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

Archive for August, 2010

Two Banquets

This is the third Sunday this month on which a feast day falls—this time the beheading of St John the Baptizer—so we have another pair of Gospels to proclaim and preach (Mk. 6:14-29 and Mt. 22:1-14).

As it happens, a banquet figures prominently in each of these Gospel readings.  But these are radically different kinds of banquets, as different as darkness and light, Heaven and Hell.  We’ll look at the evil banquet first.  That is the one held at Herod’s palace and which occasioned the murder of St John the Forerunner.

John was already in prison when Herod held his banquet.  It seems that this prison might have been a dungeon beneath or close to Herod’s palace, since St Mark gives us the detail that Herod used to visit him and listen to him, and that the execution was so quickly accomplished when he ordered it.  So both in the flesh and in spirit, St John was not far from the king.  The Gospel says that Herod was perplexed by the words of the Baptizer, yet he didn’t want to kill him because he recognized him as a righteous and holy man.  The only reason John was in prison at all was because of the spite of the wicked queen (though she isn’t called a queen in the text, only the wife of Herod, since he married her unlawfully.)

But the king was a weak and self-centered man who, even when he had a noble conviction (which was rare), did not have the courage to stand by it when he was tested.  His wife Herodias was waiting for an opportunity to kill John, and it came when her daughter danced for Herod at his birthday banquet, to which he had invited all the prominent people of Galilee.  Herod was so pleased with her that he promised to grant her anything she asked, even to half his kingdom.  Her mother’s hatred was so great that she forfeited such a gift for the sake of the execution of one man who dared tell her she did something wrong.

A note in my Bible indicates that this is the mirror opposite of a situation that is recounted in the Book of Esther.  There the request comes from a righteous queen, Esther, for a noble intention.  The king answered her in very much the same way Herod spoke to his stepdaughter: “What is your petition, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom it shall be fulfilled” (7:2).  The great difference in the two is not only that Esther is good and Herodias is evil, but that Esther’s request is that the Jews be spared from death, and Herodias’ request is that the righteous Jew, John the Baptizer, be put to death.

Herod proves how spineless he was and how the esteem of other people was more important to him than justice and integrity, even to the point of killing an innocent man.  So he pleased his evil wife and her conniving daughter, and displeased the Most High God.  Thus he followed in the footsteps of his murderous father, who had destroyed the innocent children in Bethlehem for his own selfish reasons.

Having been excluded from the banquet of evildoers, St John was welcomed into the other banquet we heard about today, the one that the King of Heaven holds for his beloved and only-begotten Son.  St John arrived there dressed in an acceptable wedding garment, his rough tunic stained with his own blood, shed in the cause of righteousness.

As is the case with many of Jesus’ parables, the wedding banquet is offered as a comparison with the Kingdom of Heaven.  In that time and culture, when a great banquet was being prepared by some high-ranking dignitary, two separate invitations would go out: one some time in advance of the feast, so that all could set aside the time and make plans to attend, and a second one immediately before the feast, letting them know that all was ready and they were expected to arrive soon.

As an allegory of salvation history, the first invitation could be understood as the sending of the prophets to the chosen people to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, the King’s Son, so they could share in all his blessings.  But this invitation was for the most part rejected or ignored, as the parable indicates.  Some made light of it, some went off to do other things, and others were positively hostile to it, assaulting and even killing those sent with the invitation.

The apostles were the ones entrusted with the second invitation, the one that says, “Come now to the wedding feast, for all is ready.”  This time the invitation was extended universally, even to all they could find in the streets of the world.  All is ready, because once the Messiah had come, had died and risen from the dead and sent his Spirit to form his Church, the fullness of divine life became available to all who would come in faith and love.  The foretaste of the full and everlasting banquet is offered in the Holy Eucharist, the sacrificial table fellowship of the redeemed, who celebrate their Lord as they wait for the definitive manifestation of his glory and his Kingdom.  Faithful attendance at this sacramental banquet, and all that this implies, assures a welcome into the eternal wedding feast that will be inaugurated when all the elect are gathered into the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Lord notes in telling the parable that someone presented himself at the banquet without the proper wedding garment and was cast out of the joy of the feast because of it.  This can be an image of the Last Judgment.  Not everyone is eligible for eternal happiness.  That is why Jesus ends the parable by saying that many are called but few are chosen. The invitation is universal, but not all will meet its conditions.  This is not a matter of arbitrary election or rejection on the Lord’s part. He simply judges whether or not each soul has done God’s will and lived by his commandments, hence fashioning a wedding garment out of his righteous deeds.  The Wedding Feast of the Lamb is described in the Book of Revelation (19:6-9), and the Bride is the image of the whole Church.  “His Bride has made herself ready,” cried a voice from Heaven, “it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—then the Apostle John comments: “for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”  This makes it quite explicit that the wedding garment God expects us to wear as we present ourselves before Him is made up of righteous deeds.

Back to the parable.  The king looked at his guests; again, this is an image of his examining our souls when we die and attempt to enter his Kingdom.  When he found a guest not clothed in the wedding garment of righteous deeds, he asked him the reason for this.  The man said nothing.  What could he say?  At the hour of judgment we have no defense, only the testimony of our lives, which we finally see in the crystal clarity of God’s own truth.  We have plenty to say during this life, plenty of excuses to make like all those who refused to follow the invitation of God to a life of righteousness and communion with Him in faith and love and holiness.  But there are no more excuses on Judgment Day, nothing more to say.  The King either sees that we are wearing a garment of righteousness and welcomes us with joy, or He sees us clothed in our sin and must remove us from the presence of the elect.

We might well say about this state of affairs: many are called, but few have chosen to respond to the call, few have chosen to quit making excuses and to come when the Master summons, whether it seems convenient or inconvenient.

We ought to keep in mind the image of the two banquets that the Church presents to us today.  We cannot indulge ourselves at Herod’s banquet and then expect to be received at the Lord’s.  We cannot hold grudges like Herodias, act in unclean or provocative ways like her daughter, be cowardly, adulterous, law-breaking, self-indulgent, and self-serving like Herod, and still think we will escape the scrutiny of the King when He looks at the guests presenting themselves for entry into the heavenly wedding banquet.

Scripture makes it clear: we cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24), we cannot share the table of the Lord and the table of demons (1Cor. 10:21), there is no fellowship between light and darkness, between righteousness and iniquity (2Cor. 6:14-15).

So we have to be clear about whom we choose to serve.  If we are only doing what pleases or satisfies ourselves, if we refuse to see God’s hand in the trials and sufferings of life and in the requirements of our vocations, if we complain and criticize and hold grudges, we are doing our own will and not God’s, however pious we might like to think we are.  If we serve ourselves in this life, we are eligible only for entry into the halls of Herod, his “banquet” in Hell, where you hunger and thirst, where everyone hates you and evil demons torment you forever and ever.

But if we respond wholeheartedly to God’s invitation—with all that implies for living a life of righteous deeds even unto the embracing of suffering and death for righteousness’ sake, like St John the Forerunner—we will be welcomed into the banquet of joy in God’s Kingdom, where all is fulfillment, happiness, peace and blessing. Let us decide to be among the chosen, for that is our choice to make.  The call is already given, the banquet is already prepared.  Let us not give in to selfishness or hard-heartedness, making excuses why we cannot deny ourselves and take up our crosses and do all that the Lord asks of us.  The stakes are high, and everything rides on our free acceptance of God’s will in our lives, on our choosing to follow Him faithfully all the days of our lives.

“Come to the marriage feast,” says the Lord.  These words should be music to our ears; they should inspire us with love and hope and zeal to receive that which He is offering us.  It should also inspire us, like the messengers the king sent out, to gather in stray souls, to sacrifice our own fleeting pleasures in this life so as to win grace for others, so the Lord’s banquet hall may be full, as He desires.  Nothing matters but to be found worthy to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  So let us renounce every unrighteous movement of our hearts and purify ourselves, making ready to welcome the King when He comes for us, that He may welcome us into his everlasting banquet of joy.

Consider the Peppers

A while ago I did something sort of as a lark. I was rather curious about the hundreds of little seeds that come with every bell pepper.  They’re flat and round and almost look like they’re made of plastic or something, since they have a smooth and shiny exterior.  I thought: what if I just stuck a couple of those in some dirt and watered it; would peppers really come up?

Well, I did try it, and now I’m the proud owner of three red bell pepper seedlings.  I find it fascinating how one can put a little bit of apparently lifeless matter in the ground, and suddenly a living thing emerges from it, growing and rejoicing in sun and water and the nutrients of the soul, fully intent on bearing healthy fruit and reproducing itself in the near future.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever see any actual peppers, though, since what I read says that the plants grow very large and need a lot of space between them, which would mean that I’d have to transplant them outside somewhere, build little cages around them so the deer wouldn’t eat them, protect them from bugs and other enemies, etc.  So maybe they’ll just be interesting houseplants; they are doing rather well at this writing.

I’m sure you didn’t access this blog to learn about bell peppers, so I thought I might look at this whole phenomenon from a spiritual perspective.  The obvious connection would be to paraphrase the Gospel: “Unless a pepper seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.   But if it dies it bears much fruit” (see Jn. 12:24).  There’s no seed left.  Once it was planted in the ground it “died” to its “seedness,” and then it became what it never would have become if it had not been placed in an environment in which it could shed its former self and mature into that which God designed it to become.  It is quite an upheaval, that bursting forth of the first tiny, tender leaves from the shell of the seed.  But it is absolutely necessary if it is to grow and bear fruit.

There’s something else I want to focus on here (and this is a kind of follow-up to my last two posts).  It is the way the seedlings reach for the light, the sun.  Especially in the earliest stages, they are desperate for it.  They will turn toward the light, to whatever direction it is coming from, and they practically double over in the effort to do so.  I had to rotate the pot they were growing in, so that they would grow up straight and not lean toward the window the whole time.  So they would move this way and that, always trying to face the light, to receive its beneficial and life-giving energy and warmth.  It’s amazing that a brainless plant knows where its true source of life is, and that many of us higher entities seem not to get it at all.

It may be a coincidence, but just a few verses after Jesus told us about the seed falling into the ground and “dying” to bear much fruit, He said: “Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you… While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light” (Jn. 12:35-36).  And again, a few verses after that: “I have come as light into the world…” (v. 46).

We need to learn a lesson here.  Perhaps Jesus could have told another parable, similar to the one about the lilies of the field, only this time it would be: “Consider the peppers, how they reach for the light…”  By their very design, the plants seek the light, just as their roots will go to great lengths to seek water.  They don’t have to “think” about it; they are impelled to do it by the very design of their nature.  O blessed plants, your nature unfallen, untouched by the concupiscence that keeps human beings from seeking the life-giving Light of God and the warmth of his love!

It can get so bad, if we become hardened in sin, that we not only don’t turn toward the Light, we actually avoid and flee from it!  St John comments: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (Jn. 3:19-21).

What a perverse and self-destructive state of affairs—to hate the light!  That which alone can bring peace, wisdom, joy, mercy, grace, and salvation, is rejected by those who don’t even know how to act according to the design of their souls and bodies.  They’re dumber than pepper plants who at least know enough to reach for the light!  One of the disadvantages that we humans have is that there’s a satanic enemy who is always offering pseudo-peace, ersatz joys, short-lived pleasures and false promises.  So some people tend to get confused as to which way they should be turning, thinking they will grow and be happy in the sterile soil and the artificial light provided by the father of lies.

But that’s precisely why the Son of God (remember, “God is Light;” 1Jn. 1:5) became man and came to us, saying: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”  We have no excuse for not knowing where the true Light comes from, no reason not to reach out to Him who has reached out all the way from Heaven to us.  We need to take the example of the peppers: “strain forward,” as the Apostle says (Phil. 3:13-14), toward the Light, toward the goal of our whole existence.  We need to attune our souls, through prayer and fasting, through the sacraments and a high standard of morality, to the presence of the Light, so we can turn toward Him.  If we discover that we have been turned in the wrong direction in some area of our life, through repentance we can turn back.  Hey, peppers do it all the time!  They will force themselves to turn always and only toward the Light, even if some cruel abbot turns their pot the other way!

Decide, then, to reach for the Light.  Walk while you have the Light, become a child of the Light.  When the Last Day dawns, we’ll be glad we had trained ourselves not only to turn toward the Light, but also to open fully to Him.  Thus He will find much fruit in us and gather us as a joyful harvest for the everlasting celebration in the Kingdom of Heaven!

Armor of Light (Part 2)

It seems that there is a deep wound or a massive vulnerability in the heart of our modern life: sex (meaning here the forms of sexual activity and the mind-set created by preoccupation with it, or any sort of sexually provocative presentation).  Sex is practically everywhere you look and listen in our society.  It sells merchandise, promises excitement and fulfillment, defines personal worth and desirability, drives people’s thinking, feeling, and acting.  It is accepted as a “given” in so many dimensions of modern American life, and it can lurk behind even the most apparently innocent of faces or words.  Sexual morality is often a major issue (whether or not acknowledged as such) in the lives of many people.  It seems that the weakness in this area is the Achilles’ heel of many otherwise good and even God-loving people.  The reasons for this are manifold and complex—psychological, sociological, spiritual, even ecclesiastical, in a certain sense—but it is not my purpose to make a study of that here.  I’m just looking for some insights in the word of God.

There are several severe warnings in St Paul’s letters about what makes for eternal exclusion from the Kingdom of God.  Sexual sins take up the lion’s share of the lists and are always found right at the top.  He’s quite categorical in his insistence that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom.  Such issues are often emotionally charged these days, but I don’t think that emotional arguments have much to do with putting on the spiritual armor of light, which is a clear-sighted and level-headed act of expressing one’s personal commitment to God’s will.  I would here prefer simply to look over one often-overlooked point about sex and God, which is found in the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

In trying to get his rather unruly Corinthian converts to give up their licentious behavior (and perhaps ritual prostitution as well), he starts talking about the meaning of things.  “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1Corinthians 6:13).  Now this might seem not exactly to the point of the question, but he immediately adds: “the body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord.”  Now it is obvious that male and female human bodies are anatomically designed for sexual union, and that humans are also psychologically and emotionally “hard-wired” for the same (though various factors in early human development can contribute to creating a kind of “short-circuit” in this “wiring,” producing disorders like homosexuality or other perversions of the natural order).  Such a union of man and woman is in fact “for the Lord” when blessed by a sacramental marriage.  But St Paul is reaching a still deeper level.  The body is essentially, and by its very existence, “for the Lord.”

Sometimes when Paul speaks of the body he really means the whole person.  It seems that both may be meant here.  To say that the body is meant for the Lord is to say that you and I are meant for the Lord, by the very fact of our being, and all the more so by the fact of the Incarnation, whereby the Son of God united human nature to the divine and thus had human body like ours.  We are not our own, says the Apostle.  We were created for a reason, a purpose.  God did not just cut us adrift to experiment with life, to exploit, to manipulate, to impose our own meaning upon that which God had already invested with a meaning that precedes and transcends our consciousness and our desire.

Back to the stomach/food analogy.  If you give the stomach what is meant for it, food, then it functions as it was designed to, is healthy and fulfills its reason of being.  But if you fill it, let’s say, with air instead of food, it will not function properly, it will be damaged and ultimately destroyed.  So then, if you feed yourself with God (here’s a good place for a meditation on the Holy Eucharist), you will, body and soul, function as you were designed to, and you will fulfill your reason of being.  If you give yourself what is not good for you—in this case, sexual immorality—you will become spiritually damaged, will miss out on the true fulfillment of who you were created to be, and ultimately will be cast out of the Kingdom of Life and Joy.

So the commandments regarding sexual purity are not merely antiquated, arbitrary, or time- and culture-conditioned taboos.  They indicate the only healthy and honest modes of conduct for bodies (persons) designed, created, and meant for the Lord.

At this point Paul gives the Corinthians a necessary review of their catechism.  Don’t you know—that your bodies are members of Christ?  Don’t you know—that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?  Don’t you know—what happens on the spiritual level when, on a physical level, you unite a member of Christ to a prostitute?  Or, we might add, to anyone with whom a sexually intimate relationship is not blessed by God, or even to some unclean fantasy?  In a sense, Paul is adding a new dimension to Jesus’ “what you do for the least of my brethren you do to Me.”  He’s now saying: what you do to yourself, to your own body, you do to Me.  When you defile your body (and soul, for the two act in accord), you disgrace the Body of Christ.

As a man and a woman become “one flesh” through sexual union, St Paul says that we become “one spirit” with the Lord when our life expresses our awareness that the body is meant for God.  This is what God had in mind when He created us.  This is what is supposed to begin mystically in this life and be fulfilled completely in the next.

The issue of sexual morality was one of those that St Paul evidently had in mind when he made his parallels in Romans between putting on the armor of light and putting on Jesus Christ, between casting off the works of darkness and making no provision for the flesh.  We cannot have it both ways.  If the body is for the Lord, it cannot be for immorality.  If we are not awake, not children of the day, we will be children of the night.  He sums up the point elsewhere when he writes: “What partnership have righteousness and iniquity?  Or what fellowship has light with darkness?  Or what accord has Christ with Belial [i.e., the devil]? … What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2Corinthians 6: 14-16).

Walk, then, as children of light.  Put on the armor of light.  Bear the fruit of light by immersing yourself in all that is good and right and true.  This will not be easy in this world.  You will be tempted, distracted, and assailed from every side.  That’s why Paul used an image of war: put on your armor, because you have to fight the beasts in the arena.  But in putting on the armor you are putting on the Armer, who not only arms you for battle, but fights with and for you, guaranteeing the victory if you persevere to the end.  “The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1: 5).

Armor of Light (Part 1)

[The following is an article I wrote some years ago—I’m almost out of these!—which I hope will be of some benefit to you, while my poor brain tries to regroup for some more new insights and reflections.]

Scripture often employs the images of darkness and light, night and day, to illustrate (that is, literally, to shed light upon) the mystery of the Christian life, especially in its practical applications.  Although we could fruitfully make use of the writings of St John and others, here we will focus on several passages from the letters of St Paul.   We want to see the light under two aspects or images found in St Paul: armor and fruit.

St Paul writes about spiritual armor in several places, but only once as the “armor of light” (Romans 13:12).  This section (vv. 11-14) is full of related contrasts: sleeping/waking, night/day, darkness/light.

The night is far spent, the day is at hand.  The night of sinful self-indulgence and pagan idolatry must yield to the dawn of truth, righteousness, and fidelity.  So he says that it is time for us to wake from sleep.  The call to the experience of “awakening,” while described often in eastern religions as well as in Christianity, is not an uncommon biblical injunction.  “Awake, O my soul!” (Psalm 56/57:9).  “Awake, O sleeper…and Christ shall give you light” (Ephesians 5:14).  Jesus tells us several times to stay awake, and declares, with the seer of Revelation, the blessedness thereof.  To the Thessalonians, St Paul offers an exhortation to be awake and sober, and this comes closest to his meaning in Romans.

To be awake is to be spiritually “sober,” watchful, vigilant—not only for external threats to one’s salvation, but also and especially for the movements of one’s own heart.  To be awake is to be aware, to be able to listen, to pay attention, to be able to perceive—with at least some understanding—the inscrutable mysteries of God and his creation.  Grace awakens wonder, and wonder keeps our eyes open.  But for all too many people, life in this busy world has become little more than a mindless sleepwalk.

It is no accident that Paul warns against drunkenness in this passage.  Alcoholic stupor is not the only thing that puts us to sleep.  Every heedless over-indulgence or selfish departure from the divine commandments dulls the spiritual senses, makes us drowsy with indifference, and finally renders us unconscious of the presence of God.

This “sleep,” however, is not morally neutral as is bodily rest.  To wake from sleep is to cast off the works of darkness.  We are supposed to be “children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of the darkness.  So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.  For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night” (1Thessalonians 5:5-7).  So the night and the darkness are metaphors for evil, heedlessness, slothfulness—all that is opposed to genuine Christian life.  Another way of expressing that is the term “flesh,” about which we’ll say more later.  The works of darkness express the desires of the flesh, according to the above passage from Romans.  The dark works he mentions here are: reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy.  There are other lists in various letters.

What are we to do in the midst of this darkness?  Put on the armor of light, says the Apostle.  What is that?  He doesn’t explain it here, but elsewhere he equates “armor” with faith, hope, love, truth, righteousness, and the word of God.  All he says in Romans is that it is allows us to conduct ourselves as befits people of the day, of the light, people who are awake and sober.  He sums it up by saying “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  That says it all.  Put on the armor of light, i.e., put on the Lord Jesus Christ.  If we are not steeped in the grace of God, the darkness is always encroaching, always drawing us toward the voracious “black hole” of evil.  But Christ has promised that no follower of his would walk in darkness but would have the light of life.

An interesting thing about spiritual, “light” armor, is that we put it on inside, and not as an outer covering, like conventional armor.  It’s not just a shield to protect our soft underbelly. Since this “armor” is really the grace of God, it suffuses our whole being, making us stronger, transforming us into awakened, light-bearing, sober disciples of the Lord.  It is true that it can be dismantled by our own will—the ranks of the armor-bearers are sometimes thinned by deserters—but it cannot be removed against our will.  As long as we continue to choose the light, we will stay in it.

If there is an armor of light to strengthen us against evil and thus help us advance toward holiness, there is also a fruit of light which is manifested by the armor-bearers.  St Paul does not tell us precisely what the fruit of light is, but at least we know where to look for it: “the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9).  Perhaps the fruit of light can be identified with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, since God is Light, as St John says.  Fruit is always the result of something, the effect, the fruition of a process of growth.  Therefore, in order to bear the fruit of light we have to do what is good and right and true.  The “unfruitful works of darkness” die on the vine, but goodness and truth endure forever.  In biblical idiom, to walk is to live and hence to do.  So Paul exhorts us to “walk as children of light.”

It is no small decision to choose darkness or light.  According to Ephesians, it is not a matter of simply being in the dark or the light, merely influenced by one or the other.  Whichever we choose ultimately becomes the identifying dimension of our very being: “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Therefore, to be light in the Lord is to be in as full communion with God as possible, and to be darkness is to have nothing whatever in common with God, a chilling thought (and a scorching destiny).  “Look carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise…because the days are evil.”

So, on the level of the spirit, by doing the works of darkness we become darkness, and by putting on the armor of light and bearing the fruit of light we become light. We said above that in Romans St Paul makes a parallel between doing the works of darkness and gratifying the desires of the flesh.  When we look at what are described as manifestations of “the flesh,” we usually find several terms related to sexual sins (from which comes the most common, but not entirely accurate, interpretation of “sins of the flesh”), but also quite a few others, like idolatry, sorcery, anger, selfishness, and envy.  When you envy someone or act selfishly, do you consider yourself to have committed a “sin of the flesh”?  The word of God says that you have.

To be “in the flesh” is to be in a state of sinful rebellion against God, whatever the sin might be.  Whatever is contrary to the will of God is “of the flesh,” for “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8).  You can be sexually pure and still be committing “sins of the flesh” if you are full of anger or greed, if you are factious, envious, uncharitable, etc.  Walking in the spirit instead of in the flesh is the Christian way of life, the life of cooperation with divine grace, of obedience to God’s commandments, of bringing one’s body and soul into communion and harmony with God’s will and life.  It is, in short, to live in love.

The above is a very brief description about the real meaning of “flesh” in St Paul.  But you know what?  We still have to talk about sex.

To be continued…

She Would be Perfect

Since the feast of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God falls on a Sunday this year, the readings for the Sunday are prescribed as well as those of the feast (Mt. 19:16-29; Lk. 10:38-42, 11:27-28; 1Cor. 15:1-11; Phil. 2:5-11).  Rather than complicate things, though, the extra readings actually help us gain a new perspective on the mystery of Our Lady’s glorification.

As of first importance, we’ll begin with First Corinthians, with what St Paul says is of first importance: “that Christ died for our sins… that He was raised on the third day.”  If we add to that what he says in the reading from Philippians, that the Son of God “took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” we have two great essentials of our faith, the Incarnation and the Redemption.  So, this is of first importance, because if God did not become man in Jesus Christ, and if Jesus did not die for our sins and rise from the dead, nothing else would matter.  We would find ourselves in the situation Paul describes a little later in First Corinthians: our faith would be useless, we would still be in our sins, those who have died would have eternally perished, and we ourselves would be the most pitiable of men.

So, what Christ did for us is of first importance, but we see in Our Lady the first-fruits of what is of first importance.  She was the first to have received the grace of the redemption through her Immaculate Conception and her suffering with Christ at the foot of his Cross, and she was the first to receive the fullness of the grace of the Resurrection through her glorification in Heaven, which is what we are celebrating today.

St Paul says of Christ that because of his obedience God highly exalted Him, so that every knee would bend to Him, both in Heaven and on Earth, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  Mary’s obedience was similarly rewarded.  When asked to be the personal means by which the Son of God would enter into this world as man, she offered her complete obedience, saying, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be done to me…”  Therefore Christ has highly exalted her, commanding all Heaven and Earth to honor her as the one through whom our salvation was made possible, the one who lived perfectly the will of God and thus found unique favor with Him.

It is inconceivable that Christ, who loves mankind more profoundly than we can imagine, and who has promised eternal rewards for those who believe in Him and love Him, would not have given the best of his gifts to the one He loved most, the Woman who gave Him his humanity through which He saved the world.  If He called her to share in his sufferings as she stood at the Cross, how could He not call her to share his glory after He ascended to Heaven in his resurrected, glorified humanity?

Some people question the doctrine of the Assumption of Our Lady, simply because it is not recounted explicitly in Scripture. For one thing, we can hardly expect to find evidence of her Dormition and Assumption in such early documents, some of which were written while she was likely still alive!  Liturgical veneration of her glorification in Heaven obviously could not commence until after it happened.  Our faith in such mysteries is based primarily on the grace of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church to the fullness of truth, on some writings from the time of the early Church, and also on the following points.  If God is able to do such things, like glorifying Our Lady body and soul in Heaven (and we just heard in the Gospel that all things are possible with Him), and if it is in all ways fitting that He do such things (which it is), and if divine revelation nowhere denies that He in fact did such things (but rather offers foreshadowings, symbols, and other positive indications), then we are justified in believing them.  It is sufficient anyway that the Church proposes this for our faith.  The Bible doesn’t say that the Bible is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth”; the Bible says the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth! (1Tim. 3:15)

But enough of all that.  Let us simply celebrate with faith and love these mighty works of God.  Mary has chosen the best part, as we have heard in the Gospel.  This part is total surrender to God, which is symbolized in the Gospel by the other Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his word. Because of her obedience to the Lord in all things, Our Lady was exalted in Heaven beyond any other creature, whether man or angel.  This is something she likely never guessed at before she had consented to give birth to God the Son, but she could say, as St Paul did in today’s epistle: “By the grace of God I am what I am.”  And what she is as the Mother of God is beyond our power to comprehend.  We say that in a spiritual, mystical sense we go to Jesus through Mary.  But the Son of God, in the most literal sense, came into this world through Mary, through her very body.  He was Pure Spirit for all eternity, yet going through Mary, He entered this world as man.  The Word became flesh, in and through Our Lady.

By God’s grace she is what she is.  All blessings are hers, those that belong to her unique mission as the God-bearer, and those that belong to all disciples who are called to hear the word of God and keep it.  As to the former, she was rightly praised by the woman in the Gospel who cried out to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts that nursed You!”  Jesus’ response is taken by some to repudiate that, but the term used in the Gospel does not require that interpretation. The Greek term usually translated “rather” in this passage can also mean, “yes indeed,” for the term is meant either to add something to or subtract something from what immediately precedes it.  So Jesus, instead of apparently contradicting the woman, could have been agreeing with her but simply adding something important to what she said. So we could translate: “Yes indeed, yet blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  One must keep in mind that Jesus came into this world to save more people than his Mother, so He necessarily had to stress those things by which all believers could be blessed.

Let us look now at the Gospel of the rich young man.  One might wonder how this can be related to the mystery of Mary’s heavenly glorification.  I think we can begin with Jesus’ words to him: “If you would be perfect…”  The Mother of God would be perfect.  She possessed in herself every possible perfection of both nature and grace.  She had no riches to give to the poor like the young man, but it didn’t matter, for she already had her treasure in Heaven.  Like the rich young man, she had kept all of God’s commandments, but unlike him she was not attached to any possessions, pleasures, or the wealth of this world.  She sought first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, so whatever she needed for her earthly life was given besides.

Yet like the rich man there was one thing she lacked.  But unlike him she couldn’t be blamed for lacking it, for it could not be hers while she still walked the earth.  Having all perfections of body and soul, the purest heart and the most complete union with the whole mystery of her divine Son, she still lacked the ultimate perfection of the complete transfiguration of her whole person in the glorified state of Resurrection, which could only be hers upon her death and Assumption into Heaven.  Unlike the rich man, whose fate we do not know, Mary did receive that full and eternal perfection of sharing the life of glory with her Son—as He lives it, in body and soul, in advance of the general resurrection, when all the saved will be glorified eternally in the mystery of Christ’s bodily resurrection.

The Lord Himself returned for her to personally bestow this unique gift upon her.  We hear about others who were saved, like the beggar Lazarus, that he was “carried by angels” to Heaven.  But angels alone were not sufficient for the all-holy Mother of God, who is “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,” as we sing every day.  They were certainly present to honor their Queen, but no one less than the Lord Himself was deemed worthy to escort her to her heavenly dwelling place.  The iconography of the feast shows the Lord having come from Heaven to receive her at her death, and He holds in his arms her soul, symbolically depicted as a newborn infant (for she is just beginning her eternal, heavenly life), yet in some icons even the infant is crowned as Queen!

Let us review what all these readings have taught us today.  Mary is the perfect one, in body and soul, from the moment of her conception to her eternal glorification as Queen of Heaven and of the whole cosmos. By God’s grace she is what she is, and it should be our joy to celebrate and honor her for the great things the Almighty has done in her. Her treasure was always in Heaven, and so she was free to follow her Lord, to choose the better part, to listen to his word, to remain in union with Him in obedience even unto his suffering and death on the Cross.  For Christ’s obedience, the Father exalted Him; for Mary’s obedience, Jesus exalted her, and He promises to reward all those who will hear his word and keep it.

To choose the better part is not simply to choose contemplation over active service, but to choose union with Christ over all else.  Our Lady held in herself the best of both Martha and Mary, for as a wife and mother she labored much in active service of the Holy Family, yet her heart was always in a state of prayer, of listening, of surrendering to the will of God in love and unquestioning fidelity.

Lastly, let us recall what is of first importance: the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the sine qua non of our salvation.  But God, in his infinite wisdom and love, willed that Mary would be essential to his plan of salvation, for she is essential to the Incarnation.

Let us then rejoice in her whom God made perfect: perfect as his Mother and his Handmaid, perfect as the most faithful disciple and exemplar of all virtue, perfect as our heavenly Mother and Queen.  We look to her when we wish to see what Christ has willed for his Bride, the Church, because Mary is in her own person the image, the personal embodiment, the bearer of the fullness of grace Christ has won for us and wishes to bestow on us.  It has been granted her to grant his grace to us, so let us seek this from her hands.  It is truly fitting that she has been taken to Heaven and exalted as Queen even of the angels, yet it is also fitting that she remain close to us as Mother, attentive to our needs and our cries for help.

If we would gain eternal life, let us not only keep the commandments, but renounce all that is worldly and have our treasure in Heaven.  And if we would be perfect, let us bind our hearts to the Heart of Mary, receiving through her the grace to hear the word of God and keep it perfectly.  Our reward shall thus be great in Heaven.

Riches, Poverty, and the Life to Come

Shortly before Jesus launched into the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), He said the following:  “If you have not been faithful with unrighteous money, who will trust you with true riches?  You cannot serve God and money.  What is exalted among men is an abomination before God.”  This last line was said because there were Pharisees who were scoffing at his teaching about not being able to serve two masters: God and money.

The present parable is, according to some, a kind of commentary on those teachings.  One of the issues here is that of the relationship of the rich to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Now, to see what was happening there, we start off with a man who was well-dressed and well-fed; and a man who was poor, starving and diseased, lying at his gate.  He was longing—knowing that the rich man had everything—for some scraps that fell from his table, but he didn’t even get that.

Now the Lord always goes to the most important, essential thing when He’s teaching.  We don’t hear any other details about their lives.  Basically, there was a rich man, who was fat and soft, and there was a poor man who was starving at his gate—that’s all you hear.  The next thing is: they died!   So He goes right to the end, right to the moment of truth, to the moment when the decision is made about their eternity.  He goes immediately to the end because whatever their lives were, that is manifested, expressed, and endures throughout all eternity, starting at that moment of judgment.

The rich man ends up in Hell, and the poor man ends up in Heaven, symbolized by “Abraham’s bosom.”  It’s interesting how it’s expressed here, in very black-and-white terms:  “You had it good in this life, so you have it bad in the next.  He had it bad in this life, and so he has it good in the next.”  Now we have to understand that it’s not wealth as such that condemns somebody, or poverty as such that saves somebody but, generally seen, those who have nothing tend to turn to God for their help; He’s all they have to rely on.  Those who are rich and who have everything in this world tend to think they don’t need God, because they have everything else, so they tend to end up in the other place.  But what was lacking here, really, is compassion. The rich man did not show compassion to the needy person at his gate.

We can’t excuse him by saying, “Maybe he wasn’t aware of the poor man’s plight; maybe he didn’t notice him,” because as soon as he was down in Hell, he said, “Send Lazarus.”   So, he knew who he was!  Not only did he know there was a beggar suffering and starving at his gate, he knew his name! Therefore he had no excuse for not helping him during his lifetime.  We see in the next life how the roles are reversed.  The rich man becomes a beggar: “Please, send that beggar who is now rich; please send him to me, with one little drop of water, because I’m tortured in these flames!”  We see how the roles can be reversed—and this is part of what the justice of God means—that He will not let his little ones suffer forever, that the many who suffer in this life are going to be rewarded in the next life.  God’s justice is not only something to fear because of our sins—though that’s one thing—but his justice is something that vindicates those who are faithful to Him and who accept the sufferings of this life with a view to the blessings of the next.  St Faustina saw this in a vision: “One day, I saw two roads. One was broad, covered with sand and flowers, full of joy, music and all sorts of pleasures. People walked along it, dancing and enjoying themselves. They reached the end without realizing it. And at the end of the roads there was a horrible precipice; that is the abyss of hell. The souls fell blindly into it; as they walked, so they fell. And their number was so great that it was impossible to count them. And I saw the other road, or rather, a path, for it was narrow and strewn with thorns and rocks; and the people who walked along it had tears in their eyes, and all kinds of suffering befell them. Some fell down upon the rocks, but stood up immediately and went on. At the end of the road there was a magnificent garden filled with all sorts of happiness, and all these souls entered there. At the very first instant they forgot all their sufferings” (Diary #153).

Now we might ask ourselves how to apply the parable to our lives.  We might look at it superficially and say, “I’m not rich.  There’s no beggar lying at my door who needs something.  Therefore I’m excused from this teaching.”  But there are several ways that we can look at this.

The first one is that today, because of the means of modern communication, we can go anywhere in the world and know what is going on.  We can see the poor and the starving, the diseased and the homeless, anywhere in the world, and most of the world is composed of poor people who don’t have adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc.  We here in America constitute part of that very tiny percentage of the wealthy of the world.  There are many organizations that exist to feed the poor and take care of those who are needy.  One thing that we can do is to support those organizations that spend all their time and effort and life’s work in serving the poor and the needy.  That’s Lazarus at our gate.  The world is our gate, and most of us have the means to help.

Another thing is that there are people in our lives—in our families, communities, work environment, and our circle of acquaintances—who also may be needy in some other way.  There are those who have some trial or suffering in life and just need somebody to talk to, someone who can offer them a little compassion, a little support, something to help them in their need.  Again, this is another Lazarus who is lying at our gate, to whom we can be helpful and compassionate.

A third thing is—and this belongs, in a way, to all Christians, but by vocation to monks—the ministry of intercession.  There are hundreds of people who call us, who write to us, who send e-mails to us.  We have a whole wall in a hallway in the monastery, with all these prayer intentions posted from people who are really needy, who are suffering, who have urgent needs, and they are begging us to pray for them, so that God will help them.

This is very important, especially for monks, to take that ministry of intercession seriously, because we are the rich men, in a sense: we have all the means of grace.  We have the Divine Office every day, and the Sacraments, and the Scriptures, and everything else that puts us in a place where we can stand before God with a certain authority, in the sense that we are commissioned by the Church as ambassadors, so to speak,  who stand before the Face of God to bring the needs of all his people before Him.  If we don’t do that, then it doesn’t get done.  That’s one reason that we have the opportunity, not only in the prescribed prayers of the Church, but at other times, to personally offer intentions for current and specific needs.  If we fail to do that, we must remember: we are walking by Lazarus at the gate and saying, “Take care of yourself!  Not my problem!”

Finally, there’s one more thing.  This comes up in the liturgical texts every once in a while, where it says that Lazarus is like our own soul, which is starving for the word of God, and for the real spiritual food of the Sacraments.   And what do many people give their souls?   The junk food of TV and movies and magazines and the like, which does not contribute to the health of the soul, but which makes it sick or just leaves it beggarly and diseased.  Our own souls need our attention.  They need to be given the good things of God to nourish and strengthen them.

So, there are a lot of ways we can see how we are rich and how other people are relying on us and need us to help them—so that we don’t end up, finally, seeing all the poor, the hungry, and all those who we neglected, rejected, or ignored in our lives, all there with the angels in Heaven while we’re suffering and saying, “What happened?  Why am I down here?”  Well, then you get the explanation that the rich man got, but by that time it’s too late.

We go now to the second part of the parable, where we get some instruction about another important message of this Gospel.  The rich man says to Abraham: “I don’t want my brothers to come here and suffer the same thing, so send Lazarus to them, to warn them!”   Here he is again, begging.

What does Abraham say?  “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he’s thinking, “Yeah, right,” so he says, “No, not Moses and the prophets, but if somebody from the dead will go, then they’ll repent and believe.”  What Abraham said next is very wise:  “If they don’t believe Moses and the prophets, they’re not going to believe even if someone rises from the dead with the message.”  This was a message for the world at that time, because there were some who didn’t believe in Christ, didn’t believe even though He rose from the dead.  And one of the reasons they didn’t believe was that they didn’t believe Moses and the prophets, either.

So this message is very timely for us, too, because many people today are brought up on high-tech, constant stimulation and thrill-seeking. That’s all they know; all they want is some sensation.  “We don’t want to read the Scriptures; we don’t want to get bogged down in all that old stuff.  Dazzle us!  Give us something, y’know, really wild and breath-taking—maybe then we’ll believe!”

But God is not One to lower Himself to compete with the magicians and sorcerers and technocrats of today.  He’s just not going to say, “Well, they can dazzle you, but I can dazzle you better!”  He’s beyond all competition with other people who are vying for our attention.  He says, “I gave you the revelation.”  God sent his only Son to us, and we have the testimony of eye-witnesses.  And He says, “This is the truth, and if you want to hear it, then hear it, believe in it, and you’ll see how it will change your life.  But don’t expect me merely to give a flashier show than everybody else is giving.”

People say, “If I see a great sign in the sky, then I’ll believe!”   No, you won’t.  Because, if you don’t believe already in the truth of the word of God, no dazzling wizardry is going to convince you, because you’ll just forget about it or file it away with some other interesting experiences.  You have to get to the basics of the word of God.  We have not only Moses and the prophets, but Jesus and the saints.

Faith starts with accepting the testimony of the first witnesses.  And then, little by little, it grows through experience.  God gives us experiences of his presence, but He always leaves a little room for doubt.  Mostly, our spiritual experiences are not overwhelming and compelling, forcing us to believe by the sheer weight of tangible evidence, for that wouldn’t be faith.  For faith, there has to be always some room for choice: to believe or not to believe.

Our life is going to be the sum total of all our choices and decisions.  The choices that we make in this life are going to lead us to that end-point: whether we see that we’re up with the angels or down in the flames.  Our choices now will decide that, and that’s the message from God: look now at what kind of life you have to live, what kind of choices you have to make, because in the end there’s no time to change anymore.  Your lot is finished and is secured for eternity.

Then, when we do that, and embrace the Gospel that has been given to us and revealed to us, and put it into practice, we will go forward with confidence, and we won’t find ourselves facing that reality of the judgment with fear or despair.  But we will have hope that we, too, will be carried up by angels to Abraham’s bosom, that we will share in the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus promises to those who are compassionate, as He and his Father are compassionate.

Snapshots of Pain and Hope

A friend recently sent me a book I found not only interesting, but in one instance a means by which the Lord spoke to me (as best as I can discern).  It’s called, Full of Grace: Miraculous Stories of Healing and Conversion through Mary’s Intercession.  These encounters with Our Lady either happened at Medjugorje or were somehow related to it, so I probably ought to say something about that first.

The supernatural events reportedly happening at Medjugorje have not been officially approved by Rome, though one cannot expect anything definitive to be pronounced while the phenomena still occur.  But the Vatican has recently set up a commission to study the events thoroughly and hopefully to come to some conclusion.  Since I await their decision, I myself will not make any unqualified endorsement, and I generally prefer to stick to Fatima or a few others that not only have been formally approved, but that even have liturgical feast days and offices in their honor, and in which the visionaries have been either beatified or canonized as saints.  These elements provide more assurance that the supernatural manifestations and messages really are from God and Our Lady.

Getting back to Medjugorje, I have been there once, in 1998.  I did not witness any extraordinary phenomena, but I did witness a deep and healthy piety.  The church was crowded for all the daily Masses, there were always long lines for confession (I heard many myself), and the general spirit was one of devotion and charity.  So from that perspective, in my limited experience I saw nothing to make me think that whatever was going on there was not of God.  Our group also stayed at the home of one of the visionaries, Mirjana, who impressed me by her demeanor and her humility (she served us dinner and waited on us while we ate, and she was very patient and joyful while having to deal with this crowd of foreigners in her home!).  So, while I’m not an active promoter of Medjugorje, neither am I an attacker or accuser.  I will simply wait for the Church to speak the definitive word.

As for the book, I don’t wish to say much about the various healings or conversion experiences that are recounted there (if you’re interested, you can read them for yourself).  But a couple other things struck me that just made me think a little. And they all have something to do with the suffering and evil in the world.

One was about Columbian street kids or, to be more accurate, sewer kids.  In some of the big cities, orphaned or otherwise cast off kids actually live in sewers.  And it’s not just a few, but very many. It’s one of the most gut-wrenching things you can imagine. The story in the book is about a man who, once discovering this horrible situation, dedicated his life to helping them.  He would personally go down to rescue as many as he could, and try to get them food and shelter and medical attention.  The civil authorities had no interest in helping them and even looked the other way when vigilante groups actually tried to kill the children to be rid of the “problem.”  It’s so horrible that children have to live that way, and that people don’t care, but thank God there are at least a few who will go out of their way to help.  The man whom the story was about set up a foundation to help the kids on an ongoing basis.

Another thing I hadn’t thought about much was what is must be like for a kid to grow up in an atheist family.  One of the stories is about a woman (the author) who grew up that way.  Being brought up in a good Catholic family, and with most people I know having some sort of Christian upbringing, I could hardly imagine the following scenarios.  At the age of nine, she had asked her mother, “What will happen when I die?”  The answer: “When we die we become like the earth… you become like dirt that can help nourish other plants… It’s nothing to worry about.  Try not to think about it.”  Oh, but she did think about it: “It’s nothing to worry about?  But I will be nothing.  There will be no more me to even remember that I once was!”  After that, she said, she thought of death often, “staring into the darkness of my room, paralyzed with fear.”  The poor kid.  What a horrible thing to be lied to like that and have to live in fear of ultimate disintegration and nothingness.

Her family had once gone to see some sort of Christmas display, just for art’s sake.  When the girl asked what it was about and who the people were, her father told her: “They’re part of a fairy tale about a special baby that was born in a manger, and people came to see him because they thought he was the Son of God.”  “It’s not real?” she asked.  “No.”  “Are you sure?”  “Yes, I’m sure, honey.  Now let’s go home.”  Lied to again, when her young heart was yearning for the truth, for God.  What a tragedy it is for children to be brought up that way, and how their parents will have to answer to God for preventing the little ones from coming to Him!

One more snapshot was about a drug addict who converted to God through Our Lady, but what struck me was simply the description of the place he went to buy his drugs, and what happened to him there.  It made me realize that this kind of scenario is replayed in hundreds or even thousands of places around the country and around the world.  This is where people live and die, and perhaps lose their souls:

“[No one] would ever dream of entering this part of town… Murders were committed there weekly, alongside other crimes of horror… The building’s central courtyard was covered with a chaotic scene of… music, dancing, madness, buying, selling, cars ripping through, rap music pounding, men drinking, and women strewn on every balcony.  A ten-year-old boy immediately ran up to me at the entrance with a handful of crack… I walked up to a group of men I hadn’t met before (whom I profiled to be drug dealers), and said, ‘Give me a twenty,’ which means, ‘I want twenty dollars worth of crack.’  Something about my bold approach and my look, along with my nice jacket and glasses, took them aback.  I was immediately labeled.  One replied, ‘I ain’t got no crack here, cop’ … Then someone hit me in the head from behind.  From there ensued a vicious frenzied beating as a group of eight or ten men punched me, kicked me, stomped on me, and clubbed me with baseball bats… While on the verge of losing consciousness, I heard a voice in the background saying, ‘That’s enough. It’s a murder rap’ …

“As I staggered to my feet, I felt on the verge of passing out.  A large ring of people surrounded me… They were there to see someone get hurt… Weak and dizzy, I stumbled a few feet in the direction of the street.  A voice angrily ordered me to hurry up, and then I heard a bullet whiz by my head… As I was about to exit the compound, a man ran up to me to steal the jacket right off my back… the only way I was going to leave alive was to give it to him.  The others had long since taken my wallet and keys…”

That is really an image of Hell, but it is the context in which many people live much or all of their lives.  How much we have to be grateful for, and how much we need to pray and offer sacrifices for people in such horrible situations, “separated from Christ… strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).  The man who wrote the story was rescued from all that, but he is among the fortunate few.

The thing that is more related to Our Lady, though, which was a word from God to me, was something different, though in a sense related to the troubles of life, this time my own, which were not as extreme as the cases described above.  But I’ve walked along a lot of crooked paths in my life, made a lot of big mistakes, and could have lost my soul on many occasions if the Lord had demanded an accounting of my life at those times.  As I was reading, I came to a part where a man was talking to a nun who ran a drug rehab center in Medjugorje, which was also a place for spiritual healing, since much prayer and self-discipline were required of everyone who was accepted there.  He was telling her the story of his life, and the unlikely events that led him to that place.  Her response was simple, but suddenly it pierced my heart like arrows from Heaven: Our Lady has protected you your whole life.  It was almost as if my life flashed before me and I realized with sudden clarity that so many events, so many potentially disastrous situations, so many things that easily could have gone terribly wrong but didn’t, so many false paths I either could have taken but didn’t, or did take but got off before it was too late—all this was because the Mother of God was protecting me and I wasn’t even aware of it.  It was a profound moment of grace, of spiritual awareness, of tears of gratitude.

Again, I say we have so much to be thankful for, and some of these things we are not even aware of yet!  There’s a prayer in the Divine Liturgy in which the priest thanks the Lord “for all that we know and do not know, the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed upon us.”

The world is full of so much suffering and sin, and, aware or not, is crying out to its God for mercy and help and salvation.  Let us turn to Heaven for all those who are in every kind of trouble or pain or despair.  Let us ask Our Lady to be a mother to them, and God to be a father.  Let us bring them to the Cross of Jesus where they will find mercy and grace to help in time of need.  One by one, the Lord retrieves the lost sheep.  But He expects much from us in the way of prayer and sacrifice, so that He can bring them all home, before it is too late.

He Forgave the Debt

The Gospel today (Mt. 18:23-35) concerns a matter very dear to the Heart of Jesus: forgiveness.  I think I can safely say that once we accept in faith the essential doctrines of Christianity—the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the redemptive Death and Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Eucharist, the reality of Heaven and Hell, and so forth—the most important practical teaching of Christianity is forgiveness: God’s forgiveness of us sinners, and our forgiveness of our fellow sinners.

It is an issue that appears frequently in the New Testament, and it is always spoken of in uncompromising terms.  It is never given as an option, but always as an imperative, a command, a requirement for living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said on the first Holy Thursday, when He was sacramentally anticipating his own saving sacrifice the following day, that his Body and Blood were being offered “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).  We repeat his sacred and life-giving words at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and we receive his precious Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the sanctification and salvation of our souls.

Even though we are probably all aware of the necessity both to seek and to grant forgiveness, we are usually in need of reminders. For due to our fallen human nature we tend to either rationalize away our own sinfulness or somehow consider ourselves eminently worthy of forgiveness should we seek it, and on the other hand we can be very precise about reckoning others’ sins and be hesitant to offer forgiveness until we are satisfied that they have groveled sufficiently before us.

Some of the passages from Scripture emphasize God’s forgiveness of us, and others emphasize our forgiveness of others.  Today’s parable emphasizes both.  Let us first look at the great generosity of God in forgiving us our many trespasses.

It is interesting to note that the parable begins with Jesus saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is to be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.  This sounds more like a tale of strict justice than of mercy and compassion.  But I think the first thing we have to be aware of is the fact that our sins deserve strict justice and righteous judgment.  We will never sufficiently appreciate what a gift divine forgiveness is if we do not recognize how evil sin is, how it grieves, hurts, and offends Our Lord, and how much damage it does to our souls.  If the sin is bad enough and we do not repent, it is sufficient forever to bar our entry into Paradise, our only real and eternal happiness, and to thrust us into a horrifying place of unimaginable and unending torments.

So when the king in the parable brought in a certain servant for the settling of accounts, we discover that his debt was huge.  For the sake of the parable it is put in terms of money owed, but we have to read it as the debt to God incurred by our sins.  The man owed an exorbitant sum: 10,000 talents.  The note in my Bible says the talent was equal to 6000 denarii, or 20 years’ wages of an average worker.  Let’s try to bring it into current figures.  Perhaps we can say that the average American worker earns about $30,000 per year, which these days is not much above poverty level if one has a family. So one talent is worth $600,000.  The man owed 10,000 talents, so the debt is equivalent to six billion dollars!—not something the average family man can hope to repay.  On a spiritual level, we can say that the man came before the Judgment Seat of God in a state of mortal sin, a debt he was powerless to repay, and which would land him in Hell for all eternity.

In desperation, the man pleaded for mercy.  He said he would pay the debt if given enough time, though all eternity would not suffice, so he really couldn’t pay the debt under any circumstances, but he could not bear to endure the just judgment of condemnation—the punishment in the parable given as being sold into slavery. Hell is the unending slavery to the devil, the cruelest of masters imaginable.  Truly it is a fate far worse than death.

But the master of this servant had pity on him, released him and forgave the debt.  The language used here helps connect the story in the parable with the spiritual reality.  It is a common secular usage to say “he forgave the debt” when one releases another from its obligation.  So the master forgave the debt of money owed by the servant, but the deeper meaning is that God forgives the sins of those who have nothing but his mercy as their hope for deliverance from the punishment they deserve.

That should have been the happy ending to the story, and a good lesson: turn to God with a repentant heart, and He will forgive your sins, however bad they may be.  But the Lord knows human nature too well to leave it at that.  So as the story continues, the forgiven servant comes across a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, about $10,000 according to the reckoning we’ve used—still nothing to sneeze at, but just a very tiny fraction of what he himself had owed to their common master.  He hadn’t learned his lesson, however, for he grabbed his servant by the throat, demanding payment.  Now this was a sum that likely could have been paid off in time, but he would have none of it and had him thrown into debtor’s prison.

On the spiritual level the Lord is telling us that whatever anyone has done to offend or hurt us is only a tiny fraction of what we have done to offend and hurt God.  Therefore we have no excuse for withholding forgiveness from anyone for any reason, for as the parable indicates, God can still decide to call in the debt if we do not show the same mercy to others that He shows to us.

We might try to object and say that we have not committed terrible evils in our lives, but certain people have committed terrible evils against us, so how is it that we owe God so much and others owe us so little?  Well, for one thing, since we are sinners ourselves, we more or less deserve whatever happens to us, even if we happen to be innocent in a particular case or a particular relationship.  Ever since Adam and Eve ruined our chances for a sin-free life in an earthly paradise, we’ve been under a curse, one from which only the sacrifice of the God-Man could release us.

But any sin against God is of incalculably greater weight than any sin against me or you, despite our supposed or relative innocence.  For He is the absolutely innocent, pure, holy and good One, and to offend Him is to shake the foundations of the universe.  That is why even what we might consider a small sin against God is much more grievous than what we might consider a great sin against us.

So let’s just face it: we owe God way more than we could ever repay, and other people owe us extremely little in comparison.  Jesus only asks us to obey his command: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.”  That is the bottom line of the parable.  When the merciless servant was brought back to his Lord, he had to face his righteous indignation: “You wicked servant!” cried his Lord.  “I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?”

Evidently the servant was still unrepentant about what he had done, so the Lord delivered him to the torturers to extract payment from the debt that way.  Of course, torture was not actually going to pay back the money, and that is why this is an image of Hell.   Once one is in Hell, there’s no way to pay the debt; it stands against you for all eternity.   All that remains is torture as punishment for three things: the sin which caused the debt, the lack of repentance, and the failure to show mercy to others.  At the end of the parable, Jesus gives us the salutary warning that we will be treated the same way if we do not forgive others from the heart.  As St James says: “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (2:13).

Yet he does not leave us without hope, for he concludes the very same verse by saying: “yet mercy triumphs over judgment.”  See, he has given us the key to our deliverance.  If we are merciful to others as God has been merciful to us, we need not fear judgment, for we will thus not be guilty of the kind of hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness manifested by the wicked servant in the parable.

Sometimes God grants us such abundant grace and mercy that we can’t help but wonder why, and this very goodness of God may cause us to reflect upon how unworthy we are of it.  We may look back over our lives and see how often we have failed Him, how thoughtlessly we have offended Him, how foolishly we did not take into account how our sin affects both God and our own souls.  And not only God, but the whole of Heaven weeps over our sins. That’s why Jesus says the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents, who ceases to grieve God and to ruin his own soul.  Our Lady appeared to Sr. Lucia of Fatima, revealing her Immaculate Heart covered with thorns, saying, “Look at my Heart, surrounded with thorns, with which ungrateful men pierce me at every moment by their blasphemies…” So our sins wound the Heart of our heavenly Mother as well.  The consequences are immense, our debt is unpayable.  Our only hope is the mercy of God, and the grace to repent and change our lives, to begin to offer consolation and love to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary instead of offense and grievous wounds.

Knowing, then, the magnitude of the debt from which we have been so undeservedly yet graciously released, we should be more than willing to do whatever it takes to please the Lord and give Him glory.  In the context of today’s Gospel, what He is asking of us—or rather, requiring of us—is to recognize his infinite mercy and share what we have received with others.  He knows it is hard to forgive.  But He did it while the nails were still tormenting his hands and feet.  He forgave those who, out of sheer malice, caused Him such unimaginable pain, and He didn’t even wait for them to come crawling back in repentance.

He calls us to do the same.  Forgive: not because you think your offender deserves it, not because you condone evil in any way, not even because you feel you have the spiritual strength to show mercy.  Forgive because it is the right thing to do, the divine thing to do, the thing the Lord insists we do if we are to please Him and to avoid the punishment reserved for the merciless.  The Lord has forgiven us so that we don’t have to endure judgment; let us forgive others for the same reason. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Crucified and Transfigured

St. Peter says, in the epistle for this feast (2Peter 1:10-19), that we have the prophetic word of God that we should attend to, as to a light shining in a dark place.  What we’re celebrating today is that Light.  We’re celebrating the the glory of God shining on the face of Christ, as St. Paul says, in this mystery of transfiguration.  You’ve heard the story, the account of what actually happened, what the disciples experienced (Mt. 17:1-9).  What’s happening here, at least from the perspective of our own benefit, is not so much a manifestation of God’s glory—though it is that, of course—as an invitation to participation in that same glory.  So we are called today to enter into the mystery of Mt. Tabor:  that encounter, that communion of Christ with the disciples.  It wasn’t just a vision that they had, as from afar, simply “seeing” his glory, because at a certain moment the disciples entered into the bright cloud that overshadowed Christ and they were taken up into that mystery, if only briefly, but they shared an experience of God which was beyond what was simply a visual experience; it went to the core of their being.  This is something that we’re called to today.

The mystery of transfiguration is really at the heart of Christian life, and especially of monastic life.  There are many monasteries with the name of Holy Transfiguration because that mystery says something about the goal of all monastic life, and of all Christian life.  Life is to be transfigured, transformed, by the grace of Christ, so that through union with Christ the glory of God will also shine through us.   Maybe not visibly—although that has happened a few times among the saints, and it will happen at the end.  We hear in one of the Matins texts that Christ was transfigured to show us what’s going to happen to us when He comes back at the last day, and his glory is revealed, and those who are faithful to Him will shine just like He shone before the apostles.  And so the whole thrust, the whole drive and purpose and goal of our life as disciples of Christ, is to enter into that life-changing communion with Christ.

There’s another text that I found interesting, that we heard the other night on the pre-feast, where it said that Christ mysteriously foreshadowed the Cross on Mt. Tabor when He was transfigured.  I thought about that, and in one sense it’s obvious what that means, because Moses and Elijah appeared to Him and, as St. Luke says, they were speaking to him about his exodus, his death in Jerusalem that was about to happen.  So there was the imminence of his crucifixion and death, and the transfiguration preceded that.  But actually, crucifixion and transfiguration are like two sides of the same coin—both in the life of Christ and in the life of Christians.  Especially this is the mind and the theological genius of St. John who, in his Gospel, shows that very thing: how the glory of God that shines on the face of Christ not only shines in that light on Mt. Tabor, but it also shines on the bruised and bloody and beaten face of Christ that is lifted up on the Cross for our salvation.  That mystery of crucifixion is called by St. John “glorification.”  Christ’s glorification is not just his resurrection, not just his ascension, not just his transfiguration, but it’s his passion and his death as well.  Christ even says, right before his passion, right before He was about to be humiliated and condemned and beaten and scourged and crucified: “Now the Son of Man is glorified.”    Not, “Later, I’ll be glorified, when I get through the suffering and the hard stuff,” but “Now is the Son of Man glorified.”  So, that mystery of the glory of God on the face of Christ is a mystery both of crucifixion and of the manifest glory of transfiguration and resurrection.

We see that in our own life.  That marks the life of the Christian.  Our own struggles and our own interior life have this double dimension of crucifixion and transfiguration.  I noticed, too, in the book by Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, that he uses that expression a few times when he’s talking about the way that we have to bring all of our desires, our thoughts, and our whole inner life into the sphere of God’s will and grace and light: he says that our desires have to be “crucified and transfigured.”  That’s it, in a nutshell.  Our whole life, all of our energies, all of our desires, all of our love and longing, and everything that we seek as fulfillment of our life is marked by that expression, “crucified and transfigured.”

Sometimes we see—and I’ve noticed it in one of the liturgical texts in the Divine Liturgy that we pray all the time—prayers asking that we will be able to “trample our desires”!   But God doesn’t want us to “trample” our desires, because God has given us our desires—or at least He’s given us that energy, that power of desire, that longing that’s at the root of desire. He has put all that in us.  So it’s not something that has to be trampled or destroyed.  If we destroy our desire, and our capacity to desire, then we destroy something essential to our humanity. So it’s not a question of trampling or destroying, but of crucifying and transfiguring those desires, and the “crucifixion” part is to draw them away from their disorder.  That energy of desire given by God is good, but what do we do with it?  We can distort it, we can misdirect it, so it has to be brought back, and the Cross is there to draw us away from desiring the things or persons out of which we make idols, that somehow lead us away from God.  So we’re drawn away, or even wrenched away, if we have to be sometimes, by the Cross: the crucifixion of our desires.

But that’s not the end of it, because there’s still that power, that energy in us that can be re-directed toward God and toward the people and things that are within the will of God for us, and which become fruitful for us as part of our life in God. So the transfiguration is the re-ordering of the desires, the redirecting of all of our energies toward God so that we can really look upon the face of Christ.  That’s our daily way of being, to have this interior relationship, this dialogue of love, with Jesus Christ in our hearts.  We go on, day by day, struggling but overcoming, being crucified yet being transfigured, and little by little reordering all the desires and our whole inner life.  That’s the work of monastic life: taking everything—not only in our own lives, but by extension and through our prayer and sacrifice, everything that’s disordered and misdirected in the whole cosmosand offering it to God.  In our own lives and in our own community, through whatever influence we have spiritually, mystically, around us, we begin to re-order the chaos.  We begin to re-direct all the crazy, disparate energies flying out everywhere and away from God.  We start with ourselves to draw it back into and toward God, into this inner harmony and peace that God wants to bring to the world when everything is ordered, when everything is directed to Him, to his glory, to communion with Him forever.  That’s what He wants for us.  That’s the whole point: sin has disrupted everything and thrown everything into chaos. Now, through the mystery of crucifixion and transfiguration, we bring it back into order from that chaos, and we bring it back into the light of the face of Christ.

One more thing that we see, at the end of the Gospel, lest this seem to be too great for us, too difficult for us, too noble and immense a task: Jesus came to them, and three things happened once the vision was over.  They were just completely overwhelmed, as we see on the icon.  But Jesus came near to them; He touched them; and He said, “Arise; do not be afraid.”

So, the calling that we have is a serious one, a demanding one, but an exhilarating and noble one, and God expects us to give our all to it.  But when we have difficulty with that, when we struggle and we fail and fall on our faces on the ground—not overwhelmed with glory but rather with our weakness and our sins—Jesus will do the same for us: He will come near to us; He will touch us; He will say, “Arise, do not be afraid.”

Then what happened?  The disciples got up, looked, and “saw only Jesus.”  That’s what He wants us to do: we have to “see only Jesus.”  The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.”  We should also keep our ears listening for the voice of the heavenly Father, who says, “You are my beloved son!  You are my beloved daughter!”  Because that’s the bottom line of what the Father thinks of us.  And so, when we’re listening, we will hear that.  We have to keep our hearts open, too, to the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who does that work of transfiguration within us, the work that changes us, that re-orders us, that brings all things back into the light of the face of Christ.

As we come to the Holy Eucharist, we come for an experience of transfiguration.  Christ Himself, the same Christ that we’re celebrating standing on Mt. Tabor shining with the glory of God, is going to enter into the darkness of our own body and soul and He’s going to shine from within us, too—if we let Him, if we humbly approach Him and let Him come to us, touch us, speak to us those words of consolation, and call us to a fuller, nobler life, where we can really give ourselves to this universal work of the transfiguration of the whole universe, which we’ll see accomplished in the end, and we’ll be amazed to see that we had something to do with that, through our faithfulness to God [OK, so I sometimes write 115-word sentences!].  Let us come to Him now, with joy and gratitude and awe, as if we were standing on that same holy mountain.  We should let Him take us into Himself, so we can hear the voice of the Father saying how much He loves us, how much He regards us and accepts us as his sons and daughters.  Then we too will walk in that mystery of crucifixion, yet of transfiguration, and ultimately of the glory of resurrection.

Summer 2010 Newsletter

Our summer issue is published on our monastery site now.  Even though I published my articles for this newsletter here a little while back, there are still a couple more articles in our newsletter, as well as the information for getting an e-mail notification for each issue, if you wish.  So you can check it out by clicking here or on the Mt Tabor Newsletter link on the sidebar.  God bless you!

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