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

Archive for November, 2008

Junk and Rot and Fussing and Fuming

One wouldn’t automatically think that the above title belongs to a reflection on the resurrection of Christ, but all things are possible with Mother Angelica. This is from the same book I mentioned a few posts ago. She always does seem to make a good point, however she happens to arrive at it!

She first notes that in the resurrection account of St Luke the women arriving at Jesus’ tomb are terrified at the sight of the angels. She comments: “Isn’t it funny how we’re always terrified by the supernatural? The people I meet on the street scare me more.”

The question that the angels ask is what Mother Angelica’s reflection is allmyrrhbearing_women about: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” I never thought of it quite the way Mother A. does, but does anyone think of things quite the way she does? She goes on: “‘Why are you having these doubts?’ they’re asking the women. Then the angels say: ‘He is not here; he has risen.’ What a bomb that is. ‘Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee.’ So what does that mean? It means: ‘Why didn’t you believe Him? Why didn’t you stay here all night waiting for Him to resurrect? He told you three times. Why didn’t you just come earlier to watch and wait for Him? Why are you just asking where He is? He told you! If He told you, why don’t you believe it? Why are you looking for the living among the dead?’ When you look at this Scripture, you should ask yourself: ‘How much do I really believe?’ …

“The angels are telling these women that there is no excuse. He told you! If you want to know what faith is, my friend, it’s to believe in what He said totally. Nothing else holds water. You can think what you want, you can excuse yourself all you want, but when you face Him on that special day, you won’t have any excuses. It all falls away like water off a duck’s back. No more excuses. We know that we should forgive, but we refuse; we know we should be loving and cheerful with one another, but we aren’t; we know we are our brother’s keeper, but we couldn’t care less. We know what the Lord said, but are we doing it? Well, someday you will answer not for what you knew, but for what you did!

“And that’s what the angels are saying here: ‘Didn’t He tell you?’ Haven’t I told you 1,588 times to get rid of all the junk and rot and fussing and fuming in your heart and mind and soul? Haven’t I asked you a thousand times? Haven’t I asked you not to gripe, not to be critical, not to gossip, not to go behind somebody’s back, not to criticize, not to judge rashly? Haven’t I told you a thousand times? But you don’t do it. That’s what the angels are saying here. Didn’t He tell you back in Galilee? What are you doing here, right now?”

She then goes on to say that once the women were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, they went back and told the apostles, but then they didn’t believe! Jesus had told them as well as the women, but they didn’t get it, either. Then Mother A. says another thing I never thought of: “Say what you want about the Pharisees, at least they heard what Jesus said. Remember, they paid three or four soldiers to stand outside the tomb. The Scripture tells us that the Pharisees instructed the soldiers, ‘Just say his disciples stole him when you fell asleep’… Isn’t it interesting how evil made arrangements to disguise the truth while those who should have known didn’t believe at all?”

Of course we know that the disciples eventually believed, but not until they actually saw Jesus. I noticed recently in reading the resurrection account in chapter 16 of St Mark (the last part of it, vv. 9-20), that there’s a whole lot of unbelief there, despite Jesus’ earlier predictions of his resurrection. “When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by [Mary Magdalene], they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them… And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” When Jesus finally appeared to the Eleven, He reproached them “for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”

Finally they did believe, and once they were filled with the Holy Spirit they became courageous preachers of the Gospel. But it sure took them a long time to get it! In that we can perhaps take some consolation. But let’s not take too much, since we don’t want to be upbraided by the Lord for not believing (or not acting on what we say we believe) after 2000 years of the preaching of the Gospel all over the world!

After reading Mother’s reflections I had to go to prayer and ask for the grace to remove all the “junk and rot and fussing and fuming in [my] heart and mind and soul.” These are the kinds of things that keep us from a simple and pure faith and trust, from believing the word of the Lord and putting it into practice. Jesus told the apostles and the women He would rise from the dead. But they didn’t believe, at least not at first. He has told us that He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that we will be accountable for our lives. Do we believe that, and are we acting accordingly? Or are we going to be surprised on That Day, as if we’d never heard it before? Whatever position we might wish to take at the judgment, we still are going to be accountable.

Let us go back to the Gospels. Hear what He really said. Believe it and expect that it will all come to pass when and as He wills. And then do whatever He tells you. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mk. 13:31). Believe it.

On Gratitude and Ingratitude

America has been celebrating Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday for 145 years, though it had been celebrated in this country a long time before that. There is something good in the human spirit, I believe, that spontaneously wishes to give thanks when gifts or blessings are received. It is true that some respond to the generosity of others with little more than a grunt, but unless one’s soul has entirely withered up, one will gladly give thanks when someone gives a gift or offers a service.

givethanks-to-the-lordWe as Christians know whom we are primarily to thank, and that is God. As St James writes, “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (1:17). So even though it is appropriate to give thanks to other people for their generosity, we must always be aware that behind every act of human kindness is the Spirit of God, who inspires in everyone whatever goodness can be found there.

It is interesting to note in the Scriptures first of all that thanksgiving is a major theme in both the Old and the New Testaments, but also that there is a kind of shift from Old to New in what we are giving thanks for, at least in general terms. This can be summarized by saying that in the Old Testament we primarily give thanks for the blessings of this life, and in the New our attention is more focused on the blessings of the life of the world to come.

Here at Mt Tabor we have put together some texts for the Offices and Divine Liturgy that we use on this feast. It’s not properly a liturgical feast, but its message is close enough to the Gospel of Jesus to make it appropriate for celebration in church. In the readings chosen for Vespers, from Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Joel, we are giving thanks to God for the abundance of good things from the earth, for health and the fruit of the womb, etc, all the material things that are part of the joy of human life in this world—and we receive salutary warnings about what happens if we show our ingratitude by turning to false gods or failing to keep the commandments of Him who so generously blesses us.

As we move to the readings of the Divine Liturgy from the New Testament, we find a shift of emphasis. St Paul gives a fairly stern lesson to Timothy. He says first of all, if we have food and clothing we should be content with that. Then he launches into an admonition about the dangers of wealth and luxury, that those who desire such things “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1Tim. 6:9). So he’s not dwelling here on gratitude for God’s earthly abundance but rather urging Christians to be content with what is necessary so as to avoid the spiritual pitfalls that abundance can bring.

Likewise in the Gospel (Lk. 12:13-34), Jesus warns about the dangers of riches—especially of hoarding goods when we never know how soon we may be called to give an account for our lives. He says that it is only the unbelievers who spend their time securing an abundance of material things. He calls us to seek instead the Kingdom of God, trusting that the Father, from whom all good things and every perfect gift comes, will provide whatever we may need for our earthly pilgrimage. But we have to be aware that this life really is a kind of pilgrimage. We are on a journey; we are traveling to the Kingdom of Heaven, so there’s no need to surround ourselves with luxuries while passing through this passing life.

So Jesus tells us not to be anxious about food or clothing. These are symbols of our material needs as a whole. He doesn’t say we don’t need them; in fact He acknowledges that we do. He just wants us to get our priorities straight, wants us to move, as it were, from the Old Testament to the New. We are to give thanks for the blessings of this world but not to rely on them for our happiness and contentment, and we don’t measure divine favor by the amount of our wealth. Jesus makes the striking contrast by saying that we should in fact sell our possessions and give alms, and thus lay up treasure in Heaven. That would be unheard-of in the Old Testament mentality. For one thing, faith in an afterlife was a long, slow development, so until the last century or two before Christ, the hopes of the chosen people were limited to this life. So it’s natural that one would see God’s favor in material and temporal blessings. But by the time Jesus came, most Jews did believe in an afterlife, and Jesus made it quite explicit with all his teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven. The focus was able to change now, and the followers of Christ were exhorted to look to the things of Heaven and not to be concerned or afraid of divine displeasure if one was poor or otherwise disadvantaged from a worldly perspective. But the change of mentality was not a quick or easy one. After so many spiritual teachings, when Jesus told his own disciples that it was hard for a rich man to enter Heaven, they were still flabbergasted and exclaimed, “Who, then, can be saved?”

After 2000 years, I hope that most Christians realize that the greatest thing now for which we give thanks is the grace of Christ, the gift of his word and the sacraments, and especially the hope for eternal life which He won for us through his death and resurrection. But we are exhorted even in the New Testament to give thanks always and for everything, which means for blessings both spiritual and material, maintaining the proper priorities.

In a sense, then, one of the chief sins of a Christian would be ingratitude. I read an interesting commentary on gratitude and ingratitude by St Bernard of Clairvaux, in which he says the following: “In our own day we see many people at prayer but, unfortunately, we see none of them turning back to give thanks to God… ‘Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?’ As I think you will remember, it was in these words that our Savior complained about the lack of gratitude of the other nine lepers. We read that they knew well how to make ‘supplications, prayers, petitions’ since they lifted up their voices, crying out: ‘Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!’ But they lacked the fourth thing required by the apostle Paul: ‘thanksgiving’ (1Tm 2:1), for they did not turn back or give thanks to God.

“We see still more in our own day people who implore God for what they lack, but a mere handful who seem to be grateful for the blessings they have received. There is no harm in imploring him, but what causes God not to grant our prayers is his finding us lacking in gratitude. After all, perhaps it is even an act of mercy on his part to hold back from the ungrateful what they are asking for so that they may not be judged all the more rigorously on account of their ingratitude… [Thus] it is sometimes out of mercy that God holds back his mercy…

“So you see that not all those who are healed of the leprosy of this world—I mean their manifest complaints—profit by their healing. Indeed, many are secretly afflicted with an ulcer worse than leprosy, all the more dangerous in that it is more interior. That is why it was right that the Savior of the world should ask where the other nine lepers were, since sinners avoid healing. So, too, after his sin, God questioned the first man: ‘Where are you?’ (Gen 3:9).” [Various Sermons, #27]

I think that is an insightful point that St Bernard makes: “what causes God not to grant our prayers is his finding us lacking in gratitude.” We may wonder sometimes why we pray for something and don’t receive it. Scripture gives several possibilities, but we ought to reflect on St Bernard’s criterion as well: maybe we have an ungrateful spirit, and God is sparing us his righteous judgment by not giving us further opportunities to store up wrath for ourselves. But it’s a pity if simply because we are selfish and ungrateful that God cannot bless us as He would like, or doesn’t answer our prayer.

It’s not as simple as saying, well, if God would answer my prayer, then I’d be grateful. He looks at us as we are now, how grateful we already are for his gifts and blessings, both great and small, and how much we complain or grumble about the trials and difficulties of life. If He would find us always and everywhere with a spirit of gratitude, in good times and bad—since we know that we don’t deserve anything but wrath—then He would be even more generous than He already is. But He wants us to recognize and acknowledge what He has already given us and done for us. And He wants us to be generous with others as He is with us. We have an obligation to help the poor and the hungry and those who do not have the material blessings that we do. We do not deserve good things any more than anyone else does. So we should feel obliged to help wherever possible, so that, as Scripture says, “those who give thanks will be many.”

Let us, then, as we approach the Holy Eucharist, the greatest gift God can give to us, strengthen our sense of gratitude, and make a serious effort to avoid ingratitude. And let us seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, that our treasure and our hearts may be in Heaven.

On Charitable Dispositions and Not Judging

In reading through some texts I’ve collected from various sources, I found a number of them that should offer us some insight and encouragement into regarding people more lovingly or at least giving them the benefit of the doubt. There’s a constant temptation (even, or perhaps—alas—especially among Christians) to judge or bitterly criticize others. Perhaps we’re a little hard of hearing. We thought Jesus said, “Judge one another,” when what He really said was “Love one another”…

“Some people change every food they absorb into a bad mood, even if the food is healthy. The fault does not lie in the food but in their temperament, which changes the food. Even so, if our soul has a bad disposition, everything harms it; it transforms even useful things into things that are harmful to it. If you throw a little bit of bitter herbs into a pot of honey, won’t they change the whole pot by making all the honey bitter? That is what we do: we spread a little of our bitterness and we destroy our neighbor’s good by looking at him according to our bad disposition. Other people have a temperament that transforms everything into a good mood, even bad food… Pigs have a very good constitution. They eat pods, date seeds and garbage. But they transform that food into succulent meat. In the same way, if we have good habits and a good state of the soul, we can benefit from everything, even from what is not beneficial. The Book of Proverbs says it very well: ‘The one who sees with gentleness will obtain mercy.’ And in another place: ‘For the foolish person, everything is contrary.’ I heard it said of a brother that if, when he went to see someone else, he found his cell in a state of neglect and in disorder, he told himself: ‘How happy is this brother to be completely detached from earthly things and to carry his spirit on high so well that he doesn’t even have the time to tidy his cell!’ If he then went to another brother and found his cell tidy, clean, and in good order, he told himself: ‘This brother’s cell is as clean as his soul. As is the state of his soul, so is the state of his cell!’ He never said of anyone: ‘This one is untidy,’ or: ‘That one is frivolous.’ Because of his excellent state, he benefited from everything. May God in his goodness also give us a good state so that we might benefit from everything and never think badly of our neighbor. If our malice inspires us to pass judgment or to be suspicious, let us quickly transform that into a good thought. For with God’s help, not seeing what is bad in our neighbor brings forth kindness.” (Dorotheos of Gaza, Letter #1)

“In loving your enemy, you want him to be your brother. You do not love in him what he is, but what you want him to be. Let us imagine some oak wood that has not been carved. A capable craftsman sees this wood that has been cut in the forest; he likes the wood. I do not know what he wants to make out of it, but the artist does not love this wood so that it might remain as it is. His art lets him see what the wood can become. He does not love the rough wood; he loves what he will make of it, not the rough wood. That is how God loved us when we were sinners. For he said: ‘People who are in good health do not need a doctor; sick people do.’ Did he love us sinners so that we might remain sinners? The craftsman saw us like a piece of rough wood coming from the forest, and what he had in mind was the work he would draw from there, not the wood from the forest. It is the same with you: you see your enemy who opposes you, who overwhelms you with scathing words, who is harsh in his insults, who pursues you with his hatred. But you are attentive to the fact that he is a human being. You see everything that this person did against you, and you see in him that he was created by God. What he is as a human being is God’s work; the hatred he bears towards you is his own work. And what do you say to yourself? ‘Lord, be kind to him, forgive his sins, inspire him with fear of you, change him.’ In this person, you do not love what he is, but what you want him to be. Thus, when you love your enemy, you love a brother.” (St Augustine, Commentary on the First Letter of John)

“So, it is certainly the better thing, the safer thing, to follow the advice of him who is truth, and choose for ourselves the last place. Afterwards we may be promoted from there with honor… If you pass through a low doorway you suffer no hurt however much you bend, but if you raise your head higher than the doorway, even by a finger’s breadth, you will dash it against the lintel and injure yourself. So also a man has no need to fear any humiliation, but he should quake with fear before rashly yielding to even the least degree of self-exaltation. So then, beware of comparing yourself with your betters or your inferiors, with a particular few or with even one! For how do you know but that this one person, whom you perhaps regard as the vilest and most wretched of all, whose life you recoil from and spurn as more befouled and wicked, not merely than yours—for you trust you are a sober-living man and just and religious—but even than all other wicked men? How do you know, I say, but that in time to come, with the aid of the right hand of the Most High, he will not surpass both you and them if he has not done so already in God’s sight? That is why God wished us to choose neither a middle seat nor the last but one, nor even one of the lowest rank; for he said, ‘Sit down in the lowest place,’ that you may sit alone, last of all, and not dare to compare yourself, still less to prefer yourself, to anyone.” (St Bernard, Sermon 37 on the Song of Songs)

“Don’t try to distinguish between those who are worthy and those who are not. Let all men be equal in your eyes, to be loved and served. In this way you will be able to guide all of them to good. Did not the Lord sit at table with publicans and women of disreputable life, without keeping the unworthy at a distance from him? So you also should bestow the same generosity, the same favor on the unfaithful and the ruffian, and all the more so in that he, too, is your brother since he shares the same human nature. My son, here is the commandment I give you: let mercy always tip your scales until you start to feel within yourself the mercy that God feels towards the world.” (St Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Discourses, 81)

His Humble Majesty

We’re well into the time of preparation for the feast of the Nativity of Christ, as least as far as the ascetical preparation goes, since the fast began on the 15th. Curiously, though, the Byzantine tradition doesn’t offer us any liturgical support during this time, beginning only two Sundays before Christmas. So the Sunday Gospels simply continue in the sequence of Sundays after Pentecost, which means they haven’t been chosen to help us prepare for Christmas. Homilists therefore have to become rather creative in doing justice both to the Sunday readings and to the time of preparation. I will focus a bit more on the Epistle reading (Col. 1:12-18) than on the Gospel (Lk. 13:10-17), but in both I will try to take a closer look at just who Jesus is, for our liturgical and ascetical efforts are intended to prepare us for the celebration of the mystery of his birth.

In the Epistle we go back, way before the birth of Christ, way back into the christ-mtathos-13th-centuryinfinite depths of eternity to find out who the Son of God is. St Paul tells us: “He is the image of the invisible God.” Now there are two complementary ways of interpreting this. We can understand this in the divine and eternal sense of the begetting of the Son by the Father. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, the Son “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (1:3). In this sense He is the image of God even before the Incarnation. But we can also interpret this to mean that the Incarnate Son is the visible manifestation of the invisible God. The Greek literally says that He is the “icon” of the invisible God, and thus God becomes tangible to us in Christ.

We have come already to the heart of the mystery of Christmas. What we will celebrate on Christmas is the saving reality of God becoming manifest, visible, tangible, in his only-begotten Son made flesh. In the manger in Bethlehem we will see the image of the invisible God entering the visible creation, having united Himself to it in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

But St Paul has much more to say about this Icon of the invisible God. “In him all things were created,” he writes, “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This ought to be enough to hold us in awe for a long time. In Him, the Son and Word of God, the Image of the Father, all things were created. St John says the same thing in his matchless Prologue, but Paul goes into more detail, spelling out just what “all things” means: all things in heaven and on earth, all things visible and invisible. If that isn’t enough to establish his divinity, the Apostle tells us that He is before all things and that in Him all things hold together. So the Son of God was not only instrumental in the creation of the entire universe and the angelic realm, He maintains it all in existence! Everything has to refer to Him, consciously or not, because without Him nothing would exist. All things exist “through him and for him.”

St Paul then begins to situate Him in human history. “He is head of the body, the Church… the first-born from the dead.” This is a startling phrase when we have just been describing his eternal, heavenly existence and his lordship over, and ontological maintenance of, all things. How could death enter into this glorious image of God? Well, we already know that, for that is, to some extent anyway, what the Incarnation is all about, or at least what the Incarnation made possible. The last couple verses of this section of Colossians show us what the Incarnation effected and why Christ ended up as the “first-born from the dead.” “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven or on earth”—saying “heaven and earth” once again refers to what He created in the first place—“making peace through the blood of his cross.”

So this glorious, eternal, creative Son of God ended up here on earth in human flesh and died in agony on a cross, and then became “the first-born from the dead” by his resurrection. St Paul states the reason: “that in everything he might be pre-eminent.” If everything in heaven and on earth was created through Him, and everything was to be reconciled to the Father through Him, and if He is to be pre-eminent in everything, He has to be united to earth as well as to heaven. Again, his Incarnation made it possible for his earthly pre-eminence as well as his heavenly.

Perhaps here is where we can begin to take a look at the Gospel. Here we are not reflecting on the Son of God in his glorious, divine pre-existence and creation of the universe. We are most clearly seeing his post-incarnation kenosis, the humble human form He took so that He could minister to us as one of us. In the Gospel today we find the Creator of the universe on a tiny speck of dust in his universe, in a tinier and politically insignificant nation, speaking in a synagogue!

This scenario reminds me of an episode in Taylor Caldwell’s novel about St Luke (Dear and Glorious Physician). Luke had sought out Mary, the Mother of the Messiah, to learn from her details about the origins of Christ that no one but she could have known. While he was in Nazareth he stayed at a humble inn. The proprietor took him into a back room that contained some fine yet simple furniture. The man beamed, “Joseph and Jesus made these.” The narrator then commented on the fact that the One who had made the stars and set them in their places had come to earth and made tables and chairs! Yet He did so with the same love and care.

So the Son of God humbled Himself, and we find him today teaching in a synagogue on his way to Jerusalem. There was a woman there who had been bent over with a “spirit of infirmity” for eighteen years, and she could not stand up straight. So the Word of God said to her these words: “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” The prophet Isaiah assures us that when the word of God is spoken it accomplishes its mission. So the woman was free indeed. St Luke also notes that Jesus laid his hands on her. The hands that made furniture in Nazareth also healed illnesses and gave freedom and joy to the afflicted. The psalmist says that the Lord “raises up those who are bowed down,” and so Jesus proved that indeed the Kingdom of God was among them, that in his person the messianic age had begun.

Perhaps this incident is part of what is meant by reconciling all things to the Father in heaven and on earth. Primarily, of course, it means that sinners receive mercy through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, for according to St Paul, the “peace” that is made between God and man comes through “the blood of the cross.” But in many ways Jesus exercised a ministry of reconciliation while He walked the earth. He forgave sinners, healed illnesses, drove out demons, and preached the Gospel to the poor. In all these cases people were reconciled to God in that they turned to Him in praise and gratitude. When the woman in the synagogue was healed, she “praised God.” When the people saw it, they “rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.” So this reconciliation brings joy as well, and joy is one of the chief signs that one has found peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We can’t miss in this Gospel, however, the unfortunate fact that not all were rejoicing over this manifestation of divine compassion and power. The leader of the synagogue and his cronies were “put to shame,” St Luke tells us, because they argued with the Lord and reproached Him for healing on a Sabbath. Jesus then pointed out their hypocrisy and made it clear that He wasn’t going to tolerate their law-cloaked duplicity, and that when He would see someone in need, He would come to their aid—on any day of the week! For He had come to reconcile all things to his Father, make all broken things whole, bring joy where there was sorrow, hope where there was despair.

But only those could be reconciled who wanted to be reconciled. By its very nature, reconciliation cannot be forced, if it is to be genuine. If the desired reconciliation could be unilaterally imposed by a divine command from Heaven, there would have been no need for the Incarnation of God. Since God created us in his image and likeness, we have reason and free will; we are able to know and to choose and to love. So the Son of God humbled Himself to become one of us, to invite us to embrace the reconciliation He would so painfully effect on the Cross. He took flesh so He could pour out his blood for us in sacrifice, and so we could celebrate this reconciliation by partaking of his sacrificed body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. He wants to dwell in us and He wants us to dwell in Him. He, the maker of stars and galaxies, wants to set a table for us. It is not beneath his dignity, because He grew up making tables and chairs in Nazareth. He does not hold it against us that we made a cross for Him in return, because He came to make peace, to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to his Father.

So, as we move one step closer to the celebration of God becoming man for our salvation, let us reflect upon Jesus’ majesty and his humility, his divinity and his humanity, his creation of the universe and his making of tables. And let us listen for the word that sets us free from our infirmities; let us wait prayerfully for that divine touch that makes us stand upright and give glory to God.

Consecrated Temples

“Today let the heavens above greatly rejoice and let the clouds pour down gladness at the mighty and marvelous acts of our God. For behold, the gate presentmarythat looks toward the East, born from a barren womb according to the promise, and consecrated to God as his dwelling, is now being brought into the temple, as an immaculate offering.”

That is one of the many liturgical texts for today’s feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple (a.k.a. her “Presentation”). As always with the Church’s great feasts, the faithful are called upon to rejoice in the grace that God is granting us through the celebration of the mysteries of the liturgical year, which are usually events in the life of Christ and his Mother.

To celebrate this feast fruitfully, it seems best not to scrutinize the details of the story (some of which are manifestly legendary), but rather to open our hearts and minds to its meaning and its application in our own spiritual lives. After all, it is not merely the fact of events which matters to us, but what the events mean and how we can personally receive God’s grace through them. For example, the fact of the death of Christ, while eminently important in itself, will do us no good whatever if we do not recognize what it means and then embrace it in faith and repentance so that our souls may be saved.

There are three main points emphasized in the liturgical text I began with, and these will be the basis for our understanding the meaning of this feast and our appropriation of its grace. The Mother of God was born from a barren womb, brought into the temple as an offering, and consecrated to God as his dwelling. Her unique holiness is a constant theme of the services for this feast.

I won’t dwell too much on the first point, since there are other feast days that are more specifically focused on it. But for now we can still say that this fact (and what it means) is a kind of prerequisite for understanding the others. Mary was born of a barren womb. A couple of months ago we heard the story of Mary’s Nativity. She was the fruit of the heartfelt prayers of her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne. But she was more. There are several examples in Scripture of miraculous births from sterile parents, so in that Mary was not unique. What was unique about her is two-fold: she was sanctified by God from the very moment of her conception, and this was done in view of her unique mission to conceive and give birth in the flesh to the Eternal Son and Word of God. So the fact of Mary’s birth from a barren womb—and all that it implies in her case—is the first testimony of this feast to her unique holiness. The little girl who is being brought into the temple is the one chosen from all eternity to give birth to our Savior and Lord.

The second point is that she is being brought into the temple as an immaculate offering. She is immaculate because she was conceived without sin. She is being offered to God in view of her coming mission—even though at the time of her entrance into the temple it is not likely that her parents knew precisely what that mission would be. They simply gave her to God in gratitude for his answering their prayers and because they wanted her to serve Him all the days of her life. But in the eyes of God this offering meant immensely more: at last, the one who would give flesh to his only Son was now alive in the world, and she was given over to Him so that his will could be done through her for our salvation.

This presentation is evidently not the same ritual we celebrate in Christ’s case 40 days after his birth. For when Mary entered the temple she was already three years old. This offering is in effect the practical fulfillment of the ritual offering that is made on the 40th day. For according to the narrative of her entrance into the temple, she was taken there in order to actually dwell in the precincts of the temple, to spend all of her youth as directly in the presence of God as possible, and in his service. This is what would help prepare her to say “yes” to God when the angel Gabriel would come to her bringing the glad tidings of our salvation—which would come to pass only if she would agree to be the Mother of the Son of God.

So far we have the immaculate Mary, born of a barren womb, brought into to the temple as an offering to God and as a preparation for the unique mission He would grant to her. Now we come to the third element, which is perhaps the one that opens up to us the mystery of the feast in a way that we can most fully relate to and enter into. She is “consecrated to God as his dwelling.”

First of all, what does it mean to be consecrated to God? We have seen the theme of Mary’s holiness throughout the texts of the feast. Is this what consecration means? In a certain sense it does, but not exactly. Usually when we speak of holiness it has something to do with the quality of a person’s thoughts, words, and deeds—the way they live in communion with God, full of love for Him, and with consistent obedience to his commandments and surrender to his will. Not too much of that can apply to a three year old girl, since she can’t yet really make the choices that go to building up this kind of holiness. Of course, being sinless from conception is itself a holiness that precedes any moral choice.

But what I’m moving towards here is a definition of holiness that is more synonymous with consecration. In the New Testament, why are all believers, regardless of the actual perfection of their lives, called “saints”? It is because they have been set apart by God for his service, through his grace and their faith. The oldest meaning of holiness is just that: set apart for God, which is what consecration means. Even God’s own holiness has the connotation of that which makes Him “totally other” than us, set apart from us as Creator set apart from creature.

The great mystery and gift of the Incarnation is that this infinite chasm is bridged by the Son of God made flesh. By his assuming our human nature, we are able to share in God’s holiness, in being thus “set apart” from the rest of the universe by being personally united to the holy God. So each of us is at least potentially consecrated simply by being human. Yet that in itself is insufficient. This consecration has to be actualized by our faith and love for the Lord, and by his grace that will alone make us truly holy.

So in saying that Mary is brought into the temple to be consecrated to God as his dwelling we are speaking at least as much of her vocation as we are of the state of her soul. She is being set apart for God, for a unique vocation: to be his dwelling place in a way that never happened before and will never happen again. This will mean the transformation of her whole life into total communion with Him. (We also use the term “consecrated” for the bread and wine that have been set apart for the sole and sacred purpose of transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ.  Here the “consecration” denotes primarily the transformation itself.)

In virtue of the Incarnation and the Redemption, we have the opportunity to be consecrated to God as his dwelling places. He does not dwell in us in the same way as He dwelled in Mary’s womb, but the Scriptures and the Tradition are clear that it is the same God who really does dwell in us, for we are called “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The Epistle for today from Hebrews (9:1-7), describes the contents of the inner sanctum of the temple, and this is applied to Mary as the new Holy of Holies wherein the Most High chose to dwell. Yet God chooses to dwell in us as well, we who have been set apart for his service, who have been, in the words of St Paul, “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).

But what about the phenomenon of “consecration to Mary,” a pious practice among some of the faithful as a way of expressing their devotion to her? In a strict theological sense, something or someone can be properly said to be consecrated only to God. Only God can set apart someone or something for divine service, and divine service means its object is God alone. One can certainly dedicate one’s time and efforts in honor of Our Lady or one’s patron saint, etc., but I think it would be most accurate to say that we are consecrated to God with or through his Mother. She is not the final object of our devotion, but is a companion, and intercessor, a protectress on our journey—in short, she is a Mother for us prodigal children who are trying to find our way back to the heavenly Father. So we can be as closely united to her in spirit as one human being can be with another, but we and she have a common focus, a common goal, and that is God, who, again in the words of the Apostle, is “above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). That is, God is now and at last will be manifest as everything to everyone.

It may seem like a schmaltzy sentiment, but it is really true: to love another does not mean merely to look into the eyes of the beloved but more importantly to look together in the same direction. Both we and Our Lady are consecrated to God, though not in precisely the same way. Let this be an image of our life here on earth: we are looking toward God together with Mary. She is a precious dimension of our life in Christ and a most welcome means to divine communion. Our love does not find its final rest in her, but with and through her ascends to God, who is all in all. Let us pray that we may be worthy to be consecrated dwellings of the Most High, we who have entered his temple today to worship Him—for He, our God, is holy.

An Interview with Satan

[I know I said I wasn’t going to deal with politics anymore—and this is only partly about politics, anyway—but I had this once in a lifetime (thank devilGod!) opportunity. The devil himself agreed to grant me an interview. I had to insist that he appear in a form I would find tolerable, for I’ve heard it said that one of worst torments of Hell is to have to look at the horrifying and disgusting ugliness of the devil. He wanted this to be off the record, so as not to tip anybody off to his plans, but hey, I don’t have any loyalty to him, and immortal souls are at stake! His pride being what it is, he couldn’t help but gloat over his master plan for the damnation of the world. But let us be forewarned and forearmed!]

“So, uh, Mr., uh, how should I address you?”

“How about ‘Your Magnificent Grand Master of All Dark and Diabolical Power and Authority, and Supreme Lord of the Everlasting Underworld’?”

“Hmm. A little cumbersome, that. Let’s just leave it at ‘Mr. D.’”

“Hrmph.”

“Well, then, let’s get started. Now you, as a fallen angel—”

“Hold it right there! You’re already making me mad. What’s this ‘fallen’ stuff? I have willingly departed from the Enemy and have become the master of an enormous kingdom. No, I have not fallen but rather have risen to greatness.”

“All right, let’s just get right to the issues. I understand you’ve been quite busy trying to wrap things up in this world. We might both agree that this world is ‘going to Hell in a handbasket,’ but for you this is victory and for many of us this is disaster. Yet people have different interpretations of world events of the present time. Care to comment?”

“I have been busy for millennia, for I never sleep. Historically, I’ve had my ups and downs, but indeed, in recent centuries, nay, even decades, I’ve enjoyed my most smashing successes. In fact, things have been going better for me in recent times than they have since the times before the appearance of that Galilean magician who has done me so much harm and forced many of my works to go awry. But I still say I’m going to have the last laugh. Look around; wouldn’t you agree that my time has come at last?”

“Well, thing are looking pretty chaotic, and I understand that chaos is something you like to spread around. But let’s get specific. Can you say something about the USA? I have a sneaking suspicion you were pulling some strings at the last election.”

“You human rodents are such fools—but this is just how I’d have you. I have been priming your country for some years, and now the fullness of time has come. I have many servants in high places and they will easily overcome all opposition.”

“Do you mean that with the current political configuration things like euthanasia, abortion, embryonic stem cell harvesting, and sexual perversion are now, or soon will be, so entrenched in our society that we’re stuck with them forever?”

“It is so, and this pleases me very much. It’s also interesting that you would even mention stem cell research, as if your backward human science held any interest for me.  But in this case it actually does, and this is one of my more clever smokescreens (if I do say so myself).  My strategy is known to my servants yet the majority of human airheads miss it altogether, which advances my agenda, and so they raise a stink when anyone says it’s wrong.  It is quite obvious that only adult cells have actually proven successful in healing diseases, and there’s not a single success story anywhere from the use of embryonic cells.  But I still push them to insist on it.”

“Why?”

“Are you an airhead, too?  It is because if I can blind them to the truth (an outdated concept, by the way) and make them insist on the necessity of using embryonic cells, then the destruction of these tiny humans will become so widely accepted that the disposability of human beings will be taken for granted, and thus the rationale for abortion will remain intact, and that very profitable business (one that is very pleasing to me) will go on unhindered.  But if any moral outrage were permitted and the destruction of embryos banned, then any thinking person (so few of you left!) would realize that, a fortiori, abortion should be outlawed.  And we can’t have that!  Yet all those things you mentioned are still not the main goal. In terms of your own silly philosophers, these delicacies are ‘necessary but not sufficient.’”

“Can you elaborate?”

I can do anything I damn well— oh, I forgot I’d promised to use a civil tone for this interview. Not easy for me, you know. And I’m not known for keeping my promises. But to answer your question: the moral corruption of your society is necessary for the full realization of my plans, but it’s only a means to an end. These things, however, do have to be in place for my other goals to be accomplished. There are three things that these evils (for you a pejorative term, for me a sweet one) will accomplish. The first is my favorite, at least on the individual level: it prepares souls for eternal damnation, and this is the bottom line of all my work. The second is that things like slaughtering innocent babies and helpless old people, and performing all sorts of perverse, idolatrous, and blasphemous (don’t you love those words? I do) things with the human body desensitize people to horror and degradation, and so their general morality can easily sink to a level that even I’m comfortable with and hence can work with. The third thing is that this moral desensitizing, with its subsequent downward spiraling into other behaviors once considered intolerable in a civilized society, will hollow out souls, as it were, and create such a spiritual lassitude and malaise that your gutless country will finally be ripe.”

“Ripe for what?”

“Boy, you are duller than I thought. (Couldn’t they have provided me with a more intelligent interviewer?) Ripe for domination, dimwit, ripe for subjugation! Power is everything. What do you think this is all about? What do you think wealth and sex and politics are all about? Power and control! And I will not cease lusting after it until the entire universe is under my dominion. Sure, I’m amused by all their sick and murderous antics, but that’s child’s play compared to the big prize. I’m going for the whole ball of wax. When you people are finally surfeited with self-indulgence and eviscerated through immorality, when your wills have become clay in my hands because I provide you with pleasures and amusements, my servants will go in for the kill and harvest you all for my eminent satisfaction. I’m arranging things now so that your people will soon be running to my servants to solve their economic woes and the other global horrors I’m putting into place. They’ll be willing to sacrifice their freedom; they will hand themselves over to my ruling elite if only they can have their ‘bread and circuses.’ The government will control the people, and international money-men will control the government, and I will control the money-men. It has already been that way for some time, but it will become more and more manifest and inescapable. I am gradually tightening the vise.”

“I have to admit, your plans seem to be progressing apace. But are you not taking into account the power of the Lord Je—”

“Don’t you dare say the ‘J-word’ in my presence! I granted this interview on my terms! Weren’t you properly briefed on the protocol? Weren’t you—”

“OK, OK, don’t be a sorehead. But you can’t banish his name from anyone’s heart. This is a brief truce, anyway, so let’s try to have a conversation. What then, about his disciples, his Church? Surely that would be a formidable obstacle.”

“Well, yes and no, and not so much as you might think. I have more servants in those hallowed halls than you would care to accept. This has been one of my subtler works. As I hollow out the souls of the masses through various forms of greed, sexual excess, and wanton disregard for everything sacred, I hollow out the pious (ha, ha!) souls of the hierarchy and the clergy as I lead them down a slippery slope of compromises with the secular society. I keep them preening themselves before the media, and others I lead hither and thither with the latest ideas in the sciences and even in theology, so that they regard the Bible (I hate that book!) and the ancient traditions as passé or something not to be taken seriously by intellects such as theirs, which, by the way, relegate me—me!—to the realms of myth and superstition. I take umbrage at this, but I keep my peace, for it is to my great advantage that they do not believe I exist. My work progresses freely that way. But wait until I come to retrieve them. I’ll give them a very long lesson on my existence! And last but in no way least are those whom I secretly seduce into performing the most exquisite and perverse sacrileges. They release legions of my fellow Hell-dwellers into this loathsome world of yours. As for the ‘faithful,’ they mostly blow with the winds of fashion and change. No sweat.”

“Surely, though, there must be at least some pockets of resistance to your works. I mean, the Church is flourishing in places isn’t it? There still is much divine power, for example, in the Holy Euch—”

“There you go again, speaking abhorrent words! If it wasn’t for that foolish piece of sorcery, I would have claimed the whole world for my own by now! It is, most unfortunately, a shield I cannot penetrate. My only strategy here is to get people to receive it in state of sin, and to inspire some of my bolder servants to steal and desecrate it in our own most felicitous rituals. Thus we take vengeance on the Enemy. But I’d just as soon not even think about it.”

“OK, but the faithful, I mean the true faithful. Do you make any headway with them?”

“Well, I have my ways, but to be honest (I really hate to be honest) they are a thorn in my side and they hinder my work. Thanks be to me there’s only a relatively few of them. Yet they disturb me and make me suspicious that the Enemy is up to something I haven’t quite figured out yet. But I’m planning to do here something I did in China to hamstring your silly church. I’m going to set up—it’s already mostly in place, just cleverly disguised—a sort of ‘patriotic church’ in America. It will look like the real thing externally, but it will follow the liberal trends of the secular society, honoring your new leader (I’ve taken a fancy to him) as some sort of prophet or savior, and it will not make any waves with the powers-that-be. Just what I like: a tame, sycophantic bunch of self-appointed do-gooders who toss around terms like ‘gospel’ without having the faintest idea what it really means, or the power of it. Those who really embrace it and stand against my servants will be driven to the caves and forests of this country, and I will neutralize their influence. But I’ve got to do something about their prayer and fasting. Always hindering me; what killjoys, what spoilsports they are!”

“I suppose, though, you are happy with the success of the ‘new atheists,’ like Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris, who are selling lots of books and likely leading others to disbelieve in God. They seem to be muddying the waters of the current religious environment.”

“Those clowns are useful idiots. They are a smokescreen. They don’t believe in me, either, though I’ll be happy to introduce myself to them at the end of their miserable lives. In a sense I use them as a decoy. They are relatively insignificant but only serve to preoccupy some of the Enemy’s servants into arguing with them on their own terms. And they do tell some people what they want to hear, so such people can convince themselves that it’s OK to lead their heedless and worldly lives. More souls for me. But those who are really the major players on the world stage know very well that I exist. They serve me; they follow my orders. Those atheists are as loathsome to me as they are to many Christians. I will use and then discard them. They are beneath my dignity.”

“The idea that the real powers in this world really do believe in the supernatural—and in fact serve you—reminds me of some things I read in Michael O’Brien’s Eclipse of the Sun.”

“That annoying ass! He blew my cover on some key points. But I’m trying to hide or destroy as many copies of that book as I can find.”

“Well, Mr. D, there’s really a whole lot more I’d like to learn, but we’re out of time now and will have to bring this to a close. You’ve confirmed some of my suspicions, and I have to grudgingly acknowledge that you have attained a large measure of success. But I still believe that the Lord Je—”

Remember the protocol, you irritating little—”

“I guess it’s time for us to get back on the opposite sides of the spiritual war.”

“Just remember, I don’t want people to have any advance notice of what I’m doing. What I said is off the record.”

“Uh, yeah. Whatever.”

Doing Without

I’m reading, unto both edification and amusement, the latest offering from Mother Angelica entitled, Mother Angelica’s Private and Pithy Lessons from the Scriptures (ed. Raymond Arroyo). It’s a collection of biblical meditations in her inimitable style. Here’s how she introduces her commentary on Abraham and Sarah: “When Abraham was ninety years old the Lord said, ‘You’re going to have a son,’ and his wife Sarah just laughed… Well, you would think if God Almighty came down here and said, ‘You’re going to have something you’ve always wanted,’ that it would happen tomorrow, right? Wrong! Nine years pass. By this time Abraham is really old and wrinkled and he’s just out of it. He’s ninety-nine. You can imagine what his wife looked like. Not too much sex appeal, I would imagine…”

Anyway, the passage I’m interested in here is a bit more sober. It’s about fasting, but in a wider sense that is not limited to food. The Byzantine Churches have already begun the 40-day fast to prepare for the Nativity of Christ (begins every year on November 15). It’s somewhat analogous to the Lenten fast, but it is not as severe. I know that in the Roman Church the penitential aspect of Advent has largely disappeared, but perhaps that is not such a good thing. Be that as it may, Mother Angelica gives us some words of wisdom about the meaning of fasting.

“What does it mean to fast? It means to do without. It can be food, it can be things. Poverty is also a type of fasting. For example, if I’m hungry, I would love to have two pieces of bread smothered with a steak, or baloney, or a hamburger. That’s what I would like. It may be what I visualize, but I deny myself—so what am I doing? I am doing without, see? The whole concept of fasting and poverty is to do without.

“All fasting, poverty, obedience, humility—all of the virtues have everything to do with doing without. If I’m humble, I do without my pride. If I’m obedient, I do without my will. If I’m poor, I do without things. Doing without suddenly makes you possess all of those virtues: obedience, humility, poverty, and freedom. What an amazing thing…

[She then goes on to quote and comment on the passage from Mark 2 about the disciples fasting when the Bridegroom is taken away, and makes the spiritual application. She continues]:

“Isn’t that what aridity is: the absence of God’s consolation, the absence of spiritual feeling? Isn’t that the source of so many of our problems? Is that not like the Bridegroom leaving you?

“So ask yourself sometime as you examine your conscience (and I hope you do at least once a day at some point), when you have a problem, ask yourself, ‘What is the source of this?’ And I’ll make a bet it’ll be one thing: You cannot do without. You cannot do without a wonderful consolation from God or a wonderful light. You cannot do without food, you cannot do without electricity, you cannot do without compliments, and you cannot do without your own will: You cannot do without! I think if we examined ourselves on that one point, we would understand fasting. It seems to me that virtue is intimately tied to that understanding.

“I’ve seen some terribly penitential people when it came to food, and they were impossibly hard to get along with. I’m not knocking fasting from food, I’m just saying that it is only one way to fast; there are other ways. If we fasted from our will, for instance, or from our vanity; those are awesome ways to fast. Try it sometime.”

I think her point is well-taken. Mostly we just don’t want to do without the things or comforts we’ve come to consider as necessary or indispensable for our lives. The special liturgical/penitential seasons of the Church are meant to shake us out of this illusion and to show us that it is not only possible but even beneficial to do without some of the things we take for granted. We have to learn that we can do without most things, at least on a temporary basis. The only thing we can’t do without is the grace of God, and we need to come to a more experiential awareness of this. So we knock out the usual props and trust God to hold us up and, lo and behold, we find that He can do it! And we also find that we, by cooperating enough to engage in a bit of self-denial, can actually become more independent of the things we thought we couldn’t do without.

To be able to do without is strength; it is freedom. I’m not saying that we have to do without all good things all the time—neither are the Gospel or the Church saying that. But we have to do without at least some of the time, so that we are not enslaved to the goods of this world, and not attached to our own ego or to having our way all the time. To fast periodically from food is healthy for the body; to fast from selfishness, pride, acquisitiveness and over-consumption, is healthy for the soul. And both help us prepare spiritually for feasts like Christmas. How special are the material blessings of the holiday if you haven’t done without them at all during the whole year? Doing without at certain times is what helps us see gifts for what they truly are. It’s a genuine fast that helps us appreciate the meaning of the feast.

Try it sometime.

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