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

Archive for December, 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

Well, we’ve come to the end of yet another year, and to 2009 we say good-bye (or good riddance, as the case may be).  I’m another year older and deeper in debt, as the song (sort of) goes, in one way or another. I find myself with not a whole lot to say about it, though I just read in the Scriptures this morning that we shouldn’t worry about that, but rather should say what we’re given to say by the Holy Spirit.  OK, here I am waiting to be given something…

While I’m waiting, I guess I’ll just say that it hasn’t been a particularly good year, on several fronts.  I’m halfway into my 52nd year, and my health has deteriorated somewhat (anytime after 50 it seems that things begin to rattle and creak and wear out and blow gaskets or even simply fall off), though by God’s grace I do have some idea of how to hold all the pieces together for some time to come (good thing rubber bands and glue are still cheap).  The monastery received no new vocations, and the old ones are getting older.  It has been a bad year for donations, too, since our slick but failing leader in the White House has made the future so uncertain that everyone is terrified of letting go of even a little of what they still have, due to his economic, uh, stimulus.  I guess, fiscally seen, red really is a Christmas color around here, though it used to be black.  Let us also not become desensitized to the fact that yet again our country has had a year in which a million or more unborn children were murdered in their mothers’ wombs, and the culture of death has advanced on several fronts.  Changing the subject once again, drought conditions have continued again this past year in California, and at this writing, we’re behind last year’s precipitation figures for this time, which were behind the year before’s figures,  which were behind…

I suppose by now you’re praying that the Holy Spirit will hurry up and give me something positive to say.  I’m trying to think of something good that happened this past year.  There are some good things that I trust have happened, even though I’ve no way to verify them absolutely.  I’ve prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy daily for the rescue of souls about to die in a state of mortal sin, and I’ve offered the Divine Liturgy many times for the same intention.  So if some souls were saved that would otherwise have been lost, it has been a good year indeed—especially for those souls! (Imagine looking back over the past year and saying, “Well, I died and lost my immortal soul this year, and I’m really disconcerted over having to spend all eternity in a sea of burning sulfur.”) I think that’s probably the only reason I’m still here, though I’m sure the Lord must have other priests doing the same thing.  Mustn’t He?

We were not attacked by killer bees, and hundred-weight hailstones didn’t fall from the sky, and our pond didn’t turn into blood, and we weren’t invaded by foreign hordes of barbarians or aliens from outer space, so I guess those are all good things.  More to the point, there were no forest fires nearby like there were in 2008, and we have never lacked food, clothing, or shelter.  I even got a new computer (but don’t get me going on that one!).  I sold some copies of my books and bought several bags of peanuts with the proceeds, and I even learned how to live without sweet desserts and chocolate (the secret is: just stop eating them).  I did discover, however, that dark chocolate is actually a health food, but for that to be so it has to be really dark, to have so little sugar and so much cocoa—I eat only the 85% level—that it ends up being rather bitter and something of a penance after all; oh well, that’s what I signed up for…)

So I guess it hasn’t been such a bad year after all.  I lost a dozen pounds or so and found a good doctor who’s not a drug-company shill.  I’ve preached homilies, heard confessions, gave a few talks, prayed a lot, and even published a bunch of blog posts, so I hope I’ve helped a few people here and there.

What about the new year?  Well, I think that will have to be the subject of another homily, another blog post.  But you won’t have long to wait for that.  We can probably expect more of the same old stuff from the government, big business, the culture of death, the various shapers of public opinion and other uncouth noisemakers.  But hey, there will be opportunities for more souls to be saved, perhaps rescued at the last minute from the black hole of the devil’s deceptions, and the Lord already has abundant graces prepared for those who would receive them.  So, 2010, here we come, ready to boost the census figures in the Kingdom of Heaven and to serve the Lord with gladness.  There will come a time when we need no longer look back and assess the past, for there will be nothing but an eternal future of blessedness for those invited to enter into the joy of their Lord.

She Walks in Beauty

Christ is born!  Dostoevsky once famously said that beauty would save the world.  What did he mean by that?  Vladimir Soloviev had this to say about it: “For Dostoevsky, [truth, goodness, and beauty] were three inseparable forms of one absolute Idea. The infinity of the human soul—having been revealed in Christ and capable of fitting into itself all the boundlessness of divinity—is at one and the same time the greatest good, the highest truth, and the most perfect beauty. Truth is good, perceived by the human mind; beauty is the same good and the same truth, corporeally embodied in solid living form. And its full embodiment—the end, the goal, and the perfection—already exists in everything, and this is why Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world” (from The Heart of Reality).

I begin with this reflection on beauty because that is at the heart of what we are celebrating today: the feast of Our Lady in her unique role as birth-giver of the Son of God.  In our tradition this immediately follows upon the feast of the Lord’s nativity for, I think, obvious reasons.

The image of the Madonna and Child is one of the most popular and poignant images of divine and human beauty, and it has endured as a subject of art and music and poetry for nearly 2000 years.  Among other things, the image still manages, even in these dreadfully secular times, to make it onto Christmas postage stamps, though I’ve been told at our local post office that the goofy images of Santa and other secular symbols are more popular these days.  But I think there’s something about the beautiful image of Mother and Child that is deeply ingrained in the human soul, and it will still call forth something true and good in almost all people, despite low levels of Christian faith.

Lord Byron wrote a poem called “She Walks in Beauty,” and I’d like to share a few lines of it in honor of the Mother of God:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and in her eyes…
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear, their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent…
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

There are many profound reasons for celebrating the mystery of the Nativity of Christ, and I’ve mentioned a few in my last two Christmas homilies, but what we don’t often hear about is simply the value of celebrating the sheer beauty of it.  If truth and goodness and beauty are all integral elements of the same ultimate Reality, then all genuine beauty is somehow a reflection of God.  This makes me think a bit about a couple examples of the experience of beauty I have recently encountered.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a very light snowfall, which always lends a special touch to our already beautiful forested hills.  I remembered that there were still a few late roses in bloom in the retreat house garden, and wouldn’t a snow-dusted rose make a nice picture?  But my brain’s first pragmatic thought was: I don’t have time to go over there and take pictures; I have too much work to do.  Then the deeper part of my soul entered the conversation: but this is perhaps a rare opportunity to preserve an image of beauty, and it’s really worth the time and effort to do it.  Thankfully, my soul won out over my brain, and I went to take a few pictures, and now I have a “Christmas rose” in my collection, and I even made a few cards out of it.  Sometimes we just have to take the time to stop and photograph the roses!

Then, shortly before Christmas our friend Anna Maria Mendieta, an internationally acclaimed harpist, graciously offered to come and give us a little Christmas concert, since she was playing at a few other places in the area.  She brought more beauty into our lives with her lovely music—Christmas carols and some other compositions—and this was an enrichment for us.  I could have complained again that I didn’t have time for this, but if we forgo opportunities to experience the truth and goodness of beauty, especially for the sake of mere work that could be done at another time, then our lives become impoverished.  We miss out on something of the presence of God and we manage to elude his grace and blessing.

So we come back now to the Madonna and Child.  I said in previous homilies that the Lord came into this world to destroy the citadels of evil and to save us from our sins, but there’s another reason He came.  He came to restore beauty as well, the original beauty—not by making this world an earthly paradise, but, as one of our liturgical texts says: “Christ has come to restore the long-lost likeness to God.”  That is, He has come to renew in us the divine image, obscured by sin and perhaps even forgotten in the midst of the hurly-burly of our busy lives, and apparently absent from souls worn down by sorrow and pain.

But Christ is born anew as Emmanuel, God with us.  God has let his face shine upon the world as He reveals the human face of his Son, held in the arms of the Virgin Mother. As I was looking for various images of the Madonna and Child, I even came across some that depicted Mary breastfeeding Jesus.  This is a very tender, human, and beautiful image of the loving kenosis of God and also of the love with which Mary, the chosen representative of our race, received and nurtured Him. So the Lord came to restore the obscured or forgotten image—not only the image of God imprinted on the human soul, but also the image of beauty, of tenderness and of the best that He has dreamed for humanity, though we still labor in the land of our exile.

But Christmas offers an invitation to a homecoming, which we anticipate through our contemplation and liturgical celebration.  At Vespers of Christmas, we sing: “Come, let us rejoice in the Lord; let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld.  Now the Cherubim shall let us all come to the Tree of Life.  As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise from which I had been banished by disobedience.  Behold! The Image of the Father and his unchangeable eternity has taken the form of a servant… becoming man out of his love for mankind.  Therefore let us raise our hymns, singing: O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

So the Lord has come to show us the image of beauty as we contemplate the Mother and Child.  He has come to restore his own image, and to let us know that He, as incarnate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, will indeed save the world.

Yet the world we live in today is obviously not all beauty, truth, and goodness.  The Lord’s work of salvation requires the free cooperation of those He came to save, and the human race has often proved to be quite stubbornly resistant to his offer to return to Paradise.

Perhaps this bit of realism is behind the readings chosen for this feast (Mt. 2:13-23; Heb. 2:11-18).  Just as we are settling in to our contemplation of the beauty of Mother and Child, we are unpleasantly jarred with the announcement that someone is already trying to kill the infant Son of God!  This is the quintessential example of evil, which is the hatred of all that is good, true, and beautiful, and which thus desires in its madness only to destroy it.  So the placid tableau is disturbed and the Madonna and Child have to flee with St Joseph to a foreign country simply to save the life of the One who came to save the world!

In the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we also have an image that disturbs us.  It is that of suffering and death, which Christ endured to rob the devil of his power, which is explicitly called in the epistle “the power of death.”  Even on the Cross, which expresses the infinite love of God, we can find the beauty that this love suggests, but a tortured, bleeding body is not beautiful in itself.  Indeed, the prophet has told us that “he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). Infinite Beauty emptied Himself of beauty as he bore the ugliness of our sin.  The Son of God shared in our nature so that we could be his brothers and sisters, but since He was born into a fallen world still under the dominion of the devil, that is, of sin and death, the joy and beauty of “paradise regained” had to wait until He endured his terrible agony, making expiation for our sins, making it possible for us sinners to enter that Kingdom in which all is light and beauty and glory.

So, as we continue to celebrate the mystery of the Nativity of Christ in its many aspects, let us today, at least, give pride of place to beauty.   And let us realize that beauty will bring us to truth and goodness.  Let us not only contemplate the beauty of the Nativity scene, but let us learn from this feast that we ought to contemplate beauty wherever we find it, in art, literature, and music, in the myriad reflections of the face of God in the natural beauty of creation, and yes, even in other human beings, whom God has created in his own image—and who therefore have endless potential for manifesting reflections of God’s own attributes.

As we contemplate the Divine Child in the arms of his holy Mother, we may indeed agree with Dostoevsky that beauty will save the world. Let us then open our hearts and open our eyes to all that the Lord wishes to show us, as He leads us day by day back to Paradise.  Christ is born!

The Fruit of the Promise is Born

Christ is born!  The fullness of time has come, for God has sent forth his Son, born of a woman, so that He might redeem us and make us children of the Father and heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what St Paul has proclaimed in his Epistle to the Galatians (4:4-7) and what the Church proclaims to the world today.

All of this, the Apostle takes pains to explain, is the fruit of the promise of God, a promise first made to our father Abraham.  He speaks at length in Galatians about our heavenly inheritance not being a matter of law but rather of divine promise.  According to Paul, the ultimate fruit of the promise made to Abraham is Christ, and therefore insofar as we are united to Christ we are called “children of the promise.”  Our celebration today of the birth of Christ is the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise, not only his promise to Abraham of numerous descendants, but his promise of a Savior, the Messiah and Lord, who is not only a descendant of Abraham, but the eternal Son of God, incarnate for our salvation.

In the Gospel (Mt. 2:1-12), however, the promise to Abraham is not mentioned, though there is a prophecy that the Messiah of Israel would be born in a town in the land of Judea. But we hear mainly about people to whom the promise was not given, Gentiles from a faraway land, foreigners who knew nothing of Abraham and the promised inheritance that would come through his descendant, the Christ.

Why then did they come to Bethlehem in Judea?  Surely there were heirs to the thrones of the various kingdoms born all the time.  And Israel at that time wasn’t even a real kingdom, only an occupied territory of the ruling empire.  So why did these wise men make the arduous journey from Persia to Israel, seeking a child newly born?  It seems that they were following another promise, perhaps a more obscure one than that made to Abraham, one that involved the unprecedented rising of a star that somehow would indicate an utterly extraordinary and world-changing event.  We’ll never know exactly what the details of this promise were, but it was evidently clear and powerful enough to send these learned men to a far country to discover its realization.

Since the magi were quite sure that this astounding and long-awaited event would portend much joy and blessing for the whole land, they did not go in secret, but went directly to King Herod, assuming that he too would be rejoicing in this divinely prophesied birth.  But here their wisdom failed them, for their assessment of Herod was too generous.  They didn’t realize how jealous he was of his position and power, and how he would tremble in fear and hatred at the announcement of the birth of a new King of the Jews.  But that episode turned out well for the time being, because the magi were enlightened by an angel and did not give Herod the information he sought.

So they found the place where the Child was.  They went in, the Gospel says, and found Him with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him, offering precious gifts. This too is astounding.  They couldn’t have known that He was the eternal Son of God who humbled Himself to be born as a man for the salvation of the world.  Nor did they know the history of Israel and its unceasing prayer for the coming of the Anointed One, the Christ.  I think they had what we can perhaps call an intuition of divinity.  They did receive a mysterious call, through the medium of their own religion, to seek this extraordinary Person.  Yet when they found Him, they didn’t just chat with Mary and Joseph about their astronomical calculations or their own speculations on the future of this Boy.  When they saw Him they spontaneously fell down and worshipped Him, having suddenly come closer to the real truth than they ever had before. Something stirred in their hearts, telling them that this Child was even more than what their highest hopes for Him might have been.

Pascal has written about the intuition of the heart that takes us beyond simple reason and its calculations. Fr Paul Glynn writes, concerning Pascal’s thought: “The higher truths, utterly more important than mere scientific facts, are of the order of wisdom and are received rather than grasped.  Unlike the rational truths of science, the higher truths are seen ‘by the eyes of the heart’… God does, however, reveal the essential truths to the honest believer who prays… Pascal insisted that surer than sense or merely intellectual certainty is certainty experienced in the heart or human spirit. It is not our shallow intellect that can grasp God… we meet him in our heart, in our spirit—that is where faith is” (from A Song for Nagasaki).

So I think that these learned magi suddenly encountered the mystery of God in the depths of their hearts, illumined by the Holy Spirit beyond all their own reasoning or understanding, and they fell down to worship the newborn Lord Jesus.

I think that for our own experience of this divine mystery of the birth of the Incarnate God, we can draw on both the promise made to Israel and the spiritual illumination of the heart that was granted to the Gentiles.  The promise made to Abraham was part of the covenant God made with him.  In a dramatic and mystical event (Gen. 15:7-21), Abraham offered sacrificial animals to God, splitting them in half, and then the Fire of God passed between the split offerings, thereby ratifying the covenant.

But we hear of a new covenant in the Scriptures, which has two distinct elements: one is that it will be written on our hearts (Jer. 31: 31-34), and the other is that the sacrifice will not be animals but the very body and blood of Christ (Mt. 26:26-29; Heb. 9:11-28), that descendant of Abraham who is the Savior of the world.

Like the magi, we have to experience the power of the new covenant in our hearts.  We must follow the call that takes us beyond our own understanding and calculations into a larger reality, a deeper truth. We need an intuition of divinity as we approach the mysteries of faith, the Scriptures, and especially the Holy Eucharist.  It is our hearts that need to be split open, and the Fire of God must pass through them, enlightening and purifying us, that we may be moved spontaneously to worship the Lord.  As we pray in a pre-Communion prayer: “May your Body and your Precious Blood, O Savior, be as fire and light to me, consuming the substance of sin and burning the tares of my passions, and wholly enlightening me, that I may fall down, worshipping your Divinity.”

Thus in the Holy Eucharist the new covenant is perpetuated in both of its elements: written by the Holy Spirit in our hearts, that is, received through the gift of faith, and objectively fulfilling and transcending the covenant made with Abraham.  So in Christ we are indeed children of the promise, heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Holy Spirit testifies that all who have been baptized into Christ are children of the Father.  The Son of God has been the Son for all eternity, but He entered time as one of us, so that we, who are bound by time and space, can through Him enter into a relationship with the Father that will last for all eternity. He gathers us up into his divine sonship.  This is what it means to be an heir with Christ of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is the gift of God that we celebrate at Christmas.  God descended to Earth so that we could ascend to Heaven.  God shone in the black night of our lives like a radiant star, whose light pierces our hearts with the fire of his truth and love as He calls us to fall on our knees, to hear the angels’ voices worshipping Him, and to throw in our lot with those who have been illumined by the glory of God.

The angels’ hymns are repeated throughout our Christmas liturgies.  It is noteworthy that the priests exclaim, just before the beginning of each Divine Liturgy, the very hymn the angels sang at the birth of Christ: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to men.”  We say that twice, followed by: “You will open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall declare your praise”—which we immediately do by crying aloud: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, both now and forever  and unto ages of ages!”  And the choir responds with a resounding “Amen!”  That is because we are going to meet and worship the Lord, like the shepherds and the magi, and his divine life and love are going to be renewed in us through the Holy Communion of his sacred Mysteries.  It is fitting then, to sing the glory of God and to bless his heavenly Kingdom.

What we really are celebrating here is the mystery of the Kingdom of God, for the newborn King is in our midst, proclaiming the divine love and mercy through the mystery of his Incarnation.  The fullness of time has come, and its grace is given to us here and now. We are celebrating the goodness and ineffable generosity of Christ, who came to save us from our sins and to make us heirs of his Kingdom.  We sing his praises, for He came to take upon Himself our own burdens and sorrows, leading us back to his Paradise of joy, which mankind had lost through its ancient sin. No wonder the angels are singing, no wonder the simple folk like shepherds are standing in awe, no wonder that wise and learned men are falling down to worship Him!

Let us join them; let us pray for the intuition of divinity that will bring us to our knees in awestruck wonder and adoration, having perceived his presence not merely intellectually but in the depths of our spirits—so that this Christmas may not be an exercise in perfunctory piety, but rather an unforgettable and profound experience of the mysteries of our faith.  Let us offer gifts to Jesus, not mere gold but rather hearts torn open by repentance and love, so that the Fire of God may pass through them and mark us forever as heirs of the Kingdom and beneficiaries of the new and everlasting covenant.

Then we too, like the magi, will “rejoice with exceeding joy,” having found what we’ve been looking for all our lives, having found Him whom our hearts love, having found the One whose glory all creation will sing forever.  Christ is born!

The Word Came Forth

There is great drama in this profoundly mysterious and awe-inspiring feast we are beginning to celebrate.  The Gospel for the Vigil Liturgy (Lk. 2:1-20) begins in a dramatic way, although what it first recounts is a mere human drama: “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.”  On the level of the divine drama, however, a decree went out from God that all the world should be enrolled in the Book of Life, and so He sent his only Son as Savior and Redeemer of the world.

Sometimes when great things are about to happen, such dramatic introductions are given, as in the case when the word of God came to John in the desert as Jesus was about to make his first public appearance (Lk. 3:1-3).  There’s also one in the Book of Daniel that I think is appropriate for Christmas, for it is not only the announcement of a divine action, but it is given as an answer to prayer.  All the devout and humble believers in Israel had been praying for a long time for the promised Messiah, and God was about to answer their prayer, for his people were greatly loved by Him.  The following message was given to Daniel by an angel, as the good tidings of the Savior’s birth was given by an angel to the shepherds: “O Daniel,” said the Angel Gabriel, the one who would later announce the Incarnation to Mary (and who perhaps also spoke to the shepherds), “at the beginning of your supplications a word went forth, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly beloved” (9:22-23).

As the people of Israel prayed for their Redeemer, a Word went forth, that is, the Eternal Word of God made flesh, and this is what the angel came to tell the shepherds and through them the whole world. As Caesar was gathering names for his census, the Lord was gathering souls to populate Paradise, which would soon be re-opened after the long ages of the exile of the human race.

The Word had first gone forth into the womb of the Virgin Mary, but at a very late stage of her pregnancy she had to go to Bethlehem in obedience to the decree of the earthly king, for this was really obedience to the Heavenly King, who wanted his Son to be born in the city of David.  For Gabriel had told Mary: “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33).  So Mary made the long and arduous journey with Joseph, who, when they finally arrived, was grieved to be unable to provide a decent room for her to give birth, but could only secure a manger in a cave. There was no place for them, says St Luke, at the inn.

Meanwhile another word went forth from Heaven, the annunciation to the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The angel appeared to them in the middle of the night, casting the glory of the Lord all around them, and they were terrified at the apparition.  But the angel said to them: “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

We don’t know how the shepherds interpreted this message.  For the angel did not say a king is born to you, or a political or military leader, or even a great wise man or teacher. He said a Savior is born. Now when the angel added the term “Messiah” or “Christ”, they might have given the word “Savior” some worldly or political connotations. But as we’ll see, He was not the kind of Messiah that most people were expecting.  This Savior was coming not to topple earthly kingdoms for the sake of Israel’s ascendancy to power.  Yet even though He came in a humble manner, the powers of darkness were shaken to their very foundations.

In the Book of Revelation (18:1-2), an angel comes to earth much in the same way as the angel came to the shepherds.  St John writes: “I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his splendor” (this calls to mind the glory of the Lord shining around the angel near Bethlehem).  “And he called out with a mighty voice, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great… the dwelling place of demons…’”

The angel told the shepherds that a Savior was born, and the angel of Revelation told the world that the great citadels of evil have fallen.  So here we get a little more insight into what kind of Savior Jesus would be.  He would save the world from evil, so that it would no longer be a “dwelling place of demons” but rather, as another angel would prophesy: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).  That is why the Savior came: to make the kingdom of this world the Kingdom of the Lord, so that He could reign forever, just as the angel Gabriel told Mary, and as we pray daily in the Creed: “His kingdom will have no end.”

The strongholds of evil received their eviction notice, as it were, when the Son of God came in a hidden manner 2000 years ago. But at the end of time his victory will be manifest to everyone, and all lies and deceptions will be unmasked, and citadels of evil will fall forever, in the plain sight of all.  And it will be as it is written in the Book of Revelation: those who were in league with evil will wail and lament as it all comes crashing down, but the faithful will rejoice and sing alleluias at the wedding feast of the Lamb when his righteousness is firmly established forever.

The shepherds, of course, were not trying to interpret prophecies at the time.  They were probably illiterate anyway, and perhaps not even particularly devout.  But they knew what they had seen and heard.  The saw the glory of the Lord and a multitude of angels giving glory to God, and they heard the heavenly angelic voices singing in indescribable harmonies.  They knew something incredibly great was happening, so they did just what the angel told them and went to find the mysterious Child lying in a manger, and they told Mary and Joseph all that had happened to them.

Now Mary, unlike the shepherds, probably was trying to interpret the prophecies.  For St Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  The shepherds in their simplicity were just exuberant with joy over all they had seen and heard, and they went away glorifying and praising God.  I wonder if Mary, although knowing a joy at this moment more profound than we can describe or imagine, might have also experienced an undercurrent of sorrow or even a kind of dread at what would all-too-soon befall her precious Son.

The angel told the shepherds, who related the message to Mary and Joseph, that the Child would be the Savior.  Mary didn’t have to waste time dreaming of earthly power and glory for her Son.  After all, the angel had already told Joseph that Emmanuel would be a Savior, one that would “save his people from their sins.”  So how, she may have pondered, have sins been forgiven in the history of our holy religion?  Two ways only: either a bloody sacrifice on the temple altar, or the symbolic, ritual loading of the people’s sins upon a sacrificial animal that was driven away to die bearing the burden of them. Yes, this was the kind of Savior her newborn Son would be, for He came to save his people from their sins.  He would be the sacrificial Lamb of God, who would bear the sins of the world in his own body as his life would be sacrificed on the altar of the Cross.

So as Mary pondered these things in her heart, perhaps she had to smile through tears as she showed her beautiful bundle from Heaven to Joseph and the shepherds and all who would come to prostrate before the newborn Savior. But she had said yes to God when the angel announced the Incarnation of the Son to her.  Her yes was the yes of her whole life and being, body and soul.  And it was a yes to the whole of the will of God, not just the joys but the anguish and the agony as well. There are liturgical texts in which Mary is standing by the Cross, remembering the glorious prophecies of the angel about the endless reign of her Son, which now looked like it was coming to an end before her very eyes. But she just praised his long-suffering and his ineffable compassion for sinners, and continued to say yes to God’s will.

We celebrate now the joy of Christmas, but I think that as Christians who have had some experience of life, we are more like the reflective Mother than the wide-eyed shepherds.  We rejoice deeply in the unmerited gift of our Savior, in his infinite love and compassion for us sinners, in the glory that we glimpse through the Gospel and that is promised as an everlasting inheritance to those who love the Lord, in faith and in hope.  But we know that no servant is greater than his Master, and no sinner is greater than his Savior. Our yes to God will lead us to the way of the Cross, to having to go, as Jesus said to Peter, where we would rather not go.

But like Mary we can smile through the tears, and like the shepherds we can share what we have seen and heard. And despite the coldness and darkness of this life, which is like some inhospitable Judean cave, we can discover the presence of God and give Him glory; we can go into the future with confidence and with hope.  We know that Babylon will ultimately fall, that symbol of the dominance of evil in this world, for an angel has proclaimed it as his heavenly splendor illumined the world.

So let us hear the words that come forth from Heaven, those that the shepherds heard, and which became the clarion call of the pontificate of the Venerable John Paul II: “Be not afraid!”  God wants to give us tidings of great joy.  He wants to remind us that He has sent his Son into the world as its Savior, and that the heavenly hosts are still singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to those on whom his favor rests!”

Let it never be shown that there was no place in us for Mary and Joseph and the Son of God.  They are still looking for a warm place, a place where the mysteries of God are pondered and embraced, a place large and generous enough to contain both joy and sorrow, a place where the Kingdom of God can be prepared.  Let us be among those who await Him who saves us from our sins, among those who say yes to his will and who follow the Lamb wherever He goes: to the manger, to the Cross, and to the glory and joy of his heavenly Paradise.

Silence in Heaven

In the midst of the strange and wondrous and terrifying visions that were granted to St John, and which are recorded in the Book of Revelation, we find this: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1).  I can’t imagine a more pregnant silence than that one, yet we aren’t given any clear indication as to the meaning or content of that silence, except that it seems to be a brief interlude of stillness as more dramatic (and disastrous) events were about to unfold with a procession of seven trumpet-bearing angels.

I’m not too good at interpreting the Book of Revelation, so I’ll just take the “silence in heaven” phrase out of context and reflect a bit on it.  Actually, I’m going to create a sort of vision of my own.

It is at long last time for me to leave this corrupt and chaotic world, though at the moment I’m still in the midst of it.  I’m surrounded by talking heads, lying politicians, greedy fat-cats, purveyors of violence, pimps and pornographers, and strident activists who promote all manner of moral evils.  They are screaming, laughing, waving their arms, making grotesque faces, clawing and poking at me, and with erratic surges of weird energy they beckon me to join their madness and despair.  But then I hear “a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Come up here!’” (Rev. 11:12).

Gradually it seems that I am drawn away from them, or perhaps they are drawn away from me.  They seem to have been stuffed into some sort of open vehicle which is moving away, and down, though I still see heads and arms and legs sticking out.  Little by little, their shrill clamor fades away, and they get smaller and smaller.  Finally they disappear from view and I am alone and at rest. I stand in a quiet place, and I breathe a sigh of relief.  The stillness is pulsating with life, as though I am immersed in the waters of the womb.

There is silence in Heaven.

I notice that my wounds have been healed, I am clothed and in my right mind, and I feel a gentle breeze.  It is as if I am waking up from a long and bad dream, and I’m aware that it is all forever behind me now, and something new is on the horizon. I receive an intuition of joy, and of a promise that all manner of things are about to be made well.  And I turn toward what seems to be a growing light…

There will come a moment when the madness and clamor of this world will cease, when the arrogant powers of this world will be laid low, when all the ugly perversions will be erased from the memory of mankind.  But I think that before the rejoicing of the righteous begins, there will be silence in Heaven for a while. Those who are rescued from this world, still trembling slightly from the memory of its terrors, will need a little while to collect their thoughts, to realize that the Beast has not won after all—or, if he has taken his willing trophies, they are sealed up in the inescapable webs of their own howling chaos, far, far away, forever.  It is quiet here, and we can rest.  For those who wait upon the Lord renew their strength, and they find they have come to a place of peace that passes understanding.

Babylon has fallen, announced a bright angel, and all her evils with her.  We don’t see that yet, because at the moment “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1Jn. 5:19), and therefore the spiritual Babylon is flourishing and spreading its sticky tentacles in all directions.  But as the Apostle also says in that very same verse, “we know that we are of God.”  And God is going to keep us safe from the evil one and all the deceit and malice he spreads about the globe.  In the end, it’s all going to be packed up and carted off, and we’ll hear of it no more.

There’s a hymn we sometimes sing during Advent, composed by our founder, Archimandrite Boniface, consisting almost entirely of passages from the end of the Book of Revelation. It’s something that, when you are singing it, puts you into a kind of spiritual “environment” that is fresh and clear, that lifts the veils and unmasks all the talking heads and their lies.  It brings you to the One Thing Necessary.  “I Jesus, have sent you my angel to witness to this revelation… The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’… He who is thirsty, let him come and drink… I am the Wellspring of Being in the middle of Paradise.  Maranatha!  Happy are those who will have washed their robes clean, so they will have the right to feed on the Tree of Life and share in the wedding feast of the Lamb.  Maranatha! … I shall indeed be with you soon.  Amen!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Maranatha!”

When I sing that, I feel as if the noisy and evil powers are already withdrawing, and I am approaching the silence in Heaven that will precede the great outburst of rejoicing and merry-making.  I’m not there yet, but there’s still a voice whispering, “Come up here!”  And maybe in silent prayer I can get a sufficient sense of Heaven’s promise so that I will dwell under its influence.  Thus I will not for a moment allow myself to be deceived by the lies of satan’s spokesmen, seduced into the wanton revelry of sophisticated madmen, or think I have to march to the chaotic cadence of political correctness.  Jesus has given us his revelation, in which we are invited to eat of the tree of life, rest beside cool waters, and enjoy endless delights in the paradise He has prepared for those who love Him.

We have to distance ourselves from the clamor.  Even these last couple days before Christmas can produce an unholy noise, which sets us on the wrong track, which takes our eyes and thoughts away from Paradise and Him who stands there waiting.  There’s still a bit of silence in Heaven that you can feel in your prayer, if you take some time to do it.  In that silence all becomes clear, and you renew your strength and your hope. A place of peace is thus prepared for you, a place to go when Babylon falls.  A place to rest and rejoice.  Maranatha!

From Heaven, From Earth

We’ve come to the threshold of Christmas: the last Sunday before the feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  In fact, the last part of today’s Gospel (Mt. 1:1-25), is actually read at Matins on the feast itself, so we’re really getting into the spirit of Christmas. So we should try to get a little more insight into just what it is that we will be joyfully celebrating in a few days.

The Gospel begins with the long genealogy of Jesus, something of a tongue-twister, and something that makes people wonder why we take the trouble to read it at all.  But there is a message there that Christians need to hear.  First of all, it tells us that Jesus Christ is not merely some mythological figure whom we immortalize in our Christmas hymns and then put away with all the decorations a few weeks later. It is true that there are myths of gods taking human form for certain periods of time, but none of them is a true incarnation, and none of them has anything to do with the actual eternal salvation of human beings.

If the Gospel, then, is not some myth about God mingling with man in human form, we must understand the double truth of the mystery.  God did indeed descend from Heaven and “pitch his tent” with us (as St John picturesquely puts it), but not as if making some cameo appearance on the stage of human history. He actually took his place within it, not in the “costume” of humanity (as some early heretics claimed), but as an actual human being—a Divine Person who took human nature to Himself in the womb of the Holy Virgin and was born in an actual place at an actual time that can be documented historically.

To this reality the genealogy of Christ testifies. He didn’t drop out of Heaven as an apparition.  He entered human history at the end of a long line of human ancestors.  In the New Testament, we have two genealogies of Jesus, one recorded by St Luke, and one recorded by St Matthew.  St Luke, who was writing to Gentiles, tends to take the more universal view of things, so it’s not surprising that his genealogy goes all the way back to Adam.  St Matthew, on the other hand, tends to look at things in light of what God has done for his Chosen People, so his genealogy goes back only as far as Abraham.  It was his explicit intention show that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, for he begins his genealogy by saying that Jesus is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham.

Among the many names listed in the Gospel reading, it is in fact Abraham and David that are most important.  Abraham was the first to receive the promise of God concerning the holy land and the innumerable descendants who would be specially blessed by God through the covenant God made with Abraham.  David was the favored king and prototype of the One whose Kingdom would have no end, as the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary as he awaited her consent for the Incarnation of the Son of God.

There is an inescapable paradox in the fact that the Son of God existed eternally before David and yet, upon entering time, came after David.  In the Book of Revelation, Jesus calls Himself “the root and offspring of David” (22:16), which means that as God He was the source of David and as man He was the descendant of David.  Jesus also gave his audience a little teaser when He quoted David in Psalm 109(110), speaking of the Messiah: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand…”  Jesus commented: “If David thus calls him ‘Lord’ how is he his son?”  No one could answer, because no one knew the mystery of the Incarnation, and how God Himself could insert Himself into the genealogy of the tribe of Judah.

We find something else interesting at the very end of the genealogy.  The last-mentioned is Joseph, which means this is his list of ancestors.  He is the one through whom Jesus is reckoned as belonging to the tribe of Judah and hence is the Son of David.  Mary’s genealogy is nowhere listed, and no one knows for sure even what tribe she belonged to, though if you combine the scant biblical evidence with the emphasis of our liturgical texts, she probably had ancestors in the tribes of both Judah and Levi.  But that is irrelevant in placing Jesus in the line of Judah, since at that time it was the father’s lineage that established that of the children, and Joseph was the presumed father of Jesus.

But the interesting thing is how Joseph is named: “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.”  While accepting the tradition of establishing lineage, the emphasis was still placed on Mary, for the evangelist knew that Jesus did not come from Joseph and Mary, but from God and Mary.  It is much more common in the Bible that the wife is known in relation to her husband, and not the husband in relation to his wife.  For example, the parents of Samson: we know the husband’s name, Manoah, but not his wife’s. She is known only as “Manoah’s wife.”  In this very genealogy of St Matthew, Queen Bathsheba is not named as such, even though she is a crucial figure in continuing David’s line by giving birth to Solomon.  She is simply called, “the wife of Uriah,” a man who had nothing to do with the ancestry of Christ.  So it is striking that Joseph, the presumed father of the long-awaited Messiah, is described simply as “the husband of Mary.”  This is simply a hint of the divine mystery that will be made explicit a few verses later.

Let’s look now at that mystery.  Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which is a much more serious commitment than what we would call today an engagement.  A betrothal was not the same as a marriage, for as such they did not have the right to sexual relations, but it had such a binding force that it could only be severed by a legal divorce, just like a marriage under the terms of the Mosaic law.  So when Mary “was found with child,” and Joseph had had no intimate relations with her, he could only assume that she had committed adultery.  It would have been a dishonor for him to marry an adulteress, and it might have meant death for Mary to be publicly accused as one, so Joseph, with his broken heart yet deep love for her, decided to quietly separate from her and not expose her to the demands of the law.

This is when the mystery was revealed to him.  Before the Angel explained things to Joseph, he set the context, reminding Joseph where he stood in the noble ancestry of the Messiah and hence what his role would be.  The Angel addressed him as “Joseph, son of David.” A man was usually known not by a distant ancestor, but by his own father.  So Joseph would ordinarily be called, according to what we learn in the genealogy, “son of Jacob.”  But God wanted Joseph to know that something utterly unique and extraordinary was happening here.  Joseph was called “son of David” because it was through him that the Son of David would have his rightful lineage.

The Angel then revealed the mystery: this Child in the womb of his betrothed had come from Heaven.  It was God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not an intruding adulterer, that begot this Child.  It may be that St Joseph didn’t immediately grasp the full import of these words, but to his credit he did exactly what the Angel said: he took Mary as his wife, and when the boy was born he named Him Jesus.

The Angel told Joseph to give the Child this name because he would save his people from their sins. Jesus (Y’shua) means “the Lord is Savior.”  The history of the Chosen People had know several “saviors,” one who actually bore the same name (Joshua = Y’shua).  But those saviors only saved the people from their human enemies or aggressors.  No one ever saved the people from their sins.  This was something only God could do, so already Jesus’ divine origins are indicated.  According to St John, the very first thing John the Baptizer said when he saw Jesus was: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29).  That’s how Jesus, the Son of God and Son of David, is known.

Going back to Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist drives the point home by giving Him yet another name, Emmanuel, which, he immediately explains, means “God with us,” and this is precisely what the mystery of the Incarnation means.  He also used that particular prophecy for it emphasizes that a virgin would conceive and give birth to God-with-us.

So the mystery of the divine and human Jesus Christ, the One who came from Heaven yet found his place in a human genealogy, begins to unfold before our contemplation.  What about us?  Can we boast of a lineage in which prophets and kings abound?  Probably not, but that’s no impediment.  St Paul reminded his Corinthian charges that not many of them were well-born, and he made them realize that God chose the weak, the low and despised, to shame the high and mighty, because it was these very insignificant ones that put their faith in Christ, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Cor. 1:26-30).

The reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:9-10, 32-40) reminds us that we have a spiritual genealogy, that our ancestors are those who “through faith… received the promises.”  Abraham and David are mentioned, but also a whole multitude of anonymous saints who suffered all kinds of hardships and ill-treatment as they awaited in faith the promised Messiah.  Jesus entered the world as its Savior for all of us: those who came before us and those who will come after us.  As the Son of God He is the Savior, the only One who can save his people from their sins, the only One who can take away the sins of the whole world.

That’s why the name of Jesus is so precious to Eastern Christians.  Jesus, “the Lord is Savior.”  We invoke the name and the merciful, saving grace of the Lord many times a day as we pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  “Lord” means He is divine, “Jesus” means He is human and is the Savior, and “Christ” means He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the One whose all-perfect sacrifice, the highest expression of Divine Mercy, is sufficient to take away the sins of the world.

That is why He came, why He humbled Himself immeasurably and took his place in a human genealogy, though He was eternally, as St Paul wrote, “in the form of God.”  Come, then, let us worship Him whose nativity we will celebrate in a few days.  Let us stand in awe before this mystery which was revealed to Mary and Joseph by Angels, and to us through the prophets and apostles and the sacred Scriptures.

This is no quaint mythology or even a story designed to instruct or comfort, while being ultimately ineffectual in real life.  This is real life, this is the word of God, this is God’s personal intervention into human history, and into your life and mine.  Let us then embrace Him in all his mystery and truth, in his suffering and glory, for this will bear precious fruit in love and joy and salvation.

If I Have Not Love (Part 2)

As the Apostle continues, he notes that love “is not arrogant or rude.”  I don’t think he’s here implying that some people would actually say that love is arrogant or rude.  He is simply reminding his readers that if you have arrogance or rudeness you have not love.  To be arrogant is literally to be “puffed up,” that is, proud.  I just said [in the last post] that love must be humble, for this is the basis for all its other good qualities.  Pride is the basis for all evil qualities, so it cannot in any way be compatible with love.  Love attracts; arrogance repels. Love serves; pride dominates. Love builds up others; arrogance puffs up oneself.

To say that love is not rude is not merely to say that love requires good manners (though good manners are certainly compatible with love).  The word translated “rude” has a broad connotation, for it means simply to act unbecomingly.  To be rude can mean to be inconsiderate or to “ignore other people’s desires and feelings in headstrong pursuit of [one’s] own objectives.”  In any given situation, there are becoming ways to act as well as unbecoming ones.  When one has love, one instinctively knows what is the most fitting way to act, for if one loves one is not acting out of pride or self-interest and hence will find the way to behave that best honors and serves others.

The next element in the description of love is perhaps one at which people stumble most often: “Love does not insist on its own way.”  We tend to insist on our own way because we tend to see our own way as the best way.  If we thought someone else’s opinions or way of doing things were truer or better than ours, then we would adopt them and make them our own.  It is because we think theirs are inferior to ours that we insist on our own way.  There may be a certain logic to this approach, humanly seen, but it is not the way of love.  I don’t mean that if someone else’s way is manifestly evil we must acquiesce to it out of love; that really wouldn’t be love, since love cannot be separated from truth.  But most of the issues or situations in which we insist on our own way are not a matter of the great war between good and evil, truth and falsehood—they’re usually just one person’s opinions or idiosyncrasies against another’s.

Here is where love will make a sacrifice in deference to another.  If one refuses sacrifice or self-denial for the sake of another, one has not love.  Love and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin; they are inseparable and are part of each other’s definition.  So in matters which are not of great import or which would not compromise one’s faith or relationship with God, love will not insist on its own way.  Love will defer, give in, swallow pride, permit others to shine and to have their way.  For love makes us secure and thus we do not need to win every argument or have our opinions universally acknowledged as the best.

Love “is not irritable or resentful.”  Here’s another touchy point.  “Irritable” here means “easily provoked.”  Face it, you are irritable.  And so am I.  How often do we turn the other cheek when the first one is struck?  Life’s provocations are myriad and, living in high-stress environments as most of us do today (don’t think there’s no stress in monasteries, especially in the abbot’s chair!), we simply do not respond with equanimity or serenity to all the pin-pricks provided by circumstances and people.  There’s a relation here to patience (enduring slights or injuries serenely and without complaint) and to insisting on our own way (for if we are used to getting our own way—or at least used to wanting to get our own way—every contrary thing will irritate us).  And life is full of contrary things.  But love is not irritable, not easily provoked.  It draws on a reservoir of inner peace and strength, which come from the indwelling presence of God.  If you are always getting upset, frustrated, exasperated, annoyed or aggravated by someone’s words or behavior, for that person you have not love.

I read recently of a very short prayer that can be very helpful in dealing with the human irritants: “Lord, bless them; change me.”  The whole of one’s inner energy is thus immediately redirected.  We have to change so as to be able to love that one whom we think has to change first.  To say this prayer is to assert that all we want for them is blessing, because we want to practice love (and if God wills, his blessing will turn out to be the very thing needed to change them, too—but that’s his business).  Someone makes an irritating remark: “Bless him; change me.”  Another provokes you in some other way, pushing your buttons: “Bless her; change me.”  Try it.  It will set you on the right track of Christian love and help defuse the negative emotions.

Moving on to the other half of this pair, what is translated as love being “not resentful” is literally “love does not reckon the evil.”  Part of its meaning therefore is “love does not hold a grudge,” and here again is a rather severe test for us.  St John Climacus regards “remembrance of wrongs” as among the most odious of sins.  Therefore love and forgiveness are also inseparable.  We are simply not loving others if we resent them for their provocations or the hurts they inflict upon us.

I’ll quote a fairly long passage here from the Anchor Bible commentary, because it expresses well this dimension of love.  “It is natural enough to notice and remember every bad thing that another does and to feel judgmental and angry; [but] such an attitude…is loveless.  But Paul does not mean to ignore evil or to regard it as insignificant.  The way of love recognizes the difference between evil and good, but by a miracle of emotional transubstantiation [a remarkable expression!] love absorbs evil without charging it against the other person and deals with evil by forgiving it.  This can only be done by the power of God; that is, it is a gift.  There is no greater illustration of this act of love than the word of Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).”  A certain morning offering (the author clearly was reading 1Cor. 13) reads, in part: “May I check the first risings of anger or sullenness.  If I meet with unkindness or ill-treatment, give me that charity which suffers long and bears all things.  Make me kind and gentle towards all, loving even those who love me not.”  Yes, this is the Gospel of Jesus.

The next element of love may seem to be self-evident: “it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.”  Why would anyone think that love would rejoice in what is wrong?  I have already said that love and truth are inseparable.  Perhaps we ought to rephrase it a bit in order to get a more practical perspective: “Love does not rejoice in the defeat or failure of others, but rejoices in their success and blessing.”  Ah, now we are touching a nerve!  The “wrong” in this case would be the bad things that happen to others, and the “right” would be the good things.  Jealousy and envy (which are inimical to love) are usually at work when we take secret pleasure in another’s failure, downfall, or bad luck.  Somehow the mind that is under sin’s influence thinks that it can rise to the top over the fallen bodies of others—that is, another person’s failure makes way for our success.  Or we begin to look good in contrast to the other’s looking bad.  We thus rejoice in the wrong, and so we have not love.  How often are we actually happy over someone else’s good fortune or success—especially if we ourselves are seemingly unblessed?  One of the litmus tests of our love for others is the extent to which we can rejoice in their blessings and prosperity, and not in their misfortunes.

If you’re not yet thoroughly convinced that you’ve a long way to go before you truly love, I’ll drive the final point home: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Now this is a stylistic way of expression, so you shouldn’t think, for example, that “love believes all things” means the same as “love is gullible.”  I hope you don’t mind if I quote another long passage from a commentary.  Rather than try to say basically the same thing in my own tortuous fashion, I’d just as soon put you in touch with a more articulate explanation.

To “bear” all things, means literally “to put a cover over.”  The commentator translates this as “keeps all confidences,” but expands it as follows. “Paul probably means that love is capable of passing over many things in silence where it would do harm to make them public, and it charitably refuses to attribute to other people evil motives… Love trusts in the redeemable possibilities of others and in the overarching goodness of God [love believes all things], who can bring good out of evil.  Love stubbornly adheres to the conviction that life has purpose and meaning, that despite appearances God’s purpose will be accomplished [love hopes all things]… Put the other way round, the only sound basis for hope is love.  Love which has been given from God overcomes despair, fear, and hate; and this love has been revealed as a reality in the person of Jesus Christ.  The concomitant of this is steadfastness [love endures all things]: love does not cave in but retains a vital resilience, cheerfulness, and energy.  Self-centeredness will surrender to adversity in despair.  The gift of love is grounded in God’s own love.”

Finally, “love never ends.”  This is sometimes translated as “love never fails.”  The latter speaks of its infallible power and fruitfulness in this life as the way to put the commandments of the Lord into practice.  The Apostle goes on to say that all other gifts will fail or pass away, but love retains its value and efficacy forever.  It is all that is needed in the life to come in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This eternal character takes us back to “love never ends.”  This was the passage chosen for the memorial card of a friend of ours who died a couple years ago.  Bodily life may end, but love never ends. It will find its full, unhindered, and everlasting expression in the Paradise of God.  That which is of God no man can destroy, and since St John wrote “love is of God” (1Jn. 4:7), we know that love lasts into eternity.  Love is stronger than death; our souls are immortal because they are held in the undying love of God.

I think we must admit that we have a lot to learn, a lot to change, before we can honestly say that we truly love—and truly love all, not just those who are pleasing to us.  This is the Gospel; this is the meaning of life, in this age and in the age to come, as God has ordained it.  The one who loves God is the one who keeps his commandments.  “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another” (1Jn. 3:23).

St Paul has told us what love means in practice.  Let 13 be your lucky number, that is, First Corinthians 13.  Let love be your ticket to Paradise, your key to the fullness, beauty, and joy of life—both here and hereafter.

If I Have Not Love (Part 1)

[I published this in our monastery newsletter a couple years ago, and it generated quite a bit of positive feedback.  I thought it might be good as a means of spiritual preparation for Christmas. If we aren’t loving in practical ways, perhaps because of the stress of these busy days, we won’t be able to fruitfully receive the love of God when we finally arrive at the manger…]

St John tells us that “God is love” (1Jn. 4:16), and Jesus commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).  God’s love for us and our love for one another are of the essence of Christianity.  So it is not an exaggeration when St Paul writes: “If I have not love, I am nothing… I gain nothing” (1Cor. 13:2-3).

We might readily agree with all of the above, yet with all this talk of love, we might not be clear on precisely what we’re talking about.  I don’t have to go into all the ways that the term “love” is misused or distorted these days, for I think that’s obvious enough.  Love is not lust, it is not sentimentality, it is not about using another to make me feel good or to build my ego.  Neither is it found in an ill-conceived “compassion” that is little more than a politically-correct tolerance of sin.

Since God is love, we ought to try to understand what He means by the term, and the best way to do that is to go to the very words his Spirit has inspired, for there we will find the truth.  Scripture has much to say about love, and I can’t begin to cover it all in a single article.  So I’ll start by setting my limits.  I’m not going to say much about God’s love for us, or even about our love for God.  Probably you find God’s love for us self-evident, but if you don’t, just go back to reading the New Testament (especially the Passion narratives and texts like Romans 5 and Ephesians 1-2) and perhaps some of the sainted mystics.

I’ll say one thing, though, about our love for God.  It’s not a matter of feelings and it’s not a matter of mere words.  Jesus makes this very clear.  He never asked us to have loving feelings for Him or for God (though it certainly is fine if you do).  He never even asked us to tell God that we love Him (though this is fine, too, but like the feelings, it is inadequate). Here’s what He did say: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments… He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me… He who does not love me does not keep my words…” (Jn. 14:15-24).  You can’t get much clearer than that.  To keep his commandments is to love Him; not to keep his commandments is not to love Him.

Jesus is teaching us something very important here about the nature of love.  Love is about willing and doing.  Love is a choice, an act—or rather, a continuous series of choices and acts that express our fidelity and devotion to the One who loved us first.  Our loving words and feelings are genuine only if we in fact prove them by keeping the Lord’s commandments, that is, by doing his will.  Otherwise they are nothing but phony piety or empty sentiment.  Scripture repeatedly makes that clear: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father” (Mt. 7:21); “Every one who hears my words and does not put them into practice will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand” (Mt. 7:26); “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Mk. 7:6); “Be doers of the word, and not hearers of the word only; this is self-deception” (James 1:22).  It is abundantly clear in the Bible: words are not enough to please God or to love Him.  Deeds are required if one’s faith and love are to be genuine.  Talk is cheap, and feelings are unreliable.  By our fruits we are known, said the Lord, that is, by the manifest expression of what we believe.

With this in mind, I will sharpen my focus even more and write only about the love we are called to have for one another, and I will limit myself mainly to St Paul’s magnificent and concise meditation on the subject in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13.  Perhaps we find it relatively easy to love God, since we know that He already loves us, and since it has been revealed that God is the absolute and transcendent fullness of all possible goodness, beauty, joy, life, etc.  Keeping his commandments may be demanding, but the thought of who He is and what He has prepared for those who love Him lightens the burden quite a bit.  The real challenge is to love those who aren’t the fullness of beauty and goodness—and who in fact may seem to be the exact opposite—and hence will not appear as naturally lovable or attractive.  These are, for the most part, the people we live with or interact with in some way on a regular basis.  We may find that we don’t have loving feelings for them all, but we need to know that we can still love them in spite of that—because true love doesn’t require that, even though it would certainly be enhanced by it.

So if you are wondering precisely how to keep Jesus’ commandment to love other people (the very fact that we keep his commandment means that we’re also loving Him by loving others), St Paul describes the nature of Christian love in some practical terms.  This may burst the bubble of those who would prefer to keep love at an emotional level and not “get their hands dirty” in serving (or patiently enduring) others, but so be it.  That particular bubble needs to be burst.

I’ll take the Apostle’s description one or two points at a time, and try to make some practical applications.  After he describes (at the beginning of 1Cor. 13) the ultimate uselessness of spiritual gifts, knowledge, and even faith—if one has not love—he gets down to the essential elements of love-in-practice, which are indispensable if we are to please God.  By the way, when Paul writes here of love, it is agápi, not eros, so it is the self-giving, disinterested love (which doesn’t mean uninterested, but rather without self-interest) that is supposed to be the hallmark of the followers of Jesus.  (When I quote from commentaries, it will mainly be from the Navarre Bible and Anchor Bible series.)

“Love is patient and kind.”  This may at first glance seem to be little more than greeting-card sentiment.  That’s why we need much more than a first glance.  “Patience” is literally “long-suffering,” so right away we see the high cost of this first element of love.  Patience is much more than standing in line or waiting in traffic without exploding into anger or groaning in frustration.  According to one commentary, to be patient is to be “willing to receive slights, injuries, and hardships without complaint, even over a long period of time” (hence the “long” in long-suffering).  Another one says, referring to a quality that Scripture often attributes to God, that to be patient is to be “slow to anger… patience means great serenity in the face of injury.”  Far from lightweight sentiment, patience is a demanding element of love.  Think about being injured by someone, or even merely snubbed.  Are you willing to receive that treatment without complaint, and even with serenity?  This is the patience that is one way of putting love into practice.

As for kindness, that may seem even more vague and fluffy than patience originally did.  St Gregory the Great says that love is kind because it repays evil with good.  Suddenly it becomes a very serious and difficult virtue!  How often can you honestly say that you repay evil with good?  This is one of the most demanding commandments of the Lord: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28).  His chief Apostle echoes this teaching: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary, bless…” (1Peter 3:9).  You really are showing that you love God if you keep those commandments, for the ego gets no strokes from them.  It’s hard; but as such it is a proof of love.

More broadly seen, kindness “eases another person’s pain, soothes anxieties, fears, and hostilities, and contributes positively to the happiness of others.”  Again, not easy.  We tend to expend most of our efforts to contribute positively to our own happiness!  But the love that is kind goes out of the insulated world of the self (for it is agápi) to do good to others.  To highlight the value of patience and kindness, we should notice that they, along with love itself, are part of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit that St Paul describes in Galatians 5:22-23.  This ought to tell us that if we are to love we need to be in the Holy Spirit.  Just as no one can genuinely proclaim the Lordship of Jesus except in the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 12:3), no one can bear the precious fruit of kind and long-suffering love except in that same Spirit.

“Love is not jealous or boastful.”  If love is to be concerned about the welfare of others (and that’s really all it is concerned about), then jealousy has to be excluded, since jealousy denotes too much concern about oneself and what one possesses.  Perhaps here “jealousy” could also be understood in the common misuse of the term to mean “envy.”  If we are jealous of what we possess (not only material things, but our own self-image, influence, reputation, ego), the other side of the coin is often that we are envious of another’s success, honor, or prosperity.  Likewise, love cannot be boastful (literally “self-vaunting”), for love must be humble if it is to be kind, patient, and all the rest.  A boastful person cannot be at the same time a loving person.  To brag or call attention to oneself can only result in the neglect of attention to others. None of this has anything to do with love—as Christianity sees it.

To be continued…

When the Wind is Against Us

When I read the Scriptures I always try to find something that can apply to my life, that can guide my day, and in some way will turn out to be the Lord’s actual word to me.  I’m not interested only in learning more about the life and times of Jesus (though I’m somewhat interested in that), for I don’t view the Scriptures as merely a historical testimony, and still less as an example of ancient literature.  I want to “hear what the Lord God is saying” to me here and now (Ps 84/85).

So when I read the Scriptures, I try to distill, as it were, the essence of the message, especially when my own particular circumstances are not quite the same as those in the story being narrated.  For example, I recently read about Jesus walking across the sea to calm his clueless and terrified disciples (Mk 6:45-52).   What I took from it was the following: “They were distressed… the wind was against them… Jesus came to them… ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear’… They did not understand… for their hearts were hardened.”

I was somewhat distressed that morning to begin with, because I had intended to get up extra early to get a head start on my ever-increasing pile of work.  But of course I forgot to set the alarm clock and so I overslept.  (Now one more big sign has now been erected to remind me to do ordinary things I am ever-more prone to forget.)  This is a small enough matter, but it made me all the more aware that all day, every day, there is an endless series of things going wrong, even though most of them are minor things.  Now that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly, only a bit.  Therefore, upon reading the Gospel, I came to the conclusion: the wind is against me.  Whether it’s life’s little white tornadoes, or the Lord fanning his purifying flames, or even some foul gust from Hell, it’s hitting me smack in the face.

So here I am, distressed, with the wind against me.  The next thing, according to the Gospel, is that Jesus comes to me.  It says that Jesus was simply going to pass by them on the sea, but they were freaking out so much that He had to come into the boat to calm them down.  As I’m freaking out over the interminable series of problems falling upon me, the Lord says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

Those are words that ought to be supremely consoling.  The very One who calms storms is here, encouraging me, assuring me there’s no reason to fear the constant pelting with annoying and even maddening troubles, be they interior or exterior.  But I have to conclude that my heart is hardened, for like the disciples, I do not understand.  I don’t know what’s going on; I can’t interpret what the Lord is doing; I don’t know why the wind has to be against me all the time in the first place.

But here’s another reason my heart is hardened.  The day before I read this passage, I read about the plight of a man in China named Gao Zhisheng, who has been kidnapped and tortured for over 300 days—by the Chinese government—because he dared make public the last time they had tortured him for his Christian faith.  That isn’t happening to me, but I still complain about my endless little troubles.  The same day I received a phone call from a lady who comes to church here, concerning a 24-year-old fellow named Michael who used to come here once in a while with her grandson.  He subsequently got married and had a child.  Someone just broke into his house in a small town not far from us (apparently a robbery attempt) and shot him dead in front of his wife and child.  I didn’t have to witness such a horror, but I still complain about my endless little troubles.

In a sense that’s another one of my troubles: my inability to deal with the inevitable problems of life, while other people suffer incredible things and keep on going.  I try to remind myself that suffering, trials, and even myriads of mere annoyances are simply part and parcel of the nature of things in a fallen world.  Things cannot be otherwise until the Heavenly Jerusalem descends from on high.  That does not mean that all these things are utterly meaningless, fruitless, and absurd, for I can offer them all for the sake of those who are really suffering. I can “take [my] share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus”; I can “endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they may also obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory” (2Tim. 2:3, 10).

Maybe you can pray for the un-hardening of my heart, so that I can finally understand. When the wind is against me and I am distressed, I need to hear what the Lord God is saying: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear…”  Perhaps you might need to hear those words as well, when the wind is against you and you feel distressed.  I guess we have to accept that the wind is going to be blowing all our lives, but at the same time He who walks upon the waters is always with us and has words of peace and encouragement for us.  We may not, like the disciples, understand why things are the way they are, and we may not understand the ways of the Lord in sending or permitting various trials. But may it not be due to hardened hearts; may we instead always seek in faith a deeper understanding of the Lord’s providence and wisdom.

It may be that the very busyness of these pre-Christmas days constitutes an adverse wind that causes distress.  But take heart, for the Lord is near and has blessings in store for those who would trust Him, come what may.

People Get Ready

I mentioned a few posts back how just seeing a book cover brought me to the verge of tears, through a kind of premonition, perhaps, of what I would experience when I read it.  Something similar happened to me a few years ago when I was in a store on the coast, browsing through some CDs.  A song came over the sound system, just a voice and an acoustic guitar.  I wasn’t even paying attention to the words, but tears started coming to my eyes.  Something extraordinary is going on here, I thought, if just the sound of a voice could bring me to tears.  I went to the clerk to ask who it was, saying that whoever it was I would buy that CD there and then. It was someone I’d never heard of (not that I hear of very many recording artists here in the monastery!): Eva Cassidy.  The song was “Kathy’s Song” (written by Paul Simon), from her CD Time after Time.

I learned a little about her after that.  She died in 1996, at the age of 33, due to cancer.  Most of her songs were recorded live, and I think just about all of them are “cover songs,” previously written and recorded by others.  She seems to have been a Christian of some sort, or at least a believer in God.  She did a few gospel numbers, as well as blues, folk, and some old-time jazz songs as well.  She was equally at home belting out the blues as singing soft acoustic ballads.  I’ve never heard anyone whose music could make me both laugh and cry as hers has.

Why am I paying tribute to a deceased entertainer?  I’m not sure, though a couple reasons come to mind.  The main one is that I think God put me in that store at that time and moved my heart at hearing her voice so that, as she would bless me with her music, I could assist her with my prayer.  Performing artists are not usually known as the most devout in this world, and there are many temptations in such a lifestyle.  I do not know the circumstances of her death, but I thought the least I could do is pray for her and offer the Divine Liturgy once in a while for the repose of her soul.  I have done this, and I still remember her often in prayer.  Perhaps the offering of the Liturgy proved, in God’s compassionate and timeless fashion, instrumental in her salvation. If so, I’m happy to have another intercessor in Heaven, and someone to look forward to meeting there.

I’d also like to share a few lines of one of her gospel songs, an old Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions number called “People Get Ready.”

People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’;
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

It seems to me that this is a good little Advent verse.  This time of year is all about the People of God getting ready to meet the Lord anew at Christmas.  Jesus is a-comin’ and that’s literally what “advent” means: “coming,” or more precisely, “coming toward.” He is coming toward us from Heaven, and we are called to come toward Him from wherever we happen to be.  He has provided everything for our pilgrimage to Heaven, so we don’t need no baggage (and we’d do well to drop all that we usually carry!), we just get on board.  All we need is faith, and He will provide the rest.  We don’t need no ticket, we just thank the Lord.  It’s prepaid; we just have to step up to receive it.  But we do need to step up; we do need to present ourselves to Him, ready to do his will.  He does not save us unawares or against our will.  But if we come to Him as He is coming to us, we will meet and He will ultimately take us to where He is.

So, people, get ready.  There are only a couple weeks left till Christmas.  Don’t count them as shopping days but as praying and fasting days, as spiritual getting-ready days.  Then you’ll be able to hear the diesels hummin’ as the train’s a-comin’, and you’ll get on board and thank the Lord!

I haven’t yet figured out how to stick you-tube videos in my blog, but if you’d like to hear the song I first heard from Eva (just audio with a sunset picture), click here, and for a video of her singing and playing an acoustic version of People Get Ready, click here.

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