Mardi Gras, Shrovetide, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday – the names for today, the day before Ash Wednesday are many and varied, but they all say essentially the same thing. It is a time of great festivity and celebration before the somber season of Lent commences. Such celebrations are also common among the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. By a quirk in the calendars, Easter falls on the same day this year for both the East and the West, which means that our Eastern brethren are actually celebrating the second day of Lent today. However, last week, they held their own festivities.
The weather around Washington D.C. these days is not quite cold enough to threaten frostbite, but a far cry from the warmth of spring. That means that if you stationed yourself outside of 487 Michigan Ave many of the friars rushing by would be wearing the distinctive black cappa (a two-piece cape with a hood) that earned us the name Blackfriars.
Now, I remember back in college that the only reason anyone in their right mind would step outside wearing anything like a cape would be for a Renaissance Fair or the premiere of one of the Lord of the Rings movies, and there were serious debates about whether those folks really were in their right minds. Basically it would only be as a costume to relive some bygone era or some otherworldly fantasy.
This is the fourth of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
Have you ever noticed the way some companies try to sell their products by raising them to the level of a symbol for something beyond their intrinsic value? I recently saw a commercial for an electronic gadget in which the device was never referred to—not even once—during the entire commercial. Instead, through impressive images of nature, human culture and play and the gravitas of the narrator’s voice the viewer was reminded that he or she was a “member of the human race,” that we live for things like art, beauty, passion, and love. And then we hear the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman asking about the meaning of life and man’s place in it, concluding that your life—even life itself—is a wonder, a kind of play to which each one may contribute a verse.
This is the third of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
Often God is depicted as an old man—but is he really old? Over all these centuries, has God aged? Christian prayers do not mention God as old, but instead as eternal. But what does that mean? It means that God is not in time—God does not think back on what he did yesterday, nor ponder what he will do tomorrow, for such temporal concepts simply do not apply to him. This does not mean that God is stuck in time, like a bug in amber or a caveman in a block of ice—God is not frozen in time, but beyond time itself.
This is the second of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
God never wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. God never has a bad day. God never suffers. A slightly fancier way to say this is that God is “impassible.”
But doesn’t that drive a huge chasm between us and God? How can God really know and love us if he does not stand shoulder to shoulder with us in suffering? Doesn’t “impassible” really mean unresponsive and uncaring?
This is the first of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
It’s complicated . . .
The part that comes next doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it won’t be good. Complicated relationships? Bad. Complicated questions? Bad. Complicated answers? Bad.
To make the point a bit more pointedly, here’s a challenge: can you name even one time you’ve finished a job, turned to a friend, and said, “well, at least that was complicated”?
I didn’t think so.
What are “the divine attributes”?
Unless you read the Catholic Encyclopedia for fun, chances are you have no idea (or you think they’re an indie band). If that sounds about right, you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you’ll find yourself in pretty much the same boat as everyone else.
As it happens, the answer isn’t all that complicated: the divine attributes are God’s character traits; they describe what God is like.
So why care?
Clicking on the link above will treat you to flowing sentences of golden prose like “our natural knowledge of God is acquired by discursive reasoning upon the data of sense by introspection,” followed by obscure scriptural snippets. Which is to say, if God “dwells in light inaccessible,” it sure seems like he’s splitting the rent with his coterie of characteristics. Which is to say, even if theologians can wrap their minds around the divine attributes, your average Christian can’t.
But that’s just wrong. The Christian life is about friendship with God, and friends know what their friends are like. God’s character traits can be known and loved by all of us. Our new series, Preaching the Divine Attributes, will prove it to you. Our goal is to free God’s qualities from their ivory-tower prison, and to let you make their acquaintance, all in less time than it takes to listen to a weekday homily.
Look for our series on the Divine Attributes over the next week:
Divine Simplicity: 24 February
Divine Impassibility: 25 February
Divine Eternity: 26 February
Divine Transcendence: 27 February
Divine Immanence: 28 February
Image: Jackson Pollock, No. 1
We will but suggest the parallel amazement of some earnest Nazarene who had known and followed his dusty and travel-worn Master through the dry sunlight of Galilee, restored suddenly to this world and visiting, let us say, a Mass in St. Peter’s at Rome, at learning that the consecrated wafer upon the altar was none other than his crucified teacher. -H.G. Wells
A prophet keeping vigil for the dawn of world socialism, H.G. Wells’ gaze was firmly fixed on the future. The past, on the other hand, was much less reliable. C.S. Lewis famously described Christianity as the myth become fact; Wells, as might be expected, wrote it off as fairy tales.
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. (Mk 8:34-35)
These words from tomorrow’s Gospel have been lived admirably by all of the Church’s saints. They have all imitated Christ in His self-denial and suffering. Some of them, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, or St. Pio of Pietrelcina (popularly known as Padre Pio), have been so configured to Christ that they shared His stigmata. Plenty of others are known for their extraordinary penances. St. Simeon Stylites, for example, lived on top of a pillar for thirty-six years.