Part 2: A Poet's Expression of His Religion
"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
Tread Upon His Neck
Coriolanus was written in the twilight of Shakespeare’s illustrious career, written after his masterpieces like Romeo and Juliette, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth had already found their way to the esteemed English stage. At this point in his career, Shakespeare was a master at constructing plays with Christian allusions and echoes, a master at creating stories with Catholic messages hidden in rich allegories. And so, it is not surprising that Coriolanus is able to weave many profound Catholic truths in one short play based on a true historical Roman hero, Caius Martius, also known as Coriolanus.
In Coriolanus Shakespeare creates a clear allegory for our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the process creates other Catholic echoes with insights into the Pope, Christendom, and the Queen of Heaven. But let us remember, even though Shakespeare consistently creates Catholic allegories, his stories provide wisdom and insight for all people. In Coriolanus this includes insights into political scheming, mob mentalities, and the tension between aristocrats and the masses, among other things. In seeking to understand the Catholic allegories, let us remember this is simply one point of view taken on Shakespeare. And for such a universal writer, various points of view can be taken.
That being said, the Catholic interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays will always be true and, more importantly, the Catholic interpretation of his plays will always be in line with the author’s original intentions. People may disagree with the Catholic interpretation, but they will never be able to disprove it through an accurate interpretation of Shakespeare’s writings, or even through the facts of his life and history. In fact, the more one learns about Catholic culture, especially how Catholics interpret sacred scripture, the more we have logical answers for the mysteries of Shakespeare’s life, the better we understand many of his artistic choices in his plays, and the better we understand the embedded within his stories and the messages he intended his audiences to hear.
How we interpret written texts is influenced by the worldview we hold and affects how we live life. Every person interprets texts based on their worldview, whether they recognize they hold a worldview or not. We all have created or inherited a particular worldview to see the world. The worldview is our lens to understand reality. Just like colored lenses may color everything we see, or lenses for sight bring certain things into focus at the exclusion of others, similarly our worldview shades reality and brings certain facts into focus (possibly at the exclusion of others, but at a minimum it focuses or prioritizes particular facts above others). We need a worldview that makes sense of facts, not excludes or ignores facts. The worldview we inherit, or are taught, or create, becomes our instrument of understanding reality.
Some people take on a worldview through religious traditions, like Jews and Catholics, while others create their own worldview by picking and choosing aspects of what they believe from various cultural, political, and religious groups and traditions. We all have a worldview we have inherited and develop, and the worldview is the lens in which we see the world. The worldview provides the lens to help understand reality, the lens by which we understand, shade, or color truth. Our brains naturally filter information and cling to data and information that helps us survive. We must train our brains to not only survive day to day dangers — “look out for that car!” or “Duck!” or “Watch out, danger ahead!” — but also to live in eternity. As we live this life, we have an opportunity to learn how to live eternally. Our worldview becomes important because it is not simply a way to see and make sense of this world but to make sense of eternity in order to live forever with God. Our bodies may decay and die and be planted in the earth, but our souls live forever awaiting the day our bones rise again. As Paul of Tarsus said two thousand years ago, “What is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal”.
Catholics align our worldview with the body of the church. And so, when it comes to interpreting texts, Catholics have various tools at their disposal to aide their interpretation to ensure our understanding of reality is based on truth. The difficulty of interpreting texts is to ensure that truth takes priority, and not our biases. But all people have biases, for even a catholic worldview is biased (towards catholicism). It’s important for us to be aware of our biases, but since we are finite creatures we will always have blind-spots. But as we grow in wisdom, we learn to see things as they truly are and hopefully the impact of our blind-spots lessen as we learn to see. To live in eternity, we must attempt to align our subjective viewpoints to the objective standard (that is, God). We must learn to measure and see through divine means and standards. We must learn to see God. We need a worldview that makes sense of facts, not one that excludes facts or ignores facts. We need a worldview that sees things as they are, not as they appear to be, but as they truly are. Again, what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. Let us learn to see the unseen.
God is the only one outside the universe, so he is the only one with the full comprehensive view of everything, he is the only one with the objective view, and he is the one who truly says of himself, “I am who I am”. We are within creation and our viewpoint is subjective. We are caught in the system, so to speak. We are named, categorized, called. To see reality for what it is, we must learn to interpret through divine lenses gifted to humanity to know truth. In the pursuit of truth, we must attempt to remove or minimize our man-made biases and prejudices. Thankfully, we know the one who said “I am the truth”.
Our aim is to use Coriolanus as an example in how to interpret texts — as a community, with a firm grasp of history and tradition and the context for which the text is written, and by reading from the text (and not into the text). Using these principles of good interpretation of texts, our aim is to see how Shakespeare uses Catholic patterns of thinking to disguise his messages for the Catholic faithful in Coriolanus. By using Catholic patterns of thinking, Shakespeare creates a way to embed multiple testimonies and messages within one text to confirm and share Catholic wisdom for the world. As we do this, we will be able to apply Shakespeare’s warning for 16th century Englishmen and adapt it faithfully to serve as a warning for 21st century Americans.
American society is built off many of the same core influences that produced Shakespeare, for the first English settlers where arriving on American soil as Shakespeare entered into the twilight of his career. Moreover, understanding how to interpret Shakespeare’s plays will help us better understand and interpret all things, not just written texts. How we interpret texts gives us practice in how to understand other things, including facts of life and mysteries of the divine.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus for the English stage, the writing of English history for the stage had become illegal. Never one to be limited in expression, Shakespeare adapted to new English laws regarding the theater and focused on Roman history as his medium to speak to the masses. Shakespeare used Roman history as a veil for what was happening in England, as a disguise for the fracturing of Christendom.
Interpreting Shakespeare, like interpreting sacred scripture, is an art. There is good and bad interpretation. With respect to Shakespeare, people who are aware of English history — including not simply Protestant propaganda but also the Catholic side of the story — will be well-equipped to identify certain peculiarities that weave themselves into the phrases and customs of the people of the time. Art is best understood by looking at the cultural, political, and social climate in which the art is produced.
In the case of Shakespeare, it’s helpful to take a broad sweep of history while we study his plays. Often we need to see the big picture of humanity in order to understand particular details in Shakespeare. We need to perceive and see as much as possible in order to interpret rightly particular details in the plays of Shakespeare. Let’s begin our Catholic view of Coriolanus by understanding the evolution of English government in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s era. Understanding the foundation of English social structures will help us understand the foundation of Coriolanus.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy ruled by a parliamentary government. Spain is this way, France had been this way until the 18th century. (Shortly after the American colonies declared independence and formed a republic, France followed suit by storming the bastille and removing the monarchy in favor of a republican government). Isn’t it odd that these countries evolved from the Roman Empire into kingdoms (constitutional monarchies) and republics? Where did these formerly Catholic countries — especially Spain and the United Kingdom — get the idea for both a monarchy and a parliament? For both a king and a prime minister?
Moreover, let’s consider what “prime minister” means simply by looking at the phrase. A prime minister is the head of the ministers, a minister of ministers, so to speak. This means there are other ministers and there is a need for one to take the authoritative leadership position. And what do ministers do? To answer simply, they ‘minster’ the rules of the nation, they serve the needs of the country. So, why is it that England and Spain have both a king and a prime minister? Where, perhaps, did they get the idea to run their government, to organize their society, in this way?
From Christendom of course. And, as often is the case, this idea comes from Catholic application of Jewish traditions and institutions. The Catholic church took this ancient Jewish tribal structure and spread it throughout the world. The Catholic church made a king and his ministers universal. Often times we take for granted the transmission of ideas across cultures and societies and how divine ideas take root throughout the world and evolve into our modern-day institutions. But seeds were planted in Ancient Israel that have blossomed throughout the earth. To the degree we understand what helps the seed grow, the more beautiful the fruit produced as we know how to guide the tree to maturity. Ancient Jewish customs taking root throughout the world are examples of fulfillment of what the ancient prophets said would happen in the days of Christ. For example, Jeremiah spoke centuries before Jesus was born, “Thus says the Lord, ‘David shall never lack a successor on the throne of the house of Israel, nor shall the priests of Levi ever be lacking before me, to sacrifice burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices’”. In summary, Jeremiah promised that in the days of the new covenant, the Church would always have a king (Jesus) and his ministers (the priests) and their sacrifices would always be before the Lord. And so, in formerly Catholic countries, it’s natural for the nations to have a monarchy (with kings and queens) and a parliamentary government (with ministers). They are simply applying the example set forth before them in the everlasting kingdom as their model to build earthly kingdoms.
This is one of many examples of how Western Europe lives off the fumes of Catholic faith. But not only Western Europe, even the Americas. The foundations of societies is important for us to remember and understand so that we know how to live now, and this is one of the main messages of Coriolanus, where Shakespeare urges his countrymen to not forsake their savior and their saving institutions. Shakespeare counsels his audiences to not take for granted the work of our ancestors, for he says, “ingratitude is monstrous and for the multitude to be ungrateful were to make a monster of the multitude; of the which we, being members, should bring ourselves to be monstrous members”.
To better appreciate what has been given to us, we must return to the beginning, to the genesis, in order to understand how our institutions developed and evolved into the structures we’ve inherited today. If we don’t know what it took for our forefathers to build our inheritance, we won’t understand how to build on it, maintain it, and pass it along to our descendants. We won’t know how to care for the trees that our forefathers planted. If we want our earthly societies to last, we must design them in accordance with key principles of the everlasting kingdom.
Similarly, if we want to create everlasting masterpieces of literature, like Shakespeare has done, we must see how he applied Catholic ways of organizing sacred and eternal scripture in order to function as a foundation for his own plays and stories. The ancient Jews had patterns they used to communicate information, and these patterns where memorialized in their holy scriptures. Moreover, one cannot be Catholic for long without seeing the pattern of numbers and their effect on us as they communicate meaning. Catholics begin to have an instinctive “feel” for numbers, including associating meanings with particular numbers and hear their emotional resolutions. Let’s take the example of the structure of the play Coriolanus as our model to explore what‘hearing the emotional resolutions’ of numbers means and to understand how Shakespeare used Catholic patterns of thinking to compose his stories.
For now, we will focus on meaning communicated through two numbers — four and five — as two examples for how Catholics “feel” numbers. Shakespeare’s Catholic understanding of numbers impacts how all his plays are structured and gives us vital clues in how to interpret his plays as Catholic allegories. By understanding the key patterns in Coriolanus we can understand all his plays. Shakespeare, like God, when he deviates from his patterns, it is not by accident but for a purpose. Hence, when a child is born of a virgin, deviating from the pattern of a man and wife being fruitful and multiplying, there is meaning to this miracle that must be understood. Similarly, when a bush does not burn up, their is meaning to this sign that must be understood. These miracles signify something greater. They are not mistakes of nature but signs which reveal the glory of God for those with eyes to see.
Let’s start with the number five. The law of Moses came in five books. And the corresponding musical movement of the five-book structure impacted the structure of the mysteries of the rosary as well as found expression in Shakespeare’s plays and the five-act structure. In the law of Moses, the five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In Genesis we have the first stories and beginnings of the people of God, tracing back to the first man and woman and to the creation of the universe. (As a side note, the fact the universe was created was only confirmed scientifically in the last century, though Moses had written this fact for the people of God over three thousand years ago! An example of something divinely revealed which only the people of God “saw” until recently, confirmed by the work of a Jewish scientist trained in catholic schools, Albert Einstein). In Exodus, the people of God leave slavery in Egypt by signs and wonder and enter into a covenant with God as a nation. In Leviticus, God installs the sacrificial system for his people so that his perfect presence may dwell in their midst. The people of God must be holy, God does this by purifying his people of their sins by animal sacrifice and sprinkling the people with life-giving, cleansing blood. In Numbers, various stories chronicle the wanderings by the people of God as they sojourn for forty years to reach the promised land. And in Deuteronomy, the people of God are formed and given the law again as a nation as they prepare to finally enter the promised land.
In this five-book structure of the law of Moses, there is a strong movement with inner harmonies and musical counterpoints. The first and the fifth books deal with promises regarding the promised land. Moses records the promises of God from the first man, Adam, to the chosen man, Abraham, and ties the budding nation to ancient roots. The Israelites may be a new nation, but they have ancient promises and they exist for a purpose, to be salt for the earth and light to the world and to be the instrument through which God — the great “I am” — blesses all peoples. The second and the fourth books deal with the wanderings in the wilderness, with Exodus focused on the beginning of the journey while Numbers focused on why the journey took so long. Both these books include very important stories to foreshadow the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and were used frequently by Jesus and his apostles to teach about the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Even today, if one were to go to a Catholic Sunday mass, you would most likely hear multiple readings from the Jewish old testament coupled with readings from the new testament, including a gospel reading. This is how the apostles taught about Jesus, revealing how his life was foreshadowed in the old covenants, and this is still how the successors of the apostles teach about Jesus. The climax of the law of Moses is the third book as the system of sacrifices is set for the people of God. Musicians will perceive similarities with this structure and music theory, noting what the relationship between musical note means and how they feel, especially how important are harmonies created by thirds and how they color music. Musicians will know how these relationships impact chords, scales, and songs. We need not explore this here, but simply point out these things show that there is a depth to simple information in divine revelation which is wonderfully profound and can be endlessly explored through a variety of lenses, including number meaning, musical theory, and story organization. Their are many ways to perceive truth.
The God who is eternal gives us eternal wisdom in finite writings. Looking into something as simple as sacred Jewish and Catholic scriptures shows a wisdom in organization that mimics patterns of expression found in many other areas of life, whether plays of Shakespeare or musical notes. The underlying foundation of sacred scripture is wonderfully deep. And this depth is simply by considering what one number, five, means in holy scripture. And at that, a very cursory overview. But this helps prepare the way to understand how Shakespeare utilized the five act structure to organize his plays.
Shakespeare often used other numbers to organize the scenes within each act. His scene structures are always consistent with Catholic perception of the meaning of numbers. Let’s take the number four for our next example. There are four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). There are also four major prophets to the Jewish religion (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). For a Catholic, four has the impression of the fullness of the story. Throughout the law, there is the mention that “every fact shall be established on the basis of two or three witnesses”. And so, four is the first number which exceeds the minimum requirement to establish facts, which is why it is valuable for good news. It is more than enough to understand the important details of a story.
Moreover, four can be either a product of two and two, or also the sum of three and one. And so when the gospels find three gospels (the synoptics — Matthew, Mark, and Luke) being very similar to one another and a fourth which is very different (John), again we find the fullness of the requirement needed for establishing key facts about the good news of Jesus in two ways. When we compare the synoptics to John, we have two drastically different testimonies but the same key facts, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. The good news is consistent on the vital facts.
But within the synoptics, we have three testimonies of the same storyline. Each storyline is adapted to different audiences — Matthew to the Jews, Mark to the Romans, and Luke to the Gentiles. And so, in four gospels we have three witnesses of the same general storyline (the synoptics) and when combined with the gospel of John we have two drastically different types of testimonies about the life of Jesus. In four gospels, we have various ways to establish key facts about Jesus of Nazareth. In four gospels, we have the good news of Jesus in its fullness. As a historical side note, this one of many reasons when the church had to decide which gospels — of the many that abounded in the centuries after Christ — were worthy to be read in church, they were able to limit it to four gospels. Not that the other gospels did not have interesting or valuable information to understand Jesus, but simply that by the power of the holy spirit working through people of the church, they were not deemed “holy” or “sacred” writings. They are writings, but they are not sacred writings. They are not useful for the church to proclaim truth about Jesus. They are not of divine origin, and hence they are not holy. And because they are not sacred scripture, the promise of God to be devoid of error does not pertain to those gospels, but only to the four the church deemed as holy, as sacred, as worthy to be used for the service of God (in celebration of the Lord’s supper).
Returning to Shakespeare, when he structures an Act in four scenes, he’s communicating that this is important, foundational, newsworthy. All of Shakespeare’s plays communicate something based on how many scenes each Act has, whatever the number of scenes is. To better understand Shakespeare we must understand the Catholic intuition for the meaning of numbers as divinely revealed in our traditions and scriptures. The Catholic intuition of numbers gives insight in how Shakespeare structures his plays. Moreover, we can understand other foundational structures depending on how the scenes are structured across various Acts. So, Shakespeare’s plays have multiple foundations, the first being the simple five-Act structure. But this is buoyed, balanced, completed by other foundations understood by how Catholics perceive numbers and how the scenes are numbered within and across the five-Act plays.
Now, this is simply information. Information that those who are familiar with Catholic culture may understand, but whether we understand this information or not, this information is utterly unneeded to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays. So, why is this information important?
For one, this information helps us understand Shakespeare. By using Catholic patterns of structuring written information, Shakespeare confirms for Catholics that there is a deeper meaning to his plays. There is a Catholic meaning. This meaning will be readily missed by play-goers and readers who are not familiar with Catholic culture or who do not know how to understand reality through Catholic lenses. The patterns Shakespeare uses in organizing his plays creates lenses to confirm how to properly interpret Shakespeare. Shakespeare uses Catholic patterns of organizing written texts in foundational structures of his plays. The more we understand and know Catholic culture, the better we interpret Shakespeare. The more we see how Catholics interpret sacred scripture, the better we interpret Shakespeare. Applying Catholic principles of interpreting sacred scripture to Shakespeare, we are able to dive below the simple enjoyment of his plays into the deeper meanings he attempts to convey to his contemporaries.
It bears repeating, you don’t have to know any of this information to enjoy or love Shakespeare. But understanding these patterns helps significantly in interpreting Shakespeare correctly. Not in that he can’t be understood or enjoyed on a surface and literal level — he most certainly can! — but understanding these patterns helps to determine how to understand his deeper meanings, his subtler messages, and functions to confirm his allegories are coded messages for Catholics. The play is the surface vehicle so that his messages could be given publicly in an island where catholicism was outlawed while their deeper meanings would only be perceived and known by those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The deeper meanings could only be seen through Catholic lenses.
People are right when they mention there are hidden codes in Shakespeare. They are Catholic messages coded in the same way that ancient Jewish scriptures are coded for the Catholic church. The structure confirms profoundly Judeo-Catholic organizational patterns, and thereby helps Catholics interpret Shakespeare accurately. We see how he uses our pattern of writing holy scripture to compose his plays, and thereby we are able to use our principles of interpretation of written texts to interpret and confirm Shakespeare’s writings. But again, it bears repeating, you don’t need to see or understand these Catholic patterns of writing and interpreting sacred scripture to enjoy Shakespeare, only to properly interpret him. Just like someone does not need to know the materials of a house, how its foundation is poured, what the floor plan looks like too enjoy or live in a house. But a builder must understand these things to build a good house. Similarly, to enjoy Shakespeare we simply need to see a play or read him, but to know Shakespeare we have to scratch the surface and understand the foundation he builds his stories on. They are clues for interpretation. They are clues in confirming how to understand his message.
Let us review the structure of Coriolanus as an example. Coriolanus is a particularly valuable play to undergo this brief overview as there is discrepancy in how many scenes Acts 1 and 5 contain. Let us remember, because of the laws of the time, Shakespeare did not concern himself with publishing his plays. We have written record of his plays thanks to his friends who compiled and cared for them, and so the plays we have on record today are thanks to the work of his friends who wrote down Shakespeare’s published his canon of work years after his death. Remember, only after the death of his wife in 1623 was the First Folio published. We would not have roughly half of his catalogue, including four of the plays we’ve discussed so far — Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus — if not for the First Folio, published nearly a decade after his death.
The discrepancy in the number of scenes in Acts 1 and 5 offers a talking point that helps us understand Shakespeare is an artist, not a legalist. Some people say Act 1 contains 4 scenes, most people say 10 scenes. Similarly, some people say Act 5 contains 4 scenes, most people say 6 scenes. This is the greatness of Shakespeare, he doesn’t stay within strict categories, but blends and mixes and weaves in and out of categories. He shoos away legalism or clear-cut boundaries and encourages artistry by seeing woven threads and blurred lines. Shakespeare is not limited to simple formulas or equations in composing his plays. For the sake of beauty he readily uses his great knowledge of Catholic patterns to create multiple lenses to share in many ways one key message.
Act 1 of Coriolanus contains four scenes and is a gospel-like situation. In the last scene of the first Act, Coriolanus enters the city which becomes his name sake, faces certain death, is covered in blood, and yet comes back alive and victorious from behind the enemy’s gate. He comes back victorious from behind Coriole’s city gates and is given his everlasting name, Coriolanus, to remember forever this great moment. He earned his name through his blood-soaked victory. It’s important to note, most published versions of this play contain ten scenes. The last seven scenes form one big “super-scene” in which the movement is a heightened action as Coriolanus enters into death and returns victorious, for as Coriolanus heroically said, “I think brave death outweighs bad life”. He becomes Rome’s savior.
And so, as an interpreter of the play, we could proceed on a “gospel” like analysis seeing Act 1 in four distinct scenes, but we could just as easily proceeded to view Act 1 in ten distinct movements, like the ten commandments. Shakespeare was intimately aware of the organizational and meditative qualities that creating these “blurred” structures would encourage, and each lens we use would provide parallel and profound insights. It’s like solving an arithmetic problem, there are many ways to solve the problem and yet all these ways still arrive at the same solution.
With Coriolanus we can chose different lenses to interpret the play, and the lens we use will shade our interpretation, but ultimately they will lead to the same final answers. The interpretational lens we use will not set the interpretations against each other, this bears repeating, they will be complementary not conflicting. The interpretations will be aligned, consistent, parallel. They function to confirm our understanding, not confuse us. This is the beauty of Shakespeare’s art, we can analyze in many different ways and come to the same key answers. The choice of four scenes colors the path we take, but we arrive at the same answers if we chose the different color lens of ten scenes, only our journeys are necessarily different. Shakespeare is a genius playwright, craftsmen, and storyteller, and his pattern of organizing his storyline allows for us to view reality from various perspectives, with multiple lenses.
Act 2 contains three scenes and it is shown that “a lamb alone saved Rome”. Coriolanus is the worthy man who is victorious, but Act 2 ends on a sour note as the people are swayed by scheming senators and Coriolanus’s consulship is taken away. As we move into Act 3, it also contains three scenes. In it, we find Coriolanus, the savior of Rome, is banished from the Capitol at the end of Act 3. The people, influence by two scheming senators, have rid themselves of their savior.
Act 4 is seven scenes as Coriolanus finds his place among the Volscians. Both numbers, three and seven, are pictures of completion in Catholic thought. Three for representing the trinity, the fullness of the Godhead. Also, Christ rose from death to everlasting life on the 3rd day. Seven for representing the week, six days of work followed by a day of rest. In Act 4, Shakespeare uses certain phrases like the comment at a feast “Wine, wine, wine! What service is here? I think our fellows are asleep” to clue a Catholic crowd that the Volscians represent Anglicans. The Volscians take in Coriolanus as their leaders marvel at how the people love him.
Finally, Act 5 is again four scenes that guide us to “See Yond Cornerstone”, a phrase which is a scriptural reference for Jesus, and is found in Isaiah, the Psalms, and the New Testament. Act 5’s four-scene structure forms a profoundly interesting counterpoint to the gospel movement in Act 1, where the key themes are reversed scene by scene. Coriolanus’s return home is a fearful day for those not in his kindness. But through the prayers and intercession of his mother, the people are spared. Unfortunately, when Coriolanus retreats with the Volscian army, the Volscians kill him before celebrating him for the hero he is, as the Volscian lord said, “Let him be regarded as the most noble corpse that ever herald did follow”.
Again, all of this is simply information on how Coriolanus is structured and a brief outline of the story. This information is utterly unneeded for the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s play, but profoundly important for the proper interpretation of Coriolanus. Why is this at all important? Because it is an example of how surface details hint at deeper meaning. But we must have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Shakespeare saw how the Catholic church interpreted ancient Jewish scriptures and applied this pattern to construct his plays. He used ancient Roman stories, English history, fictional Italian stories, and even created his own stories as vehicles to disguise his Catholic messages. Shakespeare copied what Ancient Jews did with their prophetic and sacred literature, he disguised allegories of what Christ’s life and mission looks like in literal stories. So, Shakespeare likewise “baptizes” Plutarch’s insights into Coriolanus, much like the early church “baptized” Jewish history, or early Christian saints (like Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, and Thomas of Aquinas) “baptized” Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. In fact, let’s attempt to create our own “baptized” version of Plato’s famous cave allegory to understand the importance of interpreting writings in context and in community. As we interpret texts, let us remember (1) the original purpose the writings were composed for, or in other words, what context were they meant to be read in, and (2) the community they were written by and for.
The allegory is this. There is a beautiful building, a cathedral even, set on the side of a hill. It is majestic, with its columns reaching to the heavens, high archways, many windows, big windows in fact, windows which allow sunlight to shine inside this glorious building built to the glory of God. In fact, the cathedral became the focal point of the community. The cathedral is the centerpiece and pride of the city. In the cathedral, many people regularly gather to hear writings read aloud, share stories, and to eat bread and drink wine. The cathedral was built to be a house of celebration and a memorial for the people of the city to celebrate God’s presence among his people and to celebrate the wedding of the lamb and his bride.
Throughout the cathedral's existence, some people from the city would forsake hearing the scriptures and eating the supper in the cathedral and would instead gather in caves. For one reason or another, certain people would decide they didn’t want to gather together in the glorious sun-filled edifice, and they would separate themselves from life in the cathedral and instead settled in caves near the city. But if this was all they did, there would be no concern for us, nor any need for this story. For people are free to come and go to and fro the cathedral as they please, as they believe. But the problem started because certain cave settlers and dwellers decided to take many of the scriptures read in the great cathedral (66 of the 73, or 63 of the 70, depending on how you see it) and attempted to convince others to come with them. They wanted people to flee the cathedral of God for caves and darkness and human thoughts about God.
The problem with caves is it is hard for light to shine inside them. Caves have limited sun light. But the limited light in the caves did not stop men in caves from publicly protesting the cathedral and the city of God. They tried to build their own cave cities, but the caves were dark and cramped, and the pattern of protesting did not cease in the caves. In fact, the protests only increased. And while the major protests were against the cathedral and the city of God, minor protests broke out periodically within the caves, and more and more caves were settled by people as they tried to make their own dwellings for God in the caves. But the dwelling place of God is with his people in his city. For, “what is the city but the people?”
In order to convince the cathedral-goers that the universal city of God and it’s treasured cathedral wasn’t all its cracked up to be, the men from caves began hurling insults at the people who maintained the cathedral. Ironically, they used the scriptures written to be read in the cathedral as the basis of their insults, but let us not judge them, simply let us mark their actions and move on. After a while, the cave-dwellers were able to convince some people that pure sunlight shining through windows was a “man-made abomination” and what they really needed was sunlight to shine through cave openings. For cave openings were, as they said, “fashioned by the hand of God himself!”. Then, they would misquote one of the scriptures written for use in the cathedral, such as “but if you make an altar of stone for me, do not build it of cut stone, for by putting a chisel to it you profane it”. And rather than understand the context of the verse — stone altars — they were satisfied to find a verse that justified their position of not cutting stones, and never thought to think about what the verse was written for or what it meant. They could use it to justify their belief that the city of God was corrupt and the cave-dwellers were purifying corruption.
Problems stirred continually in the caves. They who started with protests could only end with protests. The beginning hints at the end. The limited light meant people couldn’t read whole passages, only limited verses. But, rather than leave the cave for the sunlight, many people in the caves decided the prohibition for cutting stone was misunderstood and no longer applied. So with newfound freedom to cut stone, many began to dig into the earth, hoping to find a different light source. Soon enough, the caves started multiplying and multiplying. After five hundred years of cave digging, what had started with only a couple of caves became over 30,000 caves!
To be fair to the cave-dwellers, the 66 books they used had many verses, and with the limited light, there were so many possibilities to misunderstand and misinterpret the verses. Moreover, they couldn’t read the verses in context partly because many of them had forgotten how they ended up in the caves. The caves were mostly isolated, sometimes people would switch caves, other times a couple of caves would unite for a time before fighting about something and breaking their bonds and alliances. Every once in awhile, someone would leave the cave for the beautiful cathedral, but they would often be ridiculed and discounted as those who “loved whores” and “united themselves with the whore of Babylon” and would “always be slaves to Rome”, among other slanders. And so, the caves increased and changed but the cathedral remained.
All the while, the people in the city of God kept going to the cathedral built to the glory of God as they had been taught from the time the cathedral was first erected hundreds, if not thousands, of years earlier. Moreover, the promise of this cathedral and its plans had been compiled and planned and designed and prepared many millennia before its erection, stretching back to the first man and woman. But no one from the caves noticed this clear line of succession and authority. But the people in the city of God knew about the importance of authority, succession, obedience, order, and honoring institutions of heavenly origin above those of human origin. For it is no light matter to flout the plans of God.
So, the people of the city of God continued to go and hear the word of God and to eat the supper of the lamb in the cathedral. For “blessed are those called to the wedding feast of the lamb”. In fact, the cathedral-goers had a soft place in their hearts for the cave-dwellers, so they even designed their stain glass windows so that they cave-dwellers would have more light in their caves. The refracted light off the cathedral’s stain-glass windows was in fact light the best light that many of the cave dwellers used to understand the writings they took from the cathedral. They didn’t realize that their direct “sunlight” was in fact filtered through the cathedral of the city of God and that was the light they used to read the cathedral scriptures. Without that light, the caves would have been even more damp, dark, and isolated from the rest of humanity. The ones furthest removed from that window-light had the greatest errors in their thoughts about God. Unfortunately, rather than gratitude for the cathedral and use of its light and writings, many of the leaders of the cave dwellers railed against and hated their helper and light source.
Let us not misunderstand, many of the cave dwellers were kind people. But in many instances, to rise in cave leadership, it meant that one had to take on attitudes of pride, self-promotion, manipulation (especially twisting written texts for their own purpose), and criticism. Many cave leaders often pointed out the faults in others, even if it meant they were seeing a speck of dust in someone else’s eye rather than the plank in their own eye. Unfortunately, many of the caves did not measure themselves to the same standards that they used to measure the cathedral. As many generations passed, the cave dwellers continued to be taught by their leaders and unknowingly inherited many of the same biases. Many cave dwellers never realized that in the cathedral they avoided were key truths that they needed. They were so satisfied with mediocre wine that they never sought to look for the good wine. Yes, the cathedral that so many despised had the medicine and good wine that so many needed and desired.
But the soul-healing medicine could only be administered in faith, by entering the cathedral of God much like Noah’s family had to enter the ark in faith. For God had decreed salvation would be preached by a community of people, not written texts. To enter the cathedral in good faith is how we receive the fullness of healing, as divinely decreed and written down by the first people to build the cathedral in the city of God. Unfortunately, so many cave-dwellers hated the hospital of sinners. They were taught this hate. For humanity is born for love, but often we learn to enjoy hate along the way. But the cathedral was built for a wedding feast where the people of God eat and drink and celebrate the great bridegroom. But do not worry, there is always room, always room for one more in the cathedral of God. In fact, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents. And it doesn’t matter if the sinners are cathedral-goers, or cave-dwellers, or lost along the way. Let me say it again, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over many righteous people who have no need of repentance.
Let’s step away from the parable, could you imagine if some person, a Russian perhaps, or maybe a Chinaman or a Persian, simply fell in love with American writers and American documents and decided simply to call himself American because he could quote the Declaration of Independence, knew the 10 Amendments, sang Justin Bieber’s “I’m Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Kill them with Kindness”, and quoted “Rocky Balboa” , “Hamilton”, and “Guardians of the Galaxy”, among other famous American texts? Would you consider having a fascination with American writings and American writers enough to make someone American?
While those texts may encourage someone to immigrate to America, or it may encourage a natural-born American to take pride in their country and heritage, the fact of the matter is an American is not determined by their ability to quote American documents. In fact, a good American wouldn’t be someone who can recite the Declaration of Independence or the Pledge of Allegiance, but someone who lives out “liberty and justice for all” in their daily lives. A good American is someone who protects “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for others. As Americans, our lives are made better if we (especially our leaders) understand our rich cultural heritage and awareness of why we view certain rights inalienable and given by God and that governments are instituted among men for the protection of these rights. But to know these things are not key requirements to being American. Living these ideals out makes good Americans. There is much more to being American than quoting texts. To be American is to participate in a way of life, a way of being. To be American is to live out American ideals, not simply to love and recite American texts.
Curiously, this example regarding national citizenship, which seems to be so simple, is completely foreign to many people within the kingdom of heaven. We cannot presume to be Christian simply for love of a few Jewish or Catholic texts. For some, it may start there, but it has to proceed into something deeper, into an active relationship with God and his people. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus reminds his countrymen to not banish their savior from their presence, to not banish their saving institutions from their borders, and he encourages people not to be swayed by a few noble lords or a mob of masses, but to cling desperately to truth. For when the ancient Israelites forgot their God, the prophets came telling them “God desires mercy, not sacrifice”, and also “love justice and do goodness and walk humbly with your Maker”, and “the whole of the law is summed up in love God and love your neighbor as yourself”. Likewise, when the English were having their ancient Catholic faith stripped and destroyed, Shakespeare came warning them “ingratitude is monstrous” and that Christ and his true church will be “loved when lacked” and “See Yond Cornerstone”. Coriolanus encourages the Christian playgoer to consider, what is the heart of true religion? Let Christians remember, Christ came to wed a bride.
Wedding Feast and Marriage Vows
At the heart of Act 4 in Coriolanus, Coriolanus seeks out his previous enemy, Aufidius, to “do his country service”. Once Coriolanus reveals himself to Aufidius, Aufidius proclaims,
“As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married: never man
Sighed true breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.”
Now that is a curious confession as one man embraces another. What are we to make of it? If we wanted to interpret Shakespeare on a literal level according to however we felt, we could easily make the claim, “Here Shakespeare is demonstrating his homo-erotic tendencies”. But that interpretation lifts Shakespeare out of all contexts — whether these contexts are social, political, or religious — to further one’s own bias. The moment we put that text in any context, the moment we care about the fullness of truth, that interpretation does not survive. For that interpretation misses a profound Christian reality — there is a greater love than the love between a man and his bride, that greater love is between God and man.
For Aufidius to find himself in love with Rome’s savior, the picture of Christ in Shakespeare’s play, his reaction to a fellowship with Coriolanus becomes completely appropriate. Aufidius rightly understands that there is one love that rightly surpasses the love for his bride, and that is love for our Savior. For it is out of the love for God that we love other things well, including our spouses. For Paul of Tarsus told the early church,
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
That he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
“For this reason a man shall leave father and mother
and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
Christian faith is the participation in the new and eternal covenant, a marriage covenant with God. What many Christians miss in the scriptures is that the written word of God is not simply a way of learning about Jesus, but it points us to Christ himself, and we are to come to him in relationship to receive eternal life. “You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life”, is the warning Christ offered the biblical scholars of his time. To receive this eternal life, we enter into a marriage covenant with Christ. And in the Christian life, the writings about Jesus are not nearly as important as being in the wedding feast and living out our marriage vows.
Christian faith is about participating in a marriage with God. And whereas a man and wife are united “till death do us part”, when the divine bridegroom marries his beautiful bride at Calvary’s cross, in his death and resurrection we are united with him eternally. The Christian faith is about participating in this marriage covenant, memorialized in the Lord’s Supper, and it is not about worshipping written texts. The written texts help us simply understand the wedding feast and the covenant (that is, marriage) vows. The written texts exist to help the wedding and marriage, like written contracts and texts might exist to assist wedding festivities.
Sadly, Protestants have fallen so in love with the written contracts about the wedding, they fail to recognize the wedding is occurring all around them. Those that have undergone baptism have taken an important step to cleanse themselves for their wedding day, but Christians must still go to the actual wedding feast where there is a valid minister, the Catholic liturgy. Until they do so, they live as someone who hopes to be married, missing out on the joys of covenantal and eternal marriage in this life.
Sadly, Protestants who have yet to find full communion with the Catholic church are not yet participating in the great marriage between Christ and his bride. When Protestants practice the Lord’s Supper, it is simply practice, like a rehearsal dinner. They don’t have valid priests or ministers to officiate the wedding, and therefore they simply enjoy the dress rehearsals while Catholic Christians are participate in the wedding feast and live in the marriage. “Blessed are those called to the wedding supper of the lamb. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready”. The wedding supper of our Lord is now, and while Protestants practice and prepare for marriage, Catholics are married. We receive our Lord, we receive our bridegroom, we receive our husband as often as we eat and drink at our liturgical wedding feasts, as often as we gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood.
Let us note, when Catholics live out our faith, we are living in a marriage between God and man as promised through the ancient prophets. “For your husband is your Maker; Yahweh of hosts is his name, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, called God of all the earth”. So, Catholics who practice the faith by going to mass, being baptized and confirmed, going to confession when we sin, and participating in the Lord’s Supper, are living in a healthy marriage covenant between Christ and his bride on earth. Catholics who do not do these things, are not living a healthy marriage yet. And Protestants who have only been baptized, they are simply being prepared for marriage. And for many, that’s good enough.
Let us understand, when Christ died on Calvary, the bridegroom gave his life for his bride, he gave himself utterly and fully for her. When he rose to eternal life, “for death has no hold over your holy one”, he rose like the triumphant sun in the morning and came forth, “a bridegroom from his canopy, like a hero who joyfully ran his course”. In his death and resurrection, he provides the bread of life and wine of salvation for his wedding feast. In his death and resurrection, he provides his flesh and blood to consummate his union with his bride. For Catholics living in the covenant, Jesus provides his flesh and blood so that his bride can receive her Lord bodily. Our bridegroom does not withhold any of himself before his bride, he gives himself fully in his death and resurrection.
In this view, the liturgy of the mass is telescopic, for at one hand it is a memorial of the wedding day, but on the other hand, the bride is not in her fullness and so as this wedding feast is celebrated daily until the end of time, when the bride reaches her fullness, there is still a great gift for the dutiful wife who receives her groom. It is a great gift for the people of God to live in the eternal marriage covenant from the moment we believe and our relationship consummated when we receive our Lord. Death has no hold over Christ’s bride. She dies in him in order to rise with him. And so, we as individuals live in the marriage as we help prepare the bride as the community spanning the seas and centuries — past, present, and future.
Returning to Coriolanus, the interpretation of the play on the stage, especially this scene, will be affected by the perspective of the director and actors. Depending on their views on war and sex, marriage, and Christian religion, this play may look remarkably different. Someone staging the play has the freedom to interpret Shakespeare however they want, but if they want to be faithful to Shakespeare’s intentions in writing the play, there are principles which govern and guide them. Otherwise, they may eroticize a scene which represents a deeper reality, an expression of love between a man and Rome’s savior.
Now, you might say, “but if Shakespearean scholars or even Christians for that matter, disagree over the same texts, how are we to make sense of the truth?” Or, in other words, what is truth? Great question, and let us use differences between how Catholics and Protestants interpret holy scriptures as an example to shed light on how to understand Coriolanus according to the author’s intentions. This example will highlight principles of interpretation to guide “faithful” representations of texts. Again, artists are free to interpret however they desire to express some truth, and they may use Shakespeare and the script of his plays to do so. Artists can use Shakespeare as the basis to speak to their culture, and in that the interpretations are free to stray from Shakespeare’s intentions in writing the script. They can isolate the Shakespearean scripts and interpret however they want to share the message they want. They can “use” Shakespeare, so to speak. But if people are desiring to interpret with an eye on the fullness of truth, with a desire to understand the author’s original intentions, well then we are to be guided by certain principles. These principles guide understanding the text in context, and by and large, these are the same principles which Catholic interpreters use in interpreting sacred Catholic scriptures. Comparing differences in how Catholics and Protestants approach sacred scripture provides an excellent example to shed light on understanding Shakespeare’s play in truth. Let us focus on only the New Testament, as these holy scriptures are held in common by Catholics and Protestants.
The first principle is to understand the origin of the community and the particular text. The New Testament as a written document post-dates the Catholic church and pre-dates the Protestant communities. The Catholic church existed before the New Testament scriptures do, for the Catholic church was instituted by Jesus Christ when he called the apostles and placed Peter in the authoritative leadership position. This body of believers wrote the New Testament scriptures within one hundred years of the life of Christ. This body of believes also decided which books and letters comprised the New Testament — twenty-seven out of many possible books — roughly three hundred years after Christ’s death.
On the other hand, Protestant began to exist in the 16th century after Christ, over a millennia after the New Testament was written, compiled, and agreed upon by the Catholic church. This is key to understand why there are fundamental differences in how Catholics and Protestants use and interpret holy scriptures. For the Catholic church was begun by Christ himself, while Protestant communities were started by men, and the longest standing communities by men who were at one time Catholic and part of the holy Catholic church. These men took Catholic holy scriptures to start new “christian” religions.
But how do scriptures become holy? It is God who makes things holy. But how? After the exodus he told his people, “You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation”. Later, he said to them, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”. God makes his people holy, and working through his people is able to renew the face of the earth, making all things holy. And so, the holy spirit working through the holy church is able to make all things holy, except sin and fallen angels. Sin is forgiven, and the angels will be dealt with. This is one of the beauties of the new and eternal covenant, the promise of forgiveness, the promise of holiness. For a marriage to last, a spouse agrees to forgive all of the sins of their spouse — past, present, and future. The marriage will be permanently affected by the types of sins, the gravity of the sins, and the ability to ask for forgiveness, give forgiveness, receive forgiveness, and live in forgiveness. When married, when one spouse wrongs the other, there needs to be reconciliation. There needs to be confession of error, the sinner must ask forgiveness of the sinned-against. And the sinned-against must learn to give forgiveness so that the relationship can be restored. For a marriage to last from wedding to eternity, love and forgiveness must reign supreme. Thankfully, God has forgiven us through his son, and has entrusted the responsibility of preaching the good news of the forgiveness of sins to his apostles. And all apostolic churches have maintained the sacrament of reconciliation for millennia to make people “holy” before God.
Through the sacrament of reconciliation, the church through valid ministers offers an opportunity for the bride of Christ to learn to walk in holiness with her Maker and Savior. But the church does not just make people holy by the power of God’s spirit working through her, the church makes other things holy, dedicated to God. This includes oil, water, scripture and anything that can be dedicated to the service of God. All things can be made holy and dedicated to God by the spirit of God working through his people.
And so, the Catholic church with heavenly origin also has heavenly authority to make things holy, including scriptures. Protestant communities, on the other hand, have human origins and have human authority. This is key to understand the different approaches to scripture. While the Catholic church was founded by the Word, Christ himself, Protestant churches were founded on written scriptures taken from the Catholic church by former Catholics. But the life and summit of the Catholic church is participation in the new covenant, of which the scriptures were written, compiled, and cared for to help Catholics participate in the Lord’s supper.
This is the next principle to consider, what purpose do the texts have within the body? How do Catholics and Protestants use and understand the New Testament scriptures? As mentioned, the Catholic church wrote and compiled the divine scriptures for use in celebrating the Lord’s supper. Shortly after the printing press was invented, Protestants communities came into existence and used the scriptures to (1) protest the Catholic church and justify their separation from the Catholic church, and (2) for their own personal use, including in personal and communal devotion. And so, the Protestants took the New Testament scriptures outside the context for which they were written, which was to preserve and pass along important insights for the Church as they celebrated the Lord’s supper.
Catholicism is a fulfillment of Judaism. Christ came to fulfill, not abolish the old religion. Under the new covenant, the old promises and covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David find their fulfillment. The new covenant builds off the promises of the earlier covenants, stretching back all the way to the first man, ‘Adam’, and the mother of all living, ‘Eve’. And so, Catholics trace their origins all the way back to the first man and woman. Catholics span all of humanity as a repository of divine wisdom.
Protestantism, on the other hand, is a breaking away from Catholicism. It is the choosing of scriptures above community. It is an exaltation of someone’s own opinion above the community which creates the scriptures. That personal opinion about a catholic text may lead to new communities, but these communities are taking catholic scriptures away from the catholic community and the catholic context they were written for — the divine liturgy.
Remember, humanity is gifted with many ways to perceive, including sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The divine liturgy uses all these senses for perception to communicate truth about God and draw people into intimate relationship with Jesus. The divine liturgy uses our earthly and natural senses to teach us about heavenly and supernatural realities. It is a practice in learning how to see with the eyes of faith.
Unfortunately, Protestant pastors take Catholic scriptures and preach them through a Protestant filter. The result is they essentially put a veil over their congregations, and the veil can only be removed by the Catholic church so that the bride is presented to her bridegroom in holiness. The danger is in some communities their is such a strong protest against Catholic church, that the veil becomes a dark cover that dims their view so that the never see the beauty of the Catholic church and never enter into full communion with Jesus.
Consider simply how the Catholic liturgy uses the sacred scriptures versus how protestants use the holy scriptures in their services. In the Catholic liturgy, divine scriptures are read aloud for the whole congregation to hear directly. These readings are the old testament law and prophets, the psalms of David, the letters of the apostles, and most importantly, the gospels about Jesus. A Catholic parishioner hears the divine word directly. In Protestant services, rarely is the word of God read directly. Most often, a preacher preaches his opinions about life, Jesus, and the scriptures using the scriptures as either base-texts or proof-texts. The problem is they thereby filter divine scripture. The people in Protestant pews do not hear the word of God directly, but veiled by the opinions and biases of their pastor, preacher, or teachers. But since we have such hope in Christ and his church, catholics act very boldly, removing the veil from protestants in order that they can look intently on their savior and bridegroom. Otherwise, while the veil remains, their thoughts are rendered dull, for to this present day the veil remains over un-lifted over Protestants. And the veil is only removed when they participate in the new covenant, because only then does Christ through his church remove the veil.
Also, reading is a limited form of perceiving truth. For the eyes are used to view images that represent sounds. The mind must convert these images into sounds to understand what is being communicated. That conversion process reduces comprehension significantly. Moreover, in the context of humanity and history, although very significant, reading is a relatively recent invention. We take for granted but few people proportionally in the history of the world have learned to read, and so this creates other barriers to understand and know truth. The Catholic church has been entrusted to teach the world from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth about God and bring the bride of Christ to her savior and bridegroom. Reading is not a pre-requisite for a relationship with God. It may help, but we enter into a covenant not because of our ability to read scripture but our ability to obey our Savior. Before the printing press was invented, it was rare to be able to read, that was by and large for a selected few. With the coming of the Digital Age, we see reading is increased, but it is still not universal. But the universal church cannot be limited by the constraints of our senses to preach truth, she learns to preach in any and every way that a person perceives information. So she’ll preach truth by the mouth of the faithful, though the acts of mercy of its people, through stain-glass windows, through statutes and buildings, through hospitals and schools, through confession and reconciliation, through the eucharist, through adoration. She’ll come in any and every way to tell the world about Jesus. For this is the model of Christ himself, who was not happy to remain in heaven, equal with God, but humbled himself to become man, speak to us, and die for us. Thanks be to God for the apostles who recorded their testimony of what he said and did. Let us remember, many people entered into the church solely by the oral testimony, long before the written testimony was written down, preserved, and passed along for future generations.
And so, when we approach a particular scripture, sacred or otherwise, if we keep in mind the person or community that produced the text, the reason for the text, we will enhance our ability to interpret the text. To interpret texts, we must put the text in context. But, when interpretations differ, how are we to make sense of truth? Which interpretations are we to trust? For example, when considering the Lord’s supper, Catholics and Protestants have two different interpretations of what Christ means when he says “Truly, truly, I say unto 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”. What is the true interpretation of these perplexing words from our Savior?
Now, all parties can agree, this is a hard saying. Who can believe it? But Catholics say Christ meant what he said and Protestants discount the literal interpretation and say Christ was deceptive, only speaking symbolically and not literally. We can interpret this text any way we want, but what is the true interpretation? How do we interpret the text correctly? And how can we trust if our interpretation is true?
Christ warned the Pharisees of his time, “you nullify the word of God for the sake of tradition”. Protestant friends, beware that you do not commit the same error. Do not nullify Christ’s own words for the sake of your human logic. Do not discount the divine scripture to create a man-made tradition. Especially when the Church that produced and passed along the text has maintained testimony across seas and centuries that what appears in the form of bread and wine, when consecrated by a valid priest and the prayers of the faithful becomes the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. For he said, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it for this is my body, which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink form it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me”.
So, if we say the bread and wine consecrated by the prayers of the priests and faithful at mass is any thing other than the true flesh and true blood of Christ, we are discounting a divine mystery with human logic and ignoring warnings of the sacred scriptures which remind us, “Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” Please, friends, do not let the flesh and blood of Christ be your stumbling block, seek to obey Christ’s command, written down for our sake by the church in her holy scriptures.
The divine liturgy is practice for the eyes of faith. The liturgy functions like great art woven together, a symphony of senses, a symphony where the various instruments unite in a rich harmonious sound, to reveal God as he has revealed himself to his people. And all the separate notes within the liturgy, the hymns and psalms, the rites and rituals, the hearing of the word of God directly and the homiletic explanation afterwards, the Lord’s supper and the prayers of the people, the processions and the priests, the incense and the tabernacle, the stain glass windows with scripture stories lighted by the light of the Sun of God, all these and more are separate points of view united to give a fuller picture of who God is. And one of the most important things is to see that appearances are not always reality. We must learn to scratch the surface and see truth.
For example, the crucifix looks simply like a picture of an executed criminal. But in fact, the reality is something much deeper. The crucifix is a piece of religious art which reminds us of what happened on Calvary roughly twenty centuries ago, that the incarnate God suffered death under the charge “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”. Moreover, this crowned king stripped of his clothes on his wedding day — for the sinless one is without shame and has no need for clothes on the great day of salvation of his people, his bride — was a fulfillment of multiple ancient Jewish stories. One being the serpent on the stake, which would have reminded ancient Jews of the promise to Satan in the garden of Eden “I will put entity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they will strike at your head, while you strike at their heal”. Moreover, during the exodus, when the people grumbled against God he sent serpents to bite them so that they’d die. When they repented of their grumblings against their Lord, God told Moses to erect in the wilderness a bronze serpent so that all would look on the serpent on a stick, believe, and not die — which is why our ambulances carry this image on their doors. The bronze serpent on a stick represents in one image satan, the promised son, sin, and death. There are more images that feed into the Crucifix in the scriptures, for time fails us to talk about Abraham and Isaac, Melchizedek, Joseph, and more, but what is important for us is to understand here is that there is a much deeper reality in what appears to be a crucified criminal. The natural eyes see a man hanging cursed from a tree, but the eyes of faith see salvation. Likewise, when Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, says of her son, “he will tread upon his neck” in reference to Rome’s enemy, there is a much deeper reality communicated by Shakespeare for a Catholic audience than mere words in a play. It is a much deeper reminder of great promises handed down to us by our Jewish forefathers, tracing back to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and pictured above our altars and tabernacles of our king hanging dead on the tree of life.
As Americans, we are used to there being deeper truths behind appearances. For, when we see a green piece of paper with a picture of Ben Franklin with various signs that read “100” on one side, and on the other side a picture of a building with “In God We Trust” emblazoned above the building, most of us say “that is a $100 bill”. We don’t simply get distracted by the appearance of an old man on a green piece of paper. We see beyond mere appearances to see what it truly is — a $100 bill. In using currency we see with the eyes of faith. We trust in the authority of the United States government and in the people around us who accept the authority and agree to its enhanced worth, a value much more than simply a green paper with a great man’s portrait. If we never learn to see beyond appearances, we may think it simply a curious coincidence that the language of a people from a small island in the North Sea is the global language; that the currency of one of her colonies has become the global currency. We may simply think it odd that an island noted for fog, clouds, and a lack of sunshine had an empire where the sun never set and that one of her small colonies is the currency accepted all across the world. We may see these facts and never understand a deeper reality. We may attribute to coincidence what is in fact God-incidence, and in doing so, risk flirting with the only unforgivable sin.
Just as Americans see beyond mere paper and ink to a greater reality, likewise Catholics, by the authority of Christ’s words, with the testimony of the church he instituted, see a reality behind mere appearance of bread and wine to see what it truly is — the flesh and blood of our savior, an invitation to his wedding feast, an opportunity to receive our Lord bodily as a dutiful wife, a reminder and participation in the new and eternal covenant.
When we struggle with how to interpret Christ’s words, the interpretation across the seas and centuries by heroes of the faith becomes a great help to calibrate us, to help relieve our human doubts, to help us align our personal interpretation with truth. For the one who says “I am the truth” is not going to deceive his bride. He will, though, share truths with his bride that he shares with no one else. Let us therefore learn to listen to him and her. By tracing how the text was interpreted throughout history, going back to the original source, we have a trail of testimonies that shed light on how the interpretations differ. It’s always best to trust the word of God. It’s always best to trust God first, ahead of human logic. Let our trust in God inform our logic. Thankfully, God left us a community which wrote the text, and we can trust that community’s interpretation of their own text above our own personal interpretation and above the interpretation of other communities. There are things revealed only to insiders. Outsiders will never understand Catholic truths until they are willing to walk in faith in communion with the Catholic church. It’s not because these truths are secret, hidden, but because God has decided to reveal supernatural truths to and through his people for them to give testimony to the world. But the people of God have the sacred scripture which notes, “the command of our Lord is clear, enlightening the eye”. Christ’s commands are meant to enlighten our spiritual eyes, but we must trust his command and obey. Disobedience leads to darkness, not light.
Christ himself revealed things to his inner circle of apostles — Peter, James and John — that he didn’t reveal to the other apostles. Likewise, the apostles were taught things that the disciples didn’t know, and the disciples were taught that which the crowds never heard. There are things revealed only to the church, not for intelligence but because of faint and obedience. As Jesus taught, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”. For the righteous shall live by faith. It is faith which helps us to see eternal truths. When we lack faith, we limit God, for it is by faith in him we open ourselves to be open to his ways.
And so, if you doubt institutions and traditions preserved by humans, I understand. But learn to trust God, learn to trust the words of his Son. Learn to trust God above your own human reason, and when in doubt, give the benefit of your doubts over to the only church founded by Christ and not religious communities started by men. Hear the word of our Lord, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have not life in you” and seek out the community which upholds Christ’s word as testified to in sacred scripture. “Listen to Christ and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Pay attention and come to Christ; listen, that you may have life. Our Lord makes with you an everlasting covenant, steadfast faithfulness promised to David”.
Catholic brothers and sisters, hold to the divine mysteries of faith. Divine mysteries never contradict facts of life. In fact, they inform and enhance our minds, teaching us to see beyond mere appearances to see reality and truth. For what is seen is temporal, passing away. What is unseen is eternal. Let us exercise the eyes of faith by attending our divine liturgy, for it is how God trains us to see through the valley of death and into his resurrection and eternal life. The divine liturgy teaches us to see truth, to see our Creator, to behold our Savior.
Protestant friends, learn to hear Christ’s words about his flesh and blood and seek the only church which has maintained that testimony across seas and centuries. Christ walked among many Pharisees who never saw “God in their midst”. Be like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, willing to step out of their religious communities and respected comfort to seek Christ’s body. Be like Paul, with his great mystical experience of the resurrected and ascended Christ did not forsake communion with his body, the church, but instead sought out the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and Antioch, and later, Rome. For Catholicism is a fulfillment of Judaism, whereas Protestantism is a breaking away of great and divine traditions and promises. Protestantism is a breaking away of Catholicism, it is a rupture in the long line of succession tracing back to Adam and Eve in the garden. Stop, return, come back to the great fount of wisdom preserved and passed along by the Catholic church across the seas and centuries, from the garden of Eden to the garden of Gethsemane and into the gardens of today. Beware, the natural end of Protestantism is a rise in Atheism. For if communities arise which interpret divine mysteries in sacred scripture however they want, other communities will arise which interpret divine mysteries in life and the world however they want, including to the exclusion of our divine Creator.
Remember, Christ always understood the enemy is not Rome. The enemy is Satan, sin, and death. This is the enemy Christ conquered and overcame on Calvary. Let us continue to unite as Christians to “tread upon the serpent”, let us all heed the divine scripture which says, “Send our leaders to the Romans to renew with them the friendship and alliance of earlier times”. Let the division of Christendom be healed by the wounds and love of our Savior.
Let those with eyes to see, see; let those with ears to hear, hear. Do not be fooled by appearances, but learn to see what truly is. Hear the following parable, recorded by Matthew, given by Jesus as he prepared for his wedding day crucifixion, and consider, how would your interpretation differ based on whether you were Catholic or Protestant?
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away; one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murders, and burned this city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready; but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here with a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Queen of Heaven
In the case where the king is the bridegroom, if he has many wives, who is queen? For example, in Ancient Israel under King Solomon, a man with 300 wives and 700 concubines, who is queen? His mom, of course. For no matter how many women one man might have, he’ll only ever have one mother. And so, when Jesus, the king of the universe marries a bride of countless people, more than the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, who is the queen? His mother, of course, Mother Mary is Queen of Heaven.
Moreover, let us consider, how do we approach a king? If we were simply a citizen of his kingdom, we may have to wait for special feasts to know where he’ll be and show up there. But usually, in most cases, we’d be only people in a crowd waiting to see and hear our king from afar. The friends of a king, on the other hand, they have a closer relationship than the average citizen. And so we might hear what a king is like by hearing testimonies from those in fellowship with the king. It’d be easier to approach the friends of a king than the king himself. But to get even closer to a king, we’d want to approach one of his ministers. For the ministers of a kingdom work with the king in accomplishing the king’s goals. The ministers would have even greater insights into the daily activities of the king. They work with him to ensure the kingdom is safe and secure and to accomplish his will. And so, to get closer to a king than his wide-circle of friends, we could hear what the close-circle of ministers of the kingdom say about our king and what is his will to learn about the king.
But even closer than a king’s friends or ministers, his wife is intimate in the sense that she becomes one flesh with him in pleasure and receives his seed to bring forth children. His children may be like him in appearance and behaviors, but often times they only see one side of their father, the king, and we must wait for them to grow in maturity to hear more than joyful shouts of praise out of the mouths of infants and babes. But a king’s family — his wife and children and even siblings — is often closer to the king than his friends and ministers.
But closest to the king is his mother. She was there from the beginning, the only woman who fulfills the ancient lyric, “woman encompasses man” as he’s wrapped as a babe in her womb. She later nurses him at her breasts and teaches him about life and love in the days of his youth. In the traditional view, the father is important, but the mother is always there. The king is begotten because a father plants his seed, but the mother is the one who nourishes, feeds, and sustains that seed into maturity. The father is a picture of God; the mother is a picture of the church.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives us a Catholic picture of Mother Mary’s role in the kingdom of heaven. Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, like Mary, pushes her son to be a warrior, encourages him to “prove himself a man” and to “die nobly for his country rather than voluptuously surfeit out of action” as he’s the one who’ll beat the enemy and “tread upon his neck”. Later, when the people banish their savior, and the rumors of his return are heard with dread throughout the city, and when the pleas of the ministers fall on Coriolanus’s deaf ears, it is only the mother who is able to intercede on behalf of the Roman people to remind her son to show mercy. She, like Moses who asks God to spare the people not for the sake of themselves but simply for the greatness of his own name and reputation, asks Coriolanus to stay his anger and be at peace with his people. He heeds her word.
In the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia, Shakespeare shows the world how Catholics see the relationship between Jesus and Mary. Sometimes, it is only the sweet words of his mother which softens his great and just heart to remember mercy. For Jesus knows what it is to be savior, but Mary understands what it means to be saved. For yes, she was saved from her sins immaculately, but she still knows what it is to need a savior. And though she’s preserved from sin while we’re purified from sin, we both need a savior. Christ, the sinless and perfect lamb is savior. For Mary can stand with us and cry “mercy” before the king of heaven because this is the way he desires it so that we could come to know and love his mother whom he honors. We cry “mercy” before the king of heaven, and if our cries are too far to reach his ears, his mother intercedes on our behalf to encourage her son, our savior, to meet the needs of his people. She encourages mercy as the Mother of Mercy.
Let us turn to the gospel of John for a moment to see what might be missed in the sacred scriptures regarding Mary our Queen if we separate ourselves from the seas and centuries of the traditional understanding of the role of Mary in Christendom. This understanding goes back beyond the start of the church in the first century to Solomon and Bathsheba a thousand years before Christ, for the ancient kingdom of Israel is a type of the church, including how it functions and is organized. Let us consider how those who honor and uphold traditions that span the life of the church and the ancient kingdom of Israel see beyond the literal level of scripture stories into their deeper meaning, especially with respect to the role of our Queen.
Christ’s first miracle in the gospel of John was at a wedding feast in Cana. The wine ran short, and Mary brought the needs of the bride and groom to the ears of her son, “They have no wine”. When Jesus responds in a peculiar manner for one bound by the law to “honor your father and mother” and says “Woman, what is that to me and to you? My hour has not yet come” and Mary immediately goes to tell the servants to obey her son, as Catholics, we see deeper truths than a simple motherly request for wedding wine and the son’s odd response. We hear a request for the wine of salvation. The people are ready to be saved. Mary is living out her role as the future Queen Mother, to encourage her son to meet the needs of those around him. Moreover, she encourages servants to be obedient to him, to carry out his word. Because of Mary, a great miracle and sign is produced and Christ starts his way to the cross. Christ made crystal clear that this was not yet his hour, it was not the hour of salvation, for it was the hour of the couple wedded in Cana, not the bridegroom wedding on Calvary. Nevertheless, it was the “beginning of his signs and so revealed his glory so that his disciples began to believe in him”. Thanks to the work of his mother, our Queen, Jesus begins his painful journey to being crowned with thorns and becoming king of the Jews. But this is not the first time an Israelite mother secures the kingdom for her son and encourages him to act.
In 1 Kings, Bathsheba goes to King David to secure the kingdom for their son, Solomon. Another one of David’s sons wants to proclaim himself king and Bathsheba goes and asks David to clarify for all of Israel that Solomon is the chosen son of David to succeed David on the throne of Israel. The very first scene once David dies and rests with his ancestors is that of Bathsheba interceding to Solomon on the behalf of others. As Bathsheba approaches Solomon the King, we see Solomon “stood up to meet her and paid her homage. Then he sat down upon his throne, and a throne was provided for the king’s mother, who sat at his right”. Now, unfortunately in that story the Queen Mother did not see behind the duplicity of the requests by the king’s brother, but Solomon prepared by his father to be king and gifted with wisdom still acts on the basis of his mother’s request. As Catholics, it is important to see beyond the literal story into the pattern of our kingdom. Ancient Israelites saw this as the role of how the Queen Mother is to be honored and her role in the kingdom. The Queen Mother helps install her son, the king, and she sits at the right hand of her son advising him as Queen of the Kingdom.
Christ is not lacking in any need, for through him the world is created. Likewise, Christ is not lacking as a King, for he gives us his mother as Queen, this is the way it is designed in the perfect wisdom of God, not because God is lacking, but because God is giving. The role of the Queen Mother is taught in Sacred Scripture, in both the old and new testaments, and not surprisingly, Shakespeare mimics understand this in Volumnia’s role in Coriolanus. For Volumnia tells her daughter-in-law,
“When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding. I, considering how honor would become such a person, that it was no better than, picture-like, to hang by th’wall if renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame: to a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man”.
One can almost hear the Catholic echo of Mary telling John, “When yet he was but a newly acknowledged rabbi and the only begotten son of our Father birthed of my womb, when at the wedding in Cana I realized it was time for him to begin the work of redemption, that the people needed him to present himself and provide the bread of life and the wine of salvation, I sent him to the cross by way of a miracle at a wedding. I knew it was not yet his hour, but I took much joy in knowing that this miracle showed the greatness of my son who was not content to remain in heaven but was born to die so that we might live. That one day he’d give the good wine of salvation that would pour forth from his own body. In both sorrow and joy, I helped speed the day where he painfully but joyfully cried out “It is finished” and breathed his last and handed over his spirit”.
Throughout the play Coriolanus, we see that once he’s banished from the Capitol and returns to wage war, there are none who can stay his anger. The people, the ministers like his old friend Menenius, his son, his wife, none of these people hold sway with Coriolanus. Finally, it is only the words of his mother that can touch his cold, angry, heart and allow mercy to overrule his righteous anger. It is only his mother, bowing dutifully before him, who he hears. For she pleads and intercedes before him, the picture of Christ,
“For how can we,
Alas, how can we for our country pray?
Whereto we are bound, together with thy victory,
Whereto we are bound? Alack, or we must lose
The country, our dear nurse, or else thy person,
Our comfort in the country…”
Volumnia continues a few lines later,
“If it were so that our request did tend
To save the Romans (representing the ancient faith, Catholics), thereby to destroy
The Volsces (representing the State Church, Anglicans) whom you serve, you might condemn us
As poisonous of your honour. No, our suit
Is that you reconcile them: while the Volsces
May say “This mercy we have showed”, the Romans,
“This we received”, and each in either side
Give the all-hail to thee and cry “Be blest
For making up this peace!” Thou know’st, great son
The end of war’s uncertain…”
Volumnia, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, shows us a woman who pushes her son to be a savior of their people, and also a woman who intercedes to heal wounds and mediate between the people and her son. There is only one mediator between God and man, and that is Christ Jesus. But there are many mediators between Jesus and his people, and his mother is foremost. In some cases, when our prayers and requests do not reach the ears of our great king, it is not a friend, minister, or bride of the king we turn to intercede for us, but it is best to go to the woman who knows him best, his mother, the woman who once encompassed him in the womb and nurtured him at her breasts. For a Catholic, when the gospel of John records among Christ’s last words, “Behold, your mother”, we have a much more profound truth than simply instructions to John. These are instructions to all the disciples “whom Christ loves”. They are instructions to all Christians to behold his Mother, Mary our Queen, and take her into our hearts and homes as John did.
In Mary’s dowry, Shakespeare’s England, it is only Mother Mary who can reverse the evil descended upon the people by bad Queen Bess. Between Macbeth and Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives audience two contrasting pictures of queens. In Macbeth, we have a dark and demonic queen, who encourages others to kill and take and destroy. In Coriolanus, we have a heavenly queen, who sends her son to be savior and intercedes on behalf of the king’s people to minister to their needs. One is a picture of death while the other is a picture of the mother of all living. One hears the temptation of the witches in Eden and eats the fruit of evil, while the other steadfastly encourages her son to serve his people. In each case, Shakespeare paints pictures of queens, one a queen of darkness, the other a queen of light, so that we might have representation of both hellish and heavenly queens, of earthly and eternal Eves, of queens who bring forth death and others who bring forth salvation. But both these pictures need a Catholic imagination to unlock this view and these truths. To see these pictures of demonic-inspired and divinely-enlightened queens we need to be aware of Catholic patterns and types, knowledgeable of Catholic scriptures and traditions, and important of many stories and passages in our holy scriptures and sacred tradition. Otherwise, these strong catholic echoes and allusions would go by unnoticed. It is the Catholic imagination, taught by the eyes of faith, which allows us to see Shakespeare. So again, in communion with the church of Rome, rather than isolated away from her, we better see, hear, and understand not only sacred scripture, but also the great Shakespeare.
As Americans, there is fair warning for us. Not just through the fog and filthy air, but I say unto you, there is great warning in the scripts of Shakespeare plays. In Macbeth and Coriolanus there exists apt warnings for us to see beyond appearances, to see truth, and to interpret texts accurately. For to interpret Macbeth or Coriolanus on a simplistic and literal level is to enjoy Shakespeare, but it is not to know or understand Shakespeare. It is not to hear him nor his warnings. To understand Shakespeare and hear him, we must scratch the surface of his texts and hear the deeper meanings of his texts in context. And the context extends beyond the play, into Shakespeare’s canon, to his country and creed and catholicism and into the context of all humanity. Only by keeping one eye on the literal level of the text and the other eye on all of humanity, including religious history and scripture, will we ever hope to see Shakespeare. This is an important learning opportunity for Americans.
To enjoy 21st century America is one thing, but to know her and love her and understand what makes her great requires more than living in the moment blind to our history. It requires going deeper into reality in order to understand, preserve, and pass along the traditions that once made her great. And though it is unpopular to say, to know and love America is to return to God and renounce the works of the devil. To know and love America is to live in the divine liturgy, where the church celebrates not only the wedding feast of our King, but also the moment of salvation where he tread upon the serpent, defeating forever Satan, sin, and death. And while all three remain to wage battles, the war is won and it is up to the people of God to continue to tread upon the neck, in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy spoken to the serpent in the garden of Eden, “They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heal”. Christ destroyed the works of the devil on Calvary and “then the serpent became angry with Mary and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus”.
Our nation at her birth, after long labor pains stretching back not only centuries but millennia, from the time when Englishmen were vomited out of their island searching for liberty and freedom of religion, to ancient Christians searching for freedom from sin, to ancient Jews searching for freedom from slavery and satan, to ancient humans searching for freedom from death and eternal darkness, we cannot understand America in historical isolation, but we must know her in the context of all humanity and all of history. From the beginning, there is a movement of factors that led to our first settlers as well as to our first freedom fighters. And Shakespeare guides us to see truth by not naively trusting appearances but to scratch the surface and go deeper to seek true answers, to seek truth, to seek our Savior and his will.
From “plays within a play” to disguised lovers and confused images of twins, Shakespeare is always telling people to go beyond the surface appearances into deeper reality. For what appears to be is not necessarily what is. For sacred scripture and the great Shakespeare point to something deeper than only a literal meaning of texts. We cannot limit ourselves to isolated texts, but must trace an understanding of these texts in the fullness of truth.
We carry a rich tradition from our English forefathers, a rich tradition informed not only by the split in Christendom, but also by the influence of the Catholic church, the ancient kingdom of Israel, and stretches all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. And it is the Judeo-Christian stories and wisdom which bubbles up to reveal divine patterns and principles to guide civilizations. These are the basic ideals which founded our nation, chief among them the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, inalienable rights endowed to mankind by our Creator. These rights are not endowed by the gods of other cultures, but they are endowed only by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. People of this God — Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant — have shared this with the world.
Unless we look to our rich history as Americans, which includes appreciating the goodness of the Catholic and Protestant divide without whitewashing the ills, unless we understand the movement of all of history, including how a tribal ancient jewish tradition went universal (or ‘catholic’), we will never understand how to form our laws, whats standards to create, govern, and measure them to, and what priorities should guide our interpretations of these laws.
And while many lawmakers and judges and decent Americans have encouraged us to live according to the Constitution, the great Americans of our history, the ones whose birthdays we celebrate each year, including President Lincoln, Dr. King, and our founding fathers by the birth of our nation, are those who encourage us to live not according to the ideals of the Constitution, but according to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. For the Constitution was created and modified by great men to uphold those ideals, to form “a more perfect union” which protect the ideals in our Declaration. Our union exists because the colonies declared independence and fought for it. When we declared independence, our forefathers also declared what they were fighting for and why. And they were fighting for the right for the people of our colonies to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our founding fathers understood these rights are rooted in the belief in Divine Providence, but not any Providence, but in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So, in the history of our nation, the greatest americans are ones who fought for or upheld the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. From Thomas Jefferson, the principal authors, to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin who helped him write and edit the declaration. To our founding fathers who agreed upon it and signed it. To George Washington who led the army to secure it remaining, to secure the independence of our new nation in accord with those ideals, to many other unknown Americans who fought for these ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. From Abe Lincoln who used it to justify the freeing of slaves in one of the greatest slave liberating moments in the history of the world, behind only Moses the nation-builder and Jesus the heavenly king, to Dr. King, the great civil rights leaders of the 1960s, who reminded us what it meant so that unjust laws of segregation would end. The greatest Americans fought for to uphold the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was created to help us live better in accord to those ideals, not to abolish the Declaration, but to better fulfill it and protect it.
The next great American will be the person who uses the ideals embedded in our declaration to end child sacrifice which has taken root in our nation under the guise and title “abortion”. For abortion is at odds with the ideals of our nation and therefor cannot survive in perpetuity. To the extent we allow the killing of children by untimely ripping them from their mother’s wombs, we suffer as a nation. The law will end, either by our people coming together to rid our nation of this great evil which stands in stark contrast to the ideal of life we proclaim in our declaration of independence or that is proclaimed in sacred scripture. Or, the law will end because God allows another people to overtake us who will instill laws that are more in line with our original ideals and the divine law to honor life. For we are not to be like Macbeth who pronounces to his enemy “thou shalt not live” but are to tell fellow americans “thou shalt not kill” and protect the innocent babies of our nation unjustly torn from their mother’s wombs to die.
We cannot isolate our interpretation of our values to the here and now, we have to consider our history and the history of all of humanity, we have to consider the divine plan, we have to consider the universal values proclaimed not only in our declaration but in the good news of Jesus Christ who desires that all might life and have eternal life. Let us understand our great American texts, especially the ones that govern our nation in the context of all of humanity and all of history, only in this will we understand the divine design to societies and have the wisdom to establish and run our country with these fundamental designs in tact for our good and for the good of all mankind. Let us learn the reason our American forefathers stressed certain laws above others, and how to make sense of what is most important of our american ideals, namely the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For without the people responsible for Declaration of Independence, we’d never have the opportunity for a Constitution. The ideals in our declaration encourage France to stand with us, seeing us — a new born nation! — as an ideal of what they wanted far more than the colonies of England wanting independence, but men and women yearning to be free, not under a yoke of slavery and oppression, but seeking the opportunity to decide their own fates.
To isolate ourselves is to fool ourselves. For isolated, we may say, “Why not untimely rip children from the womb”. But when we stamp our currency with “In God we trust”, taking a frequent refrain from the sacred scriptures and then kill a child and scar a woman’s body in violation of the scriptural command “thou shalt not kill” and in violation of our declared values that “all men are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among these the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, we commit a grievous error and the most heinous of sins, to take innocent life. There is no justice, there is only darkened reason, the type of reason Shakespeare warns us of in Macbeth and Coriolanus. And let us not cast stones, we Americans are all guilty. For when one party of the body suffers, the whole body hurts. When mothers live in a world that they are convinced the best option is to kill the fruit of their wombs, we have created an evil culture of death and we are all a part of it. Let us no longer untimely rip children from their wombs, proclaiming to innocent babies “thou shalt not live” and pay for all this with currency stamped “in God we trust”. This abomination cannot stand in the land which attempts to pride itself as a place of hope, liberty, and justice for all. When lawmakers we appoint create unjust laws against our declared values, when judges we appoint interpret laws deceitfully and wrongfully and say when it comes to killing children, “it is good”, and when we as a people stay silent in such horrific murder on a massive scale, we are evil. Let us not be fooled, we will soon surpass Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the number of souls we’ve unjustly killed. We who like to consider ourselves freedom fighters are in fact baby killers. We must change. Or God will charge us for the innocent blood shed at our guilty hands.
We must step beyond interpreting a law in isolation, and begin to create and interpret our laws in consideration of the history of humanity and the gospel movement from death to life. For the moment someone would propose, “let us allow aboritions”, if we used our value of life as the measure, it would have been stopped long ago. The fellow lawmakers could have justly and easily said, “No abortions in the United States of America because it is against our ideal of protecting the right to life. We have to solve this problem in another way, children cannot be viewed as a burden but we must change our culture so that we see them as a blessing”. Let us step beyond see the signs of the times, take a look at our history, our values, the values that the designer and king of the universe has proclaimed as good, the moment we do this, we have no recourse to say “let our children live, to kill innocent children is evil”. Let us not judge by appearances but by truth. Let us not be blind but let us see. Here, I do beg you, I lend you my eyes for a moment, take and learn to see.
O Christians, O Americans, let us remember our history. Let us not live blind to the past but see it clearly. Our God gathers, out of many peoples we became one. Out of many colonies we became one country. E pluribus unam; out of many, one. Out of many peoples God will fashion one bride. Out of many religions, there is one true church. Out of many divisions, there is only one communion. Out of many congregations, there is only one church that cares not only for the living, but also the unborn and the dead. And this church is not the enemy, remember, satan, sin, and death are our enemies. And Christ has conquered. Through him, we shall overcome. Let us remember not only what it is to be American, but let us fight for American values without apology. Let us remember what it is to be Christian, and let us fight for these universal (‘Catholic’) values. Let us fight for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, especially for our babies.
God, you know my folly, my faults are not hidden from you.
Let those who wait in hope for you, Lord of hosts,
not be shamed because of me.
Let those who seek you, God of Israel,
not be disgraced because of me.
For it is on your account I bear insult, that disgrace covers my face.
I have become an outcast to my kindred,
a stranger to men who once called me “brother”.
Because zeal for your house, body, and kingdom consumes me,
I am scorned by those who scorn you.