What, exactly, is Saint James telling us with these words? What are these good and perfect gifts? Who is the "Father of Lights"? Why is He without change or alteration?
The Father of Lights, of course, is almighty God. Saint James is probably referring to His most visible creations, the lights of the heavens; the Sun by day and the Moon and stars by night.
In the broadest sense, God's good and perfect gifts include all of creation. It is God who created everything out of nothing -- and it is God who keeps every created thing in existence. Without God's attention every created material and spiritual thing would cease to exist. God conserves in existence not only the Angels, the Sun, Moon, and stars -- but also everything under the heavens; the birds of the air, the sea and all within it, as well as all of us creatures who inhabit the earth. He has created a world that operates in harmony and order for the wellbeing of His creatures.
In a slightly narrower sense, we know that God has decreed the immortality of our spirits, and provides what is necessary to spend that immortality sharing His happiness. He sent His Divine Son to redeem the entire human race; to open the gates of heaven, and to enable each person to cooperate with God's graces so as to work out his individual salvation.
To that end -- the end of obtaining our salvation -- God has told us about Himself so that we may know and love Him; God has given us the moral law so that we may obey Him, living in such a way as to please Him and to show proper respect for His other human creatures; and God has given us the Mass and the Sacraments so that we may worship Him as He desires and ever stay in the state of His sanctifying grace.
With Saint James, we say that the Father is without change or alteration. In His perfection, any manner of change would take something away from Him -- no improvement is possible for He is truly perfect. We can also testify to His unchanging nature from our own experience. In the material world we directly observe His unchanging laws. All of the tools and gadgets and technology upon which man depends, often without thinking about them, work because we can place unfailing trust in the laws of nature's God. Think how chaotic things would be if God made them otherwise -- if we had to wonder, for example, which way gravity would pull us when we went out the door each morning: would things fall up? or down? or sideways? or not at all? And gravity, of course, is only one of the thousands of phenomena upon which we have come to depend in everyday life.
The moral law is equally unchanging -- just like the physical laws, it has to be constant for human life to go on in any recognizable fashion. We might speak of the moral law as something like the "manufacturer's instructions for the operation of His creation." Society simply could not function if we were all to murder and steal and lie and cheat one another. And society cannot function if it denies the Lawgiver, anymore than if it denies the law. The lawgiver has revealed Himself to us: that, for example, He is one God in three divine persons -- there will not some day be a fourth person, not will the number be reduced to two. Through the Church He established, we know that Mary was conceived without sin, and has been taken bodily into heaven -- it is impossible for that to change, that some day she might be sullied or dispossessed from the home she makes with her divine Son in heaven.
The Mass and the Sacraments are likewise immutable -- at least as long as man lives a natural life on earth. There might be some differences in their ritual over time -- there can be a Roman, and a Byzantine rite, and a few others -- those things are cultural. But as long as we are dealing with redeemed human nature not yet taken into the glory of heaven, mankind will always need the very same graces that have always been conferred by Baptism, and Confirmation, and Confession, and so on. No matter how old the Earth gets, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will still be the uniquely acceptable worship that man can offer to God -- it is, after all, the offering of God, having become man, offering Himself up as the perfect Sacrifice to the Father. Like anything that is perfect, changing the essential nature of the Mass can only detract from it and make it less pleasing to God -- maybe even make it insulting to Him.
But modern man -- including even many modern Catholics -- seems to chafe under the idea of an unchanging God, whose unalterable intellect and immutable will define what is true and moral, without consulting His creatures and asking for their opinions. Modern man somehow expects to be asked for his "input" and feels that truth and morality can only be the product of "dialogue." Modern man, you see, is used to feeling important. Indeed, in many cases, he sees himself as important enough to demand this "dialogue" about what is true and moral -- and then to exclude God from that "dialogue"! It is as if he is saying that He doesn't need God -- that man can keep himself in existence and decide what is true and moral today -- with the explicit understanding that truth and morality maybe different tomorrow if he decides that is what he wants. Of course this makes as much sense as "dialoging," and determining that tomorrow all objects will fall "up." Modern man is arrogant if he is anything.
And that arrogance can be dangerous. It is dangerous because arrogance can survive only insofar as arrogant people make demands on those around them to agree that their false notions are correct. It is bad enough if I don't want to pray, but arrogance will cause me to demand that no one else pray either -- or that every one else agree that my violence, or my adultery, or my fraud are actually laudable things to be imitated. If modern man denies the Mass and the Sacraments, he wants them taken from everyone else -- mutilated into something alien to the Savior on the Cross -- perhaps returned once in a while, but then only on the condition that every other aspect of God's unchanging truth and unalterable morality be put up for denial.
There is a letter on the bulletin board (copy below) that illustrates this mentality very well. It describes, in very plain language, how one week ago, vandals entered the traditional Catholic church of Saint Michael in Farmingville New York. There was also an article in the secular media.2 It is clear from all accounts that robbery was not the motive: there were no more than a few dollars on hand, and nothing valuable was taken; just destroyed. Nor was the motive "Satanism" as we know it, for the Hosts from the shattered tabernacle were scattered in the parking lot, not taken. Nor does it seem even to be the work of mindless vandals -- the evidence clearly shows that the criminals knew something about our Catholic Faith and what we consider sacred. The altar and the altar stone were badly smashed, the tabernacle ripped from the altar, the crucifix and the paschal candle bent and broken in half. This was the work of someone -- very probably a former Catholic -- who did not want altars with tabernacles, the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in his life any longer. And like all arrogant men, he set out to make sure that others would be forced to share the consequences of his unbelief.
The people in Farmingville will rebuild. Indeed, it is most likely that the great vitality of their parish and its people was in some degree responsible for their church's desecration -- they were too prosperous a reminder to some criminal about his lost Faith. Their story will probably bring in new members from among those Catholics who had been "sitting on the fence" about the unchanging nature of the Faith; their experience will surely cause their members to re-dedicate themselves to the success of their parish and the preservation of the Faith.
But, let me close by suggesting a lesson that we should derive from this terrible sacrilege. God's unchanging truth, His unalterable morality, and His holy Mass and Sacraments do matter. To suggest otherwise -- to suggest that everyone is free to do what he pleases -- is to drive society further and further away from God; and further and further toward barbarism and anarchy -- and it is to drive individual souls further and further away from salvation and so much closer to the devil. It is to embolden those who, having lost the Faith, want to force everyone else to copy their immorality, their apostasy, and their hatred of God's holy worship.
God's unchanging truth, His unalterable morality, and His holy Mass and Sacraments do matter. They are unchanging and unalterable, just like the laws of the physical universe. To encourage someone in his denial of God's laws is at least as criminal as encouraging him to walk off the roof of a thirty-story building -- in both cases he will fall flat on his face (no matter how much he has "dialogued" about gravity) -- but in the first case, he may loose his soul.
"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of Lights