping himself around the other guardians of the galaxy as they plunge to certain death. He, the walking tree, offers himself in sacrifice so that the others might have life. The movie ends with a “resurrection” of the tree, as the seed sown into the earth sprouts again. The Catholic imagery and patterns pervade the movie. “I Am Groot” is a representation of the cross of our Christ, the tree of eternal life.
As Catholics, we have our crucifix over our tabernacle and altar, as a reminder of the fullness of divine revelation that came to us in Jesus, “Yahweh Saves”. The Christ was crucified once for all two thousand years ago, and every mass we participate in we have the reminder of the twelfth and final tree of life which completes the single deposit of faith we have in Christ. That the person the prophets longed for and the apostles proclaimed, the story even angels long to look into and understand, the reason so many martyrs willingly lay down their lives, this is symbolized by a small piece of art hanging above our altars. A symbol so simple, many see it without seeing. A simple of such profound depth and beauty, many hear about it without ever hearing. The symbol of the costly gift of eternal life secured by God. Through these symbols we unite with God to catechize each other and the world. This is how the Catholic faith uses the many rich and great symbols given to us by God in nature to help our eyes to see, our minds to understand, and our hearts to feel. For the sake of brevity, we only focused on the tree of life which leads to our crucifix hanging above the altar, imagine if we had time to discuss air, water, blood, sheep, the sun, the moon, and every other created thing in the heavens and on the earth and under the seas.
Divine Image in Fallen Man
Nature is one type of revelation of God, all of nature can be used to symbolize divine truth. Humanity is another type of revelation of God. Uniquely among creatures, we are made in the image of God. God endows every human life with dignity. What being made in the image of God means exactly, the scripture does not give us clear definitions. But scripture does give us beautiful stories. In the stories, we are told humans are created in the image of our Creator, male and female, that we have knowledge of good and evil, that we have disobeyed God and his one commandment, and that he has promised us a son of a woman who will subdue satan, sin, and death so that we can learn godly obedience.
Hard to understand and even contemplate, God has given us freedom to chose or reject him. He gives us free will. The Creator who gave us breath, life, and every good thing we enjoy, allows us to use these things and never acknowledge Him or even give him thanks for food, wine, sex, and every other pleasure under the sun.
God has given us something I won’t even give my toaster: freewill. The moment my toaster does not obey my will regarding bread, it’s out the door. God gives us a lifetime to come to give him thanks and desire eternity with him. He does not force himself upon his creation. He even received agreement from Mary to be clothed with humanity. That’s not to say there are not consequences to our free will, there are. But God is not going to force creatures to love him or be with him forever.
One of the problems in waiting for the promised son, all of humanity attempted to find their way to God. Religions popped up all over the world in an attempt to approach God and make sense of the mysteries of the world. Some religions, especially ancient ones, sacrifice various creatures, whether lambs or cows or chickens or kids, there has been a normal pattern in man to sacrifice to the gods; a deep longing in our soul to give thanks for life by offering up the life of another, whether choice lambs or firstborn children or pure virgins. The ancient world is filled with stories of religions that sacrifice life, Judaism being one of many. Other religions have avoided sacrifice and attempted to approach God through enlightenment. Some, like Buddhists, minimize desires through ascetic living because desire is the root of suffering. One way to relieve suffering is to reduce desire rather than satisfying desires. By and large this is a simplification, but the point is, people have always struggled to make sense of life. The ancient world began worshiping many gods in many ways in attempts to find God. All societies have realized, earthly life is not enough, there must be something more; we want to live forever. Where is the solution to these unquenchable desires?
According to Jewish scripture, forever is not possible in a state of open rebellion and disobedience to the good Creator. We have all fallen short of his perfection in some way or another; we’ve sinned against God and our fellow man. Humanity has tasted from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and our way to the tree of life is hidden. Death has entered our earthly paradise. Somehow death and evil has to be conquered. Humanity either has to be down away with or restored. From the moment death entered the world, God promised mankind that death would one day be destroyed and humanity restored.
But God was so long in fulfilling his promise, humanity grew impatient. Humans began creating idols and worshiping man-made idols as gods. Man is made to be in communion with God, and we have been seeking to replace his presence any way we can. The ancient religions are filled with idols of gods. The issue is, a living God cannot not represented with dead idols of wood and stone. A living God needs living images. Mankind only makes true images of God by uniting male and female in one flesh. It is through making love, not the work of our hands, that mankind makes images of God. “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands”. Idols made by human hands are nothing; children made by human love are the image of God. Obedience to the command “Be fruitful and multiply” is how godly images are made. In the beginning, God didn’t specify mankind as rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant, white or black, American or Asian, heterosexual or homosexual, humble or prideful, sinner or righteous; in the beginning, he categorized us male and female. The power of God to make living images for this earth is found when male and female unite in one flesh.
Catholic liturgy is filled with images. Because of this, we are often slandered as worshipping images, but we do not. You will not hear knowledgeable Catholics say “we worship images”; you may hear others say about catholics, “they worship images”. We do not. We worship God. Our God is one in three persons, the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and so we worship the one God, not the various images we use to teach about God. We have natural images (e.g. water, trees, fruit, grain, wine) to teach about God, but we do not worship these images. We have man-made images (artwork like crucifixes, statues, and stain-glass windows) to teach about God, but we do not worship these images. We have living images (mankind), but we do not worship each other. We worship God only. The Catholic imagination uses any available method to communicate truth about God. In the 21st century, images move (e.g. movies), so we even use movies to communicate and teach the faith, like Guardians of the Galaxy or Passion of the Christ. But we do not worship movies, we watch movies. Images are used to teach the faith to others, not to worship. This is key to understand because it was one of the complaints in 16th century England, and the result was the Crown stole our churches and whitewashed them, obliterating our painted images, and mobs destroyed many of our statutes and stain-glass windows. They misunderstood how we used images to teach our faith.
Humans, living images, are flawed. We are conceived into the sin of Adam. This sin is only remedied through the promise of God. The solution for sin and death is a divine promise of a son. The details of the divine promise were given to the Jewish people, so over thousands of years they kept records of the various promises of God about that special son. The promises are filled with details, details like the child would be born of a virgin, of the tribe of Judah, an Israelite, descended from King David; that he would be a suffering servant and almighty God; that he would be a man of sorrows yet bring everlasting joy; that he would preach good news, proclaim liberty, give sight to the blind, and many more details recorded throughout forty books over a period of a thousand years. The divine revelation shaped Jewish culture, and it created a very specific yearning for the fulfillment of such varied promises.
The fulfillment came in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the promised person who is the perfect image of God in man. God chose not to start over, but to send us his model, his beloved son, our Savior. This is the model we calibrate to. Jesus is the model for all humanity. He gave us a picture of what we could be, an ideal to strive towards. This son of God and son of Man, born of the father before all ages, Jesus of Nazareth, is the person Catholics celebrate in our liturgy and the person we proclaim throughout the world. When the world was Roman, proclaiming Caesar, Christians proclaimed Christ till the Caesars did as well. Christ rose from the dead, the Caesars did not. We had to discuss this, because this basic understanding of images and Jesus pops up time and time again in Shakespeare.
To review. God created man in his image. Because of our freewill, we’ve fallen from intimacy of that relationship. God has withdrawn the fullness of his presence due to disobedience. God promised to restore that intimacy through the promise of a son born of a woman. Till the restoration, we cannot eat of the tree of life because we cannot live forever in a state of disobedience to our Maker (known as a state of sin). God’s promise took a long time to fulfill. In between, many religions attempted to find their way to God. One people (the Israelites) had God reveal himself to them. They were to be witnesses of his divine revelation to the world. Jesus, a son of Israel, born of a virgin Mother, is a fulfillment of the various promises regarding the promised son that would restore us to God. Jesus is God in the flesh. When we wonder what God is like, we can look at Jesus. The church has preserved testimony of what his life was like to help us understand how to be made like Jesus, calibrated and conformed to the image of his beloved son. When we wonder what kind of people we should become, we look to Jesus. The church has many people who have committed to try and be like Jesus. God’s solution to evil, death, and disobedience was to give us a man who knew no sin so that we could calibrate to him, and him alone. A peculiar riddle about God is he even disguises his feats as defeat. The world sees a dead man on the cross; Catholics sees God died so all mankind may have life.
This riddle of God is part of his wisdom. The catholic faith speaks a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rules of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s wisdom — mysterious, hidden — which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. And this great mystery is the only balm for the world’s misery. Moreover, it is for the true healing of our souls. In the infinite wisdom of God, he laid a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for our sure foundation and whoever puts faith in His cornerstone will not be foolish. Faith in Jesus is wise.
Thereby, we measure our lives by Christ. We all fall short, but this is why two details of Christ’s life are especially important for the Catholic, his sacrifice and his suffering. Christ resolved the common human need for sacrifice, he gave of himself fully for us to have eternal life. His death is our life. He suffered death that we might have life, and have it fully, abundantly, and eternally. Our unquenchable desires are not to be minimized, they are to be satisfied. They will only ever be satisfied in the eternal God. Christ resolves our question about suffering, he suffered for others. Therefore, in this life, we embrace suffering in our own bodies to alleviate the sufferings of others. In doing so, we are made more like our Savior; we are conformed into his image. All humanity is made in the image of God. Only those with faith in Jesus have the unique privilege of being children of God and through the church learn what it means to be made into the image of his beloved Son.
There are many more details, but only one we shall cover. The ancient religions all had sacrifice, but from the time of Jesus onwards, the religions around the world have transitioned from many gods to one god. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, the transition into monotheism also removed sacrifice in many cultures. For example, the Jewish people no longer sacrifice. Their temple has been decommissioned for about two thousand years now. Other monotheistic religions focus on prayer, fasting, and other ways to approach God. The world has gone from many gods to one God. Sacrifice is all but removed from most world religions. Temples are only ruins. Jesus clearly said he came to “fulfill the Law, not abolish it”. How is this possible? It would seem Jewish culture and traditions are minimized in Christian faith, abolished rather than fulfilled. If Christ was a better Adam and Noah, would he not also be a better sacrifice and temple as well? He is. Let us see how.
In Catholic liturgy, those who believe in Jesus are living stones of the new temple. Jesus said, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”. Many had taken him literally in the sense of the temple in Jerusalem. He was speaking about the temple of his body. The temple in Jerusalem was a symbol pointing forward to Jesus. The true temple went up to Calvary and did not remain in Jerusalem. The Jewish temple was a guardian to guide us to Christ; once Christ came, the purpose of the temple was fulfilled and therefore that particular heap of stones was no longer needed. Historically, the temple is the presence of God on earth. “But the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands”. Jesus was God’s full presence on earth.
In the Old Testament, the temple and priests were consecrated by the blood of animals over many days; nowadays we are consecrated by the blood of Jesus on Calvary on that particular Good Friday long ago. The animals shed their blood constantly throughout history until the time of Christ. Christ’s blood was shed once, long ago. His sacrifice satisfied what the sacrifice of animals could never do. Through his blood shed and we become a suitable dwelling place for God. Blood is needed for healing and life. Christ’s eternal blood (not animal’s earthly blood) brings our soul eternal healing and life. It could do no less by his divine nature; it need not do more for our human nature. Because of the blood of Jesus, a new temple was consecrated, the temple of our bodies. God dwells in his people, first in Christ and now in Christ’s body, the church. We are the living stones built on our cornerstone. We are the household of God now.
All humanity is made in the image of God. The unique privilege Christians inherit is we are adopted as his children, conformed into the image of his beloved Son, and made temples of the Holy Spirit. We are the dwelling place of God on earth. As we walk on earth, we have God in us, a deeper presence than even Adam and Eve had. They may have heard God walking in the garden, we have God inside our bodies. Whereas in ancient times, the Jews journeyed to God’s presence in Jerusalem; now Christians are to journey to the ends of the earth and bring God’s presence to a confused, hurting, and fallen world. The wait has ended, God has come. Heaven came down to us, and we are to spread the kingdom of heaven across the earth. In doing so, the whole earth will become the temple of God. Man is not only made in the image of God, our bodies are to be his dwelling place on earth.
“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away”.
We are made in his image and we are made to be his dwelling place. Let us strive to walk in a manner worthy of such great privileges. It is time to understand the two main parts of Catholic liturgy — (1) the proclamation of scripture and (2) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Let us move beyond images of the world and the image of man to understand the word of God.
Divine Scripture and the Lord's Supper
Why would a Catholic refer to the word of God as ‘him’ and not ‘it’? Is this a holdover from the Latin language, referring to things as masculine and feminine rather than the English habit of referring to things as genderless? No, it is not. It is because the word of God is Jesus himself. Jesus is revealed through writings, but he is not in the writings. He is a person. Jesus once chided religious leaders for searching for eternal life in the scriptures and failing to realize the scriptures pointed to him. Because they did not have this basic understanding, they failed to come to him for eternal life. Eternal life is found in God, not a scripture about God. But we realize this only because there are scriptures which tell us this. This is why the first half of Catholic liturgy is the proclamation of the divine scriptures. It gives every person the opportunity to directly hear the word of God.
“Every dog can hear, no dog can read”. It’s an old saying I remember from childhood. The saying points out few creatures ever learn to read. The simple fact is humans learn to hear long before we learn to read. Until recently it was not common for humans to read except for a chosen few. Even today, in certain parts of the world, it is still not common for adults to be literate. Literacy is not universal, it is something more common since the invention of the printing press, and is something more common in Western Society, and is something that will be more common with the advent of the internet. But it is far from universal. The Catholic liturgy is not limited to the last hundred years nor even Western Society; the Catholic liturgy is structured for all people in all places. The church proclaims the word of God without prejudice or precondition, only with passion for any who would hear. The literate and the illiterate can come to hear the word of God. All children can come to hear the word of our Lord.
Therefore, every mass has readings from the bible. Every mass has readings from the records of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles. Without exception. Our Sunday mass has four readings: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospels. The only exception is the time from Easter to Pentecost, the Old Testament passage is substituted with a passage from the book of Acts. The Catholic mass is the most scripture-saturated hour on the planet. Scripture is not only our readings, but our prayers and creeds and confession and songs are filled with lines from scripture. It bears repeating, the Catholic mass is the most scripture-saturated hour on earth.
The prophets point forward to Jesus; the apostles show how Jesus is revealed to the world, in order to guide people to God. One role of the church is to turn sinners into saints. But as we talked earlier, if Jewish names can be lost in translation, surely Jewish culture can be lost as well. This is why the twelve apostles were Jews. They were sent to teach the revelation of God to the Gentiles. Part of their role was to transfer knowledge of Jewish life in ways Gentiles could understand. This is why Catholics have a homily in our services, it’s the opportunity for the teachers of the faith to interpret the divine revelation for all cultures, for all time, and for all people.
By hearing the word of God, we hear truth and learn to believe. It’s a process from the outside in. But the fall in the garden of Eden was a similar yet opposite process. Eve heard the temptations of the devil, doubted the truth about the word of God, and ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In disobedience to the one command from God, sin entered the world and the result is death. The wages of sin is death. Death is our due payment for sin. The result is humanity was banished from paradise where we could neither see nor eat of the tree of life.
The devil is most powerful when subtle. His best and long lasting effects are when he stays close to the truth, and only slightly deviates. In the garden, he never denied that God spoke, he only planted doubts about what God said. He knew mankind was destined to be like gods, he only offered another path, through knowledge of evil rather than the tree of life. He never doubted that the eyes of mankind would one day be opened, he only wanted mankind to see death rather than (the hidden tree of) life. We believed the lies of the devil rather than the truth of God. The result is, humanity now knows evil. But though God knows about evil, God knows not evil. Hence he removes himself from the presence of evil. Bear with me a moment.
English language is limited in this case. Let us consider Spanish. In Spanish, (1) ‘to know’ and (2) ‘to know about’ are two entirely different words. ‘Conocer’ is to know. It is only used when you have personal knowledge of something or someone, even intimate knowledge. So when the bible reads “Adam knew Eve” we recognize an intimacy attained through deep personal connection, and in the context of that particular scripture, the union of man and wife in one flesh. ‘Saber’ is to know about. You can know about things without ever “knowing them”. In Spanish, you can ‘saber’ and still not ‘conocer’. I can know about (‘saber’) my long lost cousin, but unless I meet my cousin, I can never claim to know (‘conocer’) my cousin. Similarly, God knows about evil, but the scriptures are clear, he is all good and does not know evil. English is limited in a way in which neither Spanish nor scripture are when considering the types of knowing. Using Spanish terms, God does not ‘conocer’ evil, but God does ‘saber’ evil.
When Eve heard the devil it was a temptation. But it wasn’t a sin till she gave in and took action. First she saw the fruit of the tree was pleasing, and then she ate. Once Adam and Eve ate, “the eyes of both of them were opened and they saw they were naked”. Now they were ashamed whereas before they were naked and knew no shame. Because of their shame, they fled from God when they heard him walking in the garden. They ate of the forbidden tree and saw they were naked. Being a good Father, God confronted and disciplined them, covered their shame, and promised a son would come to make things right. God promised in the end true life and true sight. They would one day eat of the hidden tree, the tree of life.
It would seem based on the stories from the first few chapters of Genesis, if there were to be a true reversal of the works of the devil on earth, it would contain a few important things. One, we would need to hear and believe the word of God. Two, we would have to eat of the fruit of the tree of life and see. A transformation that would begin from the outside in (hearing), would have to be completed through action (eating, of the tree of life, and seeing). Only after eating in faith would we truly see. If the poison of doubt entered our ears but only dwelled inside when we ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree, would it not be necessary for the cure of faith likewise enter our ears and dwell inside when we eat of the forgiving tree? And if the devil indeed had his pulse on truth, and only sought to deviate us onto wrong paths, maybe we would indeed become like gods by seeing and eating of the tree. Only the devil convinced us to eat the wrong tree. The good tree was the tree of life hidden from our eyes. Ultimately, we become like gods not because we know evil through the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but because we obey the word of God. One day he will allow us to see the tree of life and eat. On that day, we will begin to truly see.
Jesus himself did say, “Is it not written in the Law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be broken, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the son of God’? If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”.
If the saying is true “you are what you eat”, what happens when we eat of God? Is it even possible? At the Last Supper Jesus did take bread, and he blessed it, broke it, and gave it saying “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” And likewise the cup of wine after they ate, he gave it to them saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be shed for you”. The second half of the Catholic liturgy is a participation in the Lord’s Supper. In our liturgy, we move from divine scripture to the Lord’s Supper.
The whole of the liturgy is a reversal of the process that lead to our fall. In the garden of Eden, we heard the word of God but doubted and disobeyed. We ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In the liturgy, we hear the word of God and beg for faith and strength and grace to obey. We eat of the flesh made possible thanks to the tree of life, the cross of death of our Christ. We hear the word of God, ask for the grace to obey, and then we may partake in his body and blood. All people can hear the word of God. But only baptized and confirmed Catholics can take part in the Lord’s Supper. God does not ask that sinners be perfect to eat of his flesh and blood, he only asks sinners give ourselves over to Him to be perfected. This is why the church is a place for sinners; sinners who God, in his grace, turns into saints. Or in his mercy, martyrs.
Jesus himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever”.
If these words seem shocking, you are not alone. Most of Jesus’s followers left him upon hearing these cannibalistic utterances from our Christ. Many disciples returned to their former way of life. So many left that Jesus turned to his twelve apostles and asked if they too wanted to leave. Peter spoke up (as usual) and said “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.
The second half of the liturgy is the fulfillment of Christ’s word. I’ve been asked many times, “You don’t believe bread and wine can become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus, do you?” Sure I do. You know what I find even harder to believe? That dead dust could be brought to life by the breath of God. I find it harder to believe that we even exist in the first place. For God to breathe his life into dust and chemicals and gift us with life, that’s a much harder stretch for me. But once I’ve gotten over the shock of existence — the gift of life — to be told that God desires for us eternal life, that’s easy to believe. I desire it too! To be told that to participate in this eternal life of God on earth, we do so by God uniting with the prayers of priests and people to transform bread and wine into his body and blood, that’s easy to believe. Why would God, who sent his breath to breathe dust to life, and sends his Holy Spirit like dewfall to make bread and wine into true flesh and true drink? That’s not too hard to believe, especially considering the other mysteries of life and faith. He gave us his breath. Why would he not give us his flesh? He conceived his son in a virgin by his word and her agreement. Why would he not manifest his body again by his word and our agreement? The mysteries of Catholic faith are not as unusual as the mysteries of universal life. But if we take life for granted, surely we’d take faith for granted too. We crucified his word once before, is it too much of a stretch to think we’d ignore his word as well?
For a Christian, there is power in the word of God. He created the universe and shaped it by his word alone. For his word to be true at mass, it is not a stumbling block of our faith. It’s a confirmation of his grace, mercy, and love. Jesus said it, the church teaches it, Catholics believe it. It’s as simple as that. I’m actually more scared of not believing Jesus’s words. I’m more scared of using my logic to explain away a eucharist mystery which is profoundly beautiful. I would rather cling to divine revelation because I know God can be trusted. I know in other places Jesus said pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin, but the church has never taught us to take that action. The church taught us that Jesus was teaching about the gravity and seriousness of sin. On the other hand, from the beginning the church has always taught us about our daily bread, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man. So I’ll trust Christ’s words rather than attempt to rationalize my own explanation, especially because it aligns with the teaching of the church, as passed down by Peter and the Apostles.
In the end, I find living beings more hard to believe; I can’t fathom existence. But once I accept that we exist, once I believe dead dust and chemicals can be infused with soul and life, it is only natural that this same God would infuse bread and wine into something much more profound. This is the Catholic mind. The more you know about life, the more the logic of divine revelation is revealed. His word is a mystery, his word is incredible, and yet his word is always true. Divine revelation makes sense of everyday life. When scientists test our bodies and say twenty centuries after our Christ was born, we’re nothing but common chemicals found in the universe, we are not surprised. We’ve been told the same thing through our stories. We’ve been told that it is the breath of life which creates life, and this comes from God. That He takes dust (just an old-fashioned word for the scientifically modern ‘chemicals’) and breathes into it life, we’ve been taught that for thousands of years. That he takes bread and wine and breathes into it himself. This is the greatness of our God. He gave Israelites in the wilderness their daily bread; He likewise gives Catholics on earth our daily bread.
As I think about what it means to break bread with someone and have fellowship and community over bread and wine, a feast of joy, laughter, singing and dancing, I think it’s a beautiful gift of God. Catholics are thankful for priest’s who preach and teach about the beauty of communion. My favorite moments on earth have been eating and drinking and telling stories with family and friends. To think God not only desires to share that with us, but actually does share Himself with us, and in us, and among us, I think it beyond awe-some and into Awe-Full. That He desires to share Himself regularly, weekly and even daily, I think it Wonder-Full. That the church has shared that fellowship and communion for nearly two millennia with our Creator, I think it Marvel-Us. The miracle of the multiplication of loaves during Jesus’s life pales in comparison as it points to something much greater in his death and resurrection. Give us this day our daily bread.
If earthly bread is necessary for earthly life, would not heavenly bread be necessary for heavenly life?
When we consider the world and humanity, what great people is there that has gods so close as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? What great people has their God give of himself so fully as our Lord gives to us, who not only descended from heaven to die for us, but rose from the dead to be our living bread, and ascended into heaven where his body is multiplied throughout time to give eternal life? What great people has a God like our Lord who gives his people true flesh to eat and true blood to drink so they may feast on him forever? Yes sir, give us this bread always. Yes, our Lord is someone very near to us, in our mouth and in our heart, in the tents and temples of our bodies.
Give us this day our super-substantial bread.