One dominant feature that is pervasive in holy scripture, testifying to its divine inspiration, is that there is no exaggerating the good nor whitewashing the evil in God’s people. Beginning with Adam and Eve actually trying to hide themselves from God “amidst the trees” after their sin, and on through the Bible, the triumphs and failures of the principal characters in the history of the true religion are chronicled in black and white for the good of those with open hearts.
“Where art thou Adam?” God called out as He walked in the garden of paradise in the “afternoon air.” I love that detail. It shows that the Creator was not going to let the sun go down without calling Adam to account. “And [Adam] answered: I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Perhaps I am simplifying things and avoiding a deeper allegorical interpretation, but, that answer, in its literal sense, indicates more than a loss of innocence. How quickly our first parents lost their wisdom in imagining that they could hide from God.
Interesting, too, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves in hiding. So there were figs in paradise. Our teacher, Brother Francis, enjoyed all fruit, especially figs, and he used to coyly suggest that maybe the forbidden fruit was a fig rather than an apple, since no particular fruit is mentioned in the Genesis account. When I heard him say this I didn’t think to respond in kind with this wise-guy rejoinder that I just thought of now: “But, Brother, the Bible says that the fruit was ‘fair to the eyes.’ A fig would hardly qualify.”
Our first parents had done a poor job with the fig leaves. Having mercy on them, God Himself covered them with “garments of skins.” And then, as they were being cast out of the garden, came a piercing rebuke that must have kept our first parents humble for the rest of their long lives: “Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil.”
The Old Testament is filled with the stories of the rise and fall of Hebrew greats. Judges and even prophets had their excesses as we know from Bible history. If King David, for example, had not sinned so atrociously he never could have composed (prescinding from the divine inspiration which he had) his penitential Psalms.
In light of the integrity that is manifest in the scriptures, and for our own spiritual fortification, I would like to reflect briefly on the admonitions of Christ, as given in the Apocalypse to the Apostle John, to the seven Churches of Asia Minor (today that would be Turkey). It was the year 98. John was exiled on the island of Patmos under the Domitian persecution. He was “in the spirit on the Lord’ s day.” These admonitions can certainly be applied to the crises of faith and morals we are living through in the Church today.
Which are the seven Churches? They are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus,Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. (Understand “Church”here as the local Church like a diocese.) Why just Asia Minor? Because that is where Saint John had evangelized prior to Saint Paul. At Smyrna, for example, the Beloved Apostle ordained his disciple Polycarp as the bishop.
Saint John begins his revelation with the words: “John, to the seven churches which are in Asia. Grace be unto you and peace from him that is, and that was, and that is to come, and from the seven spirits which are before his throne. And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth, who hath loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Apoc.1:4-5).
“Fear not,” Jesus says to the Beloved Apostle, “I am the First and the Last. And alive, and was dead, and behold I am living for ever and ever, and have the keys of death and of hell. Write therefore the things which thou hast seen, and which are, and which must be done hereafter. The mystery of the seven stars, which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. And the seven candlesticks are the seven churches” (1:17-20).
Jesus appeared to John as “one like to the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the feet, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. And his head and his hairs were white, as white wool, and as snow, and his eyes were as a flame of fire. And his feet like unto fine brass, as in a burning furnace. And his voice as the sound of many waters” (1:14-15).
First, Our Lord addresses the Church of Ephesus, where Saint John had been bishop.
“To the angel of the Church of Ephesus” Since Saint John was not giving his admonitions to an angel, the word “angel,” the fathers say, refers to the bishop who stands as shepherd of the faithful. He is responsible for the whole flock. At this time, the Bishop of Ephesus was Saint Paul’s disciple, Saint Timothy, who was soon to be martyred.
“I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them that are evil, and thou hast tried them, who say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And thou hast patience, and hast endured for my name, and hast not fainted. But I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first charity. Be mindful therefore from whence thou art fallen: and do penance, and do the first works. Or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou do penance.
“But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaites, which I also hate. He, that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: To him, that overcometh, I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of my God” (2:2-6).
The Church in Ephesus was, as the message from God says, doing quite well. The faithful had zeal, good works, and patience. They endured persecution. And they “hated” the deeds of the Nicolaites. The fathers say that Nicholas, the leader of the sect, was chosen as one the original seven deacons and he was ordained by the Apostles. (Acts 6:5) They have it from tradition that he fell into sins of lust which led to polygamy, even the sharing of wives. Saint Thomas relates the same in his Summa Contra Gentiles ( iii. 124). But, the Nicolaites were also guilty of eating things sacrificed to idols. In these our evil times are not most Catholics eating of things sacrificed to idols? How is this? By participating in the filth of this age of rampant immorality. I need not specify. We all know the score.
Even still, among the good, there were those who needed to do penance for having “left [their] first charity.” Lukewarmness had not yet set in, but the fire that they had at first was dying out. How true this is in our time among Catholics who fight the pervasive onslaughts of the “synagogue of Satan.” Charity grows cold. Battle-fatigue sets in. This is not good. We, the Church, must regain our first charity, which is the love of God, doing all things as one body for His glory, lest our “candlestick be removed.” Jesus admonishes the Church of Ephesus for this diminution of charity. Fire is contagious; when it grows, it inflames everything it touches. When it starts to die out, so does everything it enkindled. We are indeed our brother’s keeper. When one member of the body is weak, the whole body suffers. That is why there is a general judgment at the end of the world. Then, we shall all see how our good deeds and our sins affected our neighbor, in fact, the whole world. For nothing happens in this world which, under God’s providence, is not related to the strength or weakness of the Church. “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (Romans 8:28). We also know that God brings good out of evil, as Saint Thomas expresses it in his Summa Theologica: “But there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin. For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom” (Third Part, Question 1, Article 3, Reply to Objection 3)
Thereis a fascinating promise, however, for those who resist and “fight the good fight” until death. They shall “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of my God” (2:7). The Tree of Life is a figure of the Holy Eucharist. This is the promised reward that follows upon the victory. Could it mean that, after the Resurrection, the just shall all partake of the Eucharist, “the fruit of the vine,” in one everlasting Communion? I wonder — I know that Father Feeney speculated on this — what else would be the “principle” of the glorification of the resurrected body than the glorified Body of Christ? Just a thought. Jesus did tell His Apostles at the Last Supper that He would “not drink from henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father” (Matt 26:29, my emphasis).
“And to the angel of the church of Smyrna,” the angel being Saint John’s disciple, Saint Polycarp, a very young bishop at that time (he would be martyred about sixty years later): “These things saith the First and the Last, who was dead, and is alive: I know thy tribulation and thy poverty, but thou art rich: and thou art blasphemed by them that say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. Behold, the devil will cast some of you into prison that you may be tried: and you shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful until death: and I will give thee the crown of life” (2:9-10).
There were no reprehensions delivered to this glorious Church. But many of the faithful would be called to suffer prison and death. “Ten days,” may symbolize either a brief or a long time. There was a fifty year peace (117-161) between the persecution of Domitian and that of Marcus Aurelius, under whom Polycarp would be slain for Christ. The “crown of life” awaits. These can say with Saint Paul: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord the just judge will render to me in that day: and not only to me, but to them also that love his coming” (1Tim 4: 7,8).
“And to the angel of the Church of Pergamus,” whoever the bishop was that succeeded the martyr Saint Antipas (slain in the year 92): “These things, saith he, that hath the sharp two edged sword: I know where thou dwellest, where the seat of Satan is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith. Even in those days when Antipas was my faithful witness, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have against thee a few things: because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat, and to commit fornication: So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaites.
“In like manner do penance: if not, I will come to thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He, that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: To him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna, and will give him a white counter, and in the counter, a new name written, which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it” (2:13-17).
Pergamus is called “the seat of Satan.” Antipas, who was ordained by Saint John, suffered a horrible martyrdom by fire. The faithful in this wicked city were called to heroic fortitude in holding to the Faith. Nevertheless, the Church itself needed to be purified of its own corrupt members who were seducing the believers into fornication. These cockle were choking the wheat by infiltrating the Church by means of evil women, as Balaam, the soothsayer, convinced Balac the King of Moab to do to defeat the Israelites.
There is an age-old maxim that the Church is as strong as its women. I could not find its origin, but one sees it repeated often by good Catholic historians. The contrary to that is unquestionably true. Whereas Catholic women have so often risen up and waxed strong when Catholic men were weak, when Catholic women are weak Catholic men find it far more difficult to be strong. Such is the obvious situation in the Church today. Liberal nuns have done much to undermine the Faith in my generation, but their days are over. Immodesty of Catholic women keeps equal pace with the neo-pagan times. Contraception and abortion would not have had a leg to stand on if Catholic women and mothers had stood fast, raised large families in the Faith, educated their children in the same at home, fought the liberal nuns and clergy pushing sex-ed in Catholic schools, voted pro-life, and been more militant against the enemies of virtue. God bless the valiant ones that fought and are now crowned and God bless those even more valiant ones in Our Lady’s vanguard today.
To those who overcome, Christ promises to feed them with the “hidden manna,” which contained every delicious flavor to the good Israelites in the desert. “He hath filled the hungry with the good things,” Our Lady says in her Magnificat. This, too, I believe is Eucharistic. It may well refer to an everlasting Holy Communion, as I believe does the Fruit of the Tree of Life offered to the loyal Ephesians. The “white counter” or “stone” refers to the personal glory, or “mansion” of each name inscribed in the Book of Life.
“And to the angel of the Church of Thyatira” whoever was the bishop, the “Son of God saith”: “I know thy works, and thy faith, and thy charity, and thy ministry, and thy patience, and thy last works which are more than the former. But I have against thee a few things: because thou sufferest the woman Jezabel, who calleth herself a prophetess, to teach, and to seduce my servants, to commit fornication, and to eat of things sacrificed to idols” (2:19-20).
Erudite commentators believe that Jezabel (in the Old Testament, the evil wife of King Achaz of Israel, who worshipped Baal and persecuted Elias and the prophets) stood for an actual woman who was a leader, a prophetess, among the Nicolaites. Like Jezabel of the Old Testament, she was intent on corrupting in every possible way the Christians of Thyatira. Due to her appeal and diabolical charism she afflicted many of the faithful who were weak and plunged them into “the depths of Satan.” The situation regarding fornication in Thyatira is much the same, or worse, than that at Pergamus. This time it took only one woman — a “prophetess” nonetheless — to wreak havoc among the baptized. The way things are going today we may end up with our first woman president. And, if the Church does not do penance and reform itself soon, i.e. today, tomorrow Catholics will be ushering in by their vote a pro-abortion feminist to lead the nation. She will be the new commander-in-chief.
To him who would “hold fast,” unto the end Jesus promised a very enigmatic reward, namely “power over the nations. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron, and as the vessel of a potter they shall be broken. As I also have received of my Father: and I will give him the morning star. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches”(2:26-28).
The best commentators say that this refers to the power of the saints in heaven, as patrons of nations and cities. The saints shall sit with Christ at the Last Judgment and, with the Apostles, judge the nations. Even on earth the power of evil empires will be short-lived, for the sake of those who love God, and these evil empires shall all eventually fall, broken into pieces, as a potter’s vessel. The “morning star” is the maternal protection and intercession of Our Lady in this life, and, in the next, the light of the beatific vision. The title is Mary’s. We praise her thusly in her glorious Litany.
“And to the angel of the Church of Sardis” Tradition holds that the bishop was Clement, one of the seventy-two disciples chosen by Christ to go two by two into the cities and towns of Galilee and prepare the way for His coming. If so, he would have been very old at this time. To the “angel” the Son of God says: “I know thy works, that thou hast the name of being alive: and thou art dead. Be watchful and strengthen the things that remain, which are ready to die. For I find not thy works full before my God. Have in mind therefore in what manner thou hast received and heard: and observe, and do penance. If then thou shalt not watch, I will come to thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know at what hour I will come to thee. But thou hast a few names in Sardis, which have not defiled their garments: and they shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy. He that shall overcome, shall thus be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (3:1-4).
Sardis was severely reprimanded, the “dead” Church. Its sin must have been less blatant than the sins of Pergamus and Thyatira because Jesus accuses it of hypocrisy “having the name of being alive” when actually dead. How does this relate to our times? Rather, how does it not relate to our times? Missionary life is dead, but false ecumenism gives it a veneer of some kind of bogus “life.” Sister Lucia of Fatima was shown hell by Our Lady and she saw souls falling into the abyss “like snowflakes.” Such is the reality of hell, the second death, that Our Lady dared, in her maternal solicitude, to show to little children who would be guileless witnesses to the truth. And that was in 1917. The “crisis of faith” in the Church today is far worse than in 1917. Like “whited sepulchres” many shepherds, nevertheless, try to convince themselves and their flock that all is well. Reality is checked at the door while pretense is welcomed into the feast. Enough of woeful tidings, they say: rejoice and be positive, have a toast and laugh with the enemies of God, life, and family; after all, honey wins more souls than vinegar. The prophet who bellowed the following words knew a lot about honey; he lived on honey: “He said therefore to the multitudes that went forth to be baptized by him: Ye offspring of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)
“And as it came to pass in the days of Noe,” Jesus warned in His gospel, “so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat and drink, they married wives, and were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark: and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it came to pass, in the days of Lot: they did eat and drink, they bought and sold, they planted and built. And in the day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man shall be revealed” (Luke 17:26-30).
For the few in Sardis who held fast and did not defile themselves, the Savior gave this most appealing and mysterious of promises: “they shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy.” They shall be like Henoch, the Apostles, and all the saints who walked with God, and are now vested in white garments forever. White garments! The beauty of a purified soul radiant in glory.
“And to the angel of the Church of Philadelphia,” whoever the bishop was, “the Holy One and the true one, he that hath the key of David; he that openeth, and no man shutteth; shutteth, and no man openeth” beckons John to write: “I know thy works. Behold, I have given before thee a door opened, which no man can shut: because thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. Behold, I will bring of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie. Behold, I will make them to come and adore before thy feet. And they shall know that I have loved thee. Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I will also keep thee from the hour of the temptation, which shall come upon the whole world to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (3:8-11).
Philadelphia shares with Smyrna the distinction of receiving nothing but praise from Christ. As with the Ephesians, the Church in Philadelphia was undergoing persecution from the Jews who opposed the Name and His gospel. As in Ephesus, too, the enemies of Christ were roused to anger over the conversion of fellow Israelites who lived as brothers and sisters with the Christian Gentiles. Jesus calls them, as He did in His word to the Church of Ephesus, “the synagogue of Satan.” “Synagogue” is a Greek word corresponding to the Hebrew beth ha kneset (house of assembly). It is also rendered ecclesia (assembly) in Greek, which, as you know, we translate “church.” It is a fearsome judgment to be labeled by God “the church of Satan” when your members are pretentiously worshiping Him. And, worse still, in their misguided zeal, they aim to put the Christian Jews to death. The Savior preannounced it to His followers while he walked with them: “They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doth a service to God” (John 16:2).
Now read Our Lord’s wonderful promise, which is given in allegorical language, to the steadfast: “He that shall overcome, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; and he shall go out no more; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and my new name” (3:12).
A “pillar” in the Church shall he be who overcomes. He will stand tall and immovable, like a marble pillar, in the face of persecution, and his place in heaven will be sure and everlasting. The writing upon him of the Name of God is the “light of glory” in the rays of which he will be able to see God face to face. “Name” signifies essence. The blessed will see the very essence of the Blessed Trinity and share in the eternal Now, although no finite creature can “comprehend” God as He does Himself. The name of the city of God is “Peace,” which will be the state of the new and heavenly Jerusalem (“City of Peace”). God’s “new name” will be written upon him as well. That Name is “Jesus.”
Finally, there is the Church of Laodicea. In a certain sense this Church was worse than that of the cold Sardis. Hear what the Spirit tells John to write to the “angel,” whoever was then bishop of this Church:
“These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, who is the beginning of the creation of God: I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest: I am rich, and made wealthy, and have need of nothing: and knowest not, that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. I counsel thee to buy of me gold fire tried, that thou mayest be made rich; and mayest be clothed in white garments, and that the shame of thy nakedness may not appear; and anoint thy eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise. Be zealous therefore, and do penance. Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with meTo him that shall overcome, I will give to sit with me in my throne: as I also have overcome, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” (3:14-21).
“The Amen” Hebrew scholars hold that the word comes from the Hebrew word for “truth.” Hence, “the Amen,” is the Name of the One who affirmed He was “the way, the truth, and the life”(John 14:6).
“I would thou wert cold, or hot.” The sins committed by the cold are certainly worse in degree than those committed by the lukewarm, but the lukewarm could be in a worse state spiritually. How is this? Catholic scripture commentators on this passage point out that the more grave sinners are also more self-loathing and ashamed of their vices. They more easily realize their depravity and are less deceived, unlike the pharisees. The lukewarm, on the other hand, can more easily go to sleep in their sins, which are, objectively, less serious than those of a cold-heart. They are more prone to self-deception, tepidity, levity, and acedia. They often comfort themselves by weighing their sins against the more offensive ones, perhaps even “thanking God they are not like that publican.” The lukewarm are less likely to do penance than a grave sinner who converts and makes a humble confession. Thinking themselves to be rich, they are blissfully unaware of their poverty and miserable state. The admonition of the Lord is as scathingly repulsive as sin. It is, let us not think otherwise, that of the slighted Sacred Heart: “I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.”
There is an anchor of hope nonetheless. Jesus says only that He will “begin” to vomit. The lukewarm can respond to grace and begin to burn hot, even if they have never been aflame. “[T]he smoking flax he shall not extinguish” (Matt. 12:20). That grace may be a chastisement of some sort. For a great sinner, that may be a public fall and humiliation. For a lukewarm soul it may be some affliction coming from an outside source or an illness. Tribulation tests all men, but especially the lukewarm. In fact, they cannot be saved without it. “Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise.”
This hard rebuke to the Laodiceans was the Lover’s call to penance. And how anxious He is to reward those who respond to and return love for Love! This is the work of the Spirit of God, who loves sinners and invites them to repent and come to Him and dine with Him. “Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that shall overcome, I will give to sit with me in my throne: as I also have overcome, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (3:20-21).
What a beautiful picture this is to contemplate!
Is there lukewarmness in the Church today? What is the temperature of my own soul?