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

Archive for May, 2007

God’s Terms

The heavenly Father gives good things to those who ask Him, said Jesus. But, as we’ve seen in previous reflections, there are certain conditions placed on this asking, like first abiding in Jesus’ word and asking according to the will of God. Why, though? Why can’t we simply be trusted to ask what is good for us according to our own judgment? Well, I think we already know the answer to that one. If we had received whatever we asked for, we would by now probably be dead or in jail or hopelessly addicted to something or other. The Father doesn’t give us a stone when we ask for bread, but neither does He give us a stone when we ask for a stone. Whatever is good for us, especially for our eternal happiness, God will give us, but it must be on his terms, for only He is wise and far-seeing enough to give us not only what we need, but also how and when and in what measure we need it.

I’d like to share something here from Pope Benedict’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth. This long-awaited book, which is really just the first in a series (it covers only the events from the Baptism of Jesus to his Transfiguration), is a profound reflection on the mystery of Christ as presented in the Gospels, and I highly recommend it. The point I want to look at now is something I never noticed, a connection between two events in the Gospel of Matthew, which shows how good only comes when we accept things on God’s terms.

There are two mountains that the Pope has noticed: one on which the devil takes Jesus to view all the kingdoms of the world, and one upon which Jesus gathers his disciples after his resurrection. On the first, Jesus is offered authority and power over the world—on the devil’s terms: first He has to worship him. On the second, jesus-mountain.gifJesus announces that full authority has been given Him—on God’s terms. And God’s terms are the ones by which his power in heaven and on earth are established forever. Let us listen to the Pope:

“The devil takes the Lord in a vision onto a high mountain. He shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor and offers him kingship over the world. Isn’t that precisely the mission of the Messiah? Isn’t he supposed to be the king of the world who unifies the whole earth in one great kingdom of peace and well-being? …

“The risen Lord gathers his followers ‘on the mountain’ (cf. Mt 28:16). And on this mountain he does indeed say ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mt 28:18). Two details here are new and different. The Lord has power in heaven and on earth. And only someone who has this fullness of authority has the real, saving power. Without heaven, earthly power is always ambiguous and fragile. Only when power submits to the measure and judgment of heaven—of God, in other words—can it become power for good. And only when power stands under God’s blessing can it be trusted.

“…Jesus has this power in virtue of his Resurrection. This means that it presupposes the Cross, his death. It presupposes that other mountain—Golgotha, where he hangs on the Cross and dies, mocked by men and forsaken by his disciples. The kingdom of Christ is different from the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor, which Satan parades before him. This splendor…is an illusory appearance that disintegrates. This is not the sort of splendor that belongs to the kingdom of Christ…

“God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory, their doxa, has proven to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.”

Anything that is good in itself must be received on God’s terms, for it can be corrupted or shown to be only an apparent good if we try to take it on our own, or worse, on the devil’s. Temptations always present things as good, in some way or another, so that we will be seduced into choosing them. But we must have an a priori determination to do only God’s will, to accept things only on his terms, lest we decide for the sham power and glory instead of that which is from God, which is genuine and eternal. “…they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God” (Jn 12:43).

God’s terms are the only ones that come from love and from a wisdom far beyond our narrow and often self-centered perspective. Let us always turn to our heavenly Father, who gives good things to those who ask Him. But let us remember, as the saying goes, that God always gives the best to those who leave the choice to Him.

The Marketing of Evil

I’d prefer not to start writing about evil so soon after Pentecost, but I remember that the Lord said that one of the first things the Holy Spirit would do when He came would be to convict the world of sin (see John 16:8).

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I’ve just read a very informative book about the behind-the-scenes strategies of those who are manipulating the American people as they sell various forms of corruption and evil. It is entitled, The Marketing of Evil, by David Kupelian. I perhaps ought to say from the outset that his religion is evangelical Christian and his politics are conservative, so not all may agree with some of his opinions. But the book is more about facts than opinions, and that is why I recommend it. It is well-documented, so his sources can be checked. Some of the issues he deals with are “gay rights” (and the selling of sex in general), family, education, mass media, and abortion. On this last issue we learn about the massive snow job foisted upon the American people. Some who were part of it now candidly admit all the deception, fabricated statistics, and “facts” (i.e., blatant lies) presented to the media, which the media readily and repeatedly published without checking their veracity, and which led to the legalization of abortion in America.

One of the more eye-opening chapters is on the marketing of homosexuality through the “gay” lifestyle. The following comments refer to one of the main books on public-relations strategy for gaining acceptance by the American people (Kirk and Madsen, After the Ball). This project has been carefully planned and executed by highly educated men, using refined techniques of modern psychology and advertising, and it has been extraordinarily successful. Theirs is a three-stage strategy known as desensitization, jamming, and conversion.

“Desensitization is described as inundating the public in a ‘continuous flood of gay-related advertising, presented in the least offensive fashion possible… The main thing is to talk about gayness until the issue becomes thoroughly tiresome.’ They add, ‘Seek desensitization and nothing more… If you can get [straights] to think [homosexuality] is just another thing—meriting no more than a shrug of the shoulders—then your battle for legal and social rights is virtually won.’ This planned hegemony is a variant of the type that Michael Warren describes in ‘Seeing Through the Media’ where it ‘is not raw overt coercion; it is one group’s covert orchestration of compliance by another group through structuring the consciousness of the second group.’” ["structuring the consciousness" is another way of saying "brainwashing"]

“‘Jamming’ is psychological terrorism meant to silence expression or even support for dissenting opinion.” Activists launch massive intimidation campaigns against those who in any way speak of the immorality of homosexual behavior. The news media then dish it out as if the activists were the sole possessors of truth in the matter. They discredit anyone who disagrees with the homosexual agenda.

Kirk and Madsen explain “conversion” thus: “We mean conversion of the average American’s emotions, mind, and will, through a planned psychological attack, in the form of propaganda fed to the nation via the media. We mean ‘subverting’ the mechanism of prejudice to our own ends—using the very processes that made America hate us turn their hatred into warm regard—whether they like it or not… In Conversion, we mimic the natural process of stereotype-learning, with the following effect: we take the bigot’s good feelings about all-right guys, and attach them to the label ‘gay,’ either weakening or eventually replacing his bad feelings toward the label and the prior stereotype…

“Whereas in Jamming the target is shown a bigot being rejected by his crowd for his prejudice against gays, in Conversion the target is shown his crowd actually associating with gays in good fellowship. Once again, it’s very difficult for the average person, who, by nature and training, almost invariably feels what he sees his fellows feeling, not to respond in this knee-jerk fashion to a sufficiently calculated advertisement… It makes no difference that the ads are lies, not to us, because we’re using them…to counter negative stereotypes…” They admit they are lying to the public, but they don’t care, because their agenda is the only thing that matters.

There’s also a very interesting point made in Kupelian’s book about the influence of Judeo-Christian sexual morality upon the development of Western civilization. The following is from an essay by Dennis Prager entitled, “Judaism, Homosexuality, and Civilization”:

“When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world. It is not overstated to say that the Torah’s prohibition of non-marital sex made the creation of Western civilization possible. Societies that did not place boundaries around sexuality were stymied in their development. The subsequent dominance of the Western world can largely be attributed to the sexual revolution initiated by Judaism, and later carried forward by Christianity.

“The revolution consisted in forcing the sexual genie into the marital bottle. It ensured that sex no longer dominated society, it heightened male-female love and sexuality (and thereby almost alone created the possibility of love and eroticism within marriage), and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women. By contrast, throughout the ancient world, and up to the recent past in many parts of the world, sexuality infused virtually all of society.

“Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is utterly wild. Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men sexually.

“Among the consequences of the unchanneled sex drive is the sexualization of everything—including religion. Unless the sex drive is appropriately harnessed (not squelched—which leads to its own destructive consequences), higher religion could not have developed.

“Thus the first thing Judaism did was to de-sexualize God—‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ by His will, not through any sexual behavior. This broke with all other religions, and it alone changed human history.”

So, if you want to get an idea about how and why we are being sold an entire program of anti-Christian ideas and practices—and this has already taken quite a firm root in America—it might be worthwhile to check out this book. We already see the manifestations of it, but it may also be important to realize that it is not some natural development or evolution of society—it is a calculated program of deceit and manipulation by people who couldn’t care less about you or your family or your God, but only about their own ambitious and corrupt agendas. Let us be aware.

Grace and Life in the Holy Spirit

In the first of the Vespers hymns for Pentecost, we hear the solemn announcement of this feast: “Behold, we celebrate today pentecost-russian.jpgthe feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the fulfillment of the promise…” Also at Vespers we sing a hymn that has come into the Divine Liturgy as a post-Communion hymn: “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith; and we worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us.” The Offices for this feast continue with rich and extravagant praise of the All-holy Trinity and especially of the Holy Spirit, whose manifestation on Pentecost offered the world a clear indication that there are indeed three Persons sharing the divine nature of the one God.

Pentecost is a day of enlightenment, as the Liturgy says, a day of divine gift-giving, the conclusion of the 50 days of celebration following Easter, and the beginning—hopefully—of a time of spiritual renewal and a deeper life in God. Indeed, in the Gospel today (Jn 7:37-52 & 8:12) we are invited to drink deeply of the “rivers of living water” that flow from the Heart of Christ. The evangelist explains that Jesus was speaking here about the Holy Spirit, who would be received by those who believe in Him. But the Spirit was given only after Christ had been glorified and returned to Heaven, both to reign and to intercede—and also to be with us by means of his Holy Spirit.

There may be a little analogy here with something else Jesus did in his earthly ministry. At a certain point, He was asked whether He was going up to Jerusalem for a certain feast, and He said no. He didn’t go with those who asked Him, and he stayed behind a few days, but later decided to go up secretly. It was at the end of this same feast that Jesus made his solemn proclamation about the gift of the Living Water of the Holy Spirit that He wished to give. Similarly, Jesus, before He left the world to ascend to the Father, said: “I am no more in the world.” Yet a few days later He sort of snuck back through his Holy Spirit, so that Jesus would be with us always, as He promised. “If I go [to the Father], I will send [the Holy Spirit] to you” (Jn 16:7). So the Holy Spirit is sent by Jesus, but it is an essential part of the mission of the Spirit to bring Jesus along with Him!

In one of our mid-Pentecost texts, we read the following: “From Christ we have learned a new way of life; let us strive with all our hearts to follow this, so that we may enjoy the coming of the Spirit.” I think it is important to reflect on this if we are fruitfully to celebrate and live this mystery of Pentecost. First of all, we see that Christ has taught us a new way of life. We learn that from the Gospels especially, but also from the rest of the New Testament and the teachings of the Church. We have been singing about this new life in a more concentrated way during the paschal period, as we have been celebrating the presence of the risen Lord in our midst. As Luke recounts, during the forty days after the first Easter, Jesus spoke to his disciples about the Kingdom of God. I hope you’ve been listening, for now He has gone back to the Father! But, you might say, He will still speak to us through the Holy Spirit. This is true, but let’s look at the rest of that text, for there is a condition given.

Once we say that we have learned a new life from Jesus, we say: let us strive with all our hearts to follow this, so that we may enjoy the coming of the Spirit. Having learned precepts of salvation from Christ will not do us any good if we do not put them into practice, as He Himself has said in different ways throughout the Gospels. By striving with all our hearts to follow Jesus’ words, we will dispose ourselves well for the coming and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Notice too that the text says: that we may enjoy the coming of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is coming no matter what, but if we have not been striving to follow Jesus, we may find that his coming is not enjoyable at all, but rather fearful and even painful. For if we are unfaithful, the Fire of the Spirit will not refresh but will burn, because He has to rid us of all the pollutions and the crusty coverings we’ve allowed to obscure the image of God in our hearts. Ready or not, the Holy Spirit is coming to clean house! But we should be grateful even for that, because if we refuse to submit to the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, which is an expression of his love and desire for our salvation, we will ultimately end up in the punishing fires of Hell, which have no medicinal value and cannot prepare us for salvation.

So, at the risk of sounding like a killjoy on this feast, I’d like to share with you some reflections on the Holy Spirit found in a little leaflet entitled: “How Christians can Hinder the Holy Spirit.” It was given to me by a rather plump and bubbly lady at the Divine Mercy Conference in Oakland at which I spoke last March. Her own “message of the Spirit” was quite upbeat—all about having a happy heart and all that—but the message of this leaflet is rather sober, but quite salutary, I believe, for it helps prepare us to enjoy the presence of the Spirit by living as He would have us do.

Searching the Scriptures, the author has come up with three ways we can hinder the Spirit: to ignore Him, to grieve Him, and to quench Him. First, to ignore the Spirit is, in practice, to diminish his full personality and divinity as the third Person of the Holy Trinity. This may have happened for a while in the early Church, before the divinity of the Holy Spirit was defined in the Ecumenical Councils. It happens often enough today, simply out of indifference or ignorance. If you are ignorant, you will ignore the Holy Spirit. We ought to be determined, out of faith and love, to learn as much as we can about the Holy Spirit from Scripture and Tradition.

To grieve the Spirit is probably the most common way of hindering his activity, because it consists of things we commonly do, most of which are listed in chapter 4 of Ephesians. I’ll quote the author for most of this section. “‘Corrupt communication’ covers a wide category of conversation. Exaggerating, gossiping, lying, suggestive innuendos, dirty stories… are corrupting influences in a person’s life that will grieve the Holy Spirit…

Bitterness in the life of a Christian is also devastating, for Scripture says that by it many are defiled. “The Holy Spirit is grieved when bitterness takes over in a heart. He cannot function in His fullness in such a life… ‘Wrath’ is poison to the soul… anger…is fatal to spirituality. Its fruits are animosity and resentment, which are deadly works of the flesh. ‘Clamor’ is usually the conduct of very immature Christians. Bickering, quarreling, contentious people are, by their own conduct, ruling out the full function of the Holy Spirit in their lives… ‘Malice’ is a deadly foe of the Spirit-controlled life. To be spiteful and hold ill will is to notify the Holy Spirit that He is being substituted with an unholy spirit.” That list is not at all complete, but it gives us an idea of what it means to grieve the Holy Spirit.

Finally, we are not to “quench” the Spirit, which means to put out the fire. As I mentioned above, one aspect of his fire is purifying the dross out of our souls. We should not try to limit his activity within us out of fear of what it might cost us to be purified. St Paul also says not to quench the Spirit by spurning his gifts or inspirations. We have to exercise discernment, but “hold fast to what is good.” Conforming to the mentality of this world and trying to please people instead of speaking the clear truth of the Gospel is a way of quenching the Spirit.

Ignoring, grieving, or quenching the Spirit, says the author of this tract, “produces a sub-standard, depleted, anemic brand of Christian”—something I’m sure none of us would wish to be! So we should rather worship, love, obey, live and rejoice in the Holy Spirit, so that we can become fruitful, faithful, and enthusiastic followers of Him whose living water of grace is sanctification and salvation for our thirsty souls. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’… Let him who is thirsty come; let him who desires receive the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17). Christ is calling us not only to drink the Living Water that flows from Him, but also to become ourselves reservoirs of this grace, so we can pour it out on others. For the grace of the Spirit is inexhaustible, and as we freely receive we should freely give. Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!

Terrifying Mysteries

There’s a rather startling phrase in one of St Ephrem’s prayers to our Lord Jesus Christ. He refers to the Body and Blood of Christ as “Your all-pure and terrifying Mysteries.” While I don’t think that Jesus wants to us to be literally terrified when approaching the Holy Eucharist, it seems to me that, since so many people today approach in casual or even irreverent manner, immodestly dressed to boot, a little pious terror might actually not be a bad idea—at least to get the pendulum to swing back a little.

We have a little sign at our monastery that reads, quoting psalm 95(96): “Worship the Lord in holy attire,” which we then clarify by saying, “Worship the Lord wholly attired.” After a few specifics, we sum it up by saying, “Don’t wear anything you wouldn’t wear on Judgment Day.” While the main issue of this reflection is not the way one dresses, that still is a symptom of the lack of the holy “fear of God” which one should have when coming to receive our Lord in his sacramental Mysteries. The deacon, to underscore the proper attitude, says just before Communion is distributed: “Approach with the fear of God and with faith.”

The “terror” that St Ephrem speaks of is not that which we might experience in the presence of a terrorist. It is rather the devout “fear and trembling” one feels in the presence of the Mysterium Tremendum, the awe-inspiring holiness of God. Every theophany in the Scriptures evokes this fear/awe/terror/wonder in the presence of God. It is that which gripped St Peter when he first met Jesus in the act of working a miracle: “He fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am aeucharistic-king-of-glory.jpg sinful man’” (Lk 5:8). One of the first things we notice when we are in the presence of the Holy One is that we are not holy. We see our sins in the all-pure, searching Light of Divinity. “Woe is me!” cried the Prophet Isaiah as he beheld the glory of the Lord, “I am a man of unclean lips, and…my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5).

In our prayer just before Holy Communion, we have several penitential expressions, like: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me. O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.” We realize we are wholly unworthy to approach, but since He calls us we come, but with fear of God and trust in his merciful love. On Holy Saturday we sing: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand…”

It is not just the lay folk who have to approach thus. The priests also make repeated confessions of unworthiness before daring to offer the Holy Sacrifice and to receive the Flaming Ember of Divinity. “No one who is bound to carnal desires or pleasures [that eliminates most of us] is worthy to approach You or to draw near to You, or to minister to You, O King of Glory. For to serve You is great and awesome, even to the heavenly powers… Look upon me, your sinful and useless servant. Cleanse my heart and soul of the evil that lies on my conscience. By the power of your Holy Spirit, enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, your Holy Table, and offer the Sacrifice of your holy and most pure Body and precious Blood. Bending my neck, I approach and petition You: turn not your face from me nor reject me from among your children, but allow these gifts to be offered to You by me, your sinful and unworthy servant…”

If the all-holy God by his very nature commands such an approach, why is it that we do not see and feel this trembling reverence in most churches today? Why isn’t the atmosphere of holiness and transcendent reality palpable? Why do we not feel like we are standing at the gate of Heaven? Is it because of the celebrant’s casual greetings, one-liners, or insipid homilies? Is it because of the drum set and electric guitars in the “choir”? Is it because most people are dressed as if they were going to the beach or the grocery store instead of going to a sacred encounter with the King of Glory? Or is it simply because nobody really believes anymore that the Holy Eucharist is truly the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?

I read recently where a (so-called) Catholic bishop actually stated publicly that the Mass was not supposed to evoke an experience of eternity, or the transcendent or supernatural, but that its main purpose is to create “communal sensitivity.” (Can you see my finger down my throat?) If people are taught such drivel, it’s no wonder that they no longer believe, and then act accordingly.

I prefer to approach the Holy Eucharist with love and longing rather than “terror,” but the latter is still much to be preferred to apathy, disdain, irreverence, or unbelief. We need to have a balance of reverence and intimacy—reverence for the awesome and all-holy Mystery of the Son of God present in our midst, and the intimacy of opening our mouths and hearts to receive Him in that everlasting love by which He wishes to abide in us and we in Him. St Ephrem, pray for us! I’d rather see people terrified than blasé, prostrated rather than chatting while sauntering up to Communion. The Lord will not be insulted forever. “I will vindicate the holiness of my great name…which you have profaned among the nations, and the nations will know that I am the Lord…” (Ez. 36:23).

So, approach with the fear of God and with faith. Receive the “all-pure and terrifying Mysteries” only after prayer and preparation and repentance. And then rejoice in the love of the Lord, who so graciously welcomes those who reverently recognize his presence in the overflowing grace of this wholly unmerited Gift of God—for to them He grants eternal life.

Freely Choosing Salvation

There’s a question that sometimes has come up for me, which has always seemed not to have an answer (or a satisfying one, anyway). It usually comes up when I’m struggling with something or other, or if I just happen to be in a cantankerous mood. Moods aside, though, it is something that should be examined. You may have asked the question yourself, but it’s the kind of thing one tends to keep to oneself, if one wishes not to be known as some sort of devil’s advocate. But it was refreshing to notice that someone else has publicly raised the issue, and even given a pretty fair answer, even if it does not exhaust the matter. That someone is the ecclesiastical luminary, Christoph Schönborn, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna.

The question is related to freedom, always a complex and sticky issue. It goes something like this: we are free to make choices about how we live our lives. This freedom is a gift of God, an essential element of our humanity. lake-of-fire.jpgBut there’s a kind of bottom-line scenario in which God says, in effect: you are free to choose, but if you choose what I forbid, you will be tortured forever in a sea of boiling sulfur. I tend to find myself grudgingly saying, “Well, I guess, then, I’ll choose the other option, since I find sulfur entirely disagreeable and I’d much rather do something else for eternity.” How free is my choice under those conditions? I usually come around to saying that love lifts us to a level at which that bottom-line isn’t even visible anymore, because then I’m not merely trying to serve myself and still find a way to avoid the tar pit. If I’m living by grace instead of law, that either/or scenario becomes meaningless for me, because love spontaneously chooses what pleases the Beloved. Our task is then to attain to that level of love for God.

Let’s hear, though, what the Cardinal has to say, to get a clearer picture. I’ll quote him here at some length (he is commenting on a passage from Mark 16):

“One thing Jesus did, of course, make clear: His gospel, which the apostles were to take to ‘all creation,’ demands a response: assent or rejection, belief or unbelief. And at that point, Jesus became ‘unsociably’ sharp: Anyone who accepts what is offered ‘will be saved’; anyone who rejects it ‘will be condemned’. So there is no free choice after all? What kind of freedom is it, when I am told, ‘You can choose for yourself, but if you refuse my offer, you will perish miserably’? That is the same as, ‘Look out, if you don’t do what I say!’

“That is not quite so absurd as it might seem at first glance. Of course I am free to choose which way I go. Yet I know that many paths lead to misfortune, and to take one of those means I am misusing my freedom. If I take the path of a mania for gambling, that of alcohol or of drugs, I am free to do so—to start with, at least. After that, it becomes increasingly a path of torment and despair.

“It is the same if I choose the path of sin. Jesus, however, offers a way out, a genuine new start. Jesus gave to the Eleven the task of making this way known throughout the world, the way that leads from death to life, from misfortune to happiness. Anyone is free to venture onto that path or not. Yet because Jesus is God, and not a man with merely human limitations, he knows with divine certainty which is the path that brings happiness. Believing him means trusting him to know the way. Believing him means trusting that his path is the right one, which we would not be able to find on our own” (from Behold God’s Son: Encountering Christ in the Gospel of Mark).

Now let’s see if I understand this. To live in freedom is not to live entirely without restraints, as if it meant absolute license. To live freely, in a fully human sense, is to live in the wisdom that recognizes the consequences of one’s choices and then applies the good sense to choose whatever is for one’s good. We live in a fallen world, and things simply are the way they are. This is not Paradise; we come into the world with the deck already stacked against us (though even in Paradise a choice for obedience to God was necessary if they were to maintain their happiness). Jesus speaks to people living in this fallen world, with all its hidden snares and seductions. He offers the only way of redemption, the only path to living in the liberty of the children of God. He said that He speaks only what the Father has told Him, because in the Father’s command is eternal life (see Jn 12:50).

There are other paths that can be freely chosen, but the very nature of them (there’s not some arbitrary penalty attached to them) leads to loss of freedom, to enslavements and addictions and illusions of various kinds. We are free to choose the abolition of our freedom, but then what? We are free to be stupid and self-destructive, but in what way does this ennoble us or reflect our human dignity—or set us on a path to eternal happiness?

Jesus is simply telling it like it is, not making up rules for a game that we might be tempted to challenge indignantly. He deals in reality. It’s not: “If you don’t do what I say, I will get mad and bring disaster on you.” It’s more like: “This is the world you have made for yourselves by your sin, and in such a world this is what happens when you make the choices I forbid. The world I made was Paradise, but you have built your own tower of Babel out of self-destructive illusions. I have a way out, a return to Paradise, which you are free to choose or reject, but you must do what I say if you choose it. What will it be? I won’t destroy you if you don’t want Paradise—you simply will not get Paradise! But I know that you will bitterly and eternally regret it if you go your own way, and I’m here to help you out of your foolish and stubborn self-will, if you allow Me to.”

To live in the freedom of the children of God is to live in wisdom, and this wisdom realizes that certain healthy restraints guarantee that the use of freedom will not degenerate into enslavement to one’s passions. There’s a line in a prayer in one of our services that reads: “Liberate my enslaved and threatened soul, by binding it to your love…” Liberate by binding. That is essentially the meaning of the word “religion.” To be free is to be bound to the boundless love of God.

I may not have fully answered the question, but I think we’re making progress…

Walk Humbly with Your God

We had a reading in one of our Offices a few weeks ago that I wish would come up more than once a year. It’s a rather well-walk.jpgknown text from the prophet Micah, but one I haven’t reflected on for quite some time: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What the Lord requires of you is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). For some reason I find these words calming and consoling, even if in practice they are demanding.

Sometimes is it translated “to do what is right, to love goodness [or mercy]…” It has the same basic meaning in any case. Goodness/kindness/mercy translates the Hebrew hesed, which cannot be easily translated by a single word. It is often used for God’s relationship to his people, and then is usually translated “steadfast love” or something similar. It refers to all the goodness that God pours out as his part of the covenant He has established with his people.

It is helpful to have in the Scriptures an answer to the question: “What does God require of me?” Now there are many texts that can be quoted, in both the Old and New Testaments that in one way or another answer this question—and we ignore them only at our peril—but I like this one for its simple grandeur and its humble richness. Of course, it has to be “unpacked” and applied to many and varied particular circumstances and decisions, but it’s still the bottom line; it can still be used to examine whether or not we are living according to God’s will.

We have first to do what is right, or do justice. This covers a lot of ground, but most of us already know what is right and just. But due to weakness, self-deception, pride, peer pressure, seeking the easy way, etc, we don’t always do what we know is right. Some people wish to do justice in society but employ means that aren’t right. So I think the ambiguity in the translation is good: If you seek justice, make sure you are doing what is right every step of the way!

Sometimes when people go to confession they explain why they know what they did was wrong (which saves me some time in counseling them), so I simply remind them that it is clear that they know what is right and wrong; they just have to make the effort and pray for God’s grace to do what they know is right. Just think how much evil and injustice could be avoided in this world if Christian people simply did what they knew was right!

Then we have to love goodness and kindness and mercy. In a sense this ought to precede the first one, since an a priori love for goodness will make it easier for us to do what is right. Some people (many of whom may not be Christians) naturally love kindness and mercy, and they practice it as a way of life. For them, this is walking with God, and in fact it is a good start. But God wants us to love goodness not merely because we happen to be naturally disposed to do so, but out of love for Jesus, who said: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Natural virtues are elevated to a level of supernatural fruitfulness when practiced as a response to Him who loved us first and who gave us the twin commandments of loving God and neighbor. Some people, on the other hand, are naturally disposed to be cranky and selfish, so for these it is a difficult labor to love kindness and mercy. But their reward, should they succeed, will be greater than that received by those to whom it comes easy. Nevertheless, it is required of everyone.

The last requirement seems to cover them all: “walk humbly with your God.” If all we were permitted was a five-word directive for living human life well, I think this might be it. This applies in general to almost any situation you can think of, for it is a way of being, not a specific course of action. And, like loving goodness and mercy, it predisposes us to do what is right and just in concrete circumstances. Walking humbly with your God puts an end to pride, arrogance, violence, greed, fear and anxiety, as well as unbelief and other sins against religion. It gives us the proper perspective for making our way through life, following the One who guides our feet into the way of peace. It predisposes us for prayer and worship, and then extends them into daily life—quietly, unobtrusively, but lovingly and fruitfully.

So reflect on these words of God through his prophet; maybe post them somewhere as a reminder or make of them a kind of motto for yourself. They are beautiful to hear, difficult to put into practice, yet rewarding both in this age and in the age to come. Perhaps we can also be allowed a five-word description of Heaven: walking humbly with your God.

Waiting for the Spirit

We’re in a time of watching and waiting—not like Advent, during which we wait for the coming of the Christ, but the post-Ascension period in which we wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is an important time in the liturgical year—we are coming to the end of the long Lenten-Paschal season, and we need the grace of the Holy Spirit, not only to carry us through the rest of the year, but to revive and strengthen us in our fervor and our fidelity to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We still have a mission in life, and most likely it will only become more demanding with time, so we cannot afford to be indifferent to the Holy Spirit, the Source of every grace we need.

During this time of watching and waiting, on the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, we commemorate council-nicea.jpgthe Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea in the year 325. In a sense they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, too, because the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as consubstantial with the Father and the Son had not yet been formally defined, but in any case, the Fathers were gathered as the early disciples were, praying and waiting for the Promise of the Father, for they had an indispensable mission to accomplish. The early Ecumenical Councils established and formulated the basic dogmas of the orthodox Catholic faith, which will remain in force until the Lord returns. Some lesser teachings may be subject to change or modification, but the essential doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are part of the permanent and unchangeable heritage of Christ, handed on to the Apostles and preserved intact—and liturgically celebrated—by the Church.

For the Gospel today we have a section from the farewell discourse of Jesus, the concluding part which is his final prayer to the Father before He is glorified in his passion, death, and resurrection. So He is leaving the world, but sending the Holy Spirit to be with those He has entrusted with his word, his Gospel of salvation. Jesus is referring specifically to the Apostles in this prayer, but He also prays for “those who believe in Me through their word,” which means their successors in the apostolic ministry and all the faithful as well. It is only through the Holy Spirit that the Church is not only led into the whole truth, but that the truth of the Gospel is handed down from age to age, clarified, deepened, and expressed in ways that are understandable to every age and culture.

We have to back up a little in the farewell discourse to see what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit, for whom we are praying and waiting, the One who will clothe us with power from on high, as Jesus told his disciples. But the Holy Spirit is not only given for our individual sanctification. He is given for the upbuilding of the entire Church, because the whole of the Church’s evangelical, sacramental, contemplative, and martyric mission relies entirely on the grace of the Holy Spirit for its fruitfulness in the work of bringing souls to salvation.

One task of the Ecumenical Councils was to affirm and define the divinity of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the All-holy Trinity. We find the clearest testimony to the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John when Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (15:26). This puts the Spirit on the same level with the Son who was begotten of the Father and who is one in essence with Him. This same passage is used in the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which the Eastern Churches still use today. It is not quite accurate to call the Creed used in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches simply the “Nicene Creed.” All the Nicene Creed said about the Holy Spirit was: “(I believe) in the Holy Spirit.” Everything else about the Holy Spirit was added later at the first Council of Constantinople.

Jesus three times referred to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. What will the Spirit of Truth do? Precisely as Spirit of Truth, He will teach us all things and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has said. The Spirit will guide us into all the truth, speaking what the Father tells Him to, glorifying Christ by declaring to us his word. So the Holy Spirit is the Life-breath of the living Tradition of the Church, leading her into the full truth about Christ and the Holy Trinity. The Spirit will safeguard the revelation, the heritage of Christ which He gave to his apostles, and will bring it to fresh vitality generation after generation.

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

With the individual believer, the Spirit is more intimate. After Jesus said that the world doesn’t know the Holy Spirit, He said to his disciples: “but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” That was just before Jesus said that He and his Father would come to us and make their home with us. So the Trinitarian indwelling is here completed. With us and in us—that is how God wants to be. We have to rely heavily on the Spirit of Truth in this age of widespread deception. We so need to be reminded of all that Jesus said; we need to be led fully into the profound truth about God, the Church, the world, and even about ourselves. The Spirit is entirely Self-effacing, glorifying the Father and the Son; it is through the Spirit that the Father and the Son dwell in us and act in the world today. We need to pray to better recognize the Holy Spirit, to know Him, to love Him with that flaming intensity that only He Himself can inspire.

Jesus has great love and solicitude for his Church. At one point in his earthly ministry he likened himself to a mother hen who wanted to gather all her little ones around her, and at another as a shepherd with his flock. We see in Jesus’ final prayer to his Father the same care and concern for his disciples. He refers to them several times as “those whom You have given Me.” He is concerned for them because He has to leave them so that He can return to the Father. So He prays: “I am no more in the world, but they are in the world… Holy Father, keep them in your name…that they may be one, even as we are one… keep them from the evil one… sanctify them in the truth.”

The Lord still has the same concern for his Church, his flock, his disciples. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that now that Jesus has returned to Heaven, He lives to intercede for us with his Father. Now we are the ones whom the Father has given Him, we are the ones that need to be kept safe from the evil one and to be sanctified in the truth. This is why the Holy Spirit was sent to the Church and remains until the end of time.

But we have to receive this Spirit, be obedient to his word and inspirations, living by the grace of the sacraments and prayer, perpetuating the life of the Church in our own time and place. The Fathers of the Church have defined and formulated the revelation given by Christ to the Apostles and have handed it down to us. But we need to do more than hand it down to others. We need to appropriate its meaning for ourselves and bear fruit by allowing the Spirit to live and breathe in us here and now, so that the Faith will not simply be an ancient collection of teachings, but rather a dynamic way of life that can effectively unite us to the living God, that can be an inspiring witness to others that the word of Christ is true and is the way to salvation. Jesus said the world will hate us for preaching his word, but at the same time we would have Jesus’ own joy within us, the joy that comes from living in the Spirit of Truth, and knowing that one day we too will go to the Father, and share in the glory Jesus has had with Him before the world began. It all begins now, with our daily faithfulness to the word of God—those who are found worthy of the Father are those, said Jesus, who have kept his word.

Ascending to the Father

We have a relatively rare occurrence at today’s Liturgy, which is the fact that both readings are taken from the works of the same Apostle (Acts and the Gospel of Luke). We hear a few of the same post-resurrection sayings of Jesus in both of the readings. One thing that is different, at first glance anyway, is that in the Gospel it looks like Jesus ascended to Heaven immediately after his Easter evening appearance to them, while in Acts it is said that He was with them 40 days before He ascended. Since it was made explicit there, we’ll accept that as the historical fact. As for the Gospel, it probably is an example of Luke’s stylistic device of telling the end of the story before all the preceding events actually happened, especially since this is the very end of his Gospel. For example, at the birth of John, right in the middle of the story, he says that all these things—some of which, like Zechariah’s prophecy, hadn’t happened yet in the course of his narrative—were talked about through all of Judea, something that only happened later. He seems to have liked to conclude his story before actually telling the whole thing! So I think that his apparent placement of the Ascension right after the Resurrection was just a way to tidy up and conclude the story, the details of which would be provided in his other work, the Acts of the Apostles.

ascension.jpg

Perhaps Luke also wanted, in his Gospel if not so much in the Acts, to make a clear theological link between resurrection and ascension, as John does in his Gospel. They are both integral parts of the same mystery, that is, the glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ, and hence are inseparable. Jesus rose from the dead—and kept on rising, as it were, until He returned to his Father in Heaven, to the glory He had with the Father before the world began, as He said in his high-priestly prayer in John 17. The mystery of descent (that is, Incarnation) and ascent (that is, glorification) are concisely summed up in these words of Jesus recorded by St John: “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (16:28).

Jesus never really “left” the Father, since they are eternally and inseparably united, but from the viewpoint of the Apostles, Jesus entered their lives and their world visibly, and then visibly departed. But there is a sense of leaving and returning that has to do with the Incarnation. From our time-space perspective (the only one we can have by experience in this present world), we can say that the Son of God was not always incarnate, but entered our time and space on a certain date in a certain location. Then He departed on a certain date and from a certain location. The point is not to wrestle with the mysteries of time and eternity here, or what it means in the intra-trinitarian life that the Son of God became man. Rather, it is to celebrate the fact that as man Jesus returned to the Father, thus securing a place for other human beings in the divine dwelling-place we call Heaven. Jesus said before He departed: “I am going to prepare a place for you, that where I am you also may be.” Is that not one of his most precious promises? Because Jesus became man, died and rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, we can be where He is. Otherwise it would be impossible. So in the liturgical texts we constantly rejoice over the fact that our humanity has a place in Heaven, because Christ did not shed his human nature once his mission on earth was completed. Now it is part of his glory, and even his wounds now shine with the splendor of God, brilliant witnesses to his everlasting love for his fellow human beings.

His mission, however, was not quite complete even when the heavenly portals were opened to let the King of Glory enter. There was still something He had to do, something indispensable for our salvation: He had to send the Holy Spirit. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said: “I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” He left. Yet how could He also say: “I am with you always”? He is with us always through the grace and gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would be for the disciples what Jesus was, only in a less visible and tangible way. The Spirit would be “another Paraclete,” Jesus said, meaning that Jesus Himself was the first one. A “paraclete” is an advocate, a counselor, a comforter, literally one who is called to our side to help us.

Jesus knew how much we needed his Spirit, so He sent the Holy Spirit a mere ten days after his ascension—during which time all the disciples, along with the Mother of God and the other holy women, as Luke recounts, persevered in earnest prayer. This is the origin of the devout practice called the novena, which is prayer for a specific purpose for nine days straight, recalling the days between Ascension and Pentecost. That is why we also pray special prayers during these days. We join the Apostles and holy women in praying for the Holy Spirit. That’s exactly what they were praying for, because just before He ascended, Jesus told them what to pray for: “wait for the Promise of the Father… before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” That is, they will be immersed in Him, in his divine grace and life. “You shall receive power,” Jesus went on, “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses…” That is the kind of power they would receive: the power to witness, which is the power of wisdom and persuasive preaching, and the power to work signs and wonders in the name of Jesus, so that all might believe in Him and be saved, so that all might ultimately be where He is, in the glory of his Father in Heaven.

At this profound moment just before his ascension, the disciples, who still hadn’t quite caught on yet, couldn’t help but manifest their lack of comprehension. They were still thinking of power in earthly terms. So they asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” We shouldn’t chuckle at their cluelessness here, because we’re just as dense, but we have no excuse, because we’re at the other end of 2000 years of Christian witness and teaching and experience. And, unlike the Apostles, we can look things up in the Acts of the Apostles! Don’t we ourselves ask from time to time: “Lord, when are you going to [fill in the blank yourself], or “Lord, why don’t you…?” His answer will most likely be the same one He gave to his disciples: “It is not for you to know…what the Father has fixed by his own authority.” But whatever we do need to know will be given to us; that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. The Spirit of God isn’t sent to satisfy our curiosity or foretell the future or even to make things easier for us. He is sent to speak the word of God to us and enable us to live it, to bear fruit as Jesus’ disciples. He is the personal means by which Jesus will be with us always.

Along with the profound connection with the Resurrection, the Ascension is linked in Luke’s account in Acts with the Second Coming, so there is an eschatological as well as a paschal and pentecostal character to this mystery. As the disciples stand gazing up into the sky after Jesus left them on a cloud, two angels appeared to them—one marvel after another!—and said: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will return in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This not only testifies to the truth of the Second Coming, it makes it clear that it will be a visible and glorious coming, as Jesus also said elsewhere. Some people try to qualify the Second Coming out of existence by saying it will be a “spiritual” return, without all those apocalyptic events and final judgment. I think I prefer to believe the word of God.

Finally, Jesus leaves them with a gesture of blessing. In almost every icon of Christ, He is depicted as blessing. This is his primary “attitude” toward us. Everything that comes from Him is a blessing, for God is holy and God is love. Even things that don’t seem like blessings—trials and sufferings, etc—are surely so if they come from the hand of God. Heaven will reveal it all to us, but for now we await enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus will send again and again from the Father, until we are with Him where He is, in his eternal light and joy. So let us glorify his holy ascension, which He accomplished for our blessing and salvation!

Will Only Jews be Saved?

After 2000 years of Christianity, that question is probably not foremost in the minds of followers of Jesus. But at the beginnings of the Christian revelation it was one of the most important and burning questions. It is also in a sense at the origin of the endless faith/works debates that have unnecessarily plagued Western Christianity for the past several centuries.

The first Christians were Jewish converts. Yet that is not precise. They were Jews who accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah and didn’t really think they were converting to or from anything. It is only when Judaism and Christianity began to be understood as distinct religions that one could be thought of as converting from one to the other. One of the main differences is that Christianity accepted Gentiles as members on the basis of faith, and Judaism did not—unless they fully adopted all the specific practices and rites that made one a Jew. But even as converts they did not have the same status as those in the bloodline of the Patriarchs.

So here is the issue. The first Christians, being Jews, believed (on the basis of the revelation of the Scriptures) that the Jews were God’s chosen people and that if one were to be saved, one had to be incorporated into this people. But when Gentiles started believing in Jesus, and even received the Holy Spirit—without having first become Jews—a great controversy erupted in the infant Church. We see evidence of this in the Acts of the Apostles and also in St Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and the Romans. Since I’m reading Romans now, I’ll focus on that.

Paul’s basic argument in Romans 2-4 is about the relationship of Judaism to Christianity. The faith/works issue is related to that, but it is not what people often make it out to be. The issue is not faith vs. works (as in doing good deeds), but faith vs. “works of the law.” Paul states that “no human being will be justified [i.e., made righteous] in God’s sight by works of the law… the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:20-22). “Works of the law” are those practices that make one Jewish, like keeping the Sabbath and the dietary tencommands.jpglaws, but especially circumcision, to which Paul refers repeatedly in these chapters. So what Paul is saying is not that only faith—to the exclusion of good deeds, that is, keeping God’s commandments—is necessary for salvation, but rather that one need not become a Jew first before believing in Christ unto salvation. He makes this very clear when he puts these two sentences together: “We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only?” (3:28-29). Faith is required of both Jews and Gentiles, but circumcision and other “works of the law” that define one as a Jew are not required of Gentiles.

It might seem that in chapter four Paul is talking about ordinary good works as somehow opposed to faith, but then he immediately brings in circumcision again to make it clear that the Jewish issue is the main one he is discussing. And even if some sayings of Paul do seem to oppose good works to faith, we have to realize that what we believe in is the Gospel of Christ, not just the Gospel of Paul or any other individual biblical author. The Gospel of Christ contains Paul and James and Peter and John and everything in the New Testament (and everything in the Old that is fulfilled in the New). So divine revelation has to be taken as a whole, and as a whole it is impossible to derive a doctrine of “faith alone” for salvation, when Scripture says repeatedly that we will ultimately be judged by God on the basis of works or “what we have done.” Paul himself says it right in this section of Romans: “[God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life [sounds like salvation to me!]; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury [sounds like damnation to me!]… There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil… but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good” (Rom. 2:6-10).

I remember years ago when one prominent evangelist publicly criticized Mother Teresa for her good works, which he said would not save her. He may have been thinking of certain passages of Paul, but evidently he hadn’t read what Paul’s Lord and Master said about feeding, clothing, visiting and caring for Him in the person of the needy. Christ gave that as the criterion for the final judgment: those who do it go to Heaven and those who don’t do it go to Hell (see Mt 25:31-46). So it is impossible to assert that faith without works will save us—that is, impossible to assert such a thing if we believe in the words of Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Yet Scripture taken as a whole doesn’t let us think that good deeds alone are sufficient, either. Salvation is essentially a gift. By faith and repentance we have to receive the saving grace of the blood of Jesus by which we have the forgiveness of sins, something we cannot obtain by our own efforts. If we are still in our sins, our labors will ultimately be in vain. Faith in Christ, especially in the efficacy of his death and resurrection, is what elevates good works from the level of natural morality or natural religion to the level of “what you do for the least of My brethren, you do for Me.”

Even Paul didn’t say that we’ll be saved without doing good works, for doing what is right is to keep the commandments, it is to do the will of God, and without doing the will of God no one can be saved (see, for example, Mt 7:21). Paul was only saying that one does not have to perform those works that make one a Jew in order to receive the righteousness that comes from faith, for faith as such doesn’t rest on circumcision or any other similar “work.” (He gave us several lists of things that will keep us out of the Kingdom of God, faith or no faith.) Sometimes I wish that controversy never surfaced in the early Church, because then Paul wouldn’t have had to be so vociferous in denouncing it, and he wouldn’t have been so widely misinterpreted centuries later by people trying to force his words into a completely different context.

In any case, here’s the short form: put your faith in Christ and obey his commandments. Love and forgive one another as He has loved and forgiven you. Endure to the end and you shall be saved. And pray that Jews and Gentiles alike will be saved through the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Righteous/Unrighteous

I’m beginning to read St Paul’s masterful Letter to the Romans again, and I never cease to be amazed at the richness and depth of the Scriptures—as well as their complexity. There’s always more there than I noticed the last time I read any given book of the Bible. It’s always possible, through divine grace, to go more deeply into the thought of the human authors and thus into the Mind of the divine Author—it also helps if you happen to have a Greek-English interlinear New Testament!

A key passage in the beginning of Romans is 1:16-17, in which Paul introduces us to the concept of righteousness, without yet explaining it. In this short passage he uses the word twice, with a different nuance of meangospel-book.jpging. But we have to back up just a bit to a more fundamental term: Gospel. St Paul says that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith”—quite a dense theological statement. The Gospel is essentially the proclamation of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, with everything that these imply for our faith in God unto salvation. In the Gospel, Paul continues, “the righteousness of God is revealed.” God’s righteousness is basically his justice, goodness, and holiness—in Old Testament terms, his hesed and emeth, steadfast love and fidelity, which sum up, but do not exhaust, his relation to his people. The New Testament counterpart would be, in Johannine terms, the kharis and alithia, grace and truth, found in the prologue of his Gospel.

Now Paul says that this divine righteousness is revealed “through faith for faith,” a rather obscure expression. It literally says ek (from, out of) faith eis (to, into) faith. What this means, I think, is that we discover God’s righteousness by means of faith, for the sake of becoming righteous ourselves through faith. For the Apostle immediately says, “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (which can also be translated, and often is, as “he who is righteous shall live by faith”). I think the former translation is the better one. It tells you how the righteous become righteous, and what the fruit of righteousness is. By faith in “the power of God for salvation” which is the Gospel, one becomes righteous, and if one perseveres in righteousness, one will enjoy eternal life. One isn’t sort of locked into righteousness (or a “state of grace”), however, simply by making an act of faith, for this righteous state of grace can be lost through what St John calls “sin which is deadly” (1Jn 5:16-17), which he distinguishes from lesser forms of wrongdoing (see also Heb 6:4-8 and 10:26-31). Therefore being “righteous through faith” is a process that begins when we first believe in Christ, is nourished by prayer and sacrament and constant recourse to the word of God, but is completed only when we finally enter the Kingdom of Heaven after death, having avoided (or repented of) all deadly sin and having endured to the end in fidelity to the commandments of Christ.

But for human beings “righteousness” acquires a somewhat different meaning than it has for God. For us to be righteous is essentially to be in a right relationship with God. That means, first of all, to believe in Him, and as an immediate result, to love Him. This love primarily takes the form, as Jesus repeatedly said, of obedience to his commandments. St Paul says in the beginning of Romans that his mission is to bring about the “obedience of faith.” The result of being in right relationship with God is that we share more and more in his justice, goodness, holiness, etc, and ultimately we enter into eternal and blessed communion with Him in Heaven.

St Paul said that in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. But there is another and fearful revelation that he immediately describes. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Some translate “unrighteousness” as “wickedness,” which has the same basic sense—but if we don’t translate the literal “unrighteousness” we may miss Paul’s intended righteousness/unrighteousness juxtaposition.)

The unrighteous are those who reject the Gospel, and who thus do not have the faith that puts them in a right relationship with God. They reject even that which could direct them toward faith in Christ, that is, the recognition of the Creator through his creation. St Paul then describes the downward slide into greater evils when one does not accept “the power of God for salvation,” that is, the Gospel. When one is not in right relationship with God, only disaster can result.

They do not honor God the Creator or give him thanks, says the Apostle. Therefore their minds became darkened and their thinking futile. Thus darkened, they became fools, even though they thought of themselves as wise. Their unrighteousness made them exchange “the glory of the immortal God” for idols, that is, exchanging truth for a lie and worshiping creatures rather than the Creator. “Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… to dishonorable passions… exchanging natural relations for unnatural… and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (1:21-27).

See the progressive degradation of the unrighteous: 1) refusal to acknowledge what God has shown them in his creation; 2) refusal to thank or honor Him; 3) darkening of the mind and thoughts; 4) becoming fools who delude themselves that they are wise; 5) rejecting the glory of God for the sake of idolatrous images; 6) exchanging divine revelation for lies; 7) worshiping creatures instead of the Creator; 8)indulging in perverse lusts [that is, worshiping the idols of sensuality and narcissism]; 9) receiving just punishment. So unrighteousness begins with unbelief, works its way through self-deception, idolatry, and perversion, and ends up with punishment. Not a way of life any sane person would choose!

Yet we do have a choice, and the Apostle makes it clear as he begins what is perhaps his most important epistle. He will go on to explain in detail what the righteous life is all about, but at the beginning he warns us that we are able to choose either righteousness or unrighteousness. We can embrace the Gospel with its power to save, in which God’s righteousness is revealed so that we can become righteous through faith—or we can join the ranks of the ungodly and unrighteous who reject the Gospel and hence must endure the wrath of God, which is revealed along with his righteousness. In one sense, the two are the same: God simply reveals Himself, and this revelation of justice, goodness, holiness, etc is experienced as wrath by evildoers—for it stands against everything they stand for—but it is experienced as salvation by those who believe in the Gospel.

Righteous and unrighteous. Good and evil. Vigilant and lazy. Selfless and selfish. Lovers of Christ and haters of Christ. Sheep and goats. Wheat and weeds. The Scriptures tell us the same story in many ways. So, as Paul says, we are without excuse if we do not turn to God. Jesus says we must enter by the narrow gate, for He knows the alternative. “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” cries the psalmist (117/118), “that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord!”

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