Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Impact of Pentecost on Morality

Before Christ cast his light upon the earth, the moral standards by which the pagan people lived were appalling. Even in the highly civilized Greco-Roman culture, infanticide was practiced, gladiator games (blood sports) were played to entertain the mob, sacred prostitutes “serviced” worshippers at pagan temples, slavery was an universal institution, the infirmed were left to fend for themselves and women, much like children, were second class citizens. And in other parts of the world, human sacrifice was a highly esteemed religious ritual. In fact, it was practiced in the Promised Land (or the land of Canaan) before the Israelites settled there around the year 1400 B.C. As the book of Wisdom recounts, “they [the Canaanites] celebrate either child-slaying sacrifices or clandestine mysteries, or frenzied carousals in unheard-of rites…” (14:23)

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and we are beginning to see that a post-Christian world is not faring much better than its counterpart, namely, a pre-Christian world. The most recent Gosnell trials revealed that highly educated and “civilized” men are quite capable of the kind of barbarity that was common in ancient pagan civilization. I can go on and on about other inhumane practices that are becoming more socially acceptable in our nation. One such example that comes to mind is the push for euthanasia in our hospitals or to put it more bluntly, the medical practice of starving people to death. As Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic historian said, “That in the realm of morals one thing stands out, the unquestioned prevalence of cruelty in the unbaptized world. Cruelty will be the chief fruit in the moral field of the Modern Attack [i.e. secular-liberalism]…”

What proved to be ineffective in restoring morality in the ancient world is equally ineffective today. When immorality led to social disorder, the people naturally looked to State legislation for the answer. As for the elites of society, they believed that philosophy or intellectual enlightenment could fix the moral problems of the day. However, both institutions proved to be inadequate. Historically, by the time the State intervened to stem the tide of any social crisis, it was too late. Philosophy fared no better for it too did not provide enough people with adequate incentives for living morally nor did it give strength to live a moral life.

But something happened during the feast of Pentecost in the 33rd year of the first century. Pentecost, as celebrated by the Jews, was observed fifty days after the feast of Passover every year. The original Passover celebrated by Moses, as you may recall, was a meal that inaugurated the exodus out of Egypt. It was the beginning of the Hebrews liberation from slavery under the Pharaoh. However, fifty days later at Mt. Sinai, the Lord God gave his people the Ten Commandments. This juxtaposition of liberation and the giving of God’s law was purposeful. It was meant to convey the truth that real liberation- spiritual and moral liberation –comes through God’s Word (or God’s law). But the divine law was, in Moses’ time, only an image of the Real Thing. In other words, it was only traced out and inscribed stone tablets. However, 1400 years later, when the Holy Spirit descended on Mary and the Apostles, the Real Thing was at last made available to the world. The Real Thing was none other than the Holy Spirit. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

This is the key to living the moral life. This is the key to restoring morality in our society. We will not find it in legislation or the communication of ideas alone, but rather it has everything to do with getting a new heart from God. The reason why the unbaptized world was cruel and why immorality ran rampant, like Belloc said, was because people had stony hearts. About five to six hundred years before Christ, the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel. He said that help was on the way; that the heartless and cruel world would one day receive a new infusion of moral energy. The Lord said,

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

It is interesting to note that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “finger of God.” Man writes with his pen, but God writes with his finger. In reprimanding the Pharisees for their unbelief, our Lord said: “But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:18) Perhaps, this conjures up an image in the Old Testament when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone. It was said that the Lord used his finger to write them: “When the LORD had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the commandments, the stone tablets inscribed by God's own finger.” (Ex. 31:18)  But with the coming of the Holy Spirit, God’s law no longer has to be exterior to the baptized person. Instead, it is written on his heart by God himself.

Perhaps this is why Christ raised the demands of the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount. He said before- under the Old Testament law -it was wrong to commit adultery; but under his law it is wrong to even think about it. He goes on. Before it was said: Thou shall not kill. But now he tells us to not even be angry with others. Before it was said: Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce; but under his law divorcing one's wife- when the marriage is lawful -causes her to commit adultery and when one marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Before it was written, love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but in order to be a follower of Christ one must love his enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And then he adds: If anyone should press you into one mile for service, go with him for two miles. Christ sets the high moral standard precisely because he was willing give us the means to fulfill it.

As for the means, it is only by receiving a new spirit and a new heart that we can hope to live- as individuals and as a society –a truly moral life. It is as if the Lord wanted to make our souls into his own home as a precondition for entering his.  In other words, he wants to live with us, in our hearts, so that we can abide with him in heaven. And as he increases in our hearts- day by day –we are being acclimated to our future home. As St. Paul said, "But as it is written, ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” With this hope, we spare no effort in being the best we can possibly be for the Lord.

When all is said and done: State legislation, education or any man-made program can never reproduce what the Holy Spirit has done for the dignity of human life and the common good of society. Nothing can replace him giving each person- young or old -a new spirit and a new heart through the waters of baptism. After all, it is only by receiving a new spirit and a new heart by God that we can dare to live up to high moral standards.

This is how good, just and loving people are made! This is how a good, just and loving society is restored! This is the impact Pentecost had- and hopefully will continue to have -on morality!

Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit, O Lord, and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.