The compelling vision of true religion
In my series on the differences in moral outlook in Judaism and Christianity (OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code?), I was trying to gain some insight into God’s plan of salvation, or God’s Providence. That plan unfolded over what to us is a very long period of time, including Creation, a period of human exile, the formation of God’s chosen people over more than a thousand years of history, and of course the coming of Jesus Christ and what that meant for the Law, morality and the spiritual life.
I was tempted a few times to stop the flow of my analysis in order to emphasize that most of us are not going to come to an initial position of Faith either by a general interpretation of God’s Providence or by a comparison of the Jewish and Christian understanding of morality. The shortest distance between God and ourselves is through the person of Jesus Christ himself. That is, looking back today, we are unlikely to respond to any of this with faith until the unique person of Jesus Christ becomes our focal point. And Christ does not appear until a long way into God’s plan. I can attempt to explain the “logic” of human history all I want, but without some growing inkling of who Jesus Christ is, these explanations would usually wash over everyone as just a collection of words.
Perhaps that is why, after completing that series, I found myself wanting to make two further points. The first is to make more explicit something on which I touched only very tangentially in the third installment—the point that only from the vantage point of Christ can we understand God’s Providence, which encompasses all of human history. And the second point is something that sprang to mind at Mass yesterday, as we celebrated two martyrs, Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.
First point: The Eyes of Christ
When we consider the length and breadth of human history, it is very hard to find a vantage point which makes even a limited degree of sense of it all. But we now have such a vantage point available to us, the vantage point of Christ. We can think, talk or write about God and His salvific plan and His mysterious action in history, but the reality is that nothing like a comprehensive Divine plan comes into focus until we come face to face with Jesus Christ. It is from the perspective of Christ—that is, the perspective of the Christian faith in Him—that the whole of salvation history becomes intelligible. So much that seems utterly disjointed in human history starts to cohere, starts to make sense.
So this is the first point I want to make, the point that, ordinarily at least, we wouldn’t come to the Christian faith either through comparative morality or the study of a purely human history. For these to bear fruit, we must first come to grips with the person of Jesus Christ, answering the question he himself put to us: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15, Mk:29, Lk 9:20). In a sense, this is even the key to my three-part series on Jewish and Christian morality: Things begin to “click into place”, finally, in the third part, when we get to the perspective from which Christ himself speaks about the Law and the prophets.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to make the point that if Christ was who he claimed to be, we ought to look for confirmation not only in the sublimity of his teaching, but in the testimony of both miracles and prophecy. We know how compelling prophecy can be by its use as a literary device in many fantasy tales. But I would expand this point just a little by insisting that a Divinely orchestrated historical plan would be very likely to incorporate an entire period of history preceding the Messiah’s coming, an extended period in which specific predictions, archetypical leaders, and the very unfolding of human events all contain a prophetic power which would enable us to recognize the Messiah when he came.
This is something that we have in Christianity that no other religion has. Everything makes sense only when we look forward to Christ, and when we look back from Christ, and when our expectations of the future until the end of the world are illuminated by Christ. Christ is not only the Messiah but the key to the riddle of mankind, including mankind’s history. No other religion is anything like this. And when we see backwards and forwards historically through the eyes of Christ, then, to the degree possible for finite human beings, we are seeing what God sees, and as God sees it.
Second Point: Martyrdom
All of this ties into the liturgical year, which also celebrates the action of God in time. Yesterday the Church honored a man named Peter, an exorcist who was imprisoned by the judge Serenus during the Diocletian persecution of the very early fourth century. While in jail, Peter drove an evil spirit out of the jailer’s daughter, after which the jailer and his family and his neighbors wanted to convert to Christianity. Therefore, Peter took them to the priest Marcellinus for baptism. The outraged judge called Peter and Marcellinus before him again and ordered them to deny Christ. Upon their refusal, the two were separated, Marcellinus was tortured and, when the judge saw their faith only grew stronger, he had them both beheaded. But while it was the feast of these two martyrs that triggered my writing about martyrdom, it could just as easily have been any one of hundreds of other feasts, and millions of instances throughout history.
It would perhaps be a bridge too far to claim that there are no instances of martyrdom outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, but that bridge would not be too far by much. There are, of course, many instances in history where people from rival tribes or nations, which worshipped different gods, warred against each other and died in combat. But this mostly confuses the political with the spiritual. It is far harder to identify instances in which members of other religious groups have been told to renounce their religion or be executed. Yet we find pagans and atheists doing exactly this to the Jews (as recounted in the Old Testament), and to Christians on a far larger scale in many different places over the past two thousand years.
This last instance is so true that Christianity is almost exclusively identified as a religion of martyrs, demonstrating in flesh and blood Our Lord’s insistence that “those who do evil hate the light” (Jn 3:20). We may be able to chronicle the murders of some non-Christians and non-Jews who have refused to renounce their faith under pain of death. But of Christians we can chronicle thousands and even hundreds of thousands over the centuries, without even getting into the twentieth-century horrors of Nazism and Communism. Especially among Catholics, periods of persecution to the death have occurred repeatedly and all over the world during the two thousand years since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
This I take to be a proof of the special radiance by which Catholics perceive ultimate reality when they have chosen deliberately to see in and through the eyes of Christ. And it is precisely this Divine seeing that is at work whenever Christians refuse to adopt the moral habits of the culture which surrounds them. In a very few places, there may still be a tribal identity or a community identity or even a family identity which roots such life-and-death convictions in something other than Christ. But not very often.
The reality is that when we come to grips with the person of Jesus Christ, accepting His divinity, we begin to live in Him. Or, rather, it is as St. Paul wrote of his own experience to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). This is what we mean by seeing with “the eyes of faith”, for “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
I say again that nothing like this ever existed outside of Judaism and Christianity, and it is scarcely seen at all beyond Christianity today. This is not only the vision of the martyrs, but it is the vision of salvation history, the vision of Divine Providence, that we gain through their witness to Christ, and through Christ Himself:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. [Heb 12:1-2]
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