Our context for the 4th Sunday after Easter is, in the liturgical year, our preparation for the Ascension of the Lord. Sometimes the Feast of the Ascension Thursday is given short shrift, which is unfortunate. One could argue that transferring Ascension from Thursday to Sunday was intended to emphasize the feast by making it more accessible to a week-day working congregation. On the other hand, when bishops dissolved mid-week obligations, transferring important moments such as Epiphany and Ascension Thursday, they almost certainly sent an unintended signal that our feasts are not worth sacrificing for. The, no doubt, pastoral intention has probably done more harm than good. However, with the Vetus Ordo there is an option to observe Ascension Thursday on Thursday and to celebrate it as an “external feast” on Sunday.
As mentioned last week, we are now into the second phase of the Season of Easter. Our Mass formularies have shifted from their first emphasis, the Resurrection, now to the Ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit. As with last week, we have for our Gospel reading another pericope from the Last Supper Discourse in John 16. It is a straightforward reading. One point that might need clarification is the statement of the Lord that “the prince of this world is already judged” or else “the ruler of this world is judged” (RSV), The “árchon toútou kósmou… princeps huius mundi” is the Devil. This image of “archon… princeps” is in Matthew, when the Lord refers to Beezebub the “prince of the devils” (cf. Matthew 9:34; 12:24, Mark 3:22). In John 14:30, Christ says “the prince of this world is coming. He has no power over me.” See also John 12:31. God alone is King.
The Devil, as marvelous a creature as once he was before his fall, can never be a king of anything. But he can be a kind of “prince” or “ruler”. The fallen angels have a measure of domination over material creation, and they are also restrained by God. However, because of Original Sin, we too fell under the domination of the Enemy of the Soul. This is why in the ancient rites of baptism there were exorcisms. This is why when priests bless certain objects, important sacramentals, there are exorcisms before the constitutive blessings. When Father blesses objects he tears them away from the “prince of this world” and hands them over to the King. They are no longer for temporal or profane (pro-fanum, “outside the sacred place”) use. They are sacred objects, deserving respect. The new-fangled Book of Blessings, contrary to the older, traditional Rituale Romanum, explicitly seeks to eliminate the distinction between invocative blessings (a calling down of God’s favor here and now) and constitutive blessings (rendering a place, thing or person, “sacred”). It seems to me that, when we eliminate, say, the Leonine Prayers after Low Mass, invoking St. Michael the Archangel, and we eliminate constitutive blessings, we are cruising for spiritual bruising. Look around.
The Epistle reading this week is, like last Sunday, from one of the Catholic Epistles, the Letter of James, that is “James the Just”, the “brother of the Lord”, son of Alphaeus, who was the first bishop in Jerusalem. This “Catholic” doesn’t refer sectarian differences between Catholics and heretic Protestants or separated Orthodox. Greek katholikos is a compound of kata and hólos, meaning “according to the whole”. So, the “Catholic” Epistles or Letters, were not written to a specific community, as were Romans or 1 and 2 Corinthians. They were written to a wider readership, such as a modern papal encyclical might be. As a matter of fact, the Letter of James begins: “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion…”, that is, to Jews of the “Diaspora”, “scattered” around the ancient world.
James was a disputed writing in the ancient Church. It was acknowledged that it contained good and holy things but at first there was debate about whether it was a writing inspired by God. Even centuries after the canon (roughly “table of contents”) of inspired writings was established, renegade theologians fought against James and denied its divine inspiration. The most famous of these was Martin Luther who infamously called James an “epistle of straw”. Luther came to espouse a “solfidian” teaching about justification, “sola fide… by faith alone”. James 2:24 says, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”, or better from the Greek, “not by faith only”. Luther renders James into German as, “nicht durch den Glauben allein … not by faith alone“. Against his rendering of James, Luther pitted Rom 3:28, “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Luther, in his German translation, inserted a word, “alone”, “allein durch den Glauben … through faith alone“. Luther, seeing that James undermined his solafidian notions, declared that James had “no evangelical character“. When other protested, Luther responded in 1530 in his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, his “Open Letter on Translating”
“If your papist makes much useless fuss about the word sola, allein, tell him at once: Doctor Martin Luther will have it so, and says: Papist and donkey are one thing; sic volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we do not want to be pupils and followers of the Papists, but their masters and judges.” … The word allein shall remain in my New Testament, and though all pope-donkeys (Papstesel) should get furious and foolish, they shall not turn it out.”
That interpolated Latin is from Satire VI of Juvenal (+2nd c. AD) by which Luther mocked Popes: “I will it, I command it, my will is reason enough.”
By the way, it is also in Satire VI that find the phrase, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes… who will guard the guards?” That’s custodes as in Traditionis custodes. The Latin underscores that when the enforcers of morals are themselves corrupt, it is neigh on impossible to maintain morality. For example, if bishops crack down on traditional liturgical worship in the Vetus Ordo and then allow all manner of Novus Ordo hijinks to go on, by what right should they expect to be obeyed regarding the crackdown? Perhaps the answer is found in the Seat of Moses of Matthew 23:1-3.
I wonder what Dr. Luther would have thought of Francis. Francis trotted out Dr. Luther rather publicly for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolt, putting up his statue in the Paul VI Audience Hall and put Luther and Protestant hardliner Philip Schwartzerdt or “Black Earth” (in Greek Melancthon) on a Vatican Post stamp. Curious.
The Sunday reading from James begins with a reference to the immutability of God, calling Him the “Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (v. 17). Every gift that is good comes from Him. We might conclude that if the gift is not good, it is probably from the “prince of this world”. James then brings in how God is the creator: “Of his own will He brought us forth by the word of truth…” (v. 18). He then presents key elements of Christian behavior:
Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. Therefore, put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (vv. 19-21).
How many sins could we avoid if we would bridle our tongues and stay cool under provocation? Do not act impulsively but consider your words and actions. Stay close to the sacraments and use sacramentals well to reduce the influence of the soul’s enemy.
Alas, the reading ends there and does not go on with verses 22-27:
But 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.
Faith without works is dead. – James 2:17
We were all brought into this world according to God’s plan. We all have something to do. Discern. Get to work. And to clarify your spiritual view and straighten out your head and heart, as part of your discernment, go to confession.
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