May 20, 2020

Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

(Optional Memorial of St. Bernadine of Siena, priest)


First Reading: Acts 17:15, 22—18:1

Responsorial: Psalm 148:1-2, 11-12, 13, 14

Alleluia: John 14:16

Gospel: John 16:12-15

             The classical Greek philosophical tradition represents some of the most penetrating and sublime reflection on the nature of the world and the human experience. Even to this day, the works of Plato, Aristotle, and many other Greek thinkers are studied for their insights into contemporary issues and problems. The eventual incorporation of Greek philosophy gave to Christian theology a “backbone” that allowed the Church to survive and spread throughout the world, despite many cultural shifts and calamities over the centuries.

            One of the perennial questions that Greek philosophy grappled with was to discover the cause of all things. Philosophers such as Aristotle recognized that all things in motion must be set in motion by something else. Yet he also recognized that there could not be an infinite chain of things being set in motion by other things. There had to be something that was the origin, that could impel the movement of other things, without moving itself. This first mover must be an incorporeal metaphysical energy or will, rather than a material thing. In other words, as Aristotle said, “there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.”

            Educated Greeks recognized that this unmoved mover – often referred to as the “god of the philosophers” – made much more sense than their chaotic polytheism that recounted the tales of anthropomorphic gods engaging in melodramatic squabbles worthy of modern-day soap operas. 

            It was this sense that St. Paul appealed to in the Areopagus in order to evangelize the Greeks he found there. He recognized that they had built a shrine to the “Unknown God” precisely because they sensed – with the aid of their philosophy – the incompleteness of their native religion.

            Paul says: “What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

            Paul could thus present to the Greeks the essential compatibility between the God of Israel and the unmoved mover. Going back as far as Genesis, the Jews (like Aristotle) always understood their God as an “immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.”

            The Church’s theological tradition, going back to St. Paul and continuing through St. Thomas Aquinas, recognized that unaided reason can know that there is one God who created all things. This is why at the First Vatican Council, in the conciliar document Dei Filius, the Council fathers held: “Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be certainly known by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things; [and there they are quoting from Romans 1:20] ‘for the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.’”

            Of course, humanity still needs the gift of revelation in order to love God more fully and abide in his will. Nonetheless, we should be humbled and awed that pagans such as those Paul found in Areopagus built a shrine to the “unknown god” that they perceived by the prompting of mere reason. The corresponding tragedy is that many Christians fail to make a comparable effort to worship the living God who has been revealed to us in Scripture and Sacrament! The God who became man and suffered and died for our sins on the Cross! The God who has told us that he desires most loving intimacy with us!

            In the early 15th century, St. Bernadine of Siena popularized devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. He crafted the now ubiquitous “IHS” logo to represent first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek. We recall that St. Paul wrote, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The power of the name of Jesus is that it represents in summary fashion the very love of God in that the Son became incarnate for us, revealing for us the Father. As Christ said, “he who has seen me has seen the Father.” Because of the Incarnation, Christians have the right and the privilege to address our Lord by the intimacy of a familiar name. It is never something we can take for granted.