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

Archive for April, 2010

Spiritual Hypochondriacs

Christ is risen!  We continue with our celebration of the resurrection of the Lord, still being in the midst of the holy 40 days between Easter and Ascension.  This Sunday, however, we do not have one of the resurrection Gospels prescribed, but rather one that offers an important lesson about how to live in the grace of the risen Lord (John 5:1-15).  It’s about a bodily healing, which is at the same time a metaphor for spiritual healing.  We learn from this Gospel about the responsibility that finding new life in Christ places upon us.

The context for this healing is unique in the Gospels.  The sick were gathered around a pool called Bethesda, which means “house of mercy.”  This is certainly appropriate for a place of healing.  For an angel would come from Heaven from time to time and stir up the waters, and whoever would enter first after this happened would be healed.  Here we are still at a time before the universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so healings were few and far between.  The advent of the incarnate Son of God put an end to such unusual and sporadic manifestations, as we see from the fact that the paralytic did not need to go into the water but was immediately healed simply by the command of the Lord Jesus.

But this Gospel story is unique in other ways as well.  Sometimes Jesus would heal the sick without any dialogue with them, and sometimes He would ask them what they wanted Him to do for them.  But here He asks a different question, one that at first glance seems superfluous, yet it is in fact a probing question that goes right to the heart of the matter: “Do you want to be healed?”  It’s instructive to note that the man did not answer this simple and direct question, but immediately let loose a barrage of complaints as to why he could not in fact be healed.  He’s all by himself, he has no one to help him, someone gets in the water before he does.  Jesus, however, didn’t ask him about any of those things.  He only asked him if he wanted to be healed.

The man was a hypochondriac.  Now a hypochondriac is not merely someone who is not really sick but complains that he is. That’s one type. Another type, like this paralytic, does have some actual maladies but is obsessed with them, spends an inordinate amount of time, thought, energy, or money on them, uses them to get attention from others, uses them as grounds for self-pity.  This kind of hypochondriac requires that others love and care for him before he will love and care for others. After all, he’s the one in need of attention. This makes such a person quite self-absorbed, bitter, and unable even to notice—let alone serve—those around him.  One gets the impression that they almost prefer to be sick, because they think that relieves them of responsibility and gives them grounds for excuse-making.

Jesus spotted this right away, but realizing that it is quite useless to reason with such a person, and since they were in the “house of mercy” anyway He decided to have mercy on Him.  Jesus did something, however, that was for the healing of his soul as well as his body.  The very act of healing his paralysis removed all his grounds for complaining, and suddenly the man had to face the demands of living a responsible life.  Along with his illness, his basis for self-pity was taken away too!

One might have hoped that he learned his lesson and went away praising and glorifying God, as did so many others whom Jesus healed.  But he just went away and ran into the Pharisees who reproached him for carrying the pallet he’d been lying on, since it was a Sabbath.  They couldn’t care less that a miracle was worked; they only wanted to know who was going around giving people permission to break the rules.

In addition to physical hypochondriacs there are spiritual hypochondriacs as well.  They’re not self-absorbed because of things of the body; they’re self-absorbed with matters of religion and their own narrow, quirky, distorted, or misguided interpretation of them.  The result is a spiritual sickness or at least an imbalance.  Maybe they pray, but they do not exercise charity; maybe they live by the letter of the law but not by its spirit.  The end result is not much different than that of the other kind of hypochondriac: they miss the point of what life is about, of what relationship with God is about, because they live to serve themselves more than to serve others; they are still complainers; they still hold on to their own narrow ideas and opinions and refuse to learn from others.

So Jesus sought him out to give him a final admonition, since the man didn’t seem to be very grateful for the miracle just performed for him.  “See, you are well,” said the Lord. “Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”  Here the element of sin is introduced, and the implication is that sin was at the root of the man’s paralysis in the first place.  Sin itself in a kind of spiritual paralysis, and sometimes spiritual diseases end up manifesting themselves in the body as well as in the soul or mind.  This doesn’t mean that all sickness in individual cases is a direct result of sin, but since we are dealing now with this particular Gospel in which Jesus Himself makes the implication, we can assume that that was the case for this man.

One of the lessons is that healing from God brings with it a responsibility to live as one who has been granted God’s favor and the capacity to live a mature human life.  You are well; therefore sin no more.  Since the man evidently did not have an open and willing heart, Jesus had to spell out the consequences: “lest something worse befall you.”  That’s pretty serious, since what had previously befallen him was 38 years of an incapacitating disability.  Perhaps the Lord was referring to an eternity of pain if the man would persist in his sin.

There’s a tradition (perhaps only a legend) that something worse did befall this man.  It is said that years later he was hostile to the Christian faith, and when the Mother of God had died and was being carried out for burial, he sought to disrupt the funeral procession.  For his efforts he lost both his hands as an angel of the Lord sliced them off with his celestial sword.  This is even depicted on some icons of the Dormition of Our Lady.

In any case, we see that the man was still ungrateful and unrepentant, because he immediately went back to the Pharisees and told them that it was Jesus of Nazareth who was the Sabbath-breaker they sought.  As the Gospel continues, we learn that it was precisely because of this that Jesus began to be persecuted by certain Jews in high places.  This healing is also referred to later in the Gospel (7:21-24), so it must have been a contentious issue for some time.

Jesus’ only comment about all that was, “My Father is working still, and I am working.”  There were certain exceptions in the law for breaking the Sabbath, like doing circumcisions (which had to be done on the eighth day after birth), or for priests in general who were on temple duty.   Jesus, being Lord of the Sabbath, could make exceptions for Himself, when charity or compassion required it, and He had to answer to no one.

We don’t know what ultimately happened to the handless former paralytic.  Maybe the angel’s blade was at last sufficient warning to repent.  One may hope so.  But for ourselves, we needn’t speculate about such things, for we have to put into practice the lesson of the Gospel.

We have to make sure we are not hypochondriacs, whether physical or spiritual.  First, we have to hear the question of the Lord and not dismiss it as simplistic or rhetorical: “Do you want to be healed?”  We have to be aware of its implications and requirements, and then answer not with complaints or self-serving excuses, but simply and directly. If we’re ready to live a mature, responsible life of faith and obedience, with the help of God’s grace, then by all means let us say: “Yes, Lord, I want to be healed!  And I will give my very best effort to live as one who has been touched by your love and mercy, manifesting love and joy and compassion to others.”  But if we are content to live a self-centered life, complaining and grumbling, with self-pity and self-fulfilling prophecies of woe, then let’s be honest and say: “No, Lord, I do not want to be healed. Leave me here outside the gates of the house of mercy and let me have my dark satisfaction in complaining about others and about how badly life has treated me.”

Well, the choice is ours.  You see in the case of the paralytic Jesus that gave him every possible opportunity.  He healed the man even though he was not properly disposed, and He sought him out to admonish him so that something worse would not happen to him.  God is always faultless in what He does for us.  He bends over backwards, so to speak, in order to do good for us. He gives us much more than what we deserve. But there comes a time when a response is required of us.  This is not because God runs out of patience or blessings.  It is because He wants us to be in relationship with Him, and relationships are two-way affairs.  The Lord loves us and wants us to love Him in return; He gives us a talent and expects us to multiply it; He forgives our sin, raises us up from our spiritual paralysis and then requires us to live accordingly, because He has already provided the grace to do so.

So let us listen carefully and respond honestly to the Lord’s invitation to healing.  Let us be willing to do what it takes, however costly to our fragile egos, to break out of self-absorbed hypochondria, rise from our spiritual sickbeds and start living the life that God has called us to live.  We keep saying in our paschal services that through the Resurrection Christ has given us new life.  Well, has He or has He not?  “The Redeemed should look more redeemed,” said an old foe of Christianity (Nietzsche), but he was right on that point. So let us get up and walk, and not be afraid to step out and live a real Christian life.  Look alive out there, for Christ is risen!

To Jesus with Mary

[The following story is partly autobiographical and partly fictional.  I hope it somehow helps address the question of the role of the Mother of God in assisting us on our way to a more intimate relationship to the Lord, especially if that relationship is hindered by fear or sin.  Somehow, though, I think the answer doesn’t lie in explanations or even stories, but simply in the wordless understanding of the heart, which is where the grace of God works best.]

He was having a hard time with it all.  Life had a way of seemingly increasing the force of gravity, making him feel like he was walking under a heavy burden, dragging leaden legs through another day of insoluble problems and relentless frustrations.  The dreary prospect of the endless, stumbling march along the narrow and rough way was like waking up to yet another of a long series of days of dark, brooding clouds and damp, chill winds.

When he had stumbled long and painfully enough, he decided to seek a sacramental remedy with a priest in a neighboring town.  This usually brought some relief, but in looking back over his life, he recalled how such relief was usually short-lived, and he wondered if he really was repentant after all, since he seemed to stray into the same old places without much effort to fight the good fight and meet the high standards of a disciple of Jesus.  He was tired, worn out from falling down and getting up and falling down again.  Sometimes when exercising on the treadmill (he was at that age when people realize—or are told—that they have to do such things) he would compare it to the spiritual life: constantly moving, laboring, sweating, but in reality going nowhere.

He turned to the Scriptures often but was not often consoled.  Was it only because of a more or less chronic frame of mind—or worse, an ingrained character trait that affected his perception—or was he being threatened every time he opened the Good Book?  He kept seeing things like: “Those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God”; or “I do not know you… Depart from Me, you cursed…”; or “My Father will do the same to you [i.e, send you to the torturers] if you do not forgive”; or “Fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”; or “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”; or “you outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy… how are you to escape being sentenced to hell”?; or “you will weep and gnash your teeth when you see… all the prophets in the Kingdom of God and you yourself thrust out,” etc., etc.   The narrow way seemed to be getting narrower all the time.  He had even considered doing a Bible study to discover just how many threats there are in the New Testament alone.

The confused and tormented fellow had also read that the Father handed all judgment over to the Son.  So he was trying to hold together those apparently contradictory facts that the Son had loved him so much as to suffer and die for him, but if he ended up failing to do the Father’s will or just gave up in despair, this same Son would have to consign him to the everlasting flames—which thought only served to increase the likelihood of failure and despair.  It seemed like he could never have any peace as long as Hell so much as existed or there was even a small possibility that he could end up there.

In the course of conversing with the priest another passage came to the surface: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest…”  Consoling words, to be sure, and most refreshingly without any hint of a threat.  Yet hadn’t he come to Jesus many times?  Where was the rest for his soul?  He seemed unable to get past what appeared to be the bottom line of every promise or invitation: “But if you don’t…”  That’s where the fear of judgment would come in, and the sense that he needed to tread lightly around this Benevolent Being who somehow still had wrath to spare if you spurned his advances. So there were caveats, reservations, hesitations, which could perhaps be reduced to a simple inability to love unrestrainedly One who held such veto power over his very existence and eternal destiny.

Receiving forgiveness is always a blessing, and is in fact indispensable if one is to avoid that lake of fire mentioned above.  This tends to bring up some heartfelt gratitude toward God.  But the fellow reflected on that psalm verse: “heal my soul, for I have sinned against you,” and he realized that forgiveness and healing are not quite the same thing.  Forgiveness removes the guilt and all grounds for threat of just punishment, yet it doesn’t, in and of itself, heal the soul, which is still quite prone to do the same things that brought it to the confessional in the first place.

Despite the forgiveness of sins, nothing had really been resolved concerning the deeper issues, the decades-old ingrained fears, the ambivalence toward the Savior/Judge, the Merciful/Just One, the One of whom Scripture says “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).  Then he went into the church to pray, and he noticed with some satisfaction that the tabernacle had finally been moved from the near-invisible side chapel to its traditional place of prominence in the sanctuary. He noticed something else, which had never been there, and this ended up being the pivotal thing: there was a life-size and life-like statue of Our Lady on the right side of the sanctuary.

She was beautiful.  She hadn’t been set in such an honored place in the church before, having been more or less stored in a tiny chapel where nobody went.  The church was looking more Catholic all the time, votive candles and all!  He walked in quietly and sat down, near her image.  He thought of the confession he had just made and the way his life had been gradually becoming mediocre—or worse—for years.  He looked at her and her arms, which were extended in a gesture of loving welcome.  Tears spontaneously began to flow, freely but gently, as what may have been the grace of true repentance was granted him.  In an instant something was communicated from her to him, which came much faster than the time it took to assemble it into words in his little brain.  It was simply this: “Come to me, and I will take you to Him.”  Here was the answer, without explaining how it would be the answer.

He never did go for that marginal strain of piety that tended to pit the Merciful Mother against the Just Judge, as if she had to butter Him up to have mercy on us. Her will has to be in perfect harmony with God’s, so she’s not like some celestial court of appeal to which we have recourse if we don’t like the sentence the Judge has handed down.  So it’s not like there’s a way into the Kingdom other than the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Yet that doesn’t mean that Mary can’t smooth the way to Him for us, a way that may be littered with the stumbling blocks of our own psychological or spiritual de-formation.  He had to admit that perhaps after all these years he didn’t know the Lord well enough to love Him the way He ought to be loved—and right here before him is this Lady who knows and loves Him more than anyone else.  And she’s saying: I can make it happen for you; I can take you where you really want to go; you won’t have to be afraid if I am with you; with me you can overcome the obstacles in your own heart, and you won’t have to live the way you’ve been living, too far away from my Son who loves you.

Well, that was enough for him.  He handed himself over to her on the spot, along with all that he knew were barriers to a loving relationship with the Lord.  He looked at the tabernacle and the crucifix, and he saw that it was good in the eyes of God.   This wasn’t the first time that the Lord had placed her in his path.  He had directed him to her before, though he tended to wonder why.  There’s something of a mystery in the way the Lord does this; He seems to delight in making use of his Mother to bring healing to souls that have sinned against Him.  The fearful penitent in this story did not come into the church looking for her, and he was still struggling with how to come to this Lord he both loved and feared and didn’t understand at all.  But the Lord directed his attention to the Mother and opened his heart, which instantly melted when she said: “Come to me and I will take you to Him.” Perhaps only certain souls have the capacity or the predisposition to respond to this.  Either you get it or you don’t; either you’ve had that experience or you haven’t.  It’s not a matter of apologetics but of relationship, of love and repentance and sorrow and hope and trust.  No one should say God has to work this way; but if He sends her to you, receive her.

Somehow, one becomes closer to the Lord, without being aware precisely how this is being done, simply by becoming closer to Our Lady.  She makes this happen when we give her freedom to take our hearts into her hands.  Attaching ourselves to her has the pleasantly surprising effect of making obstacles to communion with Jesus vanish, in a way that we just can’t do on our own.

The man who met his Lady in the sanctuary still doesn’t know quite what to do next.  He hasn’t received answers to his endless questions and he still perceives that he’s the same defective person he always was.  But something is different now.  He has a companion on this dangerous journey, and he trusts in her care. He was reminded of the scene in the movie The Passion of the Christ, when Mary saw her Son crushed beneath the weight of the Cross on his via dolorosa. She remembered rushing to Him when he was a child and had fallen, embracing Him, saying, “I am here!”  So she did the same when He had fallen in pain and exhaustion in Jerusalem’s grimy streets.  She was there for Him.  She is there for us.  That’s what it means to be a mother.

It is often said that we go to Jesus through Mary, and that’s what he’s doing now.  He’s also going to Jesus with Mary, for she has extended her hands and said, “Come to me…”  We come to her so that we can go with her to where she is in the light of her Son’s glory, where perfect love forever casts out fear.

Some of us are just too befuddled or disabled to make the best use of what God has revealed and given to us.  When He finds such troubled or broken souls, He sends his Mother to fetch them.  They come to her, and she takes them to Him…

Whence It Comes and Whither It Goes

Since I mentioned Nicodemus in my last post, I thought I’d look at that famous section from the third chapter of the Gospel of John a little more closely.  Jesus says some important things there, and we ought to pay attention, even if some of them are a bit obscure.

Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, though he was not among those who rejected Jesus and plotted to kill Him.  His was a voice of moderation and restraint, born not only of a sense of fairness and of the true intent of the Law, but also of a conviction that Jesus was indeed sent by God (see Jn. 7:45-52 and 19:38-42).  He first arranged a clandestine meeting with this man that many were calling the Messiah, to get a firsthand experience of who He really was and what He stood for.  He approached Him respectfully and tried to break the ice by assuring Jesus that he believed He was from God because of the miraculous signs He worked.  Jesus left the compliments unacknowledged and entered immediately into a sublime teaching.

“Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  There’s a play on words in the Greek text here, since the word for “anew” (or “again”) can also be translated “from above.”  The evangelist, as usual, evidently intends both meanings. Nicodemus does not know what Jesus is talking about and fumbles for some sort of response, which can be reduced to “I don’t get it.”

Jesus repeated Himself but at the same time clarified and elaborated upon what He had just said.  “Truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit… The wind [this term also means “spirit” and “breath”] blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Here, as in other places, Jesus makes baptism a condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.  To be baptized is to be born again—from above—through the sacramental “matter” of water and the grace of the Holy Spirit.  He makes a distinction between the unbaptized and the baptized.  The unbaptized are the “flesh” born of the flesh; the baptized are spiritual, born of the Spirit.  The evangelist makes a similar distinction in the prologue of the Gospel: those whom Christ has given the ability to become children of God are “born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”  So here too the unbaptized are merely of the flesh, while those born anew—from above—by the Spirit are children of God.

Jesus says that the wind blows as it will, and even though it is invisible we perceive it effects, though we don’t really understand its baffling activity (let’s leave modern meteorological calculations aside here).  As I write this, the wind is in fact blowing strongly, swaying the trees and buffeting the buildings—and, I might add, the weather forecasters failed to predict this.  I think we sort of get it about the way the wind blows, but what about Jesus’ conclusion? “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Is He saying that the baptized are unpredictable, blustery one day and calm the next?  No, I don’t think so, though that may indeed describe some of us.

I think that Jesus is again referring to the distinction between those who are of the flesh, unbaptized, and those who are of the Spirit, baptized.  To the naked eye, a baptized person cannot be known to have come from God and to be going to God, that is, that mysterious rebirth from water and the Spirit is not an empirically measureable reality.  But in fact it is true that we have been sacramentally, mystically reborn and as such we have “come from God.” We are children of God and we are going to God, for the destiny of such children—if they persevere in faith and in doing the Father’s will—is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Someone can’t notice that at first glance, but as the presence of the invisible wind is recognized by its effects, the children of God should be able to be recognized as such by the way they live their lives.  For example, Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).  It’s an effect of the Wind (Spirit) that can in fact be observed.

We ought to ask ourselves: are the “effects” of our being born from above of water and the Holy Spirit evident to all?  Can someone observe our actions and hear our words and come to the conclusion that we have come from God and are going to God? St Paul makes it very clear what are the effects of living as one merely born of flesh and the effects of living as one born of water and Spirit.  He concludes with the exhortation to live in accord with the reality of our being in the Holy Spirit—for in the end we shall reap what we have sown (see Gal. 5:16-26 and 6:7-8).

I think we have to simply accept in all humility the fact that Jesus has placed certain conditions upon our salvation.  If He says we have to be born from above in order to enter the Kingdom, then the plain fact is that we have to be born from above in order to enter the Kingdom!  It’s kind of like having a passport that is necessary to enter this glorious land.  But as passports eventually expire and have to be renewed, a baptismal certificate will not suffice if we have fallen away and failed to “renew” our baptismal promises, if there have been no genuine “effects” of our being born of the Spirit.  We need to remember whence we have come and whither we are supposed to be going, so that we will truly live as children of God.

We needn’t be scratching our heads over this as was Nicodemus.  We know that we have been born of water and the Spirit, so at least we know whence we have come.  And we know that this sets us on a course to the Kingdom of Heaven.  We only need to let that Divine Wind blow where He wills within our souls, guiding us away from all that is merely “flesh” and gently carrying us to whither we really do want to go.  A favorable Wind is already blowing.  Time to set sail for the Farther Shore!

Have You Understood This?

Chapter 13 of St Matthew’s Gospel contains a collection of Jesus’ parables as well as some teaching concerning the nature and reason for them.  At the end of it all, Jesus asks his disciples: “Have you understood all this?”  They immediately answer, “Yes,” even though it seems pretty clear as the Gospel continues that they didn’t understand it very well at all.  I wonder if they were afraid to seem stupid in the Master’s presence, so they said “yes” prematurely. In any case, these are the ones to whom it was given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 11).

There’s a lot about understanding in this chapter of the Gospel, and I’m not sure I understand it all very well myself.  I used to think that I was among those to whom it was given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom, being a priest and monk and blogger and all that.  But the older I get, the more I seem to be among those who hear but do not understand, who look but do not perceive, whose hearts have grown dull.  I feel like Nicodemus, to whom Jesus said: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”  It’s easy enough to admit this to the anonymous public while hidden in my monastic cabin, exposed only by the artificial glare of my computer screen.  But I don’t think I’d go to the pulpit and say: “I don’t understand this; do you?”  Maybe I ought to, but people are coming to me like Jesus’ disciples, saying: “Explain to us the parables.”  So I tend to think I have to try.

I wondered as I read this chapter: Why is the knowledge of the Kingdom given to some and not to others?  For after Jesus said that it was given to his disciples, He said, concerning the rest of the people: “But to them it has not been given.” Not been given! Have they, then, any hope?  “Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand,” and so “even what [they have] will be taken away.”  It seems at first that there’s nothing they can do about this state of affairs, but the context suggests that it is not God’s will or fault that it has not been given, because somehow they have rendered themselves incapable of receiving it.  If they would turn to the Lord, He would heal them (v. 15).

When Jesus begins his explanation of the parable of the sower, He says: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart.”  It seems there’s a heavy price to pay for not understanding the word of God.  Lack of understanding sets us up to be despoiled by the devil.  Jesus goes on to detail the woes of those who are shallow or attached to things of this world, and how they thus bear no fruit.  Finally He gets to the “good soil” on which the seed of his word falls: “this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit…”

I don’t think the Lord is referring to a mere intellectual understanding, for He would not exclude the mentally impaired from his Kingdom merely because of a low level of intellectual functioning.  There’s a deeper level of understanding, of which all are capable to one degree or another, and that is what Jesus calls the “understanding of the heart.”  When He talks about those who do not turn to Him, He laments that they refuse to “understand with their heart” and thus find healing and salvation.  Eyes begin to see and ears begin to hear when the heart begins to understand.  And the heart is where the secrets of the Kingdom are revealed.

It seems, from reading Jesus’ parables, that there will always be some who get it and some who don’t, some who will follow and some who won’t, some who are with Him and some who are not.  This is hard to understand, but it is the word of the Lord.  The evil one snatches away the word from some, and others bear good fruit.  Some are weeds and some are wheat.  Some are thrown into the fire and some shine like the sun in the Father’s Kingdom. Some are cast out as worthless junk and others are saved. Have you understood this?  Have I?

What shall we do in order to understand the word of God and thus bear fruit?  “Understanding” is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (derived from Isaiah 11:2), and so we should perhaps start by praying for this gift, for I think that “understanding with the heart” can only come from the Spirit of God.  I hope this isn’t one of those things, though, that Jesus said is given to some and not given to others.  But at least we can open ourselves to it and pursue the Lord, tugging at his sleeve and persistently asking Him to explain the parables to us.  Maybe those who look but do not perceive and who hear but do not understand are only those who don’t really care to know the mysteries of the Kingdom anyway.  Maybe they are the ones who, when first hearing the word, don’t get it—and rather than diligently seeking a deeper understanding just walk away saying, “Whatever,” and move on to other, easier pursuits.  Maybe these are the weeds, or the ones who are sorted from the dragnet and tossed out.

It’s not easy to understand, and sometimes when we get close to the truth—and we realize the truth might be painful or go against our own cherished opinions or feelings—we might wish to withdraw and not pursue it to the end.  It is said of Judas in one of our liturgical texts: “He did not want to understand.”  So perhaps before we get indignant that some are given knowledge of the Kingdom and some are not, we ought to be aware that some just don’t really want to know or understand, because the truth doesn’t agree with their own mentality or agenda. The Lord cannot do much with the willfully blind and deaf and hard of heart.

Jesus has said a lot of difficult things, and perhaps none more difficult than those of his parables in which He indicates that some will go to Heaven and some will go to Hell, that some will learn the secrets of the Kingdom and some won’t.  But it is not for us to judge his judgments.  If we are to under-stand his word, we have to “stand under” it, that is, humble ourselves to a position of openness, docility, acceptance, and acknowledgment that He is the Lord and we are not.    Then perhaps that special gift of the Holy Spirit will be given us; then we may have a capacity for knowledge of the Kingdom and we will be entrusted with its secrets.  For the Lord does not withhold his grace from anyone who sincerely seeks it.

Have you understood this?

The Master’s Hospitality

I had the opportunity to go to the coast once again after Easter, to rest after the rigors of Lent and Holy Week, and to absorb some of the beauty and peace that only sitting seaside can offer.

The usual suspects were there: the brown seabirds with red bills squeaking, and the white seabirds with yellow bills squawking. But they’re not obnoxious at all, since the sounds of the surf smooth the rough edges of their raucous banter, and they take their rightful places in the symphony of the sea.  In fact, some of them are quite majestic in flight, and if you try not to look at them forcibly removing terrified mussels and barnacles from their shells, you might even get to like them!

I tend to sit as close to the ocean as possible, so as to get the full “surround sound” as well as to get the best angle on the tremendous tumult of the waves heaving-ho in their “magnificent rage,” as the psalmist paradoxically put it.  Of course, I sit there long enough for the tide to come in, and as usual I get at least one salty slap in the face.  I’m a temptation the sea just can’t resist, and she always has a laugh at my expense.  But we laugh together, because it’s impossible not to enjoy the glorious, sparkling sea when she does her eternal dance under the fiery chandelier hanging delicately from the cloudless blue dome.  The breeze is fresh and cool, and I feel a kind of thirst to drink it in.

Oddly enough, on the first day I went out there, one of our liturgical hymns kept swirling through my head.  That’s not so odd in itself, but usually after Easter I’m not singing hymns from Holy Thursday.  It goes, in part: “Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality, in the upper chamber with uplifted minds.  Let us receive the exalted words of the Word…”  This is, of course, about the Holy Eucharist, but having attended that very morning the Banquet of Immortality at the Divine Liturgy, I realized that my being treated to the blessings of seaside contemplation was also an instance of the Master’s hospitality.  It is, after all, his ocean to which I had been silently invited, and He made all the seabirds and choreographed the coruscations flitting about each ripple of the sun-kissed sea.

So I start to wonder: perhaps all of our experiences of blessing or joy or fulfillment, to whatever small or great degree, are examples of the Master’s hospitality.  I don’t think that life is merely random, or that our little pleasures are something we furtively snatch from some unseen or uncaring hand.  Whatever goodness there is in this world, whatever opportunities for gratitude or praise, whatever takes our breath away because of its grandeur, delicacy, or delightful surprise, is the Master offering his gracious hospitality to his unworthy servants.  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” sang the psalmist, so if we enjoy anything in this world, it has to come as a gift from the One who made it, who owns it, who maintains it, and who, as the gracious Host, invites us to partake of it. He wants his banquet hall to be filled with people who recognize the gift and who thus spread the joy around.

We ought, I think, to be more explicit in our recognition that when we go to some place that we enjoy, we have actually been invited there by the Lord.  When we enjoy some harmless earthly pleasure, it is something the Master has offered us for our enjoyment.  And when we are received as guests by relatives or friends, it is Jesus who is smiling behind their eyes, welcoming us and offering hospitality.

Sometimes I forget all that and try to squeeze the most out of every opportunity for a little rest or recreation, since I don’t get too many of them.  But in that case I am trying to take instead of receive (by the way, you should never say, as many unthinkingly do, that you “take” Communion; the Eucharist can only be received as a gift; to take it is to profane it).  As a little example, I was having considerable difficulty getting the seabirds to pose for the types of pictures I wanted, plus my little camera is a bit too slow to catch those magic but fleeting moments.  I was starting to complain because the universe wasn’t designed to serve each of my desires, and then immediately this Scripture verse popped into my head: “No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven” (Jn. 3:27).   So I relaxed, let Heaven give if and when Heaven wanted to, and I ended up with a couple decent pictures after all, thanks to the Master’s hospitality.

So now I’ve landed back home, and the sea is many miles away.  I never seem to get enough, and I always have to go back, searching for I know not what, but knowing it is found only there.  But I can’t demand it; I can only receive it as a gift.  If I never go back again, it means the Lord’s hospitality will be extended in other ways.  In any case, let us always, in faith, look behind the scenes for the One who works all things for our good, who invites us to the blessings of this life as a prelude to the Banquet of Immortality, beginning here on our altars and fulfilled forever at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Believing Unto Life

Christ is risen!  We continue to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus liturgically through the proclamation of the Gospel of one of his post-resurrection appearances (Jn. 20:19-31). We’re grateful that this account has been written down, so that we have a testimony of these miraculous events.  But what is the real reason that we have the Gospels at all?  Was it just for the historical record, so that future generations might know these things?  No, there are actually two other reasons. St John tells us what they are at the end of today’s Gospel.

First, he says that these things are written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  So the basic reason is to bring to faith those who will read the Gospel.  And not just a sort of generic faith in the existence of God or some sort of Higher Power, but in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. But there’s another reason, and this is perhaps meant to answer anyone who would question why we ought to believe in Jesus Christ.  John’s final words are: “and that believing, you may have life in his name.”  So it’s not mere academic interest or even a sort of religious inquiry that leads us to accept that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God.  It’s a matter of life or death!  To believe in Christ is to enter upon the path that leads to eternal life.  For “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.

So then, this is why St John recounted the event that we celebrate today: the appearance of Christ to the apostles after his resurrection, and especially his manifestation to Thomas, who at first did not believe in his resurrection, but whose subsequent profession of faith in Christ and his divinity has become a precious element of our Christian heritage.

Let us look closer at this event.  It happened on the same day of Jesus’ resurrection, only in the evening (that’s why we read the first part of this Gospel at Vespers on Easter Sunday evening).  The disciples knew that Jesus’ tomb had been discovered empty.  They had also heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony that she had seen the Lord alive. But perhaps at this moment they were all in the mindset of Thomas, because they were not all rejoicing over this fact but were still hiding in fear from those whom they thought might do to them what they did to Jesus.  In any case, Jesus entered the room they were in without bothering to knock (or even to open the door, for that matter; He just manifested Himself right in their midst).  His first words were: “Peace be with you.”  He knew that they were still afraid and, as He said to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were slow to believe all that the prophets had said about Him.  But they realized now the meaning of the empty tomb, and they believed the testimony of the Magdalene.  And so the Gospel says that they rejoiced upon seeing the Lord.

Jesus at once commissioned them to carry on his apostolic work: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  Then He did something quite extraordinary: He breathed the breath of God upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”  This is grace and authority that evidently could only be given them after Jesus was glorified and could give the Holy Spirit. (Note that before Jesus’ death and resurrection the evangelist had said: “The Spirit was not yet given, for Jesus had not yet been glorified”—Jn. 7:39.)

Jesus had given them other power and authority before this. He told them to heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons, but He never told them to forgive sins.  Only now, with the traitor gone, with Jesus risen and able to communicate the Holy Spirit, were the disciples—who had a few days ago been ordained to consecrate the sacrifice of his body and blood—given the power and grace to forgive sins.  This is an element of the priesthood of the New Covenant, and this covenant had to be established in the blood of Christ, so the apostles couldn’t have been given this authority during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

(I guess we have to assume that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit and this charism to forgive sins to Thomas at a later date, since he wasn’t there when this happened for the others.  Or perhaps he received the New Testament version of the blessing of Eldad and Medad [see Num. 11:24-29], who were chosen to receive the Spirit, and who weren’t present when the rest of the elders did, but nevertheless received the anointing and began to prophesy with all the others.)

As the group of the apostles did not believe the first testimony of the women who had found the empty tomb, so now Thomas did not believe the testimony of the other disciples when they said they had seen the Lord.  He declared that he wouldn’t believe until he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands.  I don’t think he was being petulant or pig-headed here.  It seems to me that he was simply crestfallen and perhaps angry with himself for having missed something that (for all anyone knew) might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the risen Lord.  So I think Thomas’ demand was more of a plea for Jesus to return, so he could personally experience all that his fellow apostles saw and heard.

It must have been a torturous eight days for Thomas before the Lord returned.  He probably stuck close to all the others and didn’t let them out of his sight.  He might have even been reluctant to sleep at night, fearing that he might miss out again.  But the Lord is merciful and knew the desire of Thomas’ heart, so He made sure that Thomas was there the next time He appeared to his disciples.

Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”  (This greeting of the risen Lord has become a frequent liturgical blessing even to this day, as you know.  You should try to be aware that every time a priest blesses and proclaims this peace, that it is the risen Christ Himself, not merely his minister alone, who is in your midst, and the blessing should be received as if you were in the upper room with the disciples, standing in awe and rejoicing in the Lord’s presence.)

Then Jesus, whom Thomas didn’t know was invisibly listening to his bold words eight days previously, reiterated them in the form of an invitation with a mild reproach: “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.”  Thomas no longer had to put the Lord to the test; he saw and believed and cried out: “My Lord and my God!”  This is quite a strong testimony to the divinity of Christ.  Some have dismissed it as a mere exclamation like, “O my God!”  But the addition of “my Lord,” a way he was already accustomed to addressing Him, suggests that he was saying these words directly to Jesus.  Also, at the mere mention of the fig tree, Nathanael had previously addressed Jesus as the Son of God.  So now there is all the more reason to ascribe divinity to Him, since they had seen Him dead and now He was alive and able even to give God’s Spirit to them.

So everyone was rejoicing then, and the apostles were finally of one mind and heart concerning the mystery of the Resurrection.  But Jesus wasn’t done with them, and He wasn’t going to let this “teaching moment” pass by.  He said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is immediately after this that St John tells us he wrote this Gospel so that we would believe, and have eternal life through this saving faith.

This is important, because once Jesus ascended to Heaven, everyone (with the exception of a few mystics like St Paul) would have to believe without seeing.  It’s easy to believe when the risen Lord is standing before you showing you his hands and side.  That’s why Jesus said those who believe even without seeing are blessed, because this is the more difficult way.  Sometimes I wish I were a little less blessed, and could actually see, like St Thomas.  But the evangelist didn’t say “that seeing you may have life in his name,” but rather “that believing you may have life in his name.”  St Paul spelled it out when he wrote that we “walk by faith, not by sight” (though it always seems to me that the ones who say such things are those, like Paul, who have actually seen!)  But anyway, that is the call and challenge for those who wish to have eternal life.  Believe without having seen.

St Peter also makes it clear that this is the basis of the Christian life.  He writes: “Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice…” (1Peter 1:8).  The outcome of this believing without seeing, he continues, is the salvation of our souls, which is the whole purpose of our life in the first place.  St Peter has taken this blessedness another step further.  He says not only that we believe in Jesus without having seen Him; he also says we love Jesus without having seen Him.  This is the fullness of our relationship with God: not only believing, but believing and loving.

It may be that we feel at times as Thomas did, that we’ve missed out on something in our relationship to the Lord, and we are desperate to have a more profound and unmistakable experience.  So we want to see, to touch, to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt not only that God exists but that He loves us and is present in our midst, and that He is concerned with all that makes up our poor little lives.  To this the Lord says: “Peace be with you.  Be not faithless but believing.  Blessed are you if you have not seen yet believe, if you have not seen yet love.  And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

So let us not demand the vision that Thomas wanted, nor place conditions upon God concerning our faith or our wholehearted commitment to Him.  Let us believe without seeing and we will receive the Holy Spirit and the peace of Jesus. Let us accept the testimony of the eyewitnesses and the unbroken tradition of the Church, that we may believe that Jesus, risen from the dead, is the Son of God, and that believing we may have eternal life in his name.  Christ is risen!

In Him is Life—Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen!  All those happy faces I see tell me one thing, that you know those three joyful words we repeatedly say at this time: “Lent is over!”—no, I mean, “Christ is risen!” Anyway, it is a happy circumstance that we conclude the season of sorrow and fasting with the outbreak of joy and celebration as we re-enter the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord and open ourselves anew to receive its grace and blessing.

After seven weeks of penance we come to the time of, what, self-indulgence?  No, not that, but of reaping in joy what we have sown in tears, as the psalmist says.  The seasons of fasting and feasting, of sorrow and of joy, are metaphors for the Paschal Mystery, which is the mystery of death and life, of dying and rising, of the passing over from carrying the cross to rolling away the stone of the empty tomb.  Death may be the conclusion of our life in exile, but it is not the last word on our human existence.  Since Christ is risen, we move from life through death to everlasting life.  Death is but a stage of the journey from mortal life to immortal life, and we celebrate today our hope for life eternal, for Jesus has blazed the trail for us through his death and resurrection, and He bids us follow Him to his heavenly Kingdom.

Even though the Gospel prescribed for this Feast of feasts (Jn. 1:1-17) does not refer explicitly to the Resurrection, there’s something there that is quite appropriate for this feast.  The evangelist says: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Our hope for eternal life is bound up with the fact that in Christ is life.  What does that mean?  To say “in Him was life” means that, as Jesus says later in the Gospel, the Son of God has life in Himself.  This means that his divine nature is the source of his life, as it is for the other Persons of the Trinity.  The Son and the Spirit find their eternal origin in the Father, but all share the same divine nature, which is why they are one God.  We, on the other hand, do not have life in ourselves, that is, the source of our life is outside ourselves.  We are contingent beings, which means that we depend on Another for our very existence.  But here is how we benefit from the fact that “in Him is life”: Jesus says, “As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (Jn. 5:21).

This life that is in the Son because of his divine nature, He gives to us by grace.  This grace of divine life was won for us by the death and resurrection of Christ, who became man so that He could communicate the life of God to those who are his fellow human beings. He has divine life in Himself, and He gives this life to whomever He will—to those, as St John says in today’s Gospel, “who received him, who believed in his name.”  We share in the power of the Resurrection and its irrepressible life by believing in Jesus, by receiving Him in word and sacrament, by allowing his divine life to suffuse our human life and transform it forever, preparing us for the everlasting life of his heavenly Paradise.

There’s a double contrast of metaphors in the Gospel and in the mystery we are celebrating today: life and death, and light and darkness.  The evangelist says that the life that is in Christ is our light, and that this light cannot be overcome by the darkness, just as Jesus’ life could not be overcome by bodily death.  Indeed, Jesus really died; his human body and human soul were separated, but the life of the divine person of the Son of God could not die, and in three day’s time, He reunited his body and soul and brought them into the glory of his divinity, never to be separated again.

The Lord said in the Book of Revelation: “I am the first and the last, and the Living One; I died, but behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”  This is something we celebrated at the vigil Liturgy just a few hours ago.  We notice, though, that even though He had the keys of Hades, He didn’t bother to use them—He preferred to smash the gates and tear off the locks with his bare hands, full of the power of the unconquerable divine life that rescues the dead and frees them from their ancient bondage.  Indeed, the Son of God gives life to whom He will, for in Him is life, and this life was the light that pointed the way out of the darkness of death to all those who were imprisoned there.

As for us, we may not be at this moment among the dead who are awaiting rescue and deliverance, but we still are in need of the Light that shines in the darkness, of the Life that is stronger than the power of death.  For the Apostle says that the world, that is, those who have not received Christ or believed in his name, is still under the power of the evil one (1Jn. 5:19).   That means that darkness and death are still a reality, and people are, whether they are fully aware of it or not, wandering in the darkness on the broad way that leads to eternal death. Even though we ourselves believe in Christ, we still live in this world, and it influences us. But Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  So maybe this is why St John says that the life that is in Christ is a light for mankind: Christ the Life also has to shine the light of truth in the darkness, so that we can find our way to God.  “How do we know the way?” asked the apostle Thomas. “I am the Way,” said the Lord, and this way is lit by the light of Truth.  Jesus is the Truth. And this truth leads us to genuine, divine, and everlasting life, which Jesus has in Himself and gives freely to whomever He will.

This mystery of Christ as Way, Truth, and Life—a life that is light for us—is manifested in his resurrection from the dead.  Ever since He rose from the dead He is able to communicate the fullness of this new life to us, a life that is no longer mortal but that reaches beyond death into the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven.  This new life is called “grace and truth” in the Gospel proclaimed today.  “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” says the evangelist.

Grace and truth correspond to the Old Testament hesed and emeth, which can be roughly translated as God’s covenant love and fidelity. Everything that is said about God in the Old Testament that relates to these things—“merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”—find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who communicates this grace and truth, indeed his very life, to all who will believe in Him and receive Him.

The Resurrection is, as it were, a proof of all this: that all God’s promises find their fulfillment in Christ, that everything Jesus said was true, that the way is now clear for us to return to Paradise.  In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-9), St Luke said that Jesus offered many proofs to the apostles that He was indeed alive, appearing to them over the course of 40 days and speaking to them of the Kingdom of God.  That’s why He came in the first place, to speak to us of the Kingdom of God, and then to die and rise again so that our sins might be forgiven and that we might be granted entrance into this Kingdom.  For the Kingdom of God is everything, the final and eternal reality, that for which we were made and for which we are meant to live.

That is another reason the Church takes so much time and care both to prepare and to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  We have to have our minds and hearts set on the Kingdom of Heaven, or else our lives here on Earth will be a complete waste.  The celebration of Easter is meant to return us to the contemplation of the Kingdom, and our calling to live there forever.  Jesus rose from the dead not merely to prove that He had the power to do so, or to fulfill his prophecies, or to vindicate Himself to his enemies, but to make it clear to us that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is our life, and He wants to put his life into us.  He wants us to share the joy and the glory that He enjoys now.  He wants us to hear the words of the Gospel, but from his own mouth: In Me is life, and this life is Light for you.  My life is a light that shines in the darkness of this world, but the darkness cannot overcome it.

So, as we go on singing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and to those in the grave bestowing life,” let us sing not only with joy but with understanding.  Let us realize what his resurrection means for our own eternal life; let us realize that He trampled death not only for Himself but for us, so that we can go from mortal to immortal life, passing though death as a brief stage on the journey.  And let us beseech the Lord to bestow life upon us, the grace and truth which is our inner life in the present time, and the everlasting and glorious life which is prepared for those who love Him.  In Him is life, and He gives it to whomever He will.  And He will surely give it to all those who seek Him with faith and love, who embrace Him in the mystery of his death and resurrection.  Christ is risen!

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