Ahaz & the Altar

King Ahaz ordered the removal of a portico on the house of the Lord, presumably to use its materials as payment to the king of Assyria. This was a remarkably desperate act if one is searching for something to sell. He had already given virtually all of the silver and gold from the Temple and from his own house and sold his loyalty to the Assyrian king in return for the promise of protection from Syria and Israel and encouraged the Assyrian king to capture Damascus from Israel. He went so far as to essentially pawn the precious metal support structures and the twelve expertly crafted oxen that had supported the large bowl of water used for priestly washing in the court of the Temple since the time of Solomon.

Ahaz’s far-reaching structural changes to the Temple represented the largest changes to that time. This was the glorious Temple David had foreseen and Solomon had constructed. But it had lost its luster. Much of the valuable items within it – the golden shields, the doors of olivewood overlaid with gold, with hand-carvings of Cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers – those had long been stripped and ransomed to another country for military or political purposes.

But the changes Ahaz implemented were materially much more than removing sources of wealth or beauty. Ahaz had seen an altar in Damascus where he met with the one he adored more than the Lord himself – the king of Assyria – and desired that altar to be the platform of sacrifice for his nation. Ahaz took careful notes of the dimensions and detail of this altar from Damascus.

Damascus even today is believed by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It had been ruled by virtually every King in the region at some point, so it was a very eclectic city. Syrian peoples with whom David had diplomatic relations ruled it prior to the rise of Israel, and David eventually ruled it as a vassal state. During the disastrous back half of Solomon’s reign, a band of Syrian marauders led by someone who hated all Israel seized it and ruled for a time. After a few minor wars with Israel – including one in which Asa king of Judah had paid Syria to attack Israel – Syria was ruled by a slightly more stable lineage of Syrians, including Hazael and two kings during different periods named Ben-hadad. Jeroboam II of Israel had also conquered Damascus some time prior to Ahaz’s reign, although now it was probably ruled by Syria in alliance with Israel.

The impact of such a multitude of different rulers would have created a blended religious environment, where the religious influences of the various high places of Israel (certainly differing significantly by regional custom), Syria, and Assyria’s would have seen a synthesis of some sort. Whatever this altar was in appearance, it had captured Ahaz’s mind and he demanded its construction. He sent along his notes by the hands of a messenger, and Uriah the priest complied, finishing the altar before his return.

To use this new altar, Ahaz would simply move aside the bronze altar where legitimate sacrifices of God were to take place according to Solomon’s dispensation of the law. Judah didn’t need that old relic anymore – a new and improved version was available. He moved it aside, but perhaps he might still use it personally – one cannot have too many gods to appeal to for help, after all – so he kept the bronze altar, only in a different place for him alone.

He brought in what was new, beautiful, collaborative, and amenable to Assyria, Syria, Israel, Babylon, and probably Egypt. No longer was the stuffy, multiple-century old altar the only place for sacrifice – it was only good enough for an age gone by. To him, the kingdom of Judah needed the vibrancy of what it was the Assyrians had. They were the power brokers for the world he lived in, and it was time Judah caught back up to the rest of the world. Perhaps Assyria’s practices could bestow power upon the flailing ruins of the Kingdom of Judah.

The daily sacrifices and all other prescribed sacrifices would now occur on this altar – the altar of the composite spirit of the age. But this would not be enough. Before long, when the king of Assyria still afflicted him and was unimpressed with his devotion, Ahaz would have to find other sources. He constructed metal images for the Baals, he burned his own son as an offering, and sacrificed everywhere he could find a green tree and everywhere he could a hill. Once he had destroyed the centerpiece of religious practice for Israel, there was nowhere else to go but after the latest and newest gods that could deliver. The damage he caused to the nation would never be fixed. Hezekiah would make strides in that direction and Josiah would exert a herculean will to exterminate the cancers that fed on Judah, but ultimately, they would only save themselves from seeing the destruction that would come.

***

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi

We must strip from our Catholic prayers and from the Catholic liturgy everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren that is for the Prostestants.”  – Archbishop Annibale Bugnini

The upheaval in the Catholic church that followed the change in the mass after the Second Vatican Council represents no less than the second greatest blow to institutional Catholicism in history. Certainly, the Reformation must take the number one slot given its unparalleled impact on Europe and the bloody wars fought for hundreds of years after. Even those wars which were not explicitly religious tended to be fought along religious lines or along borders that had been blurred by the unity conferred by a single faith. The stabilizing effect of a dominant papacy was no more, and the keys to temporal authority over the whole of Europe have been the quest of the most ambitious and successful leaders ever since. Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin all craved the power to do what the Romans had once done, and more.

In some ways, however, the spiritual effects of Vatican II are far worse than the impact of the Reformation, the 1054 Schism, or even the decadence of the pre-Reformation era. The centerpiece of Roman Catholic life – the liturgy of sacrifice and the nature of its practice – had been watered down. “Novus Ordo” masses were still valid if performed properly, but the changes were designed to bring Roman Catholic worship in line with Protestant and humanist concepts of worship and the trajectory of that compromise is much harder to slow down than its unwitting proponents realized. Those who knew what they were doing expected much more; they expected to be able to create a common denominator from which a global, ecumenical religious structure could be created.

The engineers of this process and the unwitting passengers thought thusly: no longer could Catholics declare their primacy in all Christian matters as the foundation of Christian belief and the only institution which still had a link to the historical Jesus. This could be perceived as divisive and offensive, and in the wake of the second World War we know what happens when one group says they are superior to another. We must accommodate the desires of those who disagree with us, even if on fundamental issues. After all, we worship “the same God,” right? They are merely our “separated brethren,” right? What’s a little Catholicity between friends?

Instead of an otherworldly experience of sacrifice in the presence of a holy God, the liturgy was a “remembrance” or a “celebration” of Christ’s sacrifice. The central focus of Vatican II and the subsequent changes to the mass were to align the Catholic with the spirit of the age and put the Church at the service of man. The offensive nature of Jesus on a cross and the doctrine of transubstantiation were watered down to accommodate individuals and organizations antithetical to the pre-Vatican II church. These are the seeds of a civil war in the church and churchmen since have been carefully nurturing a very fragile unity whose strain is obvious to all.

There cannot be any empirical defense of Vatican II and the new liturgy in terms of Catholic attendance, vocations, or strength of adherence to church teachings. The Catholic Church has objectively been in decline since that time. From monetary scandal to pedophilia networks within the church which protected their own, the church has been weakened from within to accept a role closer to that of a social worker and expected to accommodate and never contradict vile, immoral political stances, lest they be labeled a bigot. Many Bishops are more afraid of pro-life demonstrations or traditional Catholics than they are of left-wing politicians or organizations like the ADL, who under the banner of “fighting hate” label any transcendent statement of moral truth based in God as hatred. Observers of all stripes note that what happened in the wake of Vatican II was nothing short of a revolution – not a reform. Given its prominence and the timeline of the health indicators of Catholicism, there is no other conclusion except that Vatican II significantly damaged the church internally.

A clear delineation must be made, however, that most of this damage occurred because of the “spirit of Vatican II” rather than by the actual documents interpreted in the light of tradition. Many of its statements are vague, but the changes that followed in some cases explicitly violated what was decided at Vatican II, such as the translation of the entire liturgy into the vernacular, whereas the Bishops preferred the canon of the mass to remain in Latin. This post in no way supports sedevacantism; but it does point out that by being ambiguous, the Church abdicated its responsibility to be razor-sharp in its proclamations and bold in its defense of tradition.

There are also legitimate arguments to be made that prior to Vatican II, there was a subtle move to modernism in the seminaries where priests and scholarly religious were trained in secular institutions, and certainly this had an impact on the abuses that followed. St. Pius X knew very well that he had only pushed the modernists underground; he had not actually defeated them.

A new generation of traditional Catholics has emerged who embrace transcendent reverence and tradition over the diluted practice that has pervaded us since the 60s. Many defenders have risen, though very few in the ranks of the prelates. Perhaps there are Hezekiahs and Josiahs on the way to begin to rectify the wrongs of Ahaz.

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