Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 1-The Call to Transfiguration and the Primordial Question

THE FOURTH AND FIFTH centuries of the Church's history are marked by Christological and Trinitarian controversies. There was a remarkable focus during that time on the mystery of the Incarnation and the mystery of divine life in the Trinity. How was it that Jesus was both God and Man? How was it that God was both Three and One? In those lands formerly occupied by the pagan Roman empire and recently converted to Christianity, that was man's preoccupation, and it seems all--from the simple layman and parish priest to the Emperor and the Pope--were involved in those great issues of the day. Man spoke about whether there were two natures, one person in Christ or whether the Son of God was of the same substance as the Father or only a similar substance as the Father.* These often heated, always passionate discussions eventually led to the dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity to which we subscribe and to the creeds that--separated by centuries from our Christian predecessors-- we now recite at Mass almost passionlessly.

Modernly, we are engaged in controversies of our own, controversies which raise as much passion, have spilled as much ink, and have caused as much heat as those Christological and Trinitarian controversies in the past. Only the controversies deal with moral issues: What is human freedom? Is there a moral order? What is right and what is wrong? Can right and wrong can be known, and, if so, how? Are some things always wrong to do, i.e., are there moral absolutes or exceptionless norms? These, and like questions, are what occupy us, move us, cause us to enter into heated, often acrimonious disputes. Often, these questions lie behind our political disputes, our disputes about what freedom is, and what laws ought to govern us. Many believe that there are no certain answers to these questions, and so they are tempted, an indeed succumb, to moral despair, which is what moral relativism or moral nihilism is.

In a way, because of the questions that are being asked, the forum has widened. Unlike the Christological and Trinitarian controversies which dealt with faith, the moral controversies of today deal with morals, and any discussion about morals takes us out of the household of faith into the household of humanity. We are no longer discussing things with our Christian brother and sister, we are discussing things with our neighbor, with men of good will, whether they be Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Agnostic, Atheist, or anything else. What should we believe about the Trinity? is a question that will not phase a Hindu unless he has an interest in conversion. What is right and good? is a question that interests us all. It is a question that each of us is compelled to ask.

It is within this context that we will be addressing in this next series of postings John Paul II's great encyclical Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth. The encyclical was issued on August 6, 1993, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

We might begin by observing that there is some significance in the Pope's issuance of this encyclical on that feast. One might recall that in the Transfiguration,** three of the apostles of Jesus (representing all mankind) see Christ transfigured. Christ shows himself resplendent in the light of his Divinity, allowing it to shine through his humanity. Christ allows his divinity to shine past the veil of his humanity, but one must also remember that this shows that his humanity is therefore brought into his divinity. Christ is transfigured between Moses and Elijah, symbols of the Mosaic Law and Prophets, who recognize his preeminence. Christ is, after all, the end, the culmination of, the purpose-for-which of the Law and the Prophets.

Icon depicting the Transfiguration of Christ

Christ's Transfiguration is an invitation to us, an invitation in freedom to our own transfiguration. This transfiguration is made by our conformity to the truth, in particular by our conformity to the moral truth. This transfiguration is, as the encyclical states toward the end, most fully witnessed by the Christian martyrs and Christian saints by "their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth." By living their life so transfigured, the saints and martyrs "light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense," like Christ lit up Mount Tabor, act as a "living reproof to those who transgress the law," like Moses the lawgiver to the Jews, and serve as an admonition to "'those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter,'" like Elijah the prophet. VS, 93 (quoting Isaiah 5:20).

Pope John Paul II in effect, issued his encyclical Veritatis Splendor on the Feast of the Transfiguration with the hope that we may be transfigured and know how we may be transfigured, to be transformed. "And be not conformed to this world; but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, and the acceptable, and the perfect will of God." (Romans 12:2) The proper use of our freedom is to use it to transfigure our life in the image of Christ, that is by He who lived in the most exemplary way the splendor of moral truth.

At the Transfiguration, God the Father declares: Behold, my Son, my beloved, Listen to him! Cf. Mark 9:7. Ultimately, this is where we are to find our answers: in God, and in his Christ who reveals the splendor of truth in a unique way, being fully man and fully God.
[T]he answer to the question, "What good must I do to have eternal life?" can only be found by turning one's mind and heart to the "One" who is good: "No one is good but God alone" (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19). Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself.
VS, 9.

But the splendor of truth shines in other places. It is, to be sure, found principally in God and in His Christ, but the Church, creation, and even man's internal witness participate in that truth. "The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator, and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God." VS, Intro.

Christ and his Church, Creation, Man: these are our three sources whence the light of the Lord's face shines upon us. This is where answers may be found.

Christ is the "true light that enlightens everyone," VS, 1 (citing John 1:9), and in Him there is no darkness. "The light of God's face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ." VS, 2. "Jesus Christ," who is "the 'light of the nations' shines upon the face of his Church," which "offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Jesus Christ and his Gospel." VS, 2.***

Man is not light in and of himself, but is participated light, and is "constantly tempted to turn his gaze away" from light's source, God, and walk in in the darkness of an idolatry which darkens his capacity to know the truth. "But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the creator," VS, 1, and so there remains in man "the splendor of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit." VS, 2.

But to find answers, we have first to ask questions. And the encyclical directs us to the fundamental moral question by reflecting upon the story of the rich young man in the Gospels.

The Rich Young Ruler asks Christ
What Everyman Must Do

One ought not to think that by directing us to this story the Pope is being parochial. He already stated that the Church's moral office is universal or cosmopolitan. The question that the rich young man asks in the Gospel, is a universal question. It is the everyman question. "It is an essential an unavoidable question for the life of every man." VS, 8. It is the question which is at the foundation of every one of his acts: "What good must I do?" Quid boni faciam? It is, in fact, a religious question because it necessarily involves a turn to God, the source of all good. "To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness." VS, 9. In the nameless rich young man, "we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality." VS, 7. Asking the question, "what is good?" is impliedly already approaching God and his Christ.

Some things ought to be noted: The word "good" here is in the Latin encyclical is plural, boni. The question does not relate to one act: it includes each and every act of one's life. The question refers to the good of one's life, the good over the entirety, the moral order to which one ought to be conforming, the manner into which one ought to order one's life. In other words, the question asks for a rule, a standard. The question is asking under what law we ought to operate to do good. What is our law? Where is it to be found? How is to be known? The question is thus fundamental: it directs itself to the last end, the final end, the ultimate purpose for all our acts. But more than this, the question of rule, standard, law is more than a question "about rules to be followed," rather, it is a question "about the full meaning of life." VS, 7.

The question "what good should I do?" includes the question, "what is good?" Necessarily, that includes the question: What is evil? It is, then, the simplest question. It is both positive and negative. What good must I do, and what evil must I avoid? It is also the persistent question. It is a question that we ask here-and-now, so that we may asses our past (and acknowledge any guilt) and so that we may act in a consistent way in the future.

Note also that the question is personal: it is not a question of what we must do. That question arises later, after this first question is asked and answered. The first question to be asked is intimately singular. What must I do? The question precedes every act.

This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man's life.

VS, 7.

The other thing that should be noted is that the question presupposes that I am free, and it is in fact my freedom that allows me ask this question. If I was not free, I would have no need to ask this question. Freedom and good are inextricably intertwined. Freedom and evil are not. The rich young man does not ask: What evil must I do? The rich young man does not ask how he may abuse his freedom. He asks how he ought to use his freedom. To unhinge freedom from the question of the good, the true is an abuse of freedom. It is an error to detach "human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth." VS, 4. The rich young man does not detach good from truth.

Further, the rich young man does not ask this question to an institution, to a group. The question does not ask for what is the consensus. The question is not directed to the emperor, to the governor. Nor, however, does he ask this question to himself, though he asks it for himself. The rich young man realizes that though the question is for him, he is not the source of the answer to the question. There would be no need to ask the question, if he was the source of the answer. The source of the answer to the question is outside of him. The question is asked to a person, to a teacher, to a Rabbi, to a Rabbi who, as the Transfiguration showed us, was God, the end of the Law and the Prophets: Listen to him!

Finally, the rich young man realizes the import of his question. "What good must I do," asks the rich young man, "to have eternal life?" The doing of good is inextricably intertwined with eternal life. The fundamental moral question is thus hand in glove with man's yearning for immortality, for lasting, permanent meaning. It is what he must do for his life to have meaning, for anything done that is not good is done in vain. "The young man," like all of us, "senses that there is a connection about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life." VS, 8.

The question has been asked. How does Christ answer?
*In Greek terms, the theologians argued over whether the Son of God was the same substance (homoousios) or a similar substance (homoiousios) with the Father. Theologically, the difference between the two terms was huge, though facially the only difference was one letter--the letter "i" (in Greek, iota). Hence the expression "iota of a difference."
**The Transfiguration is described in Synoptic Gospels. See Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36.
***The Church, of course, speaks to the Christian faithful, but her ministry in the realm of morals is much broader. Not only is the Church engaged in the ministry of spreading the Gospel, she as an "'expert of humanity' places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world." VS, 3. The natural moral law is essential for salvation. It is the path upon which, preceded and accompanied by Grace, every man must walk if he is to gain salvation:
The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all.
VS, 3. It is, in fact, in the Scriptures and in the Church where we encounter Christ:
In order to make this "encounter" with Christ possible, God willed his Church. Indeed, the Church "wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life."
VS, 7.

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