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

Archive for March, 2006

More Fundamental Difficulties?

I read a book not long ago which was a reasonable attempt to examine what are known as the “seven deadly sins” and some related ones. But that’s just the problem. In his attempt to be reasonable, balanced, inoffensive and acceptable to the general Christian public, the book lacks fire. It doesn’t get you to jump up with the desire to change your life. His most impassioned exhortations begin with something like, “perhaps we should ponder…”

But all that isn’t the point. The point is that this bland approach also leads to some errors which you can easily adopt if you don’t want to rock the boat. In one place he says this: “Alarm bells should be ringing in our churches over real family values, but instead, we watch liberals and conservatives bicker over issues like homosexuality and abortion, which affect only a small segment of our population, while ignoring more fundamental difficulties.” More fundamental difficulties? Is there anything more fundamental to a human being than the right to life? And is not the nature of human love and sexuality one of the most fundamental dimensions of life? He writes them off as only affecting a small segment of our population. If serial killers murdered over a million people a year in our country (like the abortion rate), would we dismiss this issue and go on to “more fundamental” ones, since such a small segment of our population was killed by them?

In trying to discover what he thought the more fundamental difficulties were, I discovered divorce, teen pregnancies, rape, and incest. The problem with the problem pregnancies, he says, is that they are “likely to disrupt the mother’s education and lessen her chances for advancement.” If the young mother had a bit of abstinence education, perhaps then she could have continued and advanced. But since she went and got pregnant, the minor difficulty of abortion could still pave the way for her advancement.

Amazingly enough, the very sentence before he dismisses abortion as a non-fundamental difficulty, he writes: “Contemporary society, so sharply focused on the happiness of the parent, sadly neglects the best interests of the child.” But that’s precisely the reason that abortion has become such a major issue! Abortion is offered by our society as a solution that preserves the freedom and “happiness” of the selfish parent—by destroying the child. The author laments the neglect of the best interests of the child, but among these interests, life doesn’t seem to be an important one! Yet he wants us to be concerned with real family values.

The reason I bring all this up is simply that support for things like abortion and homosexuality are no longer just the sick chant of the lunatic fringe. They are finding their way into the writings of otherwise intelligent Christians who have chosen to blow with the prevailing winds of the current society and do not have the courage to stand up for God’s truth. Perhaps it’s the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach. But I say, if you can’t beat ‘em, keep fighting, and God will take care of the rest!

If we’re not going to take a courageous stand, God will shame us by those who do. I just read this in a letter to the editor of a Catholic magazine: “My disillusionment with Archbishop Levada began in 1996 when…he caved in to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown by paying for health premiums for the same-sex and live-in partners of Catholic Charities employees. This was in order to keep the pipeline of secular, city tax money flowing into the Church. On the other hand, the Salvation Army stood up for Jesus Christ before men and told Brown to keep his public tax money. The Salvation Army was not for sale.” Shamed by the Salvation Army! Well, God bless them!

We ought not to let people get away with dismissing the serious moral issues of our day as mere political bickering. Nor should we tolerate the mainstream acceptance of things like abortion and homosexual militancy. We have to make sure that we aren’t lulled into the same “reasonable” and “tolerant” positions of those who seek the praise of men rather than the glory of God. If we’re to be but a few voices crying in the wilderness, so be it. We’ll also be the ones crying “Hosanna!” in the Kingdom of Heaven—while in Hell there will be some rather fundamental difficulties to be pondered…

The Aim of Our Charge is Love

I think St Timothy really got a charge out of St Paul’s letters to him, because he was constantly being charged to do this or that: “This charge I commit to you… I charge you to keep these rules… I charge you to keep the commandment unstained… I charge you to preach the word,” etc. Paul even charged Timothy to charge others: “…charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” Why all these charges, these urgent exhortations to lead his flock wisely and virtuously?

He gives the answer right in the beginning of his first Epistle: “the aim of our charge is love” (1Tim. 1:5). And not just love in general but “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” This means that love requires personal holiness (a pure heart), honest and charitable dealings with others (a good conscience), all of which flows from one’s relationship to God (sincere faith).

It’s important that Paul made his aim clear in the beginning. The “Pastoral Epistles” (those to Timothy and Titus) contain a lot of instructions about the qualifications for Church ministers and various practical matters. It could seem that there is simply a concern for order (or even control) that doesn’t evidently have a whole lot to do with the Spirit-fired message of the Gospel of Jesus. But in fact it does, for the aim of Paul’s charge is love: purely, honestly, sincerely. The warnings he has to give are for the sake of the preservation of the Gospel from adulteration, so that it can bear its saving fruit in fullness.

And there are plenty of warnings. He makes it clear that without the pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith that are at the source of the love he enjoins, all manner of aberrations follow: disobedience, godlessness, murder, sodomy, lies—“and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1:9-11). This is one reason the Church has always insisted on “sound doctrine,” something that those who commit the above sins find irrelevant to spiritual life.

So this is the charge, for Timothy and for you and me: “As for you…aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called…this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light…” (6:11-16).

The aim of all this is love—love for God and for each other, for the sake of the salvation of souls, for “certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1:19), but we know that “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). Let us realize that all the exhortations, warnings, and charges of Scripture, though they may be demanding and difficult, begin with love and end with salvation.

Chance or the Dance?

That’s the title of a book by Thomas Howard that I recently read (OK, so I’m a little behind; it was written 37 years ago, though it was popular enough to reprinted twice since then). It’s a book whose message is sorely needed today by those who have uncritically swallowed all the distortions and errors of our present superficial and self-centered society—and wonder why they’re still so unhappy. Peter Kreeft (no less!) said of this book: “If I could have everyone in our culture read just ten books, this would be one of them.”

The title says in a poetic way what the subtitle says in a bland way: a critique of modern secularism. But don’t let that put you off. Its tone is not angry, polemical, or quarrelsome. In fact is it often humorous and occasionally whimsical, but always dead-on in its penetrating insights into the disasters wrought by secular society’s abandonment of a Christian world-view. That secular world-view (“chance”) says there’s no natural law or divine design (“the Dance”). But the author is at pains to help us see the benefits of aligning ourselves with “the way things really are”—in God’s great plan for our fulfillment and perfection—rather than living the ultimately disappointing illusion of trying to make things the way our selfish desires would have them to be.

This conflict of world-views is something that Fr Schmemann mentioned in yesterday’s post. It’s not that modern “scientific” atheism or agnosticism (or materialism or hedonism or nihilism, for that matter) has been able to satisfactorily refute the claims and the intellectual, moral, and spiritual bases of Christianity. They’ve just decided to replace them with something else more to their liking or to their immediate economic, emotional, or other perceived benefit.

The author examines the difference between ancient and medieval (read: Christian) ways of perceiving the world and life, and the modern ways, in areas such as art, poetry, freedom, sex, daily life, etc. He shows quite convincingly how the “new myth” is bankrupt in almost all ways. Since his arguments are built up carefully and at some length (though the book itself is rather short) it’s difficult to give a characteristic sample that will manifest the depth and breadth of his vision. But I won’t let that stop me from sharing a (necessarily lengthy) passage from his chapter on freedom:

“The cry ‘freedom!’—which is an ancient human cry—has one set of images associated with it to the mind that sees everything under somebody’s aegis [i.e., God’s], and another set that sees man to be autonomous. There has always, of course, been the cry of the human imagination against the outrages of power, and this would be common to all men, under whatever myth… We would all rather not be forced into fealty. [But] under the new myth, fealty itself is a grating idea that drags up specters either of sycophantic courtiers bobbing about the throne, or of humpbacked clouts flogged into animal servitude by draconian overseers. It is natural that, with the disappearance of divine sanctions for authority, the notion of authority itself should come under surveillance, since the question for an origin of authority is thrown open…

“In the moral as in the political realm, freedom suggests to this mind the right of the individual to make his own choices on the basis of private criteria. The individual is placed at the center of the moral question: he himself is the measure of what he will do, and he himself is the judge. His fealty is to his own inclinations. A popular slogan of this mind is ‘doing your own thing’—the idea being that the only judge of your action is your own decision to do it. This places the Salvation Army girl, the sodomite, the American Legion conventioneer, the dope pusher, Castro, and Duvalier on an exact par: each of them is doing his own thing…

“It is perhaps above all astonishing to note that the great emancipation of the human spirit from the dread placed on it by superstition and priestcraft released not a blithe and merry spirit capering out over the fields of a new world unhaunted by the goblins and angels, but a dread more ravaging than all of them, the dread described by modern prophets as angst. It was angst that leaped upon man’s back when the incubi had been exorcised. When the exorcism had driven the last of the horrors away, and when the iconography of hell, and of souls in torment, was no longer felt to be relevant, there came an iconography of ennui and disgust and anguish. The burden, when it fell from the shoulders of Atlas onto our own, was found to be too heavy…

“The kind of freedom looked for by the autonomous mind is one that is one thing in the anticipation and another in the having. In anticipation, it looks like the breaking free of all the trammels and weights that have borne us down to the ground since the beginning of history, and the gate to a new and unexampled liberty… But when it is won, what?… To our chagrin, we discover that the declaration of autonomy has issued not in a race of free, masterly men, but rather in a race that can be described by its poets and dramatists only as bored, vexed, frantic, embittered, and sniveling… The autonomous man…looks like Arthur Miller’s salesman Willy Loman. He looks like Hemingway’s emasculated Jake Barnes. Or he looks jaded, perplexed, blasé, damned…

“It may be that if [Andy] Warhol’s name is placed among the great artists of history, it will be as the one who succeeded, as no one else ever did, in finding images of tyrannic ennui. For the inhabitants of the Warhol world have lost the options of renunciation and joy and sweat and pain and tears and fulfillment. The shackles that they have broken are shackles like highway signs and yellow lines and gravity and fatigue and conscience—all the things that drastically limit the choices for the rest of us, and that crowd us along and force us to do this and not that time after time.

“For it is in these limitations that the old myth found the definition of freedom. Whatever freedom was, it was to be found, ironically, via the strait gate. It was thought of not as a matter of self-determination, but rather as a matter of the capacity to experience one’s own perfection as joy. The question for Adam and Eve was not that they enjoy a realm in which no strictures existed: it was, rather, that they learn to will what was, in fact, the case… they had two possible types of freedom open to them: either to assert their autonomy, live in illusion, and find out in the end that it was no autonomy; or to assent to the way things, alas, were, and see if the matter of freedom weren’t something vastly different from what they might have supposed it to be… Man exists as creature; the most noble creature, to be sure, but still creature; the lord of creation, yes, but holding that creation in vassalage to the great Lord of it all…

“There was a scale of values in which freedom itself was not the summum bonum; it was ancillary to the greater matter of perfection. That is, mere self-determination would have been seen as tragically limiting, in that it cut one off from the Dance. Your freedom in the Dance is to be able to execute your steps with power and grace, not to decide what you feel like doing… What is the freedom of the athlete? His excellence is a matter of power—the power to do the thing beautifully. The perfection of the jump stands at the far end of a program of renunciation, in which his inclinations were subordinated to the demands of that very perfection… And the sonnet: here words dance in their highest dignity and beauty; here is language at its most excellent—but it is language dragooned and hedged and crowded and thwarted by rules. But, ironically, at the far end of those awful rules there emerges perfection… [He also gives examples from music and the movements of stars and planets]

“The old myth would have seen all these phenomena as images—images of some paradox that lay at the heart of things: that freedom for a thing is that state in which it appears at its highest performance (its perfection, in other words), and that this is a state that lies on the farther side of rigor and austerity. And it would have seen all these images as suggesting not a moral servility for that unique creature man, but rather the brilliant display, under a thousand forms, of the Dance, which goes on aeon after aeon, and which waits all breathless with hope for the Man to recognize the pattern, see his place, assent to it, and join. He may or may not; that is his option. But his freedom is the ecstatic experience of the joyous measure whose music rings from galaxy to galaxy.”

Well, there’s a little meditation for you! Read the book. Our society desperately needs to recover the vision of the “old myth,” for therein lies the understanding of our creation and destiny, our happiness here and hereafter.

Even Still Yet More on the Annunciation

I just came across a passage from a book by the late Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann that I’d like to share. I ended yesterday’s post on a note of joy and I’d like to continue that theme here. He writes, on the mystery of the Annunciation:

“The rationalist will say, ‘When do angels ever appear to young women and hold conversations with them? Do believers really think that people…living in a technological civilization could believe this?’ The believer always has only one answer to this kind of contentious debate, disparagement and ridicule: yes, alas, it is impossible to fit this into your shallow worldview, as long as your arguments about God and religion remain on the superficial level of chemical experiments and mathematical formulas…You desire the entire world to think as you do, in terms of production and economic forces… Yet the world does not naturally think in this way and must be handcuffed and forced to do so… For everything most profound and most essential in life has always been expressed in the language of imagination…

“It strikes me that mankind has never forgotten this story, that these few verses have repeatedly been incorporated into countless paintings, poems and prayers, and that they have inspired and continue to inspire. This means, of course, that people heard something infinitely important to them in these words, some truth which apparently could be expressed in no other way than in the childish, joyful language of Luke’s Gospel. What is this truth? What happened when the young woman, barely past childhood, suddenly heard—from what profound depth, from what transcendent height!—that wonderful greeting: ‘Rejoice!’ For that is indeed the angel’s message to Mary: Rejoice!

“…People don’t even know what the word means. But the very same joy announced by the angel remains a pulsating force that still has power to startle and shake human hearts. Go into a church on the eve of Annunciation… with such divine, exquisite beauty the choir begins to sing the familiar festal hymn, ‘With the voice of the Archangel, we cry to you, O Pure One: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!’ Hundreds and hundreds of years have gone by, and still, as we hear this invitation to rejoice, joy fills our heart in a wave of warmth. But what is this joy about? Above all we rejoice in the very presence of this woman herself, whose face, whose image, is known throughout the world, who gazes upon us from icons, and who became one of the most sublime and purest figures of art and human imagination. We rejoice in her response to the angel, in her faithfulness, purity, wholeness, in her total self-giving and boundless humility, all of which forever ring out in her words: ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’ …

“The Church answers the lie about man, the lie that reduces him to earth and appetite, to baseness and brutality, the lie that says he is permanently enslaved to the immutable and impersonal laws of nature, by pointing to the image of Mary, the most-pure Mother of God… The lie continues to pervade the world, but we rejoice because here, in the image of Mary, the lie is shown for what it is… We rejoice because in gazing at this image, it is so easy to believe in the heavenly beauty of the world and in man’s heavenly, transcendent calling. The joy of Annunciation is about the angel’s Glad Tidings, that the people had found grace with God and that soon, very soon, through her, through this totally unknown Galilean woman, God would begin to fulfill the mystery of the world’s redemption…

“This is what we celebrate on the Annunciation and why the feast has always been, and remains, so joyful and radiant. But I repeat, none of this can be understood or expressed in the limited categories and language familiar to ‘scientific’ atheism… [This] leads us to conclude that this approach willfully and arbitrarily has declared an entire dimension of human experience to be non-existent, unnecessary and dangerous, along with all the words and concepts used to express that experience. To debate this approach strictly on its own terms would be like first climbing down into a black underground pit where, because the sky cannot be seen, its existence is denied. The sun can’t be seen, and so there is no sun. All is dirty, repulsive, and dark, and so beauty is unknown and its existence denied. It is place where joy is impossible, and so everyone is hostile and sad. But if you leave the pit and climb out, you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a resoundingly joyful church where once again you hear, ‘With the voice of the Archangel, we cry to you, O Pure One: Rejoice!’” (Celebration of Faith: Sermons, vol. 3)

Still More on the Annunciation

There’s another point I’d like to reflect on, even though the feast is over and we’re back to pounding the floor with our heads and fasting and all that. It’s the opening greeting of the Archangel.

There has been a lot of squabbling over the precise meaning of Khaire, kekharitomeni It is usually translated “Hail, full of grace,” or “Hail, highly favored one.” Non-Catholics don’t like “full of grace” (sounds too much like the Hail Mary, though the only reason there is a Hail Mary is because the Archangel said “Hail, full of grace”; it also sounds too much like it reflects the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception). They settle for “highly favored,” I guess because it’s more “generic” and doesn’t hint at things they’d rather not believe.

Truth is, either version is acceptable as a translation, though “full of grace” is more Christian, as we’ll see in a bit. First, though, let’s get rid of that “hail”. The word khaire was used as a general form a greeting in those days, much as we would use “hello” today. But thankfully, most translators don’t write “Hello, full of grace,” in their versions of the Gospel. To translate it literally, though, would be to say, “Rejoice, full of grace,” which is how many of our liturgical texts are rendered in English. Not only does it sound better, it is more appropriate to the occasion, which is one of everlasting joy (potentially, anyway) for all mankind.

But the plot thickens. “Rejoice” and “full of grace” are actually two forms of the same word! Khairo has many meanings and hence is notoriously difficult to translate. Khara means joy, kharisma means gift, and kharis means grace or favor. So we can see that “full of grace” and “highly favored” both work, but we still have to get deeper. If the Gospel were not a Christian text but just a piece of ancient secular literature, then we must go with “favored one,” because “grace” would have been meaningless to the worldlings of the time. But it was part of the early Christian genius to adopt the term kharis, freely bestowed favor (St Paul was one of the great architects of this linguistic transformation), as a means of expressing God’s freely-bestowed divine activity, presence, and spiritually energizing, transforming, and saving gift, in a word, grace. So it is movement from a secular to a Christian usage to prefer “full of grace” to “highly favored.”

There is more. It’s the form of the word kekharitomeni. And this form does lend credence not only to the Christian usage of “grace” but also to “full” with its connotation of Mary’s entirely-graced existence. It is a passive perfect form. Passive, because being full of grace is not her work but God’s. It was done to her. Perfect in the Greek means this: something was, or has been done, and continues in that state. It’s like the expression often found in Scripture: “It is written…” That means that it has been written in the past and stands written today. So to say that Our Lady is “full of grace,” according to the meaning and structure of the language of Scripture, means that she had already been graced (from the very beginning, according to Catholic theology), and she stands graced at this moment. That means that it wasn’t the Incarnation that made her full of grace (though we can hardly begin to imagine the magnificent blessings with which this divine indwelling enriched her), but she was already full of grace when the Archangel arrived, for that is what he called her—and angels, as you recall, don’t say anything except what God tells them to say.

(It’s a similar case, in thought and theology, though not in linguistic construction, when we speak of the Virgin Mary. When we say the “Virgin Mary” we don’t mean the “once-used-to-be-a-virgin” Mary, we mean, like the Greek perfect means: once a virgin and still a virgin. Hence the Church has called her, at least for the last 16 or 17 centuries, the Ever-virgin Mary.)

So if you want to be academic and secular, say “favored.” If you want to be more Christian, say “graced.” But if you want the whole truth, say “full of grace.” And don’t say “hail”; say “rejoice”!

More on the Annunciation

Today is the “leave-taking” of the feast of the Annunciation, which gives me permission to say more about it. In the Byzantine tradition, every major feast is followed by a post-festive period, usually a week or so (like the octave that used to be observed in the Latin Church). Since it’s Lent, however, the post-feast for this one is reduced to a single day, which is also set apart for the commemoration of the Archangel Gabriel, the “best supporting actor” of this divine drama (God and Our Lady are the co-stars).

One little point (though really not so little) that ought to be cleared up is a common mistranslation of Mary’s response to the Archangel’s greeting. Most bibles have her say: “How can this be?” But this response is little better than Zachariah’s a half-chapter earlier, when he asked how he would know that the same Archangel’s message would come to pass. (If Gabriel had his way, he might have said: “Because I just told you, that’s how!” But He was there only to deliver God’s message, and angels are very good at doing just that.) Mary, however, didn’t ask: “How can this be?” as if she were doubting the Archangel’s words. Her response is Pos estai touto. There, that clears it up, doesn’t it? It means: “How shall this be?” And that makes all the difference in the world (certainly it did to God, since He struck ol’ Zack mute and He blessed Mary beyond all measure). For it means that she already believed and accepted the word of the Archangel, and was awaiting further guidance to its practical working-out.

But why would she have to ask a question at all, if their relationship was that of an ordinary engaged couple (but engagement means much more to them that it does to us; as is clear in Matthew’s account, an engagement, or betrothal, had the force of marriage and could only be broken by a formal divorce). There has been speculation on whether or not Mary and Joseph had agreed, even before the great Annunciation, to live married life celibately. There’s no way to prove that, but the evidence of the Gospel strongly suggests it. If they were planning to get married and live as married couples do, and have children as all good Jewish couples did, then the announcement of a child—while certainly being joyful and marvelous (this whole experience was marvelous, what with the angel from Heaven and all)—did not, at that point, have anything particularly miraculous or incomprehensible about it. She was soon to marry, and if she were planning to consummate the marriage, then at Gabriel’s announcement, however extraordinary it might be—you will have a child, and He will be the Messiah—she could still see it fitting into the general plan of married life.

Perhaps Mary, as would any pious Jewish young woman, felt like fainting with awe and gratitude at the prospect of giving birth to the Messiah. But she said, “How shall this be, since I do not know man?” That is, since I do not have sexual intercourse. Now, the Archangel and Mary, both being intelligent creatures, knew that “I do not know man” wasn’t a smart-aleck answer, as if to say, I don’t know man at the moment, but soon I will. It only makes sense for her to be unclear as to how a child was going to be conceived if she wasn’t planning to have intercourse or children at all, if she had already decided to remain virginal even after marriage. She knew how children came into the world, so if she was planning an ordinary marriage, her question to Gabriel would have been entirely meaningless and unnecessary. But at that unique, pivotal moment in the history of mankind, meaningless or unnecessary questions were not allowed. Also, she was aware of extraordinary conceptions in the past, like those of Samuel and Samson, but even those required the standard combination of man plus woman before there could be a child.

Therefore the Archangel, knowing that the question wasn’t meaningless (knowing her intentions), didn’t have to say: “After you get married you will know man, and then you will conceive, silly!” No, the holy Archangel knew full well that she would never know man, that she was set apart by God from all eternity for a unique and utterly astounding mission—to bear the eternal and divine Son of the Most High in the flesh, and to bear Him alone. Anything else is unthinkable to anyone with even a shred of pious sensibility about things divine and holy. This mission consumed her entire being (how could it not?), and her whole life was focused on Him alone. For Mary, this moment itself was worth a lifetime of reflection, prayer, and gratitude.

So Gabriel proclaimed the reason Mary didn’t need to know man, the awesome, incredible, and wholly unexpected truth—I imagine him doing it in the style of the “mighty angel” in Revelation 10: “he called out in a loud voice, like a lion roaring… lifted up his right hand to heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there should be no more delay”—and Gabriel answered Mary’s question: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the Child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

I think I’m not finished with this mystery yet (can we ever be?). See you tomorrow.

Let It Be

I’m not referring here to a Beatles song, but to the exclamation of Mary of Nazareth at the angelic visitation which announced the most decisive event in all of human history: the incarnation of the Son of God.

Our Lady’s “let it be” could only be uttered because of her “I am.” What she does follows from who she is. “I am the handmaid of the Lord”; therefore “let it be unto me according to your word.” If she is God’s servant, then of course, God’s will is to be done in, through, and by her. Simple, not easy. While Mary most likely did not comprehend the full import and consequences of what was about to happen, she was surely aware that it would turn her life upside down and that henceforth her life was not her own.

“Let it be” can also be translated “let it happen,” and this latter version seems more dynamic (it also can’t be construed to mean “leave it alone” as “let it be” can). Let God act, let God do the work of salvation. She had to let God enter her life in a way He hadn’t before, even though her spiritual communion with Him was already profound. She had to let God enter her body as well as her soul; she had to let something happen that had never happened before and that would never happen again—something that was utterly necessary to keep the human race out of Hell. Quite a burden to lay on a teenage girl! But she was chosen from all eternity to rise to the occasion of this very moment. And she was fully aware that she was the handmaid of the Lord. So, while all creation breathlessly awaited her answer, she said yes.

By the grace of the same Spirit who was about to bring about the unprecedented miracle, she exclaimed: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be unto me according to your word.” Her words have echoed down the centuries as the quintessential expression of surrender to God’s will. And her surrender ushered in nothing less than the salvation of mankind. For with God nothing is impossible, proclaimed the Archangel. By his grace it is not impossible even for us to “do whatever He tells you,” as Our Lady would later counsel. For she experienced herself the abundance of blessings that came from doing his will, even at great personal cost. The Lord is asking us not to count the cost, but to look to the ultimate and eternal reward for trust, obedience, and fidelity. Sometimes we eventually say yes, after grumbling, resisting, questioning, or simply trying to run away. The message of the Mother to us is: start by saying yes. Realize that you are servants of the Lord, and so his will is your daily bread. If you have any questions, ask them after you have already agreed to do what He tells you. Thus divine grace will bear its precious fruit in your life, and you will fulfill your divinely-ordained role in the great gathering of souls for the celestial Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

The Lord says to you as Gabriel said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” The Lord loves you. The Almighty, whose name is holy, wants to do great things for you and through you. Say yes; don’t first consider your own ideas, feelings, or agenda. Just say yes, immediately, irrevocably, and the gates of heaven will open, sending down light and grace and strength that you may fulfill the Lord’s commands and reap the everlasting harvest of joy. We must, through faith, prayer, and humility, “let happen” what God wants to happen, in our own lives and in the world. To do this we must be at his disposal; his will must take priority over our own. Let us ask Our Lady to be our teacher and guide in saying this yes, a yes that must be repeated daily, hourly. Then the Holy Spirit will overshadow us, too, and our own spirits will rejoice in God our Savior.

The Poverty of Prosperity

In some of my recent readings and conversations, a certain theme has been surfacing, one that I think we need to look at if we expect to grow in our life in Christ. It can perhaps be summarized by saying that material prosperity produces spiritual poverty. By spiritual poverty here I’m not referring to the “poor in spirit” whom the Lord blessed, but a spiritual poverty that is the opposite of being rich in divine grace and holiness.

What it comes down to is that we too often take our faith and God’s gifts for granted, or we include them somewhere among the various benefits of our affluent lives. But because our relationship to God isn’t everything to us, we tend to give it insufficient attention or regard. Abraham Heschel once said: “God is of no importance if He is not of utmost importance.” If God is not of utmost significance in your life, you will eventually regard Him as more or less insignificant. God can’t be someone we can either take or leave, or, to quote an old song: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.”

I’ve told you before about the price that many Christians have had to pay for their faith, like Fr Arseny in the Siberian concentration camp. I just read a book about a Muslim woman who had a vision of Christ and converted to Christianity, and then was hunted down by the Egyptian police and had to flee the country with a phony passport to save her life. All those who in any way assisted her were arrested and beaten. We don’t live in countries ruled by Communists or Muslims, as millions of Christians do, where it can be a capital crime to profess or share the faith. Sure, as Christians (if we admit it in public) we may have to endure the comments or sneers of the “evolved” secularists of our day, but that is little enough. Neither do we live in abject poverty as millions of other Christians do, yet they give praise to God for the slightest bit of food or shelter, while we complain and get angry at God over trifles.

There’s something about prosperity, material comfort and security—or merely preoccupation with worldly things—that dulls the mind and heart to spiritual awareness and the appreciation of God’s gifts, and that puts out the inner fire. Affluence breeds lukewarmness. Those who are rich in possessions are often poor in grace; those who are rich in activities and pursuits are usually poor in interior life and communion with God. If we find that our other responsibilities or interests leave us no time for prayer, worship, and the contemplation of the mysteries of God, then for us God has become insignificant, and connection with Him is no longer a lifeline, a matter of supreme importance. But if our souls thirst for God, we will become quite creative in making time for Him, and we will easily put other things lower on our list of priorities. God must be the hidden treasure, the priceless pearl for which we are willing to give up everything to obtain. Yet even a cursory internet search will reveal that material prosperity and abundance are the goals not only for worldly unbelievers, but also for various new-age “spiritual” people and even some who call themselves Christians.

Faith flourishes among the martyrs, confessors, the persecuted and the disadvantaged; it languishes among the well-to-do, the “Sunday Catholics,” the nominal Christians. We need to understand that faith in God is not an optional feature of human life, not something that we’d like to get around to someday, not something to delay until old age, not something that can be set aside in the clamor of our daily activities. We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone, as another old song reminds us. Perhaps if Christianity were outlawed in this country we would discover how precious it really is (or is not) to us. Are we willing to suffer for Jesus, to be persecuted, to lose our jobs or social status or even our lives for Him? That is the Christian life for millions all over the world. As for us, we think it is a hardship to get out of bed on Sunday morning and go to church, or to discipline our wayward desires in accordance with the Gospel.

Someday God is going to ask us what He means to us, what the sacrifice of his Son means to us, what our profession of faith means to us. We must seek Him with our whole heart, as if our eternal destiny depends on it, for it does. We must beg Him for the fire in our hearts that the saints had, for those who really know God cannot get enough of Him, cannot live without Him—and never set Him aside for the trinkets of this world and all its passing fancies and seductions. One of the reasons we fast and give up certain pleasures or activities in Lent is so that our eyes can be opened, that we can live more like the poor for a while, not satisfying our every craving, but learning to live with that emptiness that God alone can fill, discovering that we need God if we are not to end up as a hollow shell of humanity. Lent is a time to shed the illusions of self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction and security, which impoverish our souls. It is a time to stop trusting in material abundance and to rediscover the infinite value of what God gives to those who love Him.

Let us pray for our brothers and sisters for whom faith in Christ is daily a life-and-death matter. And may they pray all the more for us, for whom it is not! We need the same zeal and fervor and courage and trust in God that is proper to those who “have seen the true light and received the heavenly Spirit and found the true faith,” those for whom God is of utmost importance. Let our abundance be that of divine grace, that we may understand the meaning of life and set the right priorities, serve Him who loved us unto death, and make our relationship to God the sine qua non of our fulfillment and happiness in this life and the life to come. Let not the soul-numbing affluence and the myriad distractions of our pleasure-loving society take their toll on your faith. “Let your manner of life,” urges the Apostle, “be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27).

Shall I Not Drink the Cup?

When Peter suddenly sliced off the unsuspecting ear of Malchus the slave in Gethsemane, Jesus reproached him: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). What is this “cup” that the Father had given Jesus? We know it refers to his passion, but why a cup?

This image has been used frequently in Scripture, usually referring in some way to one’s allotted portion or destiny, either for weal or for woe. Thus we find a scorching wind as the allotted cup of the wicked, and the Lord himself as the portion and cup of the righteous. There’s a cup of salvation and a cup of wrath, a cup of consolation and a cup of judgment. We find a cup of blessing and a cup of dismay, a cup of the Lord and a cup of demons. The most precious cup is that of the New Covenant in the Blood of Christ.

Jesus’ allotted cup was his passion and death (we often hear of “tasting” death in the Scriptures), and ultimately his resurrection. The first taste of this cup was that of suffering, and this image turns up several times in the Gospels. When James and John wanted the places of honor in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus asked them: “Can you drink the cup I shall drink?” Having no idea what He was talking about, they said they could. Then He prophesied that indeed they would, but it would not come to pass until they had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Before that time, they would not have the courage to suffer with or for Him.

The cup Jesus had to drink was a cup no one else could, except as a small share in his. For Jesus had to drink the cup of the suffering and sin of all mankind, and then pour out his own blood on the Cross. The cup of God’s wrath that the prophets declared was reserved for the wicked was deferred, for now it was to be given to the sinless Lamb. “All the wicked must drain it,” said the psalmist, to the full measure of their sins. So horrifying was this cup that it even daunted the Son of God for a brief moment in the garden. “Take this cup from me!” He cried to his Father in agony. But deeper than his fear of torture and his loathing of sin was his love and obedience toward his Father. So He chose to do his will. He Himself would drink the cup that was justly reserved for sinners. By the time Judas and the mob had apprehended Jesus, his courage was restored. When Peter tried to spare Him the cup with brandished sword, Jesus responded that He was indeed going to drink it.

We tend to choose the consoling cups, the peace and the blessing. We readily drink from the Eucharistic chalice, the sweet Wine of divine love and grace. But we tend to flee from the cup of suffering, as the disciples deserted their Master in the garden. We have to realize, though, that life brings a mixed cup for us to drink, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. But since it is from the hand of the Father, we must drink it all, for it is our allotted portion. Sometimes it is our just punishment; sometimes it is an unexpected blessing. But let us go forth with steadfastness and trust, accepting the cup that the Father gives us in the various times and circumstances of our lives.

Whether it is unto suffering or joy, it is still the cup of salvation, for God desires the salvation of all, and He works all things toward that end. Our willingness to accept what the Lord sends or permits will strengthen our character and increase our courage and devotion. So take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. In the end, we’ll see how both the bitter and the sweet will be transformed into one great cup of blessing at the eternal banquet in the heavenly kingdom.

Bread From Heaven

Jesus had a discussion with a group of the people whom He had miraculously fed with loaves and fish—one that is profoundly enlightening for all who would follow Him, but that scandalized many, so much so that they closed their hearts and forsook their allegiance to Him altogether.

He gently reproached them in the beginning, saying that they were seeking Him only because they had their fill of the loaves. So He introduced the Mystery: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27). There is food, then, which Christ will give to us, which sustains us unto eternal life. The people then asked for a sign, reminding him of one God worked for their ancestors in the desert: “it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” That was but a foreshadowing of the full revelation, for “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (vv. 32-33). At this point the people were still “with” Him, so they said: “Give us this bread always.”

Yet when Jesus offered it to them, they rejected it, because, as He said in another place, they could not bear to hear his word. They started to reason according to mere human perceptions and possibilities. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” But rather than try to accommodate their ignorance and their growing hostility, Jesus presses on to the profound point: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (v. 51).

Being still confined to the narrowness of their own concepts, they asked, incredulously: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How indeed. It is only possible if He really is who He says He is: the Son of God, the Bread from Heaven. Undaunted by their unbelief, and unwilling to compromise the whole truth for the sake of making it easier for them to accept, the Lord drives the point home: “Amen, amen, I say to you [that is how He introduces his most solemn statements], unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (vv. 53-56).

The people’s reaction was one that many people have today: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” The Gospel tells us that many no longer followed Jesus after hearing those words. If He were speaking in mere symbols or metaphors, which they had wrongly taken literally and hence withdrew from Him, He would have made the effort to gather them back, to explain it to them, for He did not come to drive people away but to gather them unto Himself. But He was speaking the literal truth, and on that He could not compromise, for He is the truth, so He had to let them go. Either they believed or they didn’t; the choice to follow Him was theirs.

His words are clear: his flesh and blood are not symbolic food, metaphorical food, but real, true (alithis) food. It’s rather odd how some people can believe that the Son of God made the universe, healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water—and yet vigorously deny the possibility of his giving us his body and blood as food and drink unto eternal life, even though He explicitly said just that. Moreover, the Lord said that eating and drinking his body and blood is for the sake of the two most important things there are: abiding in Christ and attaining eternal life.

Through the ministry of the Church, in which Christ is ever present to communicate the fullness of his grace and to assure the fulfillment of his words for our salvation, we can eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Son of God, the Bread from Heaven who came to give life to the world. He gives life by giving Himself, the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist, as food for our pilgrimage to Heaven, as a precious means by which He abides in us and we in Him. Really, we must be aware that the Holy Eucharist is actually a gift straight from Heaven, which “connects” us to Heaven. It is a miracle in our midst, a Light shining in the darkness of this life, a ray of hope, life, truth, and love that secures us in the Heart of our Savior. Yesterday I wrote of abiding in the Vine. To have Jesus’ body and blood within us is like a branch of the Vine receiving the nourishment it needs to live and be fruitful.

After many had left Jesus, refusing to believe his words, He turned to his closest friends: “Will you also go away?” He asks us the same question. Will we go away from Him because we can’t believe that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink? Many even in the Church today, having fallen away from true faith, and choosing to believe only the testimony of their senses or the modern, rationalistic, politically-correct (and woefully inadequate) approaches to God, in effect walk away from Him by removing the “spirit and life” from his words, diminishing their power, taming them to their tastes, and thus refusing to open themselves to the profound mystery of his inexpressible gift.

But let us be among those who follow Jesus, even when He says things that make others refuse to believe. Let us eat the Bread from Heaven; it is given for the life of the world—given so that He can raise us up on the last day.

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