The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for September, 2005

Beyond the Questions

“Jesus knew that they wanted to ask Him…” (John 16:19). The disciples’ heads were full of questions. They had heard some quite extraordinary things: Jesus was returning to the Father, the world was going to hate them, the Spirit of Truth was coming to enlighten them, etc. They had way too much to process, and I’m sure they were in complete agreement with Jesus when He said: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (16:12).

They did ask Jesus one question, which He answered in his own mysterious way, Himself admitting that He spoke “in figures.” Then, still not quite understanding, but with a bit of false bravado, they exclaimed: “Now we know that You know all things, and there is no need for anyone to question You!” That they didn’t get it was clear from Jesus’ immediate prediction that in his hour of need they would all desert Him.

But the disciples were right about one thing: He does know all things and there is no need to question Him. Not that it’s wrong to question God; He’s quite understanding and indulgent with our gropings and perplexities. But if we do decide to question God, there are two other things that need to be done: 1) Wait long enough to receive an answer, and/or 2) Realize that even though He has much to tell us, we cannot bear it now. The latter is the one we’ll most often have to accept.

In C.S. Lewis’ marvelous paradisal novel, Perelandra, the embattled hero asks a question of a great Angel about some deep mystery, only to receive the reply that there was no “holding-place” in his limited mind for the answer. He did eventually receive a flash of insight concerning the Great Dance, that intricately interwoven tapestry—or fabulously, minutely interconnected glorious grid—of God’s providential design for all times, places, persons, and things, from galaxies to grains of dust, but it was so overwhelmingly brilliant, wondrous, and mind-exploding that he could barely grasp enough even to begin to adequately articulate it. But the thing to hold on to for now is that there is a plan (or countless interdependent ones), there are answers, and God is the Master of the universe and of our own individual destinies.

We have to realize that we’re just not ready or able to receive all there is to know about the divine mysteries, or even those of the material cosmos and our own souls. There will always be questions, and sometimes we frustrate ourselves needlessly. We have to get beyond the questions, or beyond the need to constantly ask questions, especially if we do it in an over-curious, impatient, or arrogant manner. But to go beyond the questions is not necessarily to go to the place of answers—it is to go to the place of confidence in Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Just knowing that there is a design, a plan, worked out from time immemorial by a loving God, should ease our anxious uncertainties about all the vicissitudes of life and the threats to our fragile security. We’re not cut adrift, we’re not accidental, we’re not unknown or forgotten, we’re not random chunks of evolved protoplasm milling about a spinning orb of rock and water, heading towards an ultimate and meaningless dissolution.

Jesus said that the Spirit of Truth would teach us all things. He said that so that in Him we might have peace (John 16:33). Trust in Him; wait for the Promise of the Father. Move beyond the questions. Don’t fret over what you don’t understand. After all, we’re in the hands of Angels, those bright and glorious “ministering spirits sent forth…for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). If we don’t have holding-places in our minds for all the mysteries, let’s at least hold in our hearts some trust in that ineffably transcendent yet intimately personal God, who loved us enough to give us a unique place in his marvelous design.

My Peace I Give You

Today I will conclude in peace my reflections on the fourteenth chapter of John. Jesus said that his parting gift would be peace. But I wrote some time ago that Jesus said He came to bring not peace but a sword. How can we understand this? Can these two statements be reconciled?

The key to understanding these sayings on peace is this: “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). When Jesus said that He came not to bring peace, He was talking about peace as understood in a worldly sense, i.e., absence of strife or conflict. He knew that his word would create opposition between those who would receive it and those who wouldn’t, but the truth has to be embraced even at the price of the superficial “peace” of religious relativism. So even now, as He says He does give peace, it is still “not as the world gives,” but it is rather his peace. What does this mean?

He gives us a hint at the end of the verse: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” So his peace is that which removes inner turmoil and fear. The peace of Christ may not remove all external conflicts or threats, but it communicates confidence and hope even in the midst of them. The peace of Christ is the “I am with you,” the “I will never forsake you,” of which the Scriptures frequently remind us. It is a rootedness in the transcendent serenity of the age to come, which at the same time enables us to act wisely and decisively in the present age. When this peace is firmly established within us, it doesn’t matter much if there is unrest around us. Lack of tranquility is the usual state of a fallen world, so we can’t expect to calm all troubled waters (though it is still important to work even for outer peace, especially when we see the horrors of war and hateful aggression). But we can be rooted in the One who gives steadfast assurance that all manner of things shall be well, when we walk in his word and will. There will never be peace in the world if there is not first peace—Jesus’ peace—in human hearts.

I have wondered how people who have no faith in God can stand to live in this world. When tragedies or random misfortunes visit them, they desperately search for something or someone to blame for their unredressed afflictions. Rage and grief consume them, and if they do think of God, it is only with reproaches for not having preserved them from misfortune, so that they could have continued their illusory existence, ignoring or rejecting Him. They look for peace as the world gives, but the world gives it not, and the world cares not for them in their distress. They have no Rock, no Anchor, no Beacon in the night saying, “Courage, beloved, do not fear; I am with you; your reward will be great in Heaven.”

Peace often comes at a price. It’s not just a relaxing, soothing feeling, an insulation from the demanding struggles of a righteous life. Peace may begin with a call to repentance, with some spiritual surgery on our bad habits or attitudes. But once we have that peace, as Jesus gives it, we will wonder how we ever survived without it. Our souls will be like the depths of a great ocean, which remains ever still, even while a storm disturbs the surface. That is because we are anchored in eternity, connected with the Source of eternal life, and our confidence in Him gives us superior strength in any struggle we are called to endure.

“I will come back for you.” His promise is still good. We have his peace while we await Him. Don’t look to the world for peace; you will only be disappointed. Remember that clever but true saying: “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace.” He will never forsake us, and when at length He returns, we’ll rejoice that we held fast our confidence.

John 14: The Holy Spirit

We have St John to thank for shedding important light on least-revealed Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. (In this detail of the Pentecost icon, the Spirit is symbolized by the rays of blue Light at the top and by the tiny flames over the apostles’ heads.) It is true that St Luke mentions the Spirit often, but he does not give us the same theological treatment that we find in the Gospel of John. (I’ll have to dip briefly into chapters 15 and 16 to get a more complete picture.) We find the clearest testimony to the divinity of the Holy Spirit in John when Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (15:26). This puts the Spirit on the same level with the Son who was begotten of the Father, and who, as we’ve seen, is one in essence with Him. This same passage is used in the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which the Eastern Churches still use today. (It is not quite accurate to call the Creed used in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches simply the “Nicene Creed.” All the Nicene Creed said about the Holy Spirit was: I believe in the Holy Spirit. All the rest was added later at the first Council of Constantinople.)

Jesus gives the Spirit a name: Paraclete. This name is variously translated Counselor, Comforter, or Advocate, and all of them apply. The term simply means one who is called to the side of another, to help, defend, protect, or otherwise “be there” for him. Christ Himself is the first Paraclete, who came to the side of sinful, exiled mankind as Savior and Redeemer. To make it clear that that’s how He thought of Himself, Jesus told the apostles that the Father would send another Paraclete (14:16), the Holy Spirit, to be with them. This Paraclete He called the Spirit of Truth (three times in the Farewell Discourse).

What will the Spirit of Truth do? Precisely as Spirit of Truth, He will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that [Jesus has] said…” The Spirit will guide us into all the truth, speaking what the Father tells Him to, glorifying Christ by declaring to us his word. So the Holy Spirit is the life-breath of the living Tradition of the Church, leading her into the full truth about Christ and the Holy Trinity. The Spirit will safeguard the revelation, the heritage of Christ which He gave to his apostles, and will bring it to fresh vitality in every age and nation.

That is what the Spirit does for the Church. For the world: “He will convince [or convict] the world concerning sin and justice and condemnation.” The sin Jesus refers to is unbelief, the justice (or perhaps vindication) is his return to the Father after having completed his mission, and the condemnation is the judgment pronounced upon the devil (16:8-11). In terms of this passage the mission of the Spirit in the world is to call unbelievers to faith, to instruct them about the unique and absolute claims of Christ—based on who He is and what He has done for us—and to warn them of the condemnation that awaits those who would follow the evil one. Yet this task is difficult, for the world “neither sees Him nor knows Him.”

With the individual believer, the Spirit is more intimate. Once Jesus said the world doesn’t know the Holy Spirit, He said to his disciples: “but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” That was just before Jesus said that He and his Father would come to us and make their home with us. So the Trinitarian indwelling is here completed. With us and in us—that is how God wants to be.

We have to rely heavily on the Spirit of Truth in this age of widespread deception. We so need to be reminded of all that Jesus said; we need to be led fully into the profound truth about God, the Church, the world, and even about ourselves. The Spirit is entirely Self-effacing, glorifying the Father and the Son; it is through the Spirit that the Father and the Son dwell in us and act in the world today. Pray to better recognize the Holy Spirit, to know Him, to love Him with that flaming intensity that only He Himself can inspire. The Spirit dwells with you and in you. Call to the Holy Spirit in your time of need. Let Him be the Paraclete in your life.

John 14: The Son

St John gives us the clearest testimony to the divinity of Jesus in the Gospels. Not only do we see “the Word was God…the Word was made flesh” as an unmistakable teaching about the divinity of the Son and his Incarnation, but his equality with the Father is highlighted in several places. Here in John 14, we will briefly look at who He is and what He does.

We saw yesterday that to see Jesus is to see the Father, that is, the fullness of divinity was expressed in the incarnate Son. The most powerful statement in this chapter about who He is can be found in the famous sixth verse: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This is one of the “I AM” statements that are found throughout the Gospel. “I AM” is a divine title, the one by which God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush on Sinai. This doesn’t mean that every time Jesus says “I am” He is using a divine title (e.g. “I am thirsty”). But the fact that He does use it in ways that unmistakably point to his divinity (e.g. “Before Abraham was, I AM”) means we can recognize it in other appropriate places.

To be the Way is to be the sole Mediator between the Father and mankind. Truth and Life in this absolute sense (I AM) can only be divine attributes. If we know truth and have life, it means that we must be in some way connected to Christ, who is Truth, who is Life. His other statements about being one with the Father also indicate his divine nature.

But what about this: “the Father is greater than I” (v. 28). That was part of the basis for another heresy, quite different from the one I mentioned yesterday (this heresy also is still around today). Arius and his followers used this statement to “prove” that Jesus was not divine, but a creature (proof that biblical proof-texting is not always reliable). I referred to texts that emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, but here’s one that emphasizes his human nature. Insofar as He is man, Jesus can say the Father is greater than He, for the Son emptied Himself, humbled Himself, as St Paul says, to take the form of a servant. And a servant is not greater than his master. He chose to place Himself lower than the Father, so that the Father’s will could be done for our salvation. Essentially, however, He is still the consubstantial and co-eternal Son of God.

What does John 14 say that the Son does? First of all, He goes to the Father to prepare a place for us, and He will return and take us there. Why? So that “where I am you may be also… I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” This is one of the great divine promises. Jesus expresses his love for us by the very fact that He wants us to be where He is, and will realize his love by actually coming to get us and bring us to the Father’s house. He also said He will manifest Himself to us even before He returns, but this is an interior revelation, part of the mutual abiding that is the blessing for those who love Him by keeping his word. (The Son also gives peace, but we will treat that separately in a couple days.)

He speaks often of his “works” as a testimony to his union with the Father. These works are mainly his miracles, though these are usually called “signs” in John’s Gospel. But “works” evidently has a wider application, including his teaching as well, for the term is used in a parallel construction with “words”: “The words I say I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does his works.” Later Jesus will say that He accomplished the Father’s work, having given his disciples the words the Father gave to Him.

Jesus makes a final declaration in John 14 that the “prince of this world” (i.e., the devil) has no power over Him. His disciples needed to hear that, for when He was crucified they might have in fact thought that the devil had won the day. Jesus gives a very personal and intimate reason why He was ready to submit to such humiliation and torture: “so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

What better reason could we ourselves have for enduring the sufferings of life, especially those which come to us as a result of our fidelity to Christ and his Church? Let us not merely reflect abstractly upon the attributes of the Son, but let us be like Him. Take up your cross and follow Him, so that the world may know that you love the Father.

John 14: The Father

A large part of St John’s Trinitarian theology is concentrated in the fourteenth chapter of his Gospel. For the next few days, I’d like to focus on the way each Person of the Holy Trinity is presented therein, so as to better understand one of our earliest sources for this divine and eternal mystery. Even though I’m arranging the posts this way, it will be clear that none of the Divine Persons can be adequately considered apart from the others. Therefore, much of what we will see flows from the relationship of Persons in the Trinity. What we will learn about the Most Holy Trinty comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself.

The Father is revealed as the ultimate goal of our lives, because salvation is presented in terms of coming to the Father, by way of the Son: “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Heaven is described as “My Father’s house.” The main emphasis in this chapter is the inseparable oneness of the Father and the Son: “If you would have known Me, you would have known My Father also”; “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” But the evangelist takes care to present the ineffable mystery of union and distinction, as he did in the beginning of his Gospel when he wrote: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Though the Father and Son are completely One, they are not merely two different “faces” or “modes” of the same Person (as some early heretics taught, and as some modern ones still do). They are actually two Persons: “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me… I go to the Father… I will pray to the Father… the word you hear is not mine but the Father’s… I do as the Father has commanded Me…” Even though “the Father and I are one” (10:30), there is still a “Me” and a “Him” that are Son and Father.

They are not only one in being but one in love. “He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him…” Moreover, the doctrine of the divine indwelling is repeatedly stressed in John’s Gospel: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him… I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” If Heaven is the Father’s house, and if Jesus and the Father wish to make their home with us, then God is promising us a foretaste of Heaven on earth through this mutual abiding, which is the fruit of love, and also of the Holy Eucharist (6:56).

It is the Father who is the eternal Origin of the Son and the Spirit, though not in any sort of temporal priority. All three Persons are consubstantial (of the same divine essence or nature) and co-eternal, but the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (15:26). So it is always the Father who acts through the Son and the Spirit: “the Father who dwells in Me does his works”; “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send… whatever He [the Spirit] hears, He will speak” (the last passage is from 16:13). And it is the Son and the Spirit who refer back to the Father: “I go to the Father… I do as the Father has commanded… I love the Father.” Notice in the icon above (a symbolic image of the Trinity as three angels, based on the way God once appeared to Abraham), that the angels who represent the Son and the Spirit are both looking toward the one who represents the Father.

Since the Father is the ultimate Origin in the Trinity, the Scriptures often refer to Him simply as God. In many cases, “God” ought be to taken to mean the Holy Trinity as such, but it’s obvious when Jesus says, for example, “believe in God; believe also in Me,” that here “God” means the Father.

Perhaps we ought to learn here (I was reminded as I wrote) that everything comes from the Father and everything returns to the Father, in one way or another—if only for judgment, in some cases. Whatever Jesus and the Holy Spirit say or do for us comes ultimately from the Father. The Father, as both eternal Origin and everlasting Destiny, is silently present and at work in the world and in every aspect of your life. “Our Father” may be in Heaven, but He’s as close to you as your own heartbeat. He loves you and wants to make his home with you.

Do You Believe This?

Martha was put on the spot. Her beloved brother Lazarus had died four days earlier and was buried in a tomb. Her dear friend Jesus came to see her, and she received an initial word of consolation from Him: “Your brother will rise again.” This seemed to her like standard comfort for the bereaved, an appropriate passage from the catechism, as it were, but it wasn’t going to change anything in the here and now. So she just responded with a similar one, perhaps with a touch of resignation: “I know that he will rise again—in the resurrection on the last day.”

Here’s where Jesus puts her on the spot, as He sets aside the catechism: “I AM the resurrection and the life! He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die [literally, “shall not die forever”]. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). The teaching came alive in his own Person; the resurrection was no longer in some indeterminate future. The Resurrection was standing before her.

Martha was taken aback. What did his words mean? What did He think He was going to do? So she dodged his question slightly, not restating it in her answer as in the previous one, but at the same time making a powerful profession of faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” In effect she was saying that she believed that since He was the Son of God, the awaited Messiah, whatever He said was true, and whatever He wished to do, He was able. But she may not have been all that sure He was actually going to raise her dead brother. It was too good to be true, too much to ask, even from the Messiah.

This doubt of hers was manifest when Jesus commanded that the stone be taken away from the tomb. She protested, making it clear that her brother was not only dead but already decaying. We have to wait till the last day for resurrection, she may have thought. But Jesus turned to her with fire in his eyes and cried out, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). So He called out: “Lazarus, come forth!” The divine voice of Christ echoed through the halls of Hades, and the dead man returned from the netherworld alive, to the utter astonishment of all who witnessed it.

As we read the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is going to be checking with us: “Do you believe this?” We need to make a profession of faith. We are faced with many questions, many difficult circumstances, many apparently insoluble problems in our lives, and it takes a lot of faith just to keep going on. We hardly know the way to turn, what is true anymore, how to live rightly. Wait a minute, says Jesus: I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life! I AM the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness. Do you believe this?

The Holy Eucharist may bring up another demand for faith. In the Byzantine Liturgy, before receiving Holy Communion, we offer a prayer that begins with a profession of faith very much like Martha’s: “O Lord, I believe and profess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners…”

Cling to the word of the Lord. As Jesus often said, your faith is your salvation. He is resurrection; He is life. Do you believe this? If you do, you will see the glory of God.

Heschel on Prayer

As long as I’ve got my Heschel open, I’ll share some more with you. I began reading him a few years ago, and I still go back to him once in a while for some spiritual refreshment. His insights into the mystery of God are profound and his articulation is eloquent. Even though his works need the completion which only the revelation of Christ can bring, what I’ve been quoting from him can benefit the spiritual life of any Christian. The following passages on prayer are from Man’s Quest for God.

“How good it is to wrap oneself in prayer, spinning a deep softness of gratitude to God around all thoughts, enveloping oneself in the silken veil of song… [Prayer's] drive enables us to delve into what is beneath our beliefs and desires, and emerge with a renewed taste for the infinite simplicity of the good. On the globe of the microcosm, the flow of prayer is like the Gulf Stream, imparting warmth to all that is cold, melting all that is hard in our life. For even loyalties may freeze to indifference if detached from the stream which carries the strength to be loyal… Prayer revives and keeps alive the rare greatness of some past experience in which things glowed with meaning and blessing. It remains important, even when we ignore it for a while, like a candlestick set aside for the day. Night will come, and we shall again gather round its tiny flame…

“It is the spiritual power of the praying man that makes manifest what is dormant in the text [of the prayer]… The service of prayer, the worship of the heart, fulfills itself not in the employment of words as a human expression, but in the celebration of words as a holy reality… Praying means to take hold of a word, the end, so to speak, of a line that leads to God… But praying also means that the echo of the word falls like a plummet into the depth of the soul…

“Whose ear has ever heard how all the trees sing to God? Has our reason ever thought of calling upon the sun to praise the Lord? And yet, what the ear fails to perceive, what reason fails to conceive, our prayer makes clear to our souls. It is a higher truth, to be grasped by the spirit: ‘All Thy works praise Thee’ (Ps. 145:10). We are not alone in our acts of praise. Wherever there is life, there is silent worship. The world is always on the verge of becoming one in adoration. It is man who is the cantor of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed.”

Makes you want to start praying right away, doesn’t it? I think we often need to acquire a more profound vision of prayer and of our relationship to God, lest we succumb to lassitude, boredom, or frustration. Merely “saying our prayers” in a routine or inattentive manner will not plunge us into the heart of the Mystery. We have to breathe prayer, be prayer, and let it flow through us like a river of life. It’s your turn now; be the cantor of the universe.

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