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

Archive for June, 2009

Life with Peter and Paul

In preaching on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which is in a sense the feast of the Church as such (as one of our liturgical texts indicates), I usually focus on who they are and what they represent in the mystery of the Church, in her hierarchical and sacramental nature, and in her ascetical and mystical life.  But since preachers are not supposed to merely regurgitate the same things over and El Greco_Peter Paulover, I thought I’d try to look at this feast from a somewhat different perspective this time around.  It’s not going to be so different that I would not focus on Peter and Paul, of course!  I would like to look at them, however, not primarily in the ways they reflect the mystery of the Church as such, but in the ways we can, as individual members of the Church, benefit from the example of their lives.

Hopefully we will find them to be more accessible than unreachable ideals on pedestals, which are worthy of veneration but beyond our capacity for emulation.  As St Paul himself said in the Epistle for this feast (2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9), despite his extraordinary experiences, he doesn’t want anyone to think more of him that what we can see in him or hear from him.  So let us discover what we can see in these great Apostles and hear from them, so as to come closer to Him whom their hearts loved and for whom they gave their lives.

We should see from the outset, perhaps as a bit of consolation, that even though Peter and Paul are among the holiest of the saints, both of them needed to repent—and were rather sharply reminded of it.  The future Apostle to the Gentiles was knocked to the ground and interrogated in a blinding light by a Voice from Heaven that accused the bewildered Saul of persecuting Him.  And the future rock and leader of Christ’s Church was called “satan” and accused of being on the side of man instead of that of God, and he was brought to bitter tears by the fulfillment of a prophecy and a piercing look by the Lord who was led away to crucifixion after Peter had denied Him.

So, their pedestals are somewhat chipped and cracked.  Yet this does not detract from their glory, for Paul himself noted that divine treasures are kept in earthen vessels to make it clear that all the grace and power come from God.  So we, though always in need of repentance, can realize that sanctity is still possible, that holiness comes from God and can be granted to sinners who sincerely strive to overcome their sin by God’s grace, and who cling to their faith in Jesus, come what may.

In the context of today’s Gospel (Mt. 16:13-19), we see that Peter’s glory comes from his profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.  Jesus declared that this insight could only have come from his heavenly Father, and He straightway made Peter the rock of his Church, a Church over which Hell would never prevail—though He didn’t say Hell wouldn’t inflict some serious damage, which historically, and up to the present day, it has.  But the point here is that the Church of Jesus Christ is built upon the true faith, the faith which Peter was the first to profess, the faith which Peter’s successors have been called to guard and propagate until the Lord returns.

Here is the way we can be like Peter: our faith should be as lively and personal as his was.  It is not enough to make a formal profession of faith, as in reciting the Creed, in which we speak of God and his only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit in the third person.  Our profession of faith should be made personally to Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”  To be able to do that, we have to know Him and love Him, that is, to be in an ongoing relationship with Him.  The Church helps us with this, for the very first words of our prayer just before approaching Holy Communion are those of Peter from the Gospel of this feast: “I believe, O Lord, and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the Living God”—and then we immediately add a few words from St Paul—“who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first” (1Tim. 1:15), “first” meaning “foremost,” the most egregious example.  Paul could say that because he persecuted the Church, and we can say that because after all the graces we have received, we—who are supposed to know and love God and follow Jesus—still sin as if we hardly knew Him at all or as if we haven’t received countless blessings.  So our guilt is proportionately and subjectively greater than that of someone who may commit more grievous sins without having received the graces we have.  God doesn’t judge with one standard template; He weighs our sins against the graces we have received.  So in truth we can pray with Paul that we are foremost among sinners.

Peter, along with his boldness of faith, was somewhat impetuous and hard-headed, even blustery.  In some ways this got him into trouble, but I think it probably also endeared him to the Lord.  He had a habit of speaking or acting without first thinking, but this impetuosity was also in service of his love for Christ.  I like the passage in the last chapter of John’s Gospel in which the risen Jesus appeared on the shore while the disciples were fishing.  When John told Peter it was the Lord, Peter immediately “sprang into the sea,” not willing to wait to row the boat in.  Jesus tested Peter’s love for Him on the shore, rehabilitating his threefold denial with a threefold profession of love.  So Peter is known in the Gospels for his profession both of faith and of love—fitting for the leader and rock of the Church of Christ.

Indeed, for this reason Jesus required more love from Peter than from the other apostles.  “Do you love Me more than these do?” Jesus asked him.  I think of Pope Benedict XVI, the current successor of St Peter.  He may not be as charismatic as Pope John Paul II, but his love for Jesus—“more than these”—is evident in all he says and does.  He carries a heavy cross and endures much harsh criticism from those who know not the Lord, but he always preaches Christ: a life-giving, personal encounter of love with Him, and fidelity to his word and example.  And in this the Pope is eminently worthy of the commission Christ gave to Peter, to be a spiritual rock, a shepherd, a guardian of the truth, a lover of Christ, laying down his life day by day.

We know that St Peter glorified God not only in life but in death, being crucified in imitation of his Lord, though considering himself unworthy to die that way was granted his request to be crucified upside down.  We don’t know much about Peter’s life and sufferings once he disappears from the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, but it’s probably safe to say that it is St Paul who wins the prize for suffering the most for Christ.  I don’t know if any of the saints have been beaten, flogged, stoned, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted more than the indestructible Apostle to the Gentiles.

We heard Paul’s own account in the epistle reading.  He did admit he was boasting somewhat, though not a whit beyond the honest truth, but he felt compelled to do so because there were “false apostles” in their midst, servants of satan who “disguised themselves as servants of righteousness.”  These were placing themselves, and hence their false doctrines, on a par with Paul and his teaching, so he had to assert his authority.  “Do they suffer for Christ as I have?” could be the theme of this section.  “Have they be taken to the third heaven and been granted extraordinary revelations?”  St Paul didn’t want to talk about himself, but in this case it seemed it was the only thing he could do to safeguard the true faith. And as if he hadn’t suffered enough, the Lord sent him still another affliction to make sure his extraordinary experiences didn’t make him proud.  The Apostle begged the Lord to relent, but the Lord famously told him that grace was sufficient for him.  Immediately Paul decided to rejoice in his sufferings, for in this weakness Christ’s power would make him strong.

Here we come to Paul’s greatness.  To say he had an intense personality is an understatement, but all his intensity he focused on loving and serving Christ, and preaching Him to all who would listen, and even to those who wouldn’t. He would suffer whatever was required to remain faithful, and to help others see what he saw.  For he had come to know Christ personally, and hence nothing else mattered.  Like Peter he could say to Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

So let us learn something from these two great Apostles of Christ and pillars of his Church, something that we can practice in our own lives and thus become more like them and hence more pleasing to the Lord.  Let us first realize that our flawed personalities can still be used in service of the Kingdom: repentance and grace go a long way here, and the lives of the Apostles show that God can work with anyone who is willing to take up his cross and follow Christ. Let us also profess the true faith in a personal way, engaging Christ in dialogue through prayer, being faithful to Him and sharing our faith with others.  Let us then hear Him speak to us as He did to Peter, asking us if we love Him, and giving Him our hearts in return.  Let us pray for that intense, wholehearted, even foolhardy (in the eyes of the world) love for Jesus that characterized the lives of these two apostles and of all the saints.  St Peter didn’t hesitate to walk on a stormy sea toward his beloved Lord, and St Paul didn’t mind becoming a “fool for Christ” as he preached the wisdom of the Cross.

Let us also accept, finally, that the grace of Christ is sufficient for us in whatever we suffer.  Everything is healed and made new by divine love.  The love of Christ impels us, that we might live for Him who died for us, says St Paul (see 2Cor. 5:14-15).  And, “Lord, you know that I love you,” says St Peter (Jn. 21:15).  Before God, we can do no better than to follow the example of these two beloved apostles, servants, and friends of Christ.

Overcome Evil with Good

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).  “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1Peter 3:9).  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Having just heard from our Lord Jesus Christ, St Peter and St Paul, we can be quite certain of the truth of these words.  It may be, however, that we hesitate to put them into practice, finding them not only impractical but downright inconvenient—and perhaps even a bit irksome, if we dare to be honest about it.  Yet I think we may have to conclude that the sorry state of today’s world (including our own inner worlds) has very much to do with the neglect or refusal to incorporate these inspired words into our world-view and daily behavior.

Sure, there are some apparently cogent arguments for not living according to these words, and there may in fact be certain beneficial objectives that could possibly be obtained without explicit reference to them.  But the goal of the Gospel is not merely a happy, secure, comfortable earthly life, or an “end justifies the means” approach to achieving our objectives.  The goal is nothing less than eternal salvation, which was won for us by the ultimate sacrifice of One who loved his enemies, blessed those who cursed Him, did not return evil for evil, and overcame it with good.

Since I derived the title of this reflection from Romans 12, I’d like to take a closer look.  This single chapter is kind of a compendium of Christian behavior (as is Colossians 3 and a few other rich chapters of the New Testament).  If we had no Scripture but Romans 12, we’d still have a pretty good idea of how a Christian ought to live.  “Present yourself as a living sacrifice to God… Do not be conformed to this world [or, this age]… we are one body in Christ… Let love be genuine… serve the Lord… be patient in tribulation, persevere in prayer… Repay no one evil for evil… live peaceably with all… never avenge yourself… overcome evil with good.”  Perhaps some of these seem like too-general counsels, but the practical applications will become clear—when the inner attitude of blessing and charity, and the commitment to doing good, come what may, are firmly in place.

All change, all transformation, has to begin with individuals.  Corrupt people cannot purify a corrupt society.  So we—even though imperfect—must nevertheless strive for the perfection the Gospel enjoins, and labor to put into practice the words of the Holy Scriptures.  “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’” writes St Paul.  He was not wearing rose-colored glasses; the very fact that he mentions vengeance and wrath means he is quite aware of the evil and injustice in the world.  But what God is saying here is “VLove Your Enemiesengeance is mine—not yours.”  When there must be retribution for evil (and let us be aware that not all injustices will be fully redressed before the Day of Reckoning), God has his ways of doing it, and we trust that He will.  We can make ourselves available to co-operate with Him—but never to second-guess His wisdom or try to take the reins from the hand of the Almighty.

Paul goes on: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.”  So, if you want to heap burning coals on your enemy’s head, fine—just don’t do it by actually heaping burning coals on his head!  Do it by overcoming evil with good, for thus they will be put to shame before God.  Our goal should not be to utterly destroy our enemies, for God desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1Timothy 2:3-4), so we ought to desire their enlightenment, change of heart, and salvation.

Again, this sounds quite impractical in real-world situations.  But just what is the real world?  Is it that which is presented to us by the media?  Recall a bit of the famous speech from the old movie, Network: “But, man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us … We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night … We’re all you know! You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here! You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality…”  We form opinions about world events without really knowing what is going on, relying on the TV or the papers. Perhaps we can’t always know what goes on behind the scenes. But the Gospel applies whether we have all the details straight or not. We must exercise both charity and discernment, always listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit to guide us to the whole truth in any given situation—to guide us also in the way of responding to the serious issues of our time according to God’s will.  Many have, sadly, conformed themselves entirely to this world, this age, so full of deception and manipulation of people and events in order to preserve the interests of the high and mighty—but the Magnificat reminds us that God is planning a great reversal of the accepted ways of this world.

The logic of the Kingdom of God is not the logic of this world.  Paul has made that clear in the first two chapters of First Corinthians.  Jesus confronts the confusion and treachery of a fallen world with the wisdom of the Cross.  Thus his response to the evil in the world was not mass destruction but sacrificial love. That’s because there is a hidden power in love (that He Himself has hidden there), which is stronger than the violence of hatred and revenge. Few want to believe that, because people are afraid that the way of the Gospel might not be instantly effective.  They don’t want to risk looking weak or vulnerable, since the logic of this world says “might makes right.”  Jesus wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses, either, when He said, “Father, forgive them.”  Rather, He was wearing a blood-stained robe. He knew precisely the extent of their evil and malice, for He bore it all in his own body and soul.  Jesus did not shrink from speaking the hard truth to evildoers, calling them to change their ways—but He did it without hatred, without forceful imposition.

Hear what Dostoevsky says about the power of humble love: “At some thoughts one stands perplexed—especially at the sight of men’s sin—and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that, once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it. Every day and every hour, every minute, walk around yourself and watch yourself, and see that your image is a seemly one. If you pass by a little child, and pass by spitefully, with ugly words or wrathful heart, you may not notice the child, but he will see you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenseless heart. You may not know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him, and it may grow, all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself an active, benevolent love. Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is hard to acquire; it is dearly bought; it is won by slow, long labor… (The Brothers Karamazov).

Our ability—or our lack thereof—to bless, to love, to forgive, to refrain from violence, will have a “ripple effect” for good or evil throughout the Body of Christ and even the whole world.  The greed and lust and aggression that are in the world today began with unrighteous movements of individual hearts, with bad examples, seeds of evil secretly planted, and the careless words by which we all shall be judged (see Matthew 12:36-37).

The transformation of the world into a place of peace and righteousness can only be a work of divine grace, a work that begins in the hearts of people who refuse to repay evil for evil, and who choose to overcome evil with good.  The Bible should not be absent from the negotiating tables of world leaders.  Things will never change, really, when merely human solutions, however well-intentioned, are proposed or implemented.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do the builders labor” (Ps 127).  That is because there is only one Creator and Lord, and his world functions optimally only according to his design and will.  All the ingenuity of man will end up producing only suffering, chaos, despair and death if it is not submitted to the guiding power of the Holy Spirit.  It cannot be any other way, for “the world is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24).  And the way that the Lord wants us to deal with the evil that sin has unleashed in his world is to overcome it with good.

More on the Forerunner

[I came across this old (2002) homily I gave on the feast of the Forerunner’s birth.  I thought I’d share it here, since it offers a different perspective than the one I just gave (2009).  Homilists are always trying to look at the mysteries from different angles so we don’t have to give the same homilies over and over.  Sometimes it’s even possible!]

The Angel Gabriel said to Zachariah, speaking of John, that many will rejoice at his birth—and, today, we are called to be among the many who rejoice at his birth.   It behooves us to rejoice on this feast for several reasons, especially because of the joyful nature of it and because the great manifestation of the working of God in salvation history, but there’s another and a practical reason for rejoicing, and that’s because if we don’t rejoice, something unpleasant might happen!  Zachariah, instead of rejoicing over the words of the angel—because the angel said, “I came to bring you goodGabriel and Zachariah news!”—did a kind of logical analysis of the situation and came up short.  He said, “Well, I’m an old man; my wife’s an old lady, and she’s also sterile.   So how can any of this happen, these things you’re saying?”   The angel said, “Well!  OK, you don’t believe me?  Don’t worry, you’ll see!  Everything will happen, just as I said.   But you—because you’re not rejoicing in the good news, but questioning and trying to reduce the mystery of God to some sort of logical syllogism—you have to shut up!  You won’t be able to talk, until all these things come to pass.”

One of the lessons here is that the mystery of God is something bigger than what we can figure out.  And the liturgy expresses that over and over in many different ways, showing how what God does, and has done, goes beyond our understanding, beyond our comprehension, beyond the laws of nature, beyond what we expect could or should happen.  God is greater than that, bigger than that—and that’s one of the causes for rejoicing.

John’s life began with prophecies about who he was going to be and what he was going to do.  And we see, later on, of course, that the prophecies were fulfilled in his life.  But, it’s not that the prophecies were determining, so to speak, his life.  He still had to freely choose to cooperate with the grace of God, to respond with his whole life, so that what God willed and intended and expressed through these prophecies would in fact come to pass.  Things don’t happen automatically—this is because of our freedom.  We can say “yes” to God; we can say “no” to God.  We can fulfill the prophecies, or we can thwart the prophecies.  That’s that terrible privilege that we have: to cooperate or not with the grace and the will of God.

John did cooperate, and that’s what his life was all about.   John, in today’s colloquial terms, “didn’t have a life.”  John’s own personal life did not matter to him.  He was all mission, all service, all consecration to God.  He lived for his mission.  As soon as he was old enough, he went into the desert to prepare for his mission.  As soon as the word of God came to him in the desert, he went out and started fulfilling his mission.  And that was it; he was just that “finger” pointing to Christ, and once he fulfilled his mission, once Christ was manifest, once he testified to Him, then he could back off.  Then he could decrease and say, “Now my mission is fulfilled.”  Now—as he says in John’s Gospel—his joy is complete, because he has seen and testified to the One whom he was called to reveal.   He says, “The reason I came to baptize in the first place was to reveal Him: the Holy One of God.  Now that I did it, my joy is full. Now I can decrease; now He can increase.”  That’s an example for our own lives. I believe that for each of us, too, for our creation, our entry into the world, there’s a prophecy attached to our lives.  Not only John comes into this world with a prophecy, but there’s a prophecy for each one of us.  It’s inscribed somewhere in the halls of Heaven, and we may never see it or realize it till everything’s over (though we are meant to discover it), but there’s a plan of God—there’s a design, a destiny, something that God has chosen for each of us uniquely for the way that we are to express his will, to carry out a particular, unique mission in the world, that’s given only to us.

So there are prophecies that accompany us, and we, like John, have the choice of saying “yes” to that, of fulfilling the prophecy of our lives, fulfilling the destiny of our lives, or thwarting it, thwarting the will of God and saying “no.”   We have to think about that, and consider that, and see where we stand and to what extent our life looks like the life of John, insofar as he was totally consecrated to God and to his mission.  We can either say “yes” and be willing to sacrifice our lives to prepare the way of the Lord, or we can be selfish and disobedient and rebellious, and thwart the will of God, and not do what He wants us to, not fulfill the prophecy.  We can just kind of crawl into our own, self-absorbed world, and sit there and gather moss and spider webs and just do nothing.  And it will thus not come to pass—the great mystery, the great miracle, the great wonder, the bearing of fruit that God wants us to do will not happen.

But, on the other hand, we can realize, first of all, that there is a mission that we have, a plan, that we are created in the image and likeness of God and that there’s a nobility that God has communicated to us in our very being as well as in the mission that He has entrusted to us, to live in faithful service of Him.  He wants us to sacrifice our lives and our own personal preferences and to let go of our fears or doubts or disappointments or anything that is too small for the great drama that He has placed us in, that He wants us to see. We are to realize that we have a place in a bigger picture, a picture that’s much bigger than our own little lives and our own little feelings and desires and whatever.  We’re part of a great, glorious adventure.  We have a role to play, like John had a role to play, and we, in our own way, have to prepare the way of the Lord.

So, let us strive to enter into that mystery, to embrace it, to discover the depths of it, the ever-greater reality of God and his calling in our life and the meaning of our life, and rise above all the pettiness and the stuff that’s beneath the dignity of the children of God.  And then, someday, when we discover what that primordial prophecy of our lives was, we’ll look back and say, “How wonderful it is, that God fulfilled this prophecy in our lives, because we said ‘yes’ to Him.”  We have to go on doing that.  We’re celebrating something now that happened 2000 years ago, but each of us, in every age, has this role to play to prepare the way of the Lord, because God still wants to give knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins.  God still wants to come and visit his people, to turn our hearts from disobedience to the wisdom of the righteous.  His word does not return to Him empty but fulfills that for which it was spoken.  Let us be a conscious and faithful part of that fulfillment.

Prophet of the Most High

Today is a special day, for we celebrate the only saint whose birth is recounted in the New Testament.  This account is paralleled in Luke’s Gospel with the birth of Christ, but as God Christ is not to be classed with the merely human saints.  So St John receives this unique honor in the pages of the new covenant of the word of God.  It behooves us, then, to look more closely at who this great man is: the greatest, said Jesus, of all those born of woman.

We first see that, like some Old Testament precedents, John’s conception and birth were announced by an angel to a couple who were unable to conceive.  Right from the beginning there are extraordinary circumstances surrounding his entry into the world.  But the most important thing is not that his conception from aged parents was a miracle, nor even that this conception was foretold by a heavenly messenger.  What matters is most is the content of the angel’s message, that is, who this child would be and what he would do, and why.

Like all the saints, even the Mother of God, St John’s glory is not so much in himself as in his relationship to the Lord.  He is the greatest of men born of woman because of the greatness of his mission, which was to be the forerunner of the Son of God made flesh, He whom the Father would send into the world to redeem and save it.

The blessing of a son in their old age was the Lord’s gracious gift to Zachariah and Elizabeth.  Perhaps that is why the angel said his name was to be John, which means “the Lord is gracious.”  His birth, said Gabriel, would be a cause of joy and gladness for many.  Now that could be said about almost any occasion of childbearing, but as the angel goes on, the message becomes more specific to John and his mission.

First, he situates John’s life in the context of the consecrated ones, the nazir of the Old Testament, by saying, “He shall drink no wine or strong drink.”  Then he says something that expresses the uniqueness of the Lord’s forerunner: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.”  We can’t assume that Zachariah understood precisely what was meant by the Holy Spirit at this “pre-dawn” stage of the New Testament, but he at least would have understood that the child would be chosen and blessed by God for the whole of his life.

Now we come to what the mission of this forerunner would be.  Most appropriately, he would “goJohn the Baptist before” the Lord, preparing the people to receive the revelation of the Messiah who would come shortly afterward.  The people’s hearts would have to be “turned,” that is, converted, from disobedience to wisdom, if they were both to recognize and receive the One who was to come after John.  This was the task of the forerunner, but this turning of hearts to wisdom would not be effected through mere teaching, a kind of Socratic dialogue with seekers of wisdom.  No, the model that the angel gave for the forerunner was not Socrates but Elijah, the fiery and uncompromising prophet who called down divine wrath from heaven and stood up fearlessly for the absolute rights of the Lord over all false gods, denouncing all infidelity to the truth.

So, a new Elijah was foretold by the Archangel Gabriel.  The fact that Gabriel used some of the same words for the coming of John that the prophet Malachi used for the “second coming” of Elijah makes this identification clear, and it would strike fear into the hearts of the pious, and fill them with trembling expectation.  The very last words of the whole body of prophetic literature in the Old Testament read thus: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of the Lord comes.  And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).

We know that St John the Forerunner fulfilled well the role of the return of Elijah before the Day of the Lord.  Jesus Himself confirmed it when He told the crowds, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Mt. 11:14; see also 17:12-13).  The Forerunner would call the people to righteousness and faithfulness just like Elijah did.  He didn’t call down fire from heaven, but he didn’t have to: his words were enough to put the fear of God into the hearts of the people and bring them in droves to confess their sins and receive a baptism of repentance at the Forerunner’s hands.

But today’s feast is not about fiery preaching or threats of divine judgment.  We’re still in the mode of rejoicing over the birth of a child, one specially blessed and destined by God for great things.  The first prophecy of Gabriel was fulfilled at the moment of John’s birth, for he had said, “many will rejoice at his birth.”  Forty-some verses later we read that when she gave birth, Elizabeth’s neighbors and kinsfolk indeed “rejoiced with her.”

Yet stranger things were about to happen and, almost as a prophecy of John’s own future prophecy, the fear of God was put into the hearts of the people when Zachariah indicated that the boy would be called “the Lord is gracious,” and suddenly the curse of his muteness was lifted and he himself began uttering prophecies!  “Fear came upon all their neighbors,” says St Luke, “and all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’”

Well, Zachariah, having heard the words of the angel, knew what this child would be, and he told him so: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, and you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.”  These three elements—preparation, knowledge of salvation, and forgiveness—concisely describe John’s mission as forerunner, preacher, and baptizer.

So, maybe we get all that; we understand something of who John was and what he was called to do, how his coming was prepared and how he prepared the coming of Christ.  But does he have anything to say to us today?  Is his story just one element of the Gospel, and is the Gospel just another “epic fantasy,” a stirring drama that has little more than entertainment value, with perhaps a moral to the story?

The world does need to hear the message of John, the new Elijah who speaks of uncompromising faithfulness to the Righteous God who is coming to judge the world He has made.  John’s style of preaching perhaps would not be well-received today, and no one wants their day ruined by talk of unpleasant things like divine judgment.  Yet his message is timeless and its truth unchanging.  Like it or not, there is a God who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and, like it or not, we are accountable for our choices and our actions.

Perhaps this is why the Epistle reading from Romans was chosen (13:11 – 14:4).  It is literally a wake-up call: “It is high time now for you to wake from sleep… the day is at hand… cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”  St Paul sounds a lot like St John in this passage, and this message is echoed throughout the New Testament.

At the same time, we know that Jesus, when He was at last revealed, was something of a mystery to St John, who even had to double-check and to make sure he got it right that Jesus was the Messiah after all (see Mt. 11:2-3).  Jesus did in fact begin just like John, with both barrels blazing: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Mt. 4:17).  But then he began to heal the sick, to change water into wine, to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes and to forgive them, and to speak about laying down his own life as a sacrifice for sinners.  No fire from heaven, no laying waste the whole earth, as the ancient prophets repeatedly predicted for the coming Day of the Lord.  Rather, the divine voice was heard saying things like, “her sins are forgiven for she loved much,” and “the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.”

So, as always when we approach the things of God, we are confronted with a mystery, one that is too profound to be expressed in a simple catchphrase or an either/or proposition.  We have the mystery of the incarnation of the eternal God whose holiness and majesty make the world tremble, announced by an angel and a fiery prophet.  This incarnate God then sets about quietly healing, forgiving, and inviting people to a change of heart, a new perspective and a more fruitful way of life—and He even gives up his own life in reparation for their endless crimes.  Yet this same gentle Master is coming back to judge the living and the dead, and nothing of his awe-inspiring holiness and glory will be diminished before the eyes of all people of all ages, who will give an account for their deeds and receive their reward or their doom.

As the Gospel for this feast showed us both joy and the fear of God, let us try to integrate these into our lives as we try to grow in understanding and love of God.  His righteousness is everlasting and his word is truth—and his mercy endures forever.  So let us ask John the Forerunner to intercede for us, that the Lord may be gracious to us.  Thus may we serve Him in holiness all the days of our life, while He gives us light in the darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace.

Collected Posts

I know that you have been laboriously searching my archives, one month at a time, all the way back to 2005, to discover the hidden treasures of Word Incarnate, hoping against hope to find a post you’ve never seen bthe Wordefore, to increase your ever-deepening insight into the eternal divine mysteries.  Well, now an industrious and good-hearted friend has saved you much of the trouble.  For an alphabetical list of links to all my posts, just click here and dive into the bottomless sea of Word Incarnate blog posts.  I’m adding a link to my blogroll so this list will always be at your fingertips, 24/7.  I know some of you visit my blog late at night to help you get to… well, whatever it’s good for, now you can more easily find the post of your fancy.

So, happy hunting, and don’t be shy about telling your friends.  The Gospel is supposed to go to the ends of the earth, and so far the internet seems to be, if not the most personal way, at least the most effective way of reaching many people all at once (short of advertising on Super Bowl Sunday, but this is a lot cheaper).  Having all these posts permanently available and easily accessible, I’ll be able to preach even long after I’m dead and gone.  Hey, maybe if I generate enough volume of material here on this blog, I’ll get to check out early.  I don’t want the beaches of Paradise to be too crowded when I get there.  Though maybe we each get our own, or maybe…  Anyway, let us work while it is still day, and leave the rest to God.

Peace with God and Hope for Heaven

We have two readings for the Divine Liturgy today (Rom. 5:1-10, Mt. 6:22-34) that are quite rich in divine wisdom and blessing, so much so that it’s hard to squeeze it all into one homily, but at least we can look at the highlights and try to appreciate a little better the love and providence of God.

Let us look first at the epistle reading, for it will provide the background for the Gospel.  It will be easier to trust in the providence of God when we are more secure in his love and what He has already done for us.  In the first half of the reading from the Apostle, there are three main themes: peace with God, the state of grace, and rejoicing in hope.

Throughout the opening chapters of Romans, St Paul goes to great pains to explain how faith in Jesus Peace_with_GodChrist puts us into a right relationship with God.  So as we begin chapter five, it’s already done: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This peace with God can be considered one of the main themes of the entire epistle, and really, of our entire lives, since it refers to justification, reconciliation, and salvation.  If you have peace with God you have everything; if you don’t have peace with God you have nothing.  To have peace with God is to have forgiveness of sin and hence hope for eternal life.

Therefore we “stand” in grace, as St Paul puts it.  That means grace is not some sort of “thing” that God gives us, but is that by which we abide in God and God in us.  It implies a relationship with God, a “status” before Him, a state of reconciliation, of peace based on trust in the power of the death and resurrection of Christ.  Through Jesus, Paul says, we have access to this state of grace, this relationship of peace with God.

Thus we can “rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Now this hope is meant to be considered a sure thing.  The Christian’s share in the glory of God is only cast in terms of hope because it is not yet fully possessed.  We are still living in this valley of tears.  But for St Paul, as he says a couple verses later, hope cannot disappoint, because it is based on the love of God, which is given us through the Holy Spirit.  Theological hope is not the same as hope in the usual colloquial sense, which is more like a wish that we’re not at all sure is going to be granted.  One may say, with much anxiety, something like: “Oh, I hope he will get here on time!”  This is not what St Paul is talking about.  Can the person who equates hope with a desperate wish rejoice in that hope?  Obviously not.  But as for our hope in sharing the glory of God, St Paul says: “We rejoice in our hope.”  That’s because we have confidence in the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, which makes our peace with God and situates us securely in a state of grace.

The Apostle says that Christians can even rejoice in their sufferings.  This is because the endurance and moral character that are the by-products of suffering (if we unite our sufferings to the Cross of Christ) give us the capacity to hope in the way we are meant to hope: confidently relying on the love of God to fulfill his promises to those who believe in his only-begotten Son.

If we’re still demanding proof of all this, St Paul provides it: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” to take away our sins.  The death of Christ reconciled us to God, while were still enemies of God.  Paul’s reasoning is unassailable: If God did such a wonderful thing for us while we were his enemies, what will He not do for us now that we are reconciled to him in the grace and peace of Christ?

We are now in a position to understand better the message of the Gospel.  We’re even in a better position to understand it than were the people who heard it first from Jesus’ own mouth.  They hadn’t read St Paul first, for St Paul hadn’t yet written anything (and St Paul wasn’t yet St Paul).  Paul hadn’t written yet because Jesus hadn’t yet died and risen and reconciled us with the Father.  But now we have the Christian theology of grace and reconciliation and unshakable hope for salvation secure in our minds and hearts as we hear Jesus speak of the Father’s loving providence.

It’s a happy coincidence that these readings which focus on the Father’s love occur on Father’s Day this year.  Perhaps that will remind us that human fatherhood is meant to be an image of divine fatherhood.  So much spiritual damage is done when we project the faults or failings of our human fathers upon God and think that He is little more than a larger and perhaps more terrifying or otherwise flawed version of our earthly fathers.  In a sense we have a win-win situation with God the Father.  Those whose earthly fathers were or are loving and generous and righteous will find shining in them the goodness of the heavenly Father.  Those whose earthly fathers were or are abusive, negligent, or otherwise harmful or inadequate can take courage that the heavenly Father will make up for all that, and that they are not at a loss, because they have a Father in Heaven who is more than the best of everything a human father could possibly be.

So Jesus tells us something about this Father we have in Heaven.  St Paul told us we have peace with God through faith.  Jesus says basically the same thing, though He puts it in negative instead of positive terms.  Instead of saying “Be at peace,” He says “Do not be anxious.”  This is probably because He knows we are already anxious, and before He can speak of what makes for peace He has to speak of what gets rid of anxiety.

There are three main things in this little section of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus tells us not to be anxious about: our lives, food and clothing, and tomorrow.  The first is the most general.  Don’t be anxious about your life, which means, if we want to quote St Paul again, “Have no anxiety about anything” (Phil. 4:6).  Jesus hints in one place in this passage that anxiety about life has to do with anxiety about the length of life.  He supposes that people want to live as long as possible, but He reminds us that being anxious about longevity will do nothing to attain it.  In fact, anxiety is likely to shorten life due to all the stress-related maladies that spring from it.  But to have no anxiety for our life is evidence that we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, that we are aware that we stand in grace and thus rejoice in our hope for Heaven.

As examples of anxiety about life, Jesus uses food and clothing, symbols of our material needs in this life.  He makes it clear that life does not consist in these, which is another way of saying that material goods do not at all express the true meaning and goal of life.  So in trying to get us to see that the life consists rather in seeking the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, Jesus says: You’re interested in food?  Look how the Father feeds the birds of the air!  You’re interested in clothing?  Look how the Father clothes the meadows in color and beauty!  The point is that everything comes from the Father, both material and spiritual goods, so the wise thing to do is go straight to the Father for everything.

The unbelievers, says Jesus, are the ones who seek food and clothing and material goods for their own sake, instead of as gifts from the providence of God.  They serve money as their master instead of God, and Jesus says this will not work.  The unbelievers reason thus: food and clothing are obtained with money, so we must focus on money.  But Jesus says: everything comes from ultimately from God, so focus on God.  If you need money for your necessities, fine.  God will see that you have what you need.  But seek God first, and everything else will fall into place.  If you seek money first, you upset the true order of things and will find yourself unhappy, unsatisfied, and always searching for fulfillment—which you could have had if you had set your sights higher in the first place.

In order to get us to see how much better it is to trust God first, Jesus uses the same kind of reasoning that Paul did in the epistle.  This is called a fortiori reasoning, which might be called “how much more” reasoning.  St Paul says: if God reconciled us to Himself while we were his enemies, how much more will He do for us now that we are reconciled!  And Jesus says: if God clothes the grass of the field in such splendor, how much more will He clothe you, his beloved children!  (In another place, Jesus said: If you, who are evil, can give good things to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to you!)

Jesus’ final counsel about anxiety is not to be anxious about tomorrow.  Tomorrow will take care of itself; we’ve enough to deal with today without adding anxiety to anxiety.  But the same reasoning holds: if God takes care of you today, will He not do the same tomorrow?  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but Jesus is telling us we don’t have to know what tomorrow will bring, because the Father is already there, and He’s taking care of everything.

But, the cynic might argue, life isn’t just about flowery meadows and well-fed birds. Any given tomorrow might just bring tragedy and suffering, and where is your loving Father then?  Well, we’re quite aware that life brings suffering, but let’s not forget what the Apostle just said: “We rejoice [even] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us.”

We come, then, to the reason we are to seek first the Kingdom of God.  We need food and clothing, but we need eternal salvation more.  We trust God to provide but we don’t demand that He make everything easy and comfortable, for we know that the unshakable hope for salvation can only be found in a tried and tested soul.  The most important thing is that we have peace with God through faith in Jesus.  So let us not be anxious; we have a Father in Heaven, who knows what we need.  We aren’t exempt from toil and trouble in this life, but God makes it possible to be exempt from anxiety.  For we have received our reconciliation.  In grace we stand, and in hope we rejoice.

Texts on Charity

[The following are a few texts I’ve gleaned here and there on charity, in which I think we all need to grow, so it’s good to have some reminders—perhaps even a few words to post on the fridge!]

“‘Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another’ (Rom 13:8). What an unusual debt is this, my LoveOneAnotherbrethren, the love the apostle Paul teaches us we should always pay, without ever ceasing to be debtors. O happy debt, holy debt, bearer of our claims over heaven, filled with eternal riches!… Let us remember, too, some of the Lord’s words: ‘Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who mistreat you and curse you’ (cf. Lk 6:27f.). And what reward will there be for this endeavor?… ‘Then you will be children of the Most High.’

“The apostle Paul gives us to understand what will be bestowed on these children of God: ‘If we are children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17). Pay heed then, you Christians; pay heed, children of God; pay heed, heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ! If you want to gain possession of your Father’s inheritance, pay the debt of your love not simply to your friends but even to your enemies. Refuse this love to no one; it is the common fund of all people of good will. Possess it together, then, and in order to increase it pay it out to the wicked as much as to the good. For this property that we can only hold together is not of earth but of heaven; one person’s share never diminishes that of another…

“Love is a gift of God: ‘Love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5)… Love is the root of all good just as, according to Saint Paul, avarice is that of all evil (1Tm 6:10)… Love is always happy, because the more it increases its giving, the more generously does God bestow it on us. That is why, while misers make themselves poor with all they hoard, he who pays his debt of love enriches himself from what he gives.”

—Saint Fulgentius, Sermon 5

“Christ asks two things of us: to condemn our own offenses and forgive those of others, doing the first of these for the sake of the second, which will become easier in consequence since whoever reflects on his own sins becomes less severe towards those of his fellow in wretchedness. And forgiving, too, not merely in word but from the heart, lest we turn on ourselves the barb with which we aimed to stab others. What hurt is your enemy capable of inflicting compared to that which you inflict on yourself?… If you give way to indignation and anger you will be hurt, not by the insult he has done to you, but by the resentment you bear for it.

“So don’t say: ‘He has insulted and slandered me and caused me a great deal of unhappiness.’ The more you say he has hurt you, the more you show he has done you good since he has given you the chance of being purified of your sins. Thus, the more he does to offend you, the more he places you in a position to obtain forgiveness for your own offenses from God. For if we will, no one can harm us; even our enemies do us great service by this means… Consider, then, how many advantages you draw from an insult endured humbly and gently.”

—Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Saint Matthew’s Gospel, no.61

“Don’t attach yourself to the suspicions or the persons of those who would tempt you to become scandalized about certain things. Because those who, in one way or another, are scandalized by what comes their way, whether they wanted it to or not, are unmindful of the way of peace that, through love, guides those who are caught up by it to knowledge of God.

“Anyone who is still swayed by other people’s characters and who, for example, loves one but hates another, or who sometimes loves, sometimes hates the same person for the same reasons, does not as yet have perfect love. Perfect love does not split men’s common nature because some of them have different personalities but, always regarding that nature, it loves all equally. It loves the virtuous as friends and the wicked as enemies, doing good to them, bearing with them with patience, enduring what comes from them, paying no attention to malice, going so far as to suffer for them if the opportunity presents itself. So it makes friends of them if at all possible. Or, at the least, it is faithful to itself, always showing its fruits to all alike. Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, demonstrating the love he bears us, suffered for all mankind and proffered the hope of resurrection to all alike even though each individually, by his works, calls upon himself glory or punishment.”

—Saint Maximus the Confessor, Century 1 on Love

“I have heard some people speak ill of their neighbor and have rebuked them. To defend themselves, these evildoers have answered: We are saying these things out of charity and concern! However, I have replied: Stop practicing a charity like that or you will be accusing of deceit the one who said: ‘Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I destroy,’ (Ps 101:5). If you love him—as you claim—pray for him in secret and don’t make a mock of the man. This is the way of loving that pleases the Lord; don’t lose sight of it and you will take the greatest care not to judge sinners. Judas was of the number of the apostles and the thief was among the criminals but, in an instant, what an astonishing change!…

“So reply to anyone who speaks evil of his neighbor to you: ‘Stop, brother! I myself fall into the most serious faults every day; how could I now condemn this man?’ Thus you will make a twofold gain: you will heal yourself and heal your neighbor. Not judging is a shortcut towards the forgiveness of sins, if this saying is true: ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged’… Some people have committed grave faults in the sight of everyone but, in secret, have carried out the greatest acts of virtue. Thus their detractors have been mistaken by focusing only on the smoke without seeing the sun…

“Those who are hastily censorious and severe fall into this delusion because they don’t keep the memory and constant care of their own sins before them… Judging others is shamelessly to usurp a divine prerogative; condemning them is to bring down our own souls… Just as a good grape-picker eats the grapes that are ripe and does not pick those that are green, so a watchful and sensible soul carefully takes note of all the virtues he sees in others; but it is the stupid man who keeps an eye on their faults and failings.”

—Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent

“If I tell you to imitate the apostle Paul, this is not to tell you: Raise the dead or cure lepers. Go further: have charity. Have the same love that animated Saint Paul since this virtue is far superior to the power to work miracles. Where there is charity, there God the Son reigns together with his Father and the Holy Spirit. It was he who said: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Loving to meet together is the nature of a love that is as strong as it is genuine.

“Are there people so wretched, you will say, as not to desire to have Christ in their midst? Yes, we ourselves, my children. We cast him away from us when we are at enmity with one another. You will say to me: What are you talking about? Can’t you see that we have assembled in his name, all together under the same roof, within the walls of the same church, paying heed to the voice of our pastor? There is not the least dissension among us in the unity of our songs and prayers, listening together to our pastor. Where is the discord?

“Yes, I know we are within the same fold, under the same pastor. I weep all the more bitterly about it… For if you are peaceful and untroubled at the moment yet, when you leave the church, this one is criticizing that one; one publicly insults another; one is consumed by envy, jealousy or avarice; another ponders revenge; yet another sensuality, duplicity or fraud… Show respect, then, show respect to this Holy Table where we all receive Communion together; show respect for Christ immolated on our behalf; show respect for the sacrifice offered on this altar in our midst.”

—Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 8 on the Epistle to the Romans

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