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18th Sunday after Pentecost: “Death, Rather than Sin!”

Our glimpse into the Epistle reading for Sunday’s Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo of the Roman Rite continues for this coming 18th Sunday after Pentecost. Bl. Ildefonso Schuster, the great liturgist and once Cardinal Archbishop of Milan (+1954) informs us that our ancient Roman forbears identified this Sunday as the “third after the ‘birthday’ of Saint Cyprian,” the birthday, dies natalis, being his death day, his birth into Heavenly life.

Ancient sources say for this Sunday “Dominica vacat … This Sunday is empty,” because of the Saturday Ember Day during which there was a night long vigil stretching into Sunday morning. Where the vigil was not observed, outside Rome, people couldn’t be left without a Mass on Sunday so this formulary evolved.  This is why there is an interruption of the series of readings from Ephesians. On this Sunday we hear from the 1st Letter to the Corinthians (1:4-8).

[Brethren:] I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul writes the 1st Letter to exhort them to do penance and reparation and to avoid pagans and bad influences. Some ten times during the liturgical year we hear from the two letters Paul penned to the Corinthians.

Today Paul reminds us, through his ancient audience, in God’s lavish goodness and how many benefits they, we, have received from Him. We can legitimately say that Paul is addressing us, many centuries removed. In the Letter’s “superscription” (vv. 1:1-3), after greeting one particular figure, Sosthenes, Paul wrote: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

After the superscription we have the introduction, which is the entirety of this Sunday’s reading less a verse. After this, in v. 10, Paul gets down to business about divisions in the church. The following six chapters deal with the disorders in the community. The next ten chapters address cases of conscience offered to him (e.g., on conjugal relations, indissolubility of marriage, pagan idols, the veiling of women, reception of Communion in the state of sin, etc. Sounds rather contemporary, no?

Paul starts out with an expression of gratitude to God: “I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus.” If Paul is properly grateful, should not those whom he addressed also be thankful as the recipients who benefit? Therefore, they, we, should be constantly grateful. Firstly, we received the gift of existence, an existence that does not end in bodily death but continues for eternity. Death is not, as some heretically claim, the occasion of the soul’s annihilation.  Moreover, since the soul is the form meant to inform matter, there at some point must be a resurrection when the soul once again is the life principle of a body. Beyond our gratitude for existence as eternal creatures, we should be grateful for the opportunity to receive sanctifying grace. Imagine how the eons would drag on without the hope of seeing God, in whose image we are made.

For the sake of brevity, always my intention but rarely my attainment, let’s tease out a couple of points. Paul writes of the Corinthians (let’s say “us”) being “enriched… with all speech and all knowledge” so that we do not lack “any spiritual gift.” Why? Because we “wait” for Christ, who sustains us “to the end,” that is, the coming of the Lord and/or the summation of all things in the Final Judgment at the end.

Paul enriched the Corinthians with “speech and knowledge” not only by his own direct teaching among them, but also through the catechists he left behind. In another of these weekly commentaries I’ve mentioned that Paul surely had a planned curriculum which he implemented wherever he spent a good deal of time. However, there is more to “speech and knowledge” than merely knowing things. There is deeper knowledge which verges into wisdom.

In both ancient and modern philosophical and theological circles there are discussions of the relationship of scientia (knowledge) and sapiential (wisdom), or on the logical priority of faith or intellectual understanding. St. Augustine dealt with this, as did St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure. Augustine, however, is associated with the adage “Crede ut intellegas… Believe, so that you might understand.” This is founded on Isaiah 7:9, which in the Latin version of the Old Testament Augustine had, the Vetus Latina (before Jerome’s Vulgate) ran “Nisi credideritis… non intelligetis… unless you will have first believed, you will not understand.” There are mere facts which we can know. Behind, beneath, above, around the facts there’s more. In a nutshell, we can know things about the Faith, we can learn by our catechism by rote and that’s good. However, through baptism and then through enriching graces through the lens of the theological virtues, we come to understand what we’ve learned at another level, which prompts us to action and to perseverance. Perseverance, “to the end,” as it were.

There’s more to draw together. Augustine (+430), you might know, worked from a Latin text that is different than the one we refer to in the Catholic Church of our days. Jerome’s (+420) translation was underway while Augustine was alive. Circling back to Isaiah 7:9, Augustine’s Latin version of the Old Testament ran differently from the Vulgate, which translates the Hebrew ‘āman, “to support, confirm, be faithful,” but also, “to be established, be faithful, be carried, make firm” and “to stand firm, to trust, to be certain, to believe in.” The Vulgate runs, “Nisi credideritis, non permanebitis … Unless you will have first believed, you will not endure, remain firm,” which in the RSV is “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established.” Belief and being rock solid are intertwined. Baptism and confirmation bring this about in the Christian.

Crede ut intellegas and Nisi credideritis anticipate Anselm’s great “Fides quaerens intellectum… Faith seeking understanding.”

Faith seeks reasons as the eye seeks light. The eyes of the mind and heart see more in the state of grace than those darkened in mortal sin. What’s the phrase? “Sin makes you stupid.” Faith, the stage for, the steppingstone to understanding, opens the eyes to see. Faith has its own light, as Augustine says (lumen – s 126,1. Faith has a lamp, and that light source is Scripture (lucerna – en Ps 51,13). Scripture, like something alive, the living Word, seeks to be understood. This understanding comes only through faith (Io eu tr 45,7; s. 89,4). We have to turn this sock inside out, too. There is something that has to believed in before one can believe in it. In one sermon, Augustine preaches, “intellege, ut credas, uerbum meum; crede, ut intellegas, uerbum dei… Understand my word so that you may believe; believe the word of God that you might understand” (s 43,9). This is, I think, what is at the heart of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians about being “enriched” with “speech and knowledge” which enables perseverance to “the end.”

Practically speaking, we should always be seeking greater understanding, augmenting our faith. There is faith in which we believe (fides quae creditur) and faith by which we believe (fides qua creditor). The former is a content we can learn, study, memorize, etc. The later has a content which is alive, it is Our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom we can have a relationship.

Perseverance in the faith, quae and qua is vitally (in the sense of “life-giving”) important. As Ecclesiastes 7:8 says, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.” Persisting in the state of grace, avoiding whatever we know might tempt us to fall, is critical. Everything else in this world can be lost, which can bring many woes.  Earthly woes will one day end. The loss of sanctifying grace, unrepented and not dealt with, means the unending woe.

St. Joan of Arc declared “I would rather die than do something which I know to be a sin, or to be against God’s will.

Young St. Dominic Savio promised to Our Lord, “Death, rather than sin!”

Having been given the gift of faith, quae and qua, we also have the responsibility to care for it. This we do through avoid the occasions of sin that darken the intellect. We avoid bad or vague doctrine. We seek the best in liturgical worship, by which we individually and collectively as a church fulfill the obligations of the virtue of Religion. If Paul expected much of his Corinthians, would he not expect from us even more? After all, we have at our disposal centuries of reflection, a deeper understanding of the same things the Corinthians had. As I write this, I had a fleeting mental image of Paul, who was once transported to a vision of Heaven, being transported into a gloriously beautiful Roman church such with the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar as people prayed and sang and incense informed the shafts of light. I can see Him, amazed, peering, and then suddenly slapping his forehead and exclaiming, “Of COURSE!”

We have so many gifts our forebears did not yet have except in potential. Our descendants can have even more provided we safeguard it and keep it pure and steady, unsullied by the fog and crud of slithering corruption, so rife today, even in lofty climes.

With St. Augustine we know that God gives some things as the beginning of faith (opportunities to learn and prevenient graces) to those who do not pray, but He gives final perseverance only to those who do pray. St. Philip Neri told penitents to recite daily five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys” for the grace of persevere in good to the end. It will not harm us in the least to do the same and it will surely result in a strengthening of our love, which results in being firmly “established”.

Image: St. Dominic Savio: 2 April 1842 – 9 March 1857

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