An Epiphany of Sorts

I. Next week will be my first time to share fully in the Eucharist. Until now I have only gone to the altar to receive a blessing. At the Saturday Vigil for the Baptism of the Lord Mass I will be confirmed as a Roman Catholic, into the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" according to the Nicene Creed.

If you are like me and were raised a protestant, then you are most likely woefully ignorant of the ancient Christian calendar. Each Sunday every Catholic church celebrates the same day of the Christian year and reads the same passages from scripture (from the Old Testament, Psalms, the New Testament, and the Gospels, which is more Bible reading than any protestant church I've ever attended). The readings correspond to some aspect of Christ's life. This Sunday I'm writing, the 6th of January, recalls the Epiphany of the Lord.

I have to confess that before this week I hadn't the faintest clue what the Epiphany was all about. Some literary device straight out of James Joyce, maybe. Then I confusedly associated it with the Transfiguration. Sound like they mean the same thing, don't they? Sure, I knew about the Three Wise Men, but I'd never had the story put to me quite the same way that it was during the homily for today. Briefly, Epiphany Sunday is about the revelation of the universality of Christ for all mankind. This is what is meant by the three kings, or astrologers, traditionally representing the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia, bearing tribute to the seemingly simple Jewish child who is destined for greatness.

Meditating on the Epiphany message led me to two insights that represent two halves of the same truth. Without trying to come over as repeating leftist shibboleths: (1) All men are the same, and (2) all men are different. Each assertion implies certain reasonable conclusions and normative responses. These are what I want to share with you.

II. That all men are the same, just like Jefferson's u2018all men are created equal,' says nothing about equality of ability, or outcome, or aptitude, or any of those other variables that apply in life. What it does speak to, though, is our common humanity. We all possess a basic human nature, i.e. we are made in the image of God. And we all stand in need of the grace of God.

People can't gain dignity by their own actions; they can only lose it. Our dignity rests on the premise that we are created by God and that he loves us, enough so that He Himself became a man through the Incarnation. We have dignity because we are valued by the One Who is the Source of all values. Affirmation by the State won't grant dignity. Accumulating wealth doesn't add dignity. A lot of members of the opposite sex thinking you're cute won't add dignity. Class consciousness won't add a single iota of dignity. Even renouncing all these things won't make you more dignified, if, as St. Paul writes, it is not accompanied by charity.

Just by virtue of being born does, though, impute dignity to a person, and that is by the gift of God. And that entitlement from God, and the obligation we owe to one another to treat each other fairly and as our neighbors, is incurred by doing nothing. But, we owe all the same response in kind; and it is by transgressing against the good that God entrusted to you at first that you begin to lose your native dignity. That is the spontaneous order of things. That is the root of justice. That is the origin of natural law.

Part of how we understand God is by theologizing that God is the only Being able to act with complete liberty. Nothing necessitates God except his own perfect will. People find themselves constrained at many points in their lives. Still, says the Catholic view of man, we must take moral culpability very seriously precisely because we acknowledge the dignity of man, and that insofar as God made us in His image, and we are shadows of the Creator, we too are endowed with enough liberty and freedom to will good or bad. No law ever passed by a government can claim to make something good or bad. God has already deemed it so. We should identify with St. Thomas More who said, "I am the king's good servant, but God's first."

When God lead the three kings to the baby Jesus, He was foreshadowing the extension of the Gospel to Jew and Gentile alike. These three foreigners must have been like the Gentiles Paul was referring to who u2018have God's Law written in their hearts.' In these dark days, when we hastily forget the origin of our shared humanity, it would behoove us to recall that God is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. Just because the Supreme Court okays killing unborn children doesn't make it alright. Just because a small band of fanatics commits a heinous crime doesn't make it perfectly fine to bomb thousands of poverty stricken innocents. In both cases it only makes it easier for us to ignore murder.

III. Another terrifying tendency of modern life is mass standardization. Standardization doesn't start with the recognition of a common humanity; rather, it begins with difference and proceeds in a forced leveling down and diminution of the person to make that person a commodity, a producer-consumer-voter more amenable to control.

The hubris of centralization and its inherent idolatry of the state is witnessed at the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 11, in the story of the Tower of Babel. These people were part of an empire. The tower they were building was a ziggurat, which is a pyramid like temple in what is today modern Iraq. Prominent among this people's features was that they spoke the same standardized language. Part of the punishment for their iniquity was a confusion of languages.

It is not a part of God's will for all people to be exactly alike. Each human individual ever conceived is a unique creation of God. As they grow, they will take on more and more characteristics to distinguish them from others. They will take part in the common life of a people and of a family. One of the great curses of modern life is the rootlessness of a gypsy work- force pulled here and there as part of a labor market, but never as part of something transcendent.

We are confronted with two very different ideas: division and diversity. If we try to force a unity that is not rooted in the Fatherhood of God, then division will be our end. If we accept God's sovereignty, then there is an important place for the diversity that is His blessing. In the Book of Revelation it is to God's glory that people from u2018every nation, tribe, race, and language are before the throne and the Lamb.' The diversity of humanity is what allows each of us to pursue our own special vocations and attain a greater happiness for all as we exchange the fruits of our labor.

IV. As an addendum to the preceding, I have just finished an excellent book that I highly recommend, Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce. In this book Pearce follows the lives of about a century's worth of English intellectual converts to Catholicism. Among these converts were Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene.

In one passage Pearce examines what is one of the most turbulent and fractious episodes in modern Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council, and especially the extremely negative reaction characteristic of many of the converts, especially Waugh. One of the main criticisms directed against the Council was its liturgical reform that severely restricted the traditional role accorded to Latin. Now, I'm speaking as a new convert that has never been to a Latin Mass, though I have attended more traditional Masses where Latin is sometimes used. Nor am I proficient in Latin, although I was fortunate enough to get two years of it at prep school, before the program was done away with in favor of modern languages. My opinion, for whatever it's worth, is that the Mass in the vernacular, when done well, is inspiring and beautiful. There is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And, having read the documents of Vatican II, and accepting Papal infallibility and the Church's Teaching Authority, I find nothing objectionable about the Council, except how some more radical reformers seek to use it as a bludgeon to remake the Church to their desire.

There is one part of Waugh's argument, however, that I think we need to recover. He felt that once we plead our cause on the grounds of utility we've already lost the battle. What is the reason for us to study Latin, for example? Not because it is useful. Certainly not. Oh, I agree that my two years of Latin immeasurably helped my command of English, and anyone entering the medical or legal professions would certainly benefit from a knowledge of Latin, plus learning Latin helps one to think logically. The real reason we should learn Latin, though, is a kind of patriotism. Latin is ours. I'm pretty sure that none of my direct ancestors was a Roman living in Italy. They were pretty much occupied as German barbarians, British farmers, and Cherokee hunters. But, I am a Westerner. I have a heritage. Latin civilization is one of the most important parts of my cultural patrimony. And, even if we never go back to the Latin Mass, Latin is still integral to the traditions of the Catholic faith. So, to assert my uniqueness and reclaim my own past, I am adding reviewing Latin to that list of things we should all have for ourselves to do, to sustain us through these dark ages.

January 7, 2002