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

Archive for November, 2006

Watching and Waiting

Advent is a time for spiritual vigilance (the Advent fast begins in the Byzantine tradition on November 15), so we’re going to do some serious watching and waiting this week, with our annual Advent silent retreat. So I’ll not be blogging this week, but I’ll be back on the weekend. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a brief reflection by Cardinal Newman on watching and waiting for the Lord. Let us pray for each other!

“Our Saviour gave this warning when He was leaving this world—leaving it, that is, as far as His visible presence is concerned. He looked forward to the many hundred years which were to pass before He came again. He knew His own purpose and His Father’s purpose gradually to leave the world to itself, gradually to withdraw from it the tokens of His gracious presence. He contemplated, as contemplating all things, the neglect of Him which would spread even among his professed followers… He foresaw the state of the world and the Church, as we see it this day, when His prolonged absence has made it practically thought that He never will come back…

“He mercifully whispers into our ears, not to trust in what we see, not to share in that general unbelief, not to be carried away by the world, but to ‘take heed, watch, pray,’ and look out for His coming. Surely this gracious warning should be ever in our thoughts, being so precise, so solemn, so earnest.

“He foretold His first coming, yet He took His Church by surprise when He came; much more will He come suddenly the second time, and overtake men, now that He has not measured out the interval before it, as then He did, but left our watchfulness to the keeping of faith and love… We are not simply to believe, but to watch; not simply to love, but to watch; not simply to obey, but to watch; to watch for what? For that great event, Christ’s coming…” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 4, #22).

The Word of Truth Sets Us Free

Jesus said that if we continue in his word we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Primarily, the truth we come to know is Jesus Himself, for He said, “I am the Truth.” The crippled woman whom Jesus healed in the Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) must have come to know Him, for He said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” A few verses later, as Jesus was explaining this Sabbath cure to the synagogue leader, He again spoke of her liberation: “This daughter of Abraham, whom satan has bound for 18 years, ought she not to have been set free…?” So we see that it is not a matter of indifference that we come to know the liberating truth of Christ. For if we are not set free by Him we remain bound by satan.

Jesus said elsewhere that to sin is to enter into bondage or enslavement. So the primary liberation Christ brings is freedom from sin—because the bondage to sin prevents us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Was this crippled woman in sin, that Jesus should say she was bound by satan? Perhaps, but we are not told explicitly. It could be that, as in the case of the blind man (John 9) that her affliction was not due to sin but was for the sake of the manifestation of the glory of God when Christ should appear to heal her. But all sickness and bodily sufferings are generally categorized as “physical evils,” and as such have a relation to sin—not necessarily as a direct result of one’s personal sin, but the fact is that suffering is in the world only because sin is in the world.

Our liberation comes from continuing in Jesus’ word, as He said. But what does that mean? Does it mean reading the Bible every day? Yes, but that’s not all it means. Just as Jesus is in his own person the Truth, He is also in his own person the Word. So continuing in his word is not only regularly reading the words on the pages of the Bible. The term translated “continue” is a form of the Greek meno, which has several meanings. It means persevere with, remain, abide, dwell within. It’s the same word used when Jesus said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:56). So in order to know the truth that sets us free from satan’s bondage, we have to abide in the Word, in the living and eternal Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. There are no simple formulas or techniques for gaining sanctity or salvation. Everything always hinges upon a personal relationship of faith and love with Christ, and through Him with the All-holy Trinity. That’s how we come to know the truth; that’s how we are set free from the crippling bondage of sin and spiritual slavery.

I would also like to look at this Gospel passage in light of the previous nine verses, which in a certain way set the context. Here Jesus speaks in two different ways about repentance. He first gives examples of two groups of people who suffered sudden and tragic deaths. His question was: Do you think they were worse sinners than everyone else because that happened to them? And his conclusion: No, but I tell you that you will all likewise perish if you do not repent. I referred to this Gospel five years ago in an article on the 9/11 tragedy: do you think that those who were in the World Trade Center were worse sinners than all other New Yorkers? No, but if people don’t repent, they can expect similarly to perish. Such events serve as reminders of our need to repent. The victims of these tragedies were not singled out for their greater sinfulness, but their deaths show us what can happen at any time, and hence the need for always being ready to stand before God when our souls are required of us.

Similarly, what about the woman bent over by infirmity for 18 years? Was she a worse sinner than all others in Jerusalem? No, the Lord would say, but if you do not repent, you will in some way also be bound by satan. This woman, unlike those upon whom the tower in Siloam fell or those that died when the Twin Towers fell, was given time, allowed to live to see the day of her healing and liberation, and perhaps this was evidence of her repentant heart and her faith in God. This leads us to look at the parable of repentance that immediately precedes the account of her healing. Here there is a call for repentance, but without the sudden death of the sinner. Here a plea is made for a little more time to amend one’s life before the definitive judgment comes.

The owner of the fig tree noticed that it had not borne any fruit for three years, so he ordered it to be cut down. But his gardener said that he would work with it for one more year, and if it bore fruit, all well and good; if not, it would be cut down. I wonder if perhaps we could consider our guardian angels to be the gardeners of our souls (then they’d be gardening angels!). They work with us and try to get us to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps the Master, if He sees we are bearing no fruit, will prepare to pronounce an unfavorable—though righteous and true—judgment upon us, but our angels ask Him to give us a little more time. They will work with us, so that perhaps we will begin the bear the required fruit. And if so, then there will be rejoicing among the angels of God, as Jesus said, over the repentance of a single sinner. But we have to be aware of the importance of preparing our souls to meet God, because even if we are granted a “stay of execution,” it will not be permanent; our accountability still remains, and the day of our death will inexorably arrive.

Advent is a time for reflecting upon our spiritual lives—the extent to which we may still be in bondage to sin, and hence to satan; the extent to which we have heeded the call to repentance, to change our lives sufficiently to bear good spiritual fruit. Let us ask our “gardening” angels to do whatever it takes to enable us to bear this fruit so as to be pleasing to the Master and be allowed to flourish, not only in the harsh climate and rocky soil of this life, but forever in the heavenly paradise.

If we ask our angels what we have to do to co-operate with God’s grace and their labors to make us fruitful, they will probably say: If you abide in Jesus’ words, that is, in the Word who is Jesus, you will come to know the truth, that is, the Truth that is Jesus, and the Truth will set you free from your infirmities and bondage—free to bear fruit for the glory of God and for the happiness of the angels who rejoice over repentant sinners.

So, as we come one step closer to the great celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us go a little deeper into prayer, into the examination of our consciences, into reflection upon the mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture, into the spirit of watching and waiting that characterizes this holy season—all of which means abiding in the Word, the Truth that sets us free to live as disciples and friends of our Lord. How wonderful it will be to feel the healing hand of the Lord upon us, to hear Him saying to us: “You are set free from your infirmities.” Then, like the once-bent woman, we will stand up straight and give glory to God!

Structures of Plausibility

I read something interesting in a book by John Breck entitled Longing for God. He refers to a book by a theologian named Frances Young (the book is called Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture—it seems daunting in its scholarship, but I decided to order it anyway!).

I’ll first give Fr Breck’s comments: “There she speaks about the current secularized worldview that hampers interpreters of the Bible in their attempts to uncover its true message because of the inability of that worldview to perceive transcendent, spiritual reality present and acting within the material universe. Young notes that a culture ‘receives’ a text in such a way that the meaning of the text is accepted or contested depending on the ‘plausibility structures’ of that culture. Where the plausibility structures of a particular mind-set do not allow for an interpenetration of transcendent, spiritual reality in the material world, then the ultimate criterion for what is true will be factuality: that is, whether the matter in question is objectively real and therefore historically determinable… To acquire the ‘mind of the Fathers’ is to adopt and internalize ‘structures of plausibility’ that see beyond historical facts to the transcendent, divine Presence revealed in and through those facts. The Exodus, like the Exile into Babylon, is grounded in historical occurrence… The same may be said for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, which we affirm without qualification to be historical events. Yet for those events to have meaning for us—to work their saving power in our lives—they must first be interpreted for us by the biblical authors, and then received by us in faith. Our worldview must be marked by a profound plausibility, a bedrock conviction that the material universe is indeed interpenetrated by another reality, a reality that is God—transcendent divine Life—who is present and active in every aspect of material reality, with the aim of leading us through this world and into His eternal embrace.”

I find this very interesting. It may be that, to a certain extent, the widespread falling away from faith which began with the so-called Enlightenment, and which has accelerated in the past few decades, has been facilitated by a change in the “structures of plausibility,” the criteria which are generally accepted in a given time or culture for determining what one will believe to be true or real. If such structures are based solely on scientific or empirical verifiability, then it will be hard for people to believe in a God who is not subject to such verification—and who, even if it were possible for Him to be thus subject, would probably resist it anyway, because He wants us to live by faith!

The secular worldview does not allow for the presence of God in the world, even if it does barely tolerate a notion of subjective religious belief. It does not give the Creator a place in creation, does not take seriously any worldview that accepts the reality of God as inseparable from the reality of the world we perceive through our senses. This is one reason that there is such hatred for anyone who would attempt to justify, by religious principles (even very general and non-confessional ones), their positions on various social and political issues. Believers have different structures of plausibility than unbelievers do, but the unbelievers are adamant in insisting that their criteria for what is true and real must be the foundation for the law of the land, and every other voice must be silenced—especially if it happens to be a Christian voice!

What we see today in Western society is not merely a diversity of views on various issues, but conflicting structures of plausibility which serve to define the worldviews of different groups of people. Therefore one cannot hope simply to convince another of the truth of one’s position by the rational force of a more convincing argument. One has to first discover the criteria another employs for accepting the very possibility that a given proposition or argument may be true. A worldview that is influenced by the Bible and the Church will be quite different from an atheist/materialist one, and there’s a point at which dialogue ceases because of irreconcilable fundamental assertions or denials.

I won’t try to go into more detail until I read the book! But one of the conclusions I come to is (for believers) the necessity of prayer, because the grace of God reaches places where dialogue fails. If someone’s worldview includes the rejection of the supernatural and the divine, then only an interior enlightenment by the Holy Spirit will be of any use in enabling him to see the whole truth. And the grace of the Spirit works through prayer.

Also, we may wish to ask ourselves what our own structures of plausibility are. What criteria do we use to determine what is real, what is true? Do miracles, angels, divine providence, Heaven and Hell fit into your worldview? To what extent do you accept the presence and activity of God in the world, in your life? We have to be careful that we don’t inadvertently or gradually allow secular or solely scientific plausibility structures to become our own, and thus to interfere with our reading of Scripture, our acceptance of Church tradition and teaching, and the way we look at life and the world. It’s all too common for people to jettison traditional beliefs and ways of interpreting reality in favor of “evolved” mentalities and approaches that dismiss as hopelessly antiquated anything other than their own limited (and often flawed or even dishonest and self-serving) criteria for knowledge or belief.

It’s not a matter of forcing ourselves to adopt a “pre-scientific” worldview in the name of religion. It’s a matter simply of realizing God’s place in the world—at the heart of all that He has made, present and active in human history, giving meaning and hope where the secular worldview can only offer despair (or a web of lies, to keep you from seeing that their position can only lead to despair). When our plausibility structure includes transcendent realities, then we’re on the way to the truth that sets us free.

Responsible Thanksgiving

Usually on Thanksgiving Day I make some remarks about the choice of readings for the Divine Liturgy, since they are, well, remarkable (1Tim. 6:6-11,17-19 and Luke 12:13-15,22-31). They are remarkable inasmuch as they are counter-cultural, and may even be seen by some as throwing a wet blanket on the usual self-indulgent festivities. While everyone is overeating and overdrinking, Jesus says: “beware of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” and “do not be anxious about what you shall eat… instead, seek the Kingdom of God…” And St Paul warns the wealthy (and those who want to be wealthy) that they are setting themselves up for ruin and destruction, and not to set their hopes on uncertain riches, but to be content with God’s providence.

We know that 1-2% of the world’s people are extremely wealthy, another few percent are moderately well-off, and the rest are relatively poor or extremely destitute. Our celebration of Thanksgiving should not be pharisaical, using, in effect, the same words of prayer that the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel used: “I thank you, O God, that I am not like the others…”—the poor and starving, those without shelter or medical care. Thanksgiving is not about being grateful that we’re better off than others, for that very state of affairs indicates a situation of injustice in our world. We’re not supposed to be better off than others, and if we are, we have to share what we have so as to help others become better off than they are right now.

It is not enough for us to sit back in our easy chairs and say, “hey, like thanks, God, for all this stuff,” and then return to our turkey and beer and football without a second thought. For God will say, “hey, like when are you going to truly thank Me by sharing your stuff with My poor ones?” Remember that little story about the man who complained to God about all the poverty and misery he saw around him, and asked God why He didn’t do anything about it. God answered him: “I did do something about it. I made you.”

Thanksgiving does mean gratitude for what the Lord has granted us, materially and spiritually, but it does not imply luxuriating in comfort and abundance. Rather, it implies a response that shows that we care as much about others as God cares about us. “Thanks-giving”: first we thank, then we give, so that others may be able to thank.

Responsibility as an element of thanksgiving is found throughout the Scriptures. When the Israelites were about to take possession of the promised land, the Lord reminded them of all the blessings He was granting them, but warned them that if they disobeyed his commandments then curses would fall on them. And when Jesus healed the paralytic by the pool, he said to him: “sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” We are not only to receive, but to give; what we receive is not to be jealously hoarded but responsibly shared.

God has ways of rewarding those who are generous with what they have received from Him. I remember making a fairly large donation to the poor at one time, and wondering if I was perhaps giving away too much, due to our own financial situation. Well, that same day a woman walked in, and without a word of explanation handed me the exact amount I had just given away. So I knew that I had done the right thing (it was the right thing anyway, but that kind of confirmation is always welcome!). And that is not the only time such things have happened. God not only loves a cheerful giver, He rewards a generous giver.

While we are celebrating Thanksgiving, let us not limit our reflections or actions to the sphere of material things. We should all make the effort to be present on Thanksgiving Day at the ultimate act of thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist which, I’m sure you’ve heard many times, means “thanksgiving.” We often give thanks in our liturgical prayers. In the priest’s prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy,” we give thanks several times: “It is proper and just to sing hymns to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You…” After a short summary of what God has done for us, we continue: “For all this we give thanks to You… for all that we know and do not know, the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed upon us. We thank you also for this Sacrifice, which You have willed to accept from our hands…”

We thank God the Father for the sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, by which we are sanctified and saved, and that this sacrifice is made present to us, in its fullness of grace and love and spiritual fruitfulness, every time we approach the holy altar to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This is a gift for which mere thanks are not enough. So we fall down in worship before the Lord, and we recognize in gratitude our responsibility to live what we receive, to be other Christs in the world, to live his Gospel and to allow the grace of the Holy Eucharist to refashion us in the likeness of God which we had lost through sin, and which is daily obscured by our perseverance therein. God has a continual remedy for our continual failures, but we may not take his grace for granted, lest we share the fate of that lazy servant who “begins to…eat and drink and get drunk,” thinking his Master is a long way off, and that his accountability can be postponed. But the Master suddenly shows up and catches him in the act of his unfaithfulness and punishes him severely.

So let us be faithful stewards of the gifts of God, whether they be food, clothing, and shelter, love and friendship, protection from visible and invisible enemies, the gifts of grace in the sacraments and scriptures and in prayer, and the hope of eternal life. Let us receive all in a spirit of humility and gratitude, and with a responsible resolve to be good to others as God has been good to us. And remember, as we pray in every Liturgy, that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming from the Father” (James 1:17), so in seeking first his Kingdom we receive everything we need, in this age and in the age of glory to come.

The Temple Enters the Temple

The following is my homily for the Feast of the Entrance (or Presentation) of the Mother of God into the Temple. It is still a solemn feast for the Byzantine Churches, though it is evidently something of an embarrassment in the West, since it has been reduced to a mere memorial after Vatican II. Such feasts, like those of St Nicholas and St George, are deemed not to have sufficient historical basis, and so are quietly relegated to the lowest ranks of liturgical observance, if they are allowed to remain on the calendar at all. Therefore:

Today I’d like to say something about history, or rather, salvation history, which is not exactly the same thing. History, at least from a kind of journalistic perspective, deals with events and the facts that constitute these events (though even the most “objective” historical accounts are seldom free from interpretive reporting). Salvation history also deals with events, but insofar as they reveal something about the intervention of God within these events, and hence the most profound meaning of these events. Divine intervention and spiritual significance are the keys to the proper understanding of salvation history.

Therefore, for example, in the account of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the event of the parting of the Red Sea (astounding as that was) and the trek to the Promised Land are not recounted merely to preserve a record of what happened in those days, but to celebrate what God had done on behalf of his people. What happened was that the Red Sea parted, Israel crossed, and the sea covered and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. But what it means is that God chose this people out from all the nations as his own and manifested Himself as their Savior by miraculously rescuing them, making a covenant with them in the desert and giving them a rich and fertile land.

Similarly, in the New Testament, we might read, for example, the account of the darkening of the sun at Jesus’ crucifixion as mere history, an interesting solar phenomenon, perhaps a total eclipse. But from the perspective of salvation history, that is not what it means. Theologians and hymnographers will tell you that it is an apocalyptic sign of the advent of the Day of the Lord, a symbol of the mourning of all creation over the death of the Son of God, etc. The meaning of the event is valued much more highly than the mere accounting of its details. I don’t think you’ll ever find a liturgical hymn that reads: “O Lord, the moon, following its established orbit, happened to pass between the earth and the sun, momentarily darkening the land, which coincidentally occurred while You were crucified, and then continued its orbit just like any other day, until the calculations of astronomers inform us that such a rare, though natural, phenomenon will happen again. Glory be to You!”

We ought to look at the mystery of today’s feast from the perspective of salvation history—the intervention of God and the spiritual significance of the event. The historical event is that of young Mary of Nazareth being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem to be offered to the Lord by her parents, a common enough occurrence in those days. But the meaning of this event, as we learn from the liturgical texts, is far deeper, and in order to liturgically explore this meaning, certain embellishments have been added to the historical event. But everything hinges on who Mary is and what it means that she was brought to the Temple to be consecrated to God.

The essence of the feast is found in these lines: “Today the living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, Mary, the pure and blessed one, is presented to the Temple… She will become a most holy temple to our Most Holy God who, by dwelling in her, sanctified the whole creation and made our fallen nature godly.” Let us try to understand the meaning of this bit of salvation history.

In the Tent of Meeting in the desert and in the Temple at Jerusalem (as we heard in the readings at Vespers) the glory of the Lord fills the place, whether tent or temple, to signify the divine presence. “The glory of the Lord filled the temple,” and the people worship Him with reverence and awe. So Our Lady is first of all called not just the new temple of the Lord, but the “living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God.” To say that his glory is in her is to make clear the connection between her and the places God had chosen to dwell on earth before the incarnation of his Son.

For this living temple to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem signifies two related things. First, Mary is replacing the Temple of Jerusalem as God’s chosen dwelling place, and second, as the new and living temple of the living God, her very presence there prophetically declares the old Temple to be obsolete. St Paul spoke of the law of Moses becoming a dead letter with the advent of the grace of Christ, and so the glory of the Lord will soon depart the inanimate Temple of Jerusalem and fill the living temple, Mary, bringing about the incarnation of the Son of God.

According to the liturgical text I quoted earlier, the entrance of God into the temple that is Mary (which is his foreordained response to the entrance of Mary into the Temple of God) accomplishes first the Incarnation of Christ for the salvation of our souls, but then two fruits of this incarnation are mentioned: the sanctification of creation and that of fallen human nature. Both humanity and the whole universe are at least potentially sanctified by the very fact of the Incarnation. By uniting the uncreated divine nature to the created human nature, especially in the material aspect of the body, God has immeasurably ennobled creation and especially man. This intimate, inseparable union of God and man in Jesus Christ is the fountainhead of all sanctification of matter and hence is the source of grace for the sacraments, the icons, and every way that grace can be communicated through a created medium. The mystery of Christ’s transfiguration is a visible manifestation of this power of the Incarnation, for the divine glory was seen shining through the created medium of the body, the humanity of Christ.

All this, by extension, is what we celebrate today in prefigurement and prophecy. Because Mary was set aside to be the living temple of the glory of God; because God chose her to be the one through whom the eternal Son and Word of God would become man for our sanctification and salvation, the whole mystery of uncreated grace communicated through created matter would begin to unfold. It is no coincidence that Our Lady, as the living temple of God, would become the living icon of the redeemed and sanctified Church of God which, as St Peter says, is built with living stones—all those saved by the grace of the Lord.

I think that historically we can’t assume that Mary was aware all this (or perhaps any of this, for at the time of her entrance into the Temple she was but three years old), so this exhortation is given her in the liturgy: “Enter the veiled places and learn the mysteries of God. Prepare yourself to be a delightful dwelling place for Jesus…” This exhortation is given to us as well. We are called to enter the veiled places, that is, the depths of contemplation that lead us to the threshold of the presence of God, who dwells in inaccessible Light and awe-inspiring glory. There we are to learn—if we are pure of heart and filled with faith and love for the Lord—the mysteries of God. We will then not only be able to rightly interpret salvation history, but we will become dwelling places for Jesus, we will walk in the light of the glory of his face. We don’t always have to be aware of what God is doing in us—sometimes his purposes are better served if we don’t—as long as we trust that He is working all things for the good. We will, in time, discover what can be revealed only to those who believe and who love, and who are willing to be consecrated to the fulfillment of the will of God in total surrender to his mysterious—and perhaps seemingly obscure—yet all-captivating beauty and irrepressible life, which, as St Ignatius the God-bearer says, murmurs like a subterranean stream within us, saying: “Come to the Father.”

So let us, who have entered this temple to worship God and honor Our Lady, allow the incarnate God, the Son, to enter the temple of our souls and bodies in Holy Communion. And may He take us to the veiled places where we can learn the mysteries of God and thus make it the vocation of our lives to be living temples of Jesus Christ our Lord.

It is the Lord!

Fishing all night on the Sea of Tiberias, the disciples drew up nothing but empty nets. Still incredulous over the astounding events of the past few days, they probably had wanted to engage in some familiar activity in order to ground themselves in some accustomed reality, to give themselves a chance to reflect upon what they had so recently experienced. But they could never just pick up where they had left off before meeting Jesus, so their attempt to return to their old way of life was necessarily fruitless. On the advice of a stranger standing on the shore, however, they cast their nets once more and made a catch worthy of the most extravagant “fish story.” So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” (Jn 21:7).

How did the Beloved Disciple recognize the Lord? Jesus was a hundred yards away, so he couldn’t see his features. Even if he could, Scripture implies that after Jesus’ resurrection one couldn’t always tell who He was, even by looking Him in the face. Once on shore, “None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’, for they knew it was the Lord” (Jn 21:12). It would have been pointless for the evangelist to make such a statement if Jesus was immediately and physically recognizable to them, as He had been before his resurrection. This phenomenon is even more explicit in Mark: “he appeared in a different form to two of them, as they were walking into the country” (16:12). So Jesus didn’t always look like Jesus once He rose from the dead.

The risen Christ was recognized by the miracle He performed. It was upon seeing the unexpected catch of fish that John exclaimed to Peter that it was the Lord. Therefore, says the Scripture, John knew it was Jesus. We learn, then, that it is not necessary to see Jesus with our bodily eyes to be aware of his presence and activity in the events of our lives. We just need to read the signs and credit Him with the wonders. Blessed are those who believe without seeing, but who can perceive and recognize the divine presence by faith and spiritual awareness.

When we live by faith we realize that our lives are governed by Providence and not by chance. In the Christian world-view, God is not far away but ever-present to our needs and concerns, responding with a generosity that can only be called divine. Have you received a blessing? It is the Lord: “Blessed be God…who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing…” (Eph 1:3). Have you ever been treated with compassion or received any consolations? It is the Lord, “the Father of compassion and God of all consolation…” (2Cor 1:3), working directly or through others. Have you received gifts or had any good experiences? It is the Lord, for “every gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (Jas 1:17). Jesus is standing on the shore, trying to direct our labors on the sea of life, and if we obey his word we will discover unexpected treasures and recognize that they all come from Him.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2Cor 5:7). Jesus is with us always, but we have to look for Him with eyes of faith. Often He appears “in a different form,” as He did to the disciples on their way to Emmaus, who recognized Him only “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35). In the Holy Eucharist the Lord appears to us in a different form. He doesn’t look like Jesus; He looks like bread and wine. But when I stand at the holy altar and see the consecrated Gifts, I dare not ask, “Who are you?”, for I know it is the Lord.

Our spiritual senses need to be sharpened if we are to experience the enrichment of life that God wills to grant us through his constant loving activity in and around us. We can leave the complete and visible manifestation of his glory to the Last Day. For now let us live by faith, with the sensitivity it gives us to “see” the Lord in his works, to know his presence in sunsets and sacraments, in little signs and great wonders. Then we can, with conviction and joy, bring the message to others: “It is the Lord!”

The Ninefold Fruit

After having explained the Pauline doctrine of the “works of the flesh,” I think I ought to give equal time to the fruit of the Spirit. For it is not enough simply to avoid evil, but we must positively do good if we are to please the Lord. Remember what He said about the possibility of more evil spirits returning after the first one has been cast out…

So here’s the list of the ninefold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. We begin with agápe (love). Notice he did not use other words for love, like eros (desire and passion) or filia (friendship). There’s a place for each of those in the Christian life (though eros is the one most susceptible to distortion, exaggeration, or abuse), but as fruit of the Holy Spirit, Paul chooses agápe, because this is the self-giving, self-sacrificing love which is most characteristic of Christ and hence of Christians. It is a love that is wholly focused on the beloved and not on the benefit of the one who loves. Thus it is devoid of self-interest. Of this love Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Next is khara (joy). This, as you might guess, does not mean mere fun or superficial, fleeting happiness. For St Paul often says that he rejoices in his sufferings, and sufferings are no fun at all! This is the kind of joy that comes from a deep faith and trust, that endures trials in hope—in short, the “joy that no one will take from you” (John 16:22). As such it comes from life in the Holy Spirit, for all lesser joys can be easily lost. Likewise, the next on the list, eirini (peace), is not a mere emotional tranquility or absence of conflict but, as a fruit of the Spirit, it is the “peace that passes all understanding,” the peace that “keeps your heart and mind in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Thus it remains deep in the soul even during struggles or trials, for this peace comes from, and reaches out to, Heaven, in which our souls are anchored if we are living in the Spirit.

Continuing the list, we come to makrothymia (literally, “long-suffering,” but often translated “patience”). The manifestation of this fruit indicates that we are most likely already bearing the first three. For if we love we can rejoice, and if we are rejoicing in love we are at peace, and fortified with these three we can endure patiently whatever hardships we are required to bear in the service of the Lord and of his people. The fact that it is so hard for many of us to be patient and long-suffering ought to give us pause to reflect on the measure of love, joy, and peace in our lives.

The next two are practically synonyms: khristotis (kindness) and agathosyne (goodness). The former we might call gentle, benign, obliging, gracious, agreeable, and the latter beneficent, generous, upright, and in general, virtuous. (You may think that khristotis is a form of khristos, Christ, but the difference is between a Greek iota and an ita, which are pronounced the same, but are different letters in Greek. You can guess that there would be plays on the word in Scripture, as in 1Peter 2:3—“the Lord is kind” sounds just like “the Lord is Christ”). Be that as it may, kindness and goodness are Christ-like virtues and hence belong in the life of anyone who wishes to bear the fruit of the Spirit. These too, are not easy, for we often see much more rudeness, roughness, stinginess, and disagreeable selfishness than kindness and goodness.

Pistis (literally, “faith,” but usually translated “faithfulness,” for it also means honesty and integrity) is the next fruit of the Spirit. This is what keeps us bearing all the above fruits, for without faithfulness and integrity, we may sometimes bear the fruit of the Spirit and sometimes indulge in the works of the flesh, manifesting ourselves as the unstable, double-minded (literally, “two-souled”) people that St James says cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord (1:7-8). Faithfulness carries us through both good times and bad, and will place us among the good and faithful servants who enter forever into their Master’s joy.

The eighth element of the fruit of the Spirit is prautis (meekness, forbearance, gentleness). It is similar to “kindness” above, though it seems that meekness is a kind of quality of being which bears all with equanimity, while kindness has a more active expression toward others. It seems also to be similar to patience and long-suffering. These are attitudes that reflect Him who went like a lamb to the slaughter, who opened not his mouth in the face of unjust condemnation—and who said to learn from Him, for He Himself is meek (praus) and humble of heart (Mt. 11:29).

Finally, we come to the end of the list with egkrateia (self-control). This is sometimes translated “chastity,” which is certainly an important part of the meaning, but the term has a wider significance. It also means temperance, and in general the strength that underlies all forms of continence and self-control. This is obviously necessary in our modern society, in which all moral restraints are often seen as undesirable. There’s a curious reversal in the true order of things, where the self-controlled (who are really the strong) are considered weak and bound to archaic taboos, while the out-of-control hedonists (who are really the weak, being enslaved to every desire) are looked upon as the heroes of freedom and zest for life. But as we saw a few days ago, Scripture makes it clear that our freedom is given to serve one another in love, and our wayward passions are to be brought to the Cross, so that the Holy Spirit can make the fruit of self-control grow in joyful abundance.

St Paul goes on to say that if we are to bear the fruit of the Spirit we must “walk” by the Spirit, which means walk in his ways, live according to his guidance and revelation, follow his lead. We must “crucify” what is evil so that what is good can rise and shine forth. This will bring us to fullness of life, in this age and in the age to come. Having seen these past few days the works of the flesh, what it means to be unrighteous, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit, with all that these entail, what kind of person would you like to be?

Tag Cloud

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 106 other followers