As horrifying as it is to hear it and to speak it, the entire Christian world will once again witness the unfolding drama of the Passion during Holy Week. For many of us, this time will be one of sincere repentance and deep reflection. For some, it will be just another week marking the gentle return to spring. But for others, it will be the perfect time to deny, discredit and attempt to destroy the Truth.
This last group consists of people who ally themselves with the forces marshaled by the Adversary himself. These are the ones who propagate the tradition of betrayal that extends from as far back as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the host of Old Testament betrayers like Alcimus and Ahithophel, and Holy Week’s apostle-turned-apostate himself, Judas Iscariot.
The worst part of this week, however, is that the story of Christian betrayal didn’t end when Judas hanged himself. It continued afterward in the guise of heretics fighting against the early Church, and it still exists in our day. In fact, the age in which we are living is decidedly despicable because not only has it invented its own heresies, but it is resuscitating the same ones put to rest in the early Church. That is why it is vitally important for Catholics, the Orthodox and other-tradition-minded Christians to understand our patrimony. We must inform ourselves about the ancient faith and use that knowledge and a commitment to prayer to learn to spot heresy in our own time.
As soon as Holy Week is over — since you would have been reminded of the story of Judas — take some time to understand more about the historical development of Church doctrine by becoming more familiar with the debate surrounding certain early heresies. Include in your research Gnosticism-Docetism (denying God came in the flesh), Arianism (denying Jesus is God), Pelagianism (denying man is dependent on God), Iconoclasm (denying the use of images of God in prayer), Macedonianism (denying the Holy Spirit is God), Origenism (denying an eternal judgment) and Messalianism (denying the sacraments and ecclesiastical obedience).
While doing so it might appear that some of these heresies are obscure debates that have little to do with the modern person in the pew. On the contrary, the controversies over doctrine in the first centuries of the Church are at the very heart of the challenges we face today.
Therefore, the second activity you can undertake is to make connections between what happened in the early days of the Church and what is happening today. In other words, once you are grounded in these doctrines and debates, I hope to help you see how the modern world is re-adapting these heresies and passing them off as some sort of modern cultural orthodoxy.
Specifically, notice how Gnosticism-Docetism is alive in Scientology, the entertainment world and even some parishes. Arianism can be found among Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unitarians and in certain parts of inter-religious dialogue. Pelagianism is rampant in American culture and can be found in modernist spirituality and homiletics. Iconoclasm is captured in public policy and is prevalent in the design of modernist churches. Macedonianism has reappeared in the New Age movement (which is largely synonymous with environmentalists now) and in modernist spiritualities within the Church. Origenism can be found not only within the wider secularist culture but also among Christians who dismiss the truth of the final judgment. Lastly, Messalianism can be found among Quakers, Buddhists and Marxist spiritualities that reject sacraments and ecclesiastical obedience.
Recognizing these connections should mean to us that Docetism, Origenism, Arianism, Macedonianism, Pelagianism, Iconoclasm and Messalianism are not obscure theological and spiritual debates weighed down by the miniscule ravings of hermitic lunatics who sought to hide in caves away from a disappointing world. These seven heresies, in fact, are vitally important to how we understand God and His Church. More than that, betrayal and heresy-as-betrayal offer us an important key to unlocking the rather confusing and disheartening times in which we live.
The people behind these heresies, the theological details of these heresies and the spiritual impact and meaning of these heresies can all be found in our world today. It is possible, in fact, to say evil was at work in the early Church, and we can say it is today, too. But it is altogether too important to ignore man’s decidedly dark attempts throughout our history to destroy God’s Churches, to dissuade His followers and to try to dissuade God’s people from the validity of His sacraments.
That is why the third activity you can take on after Holy Week is to pay better attention to the prayers right before Communion. In the 1970 Missal of the Roman Rite (Novus Ordo) take note of the phrase: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you […]” In the 1962 Missal of the Roman Rite (Blessed John XXIII) the believer begs: “Let not the partaking of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I, though unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgment and condemnation […]” Finally, and most significantly in the Byzantine Catholic Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the believer asks and promises: “Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas […]”
Let us not be like Judas and let us fight against those who are. For we know the truth that God Himself became man so that man could become more like God. We know He came in the flesh, worked miracles, preached the Kingdom, was betrayed, beaten and crucified. Thankfully, we also know He was resurrected. But we must take what we know into the world.
Our efforts during this week and in the weeks to come will make us wiser in understanding and handling the hidden messages and methods used by the forces of those who wish to ignore the revelation of God. Understanding and rooting out this betrayal where it exists will further toward the ultimate, heavenly goal: theosis or union with Him for all of eternity.
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