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

Archive for September, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn (Part 1)

[Just when I thought I was out of recyclable articles, I found another one!  Just in time, too, since my brain is in need of recharging.]

That may be the title of a popular ‘60s song, but it also expresses an essential element of the spiritual life, one which must be engaged in repeatedly, or rather, continuously. That would be repentance, of course.  Repentance is meant to result in conversion, which literally means a “turning around” (also a “transformation”—both of these meanings are important for our present reflections).

If I’m going to say something about repentance—and I don’t mean a superficial acknowledgement or confession of sin, but something profound and life-changing—perhaps I ought to ask the greatest preacher of repentance, St John the Baptizer (more often referred to in our tradition as the Forerunner.)  It was his mission, as described by no less a luminary than the holy Archangel Gabriel, to turn.  The Forerunner would “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,” and he would “turn the hearts of fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:16-17).

The immortal human soul is not a mechanical thing, a mathematical thing, a biological thing, a material thing, or even a simple thing (in the non-philosophical use of the term).  It’s not something that can easily be “fixed” once it is damaged, nor is it something that a “user’s guide” can adequately explain.  Therefore when something negatively affects the inner life and dynamics of the soul, a radical solution is necessary for its restoration.

The souls of Adam and Eve were created perfect.  They were wholly turned toward God, bearing the fullness of all possible human faculties and capacities, no defects, no a priori evil inclinations, no weaknesses—except the potential vulnerability that necessarily accompanies free will.  As we are painfully aware, that vulnerability was thoroughly exploited by the evil one, resulting in the Fall of Man.  The consequence of this was not merely our first parents’ expulsion from Paradise, with its attendant hardships, but a profound turning away from God within the human soul.  This severe alteration within the soul has affected every human soul since then (with the glorious exceptions of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, who are therefore called the New Adam and the New Eve).

According to C.S. Lewis, what happened at the Fall had so tragically disfigured what God had originally created, that it made of man a kind of sub-species of himself, in a certain sense different than what he was before.  (The Greek Fathers also say that to sin is not to act according to human nature, but that it is beneath our nature, rendering us “sub-human” in its effects.)  So the issue of the hereditary transmission of what came to be called “original sin” is not controversial for Lewis.  After all, a species can only reproduce itself.  It’s not a matter of passing on a personal sin through human generation, but of reproducing beings that are inescapably and woefully defective: prone to sin and subject to death.

After millennia of sinful beings inhabiting the earth, exacerbating the primal turning away from God by countless deliberate turnings, God decided that it was high time to turn souls back to Him.  So He sent the Archangel to the priest Zachariah to tell him that he would have a son who would initiate God’s work of turning, a work that would be completed by the Only-begotten Son of God.  John was to set the stage.  He was consecrated and anointed to turn hearts to God, to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.  This is quite appropriate: since the original sin was one of disobedience, all sins retain something of that character, and so all must be turned back to obedience.

But as I said, the turning away of the human soul from its Creator is not a small thing, nor are its effects minor.  So when the Forerunner cries out, “Repent!” it is not enough merely to say “OK!” and then stop doing the bad things you had been doing.  That part is indispensable, of course, but it is only the beginning.

I would like to share here a bit of poetry in order to help us get a better grasp on this mystery of the inner turning away that is deeper than any individual sin or sum of sins.  It’s a sonnet written by Kathryn Mulderink, and is taken from her book of poetry entitled, To Sing You Must Exhale.  The sonnet is called De nocte, that is, “Of night.”

There’s a dark that illumines the darkness we are
In the subterranean chambers beyond sin,
Where subtler poisons deface, debar,
And unravel every hard-won discipline.
Below repentance’s smoothly finished frame
Lurk nature’s will and inward contradictions
Though we’ve immolated sense in puring flame
And submitted to our cleansing benedictions.
More contrariety with God have we
Than sin which once we chose but now reject;
He is more than sinlessness and we
Cannot sublimate through force or intellect.
We must let go of us, arms cruciform,
To expose our hearts to Fire that transforms.

What she’s saying is that what Scripture calls “the mystery of iniquity” goes so deep into the human soul that no superficial or even standard treatment can fully turn toward God that which was first turned away by original sin and later through numerous sinful choices.  The remedy must be a radical one.

But this turning from sin and turning to God is, in its fullness and depth, a rather complex and profound matter.  That is precisely because it is a spiritual, profoundly personal matter and not a merely legal or ritual one.  It’s easy enough to say “I repent,” and even mean it, and then receive absolution, but after that we might still not be wholly turned toward God.  It’s not enough simply to perform the proper ritual, even sincerely.  If you repent and honestly confess, you will be forgiven the guilt of your sin, but it may be that the necessary conversion (read: transformation) still has not taken place.  It may be that the will itself has not yet been sufficiently affected by grace, for the will has not sufficiently reached out to grace.  It still keeps, to some extent, its self-ward orientation, still is somewhat turned away from God, not entirely turned toward Him.  That’s one reason the Church insists that along with confession the penitent must have a “firm purpose of amendment,” because the heart newly turned to God still has a tendency to turn back away from Him.

This is why the prophetic mission of the Forerunner is so important, so crucial.  His work of turning hearts to the Lord, turning the disobedient to the way of wisdom, is not a mere correction of a few faults.  It is preparing the way for God to reach down into the depths of the human soul, to the hidden place at which we are all still connected to the primordial rebellion of Adam and Eve, and to turn it back, uniting to the obedience of Him who became man for our salvation, who humbled himself unto death on the Cross in radical obedience to the will of the Father.  To the extent that we all thus turn radically back to the Father, the power of the devil is utterly vanquished in this world.

To have our hearts wholly turned to God is not a matter of our simply saying “I’m sorry,” and then God saying, “Don’t worry, it’s OK.”  That is not salvation; that is not transformation.  Rather, to truly turn is to cry out from the depths, “O God, save me!  I am lost!”—as He reaches down and pulls us from the jaws of the dragon.  It is being willing to mount the altar of the Cross and to allow Fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifice.  If we don’t know how evil sin is, we can’t know how marvelous mercy is.  If we don’t tremble at the prospect of damnation, we cannot adequately appreciate salvation.

To be continued…

Leave Everything

After the post-feast of Easter and Pentecost—concluding the great paschal mystery of Christ—the Church begins anew her cycle of Sunday Gospels with the calling of the first disciples as recounted by St Matthew. Likewise, after the post-feast of the late-summer “pascha” of the Holy Cross, the Church begins anew her cycle of Sunday Gospels with the calling of the first disciples, this time as recounted by St Luke (5:1-11).

The very first thing we hear in the Gospel is that the people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God.  We might just pass over that point as a sort of introduction or setting of the context of Jesus’ getting into the boat with Peter and going out for the catch of fish.  But let us ask: why were they so eager to hear the word of God?  Perhaps it was simply because they hadn’t heard the word of God for a long time, and they were hungry for it, for they were in a time of distress.  There hadn’t been any real heroes in Israel since the time of the Maccabees, well over 100 years before.  They were under Roman domination, and perhaps they were praying along with the psalmist: “There is no sign from God, nor have we a prophet; we have no one to tell us how long it will last” (Ps. 73/74:9).  Their appetites for the word of God were probably whetted by John the Baptizer, but Herod had killed him shortly after he began to preach.  John, however, did have enough time to point to Jesus as “He who is to come,” the promised Messiah, so the people flocked to Jesus to hear what He had to say, in the hopes that He would be the Savior for which they longed.

They were so eager to hear Jesus that when He was preaching on the lakeshore, they thronged about him so forcefully that they nearly pushed Him into the lake!  So He decided to get into a boat and preach from that safer distance.  After this, however, the evangelist turns his attention away from the crowds to Jesus and the owner of the boat: one Simon, who would later be known as Peter.

Once Jesus finished teaching the crowd, He asked Simon-Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch of fish.  Since Peter had allowed Jesus to use his boat as a pulpit in the first place, he probably already had some respect for Him as a teacher and man of God.  He wasn’t impressed, however, with Jesus’ knowledge of the fishing trade, for Jesus had asked Peter to go fishing when the sun was high in the sky, and any seasoned fisherman would know that the night time was the right time for letting down the nets for a catch.  But Peter held his tongue and did what he thought was a useless task, simply because it was Jesus who asked him to do it. And for this he was abundantly rewarded.

We see in this text the difference between doing one’s one will and doing the will of the Lord.  Peter said: “We toiled all night and caught nothing”—we, with our own wits and judgment, came up empty.  That is just what we ourselves can expect when we act only according to our own opinions, desires, or preferences.  We come up empty, we bear no fruit, we remain stuck in our own self-will with nothing to show for it.  After Peter said that his own judgment of where the fish were and his own efforts to catch them turned out to be wrong and fruitless, he then said, “But at your word, I will let down the nets.”  At your word—not my will, but yours be done; I set aside what I think best, so as to do what You think best; even though I think I know my own business better than You do, I submit to you out of respect for you as a teacher and man of God.  We have to realize that even when we think we know it better, we don’t really know it better, and we would do well to learn humility and obedience for the sake of doing God’s will rather than our own.

The reward for Peter’s humble obedience was a miraculous catch of fish.  Peter recognized that this was no coincidence but a work of God, for he immediately fell to his knees and confessed to the Lord Jesus that he was a sinner and did not deserve to be in the presence of this Holy One.  Jesus, by the fact that He did not depart or send Peter away from Him, and by the fact that He told him not to fear and invited him to a mission in his service, accepted his confession and rewarded his obedience.

When Peter and his fishing companions, James and John, came to shore, they did not have a feast celebrating their sudden good fortune, nor did they attempt to sell the great catch to make a large profit from it.  Amazingly, they just left everything behind and began to follow Jesus.  It was as if they had discovered the Pearl of Great Price or had found the Treasure hidden in the field.  They gave up everything they had so that they could receive this Pearl, this Treasure.  It is clear in many places in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus expects us to give up the treasures and possessions of this world in order to receive the treasure in Heaven that is granted to those who faithfully follow Jesus.

Later in this same chapter, Jesus calls Levi from his tax booth, and he left everything to follow Jesus.  The Lord further said to the rich young man and to the disciples in general to sell their possessions and give alms, so as to have treasure in Heaven. And He even said that those who are attached to their possessions simply cannot be his disciples.  So, in one way or another, all of us are called to leave everything for the sake of following Jesus.

The epistle for today (2Cor. 9:6-11) may help us gain some understanding of what this means.  The basic point is this: “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  If we are stingy with God, our labors will be in vain, like Peter toiling at his nets and catching nothing.  But if we are generous, willing to give up anything and everything for his sake, we will be amazed at how richly God rewards us.

As the Apostle says, God loves a cheerful giver.  This is a favorite passage of pastors who are trying to beef up the collections from the faithful, but it goes way beyond that.  God wants us to be cheerful givers of not only what we have but what we are, our time and talents, our hearts and souls and lives.  I heard a homily many years ago on the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, and the priest described a little holy card of the event he had once seen.  The boy who had provided the loaves and fish to the disciples was shown offering it to them, and the caption was: “With joy I give you everything.”  That ought to be our motto in following Jesus: “With joy I give You everything!”

It gives no glory to God if we serve Him with a sad or bitter or angry countenance, or if we grumble or complain in our hearts about what we are asked to do or suffer for Him.  St Paul says not to make any offering to God “reluctantly or under compulsion” but rather freely and with joy and gratitude that He has deigned to call us to his service and friendship.

Those who make religious vows are usually considered to be the ones who have left everything in order to follow Jesus, but long and unfortunate experience in the history of the Church, especially in recent decades, has shown that it is quite possible to live the vows in a superficial or intermittent fashion, to take back, little by little, what we once solemnly offered to the Lord—by trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible while keeping up veneer of religious observance.  Remember that it is said that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, so if we are to be followers of Christ we must, as we heard last Sunday, deny ourselves and take up our crosses each day.

St Paul goes on to indicate the fruit of generous and cheerful giving to God.  He says: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance… He will multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way because of your great generosity…”  So, as Jesus said elsewhere, the measure you give is the measure you will get.  If we sacrifice everything in order to follow Him, He will give us everything in return. And let us realize that God’s “everything” that He gives is a much better deal than our “everything” that we give up!

Jesus once said to St Faustina: “Your duty will be to trust completely in My goodness, and My duty will be to give you all you need… if your trust is great, then My generosity will be without limit.” To give up everything to follow Jesus means that we believe that He is worth it, that we can never be disappointed by throwing in our lot with Him.

But to trust in Him doesn’t mean to be content with offering a sloppy or careless observance of his commands, or half-hearted labors or lukewarm prayers, and then expect that He will overlook all that and bless and save us anyway.  That mentality is at best presumption and at worst callous disregard for the will of God and an insult to his holiness and goodness.  What trust does mean is that we give our all to God, believing that He loves us and provides for us all the grace necessary to do his will and find salvation, and that even if we stumble and fall along the way, He will pick us up and encourage us to continue in faithfulness.  And it also means that He will bless abundantly our sincere labors and reward them with the spiritual equivalent of Peter’s huge catch of fish.  But first we have to admit that doing our own will is vain and fruitless, and that we will do whatever Jesus asks of us because we trust in Him, in his superior wisdom, goodness, and love.

So let us put out into the deep, as it were, to take the risk of leaving everything to follow Jesus—whatever that might mean in our own personal circumstances and vocations, but at least leaving behind our self-will in order to do his.

God wants us to be cheerful givers, humble servants, faithful friends, and even intimate associates whom He can count on when He needs some sacrifice for the good of souls or for whatever spiritual fruit He desires us to bear.  Thus we will not only experience an abundance of grace and mercy in this life, we will discover to our everlasting joy that God has prepared for us endless treasures in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Bible Commercial

You may have noticed over the past few weeks that I’ve included in certain posts some insights gained from “a footnote in my Bible.”  Well, I’d like to say something about this Bible, since it is a fairly recent acquisition.  It is called the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament, published by (you guessed it) Ignatius Press.  It is something that I think many people have been waiting for; at least I have, anyway.  There just hasn’t been a good Catholic study Bible around for a long time.  It is a large volume, and you can get it for about $15 from Amazon.

I’ll give a few reasons why I like it.  First of all, it is an accurate translation (the Revised Standard Version, which is hard to find anymore).  Second, there is a fairly detailed commentary throughout, which of course you would expect from a study Bible, but there are certain advantages to this one that aren’t found in others.  The commentary combines the best of modern scholarship with a healthy respect and reverence for tradition, which means you are not going to find any off-the-wall comments that are designed to debunk the tradition or to deny or cast doubt upon the centuries-held teachings of the Church that are derived from these same Scriptures.  You can lose your faith in the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Holy Eucharist, etc, by taking courses on the Bible in a university (even a so-called “Catholic” one), but that won’t happen with this study Bible.  If anything, your faith will be enhanced, especially as you see how Scripture supports what Catholics believe.  (Naturally, since it is the Church that has produced and authorized the canon of the New Testament.)

There are not only numerous cross-references to related texts in other parts of the Bible; there are also cross-references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This makes all the more clear the organic continuity between the Bible and the teachings of the Church.  There are also topical essays, introductions to each book of the New Testament, word studies, and various charts and maps.

The commentary is also keyed according to the type of explanation that is given, whether it be how a particular text fulfills or relates to something in the Old Testament, what the Church fathers have had to say about particular passages, or how certain passages have been received into the Living Tradition of the Church.

So, if you want to go more deeply into both the word of God and your Catholic faith, this study Bible is a very good place to start.  To show how the editors approach the Bible, and the spirit in which they present their commentaries, I’ll share with you the final lines of the editors’ introduction: “What we get out of the Bible will largely depend upon how we approach the Bible.  Unless we are living a sustained and disciplined life of prayer, we will never have the reverence, the profound humility, or the grace we need to see the Scriptures for what they really are.  You are approaching the ‘word of God.’  But for thousands of years, since before he knit you in your mother’s womb, the Word of God has been approaching you.”

Lords of the Moment

It may seem at times that our nation and our world are “out of control,” that things are moving irrevocably in an unfavorable (to say the least) direction, and that we, and at least the next several generations, are going to be stuck with a world full of tyranny, corruption, immorality, godlessness, loss of freedom, etc.  The father of lies seems to be implementing his diabolical plans to remake our world (especially the Western world) in his own disgusting image.

I read something a few weeks ago that gave me some encouragement in the midst of all this.  It was something that Jesus reportedly said in a vision to the Belgian mystic Berthe Petit in 1919.  His words are quite applicable to our own day and situation as well.  According to Berthe Petit, Jesus said: “The pride of the lords of the moment will be broken.  It will clearly be shown that nothing can subsist without Me, and that I remain the sole Master of the destiny of nations.”  The phrase “lords of the moment” stuck with me.  The power brokers of this world—those who are trying to manipulate the global economy, influence public opinion in favor of immoral and anti-Christian agendas, and exert ever-greater control over the common people—are nothing more than “lords of the moment.”  They will have their time in the limelight, and they may even inflict some serious damage, but soon they will be standing before the Judgment Seat of God to account for their lives and their crimes.

When contrasting the wisdom of God with the “wisdom” of this world, St Paul writes of “the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1Cor. 2:6).  Obama, for example, may think he is among the most powerful men of the world, but he’s nothing but a lord of the moment.  For all his rhetoric, his lies, his selling out of our country to global interests and potential terrorists, and his approval of America’s moral degeneration, he will soon vanish from view and be nothing more than a page or a footnote in future history books.  All that will eternally matter is how he stands when his works are judged by Almighty God.  The pride of the lords of the moment will be broken, said the Lord, and the world will eventually see that He alone is the Master of nations and their destinies.

It may be objected that even if the “world rulers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12—he was speaking of demons here, but it can be applied to people controlled by them) will soon pass away, others will take their place, and we will always be under the domination of some evil power or another.  For one thing, we have to remember that the Lord can intervene in human affairs if He wills—and if enough people are praying and sacrificing for this intention—in order to make significant changes.  But on the whole, we probably have to accept the fact that most people who wield national or global power don’t get to such positions by turning the other cheek, carrying their crosses and following Jesus.  So there will usually be evil men in power, and this world will never become another terrestrial paradise.  All previous attempts at creating a secular utopia in this world have instead created facsimiles of Hell.

That means that we have to look also at our own life as something that is passing away.  You and I are only a blip on the screen of world history, yet we are of immeasurable value in the eyes of God.  We have to realize that to some extent, perhaps a great extent, our lives are going to have to be offered as sacrifices to God, for the salvation of souls, the coming of his Kingdom, and his final triumph over all evil.  We are made for Heaven, so we don’t need to have everything go our way in this world.  “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14).  So even though we are currently subject in some things to the lords of the moment, we must pray along with the prophet: “O Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone we acknowledge” (Is. 26:13).  The next verse is something that might be sung in the future: “They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.”  No matter what the lords of the moment impose upon us, our first allegiance is to the Lord our God, and wherever there is a conflict, we must obey God rather than man.

“The world, and the lust of it, passes away, but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1Jn. 2:17).  Likewise, we see in the Book of Revelation the swift destruction of the world center of wealth and power: “The great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet… in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste… What city was like the great city? … In one hour she has been laid waste.  Rejoice over her, O heaven, O saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” (18:16-20).  This whole book of the Bible was written to offer encouragement to the faithful disciples of Christ who were being persecuted by the lords of the moment.  The victory of Christ and of all that is good was announced in prophecy; the defeat of the devil and all that is evil was likewise proclaimed.

We don’t have to predict the final battles and the end of the world and other apocalyptic scenarios.  It should be enough for us that we have unshakable confidence in the power of God and his righteousness, and that we realize that today’s great and mighty ones are tomorrow’s humiliated and defeated ones.  Only the Lord of Heaven will reign forever, and even now He is surveying the world, to see who belongs to Him and who does not, who will share in his victory and who won’t.  God wants to save all people, but those who stubbornly stand against Him will still have to know that He is the true Lord of all.

So let us take courage, even if things sometimes (or often) look like they are going from bad to worse.  No matter what else happens, no one can rob you of your own soul, and you can preserve it in God’s grace by your fidelity to Him, and thus be assured of a place in Paradise.  Once we are in Heaven, the present lords of the moment will be nothing but a distant memory—if they aren’t utterly forgotten.  They will have all eternity to try to figure out what went wrong, that is, if they are not consumed with fighting each other to rise in the ranks of the hierarchy of Hell!  Maybe some things never change.  As for us, let us decide now to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as our only Lord, putting our complete trust in Him, come what may, and thus we shall enter into the eternal life of the joy and freedom of the children of God.

Go Ahead, Hit Me Again (or, A Rose for bin Laden)

On September 11, 2001, an Islamic jihad murdered at least 3000 American citizens on our own soil, causing immense human sorrow, economic loss, and national humiliation.  Now how do you think that event was commemorated in the Catholic cathedral in Sacramento, CA, in 2010?  By holding a service to bless the Koran, of course—even though the ones who perpetrated those evil deeds believed the inspiration for them was found therein.

It seems that insanity is reaching new levels in certain places.  Here is a portion of the story: “Representatives of different religions, including members of the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and Druid [yes, California has everything] communities, took part in an interfaith blessing of the Qu’ran at Sacramento’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on September 11. During the ceremony, Father Michael Kiernan, rector of the cathedral, read from the Beatitudes… Several dozen people placed roses on the Quran, in front of the main doors to the cathedral. Upon placing their roses, people said before the crowd, ‘Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.’”

Yes, you read it correctly, they placed roses on the Koran in a Catholic cathedral dedicated to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  Do you see anything wrong with this picture?  (A Druid placing a rose on the Koran in a Catholic cathedral: I couldn’t have made that up if I tried!)

There is much that can be said about this, but I’ll limit myself to a couple points.  First of all, do those deluded people really think that by blessing the Koran and showering it with roses they are in any way making peace with Islam?  I suppose that Islamic leaders all over the world, after wiping the tears from their eyes, will now say: “See how sensitive and conciliatory are those Americans who worship the one they call the Son of God.  We’ll now forgive them for that particular blasphemy, and we’ll even stop burning their churches and raping their women and wantonly slaughtering them all over the world.  Just think of it: they blessed our holy book.  Allahu Akbar!”  Um, no, I don’t think so.  What they are more likely to say is: “The satanic fools! This is going to be easier than we thought.  We destroy their buildings and kill their citizens, and they sing happy songs to us!”

Ostensibly, the rosy Koran blessing was a reaction to the intentions (never carried out) of the Florida pastor who was going to publicly burn the Koran.  He never should have made a media event out of that, if for no other reason than that he put in serious jeopardy Christians all over the world who are now going to experience more vicious persecutions than they already have.  I frankly wish that the Muslims held to the law of retaliation: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  As it stands now it is a thousand eyes for an eye…

Another point: I regularly read the publications of The Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian organization that serves persecuted Christians throughout the world, supplies them with Bibles and other Christian materials, medical care when Muslims burn or hack them with machetes, housing when Muslims burn their houses down, etc.  They are in the trenches.  They see the havoc that the Islamic jihad is wreaking all over the world, targeting Christians especially.  Now this is not a Catholic organization, but suppose they decided to see how their Catholic brethren might be helping the cause, supporting the persecuted, preaching the Gospel of Christ boldly and without compromise.  And then they see, to their horror, that we are blessing and showering with roses the book that the murderers of Christians hold in the air as they angrily shower us with their curses and threats!

Jesus said to love our enemies, not flatter or fawn on them.  We love them by prayer and sacrifice, begging God to enlighten them to the truth, to convert them from their murderous intentions, to forgive their sins by the power of the Precious Blood of Jesus so that they may be saved and find everlasting life in Him.  That is genuine love, not making ineffectual gestures that weaken us by denying, in effect, that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.

This is an isolated incident, but the fact that it can happen at all, and then of course be plastered all over the internet, means that some internal housecleaning is indicated.  Those Koran-blessers are doing it in the name of peace, but peace is not an absolute value (see Lk. 12:51; Mt. 10:34), and it can’t simply mean “peace” in the sense of placating those whom we fear will slit our throats if we look at them the wrong way—which seems to be the reason why practically the whole world is allowing Islam to pervade and possess it.  We are at ceaseless war with the devil and his evil spirits (Eph. 6:12), and the truth of our faith cannot be compromised for the sake of an elusive “peace” with those who are not interested at all in being at peace with us—either with America or with Christianity.  We have to be respectful of the dignity of all humans as such, and we ought to acknowledge religious freedom as a right (though there is no reciprocity in countries where Islam reigns).  But it is foolish to bless that which categorically denies what we hold precious and holy in the revelation of the true God.  “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1Jn. 5:11).

Let us pray that we’ll soon see the last of such wrongheaded displays of politically-correct, tolerant, multi-cultural ecumenical diversity and Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace propaganda.  I wonder: has the Catholic cathedral in Sacramento ever held a special service in which roses were lovingly placed upon a Bible?

A Hopeful Conclusion

Last week I published a post on praying for the dying, so that sinners might be saved at the last minute through the mercy of God.  Well, I have what I think is some good news, because from all indications this just happened about a week ago. (All the names in the following account have been changed to respect their privacy.)

I received an e-mail from a friend of mine who works in pro-life ministries, and she was asking me for urgent prayers.  A friend of hers named Linda is a hospice nurse, and she had a dying patient named Marah.  Marah, who was characterized as “a very difficult, demanding woman who pushed everyone away,” was in a terrible state and was afraid to die.  She was divorced and had no children, but she had had five abortions and was in fear and despair.  Marah was not Catholic but she refused the services of any sort of chaplain.  Trying to convince herself that God didn’t exist, she hoped she wouldn’t have to face judgment for her sins.  She was not in denial about her abortions, though, since she openly admitted that she had killed her own children.  Marah was really standing at the brink of Hell, but she couldn’t accept forgiveness and was severely agitated as death approached.

Linda tried to open her heart, telling her that God would forgive her if she repented.  My friend suggested that Linda pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at her bedside, and many other people were praying as well.  The monks at our monastery prayed, and I prayed the Chaplet and offered the Divine Liturgy so that she would receive the grace of final repentance.  No one knew for sure how it would turn out, since everyone is free to accept or reject God’s grace, but we put our trust in the mercy of Jesus.

During the night, toward dawn, Linda (who was at home; a night nurse was with Marah) was awakened.  She heard Marah’s voice, saying only, “Thank you, Linda.”  When she went to see her in the morning, she discovered that she had died.  The night nurse said she had died in peace, and Linda noticed that she looked so beautifully at peace that she hardly recognized her.

We will not know until we ourselves may meet Marah in Heaven, but it looks like the Lord heard our prayers for her and that she repented and turned to God before she died, or perhaps right as her soul was leaving her body.  It is never too late, and God will always receive the repentant, no matter how much evil they have done.

In a rather stark contrast to this, I remember a story a priest told me many years ago, when he was ministering to the sick and dying.  He was in a hospital and went to see an old woman who was dying.  She not only refused the last sacraments, she spat at him and cursed him and sent him away.  Later that day he came back to her room and found her dead, her face grotesquely contorted.  A voice, which he believes was the Lord’s, came to him saying: “I loved her and I lost her.”

I share this bad news along with the good news above because there is no automatic salvation.  The Lord is merciful and will forgive sins until the last possible moment, but if a soul with free will adamantly refuses to repent, He respects their freedom and sorrowfully lets them depart from Him.  That is why it is so urgent to pray for the dying, to spiritually sit at their deathbeds and beg the Lord to have mercy on them, to open their hearts so that they may respond to his grace and be saved.

When I heard about the recent natural gas explosion and fire in San Bruno, California, I immediately began to pray, especially for any who would die in the fire (it turned out that six people had died, though many others were badly burned).  They had no time to repent.  It was about 6:00 PM and most were probably sitting down to supper when there was a loud noise and suddenly their homes burst into flames (over 40 homes were completely destroyed).  The Lord told us to watch and pray, for we know not the day or the hour, and we may be called before his judgment seat when we least expect it.

So let us give thanks to God, for the signs indicate that Marah received forgiveness and was saved.  And let us pray fervently for all those who are at the point of death—or who may soon die suddenly and without warning—that they may be ready to meet the Lord in his mercy and love, and may embrace the salvation that Jesus died to offer them.

This is why at Fatima Our Lady asked us to pray: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of Hell.  Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.

To Love, Exalt, and Obey

Today I am called to preach the Gospel of the Cross, the “word of the Cross,” as St Paul says in the epistle for this feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross (1Cor. 1:18-24).  This word, this gospel, this message and teaching concerning the Cross of Jesus Christ, is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  It is significant, as a footnote in my Bible indicates, that the Apostle speaks of both the unbelievers and the believers in the imperfect tense, as if to say that these realities are part of a process and thus are not unchangeably fixed.  Those who are in the process of perishing can still repent and be saved, and those who are in the process of being saved can, alas, still fall away and be lost.  So the question for us is not, “Am I saved or am I lost?” or “Is my name written in the Book of Life or is it not?”  Rather, it should be, “Am I being faithful to the grace of God right now and will I persevere until the end and thus be saved?” (see Mt. 24:13).  As long as we accept and embrace the Cross as the power of God in our own lives, we will remain on the path to eternal salvation.

We proclaim a selection from St John’s Passion account for the celebration of this feast, which contains various elements: the condemnation by the leaders of the Jews and by Pontius Pilate, the declaration of the kingship of Christ, the carrying of the Cross and the crucifixion, the presence of Our Lady and St John at the Cross, and the death and piercing of the Heart of Jesus.   Since I preached about Jesus’ condemnation and kingship on the recent feast of the Procession of the Cross, I will try to look at the mystery today through the eyes of Our Lady.

For most major feast days, the Byzantine liturgical calendar has the custom of providing a follow-up feast on the day after, called a synaxis, or gathering, which celebrates the “supporting cast” (so to speak) of the feast.  Most recently we have seen this in on the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, which was immediately followed by the feast of her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne.  But for the feast of the Holy Cross, there is no synaxis.  Yet strangely enough, on the Latin calendar, where there is no custom of holding a synaxis on the day after major feasts, we do find one for the feast of the Holy Cross—almost as if they had to make up for this exceptional omission in the Byzantine tradition.  On the Latin calendar, the day after the feast of the Holy Cross is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Whenever we meditate on the Passion of Christ—and we should do so often—it seems to me that we generally do so through our own eyes, utilizing our own thoughts and reflections, which is understandable.  But suppose we tried to look at Jesus on the Cross through his Mother’s eyes, and through her tears.  Perhaps we would gain greater insight; perhaps our hearts would open a little more.

When I unite myself to Mary at the foot of the Cross, I seem to see Him in two major contexts, that of love and of obedience.  Fundamentally, it was love that both filled and broke the Heart of Mary as she witnessed the agonizing death of her only Son on the Cross.  Perhaps a mother can understand something of what this is like if she has had to witness the death of one of her children.  But I think no one can fathom the depths of the love of this Mother for this Child.  For this Mother is the Mother of the Son of God, and her Child is the divine Savior of the world.  She conceived Him miraculously without a human father, at the annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel; she experienced the virginal birth-giving and lived in profound intimacy with Him the whole time she raised Him.  She experienced his love and his tenderness like no one else.

But now she saw Him crying out in agony to his Father on the Cross, pierced by nails and thorns, rent by scourges and racked with thirst.  Our liturgical texts depict her as wondering how the Lord of the universe could submit Himself to such shameful torture, wondering what happened to the good news she had heard from the angel, longing to die with Him, and feeling a sword piercing her own heart as the lance was thrust into her Son’s.

In all this anguish, however, Mary did not resist, resent, or rebel against the will of God.  As Christ was obedient even unto death on the Cross, his Mother was also obedient to the Father’s will. The “yes” she pronounced at the annunciation was not for that event only, but for the whole of her life, which was consecrated wholly to God.  So Our Lady had to say yes not only to her own suffering at seeing her beloved Son dying so painfully—that is, “let it be done to me”—she had to do something even more difficult.  She had to accept the Father’s will for her precious Son, whom she loved more than her own self: she had to say “Let it be done to Him according to your word.”

Mary received Him as the Incarnate Son when she conceived and gave birth to Him, and she received Him as the Savior when she stood beneath his Cross.  Her yes at the foot of the Cross was required as a consequence of her yes at the annunciation.

We see also in this mystery a double gift and a double mission for the whole Church inaugurated at the Cross.  Mary was given all of us as her children, and this gift contained the mission of her responsibility to protect and intercede for us, so that we might all make our way to the Cross of Jesus, and there find salvation.  On the other hand, all of us were given the gift of Mary as our heavenly Mother, and it is our mission and responsibility to stand at the Cross of Jesus with both love and obedience as Mary did.

In our vocation as disciples of Jesus, love and obedience are inseparable.  If we say we love Him but do not live in obedience to his commandments and the requirements of our vocation, we are at best deluded and a worst outright liars.  But neither can we obey if we have not love, for it is love of Jesus that makes obedience both possible and fruitful.  Let us learn from Our Lady how to love Jesus with our whole heart, and also how to say “let it be done to me” in all the practical aspects of living according to God’s will.

We are aware—though perhaps not sufficiently, because we keep doing it—that our sin offends the Lord and was the reason He had to suffer so terribly.  But perhaps we are even less aware that our sin breaks our heavenly Mother’s Heart as well. She has every right to be angry with us for killing her beloved Son, but since she lives in love and obedience she seeks only our repentance and restoration to grace and intimate life with the Lord.  If we could perhaps see Our Lady’s tears when we are tempted to commit sin, we might think twice about wounding her loving heart once again, and remember the price Jesus paid so that we could be delivered from that very sin.  At Fatima, Our Lady’s heartfelt plea was: “Do not offend Our Lord any more, for He is already too much offended.” She showed the children a vision of Hell to make it clear what the consequences are for continuing in sin and not coming to the Cross of Jesus with repentance, prayer, and sacrifice.

The raising up of the Cross on this feast, then, as it says in our Vespers service, is an appeal to all mankind: an appeal to us to see how much Jesus loves us and suffered for us, and hence an appeal to repent, to cease offending Our Lord, to turn to Him with love and the promise of obedience henceforth.  Let us ask for the grace to weep for our sins and to rejoice in our forgiveness, purchased at such a terrible price through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  Let us come to the Eucharistic chalice with faith and love and gratitude, as the Lord mercifully feeds us each day with the Bread from Heaven and the New Wine of the Kingdom of God.

When St Faustina was first told by Jesus that He wanted a feast of Divine Mercy established, she wasn’t sure why, since, as she said, there already was such a feast.  A footnote explains that there was a Church of the Divine Mercy in Cracow, and its patronal feast was the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14.  So let us celebrate this day as a feast of Divine Mercy, the feast on which we read the Gospel of the pierced side of Christ, from which flowed blood and water, grace and mercy, the symbols of the Holy Eucharist and Baptism, the twin streams of uncreated light and love that constantly radiate from the Heart of Christ and cover the whole world—a world that is largely indifferent to his offer of mercy unto salvation.

Jesus sometimes asked St Faustina to receive all the graces that others spurn, because his love is such that He must pour out his grace and mercy without measure.  So let us also open our hearts to receive the graces that others spurn, and then let us bear much fruit through prayer and sacrifice so that all these others will finally open their hearts to the Lord, embracing the “word of the Cross” and hence joining the ranks of those who are being saved.

If the world in its corrupt “wisdom” rejects the word of the Cross, so be it.  For us it will always be the power of God if we approach it in faith and love and obedience, willing to share the sorrows of our heavenly Mother as she grieves over the souls heedlessly fleeing from her Son and heading for Hell.  For, as the psalmist says, sorrow is but the guest of a night, and joy comes with dawn.  The Apostle urges us to suffer now with Christ so as to be glorified with Him forever (Rom. 8:17). The measure of our love for Jesus is found in our willingness to stand with Mary at his Cross, even unto sharing his sufferings for the sake of those whom He died to save.  And this union in love and suffering will reap a harvest of souls for eternal salvation, and for the delight and glory of the Lord.

God’s Love in the Mystery of the Cross

The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ are of the essence of the Christian faith and are indispensable for our salvation and hope for eternal life.  Therefore the Church celebrates these mysteries constantly throughout the year.  Every Sunday is dedicated to the Resurrection, and every Wednesday and Friday to the Cross.  We celebrate Easter as the Feast of feasts, the climax of the whole liturgical year, and it is unique among feasts in that it has a 40-day post-festal period.  There are several feasts of the Holy Cross during the year, and we are preparing for a great one now: in two days it will be the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.  The Church surrounds it with special solemnity by dedicating the Sunday before and the Sunday after the feast with readings and liturgical texts through which we are to enter into the mystery of the Cross, which is the mystery of our salvation.

The Gospel for today (Jn. 3:13-17) directs us to the love of God, which is at the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  The only reason why the Son of God became man and suffered and died for us was that God so loved the world He created, especially all the souls He made in his own image, that He sent his Son as man to take away the sin of the world and make it possible for us to receive the eternal life for which we were created in the first place.

The words of Jesus that we hear in the Gospel today are found in the context of Jesus’ nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, and thus in the context of being born anew from above by water and the Holy Spirit.  Nicodemus would eventually become a disciple and hence would understand all these things, but at the time Jesus was speaking of them, he really had no clue.  He can easily be forgiven for this, for baptism in water and the Holy Spirit is, as St Paul would later write, baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ and the “washing of regeneration” (Rom. 6:3-4; Titus 3:5).  Since Christ had not yet died when He was talking to Nicodemus, the full meaning of baptism could not be disclosed or understood.  But Jesus immediately went on to talk of his coming crucifixion, which would be the basis of the efficacy of baptism, and hence the basis of our salvation.

Jesus begins with a rather enigmatic saying: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.” In a sense, this is an extremely concise summary of the identity and mission of Christ.  The fact that He is in Heaven, notwithstanding the descending and ascending, means that the Son of God is eternally in Heaven, the Word who is with God, the Word who is God.   Therefore “in Heaven” refers to his identity as the Second Person of the All-holy Trinity. The fact that he “descended from Heaven” refers to his Incarnation as man. So now we add the mystery of his humanity to that of his divinity, and all that this implies for his mission on earth.  Finally, “ascended to Heaven” refers to his glorification upon the accomplishment of his mission as the God-man on earth.  He came from God and returned to God, and in the meantime He revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven and offered his life in sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins and then rose from the dead, so that we could eventually join Him in his everlasting life in the glory of God the Father.

It was not enough for Jesus simply to come into this world and tell us about the Father, inviting us to faith and obedience.  As we heard in the Gospel a few Sundays ago, we had incurred an enormous debt that was impossible for us to pay.  Our sin had alienated us from God and we were powerless to reconcile with Him of our own accord, for we had no way to atone adequately for our sins. Therefore Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up, that is, crucified, so that those who believe Him could have eternal life.  Faith isn’t enough in itself; our sins have to be forgiven.  So Christ sacrificed his life for us on the Cross, so that if we put our faith in Him, it would bear fruit in eternal life, for by his Passion and Death our sins would be forgiven.

On the other hand, even Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t enough in itself (even though it is absolutely indispensable for our salvation).  He died for all, so the possibility exists and the grace is available for all to be saved.  But not all choose to believe, to obey, to do his will.  Jesus’ death and resurrection will not bear fruit in eternal salvation for those who ignore or reject his sacrifice and his offer of salvation.  That is why Jesus said both that the Son of Man must be lifted up—as the sine qua non of salvation—and that this lifting up would result in eternal life for whoever believes in Him.  Not all indiscriminately, but whoever believes in Him.

As Jesus continues his conversation with Nicodemus He reiterates this, adding to it the dimension of the everlasting love of the Father, in what is probably the most well-known of all verses in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  The fact that we sinned does not oblige God to forgive us, especially at the huge cost of the incarnation, suffering and death of his Son.  It is only because God so loved the world that He sent us a Savior, only because God was willing to endure patiently all our evildoing, willing to give us another chance, willing even to humble Himself for our sakes, that we were not simply given what our deeds justly deserve.

In the last line of this Gospel reading, Jesus explains that He was sent into the world not to condemn it, but to save it.  That doesn’t mean that every soul will automatically escape condemnation, for salvation is granted to those who repent and believe.  Those words of the Lord simply tell us why He came.  If all God wanted to do was justly condemn the world for its sin, He could have done that with a simple, sweeping act from Heaven.  He didn’t have to send his Son into the world for that.  It was only because He wished to save the world that the Son accepted the sacrificial kenosis, the temporary setting aside of his divine glory so that He could be truly one of us, in all ways but sin.   And it was only as man that the Son of God could sacrifice Himself on the Cross as a propitiation to the Father for all the sins of the world.

This is why the Gospel is Good News.  God did not give us what we justly deserved, but promised blessings out of all proportion to our worth, even beyond anything we could have devised or imagined for our own everlasting happiness.  All you have to do, He says, is accept what my Son has done for you, believe in Him, love Him, follow Him all the way to My heavenly Kingdom.  All trace of your sin shall be erased, and you will shine with my own glory, if only you will repent and believe in the gift I am offering you.

This is what it means that God so loved the world.  God doesn’t love the world insofar as it rejects and hates Him and perverts all that is good and holy.  For the same evangelist who wrote “God so loved the world…” also wrote: “Do not love the world… for if anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1Jn. 2:15).  God loves the world because He loves the souls created in his image, and because He sees the transformation He can work in these souls if only they will open up to Him.  I think it was St Augustine who said that a wood carver, who happens upon a gnarled old piece of wood, does not value it as such, but for what he can make out of it.  He looks not at its present ugliness and worthlessness, but rather at what it will look like when he is finished turning it into a work of art.

So God looks at us.  He is not pleased with our sin and what it does to us, making us ugly and unfit for his Kingdom.  But He sees what He can do with us—if we let Him—how He can transform us into something beautiful and holy by his grace.  Thus He deemed it worth the cost to send his Son into this world as man, to suffer the agony of the Cross, so that the destructive effects of sin would not forever render us unworthy of the life of the holy ones in Heaven.

This is why St Paul, in today’s epistle (Gal. 6:11-18), says he glories in nothing but the Cross, because thereby he is crucified to the world and the world to him.  Thus, as he says elsewhere, he dies to sin and lives for God, to the point that he is wholly united to Christ, that Christ lives in and through him.  Therefore the world with all its seductions has no power over him, no attraction for him; it can’t take him away from his Lord, whom he knows as his loving Savior.  All that matters, he writes, is that we become a new creation in Christ, that we live in his grace and peace and mercy.

This new creation is first effected through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, as Jesus began the discussion with Nicodemus.  It is nourished with the Holy Eucharist and recovered through repentance and absolution of sin, which we need when we begin to lose sight of what God in his love has called us to be and to do.  But in all things we need to raise our eyes to Christ, and Him crucified.  For there we see how much God loved the world, there we see the price Jesus paid to deliver us from sin, and there we also see an image of the totality of the sacrifice that we ourselves, in one form or another, are expected to offer to God in gratitude for our own salvation and as intercession for the salvation of those who have not yet believed, who are still in danger of perishing eternally.

So as we prepare to celebrate the great feast of the Cross on Tuesday, and as we prepare right now to receive the precious fruit of the Cross from the Eucharistic chalice, let us reflect on the love of God, on the lengths to which He went to save us who do not deserve it.  Let us resolve to live as that new creation that God has granted us the grace to be, proving by the way we live and act that nothing else is more important to us than to be faithful and self-sacrificing followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ had to suffer and so enter into his glory, and He said that no servant is greater than his master.  We too must embrace the Cross in our lives.  For as St Paul says, we are heirs with Christ of the Kingdom of God—“provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).

Dying to be Saved

It was recently suggested to me, by someone who has sent me some names for the “mop-up list” (see link in sidebar; see also Save a Soul Today), that I read the book, Devotion for the Dying, by Mother Mary Potter, an English nun and the foundress of the religious order The Little Company of Mary in the 19th century.  This is right in line with my own ministry to help save the souls of sinners at the moment of death.  I had read the book many years ago, but I’ve dusted it off and begun reading it again, and it has encouraged me all the more to persevere in this most necessary of works.

The book is basically a long exhortation to pray and offer sacrifices for those who are dying in sin, unrepentant and unreconciled to God, and thus facing an eternity of torment in Hell.  She offers persuasive arguments that this is the most critical of needs, for who can be in more urgent need of grace and mercy than one who is at the hour of death and is still not at peace with God?  There is no time left; life is over; all that remains is to receive the sentence of their eternal destiny.

The ministry to help save the souls of the dying is a never-ending one, for at any given moment, somewhere in the world someone is about to die.  On the average, about 150,000 people die every day worldwide. How many go to Heaven and how many to Hell?  There’s no way to know for sure, but given the fact that only about a quarter of the world is Christian (and many of these only nominally so), and that evil is manifestly rampant almost everywhere, we can safely assume that many people are in urgent need of the grace of repentance at the hour of death.  So if we are interested in helping save souls (if we are not, we have no business calling ourselves Christians), it behooves us to remember the dying often in our prayers.

I am surprised sometimes when I notice that the number of people who access the Mop-up Ministry link is far greater than the number who actually contact me and send me names of relatives or friends in need of that grace (though I do have about 800 names on the list, but hey, there’s room for millions more!).  Someone once suggested that people might be embarrassed to admit that their children or relatives have lost their faith or are manifestly living in sin, but who cares?  I don’t know them anyway, and I’m not going to publish their names!  But they are in need of God’s grace, and there should be no reason to deny them that precious blessing due to any sort of vain human concerns.  So send me their names.  I will pray for them every day and offer the Divine Liturgy for them once a month.  This is the best gift you can give anyone.  They will literally be eternally grateful to you for this.

One of the things Mother Mary Potter reminds us of is this: there are few, if any, of us who have never been in a state of mortal sin at one time or another in our lives, and hence have been deserving of eternal punishment.  Yet God in his mercy has forgiven us, has enlightened us as to the reality of Heaven and Hell, and has given us the sacramental and other spiritual means to live continuously in his grace and thus avoid the destiny of the damned.  So if we have seen the light—through no merit or worth of our own, but purely by God’s grace—we ought to be eager to try to help others come to the same awareness and faith, at least at the hour of death if they have resisted God during their lives.  The Good Thief was saved at the last minute, so the Lord has shown us that He will receive our repentance as long as we still have breath and life in this world.  (By the way, I heard that the notorious and high-profile atheist, Christ-hater and Pope-hater Christopher Hitchens has terminal cancer.  This is a great opportunity to pray that he will be granted the grace of final repentance.  What a victory for the Lord this would be, if he were snatched from the devil at the last minute!  But last minute or not, let us pray for him, for the Lord desires not the death of a sinner but that he repent and live—forever!)

Every time we pray the Hail Mary, we ask Our Lady to pray for us “now and at the hour of our death,” for that is the decisive moment of our life and destiny.  But let us not pray only for ourselves; it is the hour of death for many, even as you read this.  So stop reading right now and pray at least one Hail Mary for a sinner who is dying at this moment…

Thank you; perhaps you have just obtained for a soul sufficient grace to repent and to embrace the Lord, making the difference between eternal damnation and eternal salvation.

Father Faber, a renowned Catholic apologist, has written this about Our Lady’s concern for the dying: “…when we call to mind the long train of graces which she has brought to every one of them, and consequently the yearning of her maternal heart for their final perseverance and everlasting salvation—we may form some idea of the gratefulness of this devotion to her.  The deathbed is one of her peculiar spheres.  She seems to exercise quite a particular jurisdiction over it.  It is there that she so visibly cooperates with Jesus in the redemption of mankind. But she seeks for us to cooperate with her also… We must not coldly absent ourselves.  We must assist in spirit at every death that is died the whole world over, deaths of heretics and heathens as well as Christians.  For they, too, are our brothers and sisters: they have souls; they have eternities at stake…” (Quoted by Mother Mary Potter)

I gave alms to someone a few days ago in a way I hope will win a saving grace.  As I was leaving the parking lot of a grocery store, there was an apparently homeless man standing there, holding a sign that read: “hungry.”  Now I know that this is sometimes a scam, but I’d rather err by being too generous than by not being generous enough.  So I was going to give him a few dollars, but when I pressed the button to open the car window nothing happened, and the traffic conditions urged me to keep moving, so I drove on (I noticed someone else had given him money, so I knew he didn’t have absolutely nothing).  But my failure to give him a material gift at that moment inspired me to give him something better, something spiritual.  I was on my way to stop at a church anyway, so I went in, made a donation, lit a candle before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and prayed that she would remember that young man at the hour of his death and bring to him the necessary grace for repentance unto salvation.  Won’t I be happily surprised if I meet that fellow in Heaven and learn that it was the prayer I offered for him that tipped the scale, as it were, in favor of his salvation!  That sure is a better and far more lasting gift than a sandwich!

That’s just one small example of how we ought to be aware that we can always help people find salvation, even if we do not have such direct contact with them that we can actually preach the Gospel or in some other way lead them to God.  Our prayers and sacrifices can go a long way, and we should always keep as our first intention for anyone for whom we pray: the eternal salvation of their souls.  This is all the more critical for those who are at the point of death as we pray.

So don’t waste any time.  Souls are being ushered in to the Judgment Seat of God at every moment.  Freely we have received; let us freely give.  Much is required of those to whom much has been given.  Let us multiply our “talents” by bringing a great harvest of souls to the Lord.  As members of the Body of Christ, we have the grace to do this.  The Lord wants his house to be full, so let us do whatever we can to help our fellow human beings attain to their God-willed destiny in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Removing the Curse, Granting the Joy

On this holy and glorious feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, when all creation is singing, I decided that I would preach about suffering and exile and curses.  But we’ll get to the joy and blessings by the time we’re finished.

We start off in the position—at least where Joachim and Anne were, and the whole world was, at that time—of being under a curse: a curse that goes all the way back to Genesis, to the Garden of Eden where, after the original sin, mankind fell under a curse.  It’s outlined in several points: eating from the sweat of your brow, bringing up thorns and thistles from the ground, bringing forth children in pain, and so forth.  The main curse, according to the Eastern fathers, is that of death—mortality—and that is the chief rotten fruit of original sin.

So mankind was under this curse and in a state of exile, banishment, from Paradise.  God sent Adam and Eve out of Paradise and closed the door, and He put a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the door of Paradise (which is appropriate, since the root of the word “cherub” means “sword”—so much for those Renaissance baby heads with wings!).  Thus the whole world was in a state of exile, under the curse of the original sin, and therefore it was bearing all the sufferings that go along with that.

Now, Joachim and Anne were, in a sense, under a second curse, which is that of childlessness.  Especially in that time and culture, it was seen as a curse: to have children was not only to extend yourself and to keep your name alive through the centuries, but it was also a very practical means of social security when you were getting old and infirm!  So, not to have children was like a curse from God—you did something wrong, and God is cursing you with inability to bear children.  I’m sure that Anne would not have minded so much the curse of bearing children in pain, if only she could just bear one at all!  It was a very unpleasant situation for them.

When you read the ancient Christian writings of the events that we’re celebrating today, you see that Joachim and Anne prayed with longing and anguish for a child, expressing their deep regret and sorrow at not being able to have a child, and begging God to help them.

Into this whole situation of the curse and suffering and exile comes a little, bouncing baby girl from the hand of God.  Yet this in itself is perhaps not the most joyful thing that’s happening here, the simple fact that a child is born—although, these days that joy is more and more rare, because in the satanic madness that this country has fallen into, we kill four thousand little babies in the womb every single day.  That’s well over a million a year.  They never have a chance to bounce!  In many countries in the world this is going on, so more and more just the birth of any child should be a cause for joy: joy that this child was allowed to live.

There’s something much more special, however, in the birth of this child, because this child is the harbinger of all the blessings of God.  Through her will come the Savior of the world: the One who lifts the curse, the One who restores us from our state of exile, the One who gives meaning and a redemptive value to suffering, even though He doesn’t take all our sufferings away.  After the advent of Christ, suffering is no longer a meaningless, useless, tragically absurd element of human life.

So this feast today opens the whole of humanity to hope, and it is the beginning of the working out of the plan of salvation.  It’s a definite and decisive point in the history of salvation, for by this time the Mother is in the world.  God’s plan is irreversible—nothing is going to stop it now, because the one who is to bring the Son of God in the flesh, the Savior of the world, is here, now, and this is the time for all to rejoice!  Joachim and Anne had no idea just who this girl was that God had given to them, but their joy still knew no bounds.  We have a different perspective, because we know now what that was all about.

Now our situation today is both different and similar to the situation in which the people of the Old Testament found themselves.  We’re not so much living under the curse, the flaming-sword banishment and all that, but we haven’t actually “arrived” yet, either.  We’re living in the time of redemption and (let’s say) partial fulfillment, the first stage of fulfillment, but we’re not living in the time of the total fulfillment of God’s plan for our salvation. That will only be manifest at the Last Day, after the Judgment and with the glorification of the elect in the Kingdom of Heaven.   We’re living in a time when we’re looking to the future. We can still celebrate this feast, not only looking back at something happening then, to inaugurate the New Testament two thousand years ago, but rejoicing today because what happened then is not only a blessing for us now, but is also a sign for our hope in eternal life and glory in Heaven.  We’re still not in Paradise, yet we’re not exactly stuck in a hopeless exile, either.  We’re more like on a pilgrimage back to Paradise.  The gates aren’t shut anymore; they’re wide open—they’re just a million miles away and so we’re walking, we’re on our way, on our pilgrimage to Paradise.  Of course it may not be a million miles away for everybody: you might wake up dead tomorrow and be standing before those gates instantly!   But anyway, the way has been made clear for us; the path has been laid out by the risen Lord.  We’re just on our way back home.

The curse, too, is lifted.  Biologically, our bodies will still die, but we don’t have to go down into the Underworld and—as the Psalmist says—“live there, huddled like sheep.”  There’s a great translation in Knox’ version of the psalms: “They will go down, huddled like sheep in the Netherworld, under the fields they once called their own.”   It’s a very incisive way of expressing the passing value of material possessions and the certainty of death.  Anyway, we don’t have dwell in Sheol or Hades or whatever word you want to use for the realm of death.  Death is now a threshold, a passing into the life of blessing and of joy—for those who, through faith in Christ, have begun their journey Home.

Even what we still have to suffer in this life is given meaning through the sufferings of Christ: we can unite ourselves to Him and to his sufferings, so it’s not just tragic, meaningless pain, but through Christ it can become transformed.  Our anguish and misery and whatever else we go through in this life is not worthless, not wasted.  Again, in the psalms it says, “God collects every tear that we shed,” as something precious.  He is with us in our sufferings, and He’s trying to tell us that suffering is not the last word—that we really are on a pilgrimage back to the open gates of Paradise, and that the curse of death, of “the second death” as the Book of Revelation calls it, is taken away: we can receive the gift of eternal life.

That’s really what this feast is all about.  The liturgical texts for this feast are nearly ecstatic with joy.  We read one title after another, given to Our Lady; everything is rejoicing.  God has made her “a new Heaven”—for Heaven is the place where God dwells, and now there’s “a new Heaven”: the Mother of God, where God is going to dwell bodily, in the flesh, as a human being.  So we call her a new Heaven, recalling to our minds that Paradise is reopened for us.   Mary is called “the new Eve who gives birth to the new Adam,” “undoing the disobedience of the first Eve,” and “undoing the curse that has fallen upon all of us.”  This is like a new beginning of human history, of salvation history.   For everything was wrecked after the Fall, and the first Eden was shut, and the first “mother of the living” was cursed and cast out.  So God came and said, “Here’s a new Eve, a new Mother of the Living, a new Paradise, a new Heaven where I am going to dwell.  I am going to come through her into your exile, into your cursed situation, into your suffering.  I’m going to transform it and heal it, and make all things new!”  And then we follow Christ, with his Mother and all the faithful ones, back to the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So then, let Joachim and Anne rejoice!  And let heaven and earth and all creation rejoice!  And let us rejoice today too, because, as the proper hymn for this feast reads: the birth of the God-bearer has filled all things with joy—for from her rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God; He canceled the curse and replaced it with his blessing, thus confounding Death, and giving us eternal life!

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