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

Archive for January, 2010

Unworthy But Forgiven

As we draw nearer to Lent, the Church gives us an image of the basic truth and goal of Lent in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is perhaps the quintessential parable of repentance, yet the theme of repentance does not exhaust its meaning. As we will see, it is not enough to receive forgiveness as did the prodigal son; we have also to offer forgiveness as did his father.  That is, once we have accepted that we are loved, we have to begin to love others in the same way.

This parable, which is one of the best-known and which perhaps comes closest to the heart of the Gospel of Jesus, is about sin and repentance, about love and forgiveness, and in a sense even about Heaven and Hell, which we anticipate by the way we live in this world.

Let us begin where we all begin in this fallen world: with sin.  What was the sin of the prodigal son?  It wasn’t merely that he went to a far country and lived a life of debauchery and self-indulgence, though that was a great part of his sin.  The essence of his sin is what he did just before he left: he despised his father, and by demanding his inheritance before his father’s death, symbolically told his father that in his eyes he was as good as dead.

All this is a metaphor for our own sin.  There are countless ways to sin, and perhaps we have, to our misfortune and shame, discovered many of them in our own experience.  But they all can be reduced to a fundamental sin: the repudiation of our heavenly Father, the rejection of his will and hence of his love for us, in favor of our own satisfaction, pleasure, or self-will.  So we are in effect treating God as the foolish son treated his father: give me what I want so I can have a good time, and have it without You. God might say to us what Jesus said to his two disciples who were seeking special status for themselves: “You do not know what you are asking.”  But He knows that if we’ve already decided to do things our own way, nothing is going to change our minds.

So, like the father in the parable, He lets us go.  This is not a sign of weakness or of indifference on God’s part.  It is rather a dimension of his love, for love respects freedom in the other, even if the other chooses to use that freedom for self-destruction.  Love cannot force another to love, nor can it compel another even to do what is for the other’s own good.  Love will always seek the good of the other, but it will not impose the good against the other’s will.

Yet the Father never lets us out of his sight.  He doesn’t simply dismiss us by saying: you made a selfish and stupid choice, now deal with the consequences.  It may very well turn out that we have to do exactly that, but the Father’s love will accompany us wherever we go, and He will always give us opportunities to come back to the truth and to the embrace of his love.

Meanwhile, what is happening to us who leave the Father for the sake of our own pleasure or self-promotion?  If we have any spiritual awareness at all, we will see that our choice to do things our own way is nothing more than following the prompting of the devil.  The devil’s way is always to promise but not deliver, to bait and switch, to present an illusion as something real and then cheat us out of what we hoped to gain or enjoy.  We see this in what happened to the prodigal son.  Sure, he got his money at the beginning, but in a short time he spent it all, and then what?  “A great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.” And the devil began to laugh. He showed him a good time for a while, and then took it away from him, which is what the devil will always do.  He is a liar and the father of lies.  We have a hard time getting that simple point clear in our minds, for we always seem to think that the illusions of pleasure, fortune, or even of self-centered complacency will somehow give us lasting contentment.  But before long, a “famine” comes, the illusion falls apart and we discover we’ve been cheated again.

What happens next is what the Church calls us to do as we prepare to enter Lent.  The miserable prodigal reflects upon his sins and also on the loving providence of his father, who would never have let him be reduced to his present disgraceful and wretched state, if only he would have stayed and remained obedient and faithful to his father.  So we have to examine our lives as well.  When we see the wretched, shameful, and unhappy state in which our sin leaves us, we should reflect on how things would have been if we had only remained faithful to God.  Fidelity to God is not as easy as falling into sin, but it bears the fruit of peace and a clear conscience and the confident hope for eternal life.  Sin only bears the rotten fruit of shame and corruption and ultimately of despair and damnation.

But the message of this parable is that even if we have sinned, and sinned grievously, all is not lost.  We can come to our senses, as did the prodigal son, saying: “I shall arise and return to my Father.”  The main work of Lent is arising and returning to our Father, acknowledging how far we have strayed from his holy commandments and begging to be restored to his fatherly love and blessing.

It may be a difficult process, on the psychological or emotional level, to turn away from sin and return to God, but it is not a difficult process to get God to forgive us when we repent.  That is because the Father has been waiting for us all along.  He doesn’t want to accuse us of sin but to forgive us.  In the parable the father saw his son returning even though the son was “still a long way off”, which means he was looking for him, waiting for him, eagerly searching the horizon for a sign of his return.

Once the father saw his son returning, he didn’t even wait for him to arrive home.  He ran out to meet him and embraced him and kissed him.  His son confessed his sin and his unworthiness even to be called his son anymore.  The father did not disagree that the son was unworthy and a sinner. He simply overrode it in the overflowing abundance of his love and compassion, for the most important thing was that he had his son home sound and safe.

It is similar in our own repentance and restoration to the grace of God.  If I say to God, “I have sinned and am unworthy to be called your son,” He will not say, “No, you haven’t sinned and you are worthy,” because He can only speak the truth.  But if he sees that my repentance is genuine and from the heart, He simply won’t mention the matter at all, because what is most important to Him is that I have returned home and am no longer wallowing in the pigsty of sin and hence of estrangement from Him.  What He wants from us is that we come home and stay home; that is all.  The lost must be found and the spiritually dead must come back to life. God is willing to forgive and forget all the rest.  Our sincere repentance and commitment to do his will henceforth is enough for Him.

But there’s another character in this story: the elder son.  In the original telling of the parable, he may have represented the Pharisees, who considered themselves the faithful ones and who were angry and indignant that Jesus welcomed repentant harlots and publicans and sinners of all sorts.  They don’t want to be associated with that rabble and so they refuse to go in to the feast.  Self-exclusion from the Kingdom of God is one way the Church defines Hell.

In our own spiritual lives, we have to be aware that the prodigal and the elder brother can be the same person.  If we are forgiven our sins and welcomed by the Father, we cannot therefore think that we suddenly have a special privilege and that we can now look down on others whom we deem less favored or—God forbid!—less righteous than ourselves.  How tragic it would be if we, having been rescued from our own sins, took pride in our restored sonship and favor with God, and then began to criticize or judge others whom we don’t think are as pious as we have become!  We will end up by excluding ourselves from the eternal joy of the Father’s good pleasure, who welcomes all who would come to Him with humble and repentant hearts.

The parable leaves the question open as to whether or not the elder son actually went in to the feast welcoming his repentant brother.  That means that the decision is laid before us.  The matter of our eternal destiny is not settled yet; we have choices to make.  And God, like the father in the parable, will grant us our freedom, even if we use it to flee from Him.  But He will be watching and waiting for our return.  Good parents cannot stop loving their children, even when they do evil, and even when severe measures have to be taken to help get them back on track.  But they always anxiously await the day of their return, of restored communion, of the sharing of the love which brought them into being in the first place.

Finally, once we have changed the direction of our lives, turned homeward, and have been mercifully forgiven by the Father, we experience that we are loved and welcomed by Him.  Now the call and challenge is to love and welcome others as we have been loved and welcomed by God.  We cannot remain the prodigal son all our lives, only looking to receive love and mercy.  As we mature in spiritual life, we have to put on Christ and begin to give love and mercy to others.  The prodigal son has to become the merciful father. This is the full circle of the spiritual life.  “Freely you have received,” said Jesus, “now freely give.”

So as we continue to prepare for the spiritual labors of Lent, let us resolve to arise and return to the Father.  We shouldn’t think that if we have not done really horrible things, this doesn’t apply to us.  Any sin we commit, however minor we may think it is, will lead us away from the Father’s house and his embrace, and we still have to return and be fully reconciled, so that we can share his joy.  And having experienced his love and compassion, we can share it with others, for the Father wants us to be icons of his goodness and love.

Let us thank the Lord, who welcomes the likes of you and me, as we fall down before Him in repentance and are raised up by Him in joy. “I have to kneel before the Father,” writes Henri Nouwen, “put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God.”  May this Lent be a grace-filled pilgrimage into the loving Heart of the Father.

Gospel Haiku

We have lately been reading in the refectory a book entitled A Song for Nagasaki, by Fr Paul Glynn, which is the story of Catholic convert and A-bomb survivor Tagashi Nagai. It is an inspiring read, but my intention here is not to review the book.  One learns something of Japanese history and culture in the book, and part of that culture is haiku poetry and other poetic expressions of the Japanese soul.  As you probably know, it is a very disciplined type of poetry (3 lines: 5 syllables in the first, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third), which often presents seasonal imagery and which leaves the interpretation largely up to the reader.  I’ve discovered that those who write haiku in English often shorten the number of syllables to achieve the same effect, since more is expressed in English syllables than in Japanese.  But there seems to be a fairly wide range of modern expressions of this ancient form of oriental poetry.

In any case, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to set some Gospel passages in haiku form, both for the sake of more easily remembering them and also for reflecting more deeply upon them.  To try to fit them into the 5-7-5 format may require a bit of creative paraphrasing, but this can actually help with the understanding of the meaning of the text, if it is guided by the Holy Spirit.  Some other form of expression besides haiku can be used, but I sort of feel obliged to use it—I live near a city named Ukiah, which happens to be “haiku” spelled backward!

Anyway, I’ve come again to the Gospel of John in my daily reading, and this Gospel seems to be the best suited for poetic expression, so I tried to put a few verses into haiku form.  (I confess I don’t really know what I’m doing, so you haiku poets please be merciful to me.  The rhythm here is certainly more American than Japanese, but that must be because I’m more American than Japanese!) Mostly they are just quotes from the biblical text, but there’s a bit of poetic license taken as well.  I’ll start with one of the most famous passages, John 3:16.

God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son;
believing, we live.

We should be able to find some in the Prologue, which is a poetic piece anyway.  How about:

In the beginning:
Word of God, God and with God,
creating all things.

Let us continue in the Prologue:

Life and light in Him
in deep darkness still shining,
overcoming all.

Perhaps this is the most well-known text from the Prologue:

Word becoming flesh,
grace and truth overflowing;
behold the glory.

We can also choose texts that are somewhat more incisive, in the sense that they call us to repentance or action and not only to lofty meditation.  The one that first got me thinking about this whole haiku business went something like this:

Out of the temple
He drove the money-changers
with a whip of cords.

I wonder if perhaps it would help our meditation if we just took a verse or two from the Bible and expressed their essence in some poetic form, so that it might become more memorable and thus stay alive within us longer.  In the many centuries in which written or printed documents either didn’t exist or were very rare, people used various mnemonic devices, poetic couplets, or other short forms to remember the sacred texts.  Perhaps we too, in an age saturated with information and endless verbosity, can return to a simple embrace of a few words to help us enter the mysteries of God in a more contemplative manner.  The discipline of a specific form may also help us stay with the text a little longer, re-examine the word order, see how the same thing could be said somewhat differently to perhaps better express the essence of the passage.

The whole point of it all is to go deeper into the mystery of Christ, in whom we find eternal life.

Jesus is the Christ;
that’s why these things are written;
life is in his name.

Divine Mercy and the Horror of Sin

There’s a lot being said these days about Divine Mercy, and rightly so, since that is our only hope for salvation.  Sometimes, though, the message of mercy is given in such a way that it seems to reduce the gravity of sin and thus to make God seem like little more than a sort of Benevolent Grandpa who pooh-poohs our peccadilloes and even turns a blind eye to our more grievous failures.  But the only way mercy can truly be appreciated as mercy, as salvation, is if we understand just how dreadfully bereft of hope we are without it, because of what sin does to our souls. Look, just to get an example, at the endless horrors of this world, all the atrocities and malice and cruelty and killing and perversion: all of it, all of it, either directly or indirectly, is a result of sin.  Divine Mercy alone can save us.

The following is a passage from St John Eudes, from his book, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was quoted in Preserving Christian Publications, which was quoted in Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI, by Robert Stackpole.  Get ready for a wake-up call.

“The first cause of those most painful wounds in the Sacred Heart of our Redeemer is our sins.  We read in the life of St Catherine of Genoa that one day God let her see the horror of one tiny venial sin.  She assures us that, although this vision lasted but a moment, she saw nevertheless an object so frightening that the blood froze in her veins and she swooned away in an agony that would have killed her if God had not preserved her to relate to others what she had seen.  Wherefore she declared that if she were in the very depths of a sea of flaming fire and it were in her power to be set free, on condition that she should once more behold such a spectacle, she would choose to remain rather than to escape.  If the sight of the smallest venial sin brought this saint to such a pass, what must we think of the state to which our Savior was reduced by seeing all the sins of the universe? He had them continually before His eyes, and his vision being infinitely more powerful than that of St Catherine, He could behold infinitely more horror.

“He saw the immeasurable insult and dishonor caused His Father by all sins; He saw the damnation of a countless number of souls resulting from those sins.  As He had infinite love for his Father and His creatures, the sight of all those sins rent His Heart with countless wounds, such that if we were able to count all the sins of men, which are more numerous than all the drops of water in the sea, we would then be able to count the wounds of the loving Heart of Jesus.

“The second cause of His wounds is the infinite love of His Sacred Heart for all of His children, and his constant vision of all the afflictions and sufferings that are to happen to them, especially all the torments that His holy martyrs are to suffer.  When a mother watches her beloved child suffering, she feels the pain more keenly than the child. Our Savior’s love for us is so tremendous that if the love of all parents were centered in a single heart, it would not represent even a spark of the love for us that burns in His Heart.  Our pains and sorrows, ever present to His vision and seen most clearly and distinctly, were so many wounds bleeding in His paternal Heart… These wounds were so painful and deep that they would have caused His death a thousand times over… if He had not miraculously preserved Himself, because during His whole earthly life His Sacred Heart was continually pierced by many mortal wounds of love…

“Let us learn… that it is not our Redeemer’s fault if we are lost.  There are hearts so hard that, even if Jesus Himself were to come down from heaven to preach to them and they were to see Him covered with wounds and bathed in His blood, they would still not be converted.  O my God, let us not be one of them, but give us the grace to open our ears to the voice of all the sacred wounds of Thy body and Thy heart, which are so many mouths through which Thou dost call us unceasingly: ‘Return, ye transgressors, to the heart,’ which means to My Heart that is all yours, since I have given it entirely to you.  Return to that most loving Heart of your Father, which is full of love and mercy for you, which will receive you home, heaping upon you blessings…

“Of all the divine perfections mirrored in the Sacred Heart of our Savior, we should have a very special devotion to divine mercy and we should endeavor to engrave its image on our heart.  To this end three things must be done. The first is to pardon with all our heart and promptly forget to offenses done us by our neighbor.  The second is to have compassion on his bodily sufferings, and to relieve and succor him.  The third is to be compassionate toward the spiritual misfortunes of our brethren, which are much more deserving of our commiseration than corporal ills.  For this reason we ought to have great pity on the numbers of wretched souls who have no pity on themselves, using our prayers, our example, and our teaching to safeguard them from the eternal torments of hell.”

Perhaps we can see a bit more clearly now that divine mercy has nothing to do with “tolerance” but with seeing clearly the dreadful ugliness and horror of sin while bearing its effects out of love—forgiving not by overlooking but by absorbing the pain and evil and violence and blasphemy.  Thus we see that mercy is not a small thing because sin is not a small thing; mercy is not to be taken for granted, and sin is not to be regarded as inconsequential.  Let’s get it clear, we’re all candidates for the inferno. It is only by turning to God’s mercy that we can be rescued and granted a share in the eternal life for which He created us in love, but which we spurned by our sin.  Let us not forget or diminish the greatness of God’s gift.

Root Sin

First of all, thanks go to Jennifer at Conversion Diary for directing me to the Totus Tuus Ministries site where I found the post on root sins, on which the following reflections are based (pardon his spelling errors when you get there).

I guess you could just go there right now and I wouldn’t have to write anything at all here, but in case you’d like a sneak preview first, I’ll give you an idea of what it’s about.  The basic idea is that if we want to grow spiritually we have to discover what is at the root of our habitual faults, failings, and sins, or else we’ll just go on committing them and will become stagnant in our spiritual lives.  According to the author of this post, the root sin is usually one of three major sin categories, which he lists as pride, vanity, and sensuality.  These are quite far-reaching in the areas of behavior they cover, much more than the common understanding of the words would seem to imply.  Even though they don’t cover every possible sin, they do cover a lot of ground, more than enough for you to get to work right away!  You might be surprised to learn which behaviors are linked to which sins, or that certain things you might think inconsequential are actually manifestations of a deep-rooted sin tendency.

He begins by giving a fairly extensive list of just what kinds of behaviors are included in the three main root sins.  As soon as you read these lists, you will know that you have your work cut out for you.  Then he suggests that you select one of these to focus on (even if two or three apply; you can’t do it all at once).  With a bit of humor, he suggests that if you can’t tell what your predominant root sin is, you should select pride, since it is of the nature of pride to produce spiritual blindness, and if you don’t know your own sin, you are spiritually blind!

Next you list the concrete manifestations of this root sin in your own life, and he gives some helpful examples.  Good, now you know your root sin and how it manifests in your actual behavior.  But you’ve only just begun.

The most important thing is to develop the virtue that is the opposite of your root sin, so as to uproot it.  He gives some examples of virtues that correspond to the three main root sin categories, so it’s easy to get started.  Then you have to come up with some concrete examples of how you are going to put this virtue into practice in your daily life. If you suffer from pride, for example, and one of the manifestations of this is being too critical of others, then your program for virtue will include trying to see Jesus in others and to accept them even with their flaws.  If you can never admit that you are wrong, then the antidote is to seek advice from others, etc.

Then you just have to keep following up on your program of recognizing the manifestations of your root sin and applying the remedy of the opposite virtue in practical and specific ways.  The follow-up includes making this the main focus of your examination of conscience, of confession, spiritual direction, and meditation.

I think that this can be very helpful in spiritual growth, for it may be that we tend to flounder with a vague sense of our sinfulness and hence a dissatisfaction with our spiritual life and a sort of stagnancy in our relationship to God.  But if we can trace our sins to a specific root cause, become more aware of the actual manifestations of it in our life and relationships, and then counter these manifestations with the practical application of the opposite virtue, then we are at the very least taking concrete steps in the imitation of Christ. We are doing the work of putting off the old self and putting on the new, for which God’s grace has already been granted to us.

If we are diligent about this spiritual work, we will make great strides toward that transformation into the likeness of God that is our essential work in this world, our preparation for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we don’t allow the Lord to dismantle us and put us back together according to his own design, then we are just going to remain in our same cycles of sin and failure, and our faults will become more and more entrenched until we despair of ever experiencing any growth, renewal, or deep communion with Christ, and we might consider ourselves hopeless.  The opposite extreme is to think we don’t need to do any sin-uprooting at all, thinking: “God loves me just the way I am.”  To this I would counter with the famous saying: “God loves you the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay the way you are!”

So what have you got to lose, besides a bunch of sins?  Lay the axe to the root, as St John the Baptizer preached.  In beginning this program myself, I can see that it will take some struggle and self-denial, a disciplining of self-serving tendencies and a conscious effort to put others first.  But this is all part of living the Gospel of Jesus, which we as Christians are supposed to be doing anyway.  Perhaps, then, you ought to take a look and give it a try.  Everyone you know is likely to thank you for it!  And best of all, it will bring you closer to God and farther away from sin.  Such a deal!

Inebriated Again

I was recently given a copy of a wonderful little book written by the foundress of a Poor Clare Abbey, Mother Mary Francis, PCC.  It’s wonderful, that is, if you like being (or are aware that you need to be) challenged to go beyond what you thought possible for you.  A recurring theme is that the grace of God enables us to surpass ourselves, to push harder and farther than is comfortable for us, but for the sake of real spiritual growth unto union with Christ.  The book is a commentary on the prayer Anima Christi, and is appropriately entitled, Anima Christi: Soul of Christ.  As you have just guessed, this post is on the petition in the prayer, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me.”  I’ll just be quoting from the book here, for she says it all better than I can.  But I hope to write in more detail about this book for the next issue of our monastery newsletter.

“Unfortunately, we have come to associate with inebriation only one particular effect of a specific indulgence… The kind of drunkenness we understand in our ordinary use of the word is a debasement of what true inebriation should be, that of which the poets and mystics have written when they said they were drunk with the love of Christ, inebriated with God, set reeling with the thought of God’s glory and of God’s love for them.

“In this prayer we return the word and the concept to truth.  Although its ordinary use may represent a universally accepted meaning, still, beyond and beneath that is the stunning purity of the word and of the concept.  Inebriation describes a state of exaltation, of enlivenment above what is ordinarily possible.  And there we immediately come up against the intriguing consideration of how the present debased and almost sole use of the word, outside of mystical treatises or poetry, nevertheless preserves the lineaments of the actual and radical meaning… Of course, because alcohol, actually a depressant, is only an artificial ‘stimulant’ and drugs can be a really perverse stimulant, both overreach themselves as all artificialities and perversions must invariably do.  The drunken person… may experience an initial exhilaration; but this quickly lapses into languor, stupor, and sometimes total unconsciousness…

“With the inebriation of the spirit, it is different.  Here are the true exhilaration and enlivenment that lift us above and beyond the ordinary in truth and purity.  And this is what the Church proposes to us in this prayer: that we should be enlivened, lifted up above our ordinary functioning, abilities, even potential, by the precious blood of Christ… In considering the unfortunate usual meaning of inebriation, we see a certain parallel there in that first exhilaration and false enlivenment of which we spoke before.  There follows the stupor, the spirit’s inevitable comment on artificiality. In much the same way, when we stimulate a storm of emotion or a hurricane of passion, we can be made somehow to experience a strength beyond ourselves for a brief moment.   But because it is artificial or perverse or both, it quickly degenerates into the precisely opposite effect…  In the true inebriation of the spirit, the antithesis of all that is perverse or evil or self-indulgent, there is a strength beyond what we could ever have of ourselves, but which never lapses into languor…

“It is the spilled blood of Christ that through the ages has inebriated souls to the point of martyrdom.  One has to be enlivened beyond one’s own possibilities to be a martyr… Nature clings fiercely to life.  The spiritual inebriate runs singing to martyrdom.  All the saints of God were inebriated by the blood of Christ… It is the blood of Christ alone that can enliven us to respond with a service beyond ourselves, that can achieve the overextension of ourselves without harm and, in fact, with glory…

“When we go singing, not necessarily emotionally, but with that great desiderium of the will, which functions with or without the supportive factor of emotion, into daily little dyings, it is again the effect of the blood of Christ.  In all the hidden, humdrum martyrdoms that are part of real Christian daily living, one must be inebriated to agree to them singing.  In all the little sacrifices of each day when God cheerfully invites us: ‘Come and die!’ we can respond with a joy more profound than a merely human one… We die to our own preferences; we die to the tart response that nature quickly frames when we are offended; we die to the caustic reply that pride proposes; we die to the sensual urges that often surprise us with their insistence.  One goes singing into all these invitations to the little deaths of every day only when one is inebriated with the blood of Christ…

“Why can we not make it our prayer, our faith?  When what is asked of us in daily life seems to our niggardliness and fear to be just too much, too much to give, too much patience to sustain, too much meekness to achieve, it remains wholly possible to turn to Christ, who shed all his precious blood that we might be inebriated by its effects, to achieve ends far beyond our own unaided powers… so that we might have a strength that can discover: ‘No, that is not too much!  I can do it. I can lift the weight of this cross.  I can sustain this activity.  I can suffer this oppression.  I am inebriated!  I have a strength beyond the ordinary.  And all because I am possessed of the inebriating power that arises out of union with Christ.’

“Could this not be a precious aspiration of our daily life on all the occasions that seem ‘too much’?  Could we not turn to Christ, look at him upon that Cross, and say: ‘Agreed. It is too much for me as I am.  I would need a strength beyond my own. And that strength awaits my begging: “Blood of Christ, inebriate me!”’

“The merits of Christ have been given to us, delivered over to us by the Father through the Passion and death of his divine Son, and they are quite sufficient to make of us true spiritual inebriates.  The more that some things seem ‘too much,’ the more inebriation we need.  And so the more we must turn to the precious blood of Christ streaming out through all his sacraments, given to us every morning in Holy Communion, cleansing us in every sacramental absolution, and also mysteriously washing over us in every actual grace as well as every increase of sanctifying grace…”

Cheers!

On Seeing Jesus and Hurrying Down

We have now liturgically taken leave of both Christmas and Theophany, but the Church allows us no rest before the next event on the liturgical calendar.  Today she already directs our attention toward Lent, with the first of its five preparatory Sundays. Lent is our journey toward Pascha, and today begins our journey toward Lent. We do this with the Gospel of the repentance of Zacchaeus.

As we’ll see, this Gospel is quite appropriate for the beginning of this season, but at first glance it might seem a rather curious choice.  The reason that the greedy crook Zacchaeus made it into the Gospel at all was simply that he wanted to see Jesus.  But hasn’t the whole Christmas-Theophany cycle that we’ve celebrated been all about seeing Jesus?  Both Christmas and Theophany were theophanies, manifestations of God: first the Son of God and then the entire Holy Trinity.  We’ve just seen Jesus in the manger and in the River Jordan, so why now a Gospel about someone wanting to see Jesus?

Well, there are different kinds of seeing.  We were, to some extent at least, bystanders in Bethlehem and at the Jordan.  We were observers of the mysteries being manifested, and hopefully we rejoiced in them and received the grace that God granted through them.  But with the mystery of Zacchaeus we’re getting quite up-close and personal.  We are not only seeing Jesus, but Jesus is seeing us.  And because He sees us, we see our own souls more clearly, and we begin to realize the extent to which we have to repent.  Insofar as we do repent and change our behavior, Jesus will bring blessing and salvation to us, as He did to Zacchaeus.

Let’s look a little more closely at the Gospel.  We can’t assume that Zacchaeus’ initial intention was to repent.  He could have done that, as others did, by simply falling down before Jesus and begging forgiveness.  He was interested in seeing Jesus, perhaps out of mere curiosity or even because there was a little prodding from the Holy Spirit that Zacchaeus didn’t understand but followed anyway.  In any case, he wanted to remain incognito and simply observe Jesus from his treetop hiding-place as the Lord was passing by.

But the Lord knew Zacchaeus. He knew he was a sinner and a dishonest man.  He knew that at that point his soul was lost. But as Jesus proclaims at the end of the Gospel, the Son of Man came precisely to seek out the lost and to save them.  So Jesus wasn’t going to let Zacchaeus get away with merely observing Him from a safe distance as He went by.  He had to bring him out into the open for a personal encounter by which Zacchaeus would have to make a decision about his life and hence his salvation.

It is interesting to notice the method that the Son of Man uses to seek and save the lost.  He didn’t walk up to the sycamore tree and say: “Zacchaeus, you rotten sinner, I know you’re up there.  You just get your crooked butt down here this instant and give up your sins, or there’ll be Hell to pay with your ill-gotten gains.”  No, He said this instead: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus invited Himself into Zacchaeus’ life by giving Zaccahaeus the opportunity to welcome Jesus into his home.  But something profound must have happened at the very moment that the word of the Lord came to Zacchaeus.  In a sense, his initial desire was fulfilled: he saw Jesus.  But much more happened as well.  When he saw Jesus, the eyes of his soul were opened, and Zacchaeus also saw Zacchaeus.  He saw his own life, his deeds, his dishonesty and betrayals of his own people; he saw his greed, his impiety, his failure to live according to the commandments of God.  So he hurried down as Jesus’ word and received him with joy.

We might have expected, if he were really repentant, that he would have received Jesus on his knees, with tears and laments, rending his garments and throwing dirt on his head.  But despite the lack of outward signs of sorrow, Zacchaeus teaches us a lesson about the true meaning of repentance.  The former crook now turned disciple of Jesus exclaimed: “Behold, Lord, I give half my goods to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything [which he most certainly had!] I restore it fourfold.”  This is what he teaches us about repentance: repentance means changing your behavior, correcting your faults, doing things a different way now that you have decided to be faithful to Jesus and his word. Repentance is manifested in actual deeds, not merely in words or emotions.  Many people say they repent, but few people prove it by actually changing their lives.  Zacchaeus proved it by giving up his crooked ways and making restitution for the harm he caused, and so Jesus exclaimed with joy: “Today salvation has come to this house!”

The Scriptures make it clear that God is not interested in outward expressions of repentance if they do not reflect an inward change of heart, which in turn will be expressed in a change of life.  The Lord said through the prophet Isaiah that He’s not interested in sackcloth and ashes and bowed heads if these are not accompanied by taking care of the poor and homeless and abandoning all wickedness (ch. 58). Neither is God interested even in liturgical worship and feasts and the offering of prayers and incense without true repentance.  In fact, He said that it all makes him sick and his soul hates it—when evil, injustice, and selfishness are in the hearts of those who come before him.  This is in the very first chapter of Isaiah, so the Lord wasted no time in making this crucial point, calling his people to repent, to be willing and obedient if they want to enjoy his blessings.  As a final example (for now, anyway), in the prophet Hosea (ch 6), we see the people getting presumptuous. “The Lord will heal us,” they said, even though He had smitten them for their sins.  “He will come to us as the showers,” they said, without making any pledge to actually do his will and change their lives.  We can almost hear the Lord sighing and see Him sadly shake his head as He said that their phony piety “is like a morning cloud, like the dew that dries up early.” He has no use for words that are not backed up by actions.

Probably the people who criticized both Jesus and Zacchaeus (the former for eating with a sinner and the latter for simply being a sinner), were like those with the phony piety.  It’s easy to look down on someone else without bothering to clean up your own act.  It’s easy to convince yourself that you are in God’s good graces and then to judge those whom you think are not. And that’s the best way to have your piety dry up.  One cannot at the same time repent and look down on another.  Genuine repentance forbids that.

So as we begin looking toward Lent, we have to increase our desire to see Jesus—not merely from afar, from a safe hiding-place, as a hidden observer.  We need to have a personal encounter with Him. We need not only to see Him but allow Him to see us, and in the light of his searching gaze, we have to take an honest look at ourselves, at our own hearts and the record of our lives.  The Lord may say to us what He said to Zacchaeus: Hurry down! That is, come down from your tree, or, as the case may be, get off your high horse.  Come down from your pride and self-righteousness; come down to a place from which you can no longer look down on anyone else, from which you will have to actually look up to them!  Come down, for I have to stay at your house, that is, I want to dwell in your soul.  I have come to seek and save the lost. Don’t be among the self-righteous who think they are not lost but others are; realize your constant need for repentance, and return to Me every day, every hour, for I am seeking you, the lost, and I want to save you.

As Lent approaches, we talk a lot about repentance, but unfortunately, precious little is actually done about it.  Perhaps this year will be different, however.  Perhaps we will be courageous enough to seek a personal encounter with Christ who calls us to an intimate communion with Him, who is seeking us and desiring to bring salvation to us. Maybe this year we will take a fearless and honest look at the state of our souls and realize how much we need to repent, to change our ingrained and habitual ways of looking at life and other people, our ways of speaking and acting that serve ourselves instead of others.  Perhaps too, and this may be most difficult of all, we will not try to cloak our fears and insecurities with a veneer of piety, but will expose our wounds to the Lord (who sees them all anyway), accept that we deserve the punishment due to sinners, but trust in the mercy of God who receives those who come to Him with their defenses down, and who have at last decided to do his will.

There’s a prayer before Communion found in The Imitation of Christ that reads, in part: “But why should you come to me? … How can a sinner dare to show his face in your presence? … You know your servant; You know he has no good in him and, therefore, You have no reason to grant him this great grace.  Thus I confess my unworthiness and I acknowledge your goodness.  I praise your mercy and I give thanks for your boundless love.”  Honesty about our sinfulness and trust in God’s mercy will make us, like Zacchaeus, grateful recipients of the salvation Christ came to give.

St Paul says in the Epistle (1Tim. 4:9-15) that “we have our hope set on the living God.” We ought to reflect on that.  It may seem like a cliché, but if our hope really is in God, we will not be afraid to humbly acknowledge our sins, and we will be eager to do good to others. We won’t be so self-protective, resentful, unforgiving, or simply living in our own insulated little worlds.  Mere pious words or devotions don’t cut it with God. He’s looking for a real change of heart, a real change of behavior, a real new direction.  St Paul gives an indication of what this looks like: “set the believers an example in speech and in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” He also mentions reading Scripture, preaching, teaching, and exercising whatever gifts God has given to us. That’s what shows that we have our hope set on the living God—doing his will with love and patience, with perseverance and a joyful and grateful heart.

Let us make haste, then, and come down. Jesus wants to stay with us, walk with us through this Lent and through the Lent which is this life.  Then will salvation come to our souls as the Son of Man brings us back to the Father, having sought and saved what was lost.

Lies

There must be a lot of children of the devil out there.  I say this because Jesus called the devil “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  For many of us, the devil is not our father.   Maybe he’s just our great uncle or second cousin.  But I think it would be hard to find anyone anywhere (over the age of 3) who has never told a lie.  Here, though, I’m more interested in pointing out those who do it more or less as a way of life.

It’s kind of sad, for in general I tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt, that when they speak to me they are telling the truth.  I still usually give that benefit on an individual basis (unless I know better in a specific case), but on the corporate level, I hardly believe anything anyone says anymore.

I’m finding out more and more, for example, how journalists tend to fabricate stories, fudge on the facts, leave some of them out, or simply work the opinions or agendas of their employers into their reporting and present it as if it were a straightforward and truthful account.  Almost all the major media are not worthy of trust.

I read with some interest Sarah Palin’s recently-published autobiography.  Regardless of whether you like her or agree with her on various issues, it becomes very clear that she was targeted for some major media smears, and many of the lies that were told about her are easily disproven and documented.  Even her own political party, when it became clear that McCain was going to lose the election, deliberately started circulating lies so that the blame for the Republicans’ defeat would fall squarely on Mrs. Palin’s shoulders.  She had some eye-opening experiences concerning the viciousness and mendacity of political opponents (as well as supposed allies).  I sort of like her myself, even though she falls in the general not-to-be-trusted category “politicians,” because she has exposed corruption in her state government and successfully fought the big oil companies.  She’s been willing to buck the system, the political machinery and the entrenched “good ol’ boy” system, despite the way this has endangered her political career.  But I’m taking a wait and see attitude.  It’s hard to believe that anyone, if they get deep enough into Washington’s web, will be able to tell the truth for very long.

We know that our president has already lied rather consistently to the American people, and I don’t even want to get into the whole political thing as such, because it is so corrupt I hardly pay attention to what any of them are saying anymore.  We’ve been fed all kinds of lies from the various anti-life and anti-family lobbies, so much so that many Americans have started to believe them just from the sheer repetition of their slogans and self-serving arguments.

There’s a lot more lying going on as well. The greater part of advertising is lies,or at least half-truths, along with baiting and misleading tactics. Drug companies are constantly lying to us about the poisonous chemicals they insist we need and falsely say are totally safe.  You’ve probably had experiences with other companies who are always saying they want to serve you better when all they are really trying to do is take more of your money, or make a sale at all costs.  Representatives from a cell-phone company have recently lied to me, either to cover up their ignorance or simply to get me to sign a contract.  It’s hard to get the same story from any two people who work in the same place.

Another phone company (which was charging me for local calls on the land line, which phone companies never used to do) offered me a deal for unlimited local calls, which I signed up for.  They didn’t realize I had dial-up internet and would be racking up thousands of local minutes every month.  They later notified me that in order to serve me better and to more effectively meet my needs, they are discontinuing this plan.  They lied, of course; they are meeting their own needs for making more money off of me.

Likewise our health insurance company.  They’re getting nervous about Obama’s health plan, and so to better serve us and meet our needs they have significantly jacked up the premiums.  Isn’t nice to know how concerned about us all these corporations are?  And look at their brochures with all their smiling, satisfied customers.  How happy all those people are to have this policy, this phone plan, these drugs!  Oh, what a wonderful world we live in!  I almost said something like that in the dentist’s office, as I was preparing to shell out $1350 for a crown.  They had some sort of deferred-payment policy I could sign up for, but I wasn’t interested in how they wanted to serve me better, and what that was going to cost me.  I wanted to show the brochure to the office girl and say, “This must be a good plan; look how happy they all are!”  But I didn’t.

What are we to do?  To whom shall we go?  Christ alone, said St Peter, has the words of eternal life, and He is Himself the Truth.  So it seems to me if we really want to avoid all lies, we have very few options.  We have divine revelation basically, which we find in the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the best place to find the teachings of the Church and the basis of these teachings in Scripture and Tradition.  I recommend the Catechism because there is no shortage of liars even among those who claim to speak in the name of Christ or the Church, and we have to check what they say against what the Bible and the Church declare is true.

If you’re lucky, there will also be a few people in your life who will always tell you the truth, but no one short of the Lord Himself is absolutely trustworthy, in all ways and at all times and in every detail.

The father of lies is enjoying quite a smashing success in our society today, but we can still rob him of total victory.  We can refuse to believe in the lies of the media, government and commercial enterprises, and we can refuse to parrot them to others. We can try to research the claims of others and get to the bottom of things (where there is money to be made, lies will be told, so be wary of those who try to sell you something).  Mostly, though, we simply have to put our trust in God alone and go through this life in as simple and detached a way as possible, so that we set our hopes and invest our time and energy in that which will contribute to our eternal salvation.  Accept the fact that you will be lied to, and try to minimize the damage.  But make sure you are completely truthful yourself, so as not to add to the darkness and confusion all around.

All this may seem rather dreary and perhaps even cynical, but if you’ve had any experience in the world, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  We just have to fight the good fight, keep our consciences clear, and hold on to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We don’t want to be even a distant relative of the father of lies, so let us approach life with both eyes open.  There’s a sucker born every minute, as the old saying goes, but those who trust in the Lord will not be deceived and will stay on the “straight and narrow” path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

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