Pontius Pilate infamously asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
A number of years ago, Sister Regina Marie OCD, a Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, spoke at the Atlanta Catholic Business Conference. She asked the audience a question, “What is the greatest of truths?”
The answer she gave was simply, “God is.”
I remember one of the nearly 400 people in the audience call out, “God is what?”
“That’s all,” she said, “God is… He exists!”
Here is another great truth. All that exists apart from God is His creation. His creation comes from Him out of his abundant goodness and love, particularly His love of us. Indeed, the prologue of John’s Gospel, speaking of God the Son, states, “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:3).
In today’s second reading (James 1:17-18), we hear that “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above,” that is, everything good has its origin in and is from God.
Truth, Goodness, Beauty, along with Unity, are what Catholics refer to as the transcendentals. The transcendentals are qualities of persons and things that transcend material things and the particular moment in time. These qualities are rooted in being and find their source in God.
A great Marist and friend of mine, the late Father Thomas Dubay, wrote, “Truth, beauty and goodness have their being together, by truth we are put in touch with reality which we find is good for us and beautiful to behold. In our knowing, loving and delighting the gift of reality appears to us as something infinitely and in-exhaustively valuable and fascinating.” (The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet, Thomas Dubay, Ignatius Press 1999)
Today, far too many are confused, ignorant of or simply reject reality and turn from God and true religion.
So, what is Truth?
Jesus Christ had taught the disciples that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Truth is a Person. God is not simply truthful, God is Truth.
God created all that is. He has defined what is true.
Man and woman do not define truth. When we conform to God’s objective reality, we are being truthful. When we do not, we are in error.
What is good?
We read in Genesis, “And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
God intended all that He created for a purpose. When we conform to that purpose, we are being good.
What is Beauty?
Something or Someone who conforms to God’s objective reality and intended purpose is beautiful.
What is true is good. What is good is beautiful.
The True, the Good, and the Beautiful are attributes of God’s Being. They are also attributes of His creation, and therefore of you and me.
And that is why deep within us we have a desire to strive for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
We approach these transcendentals in a reverse order.
We are attracted to what we perceive to be beautiful. In our fallen world, not all that attracts us is good and true, so we need to test what we perceive to be beautiful to determine if it is also good and true? If not, it is not truly beautiful. There is a world of difference between the American singer who calls herself Madonna and her moral choices and The Madonna, the Mother of God who said, “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.”
In our first reading (Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8), Moses stresses the crucial importance for the people of Israel to know and follow God’s statutes and decrees. Righteousness in the times of the Old Covenant was demonstrated by adherence to the Law. In this way they could be like God.
God was forming His Chosen People, teaching them the knowledge that had been lost when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden.
To prepare mankind for redemption, we had to again gain the knowledge of what is true, strengthen our will to conform to that reality and in time come to love truth and goodness which is a beautiful thing.
The Epistle of St. James reminds us of this. In our present time and culture, too many of us are unaware of these foundational qualities.
St. James also speaks of religion. Religion! Here is another word whose meaning seems lost on too many today.
We have all likely heard someone say, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” Or, we have possibly heard another say, “I am opposed to religion, especially organized religion.”
So, what is religion? In his later years, St. Augustine defines religion as that which “binds us to the One, Almighty God” (On the True Religion).
So, let’s understand this. When I seek to know, serve and love God, I am being religious. When I embrace God’s objective reality as truth, conform my will to His purpose, and love God and His creation, I am practicing religion.
St. James gives practical meaning and example to this when he writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). Righteousness in the New Covenant is manifested by trustful surrender to Jesus and the observance of Justice, giving God and our brothers and sister their due.
Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God above all and the second is to love one another. So, St. James challenges us to be doers of the word and not just hearers. If we hear, but do not do, we are delusional. His problem with the way the pharisees practiced religion as we heard in today’s gospel was that they divorced the external observance from the transformation of the inner person.
There has to be a connection between the Word planted in our soul and the things we do. He goes on to say that Jesus, the Word of God and His Gospel, planted in our hearts can save us if we receive it with meekness.
Witnesses for Christ
Each of us, when we were baptized into the Church, which is Christ’s mystical body, became prophets (seekers and teachers of truth), kings (servants of truth and followers of goodness), and priests (lovers of God who desire to bring others to Him).
And so, at Holy Mass, we give thanks to Almighty God for all that is true, good and beautiful, and we nurture the Word, planted in our soul, by receiving that same Word, Jesus Christ, in Holy Communion.
We are then sent forth to be witnesses to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, called to courageously share the Gospel as doers of the Word, not in the manner of the Pharisees, but as God’s children, whose works flow from an ever-deepening love of God and one another.
There is no greater witness by which you will bring people to Christ, than by how you live your life.
Into the deep…
The scripture readings during Holy Mass for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) are Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalms 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Image: “The School of Athens” (detail showing Aristotle with the elder Plato) by Raphael