We continue with this year’s task, our dive into the Epistle, the first reading for Sunday’s Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo of the Roman Rite. We began this Eastertide with readings from 1 Peter. As we draw nearer to the Feast of the Ascension we hear from St. James the Lesser through his Letter. For more on St. James, see last week’s offering.
Each reading has a context. For example, it is helpful to know that the Apostle James intended his letter for a wide audience rather than a specific, targeted community. For me, at least, it makes James’ words more immediate.
Another aspect of context is our place in the timeline of the sacred liturgical year. We are in Eastertide, for sure, but this incoming week is Rogation Week.
“Rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning “to ask.” There are two phases of Rogation Days, the “major” on 25 April, and the “minor,” Monday through Wednesday before Ascension Thursday. Real Ascension is on Thursday not some other (Novus Ordo) day. On Rogation Days, with fasting, processions and the singing of the Litany of Saints, we ask God to protect us from danger. One danger in the ancient world was crop failure. Indeed, our Christian Rogation Days tradition stems from the pagan Roman practice of the Robigalia procession on 25 April with, among other weird things, the sacrifice of a dog to the god (really a demon) Robigus against wheat rust, a disease that attacked that precious crop. By the 5th century here and there in France, Christians had replaced all the pagan stuff with goodly uses. The practice spread in a wholesome way as wholesome practices did. Pope Leo III (+816) incorporated the Rogation Days into the Roman Rite. So, we’ve had them for well over a thousand years, give or take a century.
In some places, these Rogation processions were an important way to keep alive the knowledge of boundaries in a time before modern maps. The annual processions would go around the bounds of a town or parish. In England this came to be known as the “beating of the bounds.” The deeper purpose, however, remained the petition to God for good harvests and the averting of calamity.
Apparently, after the sunny and optimistic event of the Second Vatican Council it was not considered necessary to beg God for anything like food or protection from harm. Therefore, in the “reform” of the Church’s liturgical calendar the Rogation Days and Ember Days were both – never mind a millennium of use – relegated to the judgement of regional conferences of bishops which in their collective wisdom could recommend these practices or not. The Rogation Days and Ember Days, while still a “thing” tucked away in a brief mention in official Novus Ordo liturgical calendars, went the way of other things no longer considered all that central to the life of Catholics, like Friday penance or going to confession or receiving Communion in the state of grace. And, gosh, aren’t we just so much better off now than our forebears!
Therefore, on the threshold of Rogation Week, as we approach Ascension Thursday, we hear from St. James.
[Dearly beloved,] be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing. If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Apostle offers us help toward self-reflection and authenticity.
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
The dedicated, self-reflective Christian doesn’t let the Word (aka Christ) go in one ear and out the other. The Christian strives to take a firm grip on the Word and make it his own. We eat the bread from the good crops God protects and transform it into our bone and flesh. On a deeper level, the Word (aka Christ) isn’t what we, as the agents of transformation, change into ourselves. The Word is the change agent that transforms us more and more into what He is, more manifest images of God in whose likeness we are made. This is true of the Word, Christ, in Holy Scripture as it is true of the Word in the Eucharist.
If we are professed Christians who are not actively striving to be transformed by the Word, we are not true to ourselves or true to the Word.
If we turn this sock inside out, we also know that one who tends to talk but doesn’t thereafter “walk” isn’t authentic either. It’s an easy thing to talk about doing something. It’s another thing to attempt to do it. Even if we have fallen short of the goal, in the striving there is truth. In both cases, hearing the Word and making it our own and producing words, perhaps even echoing the Word, and then making it concrete, there must be harmony. Otherwise, we are self-deceivers as well as other-deceivers.
James uses the image of an image. Remember that ancient mirrors were not nearly as clear and well-made as modern mirrors. In James’ time, there would be distortions of the image in the uneven, polished surface. In our time, mirrors show the distortions that are really there. Holding up a mirror to ourselves is still a powerful way of getting across the process of self-examination which we should be engaged in every day. We see our defects, defects others see. We are thereby prompted to find the defects less easily discerned.
To be who we are now through our baptismal character, to be who we are as constantly transforming hearers and doers of the Word, we must undertake regular examinations of conscience, review of our deeds, misdeeds and omissions. If Socrates would affirm about the worldly life that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology 38a5–6) we must affirm that the unexamined life probably won’t attain the blessings of eternal life. And if that is the case, then we might be like one about whom Christ Himself said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24).
Contact with the Word is a call to action. Action does not contrast with contemplation, of course. There will always be a tension in this earthly vale between the goods of an active life and of a contemplative life. These tensions will only be perfectly resolved in Heaven. In this essay, therefore, let us acknowledge these tensions and focus on the active, as James as done.
James was not one simply to drop a bunch of words on his hearers – in the ancient world these letters were read aloud to gatherings. The Apostle provides three practical points in this snippet of Scripture for liturgical use, this pericope (Greek περικοπή, “a cutting-out”). They are not mysterious, but they are important: 1) bridle the tongue, 2) perform works of mercy, 3) remain unstained by the world. Maybe #3 is a little mysterious.
First, bridling your tongue isn’t too hard to figure out. The Greek here is the fun-to-say χαλιναγωγέω (chalinagōgéō) which is “to lead by a bridle,” as in the contraption by which we guide a horse now here, now there, now nowhere. Bridle doesn’t mean remain totally silent all the time. Yes, we can “park” a horse, by tying the bridle to something. However, the bridle is meant for regulated movement forward and something backward (pace a certain guy in Rome). When we rope a calf, we make the horse backup thus keeping tension on the rope to control the lassoed critter. We must be careful to use well-reasoned words with the proper tone at the right time. Sometimes we need to backtrack to correct our errors or to say we are sorry. And, certainly, we could avoid a lot of problems by tying up our tongues in more situations than we perhaps willing to admit.
Second, you have certainly memorized the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Are you doing them? If you aren’t, stick this in your pipe and smoke it. The failure to perform them could win the supreme penalty of eternal damnation:
Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, in everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. (Matthew 25:41)
That’s enough about that one.
Third, remain “unstained from the world.” Here I suggest help from 1 John 2:16 in which we read about concupiscence of the flesh (gluttony, impurity, and all kinds of other sinful pleasures), the concupiscence of the eyes (covetousness, an inordinate craving after temporal goods and the sinful attachment to them) and the pride of life (ambition, which includes sins of vanity and pride). I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that greater share of mankind is infected with these three vices, even Christians who live outwardly well-ordered lives. Temporal pleasure, things of the flesh, matters that appeal to vanity and pride are infectious and pernicious and the Enemy of the soul can, through them, gain a strong grip. Again, brutally honest analysis of self in that mirror of the regular examination of conscience is a powerful medicine against these spiritual illnesses.
Since I invoked Plato, above, as well as baptizing what is pagan, I’ll continue with ancient pagan wisdom which we have made our own. What’s right is right, after all, and as my old pastor used to say, “when you’re right, you can’t be wrong.” In the so-called “Golden Verses” attributed to Pythagoras (+c. 495 BC) we find (40-46):
Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
And if you have done any good, rejoice.
Practice thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; you ought to love them with all your heart.
It is those that will put you in the way of divine virtue.
The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, surely influenced by this, wrote:
I make use of this opportunity, daily pleading my case at my own court. When the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent, aware as she is of my habit, I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said. I conceal nothing from myself, I pass nothing by. I have nothing to fear from my errors when I can say: ‘See that you do not do this anymore. For the moment, I excuse you.’
It is one thing to forgive yourself, for purification of memory is important. It is incumbent on all of us to ask God for forgiveness as well, through the Sacrament of Penance. This is the means Christ Himself desired for our reconciliation and peace. Go to confession.
Lastly, because I am going long this week, allow me to close with a simple but effective and sometimes scary point of examination of conscience. It might be a good idea – think of what James said about deception – to ask:
What lies did I tell myself today?
“I had to do that. He made me do it.”
“Well, it was only just a little sin. It doesn’t matter.”
“It was okay to do that, others do it too.”
“It’s too hard to stop doing this.”
“I’m glad I’m not a sinner like that guy.”
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz