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

Archive for March, 2008

Restful Waters, Thundering Waters

We went to the sea again for our post-paschal outing, and not a moment too soon. It had been about seven months since the last time I had been to the coast—way too long! After the exhausting (though blessed) experience of Holy Week and Easter, it was time to head for the deep blue sea. Turns out it was gray more often than blue, since the weather was not entirely cooperative, but the sea has her charms at all times.

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When we arrived the weather was warm and bright. As soon as I finished helping unload the vehicles, I made a beeline for the water. I don’t think the other brothers are quite as captivated as I am by the sea, but I was in great need of this medicine for the soul. I plopped a chair as close to the cliff-edge as I dared (it’s nice having an ocean in one’s own back yard) and immersed my senses in the blessed sights and sounds of the pacific Pacific.

“Near restful waters He leads me; He restores my soul” (Ps 22/23). I can hardly think of anything I’d rather do than sit by the sea. I could listen to the soothing sound of the surf as the background music of my whole life. Sea-birds gliding over the surface of the sea, land-birds singing in the trees—it was a symphony conducted by the Most High in his overflowing joy. By the will of the Spirit, the sun sent “tongues of fire” to dance upon the waters in the dazzling coruscations and endless shimmering patterns of bright glory.

I sat there for a couple of hours, breathing in the peace. There are times when one’s sheer existence is prayer, and I effortlessly inserted myself into the chorus of praise all around me. At length I reluctantly rose, knowing that the sun was predicted to go into hiding for a couple days, but still hoping for some adventures on the coming misty morning.

Misty it was, and in fact the next day was as gray as they come, but not without brief flashes of light and some delightful surgings of the sea. I drove to Mendocino (about a rosary away from the place we were staying) and discovered with some initial dismay that quite a few people were already there. This dark and chilly March afternoon was hardly an invitation for tourism. As I exited my car I was further dismayed to see some young people hanging around their cars, eating and drinking and playing loud music! Now I’m not totally against such music, but it sounded like blasphemy next to God’s magnificent ocean, which produces a music more sublime than any contemporary composition—didn’t those people know that the sea was proclaiming the glory of God? I consoled myself with the fact that as I approached the shore, all man-made music would be silenced by the spell of the sea.

Anyway, I made my way down the steep and rugged path to my favorite spot at ocean’s edge. The sky was threatening but the sea was happily wild and rough, thundering in its mighty power and irrepressible mirth. I took a few pictures, but stills can never begin to communicate the dynamism of the perpetual motion and dizzying heaving of the great waters. After I look at my pictures, I realize that they look pretty much like the pictures I took the last time. But the moment itself is always fresh and new.sea-moods-3-resize.jpg

I like to sit as close to the incoming tide as possible, but this, I realize (and never learn my lesson), is a temptation for the sea that it cannot resist. I set my chair on a rocky shelf at the shoreline, confident that as the waves approached I could just lift my legs and let them pass harmlessly beneath me. This worked well—for a while. Suddenly I was caught off guard by an adventurous phalanx of foam, which moderately splattered me with brine. I decided to move to slightly higher ground, thinking I’d outsmarted the sea once again. But with a mighty roar she soon broadsided me and completed the job. The sea always wins—always. But I cheerfully admitted defeat at her hands. Hey, that’s why I go there, to challenge her cunning and her might, and to be playfully trounced in response.

I’ve sometimes said (and I’m not the only one who’s said) that God is in some ways like the sea. It seems that the pendulum of the idea of God historically swings from a stern implacable Judge to a soft and friendly Savior, yet I think that in fact He is neither and both. Sometimes you just can’t give a straight answer—like the angel who appeared to Joshua. That stalwart warrior, not realizing who the angel was, said to him: “Are you with us or with our enemies?” The angel answered: “No.” So who was he with? He simply identified himself as the captain of the Lord’s armies. So what is God, stern or soft? “No.” God is God. God loves, God plays rough, God rejoices, God commands, God punishes, God forgives, God laughs, God weeps, God is restful, God is thundering, God blesses, God throws you in the sea and pulls you back out again (just ask Jonah) and hangs you out to dry. God sparkles, God sings, God overwhelms you like the tide and advances just as imperceptibly so. God wraps Himself around you and soaks into your soul.

God always wins, so let us joyfully accept defeat at his hands. God defeats sin and the power of darkness and death, so let us surrender these unto Him. God’s victory is our victory, and in the Kingdom to come we will shine like the sun on the laughing sea. And we will sing!

Believing the Risen Lord

We continue to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, proclaiming the Gospel of his appearance to his disciples thomas_icon.jpgafter He rose from the dead. We call this Sunday “Thomas Sunday” because this Gospel (Jn 20:19-31) includes the account of St Thomas’ doubt and his profession of faith. But there’s still more to this Gospel, and I’ll try to look at the whole thing.

Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, that is, Sunday, and on the evening of that same day the disciples were still hiding in fear, even though they had already heard from Mary Magdalen that Jesus had risen, and two of them had actually seen the empty tomb. They must have been having some rather interesting discussions at that time, trying to interpret the meaning of these unprecedented events. Yet they were all too aware of the tense political situation following the execution of Jesus, and they had reason to fear that they too might be sought and arrested because of Jesus. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (5:12-20) shows that they were justified in this concern, for after Pentecost they indeed were arrested, imprisoned, one by one, and most were eventually martyred as well. But on the evening of this first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, they were not yet filled with the Holy Spirit, and they had not yet even seen the risen Lord. So they remained in their fear.

Therefore when Jesus did appear to them—not bothering to open the locked door but simply passing through it in his glorified body—the first thing He said to them was, “Peace be with you.” Just in case they weren’t sure it was really Jesus, He showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. The disciples then rejoiced, realizing that Mary Magdalen’s testimony was true and seeing it now with their own eyes. Jesus did not engage in small talk with them or disclose any information about the mystery of his death and resurrection. He immediately got to the point and gave them a mission: “As the Father sent Me, so I send you.” At this point He hadn’t told them what the mission was or how they were to accomplish it. But then He gave them all they needed: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He breathed on them as He said this. As you know, the Greek term pneuma means both “breath” and “spirit.” Sometimes the Holy Spirit is called the “Breath of God.”

The Holy Spirit was given them at this point for a very specific mission, which Jesus then explained: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (If we put this into modern terms, we could say that the apostles were ordained at the Last Supper and were given faculties to hear confessions on Easter Sunday!) In another resurrection account, Jesus told them to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins, but here He completes it by actually communicating to them the power to forgive sins. This is central to the mission of Christ Himself, so it would have to be also for those who would continue his mission to the ends of the earth. At the Last Supper Jesus said He gave his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, and now He is giving his Spirit to the apostles for the same purpose.

This little post-resurrection Pentecost is for the apostles only, for it confers upon them a charism and a ministry that is not given to all disciples of Christ. When the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, the apostles as well as other disciples, men and women, were present and received gifts from the Holy Spirit appropriate to their vocations. But at the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “Do this in memory of Me,” and at this first giving of the Holy Spirit, when He said, “If you forgive sins they are forgiven,” only his chosen few were present, those who would be the first bishops and leaders of the Church, and who would be able to lay hands on successors to this sacramental ministry, handing on the same Spirit, the same power that they had received directly from Jesus.

But let’s get back to the resurrection. The apostles were too dumbfounded at that moment to be reflecting on sacramental ministry. Their Lord and Master had just been killed, and now He was standing before them, alive! They could hardly take it all in. It was too good to be true. Luke gives us the paradoxical expression, “they disbelieved for joy and wonder.” We can understand that expression when we consider that at some fantastic news, even with the evidence before us, we might say, “I can’t believe it!” But this really means we are utterly astounded that something wholly unexpected has come to pass.

Well, when Thomas the Tardy finally showed up, he also said he couldn’t believe it, but not as an expression of ecstatic astonishment. Perhaps it was more like sour grapes. I don’t think he really discounted the testimony of the whole group of disciples, but was probably so crestfallen at having missed what—for all they knew—might have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that he retreated to the refuge of doubt in his distress, even offering a kind of challenge. “I won’t believe unless I see, unless I feel the very wounds in his hands and side.”

A whole week passed in this uneasy situation. The other apostles must have been constantly trying to convince Thomas that they had in fact seen Jesus risen from the dead. And he was probably stubbornly refusing to accept it, issuing the same challenge. Jesus was probably invisibly looking on these exchanges with a combination of amusement and pity, while He awaited the moment chosen for his next appearance.

Eight days after his first appearance, He came to them again (which is why we read this Gospel eight days after Easter). He made sure Thomas would be there this time. Again He blessed them with peace and again He didn’t waste any time but got right to the point: “Come here, Thomas, see my hands, and touch my wounds…” Now it was Thomas’ turn to be flabbergasted. He didn’t go up to Jesus and say, “All right, let’s check out those wounds just to make sure.” He saw and believed and exclaimed from the depths of his soul: “My Lord and my God!” One is reminded of Nathanael, who, at the first sight and words of Jesus immediately cried out: “You are the Son of God!”

So Thomas finally joined the ranks of those who saw the risen Lord, and he would be a witness of Him until the day he died. But Jesus wasn’t finished with Thomas yet, for He had something to teach him, and especially to teach us, the ones who would eventually be hearing or reading this account: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” To see the risen Lord was a gift given only to a privileged few. The countless millions who would receive the testimony handed down by the apostles would have to believe without seeing. For, as Jesus said to the blind man whom He had healed, it is possible for those who don’t see to see, and it is also possible for those who do see to become blind. Judas, for example, saw Jesus work miracles and even raise the dead, but he was blind to the meaning of it all, and to the love and the will of God manifested in Jesus’ life, and he ended up killing himself in despair. Therefore seeing is no guarantee of remaining faithful to the end. But faith itself is a kind of seeing, a kind of knowing, and that is what Jesus encourages and blesses. For if you believe whether you see or not, then nothing can shake your faith. If your faith is not dependent upon some sort of satisfying verification, then the absence (or delay) of such verification will not shake your faith.

It is obviously not God’s will that the risen Jesus would appear to everyone in all times and places, so that they would believe. For this vision would not necessarily amount to true faith, but for many might merely be an experience to be documented along with other interesting experiences. But faith is about relationship and commitment, it is a reaching toward something that we are not fully able to grasp, yet even in the reaching there is a kind of rest, a security based on hope. For Jesus does come to us, invisibly, passing through the locked doors of our senses, and saying to us: “Peace be with you.” So if you believe without insisting on seeing, blessed are you, says the Lord.

According to St Paul, faith comes through hearing, not seeing, that is, receiving and believing the testimony of those who did see. Someone had to see for the rest of us to believe, and God has seen to it that we have this eyewitness testimony. This is one of the most important passages of the Gospel: “He who saw it has borne witness; his testimony is true and he knows that he tells the truth, that you also may believe” (Jn. 19:35).

The whole point of believing, though, is not just a test to see if we can do it, but faith is the means by which we gain eternal life, and this is what the Lord earnestly wishes to give us. St John concludes his Gospel, and I will conclude this reflection, by saying that he has written these things “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

Resurrection and Life!

Christ is risen! We have come at last to the full and glorious celebration of the Feast of feasts, the Mystery of mysteries: the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. We sing at Matins: “Christ our God has christ-in-glory.jpgbrought us from death to life and from earth to heaven; therefore we sing the hymn of victory: Christ is risen from the dead!”

We have proclaimed one of the gospel accounts of the resurrection at the vigil Liturgy, and we’ll do others in the course of the next couple weeks. But at the central celebration of the resurrection the Church directs us to read the prologue of the Gospel of John, which does not even mention his resurrection. Yet I think the point of this is to open up for us the mystery of who Christ is, so that the resurrection can be situated within the larger mystery of the revelation of God to man.

We learn that in the beginning the Word was with God, and that the Word was God. This is the beginning of the revelation of God as Trinity. We learn also that the Son of God was instrumental in the creation of the entire universe. Nothing was made without Him, insists the evangelist. The usual punctuation in English of verses 3-4 of the prologue makes it sound a bit redundant and is probably not correct. It reads: “without him was not anything made that was made.” I think it is clear that what has been made has in fact been made, without that repetition. It makes more sense to join the last phrase to the beginning of the next verse, so it would read: “…without him nothing was made. What came to be in Him was life.” The word translated “made” also means “became” or “happened.” So what happened in the eternal Word was life, what came to be in and through Him was life.

To celebrate resurrection is to celebrate life. Again at Matins we sing: “We celebrate the victory over death… and the birth of a new eternal life…” Jesus held these two mysteries together in his own self-identification: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Resurrection means life, but not merely the biological life that perishes through age or disease or injury. If that is all we’re celebrating, we could do it just as well at the local tavern. But we celebrate resurrection and life in church, in the context of the worship of God and the mystical Sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist, for we are celebrating the life that does not die, the gift of eternal life made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

We were not created for death; we were created for life. Death entered the world through sin, but Jesus came into this world to forgive sin and thus to overthrow death and all its power. Jesus sacrificed his own human life so that our sins might be forgiven, and then He rose from the dead as a sign that his word is true—not only that He has power to lay down his life and take it up again, but also that He has the power and the desire to give that same life to us, who do not deserve it, but whom He loves nonetheless. That is why we can celebrate not only Christ’s victory over death and his eternal life, but our victory, our eternal life, because He has given this to us. We don’t just admire Him from afar, congratulating Him on rising from the dead. We receive from Him the grace to enter that same everlasting and glorious life with Him, in fulfillment of his promise: “I will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3). For as it says in the Prologue: “of his fullness we all have a share, grace upon grace.”

After it says that what came to be in the eternal Word of God was life, it continues: “and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” So Jesus is not only the Life, He is the Light. This is not “the light” in some vague new-age sense of light, which can mean almost anything. Even the name Lucifer means the “light-bearer,” so the term can be ambiguous, and it is evident that those who follow new-age spirituality are, wittingly or unwittingly, following Lucifer. But the Light spoken of in the gospel is not something that is vague, nebulous, or susceptible of many interpretations. It means one thing only: the person of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light of the world.

The world is full of darkness because of sin and error and idolatry and all sorts of self-indulgence, blasphemy, and crime. But the Light shines on, and the darkness cannot overcome it, because the Light, Jesus Christ, is risen from the dead. When Jesus was arrested in the garden and then led ultimately to his death, he said: “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Lk 22:53). But even though the very light of the sun temporarily succumbed to darkness at the death of Jesus, the Light shone on, illuminating the deep recesses of the netherworld where He went in spirit to reclaim his own, and then bursting forth from the sealed tomb in the irrepressible power of his resurrection.

He came into the world, says the Gospel, but the world knew Him not. He came to his own people and his own people received Him not. But those who recognized the Light were enabled to become children of God. What happened in them was life, the eternal life that Jesus gives to all those who believe in Him and who follow Him in true faith and love. To follow Him is a commitment of a lifetime, not the mere attendance at Christmas and Easter celebrations. The Lord gives eternal life to those who walk with Him day after day, in good times and bad, in sorrows and joys, those who embrace Him even at great personal cost or sacrifice. Eternal life is not given to fair-weather friends, who like to receive the benefits of his grace but who refuse to accept the conditions under which his grace is bestowed. The gift of eternal life is precious beyond all measure, and it can only be received through a wholehearted and consistent commitment.

But let us be clear: we will not receive the benefits of his grace, especially of the Holy Eucharist, the very life of the risen Christ, without first believing as the Church believes and accepting the conditions the Church requires for a worthy reception of the Holy Mysteries. The Holy Eucharist does not fall out of the sky for all to partake indiscriminately. Jesus has entrusted this most sacred Mystery to his Church. Those who think they can follow their own preferences in this matter are only eating and drinking unto their own destruction, as the Scripture says.

“Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” concludes the evangelist. He contrasts this to the law coming through Moses. So what has happened is that a new and everlasting covenant has been enacted between God and man through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The life that has come to be in and through Jesus Christ really is new life. This is not the life that was restored to Lazarus or the others Jesus raised from the dead during his earthly ministry. When Jesus rose from the dead, He did not merely return to the human life He enjoyed before his death. When He rose from the dead, He entered into his glory. That is how St John describes the Paschal Mystery: the glorification of Christ. Through his resurrection Jesus entered, in his humanity, into the immortal life which, as the Son of God, He knew from all eternity. This life can never die, can never be taken from Him; the darkness can never overcome it. He declared in a vision to St John: “I am the First and the Last, and the Living One; I died, but behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:17-18).

This is the life that Jesus wants to give to us, the life that we have already begun through baptism and the other sacraments, but which will not be definitively ours until—because of our fidelity to Jesus in this life—we are judged worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Resurrection of Jesus testifies to us that eternal life is possible, that a glorious eternity in Heaven is available to those who will believe in Jesus and love and follow Him with their whole heart. This is a day of great joy for the faithful, but a day of misery for the powers of darkness and all those who choose to reject the Life who is Christ. “This is the day the Lord has made,” we repeatedly sing in our paschal services, “let us be glad and rejoice in it.”

As we decide to receive the grace of eternal life, the Divine Energy of the Risen Lord, let us also decide that we will do things his way, making his prayer our own: “Father, not my will but yours be done.” This is the only way to eternal life, for Jesus has clearly said that those who merely call Him “Lord” will not enter Heaven, but only those who actually do the will of God the Father (Mt. 7:21-23). At this moment, the will of the Father is for us to celebrate in faith what He has done in his Son, what He has done for us through his Son—and for us to pledge our fidelity to his Son henceforth and forever. For what came to be in Christ was life, and He is the Resurrection and the Life, and the Life is the Light of the world, and the Light of Jesus shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. For Christ is risen!

The Death of Death and the Dawn of New Life

The Gospel for the vigil of Pascha (Mt 28:1-20) describes a truly earth-shaking event. “Behold, there was a resurrection_icon.jpggreat earthquake,” says the evangelist. I wonder if this shaking of the surface of the Earth was a reverberation of the smashing of the gates of death in the netherworld, when Christ descended to free the captives of death: those who had been for long years under the curse of the banishment from Paradise, and who were awaiting the prophesied Redeemer.

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, when Morgoth—the evil lord who had imprisoned many and enslaved them in Angband, his loathsome underground stronghold—was finally defeated, it says: “Thus an end was made of the power of Angband in the North, and the evil realm was brought to naught; and out of the deep prisons a multitude…came forth beyond all hope into the light of day…” Tolkien’s story is a myth, but the truth at the heart of it comes from reality, from Christ’s own victory over the evil powers of darkness and death. Christ descended into the stronghold of hades, the abode of the dead, and made an end of its power. Out of the netherworld a multitude of souls were ransomed and came forth, not into the light of an earthly day but into the light of Paradise, the Blessed Realm where God and all the holy and immortal ones abide.

This is primarily what we are celebrating in the evening service on the threshold of Easter. We don’t burst forth with our joyful proclamation of “Christ is risen!” until Matins at midnight, yet we still are celebrating the Lord’s victory. Before the glorified Lord shone upon the world in the brilliance of his Uncreated Light, He had to do some “dirty work,” so to speak. He had a score to settle with the prince of death. He had to deal with the darkness that had covered the world with the shadow of death. He did this by actually entering into it, by experiencing the torment of suffering and death Himself, absorbing into Himself the whole power of death, thus robbing death of its ability to separate man from God. And, O Great Wonder!—as our Offices often say—now death actually becomes the means, not of separating us from God, but of uniting us to God in the bliss of his eternal Paradise!

This is the great victory that is achieved through the Paschal Mystery. When we sing that Jesus has destroyed or abolished death, that doesn’t mean we think that our material bodies will not die or corrupt in the grave. To abolish death means to take from death its ultimate destructive power, to change it into something it wasn’t before, to transform it from a bitter end into a rite of passage into a new beginning: the beginning of an endless life in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, who created us to live and to rejoice with Him forever. Death was not part of God’s original plan, for sin was not part of his plan, and Scripture says that death entered the world through sin.

But just because we ruined his plan by bringing death into the world, God wasn’t going to shrug his shoulders or throw up his hands saying, “What can I do? They made a mess of everything!” No, if we were going to invite death into the world, God was going to tell it to leave. But it is God’s way not merely to pronounce thundering decrees from on High. That would certainly manifest his power and authority, but it wouldn’t sufficiently manifest his love. So before getting rid of death, the Son of God was sent into the world to share our lot, to experience the penalty of sin even though He was free from sin. He loved us so much that He willed to drink the cup of suffering and death to the last bitter drop. And then—He went after death with a vengeance (for “vengeance is mine, says the Lord”), and this is rather colorfully described in the services as smashing the bronze gates of hades, tearing out its pillars and foundations, and setting free the ancient captives.

Pope John Paul II wrote: “In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection.” The descent into hell is an image, or rather a dramatic manifestation, of this going to the root of evil, the mystery of iniquity and the power of death. That was the mission of the Son of God. He had to deal with sin and death, for if He didn’t we would not have eternal life, and the Lord came so that all who believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. As the Pope said: his obedience unto death conquered sin, and his rising from the dead nullified the power of death.

As the foundations of death were shaken, the whole Earth quaked in fear and wonder, so let us return now to the surface, to the empty tomb of which the Gospel speaks. As the Earth quaked, an angel descended from Heaven and rolled back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. The angel appeared so that he could give testimony to the fact that the Lord had indeed conquered death.

Jesus had gone down to hades before his bodily resurrection, so He was already releasing the captives in spirit while his body remained in the grave. But who would have believed that—if his body had forever remained in the grave? It would have seemed to be a comforting tale, but not one that would change anyone’s life. For something as marvelous as the overturning of the power of death there would have to be some proof, some undeniable sign. So the Lord gave one: He Himself rose from the dead! His body was not in the tomb when the angel rolled back the stone. The angel didn’t move the stone so that Jesus could come out, like Lazarus a week earlier. Jesus had told them to take away the stone and then called Lazarus out. But Lazarus did not partake of the Resurrection; he was only temporarily restored to his mortal life. But Jesus, in his glorified body, passed through the stone before the angel had rolled it away. He had not only conquered death, He had transcended the limitations of mortal flesh.

So Jesus has given us a sign, through his own resurrection, that He could deliver all those under the power of death. It’s as if He would say: “So, you want some proof that I descended into hades, that I have the power to release the dead and give them eternal life? How about if I raise Myself from the dead? Would you then believe? Which is easier, to raise others from the dead or to raise oneself from the dead?” It is similar to the sign he gave the Pharisees after He forgave the paralytic. They couldn’t see forgiveness of sins, so they wouldn’t believe Jesus had such power. But they could see a manifest healing of a cripple, so He did that, as a sign that He could also do the other things He claimed to be able to do. No one could see Jesus descend to the netherworld and rescue the souls of the departed, but those to whom Jesus revealed Himself after his resurrection could see Him (and touch Him), wounds and all, alive and well and full of the Holy Spirit.

The women came to the tomb looking for what they knew: the body of Jesus. The angel acknowledged that, saying, “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.” But then he told them something they could not even imagine: He is risen from the dead! When the disciples first heard this from the women they couldn’t believe it. They heard the word but hadn’t yet been given the sign, as the disciples explained to the Stranger who walked with them on the road to Emmaus: the women told them about the angel’s proclamation, “but Him they did not see.” Yet the angel told the women: You will see Him.

As they ran from the tomb with both fear and joy, they did see Him, and all his words came to their fulfillment. They realized that in fact He had conquered death, even if they couldn’t theologize about it in their ecstatic state! Jesus gave them a message for the disciples, just like the angel’s message to the women: “Tell my brethren… they will see me.”

We have received sufficient testimony, sufficient signs, that Jesus has overcome death—in Himself and for our sake. It is now up to us to cling to Him in faith and love, so that we will personally enter into this mystery of freedom from the power of death, the mystery of resurrection unto eternal life. Jesus overcame sin, the root of death, by his obedience unto death. We must do the same. The trail has already been blazed; no mere mortal could have done that. All we have to do is follow that trail, stay on it. For death can still have power over us if we relinquish our freedom, if we turn from the path of righteousness, of communion with Jesus. Death feeds on sin, and the more we sin, the more death regains its power. Those who died before Christ could not help but go to the netherworld. But those who die after Christ have no excuse if they go to the world below. Death, that is, eternal death which separates us from God, only has the power that we give it.

So let us worship the Lord who came to set us free at such great personal cost. Let us celebrate our liberation from the power of darkness and the shadow of death, and let us come into the light of grace and joy and resurrection!

Behold Your King

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“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
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“It is finished.”
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“Father, into your hands I commend My spirit.”

Is it I, Lord?

We begin now to enter fully into the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, the beginning of the Sacrifice of Jesus at the Mystical Supper in the upper room. Of this evening Jesus said to his disciples: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” For He was about to bestow upon them and upon the world a unique and infinitely precious Gift: his own Body and Blood, which would be sacrificed for the forgiveness of our sins and for a perpetual memorial of his everlasting love.

But the Supper began on a sorrowful note. “One of you,” Jesus said, “will betray me.” One thing I noticed in this reading that I never noticed before is that it seems that once Judas made his deal with the chief priests, Jesus was no longer his Lord. In Matthew’s account, when Jesus announced the betrayal, all the disciples asked in turn, “Is it I, Lord?” When Judas’ turn came, he asked, “Is it I, rabbi [or, teacher]?” He had already fallen away.

But let us return to the other disciples, for I think we can identify with them, if we are honest. They probably believed, in general, that they were faithful disciples of the Lord. Yet there was in them a salutary self-distrust. A kind of dread entered their hearts, which comes from the fear of God. They wouldn’t have thought that any of this select group would betray their Master, yet Jesus said one of them would, and so, horrified and trembling, they approached Him: Am I the one?

They must have known, as we ought to know for ourselves, that human beings, on this side of Paradise, are capable of evil, even the worst kinds; we are all potential betrayers of our Lord. That is one reason why the Church always urges us to embrace humility and reject pride. This keeps our souls in a sober self-awareness. Peter lost sight of that for a while, and boldly protested that he would go even to prison and death for Jesus’ sake, even saying that if all the others fell away, he alone would not. But a few hours later he was swearing with oaths that he didn’t even know the Man.

Is it I, Lord?

But the Lord continued with this Passover that would forever change the world, despite his weak and wavering disciples. He loved them, jesus_last_supper.jpgafter all, even with all their faults, and He knew that when his Spirit would come they would become holy and fearless preachers of his death and resurrection, and would give much glory to God. So “Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said: ‘Take eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” There, He did it, the miracle of miracles, yet I wonder if the disciples could understand the magnitude of it at that moment, which was so charged with emotion, with fear and confusion and the threat of betrayal and the prediction of death. Even so, He commanded them: “Do this in memory of Me.” Do this, do what I just did. Make My sacrificed Body and Blood present every time you gather in My name: that you may eat and drink the price of your redemption, that you may have life and have it to the full, that you may abide in Me and I in you, that I may raise you up on the last day.

Jesus’ command—Do this in memory of Me, five words—was the first ordination rite of the priesthood of the New Covenant. Jesus would complete it after his resurrection when He gave them power to forgive sins (Jn. 20:22-23). But here at the table in the upper room, He gave them the grace and authority to perpetuate his sacrifice, to ritually proclaim his death and resurrection until He comes in glory. None of this would be fully realized by them until the day of Pentecost and the unfolding life of the Church of Christ, but at this moment Jesus declared it. He sacrificially offered his own Body and Blood at the Last Supper in anticipation of its completion on Calvary, and He gave a share in his own high priesthood to his disciples in anticipation of its exercise after Pentecost.

We may rightly wonder if today’s priests are aware of the surpassing gift that Christ has given them by communicating the same command to them: “Do this in memory of Me.” It is through the priesthood alone that the sacrifice of Christ is perpetuated in the Church, for the life and salvation of its members and of the whole world. The priesthood is not a “service profession,” even though the post-Vatican II Church has tended to recast it that way. It is a consecration, an inner configuration of a man to the person of Christ, specifically in the Lord’s priestly function of offering the sacrifice that saves the world. In one of the prayers of the priest in the Divine Liturgy, the priest refers to himself as one “whom You have placed in this, your ministry, through the power of your Holy Spirit…” So priests are more than followers of Christ; they have been inserted into his ministry; they do what He did, by the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Eucharist is at the heart of the priesthood, and the priesthood is ultimately meaningless without it—or perhaps it becomes just another service profession dealing with people’s temporal needs. But in fact, the Eucharist is so important—and the priest’s faith in the Eucharist so essential to his ministry—that in the ordination rite of the priest in the Byzantine tradition the priest must swear that he believes that bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ at every Divine Liturgy.

Yet we see today that the priesthood of Christ is in disarray. A very small (though numerically significant) percentage of priests have sexually abused children and adolescents. An alarmingly large minority are actively homosexual. A greater percentage still are disobedient to the Magisterium and do not preach or live according to the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Some no longer believe in the Holy Eucharist either, grieving the Heart of Jesus, who bequeathed this Gift to his Church at the price of his own blood.

Starting with myself, I entreat all priests to sit in the upper room with Jesus, allow his eyes to penetrate the depths of our souls, and then ask: Is it I, Lord?

After they had finished the Supper, Jesus said to them: “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” The long Gospel reading for this day does not end with the Last Supper but continues into the beginning of his Passion: the agony in the garden and the arrest and trial before the chief priests. Perhaps the Church thus intends to link the Supper with the Passion, for they are inseparable. The Passion doesn’t begin in the garden; it begins at the table. In John’s Gospel, while Jesus is still sitting at table with the disciples, He declares: “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” According to John, Jesus’ glorification is the whole of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Mystical Supper inaugurates the Sacrifice; it is the fountainhead of our salvation.

Let us, as disciples of Christ, gather around our Lord who is present in our midst and who will renew the mystery of his Sacrifice in a very short time on our own altar. Let us bring Him the love that others deny Him, let us offer ourselves to Him while others betray Him—yet let us not become overconfident or complacent or proud of our own righteousness. Even as we sit with Him at table we must realize how far we fall short of his glory, how unfaithful we often prove to be, and let us ask Him: Is it I, Lord? Having humbled ourselves before Him, let us approach, as the deacon says, “with fear of God and with faith,” and receive the Divine Mysteries with a heart ready to go with Him to his Passion.

Let us also pray for priests, whose special day this is, that all might remember what the Lord has enjoined upon them, remember that their lives have meaning only in the mystery of the divine ministry into which they have been inserted by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that the Lord may have mercy on all those who have betrayed or denied Him by their words or actions, and that they may be restored to his grace and be courageous witnesses of the Truth and, as we say in the Liturgy of St Basil, “servants of the New Covenant and ministers of the Holy Mysteries.”

This is the night that Jesus said all will fall away. Let us keep vigil with Him, as He calls us to accompany Him. “Watch and pray,” He said, as He resolutely walked toward his agony in the garden. Watch and pray, believe and trust, follow faithfully and with love even unto the Cross—and we will be declared worthy of his precious Body and Blood, redeemed, sanctified, and prepared to share his glory.

The Betrayer

Judas Iscariot awoke on an early spring morning in a chill of fear. He lived alone, but he sensed that there was someone else in the room. Still groggy from inadequate sleep, he tried to listen for any telltale sounds of movement, but he heard none. He rolled over in a vain attempt to return to sleep; then he felt the presence again. He got up and looked around but saw no one.

“Who’s there?”

The presence spoke, but only to his mind. “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, and I bring tidings of imminent victory.”

“Who are you?”

judas.jpg“Let us not waste time. Your hour of glory has come, and work needs to be done.”

Judas did not feel quite at ease, but his interest and curiosity were aroused. He felt a growing sense of personal importance, and even strange kind of euphoria, while he was in this presence.

“Of what hour do you speak, and of what work? And how shall I win glory?”

“First things first. Your master, the Nazarene: why is he wasting his time among the derelicts and cripples of this wretched land? His band of illiterate followers is calling him the messiah, and even you seem to go along with it. If he is the messiah, why does he not rise up against the oppressors, the unclean gentiles?”

“I have wondered the same thing myself, yet I lack the courage to confront him directly. Perhaps I would have left him by now, had I not seen him work wonders with my own eyes. Why, he has healed paralytics and opened the eyes of the blind!”

“Hmph. And what has his sorcery accomplished for the liberation of Israel? So he has dazzled the crowds of simpletons. Life under the yoke of the Romans goes on pretty much as usual, doesn’t it? How do you like being their slave?”

“Actually, I hate it. Before I became a follower of Jesus I was working with the Zealots to plan a bloody coup. But Simon convinced me that if we were to follow the messiah, we would surely have divine aid for our righteous cause.”

“And has Simon, the former Zealot, recently shown any signs of his righteous zeal, now that he has thrown in his lot with the humble Nazarene?”

“Well, now that you mention it, he does not speak of violent revolt any more. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, and Simon and the others seem content to wait for God to restore Israel in his own way and time.”

God’s way and time!” spat the voice, losing some of its previous composure. Here is God’s way: Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and now Romans. When has his ‘chosen people’ not been under the yoke of foreigners? If the Jews were chosen for anything, it was to be cursed and enslaved. Don’t speak to me of God unless you speak of the power of justice that is placed in the hands of resourceful men like yourself, whose destiny is to overcome oppression at any price!”

Judas was taken somewhat aback but began to reflect a little. “You seem to be bringing to light things that have been present but rather obscure in my own thinking, and now they are becoming clearer.”

“That is because I am the light-bearer” (the voice was soothing now), “and you would do well to follow the light.”

“But I thought I was. Jesus said he was ‘the light of the world.’ And his words are powerful and appealing. I feel drawn to him, even though I disagree with some of his methods, and even though I don’t understand why he is not organizing us against the Romans.”

“Sure, his talk is smooth and he speaks of a kingdom of peace and love. But where is this kingdom—in the sky? He can’t rid the earth of poverty, so he says, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ He can’t prevent your sorrows, so he says, ‘Blessed are you who mourn.’ And since he hasn’t delivered you from the Romans, he says, ‘Blessed are the persecuted.’ Very convenient ways to cloak his failures with pious and false hopes! Can’t you see through this? Don’t you want him to take some definite action? If you blind bumpkins go on as you are, you will be just another failed band of disciples of a would-be messiah, who came to a bad end just like all the others. This is your only chance to make a real difference. You have to force his hand.”

“I fear to do anything against him. In a way I actually love him, but I don’t understand him and I’m always frustrated. Yet he has put his trust in me. He even trusted me with the purse for the disciples, yet to my shame I’ve used much of our resources to fund the Zealots and to make life a little easier for myself.”

“Why be ashamed for supporting a righteous cause? You did exactly what you should have done. And if a bit of personal benefit came your way, what of it? Didn’t the Nazarene say that a worker is worth his wages?”

“I’m confused and torn. I’m angry at the Romans, and to tell the truth I’m even a little angry at Jesus. If he has power to heal and raise the dead and even to calm storms at sea, why won’t he free God’s people from these evil oppressors? Why does he ‘turn the other cheek’, and why does he forgive? Where is our God of retribution?”

“My point exactly. Your messiah is not doing his job, if he really is the messiah. Maybe he’s afraid, lost his nerve. Maybe his magic tricks have run out, and he has nothing left but his ineffectual piety. I tell you, there is only one way to see if he is for real, if he is really the messiah, if he will really take his place in history as a man whose actions speak louder than words, who is willing to confront oppression and overthrow it.”

“And what is that way?”

“What I said before: force his hand. Put him in a position in which he has to take a stand, has to show his power, if he really has any.”

“How could I do that? I don’t have much influence with him. He might not listen to me.”

“It is you who are not listening, you fool! You don’t put him into such a position by asking him to go there. You manipulate events, you plan it out, you set the stage so he has no choice but to act, to rise up and save his people—if he is the Son of God!”

“I don’t know what to think anymore. Would he really take charge and use his power if I forced his hand? And just how would I do that?”

“Of course he would! He would have no choice. If you turned him over to the authorities, he couldn’t wriggle out of his predicament with parables or magic tricks. He would be backed into a corner, and he would realize that his hour had finally come, that this was why he came into the world. He would sound the call to battle, and your cause would be victorious. The power you say he used for calming storms he would use to crush all Roman might. And you, Judas, would get all the credit, all the glory, for being the one man who could pull this off, who had the foresight and the guts to set the stage for this moment of destiny and triumph. Tell the chief priests where they can find him, and they’ll arrest him. Then you’ll make history.”

Judas felt a kind of strange energy begin to flow through him. It seemed as if his eyes were opening, as if he really were the pivotal player in these crucial events. What all the Zealots could not accomplish with all their resources and cunning and strength, he, Judas Iscariot, would accomplish with a simple decision, a fateful decision to bring things to a head, to push the reluctant messiah into action.

But a final qualm of conscience emerged from his soul. “I embrace the goal. But I wish it didn’t mean I would have to actually betray Jesus.”

“Betray?” cooed the voice. “Let us not use such a harsh word. You are a catalyst for glorious events. Prepare now your plan.”

“But what purpose would it serve to hand him over to the priests? It’s not them we wish to overthrow, but the Romans.”

“You are trying my patience. Those fools won’t know what to do with him. His words run rings around them and they always walk away befuddled. They will simply hand him over to the governor, and then the uprising will begin. All his followers can be cued for the coup. You can’t turn him over to the Romans yourself; only the Jewish leaders have the official capacity to do so. But the first step is yours. Take it, now!”

Judas thought for a few moments longer. The voice was right; it made sense. It really could work. The people could be set free, and he, Judas, could be a hero. He forced himself to erase the image of the face of Jesus that kept coming to his mind’s eye, a face that seemed to have tear-stained cheeks. He had to be focused. Jesus would understand and would even thank him in the end. Now was not the time for sentimentality; it was time for decisive action. “I’ll do it,” he thought, and he sensed supreme approval from the presence. “I’ll win renown for myself and make history.” And make history he would.

“Then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot, who was of the number of the Twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and captains how he might betray Jesus to them” (Luke 22:3-4).

An Interlude in Ephraim

I’d like to take a look at one verse from the Gospel of John that I suspect most people pass quickly over, since it doesn’t seem to say a lot. It’s just a transitional verse that gives us some information that apparently has little bearing on the rest of the Gospel. But I have often thought about it during the days before celebrating the Passion of Jesus. Here it is:

“Jesus therefore no longer wentdesert_sunrise.jpg about openly among the Jews, but went from there to the country near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim; and there he stayed with the disciples” (Jn. 11:54). Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the dead and within a very short time He would be going to his own death. So He went out toward the wilderness where no one would approach Him, and He took his best friends with Him. What was He thinking about in those days? The whole of his earthly life was about to come to its climax. He had won the acclaim of many people through the raising of Lazarus, but his mission was not thus fulfilled. “For he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:25), that is, He knew the human heart, and that soon many of them would be turned bitterly against Him. No, He didn’t go to Ephraim to rest on his laurels; He went to contemplate his Passion and to prepare his heart for the definitive, titanic confrontation between good and evil, life and death, the power of light and the power of darkness.

I would guess that this was also a time of deep emotion. When He went to confront death at the tomb of Lazarus (this was only a sign of what He would do at his own resurrection), He was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (11:33). Then, we come across the shortest verse in the Bible, but one of the most moving: “Jesus wept” (v. 35). What can this mean? Some people seem a little uncomfortable with that. They say, well, Jesus was God, and He knew He was about to raise his friend; why then did He weep? Others might counter that He was also man, and this belongs to being man. Both of these approaches have some truth to them, but I think they don’t quite get to the heart of the matter.

I take it as a given that Jesus is true God and true man, so I don’t need to agonize over this issue like some of our liturgical texts do (they repeatedly say things like: “You asked where Lazarus was laid, even though as God you already knew.” OK, we get the anti-Arian polemic, but it sounds a little silly). Another text is perhaps an anti-Monophysite one: “weeping in accordance with the law of nature,” Jesus proved the reality of his human nature. But I think when Jesus wept it was an expression of both his divine and human natures. The divine Person of the Son expressed his love and compassion through his human tears. Sure, He knew He was going to raise Lazarus, but God is not so detached from human sorrow and pain that He simply observes it and then coolly says, “I can fix that.” No, before He “fixes” anything, He enters into it, He feels it. Jesus, approaching the ultimate sacrifice of his own life, found Himself in the midst of a sea of human grief and pain, as Lazarus’ family and friends wept over his death. Perhaps He was deeply moved at this microcosm of the whole human condition, so deeply wounded, so full of suffering and sorrow, so susceptible to the pain of loss and tragedy. He would raise Lazarus, but He wouldn’t do it without first sharing the pain of the mourners.

Yet there is more than empathy for others here. The evangelist tells us that Jesus Himself loved Lazarus. If his tears were authentic (and how could they not be?) then like all other true weeping He must have felt within Himself that irrepressible energy of sorrow that washes over the heart like a mighty ocean wave, that must break the dam of rational composure and burst forth in hot tears. Jesus wept.

So now He is staying in Ephraim, contemplating all these things, looking ahead to the days to come. It’s a quiet time: no preaching, no working of miracles, just a few intimate conversations with his disciples (how we might wish to know what He told them in those secret moments!). He rested, He renewed his strength and determination to do the Father’s will. Perhaps He even dreaded somewhat the coming events, which drew closer with every sunrise. His hour had just about come.

In these first few days of Holy Week, we ought to go to Ephraim to be with the Lord. We know that He calls us to go with Him to the Upper Room, to Gethsemane and Golgotha, and eventually to stand, wonder-struck, at the Empty Tomb. But do we ever stop to think that He might be calling us to go with Him to Ephraim as well? In the Byzantine tradition, these first three days of Holy Week are called the “days of the Bridegroom.” They are the last days the Bridegroom will be with us, before He is taken away. The Gospel reading at the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts on Holy Tuesday includes the parable of the ten virgins awaiting the coming of the Bridegroom. So we are expected to keep vigil, to watch and wait. For this we go to Ephraim, to contemplate quietly the coming events which shake the foundation of the world.

Let us spend these days in prayer, in reflection, in intimate conversation with Him who has given his life for us, and who is mystically and sacramentally present with us as we celebrate our salvation in the liturgical re-presentation of his mighty works. He loves us as much as He loved his first disciples. He would like to spend some quiet time with us as we prepare to enter into his Passion and Resurrection. Let us go to Ephraim with Him and stay there for a while, and let us profess our love for Him. For soon the betrayer will be at hand…

Acclaim the King, the Lord

We are beginning now the celebration of the great and holy mysteries that lie at the heart of our life and entry-into-jerusalem.jpgsalvation. The Gospel for Palm Sunday (Jn. 12:1-18) actually brings four mysteries together, all related to the coming Passion of the Lord: the raising of Lazarus, the anointing by Mary of Bethany, the treachery of Judas, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The raising of Lazarus was the “last straw” for the religious leaders in Jerusalem. They had been nervously keeping track of the teachings and miracles of Jesus, and they were trying to figure out the best way and time to silence Him. Suddenly they were forced to show their hand; Jesus’ popularity had reached its peak with the raising of Lazarus. The Gospel makes this clear and says that this is one of the main reasons the crowd met Jesus with such great acclamations when He entered Jerusalem. The crowd came, says the Gospel, “not only on account of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he has raised from the dead.” Because Lazarus was an undeniable and living sign of Jesus’ divine power, the authorities planned to put Lazarus to death as well, though they never did manage that. Finally, the Gospel states it clearly: those who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead bore witness, so “the reason why the crowd went to meet [Jesus] was that they heard he had done this sign.” The Pharisees exclaimed in exasperation: “the whole world has gone after him!” So there was only one thing left for them to do…

Meanwhile, at a dinner held in Jesus’ honor at Bethany, his dear friend Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant and costly oil, as a token of her love and immense gratitude. (How many people can say of another: I’m really indebted to him, for he raised my brother from the dead!) A few days later, at the house of Simon the leper—we can assume that he was a cleansed leper by this time—another woman similarly anointed Jesus’ head with oil. Both times the response from the other guests (rather surprisingly, one would think) was indignation. It’s almost as if they had forgotten just who it was that was being anointed, and how urgent it was that they understand what He was about to do for them. He explicitly mentioned his burial, perhaps as a wake-up call for those who were in denial about his previous predictions of his suffering and death. At that particular moment, other concerns for charitable activity had to be given second place.

Here in the Gospel of John only Judas is mentioned as complaining about the extravagance. Feigning care for the poor, Judas was upset because if that money had instead been donated to Jesus, Judas would have had the opportunity to spend it on himself. The evangelist notes that Judas regularly helped himself to what was deposited in the community coffer. So we have love and treachery side by side, the devout woman and the dishonest disciple, and this seems to be the lot of fallen man ever since our banishment from Eden. Goodness is ever marred by wickedness, yet evil is ever redeemed by holiness. We don’t hear in this reading about Judas’ actual betrayal, but John sets the stage by pointing out his bad character and secret sins.

But the moment finally came for Jesus to be rightfully acclaimed as Messiah and Lord, as the One whom God had sent to save the world, to heal the sick and raise the dead and speak the word of life to his people. So, with the crowds still awestruck, retelling the tale of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus entered Jerusalem. The crowd cried out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” The evangelist then quotes the prophet Zechariah: “Fear not, daughter of Zion. Behold, your king is coming…”

We might recall an earlier time (Jn. 6:15) when the people wanted to acclaim Jesus as King but He fled from them and hid Himself. Why was He now accepting their acclamations as He publicly entered the holy city? Perhaps we could simply say that in the first instance his hour had not yet come, as St John often says. That is true, but it doesn’t really explain much. I think that Jesus accepted this praise of his kingship on that first Palm Sunday—even though they still didn’t “get it,” still didn’t realize that his kingdom was not of this world, still thought He was about to liberate them from social and political oppression—because his true kingship would be manifested in a very short time. Five days later Pontius Pilate would present Him to them, crowned with thorns and rent with scourges, saying: “Behold your King!” His kingship was manifested in sacrifice, in the laying down of his life for his people, out of love for them and for their eternal happiness. (The Good Thief recognized this, for even when seeing Jesus disgraced and tormented on the Cross, he could say, “Remember me in your Kingdom.”)

Unfortunately, the people still didn’t get it, for they no longer wished to have anything to do with Jesus. They renounced their former allegiance to Him and demanded instead his execution. This is the usual fruit of merely earthly hopes and ambitions: fickleness, treachery, hatred, and violence. Today’s powerful leader is tomorrow’s disgraced failure. Jesus knew all that and He didn’t try to gain anyone’s favor or make promises of temporal peace, freedom, or prosperity. Everything He said and did was directed toward the Kingdom of God and the salvation of souls. He knew He wouldn’t fare well with this people’s misguided expectations, so He took their Palm Sunday acclamations with a grain of salt and headed resolutely toward fulfilling his Father’s will on Golgotha.

Jesus might be viewed by some as a sort of “tragic hero,” a noble and righteous man who died for his righteous cause through the malice and treachery of the very ones to whom He was bringing Good News. His brief and ill-fated life became the subject of songs, and his death, though externally shameful, was considered honorable as his mighty deeds were sung in subsequent generations. Perhaps if Jesus did not rise from the dead, all we would be left with would be the memory of a tragic hero. I’ve been reading some of Tolkien’s writings lately, and they are full of tragic heroes. They go courageously into battle against the legions of evil creatures, and they die in the act of slaying a dragon or defeating some other wicked power. Their bodies are carried away in honor and songs are sung of their valor and their glorious deeds. But they remain a memory, and life must go on without them.

Not so the thorn-crowned King of the Jews. True, his deeds were mighty and his courage unsurpassed, and his wisdom and glory are the stuff of legends. He died while destroying the power of the fiercest dragon of them all, “that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). But lo, even though his body was carried away by his loyal followers and buried in reverence, there was no time to compose dirges honoring his glorious deeds, for the greatest of these deeds was accomplished shortly after his death! His death was vindicated by his resurrection, and He lives on, not only in the memories of those knew him or heard of his mighty works, but He remains personally present, through his Holy Spirit and in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, to all generations: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20).

On this Palm Sunday, many centuries after the first one, we too acclaim Jesus as King. But let us ask ourselves: will Jesus have to take our acclamations with a grain of salt, knowing that we don’t get it either? Sure, we have the knowledge of hindsight: we’re not asking Him to run for President, and we know He is risen from the dead. But perhaps our own expectations are still a little misguided. Are we deceived by the “gospel of prosperity”? Do we acclaim Him because we think He has come to make us happy in this life and give us all that our hearts desire? Have we forgotten that his Kingdom is not of this world? Do we try to pass quickly over the accounts of his Passion, forgetting that the Father’s will had to be accomplished in Gethsemane and on Golgotha if we were not to remain under the doom of the ancient sin?

Before the Lord hands us our heavenly crowns He will hand us a crown of thorns. Before we don our heavenly Easter bonnets He will ask us to take up our cross and follow Him. No servant is greater than his master. Look at this Palm Sunday gospel reading. We too will experience in this life both love and treachery; we will be both praised and reviled. But like Jesus we must go forth resolutely to do the Father’s will, without counting the cost—because our kingdom is not of this world, either. We belong to the King of Heaven and will reign with Him, as Scripture promises. But it doesn’t come without a price, without sacrifice and fidelity. “If we have died with him,” writes the Apostle, “we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him” (2Tim. 2:11-12).

So let us endure that we may reign; let us die—to sin, to our own selfishness—that we may live with Jesus, who is eternally acclaimed King by all the angels and saints. Let us stay close to Him during the painful and sorrowful mysteries of Holy Week, and He will raise us up to his own joy when the dawn of Easter breaks upon us.

More Snippets

“The sight of the world in which we live, the need and misery, and an abyss of human malice, again and again dampens jubilation over the victory of light. The world is still deluged by mire, and still but a small flock has escaped from it to the highest mountain peaks. The battle between Christ and the Antichrist is not yet over. Thecross-at-sunset.jpg followers of Christ have their place in this battle, and their chief weapon is the cross.

“What does this mean? The burden of the cross that Christ assumed is that of corrupted human nature, with all its consequences in sin and suffering to which fallen humanity is subject. The meaning of the way of the cross is to carry this burden out of the world. The restoration of freed humanity to the heart of the heavenly Father, taking on the status of a child, is the free gift of grace, of merciful love. But this may not occur at the expense of divine holiness and justice. The entire sum of human failures from the first Fall up to the Day of Judgment must be blotted out by a corresponding measure of expiation. The way of the cross is this expiation. The triple collapse under the burden of the cross corresponds to the triple fall of humanity: the first sin, the rejection of the Savior by his chosen people, the falling away of those who bear the name of Christian… The righteous under the Old Covenant accompany him on the stretch of the way from the first to the second collapse. The disciples, both men and women, who surrounded him during his earthly life, assist him on the second stretch. The lovers of the cross, whom he has awakened and will always continue to awaken anew in the changeable history of the struggling church, these are his allies at the end of time. We, too, are called for that purpose.”

(St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)

“Even if our age has become riddled with evil, even if death runs rampant on the earth, we will not accept these as final facts… No, we must resist and, like Moses, throw ourselves into the breach… We, with the same courage, and certainly also with the same repentance, must proclaim that light has broken into the darkness. Salvation and healing are the will of God. To the devil and to all the powers of hell, which accusingly proclaim the hopelessness of our situation, we will cry out, ‘You will not win! We know this because we know Jesus, who is victorious over every devil.’

“Jesus alone shows us the way out of darkness. He is God’s power that leads to salvation (Romans 1:16). He reconciles all that is broken and not right. So we need never lose courage, even when the world is so terribly torn apart, or when we do not foresee a quick redemption from our own sins. We must not lose heart because of God’s delay. God has sealed the world with the name of Jesus. If this were not the case we would have all perished in our need long ago.

“Our battle cry is: ‘Jesus is the victor.’ This cry must be heard again and again, especially in our day. For Jesus was given authority over dark forces while on earth and he continues to exercise that authority in the here and now (Colossians 2:9)… When Jesus said, ‘If I cast out the devil through the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you’ (Luke 11:20), this remains valid for today, not only when he lived bodily on this earth, but for us as well. Through the finger of God he wants to remove the darkness of our stubborn wills. When Jesus healed on earth he conquered the darkness. But when the hearts of the healed were open and believed, then a light from God broke in… Right in the midst of the most terrible trials and fear and distress, Christ carries on his work and helps us… Light is possible for every pit of despair… This is the light of the gospel and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).”

(Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt)

“Man ‘perishes’ when he loses eternal life. The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God, damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his Resurrection.

“When one says that Christ by his mission strikes at evil at its very roots, we have in mind not only evil and definitive, eschatological suffering (so that man ‘should not perish, but have eternal life’), but also—at least indirectly, toil and suffering in their temporal and historical dimension. For evil remains bound to sin and death. And even if we must use great caution in judging man’s suffering as a consequence of concrete sins (this is shown precisely by the example of the just man Job), nevertheless suffering cannot be divorced from the sin of the beginnings, from what Saint John calls ‘the sin of the world’, from the sinful background of the personal actions and social processes in human history. Though it is not licit to apply here the narrow criterion of direct dependence (as Job’s three friends did), it is equally true that one cannot reject the criterion that, at the basis of human suffering, there is a complex involvement with sin…

“As a result of Christ’s salvific work, man exists on earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness. And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in his Cross and Resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation. This is the light of the Gospel, that is, of the Good News. At the heart of this light is the truth expounded in the conversation with Nicodemus: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This truth radically changes the picture of man’s history and his earthly situation: in spite of the sin that took root in this history both as an original inheritance and as the ‘sin of the world’ and as the sum of personal sins, God the Father has loved the only-begotten Son, that is, he loves him in a lasting way; and then in time, precisely through this all-surpassing love, he ‘gives’ this Son, that he may strike at the very roots of human evil and thus draw close in a salvific way to the whole world of suffering in which man shares.”

(Pope John Paul II)

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