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

Archive for March, 2009

If You Ask, Will You Receive? (Part 1)

[This is something I wrote a couple years ago, on asking and receiving.  I said a while back I'd give a fairly detailed treatment of the subject, so here it is.]

I think it’s time to write something on prayer, though not on contemplative prayer, as you might expect from a monk (and as I have done in the past).  Here I will write about asking for stuff, which is known as prayer-handsprayer of petition—perhaps the type of prayer that people are most familiar with.  Indeed, the word “prayer” itself means to ask.  I pray you, then, should we not try to understand more fully what Jesus means when He says, “Ask and you shall receive”?

At first glance, it would seem that the Gospels give us a simple recipe for getting whatever we want from God.  “Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus said, “for everyone who asks receives” (Mt 7:7-8).  See how easy?  Since these are the words of the eternal Word of God, we ought to expect that they are wholly and absolutely true and unequivocal—oughtn’t we?  Well, of course, but even though they are true, we have to realize that the Word has spoken other words on the same topic that are equally true.  Anyone who does any public speaking (or writing) usually has a healthy fear of being quoted out of context.  I would venture to say that the Lord Jesus has been quoted out of context more than anyone else in the history of the world.

Sacred Scripture is not a collection of unrelated sayings and stories.  Despite the fact that the Bible was written by many human authors (though only one divine one) over a long period of time, in different styles and for different purposes to different audiences, there is an inner unity and coherence guaranteed by its one divine author, the Holy Spirit.  This is especially true of the New Testament.  Therefore, if we are rightly to understand what Jesus meant by one of his sayings on prayer, we had better look at his other sayings on prayer so as to get the full picture.  So much harm and confusion have resulted from selective readings of Scripture, isolating certain texts from others that would clarify them, and thus going off on some rather strange tangents, even though words of the Lord are being quoted.  Almost all heresies have their basis in Scripture, but it is an incomplete, one-sided or misguided reading of Scripture that produces the errors.

So let’s look at a few other things Jesus has said about the prayer of petition.  We know already, “Ask and you shall receive.”  Another apparently straightforward one is: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13).  There is, however, a certain qualification here: “in my name.”  Sometimes I ask for things in Jesus’ name and I don’t get them.  What’s wrong with me?  (I’m assuming nothing’s wrong with Jesus.)  Well, to ask for something in Jesus’ name isn’t merely to pronounce those words in your petition: “O God, give me a million dollars and a new car—no, two new cars—and a house on Malibu Beach.  I ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”  I think we’re safe to say that the divine name-dropping here is going to be quite useless for obtaining what we ask for.  At this point we run into another New Testament condition (or rather, a reproach) for petitions: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).  If you ask wrongly, for something that will only be for self-indulgence or opulent living, you will not receive it, Jesus’ name or no Jesus’ name.

It must be, then, that “in Jesus’ name” has a deeper meaning.  Practically all of the following conditions are elements of what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.  Remember that in biblical thought a name is nearly identical to the one it names.  God had said that his name would dwell in the Temple, meaning that He Himself would dwell there.  To profane the divine name is to directly insult God Himself, and the same goes for glorifying God by praising his holy name.  So if we are to pray in Jesus’ name, we really have to pray in Jesus, that is, we have to be in personal and intimate communion with Him.  It is not a matter of learning a foolproof formula for getting God to turn over the goods.  It is rather a matter of learning to love Him enough so as to be on the same page, so to speak, to be in the kind of inner harmony through which we hanker not for the useless trinkets that the unbelievers seek for their self-indulgence or satisfaction.  We seek instead the Kingdom of God, that is, whatever enhances our relationship with Him and prepares us for entry into Heaven.

If it is all about loving the Lord, how do we do that?  It’s not always easy (or even desirable, necessarily) to conjure up affectionate feelings or to raise pious eyes aloft in rapturous emotion.  Jesus doesn’t talk at all about the role of emotion in love.  What does He say?  “If you love me, keep my commandments… He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me… He who does not love me does not keep my words” (Jn 14:15, 21, 24).  So love is about doing, not about feeling.  That should make it easy enough for anyone to love—or at least to know what love requires.

If keeping Jesus’ words has to do with loving Him, and loving Him has to do with being in Jesus, or in his name, then keeping his words must have something to do with receiving what we ask for in prayer.  “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (Jn 15:7).  Now the picture is getting clearer, even if it is not yet complete.  Personal communion with Jesus (abiding in Him), and obedience to his commandments (his words abiding in us), will put us in a position to receive what we ask for.  The reason for this is related to the next condition.

“If we ask anything according to [God's] will, he hears us” (1Jn 5:14).  Even though we’re not finished yet, we’ve come to the bottom line.  If we want God to hear our prayer, we have to ask according to his will.  Now don’t chafe at this, as if his will must inevitably mean rain on your parade.  After all, if you pray the Lord’s Prayer sincerely, you ask every day that God’s will be done.  If Jesus told us to pray that way—He who loves us and wants to see us happy forever—then God’s will must be something really good.  I hinted at this condition above when I said we have to be on the same page with God.  The whole point of getting things through prayers of petition is not about getting things through prayers of petition.  It is about getting into union with God, obeying his word, abiding in Christ, so that we have the mind of Christ, as St Paul said (1Cor 2:16).  Having attained to that level of spiritual life, we’re not interested in things that are not God’s will for us, so we don’t ask for them.  Being on the right “wavelength,” we ask only for what God wills and so we easily get it.

You might wish to object: but if God only answers prayers made according to his will, why pray for anything specific at all?  Why not just make one prayer– “Thy will be done” –and be finished with it?  Well, I never said I had all the answers, but one reason may be that sometimes it is God’s will that we ask, so that his will can be done!  In effect He would then be saying: “I will that you ask, and only then shall my will be done.”  God the Father doesn’t want us to be fatalists, but loving and obedient children, who ask and receive—not only asking that his (unspecified) will be done, but using specific petitions as the means for his will getting done.  Again, for this we have to be “in tune” with Him.  (I hope I haven’t lost you here.  I’ll come back to the issue of God’s will before the end of part two.)

To be continued…

Up to Jerusalem to Drink the Cup

The Liturgy is turning our focus toward Jerusalem henceforth.  All this coming week the Offices will jerusalem1be counting down the days toward the drama of the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ entry into the holy city.  So in the Gospel today (Mk. 10:32-45), Jesus announces it Himself: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem.”  But here He is not talking about the glorious things.  He doesn’t say that they are going up to Jerusalem to raise Lazarus from the dead.  And He doesn’t say they are going up to Jerusalem so that Jesus can be acclaimed as the Messiah and welcomed with songs of joy.  No, He says they are going there so that the Son of Man will be delivered to the Jewish authorities, who will condemn Him to death and then hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will revile Him, scourge Him and kill Him.  That’s why He’s going to Jerusalem.  That is, as He says at the end of this Gospel passage, He is going there to give his life as a ransom for many.

One would think that such an announcement would put the disciples in a fearful, anxious, or grief-stricken mood, or at the very least a pensive one.  But the disciples James and John seem to have been thinking about something else: their own glory.  Immediately after Jesus prophesied his condemnation and death, they asked Him to give them the highest places in his Kingdom when He comes in his glory!  Jesus was very patient with them (unlike the rest of the disciples) and simply cut to the heart of the matter: “You do not know what you are asking.”  Perhaps it is that way with us sometimes as well.  We ask for things at inopportune moments, or we ask for inappropriate things, or we ask for things that will somehow enhance our status, in our own or in others’ eyes.  Or we ask for things that seem to be good, but we have no idea what God’s will is (and we don’t pause to check), so we don’t understand the consequences of our request.  So He may have to say to us as well: “You do not know what you are asking.”

But the Lord doesn’t leave it at that.  He asks a question of the disciples: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  The disciples’ answer shows that Jesus was right when He said they didn’t know what they were asking.  Without having any idea what Jesus meant by his cup and his baptism, they immediately said: “We are able.”  It seems that they still had their eyes fixed on the thrones of glory next to Jesus, so they basically said, “OK, whatever,” to any conditions Jesus might lay down before they could ascend to their places of honor.  If they knew that the cup and the baptism meant suffering what Jesus would suffer, and if knowing that they still said, “We are able,” they wouldn’t have abandoned Jesus so easily in the Garden and run away from Him the moment some danger arose.

Yet Jesus saw further than their cowardice in Gethsemane.  He saw beyond Pentecost, when these two disciples would indeed fearlessly witness to Jesus.  James would be the first of the Twelve to drink Jesus’ cup, for he was to be the first martyr among them.  And John would suffer exile and many hardships “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9).  So Jesus told them that they would indeed share his cup and his baptism.  But He then had to lecture the whole group on how they could not be glory-seekers if they were going to be his disciples.  Even the greatest among them would have to serve the others, for if they were to be like their Master, they would have to serve and not expect to be served.

Jesus offers his cup and his baptism to all believers in Him.  It is not a coincidence that these terms are used.  For it is through the cup of the Holy Eucharist and sacramental Baptism that we personally share in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the grace of his glorified life as well, as far as possible in this present land of exile.  Recently I read in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3). So even if we do not receive the grace of actual martyrdom, we are still immersed in the death of Christ; we are “baptized with his baptism.”  And what we eat and drink from the Eucharistic chalice is what Jesus sacrificed on the Cross: his own Body and Blood.  The Passion of Christ was the “cup” He drank, that is, this was his destiny or his doom, meaning that which was prepared for Him, which He could not avoid.  Yet it was something He went toward willingly.

In The Lord of the Rings, it was Frodo’s doom to bear the One Ring through incredible perils and cast it into the fiery heart of the mountain where it originally had been forged.  Despite all hardships, and coming to the point of despair, he pressed on, because this was the destiny laid upon him, and he had freely committed himself to it, not expecting that he would come out of it alive.  This was his cup, and when he drank it to the dregs, behold, the Dark Lord was destroyed, and the sounds of joy and feasting were heard in the halls of the righteous, and the great deeds of all who battled against the powers of darkness were recounted in song.

The Lord’s doom also had its happy ending, for at the end of his prophecy of his condemnation and death, He added: “But on the third day he shall rise.”  No one knew what this meant at the time, so it wasn’t much consolation to them, but when they were reminded of it on the first Easter Sunday it all came back to them.  The death and resurrection of Christ would destroy the power of the devil, the dark lord who had kept the world in bondage to sin and death.  This is dramatized in the movie, The Passion of the Christ.  The devil seemed to be in control of the events and was coolly sure of himself as he taunted Jesus in the garden, presided over Judas’ suicide, observed with satisfaction Jesus’ scourging, and walked with anticipation the road to Golgotha.  But when Jesus drank his cup to the dregs and gave up his life on the Cross, the devil was thrown into a tormented rage, for his dominion had suddenly and unexpectedly come to an end, and he found himself alone and vanquished in his foul and fiery dungeon.

It’s one thing to note all these things and even agree with them, but it’s quite another to put them into practice.  We have been baptized into Christ and we drink his Eucharistic cup.  But, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, we haven’t yet resisted evil to the point of shedding our own blood.  The baptism and the cup have their practical applications in our lives that go beyond sacramental immersion or communion.  Jesus gave us a general example of drinking our cup by serving others and not expecting to be served by them.  We give our lives for others not only once in a sacrificial death, but in all the daily “deaths” that are a part of living an unselfish life of humble service.  St Paul says that we are always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life may be manifested in us.  He said this in the context of enduring the trials that are part of the life of a disciple of Christ (see 2Cor. 4:8-12).

I recently read something written by Fr Andrea Santoro, the Italian priest who was martyred in Turkey just three years ago.  Shortly before he was killed, he wrote: “I am here to dwell among these people and enable Jesus to do so by lending him my flesh… One becomes capable of salvation only by offering one’s own flesh.  The evil in the world must be borne and the pain shared, assimilating it into one’s own flesh as did Jesus.”  This priest knew what it meant to drink the cup that Jesus drank and to be baptized in the same baptism.

We may not be called to die as witnesses to Christ, as many are today throughout the world.  But we are still called to give our lives for Jesus, day by day: to serve, to forgive, to endure hardships and offer the sacrifices required by our vocations. It is not for us to seek glory, but only to be faithful, leaving the rest to God’s providence and generosity.

We have to ponder Jesus’ question: “Can you drink the cup that I drink?”  And if we answer yes (which we must, if we are to be his faithful followers), we have to accept the destiny laid upon us, and go up to Jerusalem with Him.  We are making this pilgrimage in a liturgical and spiritual way this week, but that is only the beginning.  We have to fulfill that for which God has created and chosen us; we have to be selfless servants in a world that seeks its own glory.  We must carry within us the death of Christ, so that we can also manifest his life.  That life is the life that became his after his resurrection; it is the life that will never end, the life that He took up after He laid down his earthly life for us, giving it as a ransom for our sins.  Now, through baptism and the Eucharistic cup, we share in that life.  But our share in that life requires our share in his death as well.  Our prayer and fasting and liturgical worship are part of our sacrificial offering, as is our service to one another, and also our acceptance of all that God’s will decrees or permits in our lives.  All of it is to be received as the cup and baptism of Christ, which his faithful disciples must embrace with faith and love.

So let us look toward Jerusalem.  Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the beginning of the Great and Holy Week of the Lord’s Passion.  Can you drink the cup?  There are real saints and martyrs in the world who put the Gospel into practice and carry their crosses every day.  That is because they know Him in whom they believe.  They have heard the word of the Lord and understood it.  They realize that the Christ had to suffer so as to enter into his glory, and that no servant is greater than his master.  So they are willing to follow Him to the Cross.  For they are convinced that nothing in this world compares with the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord.

Gladsome Light

That’s the name of our monastery newsletter, which is less a newsletter than a collection of articles for your spiritual edification.  Some of you know this already and have been on our mailing list.  But we have had to discontinue the paper version due to the great expense of printing and mailing, so now it is available only online.  Perhaps not all who read this blog know of our newsletter.  If you would like to read it (it contains articles that are not published on this blog), just click here.  I’ll have a link for it eventually in my blogroll.  The Easter issue should be published today sometime, if it isn’t already.  If you would like an e-mail notice when each new issue is published (3-4 times a year), there are instructions on the last page of the newsletter.  I hope you will enjoy it and pass on the the address to anyone you think may benefit from it.  Thank you and God bless you!

Ocean of Mercy

“Ocean of Mercy” is the title of a song recorded some years ago by a Christian musician.  It seems to me that mercy is an important element of the inner unity of the mysteries of Lent and Easter.  Mercy was offered to the world in the “Father, forgive them” of the Passion of Christ, and its accomplishment was confirmed in the “Peace be with you” of the Risen Lord.

We should understand that mercy is not simply pardon or acquittal; nor is its purpose or goal mere “imputed righteousness.”  Mercy implies a dynamic flow of divine life and healing grace.  It is personified in our Lord Jesus Christ and communicated through a personal and loving relationship with Him.  As the song goes, “Mercy wants to hold you, forever.”  Receiving divine mercy is not just getting a “clean slate.”  It is entering into an experience that has the power to transform your life, to give a new beginning, to open the eyes of your heart to perceive things hitherto unknown.

The mystery of God’s mercy goes deep into our hearts, into the pain of shattered dreams and broken lives, into the hopelessness of those who have tried and failed one too many times.  We may think that even an ocean is insufficient to cleanse the pollutions of a lifetime, to purify our souls from the ingrained effects of an endless series of sins, mistakes, selfishness, and a general inadequacy to fulfill the fundamental task of righteous human living.  We have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and it has brought us (perhaps) a bit of desperate pleasure, but mostly pain and sorrow and a gaping inner wound that can be healed only by the power of divine mercy and love.  At the threshold of Lent the liturgy offered us a reflection upon the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and this is fitting as we desire to recover a pristine purity that is always eluding our grasp.

ocean-of-mercyMercy is our only help and our only hope.  It’s too late to reconstruct our own lives from the shards of our brokenness, to wish to undo the past, to try to figure things out, or even to try to gain Heaven through sheer determination.  No, we have soberly to assess the heights from which we have fallen, realize the gravity of what we have done and what we have failed to do, and plunge ourselves into the Ocean of Mercy.  Only in this way will our sins be remembered no more and our lives be made capable of going forward in hope and in the deifying grace of the One who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

One of our common penitential texts concisely expresses our radical need for God’s mercy and our radical lack of any justification for our behavior: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.  Since we have no excuse for our sinfulness, we can only offer You this prayer, O Master: Have mercy on us.”

The work of Great Lent is to draw us to the shores of the purifying sea, to dispose us to receive what we cannot produce of ourselves, to strip the soul of its outer crust of harmful habits and self-indulgent lusts, so as to be ready to experience the impact of the divine presence and to undergo the necessary spiritual catharsis.

Perhaps we don’t experience mercy sufficiently because we don’t value it highly enough.  We get used to confession without repentance, penance without conversion, absolution without a renewed life-giving relationship with the Lord.  The sacrament becomes little more than a legal fiction through which we blithely convince ourselves that we are in a “state of grace.”  Then we go on living the same way we always have, perhaps even at times rehearsing the confession we plan to make after the sin we are about to commit.  But this is a mockery of the sacrament and hence of God as well.

It is time to seek mercy, wholeheartedly.  It is time to cease irrationally clinging to that which we know is destroying us.  We must now embrace the gift and allow God’s grace to effect the necessary changes in our lives.  Let’s not just mark the days off on our calendars as Easter approaches, looking eagerly forward to the time we can start eating well again and put an end to all those darn prostrations.  The “He is risen” at the end of the Gospel will have no meaning for us (or effect on our souls) if we have not heeded the “Repent and believe” at the beginning.

The Lord comes forth from the tomb victorious—and compassionate.  He didn’t rise to destroy his enemies but to forgive them.  The only way to share the victory is to confess that we are losers, and to trust God to make all things new.  This is because it is his mercy alone that raises us up.  We can’t just present our baptismal certificates and suddenly declare that now we are on the side of the Winner.  God can raise up paper Christians from the very stones—but these are not the worshippers He seeks (see Jn. 4:23).

When we hear those words– “It is the Lord!” –as did St Peter, we too had better jump into the Ocean of Mercy and make our way toward Jesus (see Jn. 21:7).  Having gone through all the bitter trials of life, still doggedly trusting in God’s mercy, we will be able honestly to answer the great and final question (and ultimately the only one) as did Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.”

Conceiving the Inconceivable

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year, since it gives us the opportunity to celebrate an incomprehensible and marvelous mystery that is at the heart of our salvation: the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Savior. Yet there’s also a kind of bittersweet dimension to it, since it almost always occurs during Lent or Holy Week (last year being a notable exception).  So the liturgical structure does not reflect quite the same exuberance as do other major feasts, for we celebrate the Liturgy in conjunction with Vespers, and there are even some Lenten texts prescribed in some of the services of the day.  Perhaps this adds to the poignancy of Mary’s “let it be done to me,” because her surrender to the will of God falls under the shadow of the Cross.

Let us try to understand annunciation-of-the-blessed-virgin-marysomething of the mystery of this feast, and what the Church is trying to communicate to us by means of it.  First of all, we see in the Gospel text (Lk 1:24-38) that the evangelist takes pains to insist that Mary was a virgin, and therefore that Christ was conceived in her directly from God, without any human mediation.  Ordinarily, when female characters are introduced in stories, even biblical ones, the delicate issue of virginity is not the very first one mentioned.  But in today’s Gospel it is.  We learn about that even before we learn her name!  “The angel Gabriel was sent by God… to a virgin.” And when we do learn her name, her virginity is mentioned again: “the virgin’s name was Mary.”  Once the angel explains what God is planning to do in her, she herself states that she is a virgin—and perhaps implies that she had intended to remain one.  If she had fully intended to have a normal marriage, she wouldn’t have thought twice about the angel’s words, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”  Of course, if she was about to get married, she would very likely conceive and bear children as countless other women have done.  But she asked the angel how this was supposed to happen, since she did not know man.  This would have been a nonsensical question if she had fully expected to know man on her wedding night!

But whatever Mary’s plans for her own life may have been up to that point, what most concerns the evangelist, and us, is what the angel next said: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”  This is the astounding news of the Incarnation of God.  There have been great annunciations in the Old Testament concerning the births of prophets or kings.  These all prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah, but Jesus is greater still than the common understanding of the Messiah, for even if people could expect that the Messiah’s conception would have happened by some intervention of God, like that of the conception of Isaac or John the Baptizer, no one ever thought that a husband would have been totally excluded from the equation!  The Incarnation is more than a providential intervention in human affairs.  God Himself was about to enter into human life and history in a wholly unprecedented, undreamed-of manner.  He wasn’t merely going to pour his blessings upon the favored child, be it king or prophet.  He Himself would become that Child and thereby save his people from their sins.

This is what the Gospel has established by repeatedly making it clear that she was a virgin and that she was in fact to be impregnated solely by the power of God.  There have been heroes and saviors of the people of God down through the ages, but they all had their human failings, and they all died, never to be heard from again.  Their wisdom and their deeds were remembered, but their power to deliver the people of God from their afflictions had died with them.  With the arrival of the Angel Gabriel, the fullness of time had come, but another merely human hero would not be adequate to the task at hand, which was not a temporal liberation, but a radical, permanent overthrowing of the power of sin and death—something only God could accomplish.  And so God came, through the human body and the personal consent of the Virgin Mary.

The Epistle for this feast (Heb. 2:11-18) tells us something about why the Son of God became man.  He partook of human nature, it says, “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”  Jesus was born as a man so that He could die—because as the eternal Word of God, Pure Spirit, He could not die—and in dying he would rob death and the devil of their power and free all those held in their grip.  For ever since Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, mankind has lived in the shadow of death, and death, for uncounted millennia, had been considered as the end of all things for the one who died.  Death was the bitter curse, the last enemy, the ultimate devourer of all the experience and meaning of life.

But this state of affairs was not acceptable to the Lover of Mankind.  Even though death was a just punishment for sin, God wished to redeem his creatures made in his image.  He could have simply said, “All is forgiven,” but that would not have been a sufficiently profound expression of his everlasting love.  He could have said, “I hereby abolish death,” and it would have been done, but He would have remained on his throne and the unbridgeable chasm between God and man would still have remained.  God wouldn’t be satisfied until He personally crossed that chasm and made a way for us to cross over to Him.  So rather than destroying the power of death with only a command, He actually experienced the agony of suffering and death, personally absorbing all its ancient terrors and its insatiable lust for the destruction of all that lives.  According to the Epistle, this was a priestly service by which He made expiation for our sins.  For, as St Paul says, death came into the world through sin.  So if Christ was to deliver us from the power of death, He would have to make expiation for our sins.  He did both by his death on the Cross and his Resurrection.

Now we have a way back to God; now we can cross the bridge that leads to Heaven.  It would have been utterly impossible to do so without the Incarnation, which made possible the sacrificial death of Christ.  These two mysteries are expressed a little later in Hebrews, when the author writes: “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us… through his flesh…” (10:19-20).  The incarnate Son of God is Himself, in the reality of the human nature He assumed, the “new and living way”—new, because the way back to God didn’t exist before the Incarnation, and living, because after his Resurrection, Jesus shall die no more but lives forever to save those who put their faith and trust in Him.

All of this wonderful work of God on our behalf—without which death would have devoured us forever—began when a teenage Jewish girl said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”  So we return to the mystery of the Annunciation and why it is so important—and also why the Virgin Mary is venerated so highly by the Church.  She was the means by which our salvation came to pass, or shall we say, she provided that which was necessary for our Savior to save us: his human nature.

It is impossible to separate the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Cross, and so it is perhaps fitting that this feast does usually occur during Lent.  Ten days ago we celebrated the Sunday of the Holy Cross (always the third Sunday of Lent) and in a couple weeks we will be entering the profound mystery of the Passion of Christ in Holy Week.  Between these two shines a pure and gentle light from the Heart of the Mother, an opening to the joy that is the ultimate plan of God and that secretly underlies even the agony of the Cross, for we know how the story ends, or rather, that the story never ends—for death shall be swallowed up by Life in the Resurrection of Christ.  Then the angel’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “Of his Kingdom there will be no end.”  We affirm our faith in this every time we pray the Nicene Creed.

For now, we live in faith and in hope.  The joy of the Age to Come has not yet been manifested, only promised.  We have miles to go before we sleep, that is, before this earthly journey comes to an end and we enter into eternal rest from the labors and sufferings of this life.  In the time that still remains we must align our hearts and thoughts with those of Our Lady, who said yes to the will of God in all things.  It was not only at the Annunciation that her consent was required to fulfill the will of God.  Her whole life had to be a surrender, a selfless embrace of the mystery of God in her life, in both joy and sorrow.  Her yes was perhaps hardest to pronounce as she stood at the foot of the Cross.  It’s one thing to say yes when hearing that you are miraculously going to be the mother of the Messiah, who will reign forever, and quite another to see this Messiah condemned, tortured and executed with common criminals.

There are liturgical texts in which Mary recalls the mystery of the Annunciation as she stands before the Cross, wondering what had become of the angel’s prophecies of joy and glory, now that her whole world, her love, her hope, was pierced by nails and torn by scourges.  But she wouldn’t leave Him, wouldn’t despair, and thus she said yes to God to the bitter end, and so was rewarded with the revelation of his Resurrection, with the Gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and with eternal joy in Heaven.  She is the Queen Mother glorified at the side of the King, her Son, as the mothers of the sons of David, the kings of Israel, were honored in their time (see, for example, 1Kgs. 2:19).  But this Queen Mother and her Son are unlike any that went before them and any that came since.  For she alone had conceived in her womb and bore a divine Son, whom she called Jesus.  The Holy Spirit had come upon her and the Power of the Most High overshadowed her.  And the Child that was born was called the Son of God.  And He was great, for He was the Son of the Most High, and He reigns forever, for his Kingdom will have no end.

The Mother

[This is an article I wrote a few years ago.  I offer it now as sort of a preparation for the Feast of the Annunciation.  I'll post my homily for that on the 25th.   That is a bit more theological; this has a somewhat different approach, and is more personal.]

Although the Mother of God is dwelling in the serene joy and bright glory of Heaven, I’d like to write something about what her relationship is with us who are still on Earth—and who may feel like heavenly glory is still a long way off.

Very much has been written about devotion to the Mother of God over the centuries, and personally I find the majority of it to be quite unhelpful in my own relationship with her.  Some of it is very sentimental and flowery, some is theologically inaccurate, and some tends to foster a kind of spiritual infantilism or one-sided overemphasis on Marian devotions.  On the other hand, some would attempt to downplay or minimize all her glory and surpassing holiness, somehow apparently resenting her uniqueness and perfection.  Some would make her a goddess and others have even attempted to “re-imagine” her as a champion of feminist ideals (though I think that most radical feminists would be embarrassed by her loving obedience to the will of God).  Some would make her a co-Redeemer, and others evidently wish she would go away altogether.  Then there are some exaggerated expressions in the Byzantine Liturgy (that is, the Divine Office) which, if taken literally, would amount to heresy, but there are practically no expressions at all in the current Roman Liturgy (that is, the Mass).  I think I’d still prefer excess to defect in this case, though some necessary corrections are in order.

After all that, how to we find our way to the real Blessed Mother?  This is not always an easy quest, though in reality it should be as simple as child spontaneously knowing where to turn in time of need.  Having abandoned some earlier exaggerations in my own spiritual life, I had for some time felt a kind of inner void in my relation to her, and I uneasily contented myself with a sort of “veneration from afar.” I would dutifully pray all the prescribed prayers, but I did not really know her: how God intends her to be present in my life, how she is supposed to “fit” in my relationship to Christ, and how I could and should approach her—outside of the Liturgy, anyway.  At this point I should say that I still have much to discover, much to learn and experience, but I did receive a helpful insight recently that enabled me to start connecting the dots.  This did not come through sorting through the unmanageable mountains of devotional literature about her, but through a brief reference in a book on another subject, which led me to a deep moment of truth and grace.

The main point, which is (or ought to be) the most obvious one in the history of Marian devotions, is that she is simply our heavenly Mother.  But some things that are obvious are taken for granted or understood superficially or erroneously.  We know that some people have excessive and unhealthy attachments to their mothers, but this is not what devotion to the Blessed Mother should be about.  It has been rightly said that “the essence of devotion is not sentiment but readiness,” that is, readiness to do the will of God as Our Lady did.  Our devotion and love for her ought also to be, it seems to me, based on gratitude, which in turn is based on our increasing awareness of the motherly solicitude she ceaselessly—and in a most self-effacing manner—exercises on our behalf.

(Of course, she is also worthy of honor simply because of who she is, her unique holiness, and her indispensable contribution to the mystery of the Incarnation.  This is why we have liturgical devotion.  But here I wish to take things to a more personal, down-to-earth level.)

I had been reading an account of the exorcism of a priest who was possessed by the devil (a true story, and therefore quite sobering).  I came to a part in the account at which the mother of the possessed priest was standing outside the door of the room in which the exorcism was taking place, praying and singing a hymn to the Mother of God, imploring Our Lady to protect and help him. Thevirgin_mary author described the poignancy of the moment: “Her mother’s heart was crying to another mother… Only these two mothers could appreciate what was now at stake.”

This was a very powerful image for me that suddenly and quite unexpectedly produced an enlightening awareness and a fountain of tears. I began to realize that the Mother of God had been interceding for me all along—really, through my whole life—through all my “growing pains,” all my sins and detours from the narrow path, all my struggles, and my failures to be everything God wills me to be.  She had been engaging tirelessly in the thankless maternal ministry of quietly interceding for her suffering, sinful children, who most of the time don’t even know she’s there.  I suddenly knew it with crystal clarity, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude as well as with a desire never to “grieve the Holy Spirit” again.  To be honest, until that moment I really didn’t know she was there, even though I would have readily agreed in principle that she is with us and intercedes for us.  It’s one thing to “know,” either intellectually or with the assent of faith, and quite another to have an experiential awareness and insight.  Sometimes experience really is the best teacher (as long as it is not contrary to divine revelation).

The Mother of God does not come to reveal herself, but only to serve God’s plan of salvation in our regard.  She is not somehow between us and God, but she lovingly walks with us, rejoices and weeps with us—and maybe prods us a bit when we need it—but she is always a steadfast though unseen support, and a source of unceasing intercession.  In that bright light of fresh understanding, I saw that the Blessed Mother stands by the door of our deliverance, feeling as only a mother can the anguish of a suffering child.  She prays with love and compassion as her Son enters our innermost chamber to liberate us from satan’s chains, to grant us victory in our life-or-death struggle with the enemy of our salvation. It is with good reason that Catholics have for centuries implored the Blessed Mother to “pray for us sinners.”  In union with the whole Byzantine Church, I entreat her every evening at Compline “to repel the assaults of my enemies and to guide me to salvation.”

This deeply involved and fiercely loyal woman is not the Lady of plaster statues or bejeweled icons: regal, dispassionate, obscured by clouds of incense or syrupy hymns.  This is the living Mother who rushes to the aid of her afflicted son or daughter.  What mother can see her children in pain or trouble and not drop everything and run to them, remaining with them in compassion and tenderness?  This is the nitty-gritty essence of motherhood: making the countless sacrifices without counting the cost, being there night and day, expecting no repayment, for love is its own reward.  The mother is always taken for granted, yet she never resents it.  Her maternity bestows upon her a mission, and she cannot rest until it is fulfilled.  Though Queen in Heaven, Mary is Mother on Earth. And not only once or twice does she come to help us recover from our self-inflicted wounds and brainless betrayals, but over and over again, whatever it takes to guide us back to the right path.  There’s a song called “Time After Time,” which I heard beautifully sung by Eva Cassidy, in whom I can hear the voice of Mary.  It includes the line: “If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time; if you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting, time after time.”  This is the role of the Mother in our lives.  This is why, on the level of daily Christian living, we ought to be devoted to her.

The mission of the Mother is both the tender being-with and the wise and uncompromising being-for her children.  Her love is often a “tough love” that does not hesitate to point out the ways we have to change.  The Lord said that the one who is forgiven much loves much, so when we know clearly how far we have fallen, our love and gratitude increase. St Silouan of Athos once had a sobering experience of Our Lady’s presence, before his conversion and entry into the monastery.  She came to him and said, “I find your ways ugly to look upon.”  A man of lesser strength and humility (like me) would have been utterly crushed at these words.  (Just think, you receive a once-in-a-lifetime visitation of the Mother of God, and that is what she says to you!)  But he found them to be the sweetest words he ever heard, because he knew the love that inspired them, and in response to them he changed his life and began to follow Christ with his whole heart.

Though Our Lady constantly prays for us, we should not think that she is there to “butter up” God so that He won’t judge us too harshly—as some mothers might do to keep dad from giving his disobedient kids what they deserve.  It is a gross caricature to view Mary as the Merciful Mother whose job it is to soften the heart of the Angry Judge.  She lives—now in Heaven as she did on Earth—solely to do the will of God.  Her compassion comes from God.  God is love, and since Mary loves, her love is of God.

I know that some people have not had the experience of what a good mother is, so it may be difficult to feel comfortable or safe with Mary.  But why not let her show you the true heart of motherhood, why not risk trusting the one who risked all to trust the angel of the Lord—that angel who spoke of things impossible for man, but possible for God.  It is possible to welcome her into your life.  It is possible to believe that she walks with you, speaks to God about you, and prays that every spiritual blessing from Heaven may be yours.  Don’t worry if at this moment you cannot fully embrace her.  As you read this she is fully embracing you, with love and prayer.  You will eventually discover her; then you’ll know.

There is much more than can be said about the Mother of God, but perhaps it is better if you learn it for yourself, through your own experience, in God’s good time.  All I’d like to say now is that she is there for you, waiting, praying, watching out for you.  She knows what is at stake, so her maternal heart refuses to abandon you.  She is your mother.  Mothers don’t give up.  Mothers keep vigil when their children are sick.  Mothers guide and correct—and they do insist that you be the best you can be.  But most of all, mothers love.

Sufficient Grace

There’s a rather famous passage in St Paul’s letters that I’ve referred to from time to time, and whenever I come across it again, as I just did a few days ago, I seem to need to reflect on it again, to get some fuller sufficient-graceunderstanding. It’s a word from the Lord at once disturbing and consoling, peace-giving and perplexing: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9).

This seems to be the most common answer to my prayers, at least those concerning myself. I tend to want to pray in hope that God’s grace will be sufficient, but He’s telling me that it already is. My next move is to pray that it will be manifest or experienced as such! Then He sends me back to the “is” without further comment.

Sometimes I think that if the Lord would have consulted me first about how to deal with “thorns in the flesh” or other weaknesses of human nature or character, we would have come up with a more satisfying solution. But since He chose to bypass my input, I have to conclude that He has foreseen something in his infinite wisdom and serenity that I may have missed amid my frantic cries for immediate deliverance.

Probably most of us have some “tragic flaw,” some sort of besetting temptation or sin, some nagging weakness or vulnerability that we’d like simply to be rid of once and for all. We don’t know what St Paul’s was, but he described it metaphorically (I hope that’s all it was!) as “a messenger of satan to beat me.” So then, looking at our own problems, things could be worse. All the same, we do experience inadequacy, the inability to be vibrant with virtue in flawless fortitude and unflagging faith. Somehow it seems, though, that this is precisely what God has come to expect from us—at least in this present life before we are to “shine like the sun in our Father’s Kingdom.”

Not that God wants us to wallow in sin or to give up efforts to overcome our failings, for indeed He hates evil and loves holiness, but He wants us to learn something first. He says his power is perfected in weakness, a weakness that is translated as utter dependence upon divine mercy and assistance. So his grace is sufficient, though He may not choose to wipe out every trace of our weakness, but He will carry us through with equanimity and trust, as we learn to walk with Him one step at a time, learning the necessary lessons along the way. Human beings tend to get proud and arrogant if they have no humiliating weaknesses of body or soul to serve as reality checks.

Still, we wrestle with the mystery. Paul repeatedly begged the Lord for deliverance but received only the “My grace is sufficient” response. As we progress in the spiritual life, we may go through many stages of knowing and “unknowing.” We may come to know God in a certain way, and then later realize that He is not really what we thought, or that He is, but much more, or in a different way. Life will always be a struggle, but with divine grace it will be a rewarding and enlightening one. An old monk from Mt Athos was once asked if he struggled with the devil. He replied: “I struggled with the devil for many years, but I no longer need to do so. Now I struggle with God.” That means that he had succeeded in overcoming temptations, but now he was hurled headlong into a Mystery beyond all comprehension, without any compass but radical faith and trust. It was as if he were learning about God all over again, only at a much more profound level.

We see, then, that it is not acceptable for us (at least in the long run) to ask God merely to fix what is broken, heal what hurts, or pull out those painful or humiliating thorns in the flesh. Jesus has some perfecting of his power to accomplish, and our weakness is his workbench—just as the Cross was his Father’s. “He was crucified in weakness, but he lives by the power of God.” Life is not so much about personal perfection as it is about letting Christ live in us. “Do you not know that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2Cor. 13:4-5). God has mysteries into which He would lead us, but we have to learn how to trust and abandon ourselves to Him absolutely, even while apparently hamstrung by our defects. He has taken everything into account.

So turn the reins over to the Lord. He will meet the insufficiency of your will and efforts with the sufficiency of his grace. Then, because of his loving care for your life and salvation, and despite all appearances (or even agonies), all manner of things shall be well.

The Hardening

I learned something recently. Actually, it has been a long process of growing awareness, but it has suddenly become clearer. I think it’s something that I didn’t really want to believe, but if I’m to be honest, I have to acknowledge the evidence.

In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul declares: “a hardening has come upon a part of Israel…” (11:25), and he says this is a mystery we need to understand. Now I don’t wish to talk about Israel here, because I hard-heartthink that the hardening has come upon the whole world—not every individual, of course, but upon many. The hardening is that of the heart, in biblical terms, which results in a refusal to recognize the truth, even when it is clearly and unmistakably set before them. It is a willful rejection of that for which there is plentiful and often irrefutable evidence—just because they have some other reason for believing a lie.

In my naiveté, I had always thought that those who rejected the truth did so because of ignorance, of not having all the facts or evidence, or of some other impediment or incapacity that was not (entirely) their fault. The presumption was that if an ordinary, rational human being were presented with clear evidence or cogent arguments, especially if the evidence or the logic were manifestly unassailable, he would naturally accept the truth that was shown him. But this is not so when dealing with a hardened heart.

St Paul said this of the pagans who refused to believe in Christ: “they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart…” (Ephesians 4:18). Thus their ignorance is culpable. Hardness of heart alienates one from God, and hence from truth and love.

Here’s an example that helped tip the scales for me. “Emile Zola went to Lourdes for the purpose of condemning the whole enterprise. But unexpectedly he witnessed a striking miracle before his very eyes. An eighteen-year-old girl was suddenly cured of three apparently incurable diseases: advanced lupus, pulmonary tuberculosis, and large ulcerations on her leg. Zola himself described the girl’s face as being eaten away by the lupus: ‘The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.’ She went into the bath and ‘emerged completely cured.’ Zola was present. And the cure was permanent, because sixteen years later she remained in perfect health. But there was no change in Zola’s mind” (Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty, emphasis added). Someone who can witness such a dramatic and undeniable miracle and walk away unmoved, unconvinced, can only be said to have hardened his heart.

One cannot reason with people like that; one cannot show them compelling evidence and expect them to accept it; one cannot assume that they will call white white and black black, but in fact may do just the opposite. Those who have hardened their hearts seem to be increasing in number, and they hold influential positions in the media, the government, and even in the Church—and especially in lucrative enterprises like the abortion industry. You really have to have a hard heart to be able to cut little babies into pieces every day, and then take home a nice paycheck without looking back. And there are many who are complicit in this evil, who don’t actually do the dirty work.

A hardening has come upon many who attack the Church, whether from without or within. It is clear what the Church teaches; read the Catechism and papal documents. But many try to reject, deny, distort or otherwise make them into something that fits their own preference or agenda, and then denigrate those who uphold her teachings! Why? If they don’t like what the Catholic Church teaches, there are plenty of others who accommodate their brand of error quite willingly; they can join them! But no, a hardened heart has reasons that reason would shudder to know.

I think we have to accept that there are many with whom we will get nowhere by reasoning, clear argumentation and documentation, or any other form of normal, rational dialogue. They will not see or hear the truth because somewhere deep within they have already decided to reject it at all costs. What they stand to gain—economically, politically, socially—is more important to them than what is true, good, and beautiful. For them the only thing we can do is pray and sacrifice, so that the Holy Spirit will somehow reach them from within, overturning their chosen obstacles to truth and righteousness, shining a clear and divine light within them.

Then perhaps a “softening” will occur, and hearts and minds will open to the truth, will abandon arrogance, greed, self-aggrandizement and the “malignant narcissism” that is at the core of many of today’s hardened hearts. Don’t expect to soften a hardened heart with words. Go to the Lord instead with words of supplication, pleas for mercy—and then from his heart rivers of living water will flow, to wear away all hardness and to bring new life. This may take a long time, for a hardened heart is the most difficult thing to heal, more so than ravaging diseases of the body. The girl at Lourdes was instantly healed of those, but Emile Zola walked away still bearing his hard heart. Let us trust that with God all things are possible, and begin praying in earnest.

Not So Fast!

As we make our way through the major fast period of our liturgical year, it’s appropriate to reflect on the monastic ascetical practice of fasting.  The tradition of denying oneself food and drink for a fat-man-stop-consumingcertain period of time is an ancient and venerable one.  It was often employed to strengthen one’s prayer for a certain petition, to curb one’s bodily passions, or to prepare oneself for a demanding spiritual mission.  But can we apply such a difficult discipline to modern fast-paced, high-tech living?

We should be aware from the outset that “fasting,” in its Christian significance, means much more than its material sense of “not eating.”  If you fast merely to lose weight, it probably won’t get you any closer to God.  It’s not going to make it any easier for you to squeeze through the “narrow gate” to the Kingdom!  But understanding fasting as a “bodily prayer” can render it spiritually beneficial.  It is said that fasting is “putting your body where your mouth is,” that is, expressing the genuineness of your words of prayer by offering a bodily sacrifice along with them.

The Byzantine Churches have always placed a high value on fasting as a means of spiritual purification and a weapon in the battle against one’s own unruly impulses.  Some well-intentioned but misguided people, however, have tended to see fasting (and other ascetical practices) as an end rather than as a means.  Fasting is devoid of spiritual value if it is performed as an “ascetical feat,” as a pharisaical attention-getter or ego-builder, or as an excuse to neglect love of neighbor.

It was sometimes thought in days of old (and occasionally even today) that the appearance of mourning and self-inflicted penance was enough to please God.  Not so, says the Lord.  “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day for man to…bow down his head like a rush and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?… Is not this rather the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness…to share your bread with the hungry…to clothe the naked…? (Isaiah 58:4-7).

Even though bodily fasting is difficult, the asceticism of charity and of living in God’s truth is much more demanding.  It’s too easy merely to skip a meal or two, consider your spiritual obligations to have been thus discharged, and then continue to be selfish, arrogant and inconsiderate.  True fasting must effect an inner conversion, manifested in outer goodness and love.  Like all spiritual disciplines, if fasting doesn’t reach the heart it will be fruitless.

Rather than (or along with) making your stomach growl, why don’t you do what the Lord requires and share your bread with the hungry?  There are millions of people in the world who are starving and homeless in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters.  The media quickly abandon them for other news, but they remain in desperate need.  Why not make a sacrifice to help them?  This is true fasting.  The fathers go so far as to say that if we have an excess of something and someone else has none, then our excess belongs to the one without it.  It is not a matter of charity to give it away, but a matter of justice.  (So click on the “Help the hungry and poor” link in my blogroll.  Really, do it now.  They are hungry now, and you can help them.)

Your fast can also be one of time, that ever-shrinking commodity of our stressed-out society.  You can fast from surfing the ‘net or your 180 satellite channels and give more time to prayer and works of mercy.  Some people are unable to fast from food for health reasons, but no one is unable to deny himself some legitimate pleasure for the sake of doing good for someone in need.

Christian fasting is not an isolated exercise for achieving personal perfection.  We are members of the Body of Christ and whatever we do, whether good or bad, has its effect upon the Body.  The greatest of all virtues is love, and if we wish to please God we must manifest love in practical acts that help “the least of Jesus’ brethren.”

So, fast the true fast.  If you give up food, also give up bad habits and self-centered indifference toward the poor and suffering.  Two thirds of the world is malnourished or starving, with inadequate clothing, housing, and medical treatment.  Decide to do something about it.  “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your guard” (Isaiah 58:8).

If You Would Be His Disciple

We have arrived almost at the mid-point of Lent, and so the Church gives us an opportunity both to look backward, that is, to assess our spiritual progress to this point, and to look forward, that is, to focus on the goal of our Lenten efforts.  For this she places before us the Cross of Christ, which is both the judge of our actions and the sign of hope for our salvation.

The Liturgy provides us today with one of Jesus’ most essential sayings on the mystery of the Cross, the one that applies most directly to the practical expression of our lives as disciples of Christ (Mk. 8:34 – 9:1).  This will help us assess the genuineness not only of our Lenten observances, but of our whole life as people who profess to follow Jesus.

The Lord starts out by indicating that following Him, with all that it entails, is a free choice.  No one is forced to follow Chrjesusfollow1024ist.  So He says, “If anyone would follow me…”  You don’t have to follow Him.  You can follow the devil if you want, or you can follow your own will—which is practically the same thing, because you end up in the same place when you die.  So, if you want to follow Jesus, that is, if you want to be saved, here is what you have to do.

To follow Jesus is to go where He goes.  He said in the Gospel of John: “Where I am, there will my servant be also” (12:26).  This was said in the context of his saying about the wheat grain dying—this is usually considered to be the Johannine parallel to the doctrine of the Cross in the other Gospels.  And where is Jesus going?  Why, to the Cross, of course.  Jesus makes it very clear what is required in following Him.  He leaves us with no illusions of an easy and comfortable life if we choose to follow Him.

The first thing that Jesus says is that whoever would follow Him must deny himself.  The Greek word for “deny” is a legal term used when one wishes to disown someone or something.  So it is a radical renunciation.  We have to “disown” ourselves, but this idea is not unique to this passage in the Gospels.  St Paul says clearly that we are not our own, that we have been bought, and at a high price, that is, the price of the precious blood of Jesus (1Cor. 6:19-20).  St Peter says a similar thing (1Peter 1:18-19).

What is the point of this denying or disowning oneself?  Usually when we speak of self-denial it means merely the renunciation of some pleasure or desire of ours, like giving up something for Lent.  But this is not what Jesus is talking about, or rather it is only a small part of it.  It’s not enough to give up things or certain behaviors—especially if you’re going to take them back again after Easter.  What Jesus is saying is to deny your self, that is, who you are, or rather, who you have become through your sins.  He wants us to become who we were created and intended to be, faithful and loving sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.  But as St John tells us, sin makes us children of the devil, and it is this alien element in our nature, which was created in the image of God, that has to be utterly renounced and disowned.

People sometimes make the excuse for their sins that they are “only human.”  The fathers of the Church don’t accept this.  They say that sin de-humanizes us, that it is somehow sub-human to sin; it is beneath the dignity of our human nature.  If we were fully human we would be like Christ, who shows us what it means to be human, that is, created in the image of God.  That’s why Jesus says to deny yourself—the self corrupted by sin—and follow Him, the only One who can show you what true humanity is.  So, instead of saying “I’m only human,” as an excuse for sin, we should perhaps say, “I’m not yet human.”  Maybe that realization will wake us up enough to change our lives.

Next Jesus gives us an image of what this denying or disowning of self entails.  He says: “take up your cross.”  This can only mean one thing, which He makes clear in the next verse.  We have to die.  He’s not talking about biological death here, for that is something everyone must undergo whether they want to or not.  Remember, Jesus is inviting us freely to follow Him, so this “death” that the image of the Cross indicates is also something we must freely choose and do.  The Cross is an image that would have struck terror into the hearts of his listeners, for they had witnessed the cruel torture and horrifying death that is crucifixion.  That image for us has been sanitized and softened over time; its impact is reduced.  It is a mere symbol, and the Crucified Man is even turned into a gilded piece of jewelry!  But we have to try to recover the strength of Jesus’ words.

Perhaps we should think of more current forms of torture.  I recently read about a Chinese Christian who was tortured by the communist authorities because of his faith and his service to other Christians.  He was repeatedly tortured with electric shocks to all parts of his body that induced uncontrolled spasms of excruciating pain.  For this man to take up the cross was to take up the electric torture batons.  But he radically denied himself to follow Jesus, for he was willing to suffer anything rather than to deny his Lord.  He was not ashamed of Jesus (in the words of today’s Gospel), and Jesus will not be ashamed of this man when He comes in glory.

He believed the words of Jesus, which come next in the Gospel: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”  The man I just mentioned was released with the warning that if he told anyone about the inhuman tortures they inflicted on him, it would mean his death.  So, of course, he told the world what the government was doing to Christians.  The police came and arrested him again recently, and no one has heard from him since.  Most likely by now he has literally lost his life for Jesus’ sake, which means that he has saved it.

To lose our life is to save it, which means to die to ourselves and our pride and disobedience and self-love.  The French Archbishop Fenelon once wrote: “You asked for a remedy, that your problems might be cured.  You do not need to be cured; you need to be slain.  Quit looking for a remedy and let death come.  This is the only way to deal with self… Whatever spiritual knowledge or feelings we may have, they are all a delusion if they do not lead us to the real and constant practice of dying to self… This spiritual death (which is really a blessing in disguise) is undeniably painful. It cuts ‘swift and deep into our innermost thoughts and desires with all their parts, exposing us for what we really are’… The death of self must be voluntary, and it can only be accomplished as far as you allow… You must be willing to yield to the will of God whenever He decides to remove from you all of the props on which you have leaned.”

This losing our life in order to save it must be done, says Jesus, “for My sake.”  This means that his call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him is not an impersonal order, or one that can be carried out grudgingly or with resistance.  To do it for Jesus’ sake is to do it out of love for Him, with a personal attachment to Him, as an act of fidelity, sacrifice, and gratitude to Him who first took up his Cross for our sake—so that our souls could be saved instead of lost.

To “save our lives” is to try to have things our way, to arrange things for our advantage, to insulate ourselves from the demands of life, of service and sacrifice, and of charity toward our brothers and sisters.  The whole mentality of “looking out for number one” is a mentality of saving one’s life, shoring up one’s ego, making sure we get everything we think we deserve without reference to the needs of others.  Those who thus save their lives will lose them forever.  Jesus is telling us this now; we have to listen.  We will have no excuse on Judgment Day.

Now it may seem that this teaching of the Lord is harsh, that it is all about sacrifice and suffering, about renouncing what may seem dear to us.  But let us remember two things: first of all, it is simply a fact of life in a world severely compromised by sin.  We have a lot to make up for, a lot to overcome.  Jesus told us this in a similar passage, the one about entering through the narrow gate.  He said: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.”  So we shouldn’t be astonished that much is required of us.  The way is hard; that is the word of the Lord.  It’s no use trying to make ourselves comfortable or look for some easier way.  If we want to enter Heaven the way is hard. Jesus told us that the way to Hell is easy and wide, and many choose to follow that way.  But again we come back to today’s Gospel: what does it profit you to gain the whole world [that is, to have an easy, self-indulgent life] and to lose your immortal soul in the process?  As for me, I’d rather take the hard way for a few decades in this world and have happiness for endless ages than to seek pleasure and ease now and then suffer torments—worse than electric shocks—for all eternity.

The second thing to remember is in today’s epistle (Heb. 4:14 – 5:6).  We are told here that Christ sympathizes with our weakness and is able to help us.  So by telling us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, He is not asking us to do the impossible.  We are to “approach the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  Since the context of this saying is the high priesthood of Christ, we can say that the “throne of grace” is in fact the Cross of Jesus, where our High Priest offered the sacrifice of Himself out of love for us and to save our souls.  So we should not flee the Cross because of fear of suffering and of dying to ourselves, but rather approach it confidently in the hope of receiving mercy and grace and the help we need to lose our lives so as to save them for Heaven forever.  So Jesus puts the question once again: “Do you want to follow Me?”  Let us accept the conditions of discipleship and courageously follow Jesus. Then He will not be ashamed of us but rather proud of us and happy with us “when He comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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