Eli Stone

Eli Stone is a Research Assistant for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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Faith of our Fathers: St. Justin Martyr

Not much is known about the life of St. Justin Martyr. A second-century apologist and martyr born around 100 A.D., Justin first began life as a pagan Greek. Dissatisfied with his early studies, he began wandering among the fashionable philosophical schools of his day—from Stoics to Peripatetics to Pythagoreans. Finally, Justin felt some sense of rest in Platonism, but upon hearing of the existence of some prophets who, centuries before, had been animated by the Spirit of the One True God, he became intrigued. In studying the Christian faith and witnessing the virtuous and ascetic lives led by the Christian faithful, Justin was converted and began to teach Christianity as the “true philosophy.” At one point opening his own school in Rome, Justin came to earn the disfavor of the Roman authorities, and was beheaded for his Christian faith in the 160s A.D. His written work survived him, and he is most known for his two Apologies (“Defenses” of the Christian faith), and his later Dialogue with Trypho, a spirited disputation with a Jew over whether Christ is truly the Jewish Messiah.
In both the First and Second Apology, St. Justin Martyr seeks to dissuade the Roman emperor Antonius Pius and the Roman Senate from continuing the persecution of Christians of his own day. In order to do this, Justin appeals to justice, arguing that the moral and civic virtue of the Christian people makes it manifestly unfair to punish them. Justin argues that the conduct of Christians—including their respect for civil law, abstinence from all crimes and disturbance of the peace, offering prayers for the emperors and governors, and the charitable work of the Church for the poor and needy—rather than earning death sentences, ought to win the praise and favor of the Roman authorities. The life of a Christian, Justin argues, represents that of a model citizen, even better than many other Roman citizens who live their lives undisturbed. And so, justice demands that the persecution of Christians cease. To build his case, Justin offers a brief summary of various misunderstood points of the Christian faith—allegations of atheism, sorcery, and cannibalism, in particular—many of which had been leveled against Christians as justification for Roman violence. In the course of his arguments, however, Justin frequently compares the teaching of Christians with those of other, earlier Greek and Roman thinkers. By pointing out the similarities between, say, the teachings of Plato and those of Christ, Justin seeks to demonstrate that Christianity is not opposed to, but rather harmonious with, many elements of existing Greco-Roman culture and values. In light of Justin’s goals, and the widespread religious pluralism of his day, it would have perhaps been easier for Justin to mention only the similarities of these religious traditions—opting to neglect the radical differences between the Christian and the Pagan in order to “smooth over” diplomatic relations. Justin, however, refused to do this; instead, he confidently supports the divergence of Christian faith from many points of Roman religion, especially denouncing the worship of multiple “gods”—whom Justin frequently refers to as “demons.” Throughout his writings, Justin does not only seek to claim that, but also why, giving his Roman audience the opportunity to see that, while Christian tradition diverges from Roman tradition, it does not do so arbitrarily, but for good and compelling reasons. As Justin’s own conversion was prompted by his learning of the Old Testament prophets, he frequently makes reference to them in his own arguments. If various nomadic and unusual historical figures were, at different times and places across the centuries, capable of foretelling the events of Christ’s birth, life, and death—if this is all true, then surely, Justin argues, these ought to be considered divine signs of authenticity. But perhaps the most compelling evidence in favor of Christianity that Justin finds lies not in the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, but rather in the Greek “prophets”: the poets and philosophers. Immediately before the above passage, Justin explains that the “seed of Reason [Logos] is implanted in every race of men” (II Apology, IIX). This means that all cultures are bound together by access to the same fundamental and transcendental realities such as Truth, Beauty, Uprightness, and the like. These realities are accessible to all by reason; thus those who have the opportunity to exercise their reason most—for example, lawyers and philosophers—often come into contact with these realities, and can “speak well” regarding them. In the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, one can find a plethora of truths and insights into the nature of reality, God, and the mystery of mankind. Justin, however, makes a monopolizing claim for the Christian faith: “whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word.” That is to say, whatever truths the Greek poets and philosophers encountered through the use of their reason, those truths have their origin in the eternal Word—Jesus Christ. This point is generally summed up in the contemporary maxim “all truth is God’s truth,” though for Justin the idea is more nuanced. Often, different thinkers will come to different conclusions, and this was no less the case with the Greeks. The reason for this, Justin argues, is because their contemplation of the Word was restricted to only those things which could be known by reason, and so their knowledge of the truth was piecemeal: “since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.” The corollary to this is that now, since the Word has been made known through Christ and the Incarnation, we have access to the whole of the Word—through the testimony of the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments. We no longer need suffer the contradictions that arise when we try to probe the mysteries of reality, for Reality Himself has come to us! “And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies.” Here, Justin points out that the affinity between certain Greco-Roman philosophers and later Christians is not limited to their shared quest for truth, but also the great sufferings that they both undergo. In particular, Justin alludes to Socrates, who “was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves [specifically, atheism and the corruption of the youth]. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized.” But though Justin sees in Socrates a great friend of the Christian faith, he nevertheless points out the deficiencies in the Greek attempt to comprehend God’s essence by reason alone: “he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying that it is [not] easy to find the Father and Maker of all.” According to the Greeks, only one who had studied philosophy—arduously trying to hone and perfect his thinking for the better part of his life—would have the ability to peek behind the veil of reality and contemplate God; and even then, they would only have a glimpse. In a society where most were slaves, or illiterate, or too poor to afford an education, this meant that almost nobody would have access to God. “But these things our Christ did through His own power.” That is, Christ Himself, in His own person, makes manifest to us the mystery of the Father, as He explains in John’s Gospel: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9). Not only that, but Christ Himself declares the mysteries of God to all men: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18). This means that, as Justin points out, “not only philosophers and scholars” can be taught to understand the mysteries of God, “but also artisans and people entirely uneducated.” The contrast made between Christ and Socrates here is subtle, but important. As Justin points out, many Greek philosophers were killed for their teachings—some of which, as in the case of Socrates, were true. This made educating an uneducated, illiterate society both difficult and dangerous: “it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But what the Greeks were unable (and, in many respects, unwilling) to accomplish, Christ brought about through His perfect teaching and example. Both Socrates and Christ died for teaching the truth, but only Christ rose from the dead, “since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.” St. Justin Martyr thus stands out as an early defender of the implicit harmony between Greco-Roman thought and Christian faith. What these “prophets” knew in part, Christ made known in full, not only to the most erudite and sophisticated, but also (and especially) to the simple and lowly. This line of thought allowed later Christians to engage more deeply with the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition; a conversation which subsequently shaped the Western world over the next 1500 years. In many ways, then, St. Justin Martyr can be truly credited as a forerunner to some of the most robust thinkers of the Christian faith, as the trailblazing apologist of a Christianity that could indeed be called “true philosophy.”

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Palm Sunday & the Sanctus

This Lenten season, my parish has opted to use the Latin responses during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Though my experience with singing Latin is minimal (and it would probably be best for the world if it remained that way), I have often found myself humming or event chanting the Sanctus at various moments as I go about my day. Now, I find a fitting occasion to consider it in more depth, in light of the fact that we are beginning Holy Week in only a couple of days. The entirety of the Sanctus comes from Scripture. The first part of it is adapted from the seraphic hymn in Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The word “holy” makes for an interesting study in itself; most explanations of the concept of “holiness” define it as “being set apart for a particular (divine) purpose.” Modern scholars and thinkers like Rudolf Otto, looking at the Hebrew equivalent qadosh, have emphasized that this unique word has the additional sense of “otherness”—that is, when we acclaim God as “holy,” we are professing that He is very different than us; that He is “other.” To say that these two meanings complement one another in the context of the liturgy would be an egregious understatement! At this point in the Mass, not only is the priest preparing to “make holy” (i.e. set apart) the gifts of bread and wine, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, these mundane elements are miraculously changed into God Himself. Put another way, these gifts cease to be what they are and instead become what they are (or “were”) not; they become the wholly other God, whose glory fills all heaven and earth. (Side note: this filling of “heaven and earth” is also seen particularly in the Mass, where heaven and earth meet!) The second part of the Sanctus is perhaps most timely as we prepare for Palm Sunday. Both acclamations (“Hosanna in the highest!” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”) are taken from the Psalms and the Gospels, respectively. They come together as the crowds of people sing to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. The incorporation of these resounding cries of joy in the Mass is far from accidental; just as those Israelites welcomed their Lord Jesus into their midst two thousand years ago, so we too celebrate the coming of the Lord that is about to take place before our very eyes. Immediately after this moment of jubilant praise, however, we kneel, both in reverence and in prayer as we anticipate the coming sacrifice. Then, as now, there is a hint of sorrow in Jesus’s coming as He prepares for Good Friday. He indeed comes into Jerusalem, celebrated and esteemed as the Prince of Heaven—but He knows that He will soon be led out of Jerusalem whipped, mocked, and scourged. So, let us take the opportunity to make this Holy Week truly “holy.” Why not “set aside” some extra time for the divine purposes of prayer and reflection? Why not make Holy Week stand out as an “other” amongst the weeks of your year? As we sing the Sanctus this Sunday, may our hearts be drawn into the great mysteries of our faith: the sorrow we anticipate on Good Friday, culminating in the joy we earnestly long for on Easter.

Faith of Our Fathers: St. Athanasius of Alexandria

In his treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius seeks to demonstrate that the Christian religion is the only true religion and he sets forth the central beliefs of the Christian faith. Here, Athanasius does not act as a speculative theologian; rather, he seeks to “communicate in writing [that which] we learned from them [the Apostles]” (Against the Heathen). Accordingly, Athanasius does not seek to offer his own opinions on the subject of Christ’s Incarnation, but rather transmit that which he has received from his own teachers as a faithful steward of the Tradition. To begin his work, Athanasius examines our human mortality in an effort to understand our natural state. In the above passage, Athanasius begins with an idea taken almost verbatim out of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “Men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil […] come inevitably under the law of death.” However, for Paul, this “law of death” is the Old Covenant, whereas Athanasius offers a slight twist on this law: “the transgression of the commandment [i.e. not to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden] was making them [humanity, represented by Adam and Eve] turn back again according to their nature.” Athanasius suggests that our mortality is an essential part of our nature as humans—it defines who we are. Why is this? Because “as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.” For Athanasius, God’s gift of existence to humanity is a manifestation of His grace. In transgressing the commandment in the Garden, Adam and Eve symbolically (and actually) reject that very grace which enables them to exist: “The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it.” What Athanasius suggests here is that, in addition to man’s nature as a finite, mortal being, God has given a super-nature to him, which is called a Likeness. It is by virtue of this super-natural gift of God’s Likeness which overrides man’s mortality and allows him to remain immortal. Unlike our nature, however, our Likeness is something which must be cultivated and “preserved.” According to our Catholic tradition, we know that we are “like” God insofar as we can know things as God knows them, and love them as God loves them. So, by cultivating these faculties of knowing and loving, we become more like Him. Think of an expert woodcarver. He simply is a woodcarver. If you wanted to become a woodcarver like him, you would probably begin by watching him work; noting his skill and technique. But at some point, you would have to imitate what this woodcarver does. You would not start out very good at it, but as you developed the skill, you would eventually cease being like a woodcarver—you would be a woodcarver. To drive the point home, Athanasius quotes two passages from Sacred Scripture: “So is it affirmed in Wisdom: ‘The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.’ And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, ‘I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you.’” Thus by keeping the law of God—that is, by exercising the super-natural Likeness He has given us—we can become immortal like God. “But ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.’” For all the lofty talk and opportunity that God gave us, the fact remains that we have discarded that immortality which God wanted for us. By forsaking the contemplation of God, and refusing to exercise our faculties of knowing and loving, we have abandoned our super-nature, and chained ourselves to our mortal existence. But this is not the end of the story for Athanasius. Though we were quick to discard God’s grace, He was not quick to withdraw it. Through the Incarnation, Christ comes to reconcile ourselves to Him. Through His example, Christ teaches us how to repair the tarnished Likeness within us, and by the graces of the Church He enables us to do so. And, in this great act of self-revelation, Christ allows us to know and love God by coming to know and love Himself. So how do we cultivate our super-nature? How do we maximize our Likeness? We do so first by coming to know God through prayer, study, and participation in the life of the Church. Then, we exercise our love for God by following His commandments, worshipping Him “in spirit and in truth,” and in service to our neighbor. In these ways, we come to imitate Christ, and in imitating Him, we die to our mortal nature, allowing that super-natural Likeness to bear us up as we pass from death into life everlasting.

The Magi & the Epiphany

After the celebration of Christmas, it might be tempting to think that the cause for celebration is over. After a month of preparation for the “big day,” it becomes all too easy to slip into the “well, that was nice” mindset. To be sure, Christmas is one of the holiest days in the liturgical calendar, but our rich Catholic heritage informs us that our festivities ought not stop there. At the conclusion of Christmastide (the “Twelve Days of Christmas” spoken of in the song), we will celebrate the Epiphany. A Greek word in origin, “epiphany” is a conjunction of epi- (meaning “upon”) and -phaino (meaning “shine” or “appear”). Epiphany, then, marks the celebration of Christ as the “Light of the World,” an aspect of the Messiah which was foretold in the prophet Isaiah: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). In his sixth homily on Matthew, St. John Chrysostom explains that this “illumination” of all the nations is hinted at by a particular sign in the Scriptures: the visitation of the Magi. Little is known about the Magi, apart from the minimal information contained in Holy Writ. Traditionally, the Church has held that these were three scholars or “wise men” that hailed from eastern Persia, and were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Historically, they have even been esteemed as saints; according to one legend, St. Thomas the Apostle baptized them in modern-day India after Christ’s death and resurrection. Our German Catholic forerunners in faith began celebrating the Epiphany in a particular way which has endured even to the present day: the blessing of homes with chalk. Sometime in the 16th century, faithful Catholic men began to dress up as the three Magi, travelling from house to house collecting donations. Symbolically, this represents the preparations that the Magi had to make for their long journey from the Orient to Bethlehem—and for the expensive gifts which they brought our Lord! After proclaiming the good news, and receiving whatever the generous faithful would offer, these men would then bless the home with the initials of the Wise Men and the sign of the cross, inscribed in chalk on the doorpost. The initials C.M.B. also represent the Latin invocation Christus Mansionem Benedicat—“Christ bless this house.” After making these collections, the men would then distribute these to the poor; in such a way, they would bring the gifts of the faithful to Christ (as present in the poor). Even today in Germany, many children will dress up and take on the role of the Wise Men, singing songs as they go door to door collecting funds for the less fortunate. Though this tradition of the Magi going house-to-house is not present in American Catholicism, many faithful Catholics still take the opportunity to celebrate Epiphany with the chalking of doors. This simple, family-oriented ritual offers a wonderful opportunity to imbue one's home with sacramental graces, fortify it against the spiritual forces of evil, and even catechize your children! Why not make an event of it, and come up with your own charity project as a family? Many of our parishes in Eastern Oklahoma perform the blessing of chalk on the Epiphany, and we will be distributing devotional packets for your use at our St. John's Day event tomorrow. You can either ask your local priest to perform the chalking, or bless your own home with some of the resources available on our site. There is still plenty of reason to rejoice, and celebrating the Epiphany offers a great way to continue our tradition of faith and extend the joy of Christmastide into the New Year!

[This star of Christmas] appears not in the night, but in mid-day, while the sun is shining; and this is not within the power of a star, nay not of the moon; for the moon that so much surpasses all, when the beams of the sun appear, straightway hides herself, and vanishes away. But this by the excess of its own splendor overcame even the beams of the sun, appearing brighter than they, and in so much light shining out more illustriously.

—St. John Chrysostom, Homily 6 on Matthew, chap. 3

Catholicism & a Comfort-Driven Culture

Why does Catholicism emphasize suffering more than Protestantism? A friend of mine asked me this a while back, and it’s a question that got me thinking about some of the fundamental differences between Catholicism and other Christian groups. Though my friend asked the question in sort of an overgeneralized way—it's only fair to acknowledge that some Protestant groups acknowledge suffering more than others—nevertheless, it seemed like a good question for him to ask. Why does Catholicism have such an emphasis on suffering? At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, it seems to me that Protestantism in general cannot have as robust a theology of suffering simply because, for a Protestant, the merit of works for salvation is greatly reduced (if not outright denied). By downplaying the role that works have in our redemption, Protestantism removes the meaning that suffering has in the Christian life. As Catholics, we can identify our sufferings with those of Christ, redeeming them for the purposes of our sanctification. For a Protestant, however, all the sanctifying work is done all at once, and the problem of continued human suffering (even after salvation) cannot be accounted for. I think this explains the tendency in our modern culture to avoid pain at all costs. We see pain as unnecessary at best and oppressive at worst. Both the Enlightenment and the scientific/industrial revolution—spearheaded by Protestant humanists, no less—sought to mitigate or eradicate suffering in whatever way they could, from increasing food supply and curing disease to mass-producing various forms of material comforts that made life easier, from the automobile to the iPhone. Of course, there are a great deal of benefits to be gleaned from these technological advancements; but in some ways, they have made suffering a theological problem to be explained away (i.e. the “problem of evil”) rather than a simple reality to be lived with. Catholicism, on the other hand, has always had a seat of honor for suffering. Realizing that it is outside of human power to rid the world of evil, the Church has come to embrace Her lot on this side of eternity, and instead sought to join Herself with Christ in the sufferings of this life. This emphasis that Catholics place on suffering has—at certain points in history—rendered the Church vulnerable to the charge that Catholics were not concerned with the alleviation of human suffering (an accusation usually made by 18th-century Protestant humanists).Yet, in spite of all the modernist's efforts to “fix” the world, it seems that we are more dissatisfied with the world than ever. Suicide rates in developed countries are climbing, and growing civil unrest points to a deep discontentment with the world we have built. We can’t afford to miss the irony here: Catholicism, ever since Augustine’s City of God, never tried to “make the world a better place”—yet at the height of the Middle Ages, it very nearly did so. Humanism, on the other hand, has spared no effort in its quest to build a perfect society, and its efforts have only been rewarded by the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Rather than trying to eradicate the various forms of suffering in our world, perhaps we should try embracing them—or maybe even seek them out. Many of the earliest Christians were drawn to the harsh lifestyle of the Desert Fathers, and many even sought out martyrdom…but why? Because by identifying our sufferings with those of Christ, we can become more like Him—and in becoming more like Him, perhaps we can then be used by Him to effect real change in the world. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).