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

Archive for August, 2008

Slackers go to Hell

A priest I once knew, who liked to receive the co-operation of his parishioners, used to have a bumper sticker on his car that read, “Volunteers go to Heaven.” On the flip side, we might entitle today’s Gospel, “Slackers go to Hell” (Mt. 25:14-30). This particular Gospel appearing on the Sunday liturgical calendar is quite rare. It happened this year only because Easter was so terribly early, and it slipped in just before the Sundays of the Cross and the changing over to the cycle of Luke. This probably won’t happen again for another 150 years or so; therefore we really must pay attention to the message of this Gospel today!

In the epistle for today (2Cor. 6:1-10), St Paul urges us “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Now how in the world could we accept God’s grace in vain? Well, the Gospel tells us, for one of the three who received God’s grace ended up being thrown forever into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. We need therefore to learn what to do and what not to do with the grace of God.

This Gospel is another parable of the Kingdom and, as I said two weeks ago, these parables often have to do with the final reckoning and our eternal destiny. It begins with a certain master going on a journey and entrusting his wealth to his servants, to trade with until he returns. Now obviously the Master is Christ, whose journey was his ascent to Heaven after his resurrection, and whose return to settle accounts is his Second Coming. Let’s see what He says He’s going to do.

There are three representative servants. To one the Master gave five talents, to the second He gave two, and to the third He gave one. The “talent” here, at least for English speakers, has a double meaning. Originally the talent was simply a unit of currency weighing a certain amount. But in English the word “talent” also means an ability or endowment by which someone is able to accomplish some task or produce some creative work. It is the latter meaning we ought to employ here, for it isn’t usually money that God gives us to work with, but rather spiritual gifts He expects us to use for his glory and to accomplish his will.

Let us notice that God does not distribute his gifts equally. Five, two, and one were given. Recall the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who received equal pay for unequal times of work. The Master insists that He is free to do with his money what He pleases, and if He wants to be more generous to some than to others, that’s just what He’ll do! So we learn here that the Lord is sovereign and free, that He is not bound by our standards or sensibilities when He carries out his will on the earth. He has said his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his word is true!

But God is not unjust by giving unequal graces to his servants. For as we see in the parable, He did not require the same from each of them. As Jesus said elsewhere, more is required of those to whom more is given. When the second servant brought forth two talents, the Master did not say, “Hey, the other guy brought five; what’s wrong with you?” The Master was satisfied with a smaller return because He had made a smaller investment. So the one who received five and returned an extra five, and the one who received two and returned an extra two, were both warmly welcomed into the joy of their Lord.

The point is first that God has given all of his servants spiritual gifts, in the measure that He alone has chosen. The point is also that God requires all of his servants to exercise these gifts, to bear fruit, and to bring the fruit of their labors to God on the day He comes to settle accounts. It is not enough to return to God what is his, as the lazy and wicked servant did. He received a gift from his Master but hid it in the ground because he somehow resented the fact that his Master profited from his servants’ labor. But the Master shows that He would have been satisfied even with a small return, commensurate to the small gift, but also that He was not satisfied with no return at all. He therefore called his servant “wicked and slothful.”

We see here that laziness is very displeasing to the Lord. In fact, the lazy man was condemned to the “outer darkness,” which is another name for Hell. I never cease to be amazed that there are still people, even Christian people, who somehow think that they will not be held accountable for their deeds, or lack of deeds, when they come before the judgment seat of God. They seem to value their own opinions on the matter more highly than they value the word of God. They content themselves with the fact that God is merciful, yet the distorted way they understand mercy ends up actually rejecting large portions of God’s own revelation. Whenever we hear Jesus speak in the Gospels, we darn well better believe that his word is the truth—and if He says that faithful and industrious servants go to Heaven and that lazy and slothful servants go to Hell, that is exactly what is going to happen! If we don’t believe his words, we have no business calling ourselves Christians. Jesus clearly says in the Gospel of John that the one who loves Him is the one who keeps his commandments. We may think we love Him, and we may say we love Him, but if we don’t actually keep his commandments, it will be proven on judgment day that we were deluding ourselves unto our own ruin.

Let us look again at the wicked servant. He was not actually condemned for positively doing evil deeds. He was condemned simply for not doing good deeds! There’s no evidence that he was a murderer or an adulterer, or some other sort of manifest evildoer. He simply didn’t do what the Master asked him to do. He didn’t use the gift for the honor and good pleasure of his Lord.

Now let’s look at the faithful servants and try to put ourselves in their position, and in their relationship with the Master. The Master gave them talents and a command to work with them until he returned (this command is explicit in the parallel in Luke, but implicit here in Matthew). So far so good. The Master doesn’t start out with threats, because He trusts his servants. He doesn’t say, “work with these talents I’ve given you, or else I’ll tear you to pieces when I return.” What He wants them to do is to multiply their good works simply out of love for Him and the desire to please Him. And He blesses them abundantly for doing just that.

It is only when a servant is found to be habitually lazy and self-centered that he is dealt with sternly. We might imagine that if these were servants of the same master, they knew each other and therefore had some communication with each other. I can imagine the two faithful servants urging the lazy one to do some productive work before the Master’s return. If he really was as wicked and lazy as the Gospel says, I can imagine him responding with irritation and scorn: “Well, you two sycophantic do-gooders can increase the profits of that man who reaps where he doesn’t sow, but I’ve got better things to do!” “OK,” they reply, “but don’t forget that our master is coming back, and he will expect some return on his investment.”

The heedless servant eventually saw the stern side of the master when it was time to settle accounts. He thought he could get away with giving the master his talent back, but the master would have none of it and punished him severely. In St Paul’s words, he had received the grace of his Lord in vain.

It should be with us as with the faithful servants: our first approach to the Lord should be the grateful reception of his gifts, and then our diligent labors to bear fruit, simply because we love the Lord and wish to please Him. We know He’s coming back and we know we are going to be accountable for what He has given us. So we unselfishly work and even sacrifice for Him, so that He will be pleased and will welcome us into his eternal joy. That is, in fact, why we are here in the first place, to serve the Lord faithfully on Earth so as to be welcomed gloriously into Heaven forever. It is only when we are habitually lazy, selfish, or presumptuous, that we have good reason to fear the Master’s wrath. And not taking seriously the word of the Lord puts us squarely in the camp of the wicked and slothful servants.

St Paul gives us a brief description of the ways he multiplied the talents given him; clearly he did not receive the grace of God in vain. It’s interesting that the full verse reads: “Working together with Him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.” This “working together” with the Lord is the way that grace bears fruit in us, the way that our talents increase unto the glory of God. The Apostle multiplied his talents through “great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, vigils, hunger”—and, more positively, he goes on: “by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” We can imagine how warmly this faithful servant was welcomed into his Master’s joy, after a life of such dedicated and selfless labors in the service of Christ.

So let us first realize that God has blessed us abundantly with the “talents” of grace, some more, some less. But regardless of the original gift, we are required to work hard to bear fruit for the Lord, to have something to show when He returns to settle accounts. Hell is for slackers, but Heaven is for the good and faithful servants who love the Lord and serve Him with all their hearts, with all their strength. May we thus enter the eternal joy of our Lord!

Jesus Wept

One of the most powerful verses in the Bible happens to be the shortest: “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). Some of our liturgical texts and writings of the fathers endeavor to assert the full humanity of Jesus by indicating that He ate and drank, experienced physical fatigue and pain, and even died in the flesh. Yet all these things are not exclusively human activities; animals do them all. I think that the most powerful witness to Jesus’ humanity is his weeping, which only humans can do. It is an expression of love that goes beyond the practical actions which must also characterize love: the service, the sacrifice. Weeping doesn’t “accomplish” anything but is rather a pure outpouring of the heart, a “useless” activity (like Mary’s pouring expensive oil over his head), yet one that speaks volumes about the depth of Jesus’ humanity, the depth of his love.

Still, people often ask: why did Jesus weep when He knew full well that He had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, and that He was about to do precisely that? Jesus’ grief was not primarily over the death of Lazarus. Scripture says that Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister Mary weeping, as well as the Jews who came with her. Jesus was grieved to witness the power of pain and death which was holding his people in bondage. Death was Adam’s punishment for sin, and as his descendants all human beings must also endure death and suffer the pain of separation caused by the death of loved ones.

Jesus was not only grieved over the suffering of his friends, but also over the stubborn unbelief of some of the people there. Their reaction to Jesus’ weeping is not unlike the reaction of the wicked thief who was crucified on Jesus’ left. The people said: “He opened the eyes of the blind. Why then couldn’t he keep Lazarus from dying?” The thief said: “You’re the Messiah, aren’t you? Why then don’t you save yourself and us?”

Our Lord Jesus has the power to deliver us from all evil and ultimately from the grip of death. But Jesus is not a detached deliverer. It is not enough for Him to will from afar our healing or consolation. His everlasting compassion is such that He must first share our suffering with us before rescuing us from it. The love of Jesus is so deep and intimate that He wills to unite with us in our poverty and pain as part of his work of restoration and salvation. On the other hand, when Jesus wants to receive our love and our desire to unite intimately with Him, He will call us to share his suffering, because his Cross is so close to his heart. It is the ultimate manifestation of his sacrificial love for us. So Jesus had to share the grief of Mary and Martha and their friends. His grief was deeper still because He knew the hearts of those who doubted and criticized Him. And He was about to enter into our suffering, our sorrow, and to endure the vicious fury of the accumulated wickedness of all mankind.

Let us return to the reactions of the people to Jesus’ weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. There were two different ones: “See how he loved him!” and “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” I’d like to look at these in the context of theodicy, the millennia-old, still-unanswered question about why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is both all-powerful and all-good. The greatest minds in history have tackled this problem, and many helpful insights and points of departure for reflection have been offered, but I haven’t seen a totally satisfactory answer yet. Don’t hold your breath; I’m not about to offer one. I just want to look at the question briefly from the perspective of Jesus’ weeping and the people’s reactions to it.

Jesus’ own answer to the question was not an intellectual one. Sin had upset the balance of the entire universe and the ensuing chaos and destruction was not something that could be reduced to the level of academic discussions on the nature of God and the experience of man. Jesus didn’t offer an answer; He offered his life in sacrifice. He didn’t explain suffering; He entered into it on our behalf. And, as Paul Claudel once said, Jesus didn’t come to take away our suffering; He came to fill it with his loving presence.

Either you understand what it means that Jesus’ “theodicy” is his Cross or you don’t. If you do, your response will be: “See how God loves us!” If you don’t, your response will be: “Could not He who healed the sick and raised the dead do the same today—or prevent sickness and death in the first place?” I’m afraid that many if not most of us fall into the latter group, or at least we find ourselves drifting that way in the face of the colossal evils and sufferings of the present age and perhaps even of our own lives.

If there were no ultimate fulfillment to hope for, no definitive redressing of all injustices and evils, no eternal “compensation” for the agonies of this life, I think I’d probably join the second group and grumble my life away. But I think that the final judgment and the hope for Paradise have to be a part of any theodicy that takes divine revelation and Christ’s death and resurrection seriously. Sin is the reason that the world is full of horror and tragedy. And the effects of sin will be felt in our bodies and souls and our whole environment until the day we die. That’s our fault, as a whole, as a race. Like it or not we’re all “joined at the hip,” as it were. We are inextricably bound up with each other, so even if our particular suffering can’t be traced to this or that sin of ours, we are still members of sinful humanity and as long as we walk this earth we will, in one way or another, pay a price for it.

Is that unjust? It may seem so if we don’t understand the gravity of sin and its exponentially-multiplied effects. Someone once likened sin to a stab of a knife: repentance will remove the blade, but the wound still remains. And even though God’s forgiveness is complete, if the sin was really deep its effects may remain a lifetime, if only on the psychological or emotional level (or, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, there may be physical consequences as well). Sin unleashes spiritual terrors into this world that would make us die of fright if we could see them. It’s like opening a Pandora’s Box of horrors, but most people seldom think twice about it. So we go on heedlessly committing sin, and then blaming or rejecting God because innocent children suffer. Let’s not kid ourselves; we are making the children suffer.

Sure, God could prevent it; He could silence the reproaches of those who did not understand Jesus’ tears at the tomb of his friend. But how many of them would have radically changed their lives if Jesus healed Lazarus and prevented his death? They were already obviously aware that He had healed others, yet their hearts were still hardened. Removing physical evils from the world will not change people’s hearts. Sometimes it is the very suffering in the midst of profound tragedies that wakes up the dormant humanity within people and allows their true nobility to shine. It elevates the human race as a whole, just as the sins of the corrupt and the malicious degrade it.

Let’s get back to the ultimate fulfillment. God has created us for everlasting happiness with Him in Heaven. It was his original plan that this happiness would begin on Earth and move steadily and peacefully toward the perfection of divine vision and communion. But we shot all that to hell by choosing to disobey God. The final fulfillment still awaits us, for God is faithful to his promises. But now the way there is difficult, fraught with danger and pain; it is obscure and wearying, for sin has laid waste the original paradise and left us to try to work a little bread out of the stubborn soil by the sweat of our brow. If there’s any injustice in all this, it is that God has not given us the punishment we truly deserve, but rather—beyond all imagination or expectation—has Himself entered in to our little shop of horrors and offered us a way out, and a way in to his heavenly Kingdom, which we had already forfeited by our sin.

Jesus came to us “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), not to make all the bad things go away—the runaway effects of our endless sins—but to gather into Himself all that could prevent us from fulfilling our true reason of being in his eternal glory. The first paradise was wrecked; it will never be re-made. That’s something we have to live with, and in that wreckage lie all the sufferings and terrors of this world. But the most important thing was saved—the possibility, the hope for eternal life. Yet the divine plan involves more than escaping the wreckage and attaining a safe haven. He wishes to use the very “material” of the destroyed paradise—the sufferings and miseries that are the cumulative effect of sin—as means to help us grow out of the radical self-centeredness (and hence rebellion) that underlay the original fall, and that still infects us all.

The horrible irony of Christ’s judgment before Pilate is that the evil world was putting its noble Savior on trial, and condemning Him, while all the time the world itself stood convicted by sin that deserved eternal punishment. Again, Christ’s “theodicy” turns the tables on ours. We demand to know why a powerful and good God allows suffering in the world, yet He silently endures suffering at our own bloodstained hands—but not to point out our murderous treason and bring swift justice; rather to forgive us for it and give us tickets to an eternal Paradise!

Jesus weeps, but not primarily because there is endless suffering in this world, since He knows what He has prepared for those who love Him. He weeps because we just don’t get it. We don’t want to accept his love or the wisdom of his way of saving the world. We are still calling for his crucifixion like some ignorant mob that doesn’t realize it is insanely attempting to destroy its only hope!

We’ll always have unanswered questions; let’s try to accept that as a fact of life in exile. But let us look to the Cross, which is the ultimate answer. God so loved the world that He patiently endured our accusations to the contrary. Jesus so loves the world that He weeps over our stubborn refusal to follow Him out of the carnage our sin has wrought and into the blessedness of his Kingdom. The way out is difficult, yes, and painful and sorrowful. We too will weep much before the journey is over. But there will be a Hand that grasps ours as we stumble along the narrow and rocky path, and our joy will be great in Heaven when we discover at last that Jesus has not wept in vain.

Humility Revisited

I received a few favorable responses to my post on humility a couple weeks ago. Being therefore rather proud of myself, I decided to continue the theme. A nun for whom I have much respect recently suggested that I read the chapter on humility from a certain book—but why she would recommend reading about humility to me (of all people!), I can hardly fathom. Be that as it may, I humbly present the following insights from the book In the Likeness of Christ, by Fr Edward Leen, C.S.Sp., published in 1936 (I confess I had to blow the dust off it when I finally located it in our library). He explains humility here not primarily in terms of individual instances of acting against pride, but in the wider vision of the acceptance of the human condition in a fallen world, with all that entails. In a nutshell it is this: to resent or rebel against the burdens and limitations of the human condition is an expression of pride, but to calmly accept them in imitation of Christ is an expression of humility.

“Reverence towards God demands submission not only to God’s Will but also to God’s Providence. And it was in His submission to the Providence of God that Jesus is for us the standard and exemplar of humility. He has given the highest possible expression of this virtue by accepting, without a murmur, all the consequences that followed for Him by His taking His place amongst fallen creatures as one of them. Inspired by a love of us reaching to the uttermost limits of sacrifice, He made, in the interests of our salvation, a deliberate choice on His entry into this world. What was that choice? He chose, though perfectly just and holy, to be a creature amongst fallen creatures in a fallen world, to be a man amongst sinful men, and to submit to all the consequences flowing from such a condition. He could not renounce His personal holiness, He could not commit sin, but He could take all the life conditions that would be His, were He a sinful man… By choice He made His own the lot of fallen humanity…

“We are by nature what Our Lord was by choice—namely, children of a fallen race in a fallen world and subject to the consequences of the fall. All men are plunged in error—and the best among them are simply those who are forcing their way slowly and painfully out of the darkness of error into the light of truth. Where there is error there are necessarily mistakes, suffering, conflict and want of harmony. We are all sinners—‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1Jn. 1:8). Now God does not will sin; but He willed that condition of things in which sin is possible; and therefore the disorder that arises if sin becomes a fact is in the order of His Providence. The reign of sin means the reign of injustice. Whoever exists under the reign of sin in necessarily involved in a system where wrongdoing predominates and where each must suffer from the effects of that wrongdoing.

“In other words, it is the law of things as they actually are that we must continually suffer from others; it is the condition of our being that we shall be the victims of others’ abuse of their free wills; it belongs to our position that our desires and inclinations should be continually thwarted and that we should be at the mercy of circumstances. And it is our duty to bear that without resentment and without rebellion. To rebel is to assert practically that such things are not our due, that they do not belong to our position. It is to refuse to recognize that we are fallen members of a fallen race. The moment that we feel resentment at anything painful that happens to us through the activity of men or things, at that moment we are resentful against God’s Providence. We are in this really protesting against His eternal determination to create free beings; for these sufferings which we endure are a consequence of the carrying into effect of that free determination. If we expect or look for a mode of existence in which we shall not endure harshness, unkindness, misunderstanding and injustice, we are really rebelling against God’s Providence, we are claiming a position that does not belong to us as creatures. This is to sin against humility. It is pride…

“It is our very sinfulness that impels us to demand an exemption from the created consequence of sin because in proportion as our sinfulness is great, is our humility little. We exact the most minute perfection on the part of others in their dealings with ourselves, whilst we readily excuse and even justify our own shortcomings in our dealings with them. We are indulgent to our own faults; we are intolerant of those of others. We, as it were, claim the privilege of being the only sinners in the world, and demand that all the world beside should be just. This preposterous claim is involved in every deliberate movement of resentment indulged in because others are wrongdoers and their wrongdoing affects us adversely. It is again an aiming at a condition that is not ours, and therefore a failure in humility.

“Our efforts after sanctity do not withdraw us from the operation of this law—quite the contrary. The more just we are, the more injustice we are likely to endure—as must be the case in an unjust, unbalanced world, that has swerved from the axis of truth… ‘All that will live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecutions’ (2Tim. 2:13)… To exist in the midst of this opposition is the condition of our fallen nature. It is irrational to rebel against it; it is irrational to expect that we shall not feel the effects of it every day and every hour of the day. It is the virtue of humility not to give way to bitterness; not to resent those wounds; and to maintain ourselves without repining or murmuring in that condition. It is thus the saints exercise humility… They look upon nothing that happens to them as being undeserved: they look upon it as being the logical outcome of things as they are. Pursuing order and justice themselves, they are not bitter when they encounter disorder and injustice in their milieu… Their resistance to disorder is not a self-indulgent giving way to their own feelings of anger and bitterness. They do not allow the disorder they contend against to provoke disorder in themselves…

“All good comes from God; all evil has its source in the instability of the created will. To realize this is to be in the truth; to have a disposition in conformity with such realization is to be rightly disposed… There is close affinity between truth and humility, as between pride and ignorance. Progress in real intelligence is always progress in humility…”

Something to think about, eh?

Nevertheless…

One of the prayers in the Canon of Preparation for Divine Communion in some of the Eastern Churches sums up in a few words our situation and our need—and what we boldly expect God to do about it! “Defiled as I am, O Christ, by unbecoming deeds, I am not worthy of the communion of your most pure Body and divine Blood. Nevertheless, make me worthy thereof.”

It’s perfect: I am not worthy… nevertheless, make me worthy!

That style of prayer is very common in the liturgical offices of the Byzantine tradition. These ancient prayers are sometimes criticized for their relentless reference to sin and the coming judgment—and I suppose it is overdone sometimes—but the self-accusation and the fear of Hell are usually balanced by a boundless trust in God’s mercy and hence a hope for deliverance and salvation. Here are a few typical texts:

“Although I am your son by grace, O God of tenderness, I have served the enemy. By the debauchery of my life I have wandered far from You—lead me back and save me!”

“I have sinned without measure, yet I trust in your measureless love. I know your compassion, your patience and your goodness. O God of tenderness, grant me the fruits of repentance and save me!”

“Save me from Gehenna, which lies waiting for me! Snatch me from the eternal fire to which I am condemned, O just Judge! O Word of God, grant that I may escape the storm which is ready to swallow me up. Woe is me! I tremble at the thought of my countless sins. I fall down before You with tears, O Lover of Mankind; with a contrite heart, I entreat your mercy, O Lord!”

The fear and trembling is real, the awareness of sin and its consequences is real, but the trust in divine mercy is real as well. It is clear that we have failed and we have no way to recover. We know what we are and we know what God is—that’s why we expect Him to come and help. I am broken—You have to fix me! I am not worthy—You have to make me worthy! There’s also, it seems to me, a certain pathos in the “buttering up” of God, just in case He would wish to exercise his justice instead. There’s never a sugar-coating of sin or an attempt to rationalize or justify it—we can’t pull the wool over the divine eyes—but there are “reminders” to God of his mercy. I have sinned—O God of tenderness!—and I have done what is evil in your sight—O Lover of Mankind!—and I am unworthy of You—but remember the prodigal son and take me back!

It may often be the case that our sins reduce us to the state in which we can do nothing other than rely absolutely on God’s mercy. There are some psalms that are hard to pray: “Judge, me O God, in my innocence;” “He rewarded me, for my hands are clean in his sight;” “God has found me guiltless in my actions,” etc. I tend to feel more at home with the ones that read like this: “Help me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck,” or “My own wrongdoing towers high above me, hangs on me like a heavy burden,” etc. So I guess I’m in the right place with the liturgical texts of the Byzantine tradition!

But the Lord doesn’t want us to get stuck in the “woe is me, I’m a dirtbag” stage of prayer and not find our way to the “but You are the God of compassion” stage. We have to move from “I am not worthy” to “nevertheless, make me worthy.” I don’t think that God will find it presumptuous on our part. He knows if our hearts are sincere. He knows our grief and self-reproach over our failure to do always what is pleasing to Him. He knows the obstacle course He’s still going to make us run, but He also knows his own tenderness, patience, and mercy. And somehow, if we keep our eyes fixed on Him, we’re going to find our way out of the mire and into the arms of the Father.

So let’s not hesitate to admit that we deserve all the torments prepared for the wicked, and that we have fallen far short of the glory of God. But let us also not hesitate to place all our hope in his divine mercy. The series of pre-Communion prayers ends with this line, which succinctly expresses both our fears due to sin and our hope due to what we believe about God: “…cast me not away from your presence, O You who have mercy without measure.” I’ve told myself before that that’s the only kind of mercy that will work for me!

We’re simply not worthy of the Holy God; nevertheless, He can make us worthy. And that’s just what He most wants to do.

Come to the Marriage Feast

The Gospel of Matthew was written mainly for a Jewish Christian readership. Therefore we find in this Gospel a selection of Jesus’ teachings that have a more direct bearing on the continuity (and contrast) between Judaism and Christianity—more so than, say, Luke, who was writing for Gentiles who would not be very familiar with the history of God’s dealings with his Chosen People.

Today’s Gospel reading (Mt. 22:1-14) is one of Jesus’ many parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, most of which have something to do with the final judgment, and some of which have to do with the Jews’ rejection of the Gospel and the Gentiles acceptance of it. This particular parable has to do with both.

The parable begins thus: “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son…” We’re already looking toward the end here, for Scripture refers to the heavenly celebration of the victory over satan and the powers of death as “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6-9), at which the righteous are gathered for an eternally joyful feast.

The King in this parable is, of course, God the Father, and his Son is our Lord Jesus Christ. The King first sent out an invitation to his favorite people, the Jews. “But,” said Jesus in the parable, “they would not come.” OK, God wasn’t going to be deterred by this initial brush-off. So the parable goes on: “Again, he sent other servants.” This time He does not send a mere invitation, but a fuller description of what he is offering, along with an additional entreaty: “Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.”

There’s something of a parallel here between this Gospel and the one we heard last week, about the tenants in the vineyard, to whom God sent his servants. In both cases these servants represent the prophets, who bring to God’s people his word, his invitation to faithfulness to the covenant He has made with them.

There are two different reactions to the divine invitation in this parable, both of them bad. One group of those invited simply made light of the invitation and came up with various excuses why they weren’t going to come. But the others actually mistreated and even killed those who brought the invitation, as actually happened to most of the prophets who spoke God’s word to his people. The King was understandably angry about that, so He destroyed those evildoers and burned their city. This may be a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. By that time most of the Jews that did accept Christ had to flee Jerusalem due to persecution, and the ones that remained were either those who made light of Jesus’ invitation to faith in Him, or those who shamefully treated or killed his servants, like St Stephen and the other early martyrs.

So, the invitation to the wedding banquet of the Son of God was first made to his chosen people. The majority of them rejected this invitation, but that doesn’t mean that the wedding was called off. It only means that the invitation would now be extended to those who were not originally invited. The wedding was still ready, as the parable indicates. But now the King told his servants: “Go into the thoroughfares and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.” These would be the Gentiles, for those “in the streets” would be those outside the sacred precincts of the temple, where only Jews were allowed to be present. It’s interesting also to note that the servants of the King invited all they could find, “both bad and good,” which is what you might expect when indiscriminately gathering people together.

But the parable takes a rather unexpected twist here. It seems at first that the Lord, after calling those whom He should have expected to be among the righteous—and being rejected by them—would then not only make the call universal, but also accept everyone regardless of their level of faith or morality. But that’s not quite the case.

After having made his general invitation to all who would come, the King looked around at the guests and spotted one not wearing the customary wedding garment—and He asked him: “How did you get in here?” We might wish at first to come to the defense of the poor slouch, saying to the King: “Well, you just called him in off the street. Did you expect to find him wearing a tuxedo?” But, as we’ll discover every time, the fault was not the King’s. In those days, special wedding garments were provided at the door for all the guests, so that no one could have any good reason not to be wearing one. If you were found to be without one, it could only mean that you deliberately rejected the offer of the garment. If we look again to the wedding feast of the Lamb, we see that his bride is clothed in “fine linen, bright and pure,” and it further states that this fine linen is “the righteous deeds of the saints.” To reject the offer of righteousness from God is to render oneself incapable of righteous deeds.

We’ve seen the Jew/Gentile dimension of this parable, and now we’ve come to the dimension of the final judgment. When the servants of the King have gathered together all the people, both good and bad, they are brought before Him. We read in other places in Matthew’s Gospel that God’s servants, the angels, will “gather his elect from the four winds” (24:31), and also that they “will gather out of his kingdom all sinners and evildoers” (13:41). The elect and the evildoers are the good and the bad that were invited from the streets and ushered into the hall of the King.

Now the parable states that “the King came in to look at the guests,” and that’s when He saw the man who had refused the wedding garment, obviously one of the “bad” from the streets. The King looking at the guests refers to the judgment they must endure under his divine scrutiny. Things are very different in the present age—when the Lord generously extends his invitation—and in the day of judgment, when the Lord expects an account of our lives. Notice in the parable that when the invitation first came out, everyone made excuses or just ignored it altogether. But when the man without the wedding garment was questioned, it is clear that the time for excuse-making was finished. He didn’t even try to make an excuse; it simply says he said nothing. And so he was cast out of the wedding feast, into the misery and pain of the “outer darkness.”

This man’s reaction to judgment reminds me of the near-death experience of a certain priest who, when his soul temporarily left his body after a serious injury in a car accident, was brought before the judgment seat of God and learned that his sins had earned for him everlasting punishment in Hell. The interesting thing is that he didn’t try to defend himself—for who can argue with Truth Himself?—and didn’t even feel rage or terror. He was like the man without the wedding garment: he had nothing to say, for he knew he had no excuse, and he quietly accepted the just sentence because he knew he deserved it. (Thank God, Our Lady interceded for him and he was allowed to return to this life and was given another chance to repent—otherwise we never would have heard of his experience!).

So the Lord concludes his parable by saying: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Now this does not mean that some are irrevocably predestined to Heaven and others to Hell. It does mean that God, in his great generosity, calls all of us to the wedding feast of his Son. He calls both the good and the bad. But all, whether good or bad, have to accept the conditions for entry into the King’s banquet hall, symbolized in the parable by the wedding garment. As I said once before, the call is God’s but the choice is ours. Many are called—God’s invitation is universal—but few are chosen, simply because few choose to accept the “wedding garment,” to accept God’s terms for being received into the wedding feast. His terms are his commandments and everything his Son has revealed to us and required of us in the Gospels. Imagine our thinking that we could get away with anything in this life, could somehow sneak into the eternal wedding feast. Then imagine our horror when the King looks at us and says, in the presence of all the other guests: “How did you get in here?” Believe me, we’ll be speechless and without excuse.

We may think that this is a hard teaching, but the Lord can only speak the truth, and if the truth hurts or even frightens us sometimes, so be it. Better to learn our lessons now than to be horribly surprised on judgment day. Everything that the Lord says to us, even the hard words, are said out of love. It is as St Paul wrote in today’s epistle, after having previously written to reproach the Corinthians for their excesses and disobedience: “I wrote… not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love I have for you” (2Cor. 2:4).

Jesus tells us his parables, even those that warn of the condemnation of the unfaithful, not to cause us pain but to let us know how much He loves us and earnestly desires our salvation. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper how He longed to eat that Passover with them. Well, He’s telling us now that He longs to have us share in his eternal wedding feast, clothed in the fine linen of righteous deeds—the fruit of saying “yes” to his gracious invitation.

Extraordinary Glory

Today we’re celebrating a rather extraordinary feast of the Mother of God. At the same time, there’s something ordinary about it, in that it has a very important application to all of us ordinary people.

This feast is called the “Dormition” of the Mother of God, which literally means “falling asleep.” “Falling asleep,” of course, is a euphemism for death, for dying, so the feast is known by the name of the Dying of the Mother of God. But that’s not really the extraordinary part of the feast. I mean, anybody can do that! And everybody does. The fact that she died is not so extraordinary, but rather what happened after she died.

That is the reason that we have an epistle from St. Paul to the Philippians about Christ’s self-emptying and exaltation—he said, “God exalted Him, raised Him up,” and this is read because Christ, in turn, has exalted his mother, and raised her up: body and soul. That’s the extraordinary thing: that she now enjoys the glory of the general resurrection. The glory of Christ’s own resurrection, she shares now, in body and soul. We have to understand the theological meaning of it, and also accept the real fact of it—but in a sensible, correct sort of way, and not in a silly or crassly materialistic sort of way.

Somebody once told me, a few years ago, that a homily was given in a Catholic Church, in which the priest was saying: “But it couldn’t be possible that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, because by the time she reached 40,000 feet, her body would have just exploded due to the atmospheric pressure!” I couldn’t believe that somebody would have the gall and idiocy to say something like that—and in a church, and with a straight face!

You don’t have to fly up into the air and into outer space to go to Heaven. We mentioned before, on the feast of the Ascension of Christ, that Heaven is everywhere: Heaven surrounds us. It’s just a dimension of reality that we seldom have access to, and certainly not permanent access to, while we’re still in the flesh and on earth—but Heaven is where God dwells.

Jesus didn’t have to fly down to earth, and haul his mother up through the stratosphere and all the rest, in order for her to be bodily assumed into Heaven. All He had to do was take her where He is. That’s the beginning of the fulfillment of Jesus’ own prayer to the Father, before Jesus died. He said: “I want all of those whom You have given Me, to be with Me where I am, and share the glory You have given Me.” That’s exactly what He did for his mother. He took her to be where He is, to share the glory that the Father has given Him.

It’s a special thing for her, because in a sense Jesus is someone that she had given to the Father—because she gave Him back, so to speak, as a man, as a human being. The Son of God was eternally with the Father, eternally generated by the Father, from all ages, as the Divine Person that He is, but it took the Mother of God, Mary, to give God the Son back to God the Father as a man. That was her incredible gift to God, as well as her gift to all of us: to give us our Savior in the flesh.

Many things about Our Lady’s life are extraordinary. The whole preparation for her mission—being conceived without sin, and living a sinless life, a faithful, devoted life to God—that was something done by God, by His own initiative. He didn’t ask her if she wanted to be conceived without sin. But He did ask her if she would receive the living Word of God in her womb, the Savior of the world; and that she did, to that she gave her free consent. So, many extraordinary things followed in the life of the Mother of God, and this is part of why we celebrate her: because she has been set apart in a unique way, a way that is different than all the rest of us.

But now comes the part where we look at the ordinary (so to speak) things, the ways in which we ordinary people can share in this mystery. The bodily assumption of the Mother of God is something that is in part for her own reward, for her own faithfulness and as a crowning of all the gifts of God for her personally. That’s her own relationship with God, and her own life in the glory of the Trinity. But there’s something about the same mystery that applies to us, that God wants us to see, because she is glorified not only for herself, not only as a personal reward for her faithfulness and holiness. She’s glorified also as a sign, as an icon, for all of us to see: an image of the Church, and of what the Church and each member of the Church are supposed to be, or are going to become, as we live our lives of faithfulness to God.

We are also to share in that same glory. We are to be transformed, body and soul. That is the whole mystery and destiny of humanity in the general resurrection at the end of time: that we are all going to share, body and soul, in the glory of God. And the fact she went before us is like a sign that the Lord is good for his word. He said He was going to do this, and He proved it by showing us his mother, that it happened in her life. Since she received the fruit of that promise of Christ through her faithfulness and love for God, then through our faith and love of God, we too can receive that promise.

St. Paul says, in his letter to the Romans, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit who dwells in you.” So he’s saying that this is going to happen to us. He didn’t just say you’re going to grow in holiness spiritually because of the presence of God—that’s certainly part of it—but he said the Spirit dwelling in you is going to give life to your mortal body. Your body that dies is going to receive life because the Spirit dwells within you. That’s what we have to keep in mind, too; we’re not sufficiently aware of that.

St. Paul always had to remind people of that. Especially the Corinthians: he had to remind them about a lot of stuff. They were a pretty rowdy lot, and he had his hands full with all of their aberrations and their simply “not getting it,” so he had to keep reminding them, and to say: “Don’t you realize that Christ dwells in you? Don’t you realize that the Spirit of God dwells in you? Etc., etc.! He had to get them to wake up, that they might realize this is the Gift of God, not just something that sort of helps us pass through the trials of life without despair or suicide. It means something for our destiny, for our eternity, that the Spirit is going to give life to us.

Again, he says to the Philippians, that our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, will change our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables Him to subject all things to Himself. So again, this is what has already happened in the Mother of God: He has changed her lowly body—her human, corruptible body—into a body like his own glorious body. See, the Lord Jesus is not jealous about his own prerogatives, his own glory, as if He were to say, “This is my own glory, and you can’t have it.” No; He just wants to share, with all of us. And so St. Paul is saying: what Christ has—his own, glorified humanity in Heaven—He is going to share with us. He is going to change us, transform us, to be like Him.

As we celebrate the glory of the Mother of God, we’re also celebrating, in hope, our own glory to come, our own transformation, our own “assumption”: our own body-and-soul glorification in Heaven. So let us today rejoice in Our Lady and pray and honor her worthily on this feast, for all that she has done for our salvation in her earthly life and all that she is continuing to do for our salvation through her protection and intercession in Heaven. And let us also rejoice in what that means for us, what God is showing us through what He did for her, that He wants to transform our lowly bodies, that He wants his Spirit to dwell in us, so that our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead, to be where He is, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and to share the glory that God the Father has given Him.

Summer Vacation

Summer is a time of long days, short nights, hot weather, and (around here anyway) cloudless blue skies by day with breathtaking starry panoramas by night. For many, it is a time of relaxation and leisure activities, of taking care of all the stuff you couldn’t do in the winter, and also: vacations.

“What did you do on your summer vacation?” This is a common essay theme for returning school children. But let us ask: what is a vacation? It is literally a time to be empty (from the Latin vacare), and by extension to be free and unencumbered. “Vacant” and “vacuous” also have the same root, so one must be careful that one’s vacation is not completely devoid of creative or fruitful activity, but rather that it is worthy in some way of God’s blessing.

Images of severe asceticism and struggle notwithstanding, monks are on a perpetual vacation, that is, a vacation with God. In fact, our struggle, our asceticism—the whole work of repentance and conversion—is precisely that which creates within our hearts and souls the “empty place” that God desires to fill as only He can. We may not often think of our spiritual life as a vacation in the usual sense of harmless fun or frivolous activities (and we shouldn’t think of it that way), but it would be good to develop the sense of “becoming empty” in order to receive the presence of the Lord.

So how do we go on a vacation with God? Much of the work of prayer is directed towards the opening of the heart to the presence of God, but simply to say prayers is, for many, no vacation! Well, then, why don’t we start our vacation with God by enjoying a prayerful feast of the senses, discovering the presence of the Lord all around us, even as we seek to discover that same presence within us?

Try taking a walk sometime, in the woods or the mountains, near the ocean or a lake or river. You don’t have to “say prayers” while you’re walking, but you can “become prayer” by being open to all the gifts of nature around you, and the gifts of grace within you. Just listen to all the sounds, look at the beauty around you, feel the breeze, smell the fragrances. Don’t label, analyze, or attempt to interpret anything. Try to perceive everything as directly and freshly as possible, like a child who does not know how to label things but can only be enthralled by them. Simply be in the midst of the creation of God, breathe it in and give thanks. For the time being “lay aside all earthly cares,” as our Liturgy invites. Be still, listen to your own heartbeat, and marvel at the miracle of your own being, sustained each moment by the love of God.

We tend to “know” too much and thus sacrifice the immediacy of experience. We know what a flower is, and a tree, and a bird, and a stream. So we walk by them, unconsciously name them, and get on with whatever business is currently preoccupying our minds. But do we really see things, know them as they are? What we’re often missing, as Abraham Heschel so cogently and beautifully points out, is the ability to truly know and experience reality because we have lost the sense of wonder, of “radical amazement” in the face of the grandeur of all that is, amazed even that there is anything at all! We have become jaded, insensitive, indifferent.

What has happened is that we have not attained to the “awareness of the ineffable,” of the hidden mystery of all things created by God, so we look no further than mere appearances. We can have names for things, we can discover what material elements constitute them, but are we not interested in what they mean, what they stand for and point to? This is where our little vacation with God becomes important for our spiritual life. We need to become aware that the beauty of creation is a shimmer of the glory of God, that his voice is in the wind, that the universe is full of angels. This will not happen by living only on the superficial level of the ephemeral affairs of the day’s business. We need to take the time to listen, to withdraw a while from our routine and mind-numbing activities, to empty out all that crowds our inner life and obscures the sense of God’s presence. If only we had a delete button, as computers do, to simply push and empty all the trash in the folders of our minds!

But it takes more effort and discipline than that. We have to make a conscious choice to open up our awareness to that which is unseen, ineffable, and which calls forth from us the sense of awe and wonder without which our lives become shallow and sterile. Believe that there is more than meets the eye or any of the senses. But do start with the senses. Then let the creation speak of its Maker, and let the Maker speak through what He has made. Little by little, your “vacation” will prove fruitful, as you become a creator as well—a creator of an inner sanctuary in which you receive and reverence the mystery of the living God.

Take the time; try to develop the awareness. It will be found by those who sincerely seek. Then you will realize that you don’t need to wait until summer to have your vacation. You can go on vacation with God every time the sense of wonder draws your heart to that quiet inner place where you perceive things as they really are, where you can hear the gentle yet ceaseless praise of everything that lives and breathes, and where emptiness makes way for the fullness of Love.

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