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

Archive for April, 2006

The Holy Myrrh-Bearers

On the second Sunday after Easter, the Byzantine Churches continue to celebrate the mystery of the Resurrection, this time focusing on the holy myrrh-bearers. We usually speak of the “myrrh-bearing women,” but the Gospel for the day begins with the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea, and we know from the Gospel of John that Nicodemus also assisted in his burial, so there are a couple “myrrh-bearing men” as well. In fact, we learn from John that Nicodemus did something the women couldn’t have done: hauled “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight” (19:39). A hundred pounds! That would have been enough to cover the body of Jesus a foot thick! Even if this measure is not quite accurate, it makes it clear that Jesus was worth the best (and the most) which human love could offer to care for Him.

This love is what compelled the women to take a great risk in going to the tomb before dawn on Sunday. It was guarded by soldiers as well as by a huge stone. They could have been arrested as suspects in attempted grave robbery, which is what the authorities feared Jesus’ disciples would do. But the women were not to be deterred. As a mother’s love for her children is fierce as that of a lioness or she-bear, the love of these women for their Lord could not be restrained. To anyone who would get in their way, they were as formidable as a bunch of babas with umbrellas or rolling-pins!

But they had nothing to fear. God had honored their faith and love in advance and had taken care of everything. He shook the very earth and sent his angel like a flash of lightning to roll away the stone and to send the guards blindly sprawling. Thus the holy women became the first to receive the glad tidings of the resurrection of Christ.

There are a few lessons we can draw from this mystery. First, let nothing deter or discourage or intimidate you in your search for Christ. Let your love for Him be such that you will persevere until you find and embrace Him, come hell or high water or soldiers or boulders. You will see how He will reward such tender love and dogged endurance. Second, don’t come empty-handed. Perhaps the women didn’t know about the hundred pounds, so they brought their own oils and spices anyway. There was so little, really, that they could do for Him at that point, and they had no idea how wholly unnecessary burial spices actually were for the Risen One. But again, God honored their intentions and efforts. We have little to offer the Lord, and what we have to offer He probably doesn’t need—but He wants us to give everything, however little it may seem in itself. So we come to Him bringing the sweet myrrh of our love for Him and our trust in Him. We may not have a hundred pounds’ weight of good works to offer, but if we bring what is most precious and intimate from the depths of our hearts, He will receive us with joy and blessing.

Finally, as one author mentioned, we ought not to neglect the earthquake. That is a symbol, not only of the radical upheaval of the netherworld, and of the utterly earth-shaking revelation of the Resurrection, but it is also a symbol of what we have to undergo as well. Our encounter with the Risen Lord must be like a spiritual earthquake; we have to be wholly shaken and re-made. To enter into the mystery of the living God is not merely to make a few minor adjustments here and there to our perspectives or behavior. It requires an earthquake of biblical proportions!

Let us not allow these Easter days to pass without inviting the Risen One to send that lightning flash of an angel to roll away the heavy stone from our souls, to cause an inner earthquake that makes our old bad habits fall away like those stunned and hamstrung cemetery sentinels. May we come to Him like the holy myrrh-bearers, offering love and receiving Love in return. And let us continue to proclaim, with our lips and our lives, that Christ is risen!

Submit and Resist

I suppose those terms seem mutually exclusive or contradictory. But we can (and must) do both at once, as long as our submission and resistance point in different directions.

St James gives us the submission/resistance advice in one verse of his epistle: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (4:7). I think one could say that we have to do it in that order, because the power to resist the devil can only come from the divine grace that can only come to us through our submission to God. James goes on to say: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (v. 8). Perhaps the language of drawing near is more appealing than that of submission, but in the end it is practically the same thing. I could almost dare to say that we can make a substitution and say: “Submit yourself to God and He will submit Himself to you.” The only way this can be true, however, is that in our submission to God we embrace his will entirely. And so, as we place ourselves at his service, He places Himself at ours, as it were, for at this point we can ask only what is his will, and He will be happy to grant us whatever we ask.

But let’s get back to resistance. Both edges of this double-edged sword have to be kept sharp. That is because our submission and drawing near to God require our resistance of the devil, and vice versa. If we fail to resist the devil wholly, then we are not submitting wholly to God, and hence we may not be making our requests according to his will. Therefore we can no longer expect that He will “submit” to us, for He will not grant us anything that is not his will for us.

It is usually not prudent to take on the devil directly, since we are easily deceived and outmaneuvered. Therefore the safest and most effective way is to resist the devil by submitting to God. No need to purchase a how-to book on exorcism (not recommended anyway); just submit to God and you are by that very fact resisting the devil. If you are always drawing near to the Lord and submitting yourself to his will, you won’t have time to pay attention to the devil, anyway! Even though we must be aware of his existence and his tactics to derail our efforts toward holiness, the best way to take the wind out of the diabolical sails is to ignore him and give all your attention to God and the accomplishment of his will.

St Peter gives us the same submission/resistance counsel, in a slightly different form: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you… Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1Peter 5:6-9).

So this is a common and timeless message for the Church: submit to God and resist the devil. Unfortunately in today’s Church we don’t see a whole lot of either. It’s the modern tendency to create a god for oneself that doesn’t require submission, but who is prodigally permissive about one’s own desires, and who looks the other way whenever one sins. On the other hand, I just read about an ex-Jesuit who has decided that the devil doesn’t deserve all the bad press he’s received for the past few millennia and has appointed himself to the task of rehabilitating him. Wait, the man must have gotten a faulty text of Scripture! St James said resist the devil, not rehabilitate him!

Make this your motto then: Submit and Resist. You’ll raise a few eyebrows and may even attract a few strange people. But that will give you a chance to preach the Gospel to the curious. In the meantime you will be drawing near to God and drawing away from the devil; and best of all, God will be drawing near to you.

Steadfast

St James told us yesterday that the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. But just what is steadfastness? I rather like the term myself, for it refers to one of the more solid and noble of the biblical virtues.

The virtue belongs primarily to God, however. God is the one whose “steadfast love” is our hope for restoration and salvation. “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and mercy. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20). This “steadfast love” of God translates the notoriously difficult, but extremely important, Hebrew word, hesed. Practically all of the terms in the above passage can and have been used to try to translate this word. It refers to God’s relationship to his people which flows from the covenant He established with them. Therefore it has been translated “steadfast love,” “loving kindness,” “faithful love,” “mercy,” etc. The “steadfast” element in this relationship denotes God’s fidelity, loyalty, reliability, strength, and unfailing saving presence.

The dictionary defines “steadfast” as follows: 1 a: firmly fixed in place: immovable b: not subject to change 2 : firm in belief, determination, or adherence: loyal. It is clear how God is thus our rock and firm support and place of refuge, where we can be sure to find divine fidelity and unshakable strength and goodness.

But we are called to be steadfast as well, and St James tells us that that it is the testing of our faith that makes us so. If we are steadfast, then we are firm in our faith—if we have passed the test!—and are determined to love and serve the Lord, immovable in our adherence and loyalty to Him. This is really a priceless virtue, especially in these times when commitment is devalued, when loyalty seems a quality of former ages, when unshakable fidelity is deemed impossible, and when firmness in faith is considered rigid and intolerant. Fr Bernard O’Connor recently wrote that in this day and age, “So-called tolerance may well be the preferred filler for the vacuum created by an abdication of courage and conviction.”

St Paul says that we will be found holy and irreproachable before the Lord only if “you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard…” (Col. 1:23). And again: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, with watchfulness and thanksgiving…” (4:2). Steadfastness is a virtue sorely lacking in the world today, for it is much more popular to blow with the winds of change, to shrink from the demands of fidelity to the truth, and to practice a phony brand of “compassion” which is little more than sloppy sentimentality or a weak indifference to that which true love and mercy require.

So let us be steadfast in our faith, courageous in the practice thereof, immovable in our adherence to the truth, and loyal to Him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. If our faith has to be tried by fire to produce this steadfastness, so be it. Better to be painfully trained in the ways of righteousness than to be merrily carried along in the polluted currents of passing fads, dubious trends, and the misguided (or even positively evil) agendas whose outcome—it will be discovered all too late—is human degradation and ultimately damnation. Steadfastly adhere, then, to the steadfast love and mercy of the true God!

Count It All Joy

Here is one of the more difficult, and hence probably more helpful, passages of Scripture that I regularly come across: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…” (James 1:2). That’s the very first thing he says after saying: Hi there, it’s me, James. He doesn’t beat around the bush or mince words or go in for flowery introductions.

So what are we to make of this? Are you all smiles when disasters crash down on you, or even when nothing more than the day’s accumulated annoyances start weighing upon you? Let us look carefully at what he says—and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t say that we should feel happy or experience joy in trials—he says we should count it joy when they happen, that is, to reckon or asses them as something beneficial and hence productive (eventually, anyway) of joy. Why are they beneficial? He says immediately: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” And the goal and full effect of steadfastness is this: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”—especially in wisdom, as he goes on to say. I suppose if something led to my completion, perfection, and to lacking in nothing, I ought count it as joy!

To come full circle, the irksome things we’re supposed to count as joy, and which produce steadfastness, end up leading not only to completeness but also happiness or blessedness. That is, the unpleasant things we are to count as joy lead ultimately to genuine joy: “Behold, we call those happy [or blessed, from the Gk. makarios] those who were steadfast.” This is all part of “the purpose of the Lord,” who “is compassionate and merciful” (5:11).

Now let me get this straight: The Lord, because He is compassionate and merciful, has made it part of his purpose to allow us to be afflicted with trials—which we are to count as all joy—so that this testing of faith can produce steadfastness unto perfection and blessed happiness. Well, that just seems to be another way of explaining the doctrine of the cross that we are supposed to bear daily in our following of Jesus unto the fullness of life.

St Peter gives us a bit of a different slant on this mystery, looking rather further ahead than does St James. James focuses on the effects in this life of our bearing trials joyfully (or at least reckoning them as means to blessedness): steadfastness, maturity, happiness. But Peter looks straight toward heaven. In his first epistle (he likes somewhat richer introductions), he describes the imperishable and glorious heavenly inheritance being kept for us until the appointed time, and then he says: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…” (1:3-7).

There’s no contradiction here. Neither James nor Peter asks us to find happiness in suffering as such, but both point us to the reward of patient and even joyful endurance: James points to our personal transformation and maturing by our efforts and God’s grace, and Peter points to the ultimate goal: the “outcome of your faith…the salvation of your souls” (1:9).

Count it all joy, then, when you have to endure trials, for the test produces steadfastness unto perfection, and fire-tried faith unto salvation. Hey, it could be worse. Unbelievers have nothing but the raw absurdity of chance happenings that produce suffering to no good end. So they either rage against the impersonal universe, or they just keep a stiff upper lip (and all that) while living lives of quiet desperation, or they eat and drink and fornicate today, for tomorrow they die. But none of that is for us. We get to count our trials as joy!

He Opened the Scriptures to Them

There’s something (among other things) that Jesus did for his disciples after his resurrection that He didn’t do before it: He “opened” the Scriptures to them, that is, He gave them clear understanding of their meaning, especially in relation to Himself. This may have happened when He breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit, though we hear of this “breathing” and this “opening” in two different Gospels, and in two different ways.

In any case, we see, whether it was concerning Jesus’ spoken words or the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, that the disciples were rather clueless before the resurrection. “They did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it” (Luke 9:45). “When he was raised from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this” (John 2:22). “His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered” (John 12:16). “As yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).

Luke tells us clearly of the opening of the Scriptures to the disciples after the resurrection. As He walked along the road to Emmaus with two disciples (who still did not perceive who He was and hence did not yet understand the meaning of the Scriptures), “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). When the disciples finally recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, they exclaimed: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (24:32). So this opening of the Scriptures brings not merely an intellectual understanding, but also enkindles a fire in one’s heart, a fire of love and joy and zeal to bring the Gospel to others.

Then when Jesus appeared to the other apostles gathered in the upper room, He spoke of the fulfillment of the law and prophets and psalms in Himself. “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (24:45). I have always found this a fascinating passage. What must it have been like for the disciples suddenly to see, to understand, to be overwhelmed by the loving wisdom of the great plan of God for our salvation, perfectly fulfilled in the glorified Savior standing at that moment in their midst? Suddenly it all made sense, all the pieces fit together, they discovered the promise and the fulfillment, and were about to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that they could take this revelation to the world, so that all hearts would burn with divine love and light as the Scriptures were opened to them.

I often pray that the Lord will open the Scriptures to me, that I may enter the mysteries contained therein—not only to know, but to live them, to be immersed in them, to walk in the same Spirit the disciples did after Jesus opened their minds and hearts. We all ought to pray that He open the Scriptures to us, for we have barely begun truly to understand and live them. May our hearts burn with the revelation of his truth and love!

Seaside Musings

On our little “bright week” outing I escaped for the better part of one day to the coast, to sit at the seaside and drink in the wonders of God’s creation, in a silent solitude that was nevertheless rich with angels. I think that the ocean is one of God’s most marvelous achievements on our unique planet.

A flat rock just slightly above the incoming tide was my vantage point. The sky was clear, eternal, and the water green-blue—rough waves looming large, just as I like them—and the air was slightly cool and very fresh, full of salt and joy. The sound of the surf, rhythmic in its advancing and receding, filled not only my ears but my very flesh and bones, till I resonated like a crystal wineglass to a tone it recognizes as its own.

I watched the waves with delight, as they rolled and rollicked, slipped and somersaulted over themselves in their reckless haste to reach the shore, finally stretching foamy fingers across the dark sand—sometimes depositing cargoes of strange flora that would soon dry in the midday sun and become labyrinthine playgrounds for myriad sand-flies.

Reflecting on the waves, at once ferocious and soothing, I thought that in this they were an image of our Ferocious and Soothing God—ferocious in his uncontainable ardor and passionate pursuit of our perfection (and oh, what this often costs us!), but soothing in his gentle and healing compassion that washes clean the sullied shoreline of our souls.

As the magnificent sun of springtime advanced across the sky, he liberally scattered sparkles across the incoming waves, and they rode the curls to shore with joyful abandon (and I thought I heard them crying out, mysteriously: “He is risen!”). The living, shimmering lights immediately hastened to attach themselves anew to fresh formations of the ceaseless surges of the deep. “Wave after wave, crest after crest,” wrote the psalmist. So the restless sea rises and falls with its irrepressible energy of worship, giving its blue and white glory to God, inviting all observers to join the chorus of praise.

“Let there be life!” cried the Lord God as He created the ocean, and soon it was pullulating with every kind of fantastic form of life. Just in my little corner of the sea there are barnacles, mussels, and sand-dollars, crabs, starfish, and seals, several varieties of wailing sea-birds, and a curious array of shiny, rubbery ocean plants that could have been conceived only by the Divine Imagination.

Time passed unnoticed, as I gazed out upon what appeared to be a living, blue eternity, stretching to untold reaches and endless ages—yet held in that same divine hand that set the stars in their places and is greater still than the majesty of his works.

Soon my little rock was becoming gradually engulfed by the advancing embrace of the inexorable sea. I thought that perhaps it was my turn to recede, lest the creamy brine begin to give me love-taps on the face in its playful mischief. So I reluctantly made my way back to artificial things like automobiles which had to carry me home—when I would have much preferred to be transported on the wings of the wind. I was refreshed but not satiated; it’s always good to leave the table just a little hungry, for then it is easier to hear the call to return, and to drink a bit more profoundly the next time.

For deeper than the ocean is the treasury of God’s grace and glory, and of all He has prepared for those who love Him.

My Lord and My God

The Gospel says that eight days after the Resurrection, Thomas was with the disciples in the upper room. Therefore, eight days after Easter we celebrate that very mystery. Jesus first greets the apostles with: Peace be with you. Peace is one of the great gifts of the New Covenant. But this peace is not merely the absence of conflict or aggression—it is the fullness of spiritual well-being and confidence that comes from communion with the Lord. Before He left them, Jesus had said: My peace I give you, but not as the world gives. Peace that the world gives is transitory, superficial, ineffectual. It cannot lead to the depth of life in God. It is only the Spirit of God that can communicate this divine and true peace. So after Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” He breathed on them with the very breath of God, saying: Receive the Holy Spirit. The psalmist says that by the breath of his mouth God created the stars; here the Son of God re-creates his disciples, transfigures their inner lives by the same divine breath, divine Spirit.

Unfortunately, Thomas was not there at this first appearance of the risen Lord. When he finally showed up, I’m sure he deeply regretted going wherever he had gone. He was greeted with a great chorus of all the other apostles: “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas probably didn’t totally disbelieve their testimony, but there may have been a sour grape or two in his heart, or maybe he was so crestfallen that he tried desperately to force the Lord’s hand, as it were, to appear again so that he too could see Christ, for this was his heart’s desire. So he made his famous statement that has ever since then earned him the moniker, The Doubting Thomas: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I can imagine it being said with tears, not with defiance, with a longing to see what all the others had seen. It is painful and humiliating to be the only one out of the loop, the only one apparently judged unworthy of blessing, the only one missing out on the greatest imaginable and most desired experience.

Out of his love and compassion, and his desire to communicate an important lesson, Jesus appeared once again when Thomas was with the others. He again blessed them with peace, and then turned immediately to Thomas saying: “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” The doubting Thomas became the believing Thomas, and to make up for his former lack of faith, he bequeathed the Church with the clearest expression of Christ’s divinity we can find in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!”

Why did he say that—because Christ was risen from the dead? Or was it because Jesus heard Thomas’ expression of doubt when He wasn’t even there in the flesh? Only God could do that. Before Thomas could say anything, Jesus gave his own words back to him. It’s something like Nathanael under the fig tree—when he realized that Jesus told him something only he and God could have known, he cried out: “You are the Son of God!” Then Jesus said something crucial to our faith, and to that of all generations: “You believed because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” These are words of which we have to remind ourselves every day. That’s because we don’t see, but are called to believe, and in that believing lies the blessing of God. Blessed are you who hear the Gospel and believe, who come to church to worship what you cannot see, and yet believe, who walk in apparent darkness, devoid of tangible experience, and yet believe, who see what seem to be contrary evidences, and yet believe. Blessed are you! exclaims the risen Lord.

We can see in the contrast of chapters 20 and 21 of this Gospel that Thomas was at the beginning of his relationship with Christ, and that Peter was more advanced. For Christ’s words to Thomas were a call to faith, but his words to Peter were a call to love. “Do not be faithless but believing,” Jesus said to Thomas. “Do you love Me?” He asked Peter. Evidently St Peter remembered all this, for in his first epistle, he writes not only that we are to believe without seeing but also to love without seeing: “Though you do not see Him, believe in Him and rejoice” and again: “without having seen Him, love Him.” I think it is easier to believe in someone you’ve never seen than to love someone you’ve never seen, for it requires a deeper opening of the heart, a fuller commitment of life. Someone can say, “I believe in God,” and not do much about it, but no one can say “I love God”—that is, in all sincerity and truth—and not manifest it in the way he lives, and in his entire world-view. A hypocrite may say he loves God, in pious affectation, but only by its fruits will true love be known.

So let us be willing to advance to the fullness of life in God and realize the blessing promised to those who believe without seeing, and then believe wholeheartedly. Let us open our hearts to Jesus’ peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of divine grace and love, who alone can lead us to that next and all-important level of our spiritual growth: not only to believe without seeing, but to love without seeing. Then we will know the full blessedness of the life of a disciple and friend of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, who is in our midst today saying: Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe, who do not see, and yet love.

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