The question of death

A good question for today, and one I was asked yesterday, is why Christianity sometimes seems to be so focussed on death?

It’s true, sometimes we read and hear a lot about death, but also about the life that comes after. On the Cross, after all, Jesus Christ saved us, for all time, from eternal death, so to ignore it in our faith would be rather foolish. But does that mean that our life here on earth is nothing but a prelude to what comes later, a time of preparation and not a life of positives an negatives in its own rights? Certainly not.

We currently (assuming that my entire readership consists of people here on earth, of course…) live in God’s creation. This is where our earthly life takes place, and God created it because he desired to do so, and He intends us to life in it. To not life that life to the fullest in the Creation that God has given us responsibility for (Gen. 1:28), would be negligence.

God also went to great lengths to assure that life would endure, that His creation would not be left empty. An example is the story of Noah (Gen. 6:9 – 8:22).

In Jesus Christ, God desired to grant man the fullness of life (Matt. 4:4). Throughout the Gospels we find reports of how Jesus restored people to the fullness of their lives, in the miracles He performed. And, as I wrote before, Christ died and rose again to be victorious over death (Rom 6:10).

So to say that our life here on earth only matters as a time of preparation for what is to come is not true. But that is not the same as saying that the time to come does not matter, or that we should not prepare for it.

Death is a reality. Some day our life here on earth will end, and after a shorter or longer time we will enter into the eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, we read much cryptic language about the end times, but we may be assured from this text that death no longer has any power of those belonging to Christ. That is us. But our earthly life will end, and we will meet the Lord face to face afterwards. It is good, even necessary to prepare for that. As Christians, it is good to have some preoccupation with death, although it should not be a singular preoccupation, because we also have a duty in life.

Today is All Souls’ Day, on which we remember all who have died; those who are with the Lord, those who are not, and those who someday will be. We all belong to the second or third category. A prayer for the dead is also a prayer for ourselves.

Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen

Art credit: ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’, by Fra Angelico (1423-4) © The National Gallery, London

A new altar for Saint Joseph

Yesterday evening I attended an ordination. Although it wasn’t a person being ordained, and it wasn’t actually called an ordination, the Mass had the basic structure of a priestly ordination. The bishop did the honours, we prayed the Litany of All Saints, there was anointing and a first Mass. What ‘got ‘ordained’ then? A new people’s altar.

Together with a new ambo, it was a gift from the parish council to the parish on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the consecration of our cathedral, St. Joseph’s. The new altar replaces a fairly simple but heavy wooden table. This one is smaller and therefore makes the entire sanctuary appear bigger. With its flat stone surface and legs crafted into the symbols of the four evangelists, it matches the rest of the sanctuary well. The only distractions are the two candle holders. Blue appears nowhere else in the sanctuary, and although the candles are nice and big, there should be six of them. A minor complaint about an otherwise nice altar.

The smaller size of the new altar means that the number of concelebrants is practically limited. In yesterday’s Mass, the bishop concelebrated with his vicar general and the cathedral administrator, and other members of the cathedral chapter were attending in choir. It certainly makes the sanctuary look less crowded.

Why such an elaborate ceremony for what is, essentially, a piece of furniture, though? It shouldn’t be a surprise that in a Church, nothing is just a piece of furniture, especially when it’s in the sanctuary. That altar, in fact, is one of the most important elements in a church, perhaps second only to the tabernacle. It is where Christ becomes present for us, where His sacrifice and resurrection are made present again for us, from where we receive Him in communion. Everything we do, have and know in our faith comes from there. That is why a new altar needs to be changed from just a piece of furniture into a sacramental. It needs to be prepare for its holy service.

That is why it is anointed., which may be seen in the photo below: Bishop de Korte is anointing the surface of the altar. That is why we pray for the intercession of all the saints, just as we do when a man is ordained to the priesthood. Our prayers will aid in receiving and benefitting from what we receive from the altar. In the surface of the altar, relics are embedded, as an altar exists in connection with the graves of the martyrs and, eventually, with the altars that Abel, Noah, Abraham and other Old Testament Fathers erected. The consecration of an altar is also a public act, since the use of the altar is public: it will allow the community of faithful to receive the Eucharist, and thus be united in faith.

The altar is no longer just a piece of furniture. It is a tool towards our salvation.

Day of Judaism

The Dutch bishops decided in 2008 to have an annual Day of Judaism in January, following the example of the Church in Italy, Poland and Austria. The purpose of that day is to pay attention to what Judaism means for us Christians.

That’s a pretty general statement, of course. It’s very easy to simply acknowledge the role that the Jewish people played in the past and leave it at that.

A step further is to seek out Jewish people and institutions and actively establish a form of contact with them. The pope will be doing that by visiting a synagogue in Rome, and my bishop will do so likewise with a synagogue in Groningen. This is a way to establish contact and acknowledge one another’s existence and value.

Likewise, there are ways to inform the Catholic faithful about the beliefs and values of the Jewish people. Parish meetings, discussion groups and what have you. I don’t know if this is also done in reverse, that rabbis visit churches or Jewish groups learn about the Christian faith, but this is primarily an initiative from the Dutch Church province.

Why a specific Day of Judaism, though? The Second Vatican Council devoted a declaration to the relations of the Church with other faiths. About Judaism, it says:

[T]he Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ – Abraham’s sons according to faith – are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself. (Nostra Aetate 4)

The Jewish people are the olive tree upon which the wild shoots have been grafted. The wild shoots, the gentiles who were not Jewish but became followers of Christ through baptism, are dependent on the tree. Without it they will die.

In the Old Testament we may find the details of the development of the Convenant that God made with the people of Israel. Last night, I attended a faith evening in my parish, where this topic was further discussed. Mark Borst, who made the introductory remarks, explained the line of covenants and oaths that God made with the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament. He took this from Scott Hahn’s book A Father Who Keeps His Promises. It started with Adam and the covenant affected a couple: him and Eve. A second covenant was made with Noah, who was a father, and so the covenant affected a family. Then came Abraham, the leader of multiple families. Moses is next, who leads a complet people, or at least a group of tribes, out of Egypt. David is next, and he is king of the people of Israel, as well as a number of other peoples in the territories he conquered. The last covenant is the one made by Jesus, and that covers all the peoples: a covenant that only God Himself could keep.

We see development in covenants that includes and affects an ever larger group of people. Until the fifth step, the Jewish people are at the core of the covenants with God (which all remain in effect, by the way – they are fulfilled and reinforced in each other and ultimately in Christ), and step six, the covenant that Jesus forged on the cross, comes forth out of them.

With this logic it is clear that there is a very old and strong connection between the Church and the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II rightly called them ‘our older brother’, who taught us about who God is and what He does.

However, there are differences, as should be clear. Not being on expert in Judaic theology, I’ll limit myself to the one difference that is most divisive: the Messiah. In essence, Judaism still awaits the coming of the Messiah, while Christianity maintains He already has come in Jesus Christ. This difference has led to much animosity and misunderstanding over the centuries and indeed it took a while for both parties to achieve a level of mutual understanding.

The Church acknowledges the differences and prays for the recognition of Christ as the Messiah by all people, but no longer accuses the Jews of having murdered Christ and being a forsaken people.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. (Nostra Aetate 4)

This Day of Judaism has the potential to bridge the gap that still exists between Christians and Jews. But it does require work. A bishop’s visit to a synagogue is good for local contacts and should be encouraged as such. But when I see only about a dozen people faithfully attending a faith evening about the the covenant of Moses, I can’t help but think that the information will reach only a few people.

Respectful positive dialogue with the Jewish people, coming from both sides, is the way to go, acknowledging the things we share (and we share a lot) and the things that divide us. That is fair to us, to them, and to God.