Monday, January 14, 2013

Jesus’s Great-Grandson

St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his day was as close to Jesus Christ as I am now to my great-grandfather Frank T. Heffelfinger. Just as my grandmother (a late-life convert) knew and loved her father; and my mother knew and loved her mother; and I know and love mine—so Irenaeus heard and admired St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was ordained by St. John the Apostle, who was as close as it got to Jesus.

So when the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) quotes St. Irenaeus, I sit up and take note. While I can’t tell you many details of Great-Granddaddy’s life, I am sure—because of the love that flowed from generation to generation, and because I know my mother and grandmother to be honest women—that I “get” him in the important particulars.

Why, if I want to be closer to Jesus, would I ignore the testimony of his great-grandson?

While Irenaeus’s work has come down to us only in translation and often in fragments, large chunks are authoritative. His most important work was Adversus Haereses, in which he shoots down leading heresies of his day, especially gnosticism. Think of it as a law brief by a leading 19th-century justice of the Supreme Court, making his best effort to uphold the original spirit of the Constitution. It is an article of Catholic faith that Irenaeus has a secret advantage in this analogy: the Holy Spirit working in his favor. 

As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

“Irenaeus wrote in Greek many works which have secured for him an exceptional place in Christian literature, because in controverted religious questions of capital importance they exhibit the testimony of a contemporary of the heroic age of the Church, of one who had heard St. Polycarp, the disciple of St. John, and who, in a manner, belonged to the Apostolic Age.”

Those who wrote the CCC summon Irenaeus when stating categorically (in paragraphs 172–175) that there is just one Christian faith, “received from the one Lord, transmitted by one Baptism, and grounded in the conviction that all people have only one God and Father.” Then it quotes Irenaeus at length:

Indeed, the Church, though scattered throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth [the known earth in the second century], having received the faith from the apostles and their disciples [and here St. I is talking in first person] . . . guards [this preaching and faith] with care, as dwelling in a single house, and similarly believes as if having but one soul and a single heart, and preaches, teaches, and hands on this faith with a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth. 

For though languages differ throughout the world, the content of the Tradition is one and the same. [And of course this is why we need the Church two millennia after Irenaeus, as a guarantor of that Tradition.] The Churches established in Germany have no other faith or Tradition, nor do those of the Iberians, nor those of the Celts, nor those of the East, of Egypt, or Libya, nor those established at the center of the world [the east rim of the Mediterranean]. . . . The Church’s message is “true and solid, in which one and the same way of salvation appears throughout the whole world.

We guard with care the faith that we have received from the Church [or so we should], for without ceasing, under the action of God’s Spirit, this deposit of great price, as if in an excellent vessel, is constantly being renewed and causes the very vessel that contains it to be renewed.

Here, I’m afraid, the analogy between Jesus Christ and “Frank Heff” begins to break down. In our family, a tradition was started at my great-grandfather’s generation of a “loving cup” used at family weddings and passed along from generation to generation. There are pictures of my grandmother and grandfather drinking from it at their wedding and likewise of my mother and father.

In recent years, the Heffelfinger loving cup has been consigned to a vault somewhere, and someone has the key so that it can be trotted out for the occasional nuptials, that is, when the family remembers and when the key can be located. Katie and I did not drink from the loving cup, for example. Our wedding was somewhat impromptu, and I doubt we would have thought of it anyway.

While I am sure that silver polish is applied to the Heffelfinger cup as needed, the vessel will never be “renewed.” As for the contents of the cup—the status of marriage in our culture in general—well, you know all about that.

Somehow the Catholic Church has had a better record of renewal than most things. In today’s reading from the book of Hebrews, St. Paul or another author close to him writes that “The Son . . . sustains all things by his mighty Word.” Reading this as a Catholic, I understand that the “mighty Word” is not just a string of symbols on the page of some translation of the Bible somewhere but a powerful tradition that has passed from Jesus Christ through St. Irenaeus all the way to me.

And all things are sustained by it.

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