In These Latter Times

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
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A tale was told about cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin – the first man in outer space – after he returned from his expedition in April 1961.  During the state celebration, Nikita Khrushchev asked him, “Tell me, Yuri, did you see God up there?”  Gargarin paused for a second, then replied, “Yes, sir, I did.”  Khrushchev pouted and said, “Don’t tell anyone.”  Shortly afterward, the Russian Orthodox patriarch pulled Gagarin aside and asked, “Tell me, my son, did you see God up there?”  Gargarin haltingly replied, “No, sir, I did not.”  The patriarch said, “Don’t tell anyone.”


Religious talk often flows from premises and reports like those parodied in this Russian joke.  Question-begging questions (Did you see God up there?) can provoke baseless discussions and debates in theology classes, Bible studies, scholarly reports and coffee klatches.  Whether it’s a book purchased on Concourse B or a college class, religious discourse can be like having a bad meal at a bad restaurant:  if you think the food is bad, wait until you see the kitchen.  When we talk about religion, it’s helpful to first establish underlying premises (what I mean by “see the kitchen”).  What do we presume about human nature (anthropology)?  How does man know things, and what is he capable of knowing (epistemology)?  What is divine revelation (fundamental theology)?  What do we mean by “God” (philosophy)?  Theology presumes something about all of these topics.  While I can’t dive into details here, suffice it to say: without a common ground of premises, we talk past each other.  Conversations wander into never-never land, as they are based on neither Faith nor Reason.  Therefore, they run the risk of making us unfaithful and unreasonable.  Like a spooky old road in a ghost story, it dead-ends in an agnostic swamp.

St. Anselm (1033-1109) said that God is “a being than which no greater can be conceived.”  A point like that only applies to God.  The “conceptions” of the human mind conform to creation, not the Creator.  Because of creation, a Creator can be “conceived.”  But mental conception ends there.  Creation, which we see, suggests an unseen Artist hiding behind his art.  “For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship” (Romans 1:19-20).  Therefore, we know God exists.   That’s the pinnacle of reason.  As for atheism, it’s more a disease of the will than of the mind.  After all, it’s impossible to disprove God’s existence because it’s impossible to disprove the existence of anything – including things for which (unlike God) we have no evidence, like unicorns.  But unlike unicorns, there’s plenty of evidence for God.  As Leibnitz (1646-1716) put it, “Why something and not nothing?”  Philosophically, God’s existence is certain.  That certainty has nothing to do with religion or Faith.  It’s just reasonable.  That’s a compliment to the human mind.  A concept of God is the mind’s limit and greatest achievement. 


If it’s reasonable to think “God exists,” then it’s reasonable to believe that God said something to us.  “What God said” is called “revelation.”  It’s the basis of Faith, and it supplies the premises of theology.  Therefore, Faith is a certainty composed of mysteries.  The Catholic Catechism says, “Faith is certain.  It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie.  To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but ‘the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.’  ‘Ten thousand difficulties make not one doubt’” (CCC 157).  The articles of Faith – doctrine – open up a whole new world of possibilities for the mind (and the heart!).  By Faith, we transcend ourselves. 


News reports, TV documentaries, New York Times bestsellers, “scholarly” findings, “studies” and even textbooks often claim all but conclusive evidence debunking Christianity, or at least casting doubt on it.  They assert things like Jesus had brothers, or that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, or that Christian orthodoxy was only an emperor’s imposition, or that Jesus didn’t say half the things quoted in the Gospels.  My favorite spurious claim is that there’s no evidence of a resurrection. As if rising from the dead would leave behind fingerprints, good-bye notes and a paper trail, or that there are other resurrections by which we can measure this one.  Another favorite is that Pentecost was a mass hallucination, as if tripping-out would give rise to a Church.  If they really did have “too much wine” (Acts 2:13), it would have ended in a hangover, not a hierarchy.  Headlining “Who Was the Real Jesus?” briefly spikes readership, especially around Christmas and Easter.  What follows is predictable: viral crises of faith that fizzles like a dud firework.  It’s what happens when religion loses sight of “the kitchen” – its basic premises.  At worst, all of this should feel like being barked at by a pack of Chihuahuas.  Annoying, but not fatal.  Years ago, I was told that I had my “head in the sand” because I wasn’t reading The Da Vinci Code.  I replied that life’s too short, and some books are too long.  Ask me any question provoked by that book, and I’ll ask you what your premises are – about reality, man, God or “what God has said.”  If Faith is shaken by Dan Brown or the Discovery Channel – none of whom have half the brains necessary to be the Antichrist – what will happen when the real Antichrist comes?  Time’s End is closing in on us, and we have yet to see Faith’s biggest trials.  It’s for those we must prepare.


In today’s Mass, the prophet Malachi and Jesus testify to time’s End.  “Lo, the day is coming,” says the Lord through Malachi, “blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble… But for you who fear my Name, there will arise the Sun of Justice with its healing rays.”  Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place, and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”  He goes on, “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you… You will be hated by all because of my Name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By perseverance you will secure your lives.”  The Catechism sums it up:  “Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.  The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist…. by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh” (CCC 675).   The Book of Genesis foretold the conflict: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). 


A key player in that conflict is “the woman,” a foretelling of Mary.  When Jesus – “the woman’s offspring” – was born, Mary was quiet and hidden.  God kept her out of the spotlight.  Attention was on Jesus.  Otherwise, people would’ve been distracted by her grace and spiritual power.  So Providence kept her hidden until Jesus was fully revealed.  But as time’s End approaches and the Second Coming nears, God wills that Mary be made more known.  St. Louis Marie de Monteforte (1673-1716) said, “As she was the way by which Jesus first came to us, she will again be the way by which he will come to us the second time, though not in the same manner.”  He went on to say, “In these latter times Mary must shine forth more than ever in mercy, power and grace: in mercy, to bring back and welcome lovingly poor sinners and wanderers who are to be converted and return to the Catholic Church; in power, to combat the enemies of God who will rise up menacingly to seduce and crush by promises and threats all those who oppose them; finally, she must shine forth in grace to inspire and support the valiant soldiers and loyal servants of Jesus Christ who are fighting for his cause.”


In today’s Gospel, Christ says the Church will experience trials, persecutions and traps from the Enemy before the Second Coming.  Father de Monteforte said, “It is chiefly in reference to these last wicked persecutions of the devil, daily increasing until the advent of the reign of Antichrist, that we should understand that first and well-known prophecy and curse of God uttered against the serpent in the garden of Paradise.”  “I will place enmity between you (Satan) and the woman (Mary), between your offspring and her offspring; she (Mary) will crush your head and you (Satan) will strike at her heal” (Genesis 3:15).  The battle between Mary and Satan intensifies as the End nears.  Mary unmasks Satan’s cunning and exposes his evil.  “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Revelation 12:1).


Though God’s power is infinitely greater than Mary’s, Satan fears her more.  Satan fears humility, not power.  As Father de Monteforte said, “It simply means that Satan, being so proud, suffers infinitely more in being vanquished and punished by a lowly and humble servant of God, for her humility humiliates him more than the power of God.”  Herein lies Mary’s secret.  “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).  We’re entering a new phase of history: the age of Mary, the Mother of the Church. Christ came through Mary and will return through her.  That’s a premise you can rely on.  “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the End is still to come.” (Matthew 24:6).