The Mother of All Curse Words
My brother’s family has several family traditions that are highly influenced by their Catholic faith, one of those being that they do not say the “A” word—Alleluia—during Lent. Another custom by which they abide is that they don’t say the “F” word, that is, “fart.” A couple of years ago, during Lent, my brother’s family was hosting a group from their local parish, who bring a pilgrim Fatima statue of Mary to homes and pray a rosary with the family. When this group arrived, my brother’s youngest daughter, Monica, approximately five years old, greeted their guests at the door by saying, “Today, my dad said the ‘A’ word and the ‘F’ word!” Her statement was followed by an awkward silence and my brother’s sore humiliation. Today, I want to discuss the “F” word, the mother of all curse words and the foulest four-letter word: fear. Fear is evil and from hell. Fear causes us to avoid risk, to avoid being vulnerable and allowing ourselves to be challenged and ultimately being a gift to others. Fear tempts us to avoid short-term pain and therefore lose the long-term gain. One of the greatest sufferings that we will ever encounter is the challenge and battle to overcome fear. And if there exists any question regarding this proposal, all we need to do is examine the account of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of His betrayal. The weighty challenge that faced Jesus was the battle to trust His Father, despite his knowledge of the ignominious suffering that would befall Him. His battle to trust God the Father was so intense that He literally sweat blood. Fear is at odds with the truth and it paralyzes us and keeps us from accomplishing what God is calling us to. If fear is the driving motivation behind our decision making, we can surmise that we are not walking in truth and trust, and most likely are not walking with God in the path that He has ordained.
Trust in Truth: The Antidote to Fear
Christ said, “The truth will set you free.” Free from what? Free from slavery to sin and slavery to fear. Fear of what? Deep within the human person is a fundamental disquiet that is born from a fear of God. Granted, we are called to have a holy fear of, reverence for, and awe of God—but we are not called to be afraid, alarmed, or scared of God. Trust is the basis of all truth. If we are to trust in God, we must know the truth of God, the truth concerning His identity. This was Jesus Christ’s mission: to reveal the very identity of God. The key to overcoming fear is trusting in God, and therefore it is imperative that we “put on the mind of Christ.” Besides the struggle to comprehend our own identity, one of the greatest battles for men is to understand the identity of God. The truth of God’s identity is vital because it inculcates trust in the soul, it empowers us to risk, it compels us to be a gift to others. The evil one wages a war in our hearts, souls, and minds for the purpose of undermining our trust in the Father. God’s truth enables us to ascend from the passing, temporal world of materialism, comfortism, and hedonism, and to rise toward spiritual realities, toward eternal life, which grants mans’ souls a certain richness, depth, power, vitality, and love. Trust enables a man to become fully alive. To ascend from the objects and creatures of the world toward heaven, it is imperative that we know and trust in the truth of God’s character. This involves many things, but three worthy of mentioning are: first, God desires to exalt us; second, God is enduringly generous and merciful; and third, God desires to share His power with us.
God Desires to Exalt You
Truth number one is that God desires to exalt us in Christ by means of our imitation of Christ. Jesus Himself, testifies as to how God will exalt and glorify Him: “When the Son of man is lifted up he will draw all men to Himself.” In three separate chapters in John’s Gospel (John 3, 8, 12) Jesus uses this phrase lifted up as a way to describe his exaltation. In the Greek, “lifted up” is hypsoō, which can be interpreted in two ways: first, to be literally lifted up from the earth, as in being crucified; and second, to be lifted up as in being exalted, or glorified. On these three occasions Jesus interchanges the meaning of the word hypsoō for the purpose of demonstrating that when the Son of man is crucified He will be glorified. The lesson that Christ is teaching demands a radical mind-shift: our exaltation will only occur if we are lifted up, hypsoō, from slavishly being chained to comforts and disordered attachments, for the sake of leading our wives and children toward God. God desires to lift you up, to make a spectacle of you, for the purpose of magnetically drawing men to and through your sacrificial love to the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. There is a direct correlation between the level of your exaltation and your spiritual crucifixion, between your glory and your self-giving.
The Six Darts of the Devil
The cross can be symbolized by the letter “t,” signifying the trust that is demanded to carry our family—symbolized by the horizontal beam of the cross—toward God and heaven. St. Paul warns us that it is in this vertical ascent from the fallen world toward heaven that the evil one will assail our willingness and decision to trust in the Father, and will do nearly anything to restrict us from being lifted up—hypsoō— and exalted: “In all things take up the shield of faith with which you may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the most wicked one” (Eph 6:16). Notice that it is the gift and virtue of faith that provides the man with a sure defense against the devil’s darts. Faith can be defined as trust in another—and supernatural faith is more than knowledge of our religion, but rather a lived trust in the living God. It is this faith, or trust in the Father and His Son, that deflects the fiery darts of the devil. The devil’s darts consist of: doubt, discouragement, deprecation, disobedience, and despair, which ultimately leads to death. The evil one is a master at instilling doubt—doubt in our personal identity, and also doubt in God’s true identity. Doubt instills mistrust in God with insidious suggestions like: “God isn’t listening.” “God created you to be a failure, or mediocre.” “God is the cause of all your sufferings.” “God doesn’t bless you like He blesses others.” When we doubt God, His character, and His promises, we inevitable become discouraged. We lose the courage to fight, struggle, and sacrifice for something transcendent—something greater than ourselves. After discouragement has settled in our souls, we begin to self-deprecate; to think less of ourselves and wallow in our self-pity. Self-deprecation often passes as humility, but in reality it is pride, for we are demeaning what God has created and destined for greatness. Self-deprecation often dupes us into overcompensating for our low self-evaluation by performing some action that will afford us temporary self-worth or value. It could be as simple as thinking poorly of another for the purpose of helping you feel better about yourself. It could be something as base as using women to “feel” like man; or actions such as grasping for more when you have enough, lying, posturing, or pretending to be someone you aren’t. Regardless, such overcompensation often manifests itself in acts of disobedience. Upon waking from our stupor of disobedience, we often realize our guilt, our shame, and our sin. It is there, in the moment of dejection, that the evil one is there to rub our noses in the poop of our sin, attempting to convince us that our sin is unforgivable; that we are betrayers; that we are hypocrites, promise-breakers; and that God will never, and should never, forgive us or receive us. If we believe this lie, we will eventually despair of God’s mercy and continue to self-medicate by indulging in immoral, base objects of desire. This leads to death of the soul, and for those who despair enough—suicide. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI explains this dynamic vividly: “The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbors the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from this life, that God is a rival and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside. Man does not want dependency. He does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God. He does not want to rely on love that to him is untrustworthy. Rather than this love he sets his sights on power. And in doing so he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby plunges his life into emptiness and death. He does not understand that love is not a dependence but a gift that makes it possible for us to live.”
God’s Identity: Worthy of Trust
When the devil assails us with his six darts it is imperative that we put on the breastplate of faith, which ultimately is trust in God’s identity. Which raises the question: What is God’s identity? How does God describe Himself? There are numerous, nearly countless, scriptural passages in which God describes His character and attributes. However, for our purposes, we can turn to two very telling accounts wherein God vividly describes God; God the Son describes God the Father: the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We have all heard the very popular and well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son, who we will define as the lawbreaker, demands of his father the inheritance that should fall to him. Customarily, an heir only receives an inheritance upon the death of the benefactor. Essentially the son was saying, “I wish you were dead. I love what you can give me, more than who you are.” The son ventures to a foreign land, which to the Jews would have meant exile, and there he squandered the riches of his inheritance on scandalous living. A famine breaks out and the son finds himself without his possessions, money, or food. Coming to his senses, he determines to return to his father and enlist himself as a servant. Now, when the father sees him, he immediately runs to him. There are two things to note: first, it is implicit in the text that the father is scanning the horizon daily in hopes that his son would return. The father yearns for and is anxious for his son to return home. Second, in ancient Middle-Eastern culture, a man who runs was perceived as foolish; and a man who runs to a rebellious son, as mad. Upon their embrace, the son attempts to make his confession, but the father all but interrupts him and throws a party to celebrate his return. We learn that God is eternally and enduringly merciful. When the older son, who we will call the legalist son, discovers that the party is in honor of his younger brother’s return, he becomes indignant and refuses to celebrate. The father comes out to him and the legalist son upbraids his father, saying: All these years I have never once disobeyed your commands and yet you have never given me even as much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then when this rebellious son returns, you kill the fatted calf.” The father’s response is telling: “You are always with me; all that I have is yours.” The father calls the legalist son to give up his claim of righteous justice based on earning and reconcile with his repentant brother. Here we discover another amazing attribute, if not the defining attribute of God the Father—endless mercy. Truth number two concerning God’s character is that He is enduringly generous and merciful.
The truth of God’s identity, which inculcates incredible, unwavering trust, is that He is generous and merciful. This truth of God calls us to respond in two general ways: first, as the lawbreaking son, by means of repentance; and second, as the legalistic son, by reconciling. We are both legalists and lawbreakers. We tend to justify ourselves and believe that we are better morally than others and deserve a greater reward for our acts of obedience; or we consistently dissipate and squander God’s gifts on self-indulgence and vain ambitions rather than on that which leads to true communion with others and God. However, it is imperative to have the mind of Christ, who proclaims: “Whoever comes to me I will never reject.” Even seventy times seven times a day.
Our Ability to Respond
The second place we encounter God the Son describing God the Father is in the Parable of the Talents. Again, we have heard this story many times. The master of the household, which in the Latin can be translated as the pater familias, the father of the family, goes on an extended journey, and before departing summons three servants, one of whom he gives five talents, another two talents, and another a single talent—each according to their ability. A talent was a weight that was used to measure Greek and Roman gold and silver. A talent was the equivalent of 5000 denari, and a single denarius was equivalent to a Roman soldier’s daily wage. In other words, a talent is approximately nineteen years worth of wages, or in modern American economic terms: a million dollars. In other words, the the master, the father of his house, is incredibly generous. However, upon his return, he summons his servants for the purpose of settling accounts. The point is that our response to such lavish benevolence should be a sense of responsibility. It is our responsibility as the man, father, and leader of our families to invest the gifts that God has given us into our families, lifting them up from the limited, false desires of the world to God and His promises. This is our ability to respond.
Joseph: Repents, Reconciles, and Assumes Responsibility
This Advent, the readings during Holy Mass often recounted Joseph’s act of withdrawing from his vocation due to his inability to comprehend the mystery of Mary’s pregnancy. Fear assailed Joseph. The devil battered him with doubts, and yet Joseph did not allow doubt to devolve into discouragement. Resisting and refusing to allow discouragement to settle in his soul, Joseph entered the silence, presented his dilemma to God, and in doing so he obtained the third truth regarding God’s identity: God desires to share his authority and power—in this particular case, with Joseph. Joseph repented of withdrawing from his vocation (here we recall the lawbreaking prodigal son), reconciled with Mary (here we recall the request of the father to the legalist son to reconcile with his younger brother), and assumed his responsibility to lead, teach, guide, protect, and provide for his family. God lifted up—hypsoō—Joseph in self-sacrifice and therefore exalted him as not only head of the Holy Family, but also as patron and father of the Church.
The Lower You Go, The Higher Your Exaltation
Each Christmas we commemorate and celebrate the history-making, life-changing event of God becoming man, the Word made flesh, God the Word permanently fixing Himself to flesh for all eternity. Consider this for a moment. Jesus did not simply put on flesh as a robe, only to remove it after His earthly life expired and return to the state of being strictly divine. No. God is now permanently integrated with us and our humanity. Why does He do this? God presents man to God in Himself that God can be present in man through Himself. The Father eternally loves us and is more than worthy of our trust. However, notice that in order for Jesus to be lifted up—hypsoō—He became very, very small. And frankly, men, isn’t that what we afraid of—being unnoticed, little, silent, and hidden? Yet these are the attributes of our patron, exemplar, and great fatherly saint, St. Joseph. This is the enduring example Jesus gives us, not only in the womb of Mary, but in the Eucharist, where He is truly small—small enough to enter into you; silent—He quietly listens and enters into you; and hidden—He is often unnoticed even as He is elevated on our altars. This is the key to becoming a great father, a man of glory: the lower you go, the more God will hypsoō you—lift you up and in the end exalt you.