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

Archive for November, 2005

Emmanuel

The Byzantine Churches have been in the season of Advent (though not all of them call it that) since November 15. But it may be that you are just beginning Advent this weekend. In any case, all of the Churches are now focusing their attention on the coming anew of Christ at Christmas. So what should be our approach?

As I began re-reading the Gospel of Matthew a little while back, I was somewhat startled to see a message for me: “Joseph…do not fear” (Mt. 1:20). It’s a message that is common enough in Scripture, and certainly has many, even daily, applications. It’s a message that Pope John Paul II offered the world at the beginning of his pontificate. In a world full of war, greed, lust, poverty, and injustice, and in a Church scarred with division, dissent, moral and spiritual confusion, we need to hear this message in its full force as the word of God.

But what is the basis for our acceptance of this word? If you are securely tied to railroad tracks and a train is coming, the words “do not fear” shouted by someone from a safe distance will do little to put your troubled mind at ease. There is, however, one word that brings us peace in our distress, makes it clear that indeed we need not fear: Emmanuel. “God-with-us” is one of the names of Jesus (Mt. 1:23). It is because—and only because—God is with us in the Person of our Savior Jesus Christ that we can overcome the very real fears that are generated by the current crises in Church and world.

Advent is a time of watching and waiting. The world has been in a perpetual Advent since Jesus ascended to his Father, promising to return and take us to where He is. So we can’t necessarily expect an immediate and complete eradication of all the sources of our fears. But we can live in trust, in hope, for God is with us, and our Savior will return in glory—and all injustices will be dealt with, all evils banished to infernal abodes. We don’t have to be consumed by the enervating burden of our frustrated longing for peace and blessedness in this world, because the One through whom all things were made still holds the scroll of human history and destiny, still guides us (however tortuously, it may seem) to the final victory over sin and death.

Pope Benedict XVI offered a similar message to that of Pope John Paul, though with a perhaps unexpected twist: “Be not afraid of Christ!” Why would we be afraid of Christ, Emmanuel, who comes to relieve us of our fears? Perhaps some people may fear Christ because they know that his way is demanding, costly—even though invigorating and life-giving. Perhaps they do not wish to pass through the “narrow gate” or to take up their crosses and follow Him—to lose their lives in order to save them. Maybe they chafe at the thought of personal accountability, having heard that Christ will come, not to save everyone willy-nilly, but to judge the living and the dead, separating the righteous from the evildoers. Or perhaps they simply are aware that He disapproves of their favorite vice and tends to rain on their selfish or immoral parades.

Those with the above fears of Christ ought to turn them into opportunities for repentance, into open doors for enlightenment and occasions for embracing truth, courageously meeting the challenges of life as mature men and women of God. It is not easy, but nothing good is easily achieved in a fallen world. Not to fear Christ, the Savior, God-with-us, is to accept his wisdom for living human life, to welcome the assistance and consolation of his grace when we find ourselves spiritually in arrears (as we will often be, left to our own devices).

There will always be problems in this world. Emmanuel is not primarily a problem-solver but a guiding, protecting, loving Presence in this world and in our souls. He is strength for the journey, comfort for the hard times, hope in struggles with overwhelming odds.

Peace be with you. Spend the coming weeks watching and waiting, handing over your fears to Emmanuel. His name is Jesus, for He will save us from our sins. And that’s the salvation we most desperately need. Do not fear the powers-that-be in the world. Especially do not fear Christ. Rather embrace and follow Him. This Christmas you will recognize it when you see Him: He’s a born Savior.

Alms Within

After having eaten and drunk your fill yesterday, perhaps you feel guilty enough to give something to the poor (more likely you are concerned enough to have done it anyway—I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt!). Almsgiving is an important part of our Christian way of life, but don’t think you’ve done enough if you already “gave at the office.” Simply to give is not enough. The Pharisees and wealthy Sadducees gave alms, skimming a little off the top of their abundance, and then making a public display of their “generosity.” Jesus, noticing this (He does notice things, by the way), said that a poor widow, who gave much less than they did, actually gave more, because she gave out of her substance and not out of surplus.

There is still more. There is always more if you are a Christian, because Christianity is less about things that you ought or ought not do, and more about the kind of person you ought to be (what you do will flow naturally from who you are). Therefore Christianity requires a life offered in service to God and to humanity, according to God’s manifest will in Scripture and Holy Tradition.

That is why Jesus, when He was reproaching the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, offered them this counsel: “Give for alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). That is a literal translation; most simply say “give alms” or something similar, which doesn’t fit the context and entirely misses the point. They would have been more than happy to be absolved of their evildoing by a little almsgiving, but that’s not what Jesus was saying.

Here is the context: “You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” (11:39-40). The Pharisees are concerned only with external observances (including a bit of almsgiving) and with righteous appearances. This is the “outside of the cup.” But the Lord sternly reminded them that they are neglecting the inside, that is, their own inner life, their thoughts, their hearts, from which proceed their “extortion and wickedness,” because that is the kind of persons they had become. That is what has to be dealt with, first and foremost. If they cleanse the inside of the cup, their external observances will acquire a genuineness they never had before, and they will become the kind of persons from whom good deeds naturally flow.

That is why the Lord said to give alms from what is within, that is, make a sacrifice, a gift to the Lord of the renunciation of your sins and bad habits, your hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, pride, and selfishness. That’s the only way to clean the inside, so He said: “behold, everything is clean for you.”

We have to check and see if we’re spending too much time on the outside of the cup, cultivating an exterior appearance that may be only a veneer over a soiled interior that seriously needs cleansing. First give the interior alms of repentance and conversion, until you become the kind of person who naturally (and supernaturally) does good, who lives the Christian life of sacrifice and service both within and without. When the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and you have given up your sins, behold, everything is clean for you!

Gratitude

About ten years ago we were at the home of some friends, where we enjoyed a fine, abundant dinner. One of the guests, after ingesting enormous amounts of food, deposited his voluminous body mass on a wide sofa, like a contented walrus. He lay there, patting his engorged belly with a look of utter ecstasy on his face. Soon it would be time for dessert…

This is the experience of all too many Americans on Thanksgiving Day. While it is appropriate to celebrate with gratitude the abundance of Providence, it is scandalous to overindulge in food and drink. It would be less scandalous if it were done only once a year, but since the majority of Americans are obese, it’s clear that overindulgence has become a way of life.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has become something of a bittersweet holiday for me. The sweet part is the opportunity to set apart time to give God special thanks, both liturgically and in my own heart, for the multitude of his gifts for the benefit of body and soul. It is a time to “count our blessings” (and to cease complaining about the rest!) and to relax a little—and for us, to enjoy a break from the Advent fast (in the Byzantine tradition, the pre-Christmas “St Philip’s Fast” always begins on November 15, which is 40 days before Christmas).

The bitter part is knowing that most people in the world don’t get such a break. Millions of our brothers and sisters are not having turkey and the trimmings. They’ll be lucky to get a small bowl of rice. The desperately poor don’t get holidays for overindulging in food and drink. I have to wonder: why will I be eating well and they won’t be able to? I’m no better than they. Why are they starving and I well-fed? I’m very grateful for all I’ve been given, but I just can’t turn up the music so as not to hear the cries of the poor.

Our gratitude to God must not be pharisaical. In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee thanked God—that he was not like those he considered inferior to himself! When we express our gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, we should not merely thank God that we are not like the poor and destitute. Our gratitude should be expressed by helping others.

We have to begin by realizing that we do not deserve all the good things we have. We were born into relative affluence by God’s inscrutable design, but that doesn’t make us better than anyone else. We ought to pray with the psalmist: “How can I repay the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (116:12). Then listen in prayer for a while and He will tell you. All you have wasn’t given you so you could store it up or luxuriate in it. If you have more than those who are lacking even the basic necessities of life, realize that the reason you have been given extra is so that you can give it to others. We shouldn’t just feel sorry or offer a momentary prayer for “those less fortunate than ourselves.” We must put our money (and time) where our well-fed mouths are.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive,” said the Lord (Acts 20:35), so we should be grateful for the opportunity to give and thus to increase gratitude among others “so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2Cor. 4:15).

So enjoy your dinner—moderately, with sincere gratitude to God. But don’t just plop down on the couch and start accumulating fat. Get up and share your abundance. Pray and work and give donations for the end of world poverty and hunger. The poor deserve a good meal at least as much as you do.

Ripple Effect

You know what that is. Toss a stone into a pond and watch the ripples spread out in concentric circles till they reach the shores, far beyond the point of the initial impact. The ripple effect is not something observable only in material nature, but also in human behavior. Our words, acts, and even thoughts can (and usually do, whether we’re aware of it or not) have far reaching effects in the moral and spiritual “universe.”

Notice what happens, for example, when gossip or rumors begin. They spread very quickly, and not only are they far-reaching, but as they move farther from the source they get more and more distorted so that in the end much damage can be done, much falsehood spread around. It is even worse when deliberate lies are spread.

On the other hand, a good ripple effect is seen in something like preaching the Gospel. Christ tossed the “stone” of St Paul into the Mediterranean Sea, and the ripples of his preaching reached not only its shores, but the ends of the earth, traveling though the centuries as well.

Other ripples are manifested in our actions. See, for example, the disastrous ripple effects of child abuse or alcohol and drug abuse. Children of abusers often become abusers themselves, and the ripples continue for generations, leaving a trail of ruined lives.

On the other hand, people like Blessed Mother Teresa have spread ripples of love and compassion by their tireless labors and the attractive witness of their exemplary lives. Many have been inspired to continue the work of serving the needy in the love of Christ.

The point of these few examples (and there are many more, both positive and negative) is that we have a great capacity for good or evil, far beyond what seems to be the limited influence of our individual lives. We can send ripples of goodness, love, mercy, and truth all around us—or we can send ripples of hatred, malice, and selfish disregard for others. We are all connected in some way with each other, especially Christians in the Body of Christ. St Paul makes this influence clear when he writes: “All the members of the body, though many, are one body… You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it… If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Cor. 12:12,26-27).

Therefore our sin is not an isolated or private matter. When we sin against Christ, we sin against his body (that is one reason that the confession of sins must be made to God in the presence of a priest, the representative of the whole Body of Christ as well as of the Lord). So too no one can rightly say, as is commonly asserted today, that he can do whatever he wants “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Sin, even the most “private,” does hurt others: it wounds the Body, it sends darkness and defilement into the spiritual “atmosphere” of the world. It adds to the evil of the world and detracts from the good. Even to think in an evil or inappropriate way about another person is to degrade that person and to send more evil into the world.

It is important, then, that by thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that are righteous and pleasing to God, we send goodness into the world, healing and upbuilding the Body, cleansing the spiritual “atmosphere.” It has been said about monks that they stand before God like trees that silently purify the air. Also, the vicarious sufferings of “victim souls” have won graces for the healing and conversion of many, with whom they did not have any personal contact. Love and goodness, by the will and power of God, are able to transcend space and time.

Send ripples of love and goodness, then. Know that you have a greater influence on the course of salvation history than you have yet understood. Every bit of good contributes to the fullness of good that God wishes to communicate to every human soul unto eternal happiness. Every bit of evil contributes to the wholesale degradation and destruction desired by the devil unto eternal damnation. So, think holy thoughts, speak the truth, act with love. Give glory to the Lord and it will reach the ends of the earth.

Rachel Weeping

“Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). This verse is often (and rightly) quoted when the issue of abortion comes up. It means that, symbolically or mystically, Rachel the mother of Jacob (Israel), and hence a kind of spiritual mother of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is weeping over the tragedy of the destroyed unborn children—and also it refers to the devastating after-effects of abortion on mothers, which is more and more clearly documented. The reprehensible pro-abortion lobby tries to cover up the facts and manufacture more slogans and smokescreens, but the truth is getting out, little by little, and women who have had abortions are increasingly “silent no more” about what it has done to their lives. (See http://www.silentnomoreawareness.org).

Our efforts ought primarily be exerted toward the outlawing and prevention of abortions, but what happens when the damage is already done? We can’t undo the deaths of the little ones—tens of millions of them. But their mothers, for the most part, still live, and many of them grieve or suffer various psycho-emotional, physical, and spiritual damage from the trauma of having killed their own children. Here (as well as in the areas of education, prevention, protest, and prayer) the Church must be present and active.

It is far better not to ever have had an abortion, but the sad fact is that many have, and many more do so every day. What is to be done in the aftermath? The Lord said through his prophet: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live. Turn back, turn back…” (Ezekiel 33:11). To “turn back” is to repent, to change one’s ways—and never to commit the same crimes again. Fortunately, the Church offers forgiveness through confession and absolution for those who have sinned, even those who have sinned grievously, for God wants all to be saved and hence that all sinners repent.

There are also organizations that exist for the reconciliation and healing of those who have had abortions and who are now reaping the bitter harvest in their bodies and souls. Project Rachel is one of the most well known, the founder of which works through the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing (www.noparh.org). They try to bring healing into these prodigal mothers’ lives (and sometimes the fathers, too), but not by glossing over the seriousness of the sin and saying everything is all right. Everything is not all right; a murder has been committed. But through profound awareness of the truth and through deep and sincere repentance, reconciliation with God and the Church can be experienced and wounds can be gradually healed—and new witnesses for the sanctity of human life can be formed.

Despite the heroic efforts of many, it seems clear that legal abortion is not going to disappear anytime soon. We don’t know how long God is going to tolerate this genocide, but in the meantime He still is trying to save sinners, for that is why He sent his only Son into the world. “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). We’ve made a terrible mess of our freedom, but all is not yet lost. Almost immediately after the passage quoted at the beginning, we find that “there is hope for your future, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:17).

The Little Ones

“It is not the will of my Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Who are the little ones? In the Gospel, they are the innocent children, the simple believers, those who are in need of the mercy and providence of God, the vulnerable and defenseless. And who among children are more innocent and vulnerable than the unborn?

I know of a young woman who is planning to go to an abortion clinic today, under pressure of others, to kill her little one. We are praying for a change of heart, for the life of the baby, because it is not the heavenly Father’s will that this little one should perish. Today in the United States 4000 little ones will be killed, as they are every day. In the rest of the world the total will be well over 100,000 little ones murdered every day—sacrificed on the altars of convenience, selfishness, economics, coercion and fear.

There are some people who work tirelessly to educate others about the evil of abortion and the other evils it spawns or supports. There are others who publicly protest against it, even at the price of imprisonment. There are those who preach, those who pray, those who suffer on behalf of the little ones and their misguided parents. Yet the butchery goes on, and we must call it that, for what is done to the little ones would be forbidden to be done even to an animal. If someone were to dismember a live dog or cat, or puncture its head and suck out its brains with a machine, they would be arrested for cruelty to animals. But this kind of thing is done daily, routinely, legally, to live human beings—in or (almost) out of their mothers’ wombs.

It’s a crime, a sin that cries out to Heaven for vengeance. But God is not primarily interested in vengeance (though his justice and truth will not be mocked with impunity), but rather in repentance, in love for life and goodness, which He has tried for millennia to impart to his wayward and sinful people. We cannot be silent, indifferent, looking the other way, shrugging our shoulders, resigned to our powerlessness to stem the tide of the blood of the little ones. We should not cease our prayer, our protest, our withholding money and votes from those who promote or contribute to this barbaric slaughter of God’s precious children.

There’s a controversy in the Church about whether or not politicians who call themselves Catholics but promote abortion can come to the table of the Lord, to receive the mystical and Holy Communion of Jesus’ precious Body and Blood—after they have approved the dismembering of tiny bodies and the shedding of innocent blood against his divine will. Controversy? Why? It’s a no-brainer. When someone asked that question of Cardinal Arinze, he was appalled. You have to ask me that question? he said, incredulous. Any child who knows his catechism could answer it for you!

Here is the Lord’s answer to those who would approach his holy altar after approving the legalized murder of the little ones: “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:15-17). America the Beautiful! “How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers” (1:21).

Lord, have mercy on us! All who have ever hurt an innocent person are complicit in this. There’s not enough outcry, not enough action, not enough prayer and sacrifice. We lazily tolerate “pro-choice” rhetoric and at the same time lament sex crimes and other atrocities. Take the rhetoric to its logical conclusion. If it is a “right” to choose the death of unborn innocent human beings, what then are the limits to what or who we can harm or destroy? Someone once suggested that if the right to kill babies was legally connected to a right to kill politicians, abortion laws would change immediately (let’s be clear, I’m not advocating the killing of anyone).

Don’t think you will find peace and justice in this world if you tolerate the slaughter of the little ones. End atrocities such as abortion before you expect success in creating a just and peaceful society; the two cannot co-exist. God’s righteousness will see to that. Meanwhile, ask God what He’s asking you to do to help put an end to the painfully violent holocaust of his little ones. The Church must stand united in defense of innocent life. Enough of this “I can do what I want with my body” baloney. They can’t do what they want with their baby’s body. And their children will rise on judgment day and tell them so.

I AM

After his extraordinary encounter with God in the burning bush, Moses asked God his name, for God was sending Moses to Pharaoh to liberate his people. “Say this to the people of Israel,” God told him, “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). This divine name has been used by Jesus on several occasions in the Gospels. He has not only been sent by God to save his people, but is the eternal Son of God Himself, and as such bears the divine name. This name is inscribed in Greek letters in the halo of icons of Christ. Therefore in the Byzantine Offices, Christ is sometimes called “He who is. (The literal translation of the name of God is more dynamic: “the-being-one”)

The very fact that God is should be a great consolation to us in all our struggles, fears, and needs. For if God is, if God is God, then He has to be all that He says He is, and we can trust Him completely. This is the same assurance that Christ gave to his disciples when they were panicking in the midst of a storm on the sea. He came walking to them across the water—He whose Spirit hovered over the waters of the primordial chaos, and through whom all things were made (Genesis 1:2; John 1:3).

What did Jesus say to calm their fears? “Take heart; I AM; have no fear” (Matthew 14:27). Most translations render ego eimi as “It is I.” Even though that can work here, it is not a literal translation and loses the force of the divine name. He might well have used another of his names at this time, Emmanuel (“God with us”), for in Him God was with them on the raging waters.

Peter, still not over his fear, boldly attempted a test and asked Jesus to prove Himself by enabling Peter also to walk on the water. Humble as always, Jesus simply invited him, and Peter began to walk on the water. Quite a marvelous feat, yet his old fears returned. He took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the wind and the waves (and probably reproached himself: who do you think you are? You can’t walk on water!). Thus he lost courage and began to sink. Jesus proved Himself once again by saving Peter from the waves. “Jesus” means “the Lord is Savior,” so his divine “I AM” was vindicated.

We are going to find ourselves (as we surely already have) in times of turmoil, fear, doubt, and pain. It is important that we hear the voice of Christ calling to us over the troubled waters. “I AM,” He says to us, “It is I; I am here.” Therefore we can take heart and have no fear. He may not immediately calm the storm, and we may even find ourselves sinking because of our feeble faith, but He will always be the Savior—He will not let us drown in the sea of our sorrows and tribulations. But we have to keep our eyes fixed on Him, keep our hope and trust in Him. It is so easy to look at the wind and waves and be afraid, and so hard to set aside our own reasoning and calculations in order to trust the Lord in spite of adverse conditions and the fears they generate. But this is what He-who-is asks of us, because He knows how he plans to help and save us.

As the world seems to move farther from belief and trust in God the Creator and Savior, and puts its confidence in technology and other human achievements and plans, we have to reaffirm that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus (Acts 4:12). We are all finite, contingent beings who can’t even row our way out of a little squall. God is “The-Being-One,” the everlasting Lord who holds us in the palm of his hand. As He says “I AM” to declare his divinity, we can only say “I am not” to declare our radical dependence upon Him for our very existence. Yet this is our joy and hope, for I AM wishes to take us where He is, so that we can share the glory of God that was before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

Take heart, then; do not fear. God is with you and loves you and is preparing eternal joy for you. I know, because I AM sent me to tell you…

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