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

Archive for April, 2009

A Part of Life

A while back I was reading an article on the life of St John of the Cross.  One of the things it mentioned was the fact that he suffered a number of hardships during his childhood.  Then came a comment, more or less an aside, which perhaps does not seem all that remarkable, but which caught my attention and even ended up forming an element of the homily I gave during Vespers on Good Friday: “He learned that suffering was a part of life, and he sought God in it.”

Everyone knows that suffering is a part of life, yet most people rebel against that, or try to flee from it, or do everything in their power to ensure that suffering will not be a part of life.  But all this is futile, for suffering will always be a part of life as long as we are still on this side of Paradise.  One of the last things that people do when confronted with suffering is to seek God in it.  Some may ask God to get them out of it, but few seek Him in it.

As I reflected on this mystery, I realized that suffering belongs to our nature as fallen beings.  It is inescapable and can even be considered as a constituent or inevitable feature (or at least a potentiality that will necessarily be actualized) of our very bodies and souls, like hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc.  It would be helpful for us to treat it as such.the-wrong-reaction

When we are hungry or thirsty or tired, we don’t go into a fit because of it, wailing: “Why is this happening to me? Why this now?  What did I do to deserve this?  Woe is me!”  But that’s the usual reaction when some suffering enters our lives, when some hardship or sacrifice is imposed upon us.  If we’re hungry or thirsty, we eat or drink; if we’re tired, we rest.  We don’t see these things as disasters, as alien intrusions into our lives that have no place there.  They are just a part of life, part of the human condition.  But if eating corresponds to hunger, and rest to fatigue, what corresponds to suffering?  The answer is in the above quote: seeking God in it.  That’s what we’re supposed to do when we suffer.  It’s part of dealing with life in a fallen world.  In Heaven there will be no suffering, just like there will be no hunger or thirst or fatigue.   All those things belong to fallen man, not to glorified man.  But while we’re still on earth we ought to know what to do about the conditions we find here.

You might say that turning to God in the midst of suffering does not solve it quite as quickly and easily as eating solves hunger.  This may be true, but suffering generally has a spiritual component that is absent in mere physical hunger, so the solution is more subtle and complex.  But seeking God in the midst of it does offer a certain kind of relief, one which is not as fleeting as the noontime sandwich.  This is primarily because seeking God in suffering produces hope—and hope, says the Apostle, does not disappoint, for the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 5:5).  Hope doesn’t wear out in a few hours like your last meal or your last night’s sleep.  Hope is for the long haul, and it is one of the few things in life that can meet the challenge of suffering.  So the presence of God is the only real remedy for suffering.  Paul Claudel once said that Christ did not come to take away our suffering, but to fill it with his presence.  If we are to discover the Presence that gives us hope in suffering, that gives meaning to suffering, we have to seek it.

We can learn something from Job about seeking God in suffering.  In the Byzantine tradition, there are several readings from the Book of Job during Holy Week, primarily because he is a “type” of Christ since his sufferings were not the result of his personal guilt, but were something that God imposed upon him for his own inscrutable reasons.  But in the context of our own sufferings (for which we cannot claim innocence as Job could), we ought to follow Job’s example in blessing the Lord whether He gives or takes away.  Blessing God in suffering is seeking Him there, accepting His will, refusing to be a mere fair-weather friend.  We don’t want to prove the devil right—for he provoked God by saying that of course Job blesses Him in his prosperity, but when adversity struck he would “curse You to your face.”  The devil, despite all his vile malice and consuming hatred, is a shrewd observer of human nature and behavior, and in many ways he’s “got our number.”  It is only through divine grace that we can prove him wrong, that we can overcome our natural (fallen) tendency to “curse God” (or at least to complain or resent the sufferings and trials).

It also says in the Book of Job that not only did he not curse God, he refused to “charge him with any wrongdoing.”  So it was not a matter of forcing himself to bite his tongue and keep all his indignant rage bottled up.  He simply said: We accept the good things from God; should we not accept the bad as well?  He didn’t blame God for allowing him to suffer.  He did maintain later on that he was not thus being punished for sin, but he did not dispute God’s right to test him, and in the end he realized that God’s ways are far above our own, so the only appropriate response is humble acceptance of God’s wisdom and will.

This is what it means, in part anyway, to seek God in suffering.  This is an important element of dealing with suffering—which is an inevitable part of life—in a way that is fruitful, or at least that keeps us from falling into despair.  When we’re tired we don’t despair of ever sleeping again; we just apply the natural remedy and go to bed.  When we are confronted with the hardships and sufferings of life, we should apply the supernatural remedy and turn to God for succor and peace and strength to persevere, blessing his name and his wisdom and providence, and going forth with hope to that which God has prepared for those who love Him.

It will never be easy to endure suffering, and sometimes it may seem to take us to our breaking point.  But since it is a part of life, there is no way to escape or eliminate it.  Now we know, however, that there is one healthy response to it that has the power to transform it: Seek God in it.

Do Not Love the World

The “world” is an ambivalent term in the Scriptures, and it is used in the Johannine writings in two main senses, which are opposed.  The term is sometimes used in a neutral or even good sense, as in the famous passage: “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son…” (Jn. 3:16).  Here the world, which was created and deemed “very good” by God (Gen. 1:31), is the object of his love and solicitude, for He sent his Son not to condemn the world but to save it (Jn. 3:17).  The goodness and beauty of creation is one of the themes of the Psalms and Old Testament wisdom literature.

Thus the writers of the New Testament were already armed against those of the Gnostics who would consider creation as such, that is, the world as matter, to be evil simply because it was material.  To them it was inferior to all that was spiritual and hence it could not be a true way to God.  Therefore they could not accept the incarnation of the Son of God and had to come up with various theories to get around it or even deny it outright.  St John dealt specifically with this issue and insisted on the actual incarnation of the Son in real, material human flesh.  So the Apostle had no a priori bias against the world as material creation, and he was well aware that God loved the work of his hands.  We ought to keep that in mind when we read his denunciations of the “world.”

St John generally uses the pejorative sense of “world” in his First Epistle.  This sense is that of the world insofar as it is hostile to God or somehow turned away from Him.  It is the world precisely asdarkness fallen and unrepentant, as seeking independence by fleeing from the Light.   Here is John’s commentary from his Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (3:19-20).  The world, in its pejorative sense, is that which “hates the light.”  We see the term used several times in John’s Gospel as something evil.  “[The world] hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil” (7:7).  In what is perhaps the most telling condemnation of the world, Jesus says: “I do not pray for the world” (17:9).

The following is one of the more famous passages of First John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world with its seductions is passing away, but he who does the will of God abides forever” (2:15-17).  Clearly he is speaking of the world not simply as the work of God’s hands but as that which is alien to and at enmity with God.  So he is basically saying: Do not love what is not of God.

What is “of God” belongs to God or has its source in Him.  What is “of the world” belongs to the world and is directly contrary to that which is of God.  The difference is the same as that of light and darkness, truth and falsehood.  There could be no more severe condemnation than that which Jesus leveled at some people who were taking a stand against Him: “You are not of God” (Jn. 8:47).

The radical opposition of what is of God and what is of the world is why one cannot love the Father if one loves the world.  Jesus said something similar about serving two masters.  It cannot be done, at least with any sort of integrity.  St James bluntly states that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4).  What is it about the world that makes it so ungodly, so opposed to that which is of God?  St John lists three major categories, which are sometimes referred to collectively as the “threefold concupiscence.”  These are the major obstacles to attaining holiness.

The first is “the lust of the flesh.”  That most likely will make one think of sexual sins, and they are surely included here.  But this also includes gluttony and any other form of self-indulgence that primarily gratifies the senses.  It is quite obvious that the world is an inventive and tireless purveyor of all that stimulates the lust of the flesh.  Every form of excess and abuse of what God originally created to be good can be a lust of the flesh.

“The lust of the eyes” is not unrelated to the lust of the flesh, since the flesh is often stimulated first through the eyes.  But I think what is meant here is a lust that goes somewhat deeper into the soul.  It is manifested in greed, envy, covetousness, and every form of evil desire.  Perhaps, in terms of something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, we could say as an example that committing adultery is gratifying the lust of the flesh, while the “looking lustfully” that is said to be “adultery of the heart” would gratify the lust of the eyes.  Here I think by “eyes” we could include the “eyes of the mind” or of the heart, and so this sin reaches into the realm of thought and imagination.

Finally we have the “pride of life” as a major category of that which is not of God.   This means pride, vanity, and arrogance in their various forms, which include not only self-inflation, egoism, and aggression, but also the will to dominate, exploit, or otherwise control and manipulate others.  It would include as well the various inversions of pride like despair and self-hatred.  Perhaps even idolatry and unbelief should be included here—anything that places oneself or something other than God in the place He alone should occupy.

All of the above is a brief summary of what is “in the world,” all that we are commanded not to love if we are to love God.  The best reason for loving God above all these is simply that God is infinitely more worthy and, when all is manifested, infinitely more desirable as well.  But another reason is given, perhaps for those whose contemplation of God is still quite immature: “the world with its seductions is passing away.”  It just doesn’t last.  We will eventually find ourselves empty-handed and without all the satisfactions we thought made for the good life.  The world and its lusts pass away, but the one who does the will of God doesn’t.  For love, unlike lust, is not of this world but is of God, and those who love God in preference to the world, and hence do his will, will abide forever, like God, and not pass into oblivion like the world.

The will of God, taken in the abstract, is not mentioned often in this epistle.  St John prefers the more concrete expression of God’s will, that is, keeping his commandments.  Even though he uses general categories like light and darkness, his teaching is not abstract.  He gives sufficient practical examples of what he means, unlike his opponents who liked to keep things high and speculative without descending to details like obedience in practical matters.  But the details prove whether one is in the light or in the darkness.  True Christianity can’t be faked, and it can’t be left in the classroom or the pulpit, either.  For if you don’t really love the Father, with all that entails in daily life, you will love the world and follow its seductions—and pass away.

The Living Among the Dead

Christ is risen!  It has already been two weeks since we began to celebrate the Feast of feasts, the glorious resurrection from the dead of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Today the celebration goes on with the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing women, on which we again proclaim one of the resurrection accounts from the holy Gospel.  We also include a couple of myrrh-bearing men.  In this Gospel (Mk. 15:43 – 16:8), we hear only of one of them, Joseph of Arimathea, but we know from St John that Nicodemus also assisted at Jesus’ burial, and he really wins the myrrh-bearing award, for the Gospel says he bore a hundred pounds of it!

So we’re going back a little in time, to the burial of Jesus, not beginning this Liturgy with the proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrection.  This may simply be because in celebrating the myrrh-bearers we necessarily have to speak of Jesus’ death and burial, for that’s what the myrrh and other fragrant oils and spices were for.  But I think that the more important reason is that if we are to celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead, He first has to be dead!  Now that may sound quite obvious, but in fact some have questioned it, evidently even in the earliest days of the Church.  So the evangelist had to emphasize it several times in his account: “Pilate wondered if [Jesus] were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead.  And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.”

Some people in more recent times have tried to deny the resurrection by saying that Jesus was still alive when they took Him down from the Cross, and then recovered and went to show Himself to the apostles.  It seems to me, though, that if one’s flesh had been savagely torn by scourges, and one’s hands and feet and side had been pierced right through, and one had been beaten and crowned with thorns—three days after all that, one would have something less than the vibrant, glorified appearance that Jesus manifested to his disciples.  One also would have experienced somewhat greater difficulty in passing through locked doors and instantly vanishing from the presence of bewildered disciples, if one was still rather out of sorts from all that torture.  So we can safely conclude that the apostolic witness is true: that Christ really died and that Christ really rose from the dead, and if these are true, we can also accept the apostolic teaching that Christ will really come again.

Let us look now at the experience of the myrrh-bearing women as they came to the tomb on that first Easter morn.  The Church has been celebrating the Resurrection for nearly 2000 years as the central mystery of our faith, so perhaps we’ve gotten a little too used to the story, since we had most likely heard it many times even before we ever sat down to read the account carefully for ourselves.  But for thosempty-tombe who were the first witnesses, it was a most mind-boggling and even terrifying event.

Everyone was quite familiar with the fact of death; no one was familiar with the mystery of resurrection.  So the women went to the tomb prepared to deal with the fact of death, but were wholly unprepared to confront the mystery of resurrection.  It is true that Jesus did predict that He would rise from the dead, but those who heard Him evidently had no idea what He was talking about. “So they kept the matter to themselves,” the Scriptures tell us, “questioning what the rising from the dead meant” (Mk. 9:10).

The women came to the tomb, carrying their burial oils and spices, fully expecting to anoint the dead body of their crucified Master.  The only thing they were wondering how to deal with was the huge stone covering the entrance of the tomb.  But that was the easy part.  An angel had already done that shortly before they arrived, and they were pleased to discover it, though perhaps a bit bewildered as to how and why it had happened.

But then came the really jarring part, the part that turned their worlds upside down and left them grasping for some sort of understanding.  There was indeed someone in the tomb, but it wasn’t Jesus.  It was an angel, and Jesus’ body was not there.  Dumbfounded, the women stood in terrified silence as the apparition spoke to them: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen; He is not here.”  Perhaps, like the disciples had done earlier, the women questioned what it meant to be risen. But He certainly was not there.

This revelation had evidently overwhelmed them to the point that they could not at that moment take in the astounding reality of what they had just been told.  So the Gospel ends rather abruptly by saying that the women fled from the tomb, trembling and astonished, and out of fear did not say anything to anyone.  We know, of course, that before long their wits returned to them and they announced to the disciples what they had seen and heard.  But I hope that we will allow ourselves to reflect on their initial experience and try to understand how this revelation seized their beings with an otherworldly dread and excitement.

Suppose one of our loved ones had died, and we had seen him dead.  Later we went to the funeral home to spend some time in prayer next to his body.  It was already after hours, and we were wondering who might open the locked door of the funeral home for us.  When we arrived we found the door unexpectedly unlocked and we entered, seeing an empty casket and a young man dressed in white sitting next to it, saying: “You are looking for _________, who died.  He is not here; he is risen from the dead.”  I think we might flee just as confused and terrified as the myrrh-bearing women (though I suppose we might wish to call the police instead—yet let us remember the original situation: the police were the ones who killed him.)  How could we get it through our heads that the one we saw dead was now alive?  And then how would we feel when we actually saw him?  It was an incredible experience for those first witnesses.

According to Luke’s account, the angel first asked the women a question: “Why do you seek the Living among the dead?”  Now of course this means: Why look for the Risen One in the abode of dead bodies?  In that sense it was a kind of riddle spoken with barely-restrained joy, a tantalizing prelude to the great proclamation of the Resurrection.  But I wonder if the Holy Spirit did not also mean that question to be heard by all generations of those who would read the Gospel.

It seems to me that, perhaps today more than ever before, people look for that which is life-giving among things that bring only death.  St Paul reminds the newly-baptized: “What return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed?  The result of those things is death… For the wage of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:21-23).

I think that most people have an innate, if inarticulate, sense of the need for self-transcendence, that is, they feel somehow that our human limitations are not the last word on what it means to be fully human.  There’s an elusive “something more” which is essentially a longing for immortality, even if they might not express it in such terms. But they seek for this higher life or ultimate fulfillment in the wrong places.  They seek self-transcendence through drugs, sex, wealth, power and social status, etc, but this is like going to a graveyard to meet new and interesting people.  You’re not going to find the living among the dead, and you’re not going to find that which is life-giving among that which is death-dealing.  If the wage of sin is death—eternal damnation—then sin cannot possibly be that which gives us happiness or peace or fulfillment.  It is a cheat, a deceptive illusion, and in the end we would find that a life of sin has in fact sucked all the true life out of us, rather than filling us with the energy and joy of authentic life.  That real life is what St Paul calls the gift of God, eternal life in Christ Jesus.

We receive that life by living according to the grace of the Risen Lord Jesus, by obeying his word, for as He said, the commandments of God mean eternal life (Jn. 12:50).  The lie of the devil is that what feels good at the moment is what is life-giving, but the truth is—and it is paradoxical, as truth often is—that to take up our crosses and to deny ourselves the fleeting benefits of sin is the way to enter into true life and happiness and ultimate resurrection.

Let us pray that God will send myriads of angels into this world, probing the consciences of all people with that ancient question: “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?” If you are seeking the Living among illicit pleasures, He is not there; if among the lusts for power or wealth, He is not there; if among the savage conveniences like abortion and euthanasia that only bring death, He is not there; if among the many idols constructed by unbelief in God and in the world to come, He is not there.  We have to seek the Living One in all that is good and true and beautiful and holy, in Scriptures and the Sacraments of the Church, and in charity and selfless service of others.

Yet if we are living in the grace of God, then we, the living, are in one sense among the dead, the spiritually dead, for we live in the same world and society as they do.  Therefore we must pray for them and share the Gospel if we can.  As the Gospels show us, it is only the demon-possessed that live among the tombs, and thus is it only those under the influence of the devil that thrive in all the death-dealing offerings of a degenerate society.

So let us allow ourselves to be seized with the astounding revelation that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  This essential fact of history and human destiny must shape our thinking and speaking and acting.  We have to live that message given so long ago by angels and preached by apostles and poured into our own hearts by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ must not be the memory of a dead man, but the Son of the Living God and the fulfillment of our deepest aspirations for immortality and everlasting happiness.  Christ is risen!

Koinonia

I’d like to say something about a theme in St John’s First Epistle, so naturally I’ll start with St Peter.  He makes an astounding statement in his Second Epistle.  He says that through the “precious and very great promises” of God, we can “become partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4).  To be a “partaker” of the divine nature is to be in communion with God.  The term used by St Peter is a form of the word koinonia, a word that occurs four times in the first chapter of First John.  The word is sometimes translated “fellowship”, but this is too weak and evokes images of mere camaraderie.  Something deeper is indicated here, whether the koinonia is with God or with other human beings, and John uses it in both senses.  In fact, in the Greek Liturgy, koinonia is used for the Communion that is the Holy Eucharist.  Holiness is nothing other than a consistently-lived communion with God (with all that entails), so we ought to try to understand what St John means when he writes about koinonia.

In the solemn prologue of First John (1:1-4), the Apostle says that he proclaims what he has seen and heard (as in his Gospel, he speaks as an eyewitness) “so that you may have koinonia with us; and our koinonia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”  Now the communion between humans is not precisely the same as that of humans with God.  But the former is based on the latter and derives is meaning and fruitfulness from it.  We love, he later writes, because God first loved us.  This does not mean exclusively that we can love God only because He loved us first (though it does mean that), but also that we can love one another only because God loves us.  “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16).

How do we enter into fellowship, or rather communion, with God and with each other?  St John does not speak explicitly of sacramental communion in this epistle (though the “water and the blood” in chapter five may be a veiled reference to Baptism and the Holy Eucharist).  He lets Jesus let-there-be-lightgive the clear teaching on the Eucharist in chapter six of his Gospel.  Here it seems that communion with God (and “God is Light” as the Apostle proclaims) comes through entering into his “light,” and in this first chapter that light is generally seen as truth, not considered in the abstract but primarily as true faith in God and in Christ.  This light of truth is an overarching theme in this entire letter, for he frequently contrasts the true revelation of God with the various deceptions and distortions (which belong to the “darkness”) that threaten to undermine the true faith and the right practice thereof.

“I write this to you about those who would deceive you” (2:26) could be a general statement about his reason for writing in the first place.  It often happens that the original intention of an irenic reflection on the grace of the Gospel of Christ has to acquire a bit of a polemic edge because the truth is being attacked by evildoers of one sort or another.  This is the situation in which St Jude found himself as well: “Being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith… For admission has been secretly gained by… ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God… and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4).

Let us return to communion with God.  The Apostle proclaims that he and his community are in communion with the Father and with Jesus, and that he speaks of what he has seen and heard so that his readers can also enter into this divine-human communion.  This communion with God, and the practical lifestyle that flows from it, St John calls “walking in the light.”  On the other hand, to “walk in darkness” is to deny the true faith and to refuse to live by the commandments of God.  The Apostle doesn’t explain his terms the first time he uses them; we have to read his whole letter to get the full meaning.  He builds little by little with recurring themes, expanding their meaning and application little by little.

“Darkness” refers primarily to sin, and in First John this sin can be summarized as falsehood (denial of the true faith and self-deception), and hatred (disobedience of the commandments, especially that of love of neighbor).  To live in darkness, then, is to sin against truth and love.  That is what excludes one from koinonia with God.  Therefore, the Apostle writes: “If we say we have communion with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.”  This additional lie simply adds to the darkness.   Perhaps that passage can also be read: If we say we have communion with him but do not live according to the truth, we walk in darkness.

On the other hand, “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”  We see here not only that God is Light, but He is also in the Light.  If “light” is part of the description of God’s nature, it also refers to God’s acting according to his nature, which I think is how God can be Light and be in the Light at the same time.  Human beings, on the other hand, can’t be Light as God is, since we are creatures, but we can be in the Light insofar as we are in communion with God, through true faith and obedience to his commandments.  All those who are in God’s light will necessarily have communion not only with God but with each other.  In the Light of God, believers enjoy the benefits of the grace of Christ, not the least of which is the forgiveness of sin.  To be freed from our sins is essential to communion with God and thus to standing with confidence before Him.

We ought to strive to walk in God’s light at all times so that we can have koinonia with Him and with all true believers.  This we do now through faith, prayer, and the sacraments, and thus we move toward the communion with God which is what Paradise is all about, and which will be our heavenly inheritance, in fullness, forever.

The Upside-Down Vision

There have been written a lot of biographies of St Francis and, from what I’ve read, they are more or less the same, recounting all the incidents and experiences of his life, along with his own words st-francisand spiritual vision, which made him the unique saint he was.  But I found one that is different, and which I like better than the others.  It is G.K. Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi.  It is not a biography in the strict sense, for it leaves out many of the details of his life.  But his intention is to focus on just a few, and from these to reflect deeply on how they bring to light the character of the man.  What Chesterton was trying to do was not so much to tell the whole story of a life as to grasp the meaning of a life, and this he does admirably well, in his characteristically rich prose.  He gives some detail of the historical and cultural settings in which St Francis moved about, but most importantly he goes “behind the scenes” of his life to discover the essence of the saint and his unique vision of God and of life.  I present an excerpt here from the chapter in which St Francis is described as le jongleur de Dieu, the tumbler or court-jester of God.

“If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and flowers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence.  There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word ‘dependence’ only means hanging.  It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing.  If St Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round.  But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril… [St Francis] might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence.  Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.  Perhaps St Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards…

“This sense of the great gratitude and the sublime dependence was not a phrase or even a sentiment; it is the whole point that this was the very rock of reality… That we all depend in every detail, at every instant… upon God… is not an illusion of imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life… He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth; we might almost say the cold truth.  He who has seen the vision of his city upside-down has seen it the right way up…

“If ever that rarer sort of romantic love, which was the truth that sustained the Troubadors, falls out of fashion and is treated as fiction, we may see some such misunderstanding as that of the modern world about asceticism… If that were ever so, we should have the same sort of unintelligent sneers and unimaginative questions.  Men will ask what selfish sort of woman it must have been who ruthlessly exacted tribute in the form of flowers, or what an avaricious creature she can have been to demand solid gold in the form of a ring; just as they ask what cruel kind of God can have demanded sacrifice and self-denial.  They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant by love, and will not understand that it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.  But whether or no any such lesser things will throw a light on the greater, it is utterly useless to study a great thing like the Franciscan movement while remaining in the modern mood that murmurs against gloomy asceticism.  The whole point about St Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy.  As soon as ever he had been unhorsed by the glorious humiliation of his vision of dependence on the divine love, he flung himself into fasting and vigil exactly as he had flung himself furiously into battle.  He had wheeled his charger clean round, but there was no halt or check in the thundering impetuosity of his charge.  There was nothing negative about it; it was not a regimen or a stoical simplicity of life.  It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control.  It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure.  He devoured fasting as a man devours food.  He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.  And it is precisely the positive and passionate quality of this part of his personality that is a challenge to the modern mind in the whole problem of the pursuit of pleasure… It is certain that he held on this heroic or unnatural course from the moment he went forth in his hair-shirt into the winter woods to the moment when he desired even in his death agony to lie bare upon the bare ground, to prove that he had and that he was nothing.  And we can say, with almost as deep a certainty, that the stars which passed above that gaunt and wasted corpse stark upon the rocky floor had for once, in all their shining cycles round the world of labouring humanity, looked down upon a happy man.”

Wind, Waves, and Whatnot

It’s once again time for my obligatory post-Easter having-gone-to-the-sea reflection.  Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything new to say.  The ocean is more or less the same whenever I go, though I suppose you could also say that starry nights are more or less the same.  But they, like the ocean, never seem to lose their power to captivate and to draw us back for just a little more awestruck contemplation.

I’m not sure why it draws me back, or just what I’m looking for, yet I am evidently not alone in this,seafoam-resize for there seems to be an almost universal call from the primordial deep.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, in The Silmarillion: “And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Iluvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.” [For those of you not familiar with Tolkien's works, the Ainur are the angelic beings, the highest of God's creation, who assisted Illuvatar (one of the names of God) in his work.]  So, still unsated, I return again and again to the sea, knowing not what I seek, yet still hoping that somehow the sea still bears “the echo of the Music of the Ainur.”

The beginning of the week was actually a little different than usual.  It’s true that it’s usually rather windy at the coast, more so as you get right near the shore.  But 40-50mph winds are just a tad windier than usual!  I chose this particular trip to forget to bring my heavier coat, so I just wore five shirts and a jacket and two hats and a hood.  I could have passed as quite the husky fellow, though closer examination would have revealed me to be little more than layers of fabric.

For a moment I almost didn’t think I’d make it from the place I parked my car down to the sea.  The wind was pushing and shoving me so much, it nearly turned me into a kite, but I did manage to keep my feet on the ground and maintain a more or less upright position.  The place I went to is a large bluff overlooking the sea, but I always brave the rocky outcroppings and narrow sandy gullies as I snake my way down to water’s edge.  I didn’t get all the way down the first day, since the wind was so wild I thought it would just throw me in the water or knock me down on the rocks and send me scurrying like a frightened crab to some safe cranny.  So I found a cleft in the rock which cut the wind to a tolerable 25-30mph or so.  I was waiting, like Moses who was also placed in a cleft in the rock, for the glory of the Lord to pass by.  I didn’t see and hear quite what that man of God did, but there is still something of the glory of the Lord in the majestic beauty and power of the sea.

The water was at first a cold steel-blue, covered with wind-whipped whitecaps and towers of foam hurling themselves at anything that got in their path. But the more the sun shines, the bluer it gets, and the more the dancing lights dazzle the surface. I thought to myself that the Lord plays rough sometimes, yet it can’t be denied that whatever He does, his glory follows Him and manifests itself in numerous ways.  So I just bundled up and let God be God and the sea be the sea and me be me, and we all had a good time.

sea-seabird-resizeThere seemed to be more birds this time around, and I always enjoy their antics and their plaintive cries that are so much a part of the ambience of the seashore.  One thing that I noticed was that virtually all of them were flying directly into the wind.  Unlike most of us, they were not content to choose the path of least resistance, but I still don’t know why they did it or where they were going or if the seafood might be just as good toward the south as it is toward the north.  But they went on, twisting, hovering, careening, yet evidently knowing exactly what they were doing.  It was a pleasure to watch, and also to try to capture one every now and then with my trusty little camera.

On a subsequent trip I wandered into a certain area that seemed suitable for sea-gazing (I didn’t know what those yellow ropes were for, so I just walked under them).  As I was setting my little canvas chair on a rock, I heard the joyful shouts of people enjoying the beach some distance away.  But soon the shouts started sounding like “Hey, you; you there!”  I felt I had to turn around at this point and, sure enough, some sort of park ranger was waving me back (so I guess those yellow ropes had some significance after all.)  It was patiently explained to me that the seals were “pupping” at this time and needed their privacy.  Not being voyeuristic by nature, I assured the ranger I had no intention of disturbing their delicate maneuvers, but I had to leave anyway.  There hadn’t been a seal in sight (I think the ranger thought I chased them away), but later—from a respectable distance—I did see a few of them on the rocks or dragging themselves across the sand before plopping into the brine.

On the last day of the trip, I was sitting among myriads of mussels, barnacles, and anemones (it was low tide), with the sun brighter and the sea bluer than ever.  I sat there for an hour or so, prayed a bit, listened, looked, and let the sun burn my face.  Suddenly that great gladsome light dimmed just slightly.  A passing puff of cloud, thought I.  Within minutes the entire shore was engulfed in fog.  This is life by the sea, and despite her many moods, if I could I’d live in a little hermitage right near the shore.

I don’t know what the point of all this is, but I usually like to share something of my rare forays beyond the cloister walls (more like a rickety gate, actually).  I think I will always be drawn to the sea, and I hope that someday when I hear those voices of Heaven in the deep I will wake to find myself on the everlasting shores of Paradise, where the fog has forever cleared and the eternal light shimmers upon the endless expanse of the Divine Ocean of life and love.

Easter Sunday, 2005

Christ is risen!  In Greek we say Christos Anesti, and the response is Alithos Anesti.  I want to pause here a little bit on Alithos Anesti.  The greeting we traditionally give, which we give in several languages, as you know in English is “Christ is risen,” and the response is translated from all of the other languages as: “He is truly risen.”  But there’s something a little bit special about the Greek response Alithos Anesti, which I think is something that we could meditate on because alithos, “truly,” comes from the word alitheia, truth, in Greek, but literally alitheia means “not forgetting.”  It’s as if truth is what’s real and therefore is something that we cannot afford to forget or ignore or reject in any way.

anesti

So in a sense, when you say it in Greek, you’re saying, Christ is risen—and don’t you forget it!  And that maybe is something that we should hold on to, because these liturgical feasts that we celebrate, especially this most holiest of weekends, are moments that the Lord wants us to remember and to live.  We have to remember also that this feast is not merely the “leave-taking” of fasting and prostrations!  It is a feast of a new life that God through Jesus Christ wants to give to us.

As Fr. John-Mary said in his homily a few hours ago, this world is in the “night of the living dead,” and that’s because people don’t remember.  People have forgotten.  They’ve forgotten where they came from and where they’re going—or where they’re supposed to be going.  They’ve forgotten who made them, who wants to save them, who loves them, and thus they’ve forgotten God.  We have many laments of God through the prophets in the Old Testament saying: My people, they have forgotten me, they have wandered away from Me.  They have rejected Me.

There’s a story, maybe you’ve heard, of this old Rabbi whose grandson was out playing with his friends.  The boy came back to him crying, saying: we were playing hide and seek, and I hid and nobody came and found me.  And he was all upset.  So the old Rabbi himself began to cry and said, you know, that’s just how God feels.  God hides and nobody seeks Him.

That’s the situation that we have very often in the world today.  But we have got to be the ones who seek God.  Not only seek God, but especially in times like this, once we’ve practically embraced his feet like the women running away from the empty tomb, we have to remember what He’s revealed to us, the gifts that He’s given to us, the times that He’s made his presence known to us, and to live out of that remembrance.  The whole liturgical life is built on that remembrance.

Easter must make a difference in our lives.  It can’t just be something that passes every year like some holiday where you get a day off from work and a little relaxation.  It has to make a difference in our life, because what happened at Easter made a difference in the entire history of the world.  So we should ask ourselves, are we any different, are we any better than we were last year at this time?  And if we’re no different, no better than we were last year at this time, then we should also ask ourselves, do we really believe in the resurrection?  Does it make any difference to me that Christ rose from the dead?  It has to make a difference in how I live and think and speak and behave toward other people.  We have to think of resurrection not just as something at the end of the line, the last day when we rise from the tomb—because since Christ is risen now, He is present now.  Therefore the power of the resurrection is in our midst, is able to be communicated to us.

How can we remember what God has done, and live in that remembrance?  Well, a very powerful way to remember, and which we can do every day if we want, is the Holy Eucharist, the celebration of the Holy Mysteries in the Divine Liturgy.  When Jesus gave that to us in the first place at the Last Supper He said: take, eat, this is my body; drink, this is my blood.  He said, do this in memory of Me.  So He’s telling them right off the bat: you have to remember this.  And not only remember it intellectually, but celebrate it.  Do this.  Do what I did.

So He calls us to remember, and we do at every Liturgy, because that’s what is meaningful for our life and salvation.  That’s what makes a difference in our lives and should make sufficient difference to make us new people, the new people that Christ wants to form, because of who He is and what He did for us.  The Christian life is supposed to be communion with the risen Lord, and through the Holy Eucharist the resurrection begins now in a foretaste, because we are receiving the risen Lord.  It’s not a dead piece of flesh; it’s Christ Himself in all of his mysteries.  His boundless life and energy are communicated to us so that we can live a new life, a different life, a better life than we had before.

One spiritual writer said that the Holy Eucharist is “bonding with Heaven.”  It’s a connection, a communication with the life that is to come and the life that exists now in the presence of God with all the angels and the saints as we read about in the Book of Revelation, that heavenly worship.  Through the celebration of the mysteries of Christ, we connect with that reality and it gives us life, if we let it give us life.  That’s where faith comes in.  It’s not automatic.  No one is going to hit you over the head with it.  You have to want it and you have to believe in it and you have to embrace it and you have to give yourself over and cooperate with the gift that God wants to give you.  That’s how we overcome all of the death-dealing forces in our society, rightly called the “culture of death.”

There were a number of readings from the Book of Job during Holy Week. People don’t remember a whole lot from Job, but one verse that most people remember from Job, even though they don’t know where it comes from is, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”  Up until Christ, this has been the history of mankind concerning life and death.  The Lord gives it and the Lord takes it away and then you’re finished.  But now with Christ, something new has happened.  The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, and the Lord gives back again! This is the gift, the grace of the resurrection.

But He doesn’t give it back again just like he gave it back to Lazarus, let’s say, or the others that He raised up during his earthly ministry, because they had to die again.  The Lord gives us a life that goes on, that is stronger than death.  He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, shall live,” and that’s the promise of our everlasting life.  This is also what one writer calls the “disorienting rhetoric of the empty tomb.”  It’s something that we don’t expect, that is unprecedented, that has inserted itself into history beyond all expectation.  It is something that shakes us up and fills us with awestruck wonder at this unlooked-for miracle, which is more than just a miracle.  It sets the whole universe upside down.

We’re forced to ask the question, then: what if it’s all true?  We have to ask that.  Sometimes we just simply assume it is, or without even thinking about it very much just fall away from it and don’t even believe it anymore.  But moments like this, facing an empty tomb and a risen Lord who has appeared to others, are moments of decision.  Like St. Paul says, if Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you’re still in your sins and there’s no hope for you.  But immediately he says, but He has been raised—and he ought to know, because he saw Him, just like the other disciples saw Him.

Our faith is primarily based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, which has been handed down to us through countless generations until the present day.  Our own experiences may corroborate that faith, but the testimony is the bedrock, because we can have all kinds of experiences, and people do.  Look at the New Age business.  But their experiences don’t agree with the testimony of the eyewitnesses, and so you know where they probably come from.  When our experience agrees with the testimony of the eyewitnesses then we know that we’re connecting with this truth of Christ, the risen Lord.

Christ grants us a new kind of life, a life that flows from the heart of the Most Holy Trinity, a life that cannot die.  Jesus says very powerfully in the Book of Revelation, “Once I was dead but now I live, forever and ever.”  That’s the last word.  He experienced death, as it says in Hebrews, for us.  He tasted death for us so that we can have a path, a way into the heavenly sanctuary where He has gone before us.

So let us draw life from the risen Lord.  That’s what He is about.  It says in the prologue of the Gospel of John that we just read: He is the Light.  And the Light is the Life.  He was the life of all humanity, and whoever wants it can receive it and become a child of God.

Let us, then, receive this life through his word, through the sacraments, and live as people who are rescued from death, because that’s the truth.  St Paul says that in Romans: “Live and present yourself to God as someone who has been raised from the dead, who has been rescued from the power of death.” Let’s let the resurrection and the celebration of the resurrection make a difference in our lives.  And let us believe that it can make a difference, because if you don’t even believe that it can make a difference, then Easter is going to be nothing more than a table of cheese and sausages.  It’s not going to get beyond having a party.

We have to go deeper than that.  So let us do that and begin now.  We have to be different than the living dead.  Why?  Because Christ is risen!  And don’t you forget it!

Easter Sunday, 2004

Christ is risen!  I was thinking that after we sing, “Christ is Risen” so many times, maybe that’s all there is to say.  And I don’t even need to give the homily now, because “Christ is Risen!” says it all—it is the answer to all of our deepest needs and longings and hopes. I remember reading, some years ago, an article in a magazine that said that when the devil attacks you or tempts or harasses you there’s only one thing that you have to do.  Say this: “Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Christ is risen!”  And then he’s got to go!  Because that is the defeat of the devil. All he’s got to do is be reminded of that, and reminded that we believe in that and embrace that, and he’s got to be out of there, because he cannot stand it.  That’s the thing that has destroyed him and robbed him of his power.  The devil is the Prince of Death; the devil feeds on death.  Death, as St. Paul says, is the last enemy, and in the Letter to the Hebrews it says that Christ came to undo the works of the devil—the devil who kept everyone in bondage to fear of death their whole life long.  Well, Christ is risen, and death is overthrown and is transformed, and the devil has to get out of the way.

So today we’re celebrating this great mystery, this power of the Resurrection that is something jesus-resurrectionnew in the whole universe. When He rose from the dead, something new happened that had never happened before, which has transformed the universe and the future of the whole universe forever, because what happened in Christ is not just someone dying and coming back to life; it’s not just an organism functioning, then ceasing to function, and then starting to function again.  It’s a completely new life, a life that is taken up into a new level of being.  The humanity of Christ was taken up into the glory of the Father to be eternally glorified in the same glory that He shared with the Father for all eternity as God, as the Son of God.  But now this new power is at work in the universe; his power to elevate humanity up into the level of divine life and divine glory.  This is the gift and the power of the Resurrection.  What underlies this great, divine power to change everything and to transform everything into a shining image of God?  Well, of course it is love: it’s the divine love which makes all things new.  The love that Scripture says is stronger than death; God’s love alone is stronger than death.  We struggle here on earth with our mortality, and we do love, but of ourselves we can’t love in the same way that God loves, in this effective way that overcomes death.

I was reading a book in which it was said that when we say that we love someone—and this is on a very fundamental level—we’re really saying, “I want you to live forever.”  But the thing is that in our human condition we cannot make that happen.  We cannot make our loved ones live forever.  It’s a wish, a desire, but it’s one that we cannot accomplish of our own power.  We want to say, “I love you, I want you to live forever,” yet our loved ones die.  But it’s different with God.  See, God can say, “I want you to live forever, because I love you,” and He makes it happen. We see that first in the life of Christ, in the death and resurrection of Christ—where God the Father said to Him, as we sing the psalm where it says– “You will not let your Beloved know decay.”  So, the Father says to Christ, “I love You, and therefore You are going to live forever,” and so in his humanity, as I said, He raises Him up into that glory, as Jesus prayed before He died:  “Take Me back into that glory that I knew with You before the world began.”  That is, “take Me back, as man.

So now Christ has that same power to love us unto life: his love for us is stronger than death, and He can tell us that same thing—that He loves us, and wants us to live forever.  This is something that He’s already begun to do in the first-fruits of redeemed and resurrected humanity, the Mother of God.  Jesus said to her, in effect—I don’t think He used these same words, but it’s the same thing—when He raised her up and assumed her body and soul into Heaven, He was saying to her, “I love you, and I want you to live forever!  Now, rise from the dead!”  And she did!  This is the love that is stronger than death, the love that we celebrate in the Resurrection of Christ that transforms the whole universe.

Now there’s another side to the coin here, of love being stronger than death, because if love is going to be stronger than death, it first has to be stronger than life.  Now, what does that mean?  This is something that we can actually share in ourselves.  For love to be stronger than life, it has to be willing to die.

Jesus’ love was first stronger than life because He was willing to sacrifice his life for those whom He loved; He was willing to give it up.  He gave us that message in the Gospel: “Whoever would save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  That’s something that Jesus has shown us first, and gives us the example.  Do not love life more than God, and do not hold on to this passing life in such a way that would make you lose the life that’s true life in God.

Let’s see also the testimony of the martyrs; it’s the same thing.  We read that in the Book of Revelation where it says, “Love for life did not deter them from death”; so they were willing to make that sacrifice of their life.  Their love for God was stronger than their desire to live this earthly life, so they were willing to make this sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice of giving up their life.

Jesus did this for us.  First of all, his love was stronger than life: He was willing to give up, to lay down, his life for his beloved.  But then, being the divine Son of God, and having the power to lay down his life and take it up again, He proved that his love is stronger than death, and He rose from the dead, and entered into that new, divine, glorified life that He promises to all of those who believe in Him and who love Him.  And we’re the ones who can benefit from that promise and that power of his love that gives us life, and gives us life eternal.

Now, one of the ways, and one of the most beautiful ways that this power of Christ’s presence—his love stronger than death, his divine life—is with us, is in the Holy Eucharist. This is the presence in our midst of Christ, slain and risen, and when we receive the Holy Eucharist, we take into ourselves the love that is stronger than death, the love that promises eternal life, because He said, “He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood abides in Me, and I in him….”   And what else?  “…and I will raise him up on the Last Day!”  Why?  Because the love that He puts in us through the Holy Eucharist is stronger than death and is going to make us rise from the dead on the Last Day, when He comes for us, his beloved.

There’s something that I read recently which I found to be a very beautiful insight into the mystery of the Eucharist and the Resurrection.  This is from a book by François Varillon.  He says, “When Marc Oraison was a surgeon in Bordeaux, every day he would see people die, people cease to exist.  He decided to become a priest so that he could celebrate the Eucharist in the midst of a universe bound to death and so that, through the Eucharist, he would make the Resurrection present at the very heart of this universe in which everything is mortal.  The Resurrection is the life beyond all deaths; it is the breach without which we would be forever enclosed in the circle of universal mortality.”

So this is what we’re doing here when we celebrate the Eucharist, and especially today, on the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection: we are making the Resurrection present at the very heart of this universe in which everything is mortal. But Jesus says: not everything is going to be mortal, because I am going to raise you—as we heard from Saturday’s Matins reading of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones– “I am going to raise you, my people; I’m going to raise you from your graves.  Don’t say, ‘We’re lying here dead and our bones are dried up, and God has abandoned us.’  For I am going to put my Spirit in you, and I’m going to raise you from your graves.”  This is read as a prophecy of the general resurrection at the Last Day.

Let us resolve to love God more than life itself, so that we are willing to make whatever sacrifice we need to be faithful to God—even the ultimate sacrifice—so that our love will be stronger than life, and then, when we finally pass from this life, we will hear that voice of Christ, as in chapter five of John He says: “An hour is coming when the dead in their graves are going to hear the voice of the Son of God.”  What is He going to be saying?  What are you going to hear, when you’re lying in your grave?  You’re going to hear Christ say, “I love you!  I want you to live forever! My love is stronger than death. Now rise, and live forever!”

Christ is risen!

Pascha Eve, 2002

[During this "Bright Week" we're taking a little time off to enjoy the grace of the Resurrection (and to enjoy a little more food and drink and rest than our Lenten schedule allowed!).  But rather than leave you bereft of Paschal reflections, I will post a few of my homilies from past years, which I've never posted here.  They will be from Easter itself or the Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday evening.  Christ is risen!]

Did you feel that?  I thought I felt an earthquake!  Maybe it was just the reverberations from the Gospel that we just read (Mt 28:1-20).  The celebration of Easter begins with an earthquake, as we’ve just heard—and I think it is appropriate for this earth-shaking mystery that we’re celebrating now: the Resurrection of Christ!

We’ve gone through the whole of Lent and the intensity of Holy Week, and we’re right now on the threshold of Easter.  We can hear the rumblings of it, and we can feel the earth move under our feet—we can feel the power of the Resurrection of Christ which is about to burst forth upon us and upon the whole world for those who are willing to recognize it and receive it.

This earthquake—which was a sign to the women who were coming with the spices, and also to the guards who were there, as a sign that Christ had already risen—was actually a kind of aftershock of harrowing-of-hellanother, you might say, subterranean earthquake, that was going on while Christ was in the grave.  We sing so many times in our Offices that Christ’s death and resurrection have shaken the foundations of Hades, of the netherworld—and so, this earthquake was happening in the netherworld, while He went down into the realm of the dead.  While everyone was mourning and weeping on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the Lord was making the earth shake in the realm of the dead.  And that’s what the only “authorized” icon of the resurrection depicts; it is not Christ coming out of the tomb, (and He is not, as one of our priest friends remarked, carrying the Polish flag—He always seems to have this flag with him in Western art, for some reason), but it’s Christ going down into Hell, into Hades, the realm of the dead: that’s the resurrection icon.

That’s because it tells something about what’s happening.  Jesus is not just standing there, outside the tomb, saying “Look at Me!”  That’s great in itself, but it doesn’t give as much meaning as the icon does, which shows what He was doing down there: raising, pulling up Adam and Eve from the grave, and smashing the gates of Hell and binding up the evil one, and He’s surrounded by all the saints of the Old Testament, and everyone who was waiting for Him, for centuries, to come and rescue them.

The way that Christ did this was just about like everything He did: the hard way.  You know, God could have, by divine fiat, just sent a fireball down there and blown up the gates of Hades and said, “OK, everybody come out,” without ever having to get his hands dirty.  But the way that Christ chose to go down to the realm of the dead was to become dead—to become one of them.

He actually infiltrated their ranks, and some of our texts in the liturgy metaphorically speak of this. The gatekeepers of Hades down there, and death itself, personified, are surprised at what happened: “I never should have welcomed this one!  I’ve taken all these people from all ages, and I’ve devoured them. But all of a sudden I took this one in, and now everything’s changing!  What’s happening here?  My kingdom is shot and everyone’s leaving!” [My paraphrase.]  Christ went down into the dead—at such a great price, though, and it wasn’t a mere joy ride down into Hell.  We heard and we prayed in the text according to the prophet Isaiah, where it said, “Our sins had broken him; he was crushed by our offenses.”  He was going to the Father, carrying our sins with him, the burden of our sins and the sins of the whole world, and it was almost too much for Him, as it were.  He was carrying this load of our sins and it broke Him, it crushed Him—it killed Him.  It left him a lifeless corpse, hanging on a cross, for all his enemies to jeer at and hiss over his defeat.

Well, this was not the defeat of Christ.  On a human level, in a battle, one who has escaped might say, “Well, I was defeated, but I was not killed.”  Well, for Christ, it was just the opposite.  He says, “I was killed, but I was not defeated!” This is because his death was the means of the victory.  He went down into that abode of the dead and, as we heard from Jeremiah, took our sins out of the memory of God, and raised up all who had been waiting for Him down there.  This is a mystery that we cannot even begin to understand, but it’s something that is a cause of our joy and celebration: Christ went down to rescue us, to save us.  He allowed Himself to be killed so that he could go down and rescue us and all those who were waiting for Him.

I’ve been listening to these readings for twenty years now, and I just noticed tonight that there’s another prophecy that’s fulfilled in Christ in this very mystery—a prophecy that was given to Abraham.  I’d never noticed this one before.  One of the blessings that God said He was going to give to Abraham and to his descendants—and we know that according to the flesh, Christ is descended from Abraham—He said that “your descendants will gain the gates of your enemies.” Well, this is what happened with Christ!  He gained the gates of his enemy—the gates of death—and he broke through, and broke them up, and that’s the end of that!  As the Son of Abraham, that prophecy was fulfilled in Him today, as He went down into the lower regions and smashed the gates of Hell.

This has a great impact on our own lives.  It’s not just that the former dead were allowed to return to Paradise, but that everything’s changed for us: the meaning of death has changed for us, because Christ has died and has descended into the realm of death and has ascended from there, has risen, in a completely new mode of being in his humanity.

What he did was this: that stern, inflexible, iron gate of death has become a revolving door!  Christ has changed it.  See, now we still have to pass through death; we still have to go in, but we don’t get stuck there, we don’t get locked in.  We just go right through, and go around, and pass right out again, changed, all new.  There’s no way we can get around passing over that threshold, so we have to go in, but we don’t have to stay there, and we don’t get stuck there.  We can just go in like a revolving door and walk right out again, transformed, transfigured in the light of the glory of Christ, because He is risen from the dead and has given that gift to us.  This is the grace of Easter: Jesus has willingly accepted the Cross, willingly accepted death, with all the shame and humiliation and suffering.  He went through it, because He loved us so much, and he wanted to free us, to deliver us.

The same reason that Christ went down among the dead applies to his incarnation as well—the same two things that He wanted to do when He came into the world and also when He went down into the realm of the dead to deliver them.  The first thing is, He wanted to share in our condition, our situation.  The Son of God became man so that He could become one of us and live the human condition, and share, be one with us, in all of our suffering, and experience our sufferings and take them on Himself.  The same thing, when He died: He was going to be just like us—He went down into the abode of the dead so that He could be one with the dead and experience death.  It’s not just an appearance; it’s not just a mask He put on for a little while.  He really went down into the dead, and He was dead.  He experienced what it’s like: to be a human being, dead.

But the other reason that He came, both in the incarnation and going down to Hades, was to deliver us from that.  He came in his incarnation to share our human condition, but also to lift us up out of it, to elevate us, to bring us to a new level of life and experience and being, and to change our destiny.  The same thing with going down into the realm of the dead: He started going down to be one with us there, but He wasn’t going to say, “Well, I’ve come to be one with you, so let’s be dead forever!”  No; He went down, and said, “I’ve come down first to share this with you, but not only that—I don’t stop there. Next, I’m going to deliver you from this, to raise you up from this.”

This is what’s happening, this is what we’re celebrating, and this is just the beginning.  Christ is doing his mission in the subterranean abodes, and at midnight the whole thing’s going to break open, and we’re going to celebrate in full the great glory of the Resurrection and go on celebrating it for another 40 days—and, hopefully, for the rest of our lives.  That’s what every Sunday is for, it’s to remind us.  You know, we can get used to this stuff too easily, and mindlessly sing these texts every Sunday.  We have to sometimes give ourselves a pinprick or something, and wake up, and say, “Hey! What is this that we’re singing about?  This is a great mystery, a great gift, it’s our glory!  But this is something that we have to always remember, and then we have this yearly wake-up call and really do it in full to drill it into our consciousness that this is the ultimate mystery, and the ultimate thing that gives meaning to our lives, that defines our destiny as human beings created in the image and likeness of God.

So let us rejoice, and let us begin this celebration now with joy, and with love, and with gratitude to God for all that He has given to us, and to share that victory of his, so that someday when we come to that threshold, we can say, too, with Christ, “I died, but I was not defeated”—because Christ is risen from the dead!

A New and Everlasting Life

risen

Christ is risen!  The Lord has brought us once again to the blessed celebration of his resounding and definitive victory over the powers of darkness and death. For the True Light has come into the world and has laid down his life for us and taken it up again gloriously. With Him we have ritually broken down the gates of hell and have emerged triumphant into the celebration of the new life—grace upon grace, as the Gospel says—that the Lord Jesus has granted us in his great mercy and love for mankind.

In a world where sadness and suffering reign, we receive today the proclamation of joy, the joy which the Lord said cannot be taken away from us.  And indeed it cannot, as long as we hold firm our faith in the Resurrection of Christ, whose own irrepressible life and joy are communicated to us by his divine grace.  If we so wish we can come daily to a renewed communion with the Risen Lord through the Holy Eucharist, and we can thus be refreshed and strengthened by Him who makes all things new.

Easter is all about new life, new beginnings.  It may not be the beginning of a new liturgical year, but it is much more.  As we sing in the Office of Matins, it is “the beginning of a new and everlasting life.”  It seems to me that perhaps we should have begun reckoning each year as anno domini beginning with the Resurrection of the Lord instead of his birth.  Even though the Incarnation of the Son of God was a radically new and eternally significant event, the world still remained under the shadow of death until the Lord rose from the tomb and plotted a new course, as it were, for all creation.

For Paradise was still closed when the Lord was born, but it held a huge Grand Opening celebration when the Lord descended to the realm of death to rescue his people and then brought them back with Him in his risen glory to the throne of the Father, where He reported with delight that his mission had been accomplished.  The Father was well-pleased in his beloved Son, and He proceeded to welcome myriads of souls into their everlasting and joyful home, the place where there is no pain or sorrow or mourning, where God wipes every tear from their eyes and will always be with them, illuminating the Heavenly Jerusalem with the light of his glory and his love.

So we celebrate not only the new life of the Risen Lord, but the new life of those newly received into Paradise as well, and the new life of those newly received into the Church, and also our own renewal of spiritual life in the grace of the Risen Christ.  Why is it, then, that the readings we just heard (Acts 1:1-9; Jn. 1:1-17) are prescribed for this feast?  After all, there is only a brief mention of the Resurrection in Acts and no mention of it at all in St. John’s Prologue.  On a very practical and liturgical level, it is simply because, in the spirit of this feast, we are doing something new, having a new beginning.  We are simply beginning today the continuous reading of the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles which we will hear throughout the entire paschal season.  So we should count ourselves lucky that there’s at least one mention of the Resurrection in there!  We’ll not be so lucky on Bright Monday when the continuous reading brings us to a meeting with St. John the Baptizer and the priests and levites.  Yet the Baptizer does mention baptism, which is, as I said yesterday, an important link with the mystery of resurrection.

And so this brings us again to something new, that newness of life which St Paul says is the fruit of baptism, because it is the fruit of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We have to try to celebrate this feast not merely as a great milestone on the liturgical calendar, still less as merely the termination of the rigors of Lent, but really as the beginning of something new in our lives.  It has to be a spiritual wake-up call.  In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul exhorts his drowsy charges with a couple lines from an ancient hymn: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (5:14).

That is one of the things this feast is about.  Christ shall give us light.  In the terminology of the early Church, to be baptized was to be illumined by divine grace.  A remnant of this is to be found in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which we celebrate during Lent, where we pray for the catechumens, referring to them as “those who are preparing for illumination.”

Perhaps, then, in the Gospel proclaimed on this feast we can find a link with the Resurrection in the terminology of light and also of divine adoption, which is accomplished through baptism into the All-holy Trinity.  Sleepers can awaken and rise from the dead because Christ the Light who enlightens all men has come into the world.  The Lord’s own life, which is what is communicated to us through the sacraments—especially the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Eucharist—is called “light” in the Gospel.  “In him,” writes the evangelist (that is, in the Word who is God), “was life, and the life was the light of men.”  So when we enter into communion with the Lord through the sacraments, we are illumined, because his life is communicated to us.

St. John goes on to say that to all who believe in Christ, it is granted that they can become children of God.  This is what happens through Baptism and Chrismation.  Through this union with the Son of God, we become adopted by the Father as his sons and daughters.  And through Chrismation, in the words of St. Paul, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!”  Thus the Holy Spirit testifies that we are in truth children of God.

This is our share in the new life that Christ has bestowed upon the world through his rising from the dead and the Gift of his Holy Spirit.  It is not enough merely to hear about the Resurrection and decide to believe in it.  Those two steps are necessary but not sufficient.  For the power of Christ’s Resurrection really to take hold of us and change us from within, we have to be in communion with Him in the mystery of his Resurrection, and this is precisely what happens when we receive the sacraments in faith and in love.  We begin our new life with the sacraments of initiation, but we preserve and nourish it though sacramental absolution and Holy Communion.  Without the sacraments, Easter is only a recalling in faith of something that happened 2000 years ago.  There still is blessing in this, but it is not the fullness of what the Lord wants to give us.  With the sacraments, it is the experience of the grace of that event here and now, for the very life of the Risen One is given to us, flows into us like Living Water. And the very sacrifice He offered is shared with us as food and drink, vital to the life of our souls.  So we spiritual sleepers can wake up and rise from the dead, for Christ has given us light!

There’s also another reason why this feast marks something new, a new beginning.  This beginning of the period of the 40 days of Pascha opens up a special time in which the Risen Lord is spiritually among us in a way not quite the same as in other times.  This is a time in which we are called to listen closely to the voice of the Lord.  For as it says in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, during the 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared often to his disciples, “speaking of the Kingdom of God.”  This is another fruit of our sacramental illumination and of our celebration of the Resurrection.  We are enabled—if we give the time and properly dispose ourselves—to hear Christ speaking to us of the Kingdom of God.  We need to learn more about his Kingdom so as to increase our desire for it and to be able to detach ourselves from the passing things of this world.

St Teresa of Avila, after having been granted visions of the Kingdom of Heaven, saw earthly life in a whole new light and was appalled that those who are attached to earthly things are “so basely occupied,” putting great value on worthless things while ignoring that which is beautiful and desirable and glorious beyond all comparison.  After showing her the indescribable wonders of Heaven—and they truly were such, for the saint unfortunately refused to attempt a description, having no words for it—the Lord said to her: “See, daughter, what those who are against Me lose; don’t neglect to tell them.”  That should put into our hearts both fear of offending God and also great desire to be found worthy of all that the Lord has prepared for those who love Him.  So even though I have not received such visions, I’m hereby not neglecting to tell you to give your life and your love to the Lord, who offers you joys and blessings far beyond anything this world can offer.  St. Paul said he would gladly give up everything for the sake of Christ and to share in the mystery of his death and resurrection.

Beginning, then, on this first of the 40 days before the Ascension of the Lord, let us open our hearts to the word of God, the living Word, who was with the Father from the beginning, through whom grace and truth have come to us, who is willing to give us his own life and his everlasting love.  He wants to be with us as He was with the Apostles, speaking to us of the Kingdom of God, preparing us to receive his Spirit, leading us out of this land of exile into our heavenly homeland.  For by the grace of baptism we are children of God and citizens of Heaven.  We have only to wake from the sleep of our self-absorption and to offer our lives, in all their details, joyfully and gratefully to our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, who died to take away our sins and rose to give us everlasting life.  Christ is risen!

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