Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Of Earthquakes, RE classes, God the Father, and Georges Seurat

Dr. Scott Hahn, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and prolific Catholic author, in his book A Father Who Keeps His Promises, begins with a short story.
Everybody felt it: a moment of eerie silence, a low rumble and then the ground began to shake. Buildings swayed and buckled, then collapsed like houses of cards. Less than four minutes later, over thirty thousand were dead from a magnitude 8.3 earthquake that rocked and nearly flattened Armenia in 1989. In the muddled chaos, a distressed father bolted through the winding streets leading to the school where his son had gone earlier that morning. The man couldn’t stop thinking about his the promise he’d given his son many times: “No matter what happens, Armand, I’ll always be there.” He reached the site where the school had been, but saw only a pile of rubble. He just stood there at first, fighting back tears, and then took off, stumbling over debris, toward the east corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been. With nothing but his bare hands, he started to dig. he was desperately pulling up bricks and pieces of wall-plaster, while ethers stood by watching in forlorn disbelief. He heard someone growl, “Forget it mister. They’re all dead.” He looked up, flustered, and replied, “You can grumble, or you can help me lift these bricks.” Only a few pitched in, and most of them gave up once their muscles began to ache. But the man couldn’t stop thinking about his son. He kept digging and digging - for hours… twelve hours… eighteen hours… twenty-four hours…thirty-six hours… Finally, into the thirty-eighth hour, he heard a muffled groan from under a piece of wallboard. He seized the board, pulled it back, and cried, “ARMAND!” From the darkness came a slight shaking voice, “Papa…?” Other weak voices began calling out, as the young survivors stirred beneath the still uncleared rubble. Gasps and shouts of bewildered relief came from the few onlookers and parents who remained. They found fourteen of the thirty-three students still alive.  When Armand finally emerged, he tried to help dig, until all his surviving classmates were out. Everybody standing there heard him as he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn't forget us.” That’s the kind of faith we need, because that is the kind of Father we have.

- from A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Dr. Scott Hahn. Ch 1

I typically start my CCD/ RE teaching year by reading this short story to the kids. I find it's essential to give them an idea of what the fatherhood of God is like before we delve into the Scriptures and begin tracing the story of God's interaction with His family (us). Without this "big picture" image in mind it's easy to get confused by the Scriptures (especially if you haven't taken the time to read them, merely reading "proof-texts" from anti-Catholic or anti-Christian websites). God, as revealed by Jesus Christ, is first and foremost a loving Father. As a father myself, I can attest to the fact that loving your children doesn't equate with constantly stroking their egos, caving in to their every demand, pampering them, or smiling blithely while they harm themselves. No! Being a loving Father entails passionate hatred as well as constant love - hatred of the things that harm your children. I love my children and hate when they do poorly in school. I love my children and thus hate when they are seriously ill. I love my children and hate the things that harm them so much that I am willing to punish my beloved kids (much as it pains me) if that what it requires to save them from those things that could destroy their lives.

Now transpose this into a higher, more intense, key and you begin to understand why God and sin don't mix. God is a Father (actually is the Father, we Earthly fathers are but dim reflectors of His true Fatherhood) and thus hates what can destroy the lives of His children. But even those things that can most destroy our Earthly lives (Greek: bios) - drugs, doing poorly at school, serious medical illness, violence, etc - are nothing compared to the one thing that can destroy our eternal, spiritual, life (Greek: zoe), mortal sin.

God hates sin not in some arbitrary manner. He isn't "imposing His values" on us like some overbearing dictator. No! He hates that which He knows will kill us, our sins. He hates these sins so much He was willing to send His only begotten Son to become flesh and die on a cross to wash them away.

It is with this in mind, that we turn to the first page of Genesis and watch with bated breath as God, purely out of His overflowing love, decides to create - to bring non-essential other "I's", other "egos," into existence. This is a purely gratuitous act, the act of a lover. God had no need for any of us, but chooses that we exist purely from love. It is again with bated breath that we continue through the journey as God never gives up on His beloved, seeking their holiness (the only thing that is good for them) and patiently working with humanity at every turn to achieve it. It is with all this in mind that we can understand even the "dark passages" of Scripture - those difficult passages which armchair atheists with no exegetical ability and lacking all context love to jump on.

It is exactly when we understand the "big picture" that we can finally make out the meaning of all those "small pieces," almost like looking at a painting by Georges Seurat.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte
Trying to understand only the "dark passages" is like staring (at a distance of 1 inch) at only the bottom right hand corner of the painting and throwing your hands up in despair at its unintelligibility.

Luckily, we need not stare only at the bottom right hand corner. In fact, we need not be left alone with the painting at all. We have Seurat himself beside us, desperate to answer any and all questions about the scene. Wondering what the crowd is so intently watching? No need to guess or to draw conclusions from what we can see, we can ask the painter - we can ask the author of the Scriptures, the people to whom they are addressed and with whom alone they can be truly understood - the People of God, the Catholic Church.

It is thus that we can truly come to understand Salvation History, by reading even those "dark passages" in context - the context of the chapter they are apart of, book they are in, of the Bible entire, and of the 2,000 year constant teaching of the Church - and in such context they too are filled with light.

I strongly recommend reading Dr. Hahn's book. It is simply the best overview of the Old Testament for a beginner that I know of.

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