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Many beliefs, one God
Q. Frequently when talking about religion, somebody who is not Catholic or has no religion at all will say, “There is only one God, so what difference does it make what you believe or don’t believe or do?” Please comment on this.
— H.S., Stoneham, Mass.
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
In all the major religions there is some connection between belief in God and ethical behavior. I doubt that anyone who says he or she believes in God feels no inclination to organize and live his or her life according to some set of principles.
The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to the Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, identifies in all religions an ethical dimension.
We read: “From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history. ... This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. ...
“Thus, in Hinduism men ... seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.
“Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites” (No. 2).
Vatican II was equally complimentary toward Islam and, of course, toward Judaism, which it recognized as holding a unique relationship to Christianity. But most noticeable for our purposes is that in the Vatican II declaration, there is a finely tuned recognition that all traditional religions involve an ethical dimension.
While Catholicism approaches the beliefs in God of other religions — and their ethical underpinnings — with respect, and affirms some commonality between the various religions, it holds a fundamental belief that the one true God is that revealed first in the Old Testament and then uniquely in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Vatican II did not suggest a relativism of religions. It stated that the Catholic Church “proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself” (Ibid). The one, true God, is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of ethical principles, it is nevertheless a highly ethical religion, and those who espouse it are called to live according to a definite set of commandments. Following Christ is not merely a matter of holding a positive attitude toward life and the world; it is a matter of following the way of Christ, of being incorporated into Christ so that he lives in us and we in him. The kind of religion you describe — of a general positive outlook without ethical principles — is very much a modern phenomenon and suggests a kind of residual Christianity without much substance.
The fact is, what we do with our lives — and how we treat our neighbors — is of the greatest importance.
Christ’s Bowed Head
Q. On every crucifix I’ve seen, the head of Jesus leans to the left. However, on the crucifix used in my church to walk forward the priest, books and sacraments to the altar, Christ’s head leans to the right. Is this incorrect, or does it matter? Should the cross be replaced?
— Concerned Catholic
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
Of the Evangelists, only John mentions Jesus’ head at the moment of his death: “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit” (Jn 19:30). Because we have no idea what position his head may have been when Jesus died, artists have a great deal of freedom in their representation of the Crucified Christ.
Similarly, although artists seem to have agreed to place the soldier’s wound on Christ’s right side, an early carving shows the wound on the left. In the 16th century, Lucas Cranach painted a Crucified Christ with no wounded side and, when asked, said he would add the detail when it was revealed to him. As late as the 19th century, Eduard Manet represented Christ supported by angels, with a wounded left side.
What appears (to us) as Christ’s leaning to the left, is (for him) leaning to the right. This may be because artists have chosen to represent the right as the more noble side. We shall probably never know who established the convention, nor does the position seem to make much difference. The expression on Christ’s face reminds us of the agony he endured for our salvation; that, surely, is what counts.
The Same Old Sin
Q. There is a priest who frequently hears my confession that tells me I am not begging the Lord enough to free me from my frequently confessed sin (self-abuse), that I am not trusting enough in the Lord to free me from this sin, and that if I would only stop trying to overcome this sin and turn it over to the Lord then He will heal me of it. On some level I understand that it is only by the grace of God that I will be freed from this sin, but on the other hand his advice seems to indicate I have no part (other than prayer) in trying to free myself from this sin. What advice can you give me?
John, via e-mail
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
Thank you for your candor. You are not alone in your struggle. And thank you for having the humility and love of God to confess your sins regularly. Don’t give up!
Your priest confessor has the gift of wisdom: you will only be freed from this habitual sin by God’s grace which is a free gift. Still, there are things you can do on your part to win God’s grace. The Church has always recommended frequenting the sacraments, especially holy Communion and confession, as well as devotion to the Blessed Mother, custody of the eyes, and keeping busy. I would also recommend that you exercise regularly and avoid occasions of sin, whatever they may be.
Finally, you might consider following the example of Blessed John Paul II. It is said that he prayed the Rosary every day, as in the entire Rosary: all 20 mysteries — Joyful, Glorious, Sorrowful and Luminous Mysteries. Try that and see what happens.
What happened to the Magi's gifts?
Q. I am a Catholic and 94 years old. Over the years I have asked several people this question. Whatever happened to the gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the Holy Family by the Wise Men at the time of Jesus’ birth? Could you help me find an answer?
R.P., Marshall, Mich.
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D
Gold has been a precious medium of exchange for nearly 5,000 years. In the ancient world, subjects offered gold to their kings as marks of respect.
Frankincense is the hardened sap of a tree found in the Middle East. It was burned as incense during worship.
Myrrh was also the hardened sap of a tree. It had preservative qualities and was used in embalming the dead.
These three gifts symbolize the dimensions of Jesus’ messiahship. Gold represents His kingly office; frankincense, His divine nature; myrrh, His human nature and suffering.
No one knows what became of the Wise Men’s gifts. We can only speculate. Perhaps St. Joseph made good use of the gold on the long journey to and from Egypt, and during the Holy Family’s sojourn there. He might even have used some to set up his carpenter’s shop.
Might St. Joseph and our Blessed Mother have allowed Jesus to take the incense to the Temple as a gift when he first visited Jerusalem at the age of 12?
Was the myrrh used to prepare St. Joseph’s body for burial?
Would you like to speculate?
Q. I have often wondered about this. It is my understanding that after the divided kingdom and then the exile, the Jews from Judea were allowed to return to Judea. Now, in the time of Jesus, Samaria is north of Judea, and Galilee is north of Samaria. How is that Jews were separated by a place and a people they despised?
The hostility of first-century Jews toward their Samaritan neighbors is the result of a long and complicated history, and many details seem to be lacking. Samaritans believe themselves descendants of the northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manassah, a claim reinforced by Assyrian texts, which state a sizeable number of Israelites were taken captive in 722 B.C., although a fairly large number were left behind.
The Old Testament (see 2 Kings) and the Jewish historian Josephus dispute this claim, arguing that Assyrians populated post-exilic Samaria with individuals from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. These sources say Samaritans received basic instruction in Judaism from a Jewish priest sent to the area from Assyria. When exiles returned to Jerusalem and planned to rebuild the city’s walls and Temple, the Samaritans objected (they planned to build their own Temple), and relations disintegrated.
Galilee and Judea do not appear to have grown up around a hostile Samaria. Rather, as the region’s history unfolded after the Exile — bear in mind we are discussing a very small area; the distance from Jerusalem to Nazareth is about 65 miles — Samaria became more and more isolated from its increasingly hostile neighbors to the north and south.
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