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

Archive for June, 2008

Of Horseflies and Eternity

I’m about halfway through the classic Catholic sci-fi novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is the first time I’ve read it, so what I say only goes as far as the first half of it, but so far I’m enjoying it. It is alternately delightful and sobering—delightful in its humorous characterizations and anecdotes, and sobering in its subject matter: a world trying to rebuild itself after near-total destruction from a nuclear holocaust—and the foibles of human nature throughout. I’d like to include here one humorous bit and one sobering one.

This little vignette happens when Brother Francis is in New Rome (the original one was leveled in the “Flame Deluge”) for the canonization of the Blessed Leibowitz, the mysterious and martyred founder of his monastic order. He is in awe at the grandeur of the basilica and the ceremonies: “No motion occurred which did not quietly contribute to the dignity and overpowering beauty of this ancient place, even as the motionless statues and paintings contributed to it. Even the whisper of one’s breathing seemed to echo faintly from distant apses… Some of the statues were alive, he observed after a time. A suit of armor stood against the wall a few yards to his left. Its mailed fist held the staff of a gleaming battle-ax. Not even the plume of its helmet had stirred during the time Brother Francis had been kneeling there. A dozen identical suits of armor stood at intervals along the walls. Only after seeing a horsefly crawl through the visor of the ‘statue’ on his left did he suspect that the warlike husk contained an occupant. His eye could detect no motion, but the armor emitted a few metallic creaks while it harbored the horsefly. These, then, must be the papal guard, so renowned in knightly battle: the small private army of God’s First Vicar.

“A captain of the guard was making a stately tour of his men. For the first time, the statue moved. It lifted its visor in salute. The captain thoughtfully paused and used his kerchief to brush the horsefly from the forehead of the expressionless face inside the helmet before passing on. The statue lowered its visor and resumed its immobility.”

That, I think, needs no further comment! And now for something completely different:

“In a dark sea of centuries wherein nothing seemed to flow, a lifetime was only a brief eddy, even for the man who lived it. There was a tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons; then there were aches and pains, finally Extreme Unction, and a moment of blackness at the end—or at the beginning, rather. For then the small shivering soul who had endured the tedium, endured it badly or well, would find itself in a place of light, find itself absorbed in the burning gaze of infinitely compassionate eyes as it stood before the Just One. And then the King would say: ‘Come,’ or the King would say: ‘Go,’ and only for that moment had the tedium of years existed.”

That is indeed quite sobering and it concisely expresses the awesome gravity of our life and destiny. I can certainly identify with the “tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons,” and this is perhaps more noticeable in a monastery where things are usually more regulated than they are in the world. Usually it is tolerable enough—I’d say about medium tedium—but sometimes it can seem a heavy burden. But precisely there is where our salvation is worked out (or lost), through constant faithfulness (or lack thereof) in the repeated days and repeated seasons.

This reminds me of something I published a while back (Memento Mori, 4-21-08), a passage from a different novel, this time about the dying of a monk. In those last moments, everything crystallizes into the essence of a life lived well or badly, one’s eyes are finally opened, and the value of one’s whole life is placed in a balance, as it were. We are ushered, willing or not, into the presence of the King, who will say either “Come” or “Go” (see Mt. 25:31-46). Only for that moment does the “tedium of years” exist. Nothing else matters, ultimately, in the whole of our existence, except to hear the King say “Come.” This is the law and the prophets and the Gospel and the Church.

We ought to try to remember this in the tedium of daily life, as we generally do the same things over and over—the endless daily rituals we perform between rising and retiring, at work, at home, even in church. Life isn’t a circle, it’s a line. We small shivering souls started somewhere (and somewhen) and we’re going somewhere, and we’ll end somewhere—but that end will be a new beginning of our eternal destiny. We do well to keep in mind, while we’re here, where we’re going. Enduring the tedium well, as we keep our eyes fixed on the Just One, will make it all worthwhile. We needn’t fear, only be faithful, for He looks upon us with compassionate eyes.

With the grace of God we will even be able to stand in his service at reverent and unruffled attention as the horseflies of life crawl through our visors…

The Embrace of Peter and Paul

Since the feast of the holy prime Apostles Peter and Paul falls on a Sunday this year, the befuddled preacher has four readings to deal with, which seem to point in all different directions (Rom. 15:1-7; 2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9; Mt. 9:27-35; Mt 16:13-19). We’ll see what we can do.

The feast of SS Peter and Paul can be understood in various ways, and one of them is that of Christian unity. About a week ago, it was publicized that His Beatitude, the Major Archbishop (some would say Patriarch, since that is what he’s supposed to be—but isn’t yet, canonically, anyway) of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Lubomyr Husar, has proposed to the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople that there be a kind of “dual unity” for Eastern Catholics, who would thus be in union with both Constantinople and Rome. The Patriarch seems favorable to it. It is hoped that this will advance the cause of unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Now outside of Christian theology, “dual unity” would seem a contradiction in terms. Our own founder, Abbot Boniface, actually proposed the same thing many years ago, though he called it “dual loyalty,” which perhaps makes a little more sense. Whether this is actually possible in practice remains to be seen, for there are formidable obstacles, and it is quite likely that even if this union is effected with the Church of Constantinople, other Orthodox Churches, notably the Russians, would fiercely oppose it.

But at least it is an effort to get Peter and Paul back together, as it were. Peter is often associated with the Catholic Church, since his successors are the Popes of Rome. And Paul’s main territory of evangelization was Greece and modern-day Turkey, which are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The icon of this feast depicts the Apostles Peter and Paul embracing, and this is really what Christ wills for his people and his Church. It is coincidental, yet providential perhaps, that we find in the epistle reading for this Sunday, which was not chosen with the feast of Peter and Paul in mind, the following: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6). One of the great historical failures of Christianity has been precisely that: we have not lived in harmony with one another, we have not glorified God with one voice and one heart.

Perhaps in this context we can look briefly at the Gospel for the Sunday. Two blind men approach Jesus. If we want to allegorize, we can call them the leaders of Eastern and Western Christianity. They’re blind because of the historical failures of their respective Churches, and they can’t see the way to true unity without compromising things they think ought not be compromised. But they’ve done the right thing: they’ve come—together—to Jesus, the only One who has the solution to insoluble problems, and the very One who prayed to the Father that we all might be one, even as He and the Father are one. Before He healed them, Jesus asked, appropriately: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him: “Yes, Lord.” So He replied: “According to your faith, be it done to you.” Then their eyes were opened and they could see clearly.

Perhaps in the efforts made in the cause of Christian unity, those involved in the theological dialogues have simply been trying to figure out how they could do it, how they could achieve their noble but seemingly impossible objectives. Perhaps they haven’t realized sufficiently that they in fact cannot do this. They have, like the blind men, realized that they have a serious problem that needs healing. But maybe they still have to hear that question from Jesus: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Jesus has to be the one to do it, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And they have to believe it, and then, according to their faith it will be done for them and for the whole Church.

All things can be done by the Lord, yet we humans pose a unique problem for Him. I venture to say that the main obstacle to unity, which is deeper than any theological differences, is the stubbornness of mind and heart that comes from human free will, which is something that God will not just steamroll over in order to accomplish his plan. It seems clear that at least some of the leaders of the Churches really don’t want unity—if it means budging an inch from their own positions on whatever issue. They seem to think it’s better to say “We’re the true Church and you’re not” than to make a little sacrifice of one’s prestige or preferences to see how the Lord might wish to grant a creative solution which would bring all sides to greater humility and charity. It has been said that a great council of all the churches could never be held for the simple reason that no one would be able to agree on the seating arrangements, for everyone would be maneuvering for the highest places to secure their authoritative positions and to prevent any show of weakness or of inferiority to another church.

But this is not a modern phenomenon, nor even a medieval one. Even Peter and Paul had their confrontations, and Paul and Barnabas. But in the early Church they didn’t let their disagreements turn into mutual condemnations and clear-cut separations. I think perhaps there was more openness to the grace of the Holy Spirit back then, since the first Pentecost was still within their own memories. But there’s no excuse for hatred or condemnation in any age. The very least we can do, while seeking the ever-elusive full unity, is to have respect and charity toward one another, and to give up suspicion and accusation. We’re all supposed to be serving the same Lord, living by the same Gospel.

Speaking of the Gospel, let us turn to the Gospel of the feast. Here we see that, in the quest for Christian unity, the issue of the primacy of Peter and his successors cannot be ignored. This seems to be a major stumbling block in ecumenical dialogues, but we cannot dismiss the words of Christ for the sake of unity, for then it will not be a true unity at all, but only a superficial compromise. When Peter made his profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus could have limited his response to his blessing of Peter and his acknowledgement that what Peter professed was revealed to him by the heavenly Father. That in itself is the highest praise. But Jesus went still further: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you [singular] the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven…” The one Church of Jesus Christ must be built on the rock (Gk. petra) that is Peter (Gk. Petros). Why? Because that’s what Jesus said! One can like it or not, but our Lord Jesus Christ said he would build his Church on Peter, the head of the Apostles. There can be many churches or organizations that claim to follow Jesus, but Jesus Himself said that his Church would be the one built on Peter the Rock. It is evidently God’s will, then, that this Petrine ministry of leadership in his Church would continue, and the gates of Hell would not prevail.

It may be questioned whether or not the way the papacy has historically developed has been exactly what the Lord intended (but it can’t be too far off the mark, because then Hell would have prevailed), and here is the point from which dialogue toward Christian unity can proceed. But the Church of Christ is not a Church without a visible center of unity, without a shepherd whom Jesus commands to feed his sheep, as He did to Peter alone. Somehow, the successors of Peter must have an indispensable role to play in the unity of all Christians who wish to be faithful to the Gospel.

I haven’t said much about St Paul yet, or the epistle reading which recounts his sufferings and revelations. If Peter represents the foundational unity of the Church, and hence its hierarchical and sacramental order, then Paul represents the no less indispensable ascetical and mystical dimensions. No one Apostle can fully represent the whole mystery of the Church, but Peter and Paul together represent a fair summary of it.

We have much more information about St Paul’s life than we do about St Peter’s, simply because St Paul wrote about his experiences, and St Luke wrote about them, too, in the Acts of the Apostles (and also a bit about Peter), since he actually traveled with Paul for a while. We hear in the epistle today how much St Paul suffered for Christ, how his faith sustained him through all that, and how, because he was specially favored by the Lord, he was given more sufferings still, so he wouldn’t become proud!

If we look to Peter to learn something about the ecclesiology of the Church of Christ, we must look to Paul to learn about the life of daily faithfulness to Christ, how to live and die for Him, how to endure sufferings joyfully and how to grow in grace so that we finally reach that much-desired state in which we can say at last: I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.

As we continue to celebrate this feast, let us pray not only for the unity of the Churches but for our own deeper union with Christ through prayer and the sacraments, through charity and mercy and taking up our crosses without complaint. Thus we will ultimately find ourselves in that eternally blissful state in which we are one in Christ, and in which He and the Father and the Spirit are one, in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Child, Arise!

Last week saw the first anniversary of the death of my dear friend Laura, whom some of you knew or at least knew about. I wrote a little reflection for the occasion over at Prepare for the Kingdom, if you’re interested. I mentioned there a little sign I received, supporting my faith that she is in Heaven with the Lord and his saints.

On the day of the anniversary (June 21) my daily Scripture reading had brought me to the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St Luke. In it I discovered some texts that had helped me prepare for Laura’s death last year, only then I was reading the parallels in the Gospel of St Mark. Texts like: “Let us go across to the other side,” and “Do not fear, only believe,” and finally, “Child, arise.” The Lord wasn’t calling Laura to rise from her deathbed to return to mortal life, only to die again later. He was calling her to rise to endless life with Him in Heaven. He came to answer for her St Paul’s anguished question: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). The answer is, of course: “Jesus Christ our Lord!”

I have often wondered what it must have been like. Laura had been in and out of consciousness for weeks, while her body was wasting away from cancer. She had given her life to the Lord and had done her best to “prepare for the Kingdom,” yet she still had to share in his Passion, so she was not spared moments of “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But if you read the account on her blog I referred to above, you’ll see that a priest came to her, just hours before she would die, to anoint her and give her the last absolution of her life. Then she could say (if she had been able to speak), along with her Lord: “It is finished.” After the priest left, she drifted back into unconsciousness and her soul quietly left her body a few hours later.

I wonder if she then heard that loving and divine voice: “Child, arise!” We’re all children in the eyes of God, even if we live to a ripe old age. Did she think at that moment that she was waking from sleep, or did she realize that it was in fact death (which Christ referred to as sleep when He raised Jairus’ daughter) from which she was being called to rise? I think not only of her joy at that moment—becoming aware that she was passing from this vale of tears into the bliss of Paradise—but of the Lord’s joy as well. He suffers and weeps with us as we endure the pain and sorrow of this life. He was with her during her “passion” of pain and darkness and the utter immobility of one who arrives at the threshold of death after a wasting sickness. She hadn’t strength even to speak. The Lord was perhaps waiting for that priest to arrive to bestow upon her the closing graces of a life returned to Him, and finally, when He would watch her suffer not a moment more, He called her. His voice reached her, across the galaxies, across the ages, a divine arc flashing from Heart to heart: “Child, arise!” He stretched out his pierced hand, wounded for love of her, and bade her come. Then she at last beheld the Bridegroom, and “the life that is true life” began.

After having read the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter early in the morning of the anniversary, I went down to church, and at the Divine Liturgy, unbeknown to me, the prescribed Gospel reading was—you guessed it!—the raising of that same child, only St Matthew’s version of it. It was like a double confirmation that she is not dead but risen (her soul, anyway, which still awaits the resurrection of the body).

Death: that which man has feared and fled and sought desperately to forestall ever since he was banished from Eden, the Lord has overcome. The Son of God vanquishes all the mystery, the power, and the terror of death with two small words: “Child, arise!” It is not merely the words, however, but the One who speaks them. His word accomplishes that for which He sends it. And if He sends it even to the depths of the grave, the dead shall arise and praise Him.

I came across a letter sent me a few months ago by an acquaintance of Laura’s, and I’d like to share a bit of it here. It’s one example of how Laura had been preparing for the Kingdom by living a life of faith in God. It’s rare that one would die in grace if one has not lived in grace. (Deathbed conversions do happen, but it is the most reckless of risks to think that we can wait till then to get right with God.) I am privileged to have observed the gradual but unmistakable transformation worked by divine grace in her life, once she decided, a few years before her death (and just months before she received the diagnosis of cancer—the Lord’s timing is perfect!), that she would return to the Church and the sacraments, and to a life lived for Him who created and redeemed her. Her friend wrote me the following:

“I was blessed to have met Laura at coffee after morning Mass one day in the fall of 2006. We talked as though we were making up for lost time… There was something mystical about her (as you know) and I felt graced by her presence… She with her own struggles was absolutely selfless in her prayers for others… She told me about her new vocation to write icons. The woman who gave her painting supplies was someone I had gone to Catholic grade school with in the sixties! Imagine that…

“We [i.e., she and her husband] returned home [from a long trip back east] on Holy Thursday last year. The next week I heard the news that Laura was terminal and on hospice care. While I had been away, Laura was experiencing her own passion… I took my mom and we made arrangements to visit Laura… Laura, who was quite ill and in bed at that time, showed no self-pity whatsoever! I was the one with tears nearly ready to burst forth!… I asked if there was anything I could do for her… She asked only if the Eucharist could be brought in to her every day. I told her I would see to it. Ultimately, Our Lord saw to it! [I heard later that ordinarily the parish provides Holy Communion to the sick only once a week, but they made an exception for Laura.] Laura gave me one of her icons (she is giving me a gift, and the irony of that act was not lost on me), and I left.

“I was very privileged to have been able to attend her funeral liturgy. Laura must have been very pleased with all the beautiful prayer and grace that came forth from that Divine Liturgy! It really was ‘all about God’ for Laura… I am purchasing two copies of Laura’s book and one is for one of her hospice nurses. She is not Catholic but has told me she will never forget Laura! Now [reading the book] maybe she’ll understand why she can’t forget her… I simply wanted to tell you one more ‘Laura story’…”

We all have our own stories, and hopefully they are stories of the way God has worked in our lives to bring us to the light of his truth and love. We don’t know how long we will live, what will be our joys and sorrows, or what will be the circumstances of our death. We may not have much (or any) time for immediate preparation when that moment comes, so we must be prepared even now. That was the message of Laura’s book (click here and then scroll down if you wish to purchase a copy) and of the last few years of her life. As our eyes eventually close in death, we ought to desire above all else that they re-open to the sound of that powerful yet tender voice: “Child, arise!”

His Name is John

Today we celebrate the nativity of St John the Forerunner, the only saint on our liturgical calendar besides the Mother of God (and, of course, the Lord Jesus) whose nativity is specially celebrated. Most saints are celebrated on the day of their death, which is, as it were, the day of their “birth” into the new and everlasting life of the Kingdom of Heaven. But St John is one of the few whose earthly life was so important in the mystery of our salvation that his birth as well as his death is celebrated.

It is fitting on this day of his nativity to recall these words of Jesus: “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11). One can hardly imagine higher praise. Yet Jesus immediately adds: “yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” What does that mean? It almost sounds as if Jesus is putting him down immediately after He raised him up. But Jesus is doing a thing here similar to that which He did concerning his own mother. When someone blessed her for giving birth to Jesus and nursing Him, Jesus responded that the higher blessing is in hearing the word of God and keeping it. He wasn’t putting Mary down, because she in fact heard the word of God and kept it better than anyone else on earth. So she was doubly blessed for being both the mother and the most faithful disciple of the Lord.

It is similar with St John. Being the greatest of men on a merely human level cannot compare with the greatness and the glory that belong to even the most lowly member of the Kingdom of Heaven. But John was not only the greatest of men; he would also be great in the Kingdom of Heaven, honored as one of the Church’s greatest saints. So as long as John would remain only humanly great, he (like any one of us) would remain less than the least in Heaven. But since his whole life was dedicated to God and to the coming of the Messiah, he was great both on Earth and eventually in Heaven.

Let us now take a look at this great man of Earth and saint of Heaven. His greatness was intimated even before his conception. This event was announced by the Archangel Gabriel, who appeared to the priest Zachariah, and something of John’s mission was described to him. He would be an ascetic, that is, he would live a rough and demanding life, without even the comfort of a little wine, which was not a luxury but a staple in that time and culture. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, and this would enable him not only to live a holy life but also to fulfill his mission as a prophet, that is, as one who speaks for God. John was to “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God… and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” This describes well his mission, and this is why, in the Eastern tradition, St John isn’t usually called the “Baptist” but rather the “Forerunner.” He is to go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. He is to announce the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire. It is true that much of John’s claim to fame comes from being the one who baptized Christ in the Jordan, which event occasioned the first public manifestation of the All-holy Trinity. But that is a specific element of his larger mission of preparing the way of the Lord as his Forerunner. His preaching was also an important element of his mission, and that is something that is emphasized in Zachariah’s inspired canticle, which was a prophecy about the Forerunner’s mission as they were celebrating his birth.

This newborn child was named “John” over the objections of his relatives, because it was the name that the angel told Zachariah to give him. Zachariah had learned the hard way the consequences of doubting the angel’s words, so he wasn’t going to disobey a second time! He insisted that the boy’s name was to be John. The name “John” means “the Lord is gracious,” and this can be taken to mean that the advent of the Forerunner is also the prelude to the time of grace which Christ would soon inaugurate.

Zachariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to his newborn son, granted him by the graciousness of God: “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Again we have here a concise summary of the mission of the Forerunner, as prophet and as, well, forerunner! But what will he say when he speaks for the Lord and what will he do to prepare the way of the Lord as his forerunner? Zachariah continues: he will “give knowledge of salvation to his people through forgiveness of their sins.”

We ought to dwell on this a bit, for we come here to the heart of John’s prophetic ministry. The two main elements in this part of the prophecy are “knowledge of salvation” and “forgiveness of sins.” He would give knowledge of salvation to the people by pointing to the Savior. When John first appeared at the Jordan, many thought that he himself was the Messiah, but if he had accepted their accolades he would not be giving them knowledge of salvation. He had to decrease while Jesus, the true Messiah, had to increase. But “knowledge of salvation” doesn’t consist merely in knowing who the Savior is. Zachariah’s canticle says that knowledge of salvation comes through forgiveness of sins. This means salvation isn’t a knowledge of facts, something that you can learn in a book, even in the Book of the Scriptures. It is knowledge in the Hebrew sense of the term that implies a personal and even intimate relationship. Sin touches the deepest part of our soul, the secret place where our guilt and shame dwell. To know salvation is to receive forgiveness of sin, and the only way to receive forgiveness of sin is to know in a personal way our Lord Jesus Christ, who, as we just heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, has authority to forgive sin.

This knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of sin is so important that all of John’s preaching can be summed up in a single word: repent! And he preached in the most direct and unambiguous way. He never said: “Hey, don’t worry, relax, everything’s going to be OK. God is a tolerant fellow, so he’ll let you off the hook. Enjoy yourself, just be kind to animals and save the trees and try not to hurt anyone while you’re having your fun.” No, instead he said, or rather thundered, this: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! You brood of vipers, bear fruit that befits repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!”

St Paul confirms this in the epistle chosen for this feast: “It is full time now for you to wake from sleep… the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:11-14).

The Church needs to hear the preaching of the Forerunner today, the preaching of him whom Christ called the greatest man on Earth, and who is now among the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Church needs more forerunners to prepare the way of the Lord; she needs more prophets, who are not afraid to call sinners to repentance, to give them knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. The Church needs more men and women who will turn people’s hearts back to the Lord their God, and who will turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.

We know there is much evil in the world today, and to our shame we must admit that there is also much evil in the Church, as the revelation of various scandals testifies (not only pedophilia, but homosexual activity, embezzlement, and a widespread disregard for the tradition and teaching of the Magisterium among bishops, priests, and laity as well.) Too often and for too long the leaders of the Church have turned a blind eye to, or even covered up or lied about all these evils, but the searching Light of God is finally exposing them, for only wounds that are exposed to the Physician can be healed. The Lord wants to save his people and to make all things new.

The Forerunner is proclaiming once again that the axe is laid to the root of the tree, and fruitless trees will be cut down and burned. He is telling the Church to recover her knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of her sins. The Church will always and essentially be the pure Bride of Christ, but her sinful members have done much to soil her wedding dress, and have given such scandal and bad example to the world that some people decide to leave her, and others refuse to join her. All this will have to be accounted for on Judgment Day.

So let us heed the Apostle who calls us to wake up and put on the armor of Light. And let us heed the Forerunner who calls us to repent. His name is John, “the Lord is gracious.” May the Lord be gracious to us and forgive us our sins, that having gained the knowledge of salvation we may, like St Zachariah, be filled with the Holy Spirit and intone joyful canticles unto the Lord.

Authority to Forgive

Every time we announce the reading of the Gospel, and again after the Gospel is read, we all say: “Glory be to You, O Lord, glory be to You!” Why is that? Is it just because we are in a habit of saying that in many places in our worship, so why not here as well? No, I think it has a more specific reason.

We say it just before the Gospel is read because we are acknowledging the privilege God has given us of hearing his word. At Matins, we actually pray beforehand to be worthy to hear the Holy Gospel. It is not a small thing that God has spoken to us through his Son in the Gospels. The fact that his word comes to us at all is reason for us to glorify Him. But then we sing “Glory be to You, O Lord” again after the Gospel. This is because we are thanking and praising Him for what we have just heard: his teaching on a particular point, or the account of a wonderful miracle He has just worked. We ought to sing this response to the Gospel wholeheartedly and with conscious attention. For these are the words and the acts of God, when He walked the earth in the flesh, in the person of the only-begotten Son.

That is also why the Gospels always (or should always) begin with the introduction, “At that time.” This is not merely a sort of redundant introduction. Of course those events happened at the time that they happened. But at just what time do we mean? 30 AD? 10 o’clock in the morning? No, all that is irrelevant. The expression “at that time” is a way, known to religious anthropology (as you can read in the works of Mircea Eliade), of speaking of a unique and sacred time, the time that gives meaning to all subsequent times. We must make constant reference to “that time” as our source of truth, for what happened “at that time” defines who we are, our origin and destiny. We might say that “at that time” refers to the kairos and not the chronos, the meaningful moment, the transcendent time of divine intervention into the affairs of men. So, at that time, at that unique and unrepeatable time when God dwelled bodily with men, these things happened which are solemnly narrated in the Holy Gospels, and which we announce with faith, reverence, and joy. So it is truly fitting and right that we exclaim, both before and after: “Glory be to You, O Lord, glory be to You!”

We see this in the Gospel text itself today. After Jesus worked the miracle of healing the paralytic (Mt. 9:1-8), St Matthew says that the crowds “glorified God” for what he had done through Jesus. They glorified God for the manifest miracle of physical healing, but the most marvelous thing was invisible, the forgiveness of the sins of the paralytic. God can see what no man can see. We address Him, in our daily prayer after Psalm 50(51) as the One “who knows the hidden and secret things of the heart of man, and who alone has power to forgive sins.” Everyone could see that the paralytic was in need of physical healing, but only Jesus could see that he was in need of spiritual healing as well.

The paralysis of sin was the first thing Jesus had to deal with, for it was the most important one. He had said earlier that it would be better to be saved even if you lost an eye or a hand or a foot in this life, than to be thrown perfectly healthy into Hell because of your sins. Likewise, it would be better if the paralytic would remain physically infirm—if only his sins could be forgiven—than that he be physically healed but lose his soul for not receiving forgiveness of sin. So the paralysis of the soul is a far greater one. We pray in one of our Vespers services: “…deliver me from burning anguish, from all that could paralyze, weaken or poison me; from all that could hinder or undo me in my misery…” So we know that sin can have this paralyzing effect upon the soul.

Therefore, addressing the most important issue first, Jesus said to the paralytic: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” We don’t know what the paralytic may have been thinking at that moment. We can probably assume that he was brought to Jesus not for absolution but for physical healing, for word had gotten around that Jesus could cure the sick. Besides, at this early point in Jesus’ ministry, no one knew quite what to make of Him, and even his closest disciples had not yet attributed to Him the divine power of forgiving sins. So the poor paralytic might have been doubly disappointed. He may have even thought that Jesus was a charlatan, for not only did He not immediately heal him, but He told him his sins were forgiven, and everybody knows that no man has such authority on earth. (Significantly, we read at the end of this account that the reason the crowds gave glory to God was precisely that God “had given such authority to men.”)

The Pharisees echoed the thoughts I’m here attributing to the paralytic, but they, in their bitter and suspicious attitude, were more mean-spirited about it: “The man is blaspheming,” they muttered. They give us a good example of how not to be. People often tend to judge or jump to conclusions without having all the facts. They see or hear one thing, or one side of a story, and immediately come to a conclusion unfavorable to the one whom they hastily judge. So-and-so said such a thing, so now I know how he thinks; I saw so-and-so do this, so now I know what kind of person he is, etc. But so much spiritual damage is done by those who judge without knowing all the facts, and without knowing the inner disposition or intention of the other—yet the greater damage is self-inflicted by the one who judges, for that is where the evil lies. We simply have not been given the authority to judge.

The Pharisees saw one thing—Jesus telling a man his sins were forgiven—and so jumped to the conclusion that He was blaspheming, for they could not see into Jesus’ heart and know who He really was and why He was in fact able to do precisely what He said. But Jesus could see into their hearts and immediately confronted them with their groundless accusation: “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” But He wasn’t too severe with them. What He did next was, in a sense, a way of saying to them: “You are judging about something you can’t see. I will now give you something you can see so as to confirm that I was telling the truth about the things you can’t see. ‘No man can forgive sins,’ you say. Fair enough. Would you also say that no man can make this crippled man walk? I’m telling you that I can forgive sins, and with the same divine power I will make this paralytic walk.”

He then emphasizes the issue of authority. The miracle He is going to show them would be done “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” By this time the paralytic would have shed his previous disappointment as he began to realize that Jesus was going to use him for a kind of “show and tell” concerning his divine powers. A great hush must have fallen over the crowd at that moment. Everyone would know whether the Nazarene was a charlatan or not. He said in advance what He would do to prove his words were true. This moment would make or break Him in the eyes of the people.

Jesus then gave the word of command, with all his divine authority: “Rise, take up your bed and go home!” The people held their breath. The man rose and walked! The crowds were filled with fearful wonder and gave glory to God. I’m reminded of the Prophet Elijah’s stunning miracle as he, with utter confidence in God, taunted the pagan crowds and their false gods by drenching a sacrifice and inviting the true God to consume it with fire from Heaven. When God did just that, the crowd fell down with fear, crying out: “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!” In effect, this is what the people did when Jesus raised the paralytic. They didn’t have their Trinitarian theology down yet, but if so they would have exclaimed: “You are the Son of God! You are the Son of God!” Yet if any of these people had been present at the River Jordan when Jesus was baptized, and had heard that mysterious Voice from Heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son,” the pieces of the puzzle would henceforth be starting to fit.

As for us, we may know our Trinitarian theology, but we may still be suffering from the paralysis of sin. Merely knowing theology, however, will not raise us up. Better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without theological training, than to be cast into Hell holding your doctorate in theology! It is indeed important to learn as much about God as possible, for He is the center of our whole existence—our Origin and our Destiny—and it should be our joy to study his wisdom and his wonders. But it is still more important to know the Lord personally, through faith and love, for that is how we are saved. To know about Christ is to say: “He has authority to forgive sins.” To know Christ is to say: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Finally, let us not, by the way we live or think, take on the role of the Pharisees: making accusations without evidence, judging things that only God can judge, getting in the way of what God is trying to do in others. For then we will hear only the reproach of the Lord. Let us rather take our proper place: lying on the paralytic’s mat, imploring God for healing and forgiveness! Then shall we hear his words of comfort and mercy, and we shall rise, renewed by his grace and able henceforth to serve Him with a pure heart. Then, as we do at every Gospel reading about what Jesus did “at that time”—for He is still at work in the world at this time—we will exclaim: “Glory be to You, O Lord, glory be to You!”

The Voice of the Virgin

As I continue reading the Gospel of St Luke (still in the first chapter), I find something that intrigues me. It is the voice of the Virgin Mary. Now I’ve never audibly heard this voice, so I can only reflect upon the experience of those who have. St Elizabeth is the one in question here. Something quite marvelous happened to her when she heard the “voice of [Mary’s] greeting,” something more marvelous than the unborn Baptizer leaping in her womb. When she heard Mary’s voice, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:41-42).

We know that when Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to his apostles. He spoke, or rather simply breathed upon them and they received the Holy Spirit. He could give the Spirit because He was God. The case is different for Mary, of course. She could not give the Holy Spirit of her own accord, but evidently the Spirit accompanied her and filled Elizabeth when Mary greeted her. Because of the intimate relationship Mary entered into with the Holy Spirit to conceive the Son of God (“the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”), the Spirit never left her but worked with and through her all during her life. All believers are expected to have a similarly profound relationship to the Holy Spirit, though it cannot be quite the same as Mary’s, since hers was obviously unique: there is only one, unrepeatable incarnation of the Son of God.

The point I want to make, though, is that something happens when the Mother of God speaks. What happened to Elizabeth was that the baby leapt in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. What did the Spirit say to Mary through Elizabeth at that moment, having just filled her? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” This is an echo of what the Angel had said to her just a short time previously, and hence a confirmation. The word of God came to her first through an Angel and then through Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” And Mary’s voice was heard again as she responded with her inspired and memorable Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” But aside from this prayer, which echoes daily through every house of consecrated souls in the world, Mary is not known primarily for her words but for her faith and her contemplation. Elizabeth concluded her blessing of Mary by saying: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary had first to hear and believe the word of the Lord before her own voice could carry the grace of the Holy Spirit to others.

The visitation to Elizabeth is one moment (among many) recounted in the Scriptures at which I would like to have been present. Mary was just a teenage girl, and most likely the “voice of her greeting” was nothing particularly profound, perhaps only: “Shalom, Elisheva, your handmaiden Miryam is here!” It wasn’t what she said that was so important, but the fact that the Holy Spirit accompanied her greeting.

All the same, I would love to have heard the sound of her voice. In my late friend Laura’s book, Prepare for the Kingdom, she recounts a moment of prayer and grief as she sat at the outdoor shrine of Our Lady at our monastery. She was dying of cancer and felt that she hadn’t done anything worthwhile with her life, and now it was almost over. Suddenly she heard the voice of Mary, and I think that at the “voice of her greeting” Laura was filled with the Holy Spirit, who came to console her and reassure her that she stood in grace before God. Of Mary she simply said: “She has the most beautiful voice!” Thinking back, I don’t know why I never pressed her for details about that experience, for now I would like to. Perhaps I was just grateful that her prayer was heard.

As I’ve written in the past, there have been a few moments when I have felt that Our Lady has “spoken” to me interiorly, for my own spiritual growth, and in those cases it has always borne good fruit. But what I receive in such rare moments is the content of the word, not the sound of her voice. I have never heard a heavenly voice, and those who have are not much help, because they all say it is indescribably beautiful but are at a loss for words after that! One child mystic who had heard angels singing during a vision of Heaven said that after that experience even the most beautiful music in this world hurt her ears because it sounded so coarse in comparison.

Well, I don’t know what lessons I can offer here. I’m just fascinated by the mystery of the voice of the Virgin that carries with it the presence of the Holy Spirit. I’m also fascinated by all that has to do with Heaven and the life of God and all the saints and angels who live in his glory. Perhaps I ought to note, though, that even though I’m writing here about Our Lady’s voice, we have precious few of her words recorded in Scripture. If we are to imitate her, and enter into the life of prayer and self-surrender to the divine will in the Holy Spirit that was her whole life, we ought to do what she did: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19, 51). The only heart that will hear a voice that speaks from Heaven—and will, at the sound of such a voice, be filled with the Holy Spirit—will be a heart that knows how to listen.

Just Say Yes

I’m beginning the Gospel of Luke once again in my own continuous reading of the Scriptures, and so I’m faced immediately with the mystery of the Incarnation and the annunciation thereof to Mary. I preach on it every year on the feast day, yet somehow I think I’m supposed to say more about it today, though I’m not quite sure what or why. But let’s see what happens.

From the perspective of Our Lady, her great task was simply to say “yes” to the word of the Angel, who had brought incredible tidings upon which hung the destiny of the entire human race. Six months previously, Zachariah had his chance to say “yes” to the plan of God, but he bollixed it up (though subsequently he recovered admirably). One shouldn’t be too hard on the old man, however. He was just acting in accord with much of Old Testament tradition by asking for a sign. His question to the Angel (same one who was sent to Mary) after hearing his message was, literally, “By what shall I know this?” So he wasn’t merely asking for better understanding of the Angel’s word; he wanted a sign, some sort of proof that what seemed impossible would in fact happen. The Angel’s rather indignant response made it clear that Zachariah had already been given all he needed: the very word of the Angel, which, considering the Source, was unquestionably true. So he had to do his penance for lack of trust. I can’t say for sure what I would have said in Zachariah’s place, but I think that if an Angel ever appeared and spoke to me, I’d believe every word as the very word of God!

Now Mary’s response, though superficially similar, was essentially different. She wasn’t asking for a sign—as if she needed some external confirmation before she would believe—only a further elucidation of the Angel’s incomprehensible word. She already believed; that’s why she asked, “How shall this be…?” (The translations that read “How can this be…?” are mistranslations of the Greek.) She simply needed a bit of guidance in the unfamiliar art of conceiving a child without a man’s contribution.

This need for a bit of explanation, however, in no way affected the quality of her assent to the word and will of God. Her “yes” was unconditional. She didn’t say, “Let it be unto me—as soon as I grasp the mystery,” or “—as soon as I get Joseph’s opinion about this,” or “—as soon as I have some time to consider the consequences.” No, it was simply, “Let it be unto me.” Why? Because: “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” End of deliberation. If that’s what the Lord wants, that’s what she’ll do, because she is totally his.

Fr Thomas Philippe, in his book The Contemplative Life, says that Our Lady began her spiritual life in the unitive stage. (I can readily agree that she didn’t need the purgative stage, but I would have guessed she might still have passed through the illuminative before the unitive.) Be that as it may, he still asserted that just because she was more intimately united to God than any other human person, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have to live by faith. The depth of her love and hence her suffering didn’t not dispel the “darkness” of living by faith. In fact, her “darkness” was second only to that of the One who said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But neither Christ in his agony nor Mary in her life of faith ever retracted their “yes” to the Father’s will, no matter how obscure the darkness, how profound the pain. The Father knew whom He had chosen when He asked Mary to be the “God-bearer,” the one who would give birth to his divine and eternal Son in the flesh. He knew that her “yes” would withstand even the soul-piercing sword (see Lk. 2:35).

In the thought-provoking novel Lying Awake, by Mark Salzman (with which I’m not entirely satisfied—it seems to uphold the Mystery yet downplay the mystical; perhaps it’s the author’s Buddhist sympathies), Sister John says within herself: “‘Yes!’ The only word I will ever need again. Every breath a Yes, every thought a Yes… My trust in God alone.” Perhaps Our Lady could have said those words. They express a point of surrender at which all human considerations or reservations disappear. All that is left is the naked soul and God.

We purgative-way plodders may never reach the sublime heights of mystical union in this life, but we can—and must—still get as much practice as possible saying “yes” to God, with the grace He grants to us. Everything that is still “no” in us must be burned up by the inescapable gaze of the Searcher of Hearts, whose “eyes are like a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14). But this fire is the fire of everlasting love, and when we have finally become all “yes,” it will be as soothing and refreshing as the dew of Paradise.

So just say yes. Just let go of the idols, the trinkets, and the stubborn selfishness that all too often characterize life in this fallen world. Nothing in this world is worth trading for the eternal union with God that hinges upon a single word. If an Angel were standing before you with such a message, what would you say?

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