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

Archive for September, 2009

Whom do You Seek?

The meeting of Mary Magdalene with the risen Lord at his empty tomb is one of the more poignant passages of Scripture.  According to the Gospel of John, she was the first to go to the tomb. Then  she went to Peter and John and told them that the tomb was empty, but at that point she didn’t understand what had happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  The apostles ran to the tomb and discovered it empty.  We’re not told how Peter interpreted the phenomenon of the empty tomb, but we learn that John “saw and believed.”  Still, the apostles “went back to their homes” without having met the Lord at the tomb.

Mary stayed, and she wept.  If John “saw and believed” he evidently did not tell Mary what he believed about the empty tomb, because she was still under the impression that someone had taken Jesus’ body away.  Mary’s love kept her there and she would not be consoled.

She looked again into the tomb, and Jesus was still gone, but it was no longer empty; there were two angels sitting there.  This seemed not to faze the Magdalene in the least.  They asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (knowing full well why she was weeping, and forcing back their smiles, for they knew what was to come).  Without questioning who they were or how they managed to enter the tomb without her seeing them, she gave the same answer she gave to Peter and John above.

Then she turned around and saw Jesus.  By this time the tomb was anything but empty!  She didn’t know it was Jesus at first.  This is a common occurrence in the post-resurrection appearances.  Jesus asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (knowing full well why she was weeping, and forcing back his smile).  Then He said, getting more to the point and preparing the imminent recognition and reunion: “Whom do you seek?”  She didn’t answer his question, assuming that, whoever he was, he knew darn well whom she was seeking if she was standing outside his tomb.  And if he was the one who took her Teacher/Master (Rabboni) away, he had better take her to where He was.

Jesus and Mary MagdaleneThe next moment could take volumes to describe, if it could be described at all.  In fact, it is ineffable, and we feel it more than we can talk about it.  “Jesus said to her: ‘Mary.’” The last three years of her life must have flashed before her in an instant: meeting Him, being delivered from demons by Him, following Him, loving Him and being loved by Him, going to the Cross with Him and sharing in his agony, suffering the loss of Him, weeping at his grave.  “Mary.”  At the sound of the Master’s voice speaking her name, everything came back in a rush of wonder, fear, and joy.  No one took Him away from the tomb after all!  He left of his own accord—just as no one took his life from Him but he laid it down of his own free will.  “Rabboni!”  It was He, standing before her, making all things new.  Her fidelity and love were rewarded with the gift of being the first to see Him after He had risen from the dead.

A curious thing happened next, which I don’t know if anyone fully understands.  She must have rushed to embrace Him but he forbade her, saying, “I have not yet ascended to my Father.”  Why could no one touch Him before this mysterious ascension—which was not the same one which happened 40 days later and marked the end of his appearances?  It must have something to do with the completion of Jesus’ “glorification,” which, according to John’s Gospel, included everything from the Passion to this Ascension.  In any case, it was a mystical ascension, perhaps a profound personal “reunion” of the Son—in the flesh, bearing the wounds of his obedience—with the Father upon the completion of his mission.  We don’t know why Mary couldn’t touch Him before this was accomplished, but we know He welcomed the touch of his loved ones afterward: “Touch me and see…”; and again: “Put out your hand, and place it in my side.”

Mary knew whom she was seeking, yet in a certain sense Jesus might have been saying that she didn’t know fully.  Something happened at the resurrection that superseded all previous ways of relating.  It was Jesus, but not merely the kenotic Jesus, the one who had abandoned all his divine glory in order to be the Suffering Servant.  Risen from the dead, He clothed his humiliated humanity with glory.  So perhaps it was a kind of sign or symbol that Mary didn’t recognize Him right away.  He was glorified, but still not manifestly so, since she mistook Him for a gardener, but the point is that He was different.  And Mary would have to learn to relate to Him in a different way, though a way that would ultimately be better than anything she had ever known.  But it was a process: seeking, mistaking, then hearing his voice and recognizing, being temporarily restrained yet being granted a mission (“Go to my brethren and say to them…”), and finally—though this is not mentioned in the Gospel—going into his eternal glory upon her death and living in ecstatic love with Him forever.

If we are asked, in the context of our spiritual life, whom we are seeking, we may readily respond: “Why, Jesus, of course!”  But perhaps we ought to reflect a bit and see if we sufficiently understand who it is we are seeking.  Mary was seeking Jesus as she had come to know Him, but He was different and she didn’t recognize Him.  Perhaps we may be seeking an image of Jesus that we have either made for ourselves or have carried with us from childhood, but if that’s not really who He is, then we may not recognize Him even if He stands before us.  We are not the ones in control of our relationship with God; it’s not up to us to make comfortable images or settle into satisfying devotions—especially if that implies a lack of genuine openness to anything new or different the Lord might will for us.  We must always be growing, maturing, listening for the voice of the Master.  When He calls us by name, He is looking for a moment of joyful recognition on our part, and even if we cannot immediately enter into the fullness of love’s embrace this side of Paradise, He will most likely give us some sort of mission in the meantime.  And if we continue to seek Him throughout our lives, we can be sure He will call our name at the hour of our death and receive us into his everlasting joy.

So then, whom do you seek?  In what ways are you seeking Him?  What are your expectations?  Are you willing to be open to his reality, and not merely your own image of Him, even if that is based on genuine past experience?  Mary’s past experience of Jesus had been authentic, but He was taking her to a new level.  We should let the Lord take us to ever-greater levels of relationship with Him, in knowledge and love and sensitivity to his voice, that is, willingness to do his will.

May we at last be able to enter into his joy, like the Magdalene.  I wonder if, when she finally crossed the threshold of the Kingdom, she might have recalled these words, which summed up her whole life and her whole eternity: “I found him whom my heart loves; I held him and would not let him go…” (Songs 3:4).

On Fish, Fear, and Following Jesus

We’re beginning today the cycle of St Luke for the Sunday Gospels, as we do every year following the Sunday after the Feast of the Holy Cross.  Last Sunday Jesus said that whoever would follow Him must take up his cross.  Today Jesus takes the initiative to call those whom He wanted to be his disciples (Lk. 5:1-11).  So the following of Jesus is not entirely up to us.  It is a response to the divine initiative, a call to be his disciples.  Once we say yes to Him, it’s time to take up our cross and follow.  We might think, then, that the Sunday of the calling of the disciples should precede the Sunday in which the conditions of discipleship are laid down.  But Jesus doesn’t use the “bait and switch” technique.  He wants us to know the demands of discipleship even before He calls us, so that when He does we can make an informed decision, with open eyes, aware of what it will cost us to follow Him.  Of course, we can never know fully and in advance what the cost of discipleship will be—for then perhaps very few would risk the undertaking—but the Lord at least wants us to be aware that the path to the Kingdom will be arduous, and at the same time He wants us to know that his grace is sufficient and that all things are possible with Him.

According to St Luke, the call of Jesus’ favorite three apostles—Peter, James and John—happened on a boat at sea.  Jesus was preaching on the shore, but the crowd was pressing in on Him so much He thought they might end up inadvertently pushing Him right into the water, so he asked the veteran fisherman Simon—who was just cleaning his nets after an unsuccessful night of fishing—if he would allow Him to use his boat as a pulpit.  Simon obliged, and Jesus taught the people.  So far, nothing really extraordinary had happened.  But then Jesus asked something extraordinary of Simon.

Jesus and Peter and fishEvidently the best fishing was at night, and Simon had already finished his night’s work, with nothing to show for it, and was about to go home and get some shuteye.  But Jesus asked him to go fishing now, when the sun was already high in the sky and Simon was exhausted.  “Put out into the deep,” said the Lord, “and let down your nets for a catch.”  To his credit, Simon didn’t respond with a stream of curse and invective, though he did complain just a little: “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!”  The fact that Simon called Jesus “Master” (as well as not telling Him to take a hike when Jesus wanted to use his boat for preaching) suggests that this was not Peter’s first encounter with Jesus.  He must at least have known who He was and something of his reputation, even if he hadn’t had personal contact with Him.  So after Simon’s initial balking at Jesus’ command to go fishing, he said, “But at your word I will let down the nets.”  Even if he didn’t quite realize who Jesus was, he respected his authority enough to do his will even when it seemed to fly in the face of common sense (something we all ought to ponder in our own lives).

Once Simon decided to obey the Lord, he was handsomely rewarded.  He instantly caught so many fish that even two boats could not hold them all without beginning to sink from the weight of them.  Suddenly, Simon saw Jesus with new eyes, and so he reacted to Him in a way he never did before.  There are three things to notice here.  First, he fell down before Jesus.  Knowing what we do of Simon from later accounts, and what we can guess about a grizzled Galilean fisherman, Simon was likely unaccustomed to falling down before anyone—except perhaps God Himself during worship at the Temple.  Second, Simon changed his way of addressing Jesus.  When Jesus asked him to put out into deep water, Simon had called Him “Master,” which is the same as saying “Teacher.”  After the miraculous catch of fish, he called Jesus “Lord.”  Finally, he did something we might not expect: He asked Jesus to leave him, and this is what we’re going to examine a little more closely.

That response of Simon Peter shows that for him that unexpected catch of fish was on the level of religious experience.  If he were nothing more than a fisherman out to make a good living, nothing more than a man of the world with worldly values, the shekel-signs would have lit up in his eyes and he would have seen in Jesus the goose that laid the golden egg.  He would immediately have signed up Jesus as a partner in his business, and it would have been smooth sailing for the rest of his life.

Yet he begged Jesus to leave.  The religious dimension is expressed in the reason Simon gave: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  If he were a mere mercenary, what would it have mattered to anyone that he was a sinner?  But Simon became suddenly and terrifyingly aware that somehow when he was in the presence of Jesus he was in the presence of God.  It is like the experience of Isaiah when God revealed Himself to him in the Temple.  Isaiah didn’t say, “Wow, this is great!”  Rather, he cried out, “Woe is me!”  The reason he gave was quite similar to Simon Peter’s: He suddenly realized how unclean he was when he was ushered into the presence of the Lord of Hosts, before whom angels sang: “Holy, holy, holy!”

The Gospel doesn’t say explicitly that Peter was filled with fear, but it clearly implies it, since Jesus had to say to him: “Do not be afraid.”  We ought to try to understand this fear a little, for there are different kinds of fear.  It was not the fear of revulsion, which one might experience upon seeing some horrifying sight, like a mangled corpse.  It was not the fear of imminent danger to one’s life and limb, as a monk of Mt Tabor might experience when seeing a mountain lion as he’s walking up the path.  It was also not the vague but pervasive dread of some unknown disaster one might have a premonition of happening.  It was a holy fear, no less terrifying than other kinds, but a fear that goes to the root of one’s being, a fear that exposes one’s contingent creatureliness, as well as one’s flaws and failures, in the face of God’s absolute sovereignty and self-sustaining eternal existence, and his blinding holiness and purity.

That is what Isaiah felt in the Temple and what Simon felt in the boat.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Scripture several times, and it is also the beginning of our understanding of who we are before God.  It is not the fullness of understanding, since it does not yet convey the tenderness of God’s compassion and love.  Yet it is essential that we have something of this holy fear in our experience of God, for if we don’t we will never truly understand or fully appreciate the mercy and love of God. If we only project upon God our own concept or experience of human compassion and love, we will never properly know God and hence will not relate to Him as He desires.  It is only when we experience that standing-in-awe before the Holy One, the trembling awareness of our sinfulness and radical insufficiency before the Mysterium Tremendum that is the ineffable glory of the Divine Nature, that we can begin to grasp the magnitude of mercy and God’s limitless love, and the incomprehensible gift of God’s desire to enter into a personal relationship with us in love and joy.

There are many who believe in God’s transcendent glory but not in his desire for intimate communion with us.  Two Iranian women who became Christians were recently put on trial and imprisoned simply for converting.  One of their “blasphemies” was believing that the transcendent God actually spoke to them.  The Muslim prosecutor bellowed: “It is impossible for God to do such a thing!”  They replied: “So are you saying, then, that God is not Almighty?”  The prosecutor changed his tactic and then said: “You are not worthy.”  They responded: “It is up to God to decide whether or not we are worthy.”  So it precisely because God is Almighty that He can lower Himself to speak with sinful creatures.  And it is not for sinful creatures to decide their worthiness or unworthiness to stand before God.  We come because He calls.

So Simon started from the right position of the holy fear of God, but at that point He didn’t know God well enough to accept the mercy and the invitation that Christ was offering.  But it didn’t take long, for soon the miraculous catch was left behind, and Simon was following Jesus, ready to learn the secrets of the Kingdom of God, and then discovering, in the Person of Jesus, dimensions of the mystery of God he could never before have imagined.

What shall we do, then, in order to have the right relationship with God?  Well, before we can enter into experiences of holy fear and love, we have to do what Simon did: let down our nets into the deep and wait for the Lord’s word to be fulfilled.  “Letting down our nets” can be an image of contemplative prayer, going into the depths of silence, of our own inner lives, into the peace beyond understanding in which the Lord abides.  To let down our nets is also to drop our defenses, to come to the Lord with childlike simplicity, honest contrition, and a certain vulnerability undergirded with trust.  This is how we must approach the Lord.  Then it is up to Him how He wishes to manifest Himself to us, how He wants us, at any given stage of our spiritual lives, to know and experience his presence.

To know Him fully we need to experience both the fear and the love, the judgment and the mercy.  The danger of focusing only on love is that it can easily degenerate into familiarity or sentimentality, which is then a departure from reality.  For God will always essentially be above and beyond our grasp, the Burning Bush, the Glory in the Temple, the Face shining like the sun which illuminates every dark corner of our souls.  On the other hand, the danger of focusing only on the fear of God is that one might be tempted, like Simon, to beg Him to depart, to forget that through the Incarnation God veiled his blinding glory so that his tender compassion could be manifested in his self-sacrificing love.

God is love, but a full awareness of that infinite and relentless love still ought to make us tremble in the realization of how poorly we love Him in return.  So yes, we still need to fall down before Him—but not begging Him to depart.  Rather, we beg Him to stay and to have mercy on us, to teach us how to love Him in return, to reveal to us the mysteries of his Kingdom.  Then, like Peter, James, and John, we leave behind our nets and boats, that is, our former ways and our own inadequate ideas of God, and we get up and follow Jesus.

Cats and the Kingdom (Part 2)

The Lord calls us to trust, and to not worry. But it should also be clear, though, that the Lord didn’t say, “Do not work”; He just said, “Do not worry.”  So it’s not a matter of saying, “I’ll sit here and just trust in God all day, and then I’ll go down to the mail box and pick up a bunch of checks, and everything will be fine!”  Well, it doesn’t work that way, because, as St. Paul also says, “If you don’t work, then you shouldn’t eat.”  And he says, in several places, that you should earn seek ye firstyour living by working quietly—and don’t be a problem for anybody else. We do have to make an effort, we do have to provide for ourselves, for our families, but there’s a big difference between working anxiously for your daily bread, and working for your daily bread with confidence and trust in God that the Heavenly Father knows what you need.  When you seek first his Kingdom and live out of the grace of the Holy Spirit and in response to the love which is poured into your heart, then all things will be given you—all things that you need, not necessarily all things that you want, all things that you fancy!

That’s another thing, because this life is just not going to be a picnic, you know; there are going to be struggles here.  St. Paul points that out, too, when he talks about his sufferings.  Yet, because he had that attitude and awareness of God’s love that had been poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit, he says, “We rejoice in our sufferings!”  He gives a list of virtues that come from that: the endurance, the character, and the hope—and this hope is realized and expressed in that outpouring of God’s love in our hearts in the Holy Spirit.  He makes this point: hope does not disappoint us, and this is very important.

We sometimes think of hope as a sort of wishful thinking:  “Well, I hope this happens; I hope that happens.”  St. Paul doesn’t talk about hope like that.  Hope is something that he says “does not disappoint.”  Not “ought not” disappoint, or “shouldn’t” disappoint, but “doesn’t” disappoint.   This is because it is God Himself, present within us through the grace of the Holy Spirit.  So we can even rejoice in our sufferings, rejoice in those things which it seems—at the moment, perhaps—that the providence isn’t coming through as quickly or as much as we’d like it to.  We still do not, because of that, become “people of little faith” and start “chasing cats” again.

We have to hold on to both of these truths: the fact that there are going to be sufferings and difficulties in life, but also that we can go on rejoicing, believing, trusting, even in hard times, because God is our Father and takes care of us, provides for us, and is not going to abandon us. The Father knows all that we need.  But seek first his Kingdom, his righteousness (his “way of holiness” is another translation).  Seek to live according to the ways of God, according to the word of God, because that lifestyle is the one that opens us to the blessings of God that He wants to give to us.

If we do an examination of conscience, we might come to realize that we don’t really rest assured in God.  Maybe we’re not entirely sure that God cares for our lives, that God is going to provide for us, that He loves us, that He’s for us as well as with us.  We may sometimes look at the evidence around us, or our own lack or need or sufferings, and our own subjective sense of “God not being there” or something like that, and so we say, “Well, you know, probably He’s there, and it would be really good if He is, but just in case, I’d better get out there and make it happen myself.”   But that’s still not good enough.  As I said, we’ve got to work, and work hard, and sacrifice ourselves for those who are entrusted to us, but there has to be the mentality that without God we can do nothing, but with God all things are possible.  So again, we have to hold that together as well and go on with our lives, doing what we know to be right but having our priorities straight, trying to connect with that truth, that reality of God’s love that’s indwelling us through the Holy Spirit, that the Father is providing for us out of his love for us.

We turn to God the Father who is the universal Provider for all creation: of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and us poor little human beings running around like ants on the face of the earth. He wants to provide for us, He wants to do good for us.  In another place, Jesus says, “Don’t fear, because it pleases the Father to give you the Kingdom.”   He doesn’t begrudge it to us, like “OK, I guess if I don’t give you food you’ll starve to death, so, here…”   God is not like that, and that’s not his approach to us.  He’s a generous, loving Father, but He also makes certain demands of us, which He has a complete right to do, because He knows that if He doesn’t make certain demands of us, we’re just going to retreat into our concupiscence and laziness and go the path of least resistance, and we’re not going to grow as persons into mature men and women of God: children of the Father, who are adult in the sense of their maturity and the strength of their faith and their trust and love.

So He has to place some demands on us, but once and for all we have to give God the benefit of the doubt, that He loves us, that He’s for us, He wants to do good for us and He’s with us, and He sends his Spirit to us, and He’s sent his Son to us to suffer and die for us.  It’s as if St. Paul is saying, “What else can He do? What else do you want? Here you are, enemies of God, you’re offending Him and living according to your own will and your own corrupt desires, and what does He do?  Wipe you off the face of the earth?  No; He sends his Son to die for you so that you don’t have to pay the price of your own sins!”

This is God’s gift to us, and so Paul says, “This proves the love God has for us, in that when we were sinners He sent his Son to die for us.”  So let us embrace Him, in his love and in his providence, and decide today that we are going to rest assured in the fact that God cares for our lives, that God takes care of us, that He loves us, that He’s put his Spirit into our hearts, and then we can seek his Kingdom first, and everything else will be given us besides.  The little cat will come home and nestle right next to us, and as we serve God, the one Master, happiness and blessing will be ours, in this age and in the age to come.

Cats and the Kingdom (Part 1)

[This is a homily I gave about five years ago.  It’s on the famous text from Matthew’s Gospel on trusting in God as do the wildflowers and the birds—and I suppose also the cats.]

cat at feet resizeHappiness is like a cat, as it is said.  If you chase after it, it will flee from you; but if you sit and work quietly, it will come to you, and curl up next to you.

I read that a while back.  It’s the theme of the Gospel of God’s providence—sort of—because Jesus says here that unbelievers are always running after the things that they think will make them happy.  The food and clothing are just symbols for all sorts of material possessions, or the mammon that the Lord said we cannot serve and also serve God.  The unbelievers are chasing happiness—chasing the “cat” of material goods and pleasures, but true happiness eludes them all the time.

Our whole life can seem to be a chase after happiness, but the Lord is telling us today—when He says, “Seek first the Kingdom, and you’ll be given everything besides”— that if you serve the one Master, blessings will come to you all by themselves, and you will not have to chase them down.

The Lord begins today by saying that no one can serve two masters, which is true, I think, in our own experience.  He says you cannot serve God and mammon—mammon being a term that refers to wealth particularly, but generally to anything you rely on or put your trust in.  You can’t put your trust in anything besides God—except to your own peril.  Even Bob Dylan, in his “saved” period, said, “You gotta serve somebody” in your life, which is true.  If you don’t serve God, you’re going to end up serving mammon.  You’re going to find another master—you’re going to find another idol that you’ll pursue and (in effect) worship, because you become enslaved to it.

Jesus says, whoever sins is a slave to sin, so whatever idols we make for ourselves become our masters.  But Jesus said there’s only one Master, or should be only one Master in your life.  In fact, there is, which will be proven at the end, but for our own individual lives, we have to make that choice to serve the one Master.  Jesus lays it out here for us, that the Heavenly Father is going to take care of us—if we get our priorities straight and serve the one Lord and Master.

When He talks about food and clothing and goes into the analogies about the birds and the flowers and all the rest, Jesus says if God can do all this just for grass and birds, well, how much more will He do for you—and then, “O you, weak in faith!”  In Matthew’s Gospel, we see that a lot.  Jesus is often saying to the apostles: “You weak in faith!”  “You men of little faith!”  “Where is your faith?”  because He knows who He’s dealing with.  Perhaps He could have summed it up simply by saying: “What’s wrong with you?” But as St. John said in his Gospel, He already knows what’s wrong with us: “He knew what was in the heart of man.”  He knows how we think, how we feel, and what our fears and anxieties are, and so He’s saying: listen, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Those of little faith, as it says in a note in my Bible, are those who do not rest in the assurance that God takes care of their lives.  We have to develop that mentality, that awareness and that trust, that faith, and build on that: God is going to take care of our lives.  When we believe that and embrace it, then the blessings begin to come to us.  But if we start running after the Cat of Happiness, then we’ve broken from that faith and that trust. God wants to see it in us, so that He can bless us with his goods for both body and soul.  “The Father knows that you need this stuff.”  Jesus is not saying, “You don’t need food; you don’t need clothes; just believe in God and pray.”   He says, “I know you need this, and God the Father knows you need this, but get your priorities straight: seek first the Kingdom of God.”

Perhaps we should ask next: What does He mean here by “seeking first the Kingdom of God”?  What is the Kingdom of God?  Does He say go on a pilgrimage to the Land of Oz or something, and there we’ll see an Emerald City, a Kingdom of God?  Well, no.  In the Book of Revelation the heavenly Jerusalem is sort of described like that, symbolically in terms of gold and precious stones and the like—but whatever that is, that part of it is at the end.  Now He’s talking about the Kingdom today, because if He says that you have to seek the Kingdom ahead of food and clothing and material needs, and because material needs and food and clothing are something that belongs to our needs of today, of this time, it means that seeking the Kingdom belongs to today, to our own time, and to our own practical lives.

So the Kingdom is something that’s immanent, that’s here with us, because the Kingdom is wherever the King is, and Jesus dwells in our hearts, in our lives.  He says in the gospel, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst,” and this can even be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That works when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit. We should note that some manuscripts of the Our Father in the Gospel—not very many, but a few, which some of the fathers had access to and used in their commentaries—instead of saying, “Thy Kingdom come,” they say, “Let Thy Spirit come.”

There’s a connection between the Kingdom within you and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that brings us to something that St. Paul has said.  If you want to get right down to it, this is what the Kingdom is, now. He says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”  This is the Kingdom of God.  This is what we are to seek, to develop, and to live in every day.

When he says, “Seek first the Kingdom,” that means to seek the love of God which has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit, and live out of that.  Live out of the love of God, and put your faith in the love of God, the love of God which will manifest in the providence of your daily bread and all of your needs, but will also manifest in the ultimate providence of providing you eternal happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

To be continued…

Made in China

I’m sure you’ve been breathlessly waiting for this, and now it has finally come: the Chinese translation Chinese versionof my book Joy Comes with Dawn!  You might wonder why it didn’t first come out in Spanish or French.  The simple answer is: no Spanish or French publishers approached me!  But a fellow from Hong Kong, who works for the Chinese Christian Literature Council, read my blog and obtained a copy of my book.  Then he asked for permission to translate it and publish it in China.  The rest is history, and hopefully some interested oriental souls will be getting a fresh take on the Gospel.  I assume you prefer reading books in English instead of Chinese, but in case you know someone who would like one of these, let me know.  It it available only from the publishers in Hong Kong, and they ship via slow boat from China, but if you send me an e-mail, I can give you the ordering information. On my end it’s sort of a novelty, but if any Chinese souls come a little closer to God by means of this book, then it’s all for his glory.

This might be a good opportunity to remind you to pray for the Church in China.  Government assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, there still is very little religious freedom in China, and outright persecution in some places.  That’s why I’m glad to be able to contribute something to the spiritual well-being of those for whom being a Christian is a costly sacrifice.

Grow up, Shut up

I noticed something I don’t recall noticing before when reading the First Epistle of Peter.  It’s a rather curious phrase, but perhaps an important one.  He is likely addressing the newly-baptized in this letter, so he compares them to “newborn babes” who are nourished by “spiritual milk.”  Why do they need this?  So that they may “grow up to salvation” (1Peter 2:2)—and that is the phrase I’m talking about.

Grow up to salvation.  That in itself should put an end to all assertions of instant salvation once one puts one’s faith in Christ.  We may be “born again” by baptism and faith, but that doesn’t definitively secure our salvation.  According to the word of God, we have to “grow up to salvation.”  But how do we do this?  The answer would entail the whole of spiritual life, but St Peter focuses a lot on self-denial and suffering, which has the potential to move us quickly from a state of pampered childhood to the state of spiritual maturity.

Here are a few instances of his exhortations on the subject.  “Gird up your minds, be sober… do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance… purify your souls by your obedience to the truth… abstain from the passions of the flesh… do not return evil for evil… resist the devil… Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps… if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed… do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you… rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s suffering… suffering is required…”  These are not counsels for the timid, but for those who are ready to take up their crosses and follow Christ, that is, to grow up to salvation.

Now this brings me to another point.  If we are to grow up in Christ, we have to take our licks courageously, suffer patiently, and not complain.  That’s why I wonder if something might have been left out of Jesus’ original exhortation to bear the cross.  I think He might actually have said that he who would follow Him must “deny himself, take up his cross, shut up, and follow Me.”  A cross-bearer cannot at the same time be a complainer.  A friend of mine, who knows me just a little too well, recently sent me a plaque (and you’ll only get this if you do know me) that reads: “The more you complain, the longer God makes you live.”

outofsortsI’ve recently been given yet another opportunity to shut up and carry my cross.  I was just diagnosed with something called Syndrome X (sounds ominous, doesn’t it?), which is a pre-diabetic condition and a risk factor for heart disease.  I won’t go into all the symptoms, but it does at least explain my otherwise inexplicably burgeoning “spare tire.”  I don’t really have to do anything about it except change my entire lifestyle.  Aside from having to exercise (a lot)—I’m one of those who, whenever he gets the urge to exercise, lies down until it goes away—I can’t eat anything I like anymore.  Even though monastic cuisine has traditionally never received high ratings, after all the other renunciations a monk makes, food is usually the last pleasure left.  And now I’m condemned to eat nuts and berries like a squirrel for the rest of my life.  Wah, wah, wah.  Thus says the Lord: “Grow up and shut up!”

Just when I thought I was already at the end of my rope and not able to bear one more proverbial straw, this!  I’m reminded of the joke about the Russian pessimist and optimist.  The pessimist says (you have to use a Russian accent): “Tinks are so bed, dey kent get any vorse.”  And the optimist says: “Oh yes dey ken!”  So then, the Lord giveth pasta and fruit juice and chocolate—and now the Lord taketh them all away!  Blessed be the name of the Lord!  I’m sure He and I will have a good laugh about this (once I’ve forgiven Him) as we stroll along the shores of Paradise, eating processed foods and peanut-butter cups.  But for now, I just have to shut up and grow up.  I had read a short time ago, with a rather strange sense of foreboding, the following passage: “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are older… another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn. 21:18).  I was afraid (rightly) that this might apply to me, but wasn’t sure just “where you do not wish to go” was going to be.  Well, now I know, though this may only be the first stage of the process.

I’m also being tested for stomach ulcers, but the results aren’t in yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I had one.  Nowadays they say ulcers aren’t caused by stress but by h. pylori, but stress can still aggravate them.  I remember once, quite a few years ago, when sitting in the oncology clinic, waiting for that day’s blast of radiation, a woman sitting next to me asked me my occupation.  When I told her I was a monk, she replied (to my surprise, but with rare insight): “I can’t think of a more stressful occupation!”  Speaking of stress, I also was told I’m suffering from “adrenal exhaustion,” which means the adrenal glands are producing too much of the “stress hormone” cortisol (can’t imagine why).  So I guess it’s a good idea that I go in for a physical, every 25 years or so, whether I need it or not.

I read something recently by a Croatian priest, Fr Zlatko Sudac, which I’m not sure is theologically defensible, but it makes sense in practical experience.  He said the following: “We might have been able to escape the Cross if we hadn’t put Christ upon it, if we had accepted Him when He came.  But since we didn’t accept Him, the Cross remains as the only door by which we are saved.  The Cross is the destiny for each and every one of us—because we continue to be sick, we continue to suffer, and we continue to die.  The only explanation for the meaning of our suffering is the Cross.  We believe that Christ will return, but until that happens, we will always be going through turmoil and growth, battles and purification.”

So, according to Fr Sudac, if Christ’s Gospel was well-received in the first place, the Cross would not have been the only alternative He had to save us.  But now, since He had to suffer in order for us to be saved, we have to suffer, too.  Maybe this is why St Peter said that Christ, by suffering, left us an example to follow, and that suffering is required. Growing up to salvation could have been easier, but now it’s really hard, and there’s no turning back the clock, so we just have to shut up, take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

Now I don’t mean to place the whole of our salvation or spiritual life in terms of an attitude one might find on the streets of New York.  My counsel here is only for slackers and complainers and fainthearted fellows like me.  But there may just be something of the whiner in each of us, something that wants the easy way, wants life to be comfortable and fulfilling and not too disagreeable, let alone painful, anguished, or utterly exhausting.  But we don’t get to choose our crosses, we only get to choose Him who was crucified on the Cross, for He is the only Way to salvation.  Once we have chosen to follow Him, He takes over, and most of the rest is out of our hands, except the reiterated “yes” to all He sends or permits.  So if we’re going to grow up to salvation, we have to be prepared for trials and hardships.  Milk is good for babies, but the time comes for us to endure vegetables and all manner of tasteless, unsatisfying things, while we are simultaneously weaned from the sweet and rich things that have fueled our passions and addictions for so long.

Ultimately, Heaven is all that matters.  Toward that luminous land we must walk with perseverance, listening all the while to those bracing, saving words: “Deny yourself, grow up, shut up, take up your cross and follow Me!”

Consider Him

There’s a reason for all the admonitions and encouragements in the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Chapter 12 begins with a look back to the “cloud of witnesses” described in the previous chapter—those who persevered in faith even before hearing the Good News of the Incarnation and Resurrection.  While not having “received what was promised,” they still somehow had “seen it and greeted it from afar” (11:13).  But we have a better reason to hope.  It’s Him.

christoncrossAfter the first exhortation to lay aside our sins and “run with perseverance the race set before us,” the author of this epistle tells us to look to Jesus, who endured the Cross for us.  Then it gives us the key to our running with perseverance.  “Consider him…”  What about Him?  He “endured from sinners such hostility against himself.”  This consideration is enjoined “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”

This section of this epistle is perhaps one of the most explicit instances of the Scripture calling us to imitate Christ.  It gives us good reason for this, and even a mild reproach, for the author is well acquainted with the weakness of human nature and perhaps also with the complaints of some of the faithful.  He reminds them, as he asks them to consider Him who suffered for them: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  This gives us some indication as to how deep the struggle must go, and how little we may have thus far engaged in it.

Another reminder: “Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?”  This exhortation is a quotation from the Book of Proverbs: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him.  For the Lord disciplines Him whom he loves and scourges every son whom he receives.”  Jesus Himself corroborates this message when He says to St John in a revelation: “Those whom I love I reprove and chasten” (Rev. 3:19).  It must be that I don’t sufficiently “consider Him,” for I sure do “lose courage when [I am] punished by him”!  But I must remind myself that He does this to those whom He loves, pruning the vine, as it were, to get it to produce more and better fruit.

So when we are “scourged” by God, it must be regarded as paternal discipline.  The author of Hebrews explains all this in some detail, for he is aware that “discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.”  But its purpose is this: “it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

This is not merely a theory of spiritual life or an excuse for its demands.  Remember, we are to consider Jesus in all of this, so that we do not grow weary of suffering and struggle.  Jesus was “punished” and “scourged” too, though not for any sin of his own, but for ours.  Yet He accepted this “discipline” of the Father so that his example of obedience would be perfect.  Earlier in this same epistle we read: “He learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8).  God was “treating him as a son” (12:7), so we must also accept God’s discipline if we do not wish to be considered bastards (Greek nothoi, 12:8) in the eyes of God.  Those who are to be his legitimate children must accept the house rules, so to speak, and receive the necessary (and sometime painful) training that will make them fit for the responsibilities of faithful discipleship.

So then, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees… so that what is lame… may be healed.”  He really does know human nature (it may in fact be our lame excuses that need to be healed as much as any other infirmity!) We are often prone to weariness and discouragement, but the Scripture is trying to get us to see that the struggle is necessary if we are to obtain the reward.  It’s not a matter of indifference whether or not we give it our all: “Strive for… the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  The author then launches into a terrifyingly eloquent description (vv. 18-29) of that to which we are called, and the glory of Him who calls, with the admonition: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking… His voice then shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens’… For our God is a consuming fire.”  Therefore we are called to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”

Perhaps in all our own personal struggles and sufferings and questionings we do not consider Jesus enough, do not realize what He accepted to suffer for us.  Perhaps we have forgotten that exhortation which addresses us as children who need to be corrected and disciplined by their Father.  Not many of us can say we have resisted sin to the point of shedding our blood.  So we have a long way to go.  But if we can accept in faith that divine discipline “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” and that our persevering endurance will, by the grace of God, bring us “to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,” there to be inserted into the ranks of “the spirits of just men made perfect,” it will all be shown to have been more than worthwhile.  To be “made perfect” is one of the themes of this epistle, and it doesn’t mean becoming immaculately flawless, but rather being made whole, fulfilling our reason of being, bringing to completion that which has begun in us, arriving at the goal for which God has created us.  The “discipline of the Lord” is an important element of our being “made perfect.”

Consider Him, then, and keep your eyes fixed on Him, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.”  The joy is set before us, too.  So let us persevere, that we arrive at our goal, joining Him in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

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