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

Archive for January, 2011

Zero Tolerance

“No filth.  No lies.  No abuse.  Zero.  None in this house.  Zero.  State of Grace… One beautiful day after another is lived here, Father.  For a very long time.  No mortal sin.  I will never go back.  Or tolerate the slightest Mortal Sin abuse.  Zero.”

Well.  Even though I am a priest-monk I rarely get emails like this one, which I received last week.  But I wish I got them every day!  There are a few people out there who understand just how destructive sin is (and eternally so), and how absolutely necessary it is to flee from evil, to hate sin, to reject all that is not of God and to wholeheartedly embrace all that is of God.

We really need to understand clearly the gravity of sin and its consequences, and to employ every available measure to eradicate it from our lives.  There is only one thing we ought to hate: sin.  I suppose if you want you can hate the devil, too, but I would suggest not wasting any energy or attention on him.  He doesn’t mind if you hate him; the feeling is mutual, anyway, and if you direct your hatred toward him you are at the same time directing your attention toward him, and he can work with that.  The devil accepts negative attention as well as positive, so we should hate only sin, for sin is what will send us to Hell if we don’t repent.   The devil cannot damn us, only accuse and harass us and throw all kinds of filth at us—but it is sin that is our great enemy.

I have had sufficient experience of the ways of the devil to know how utterly vile, hateful, maliciously and cunningly cruel he is.  There is no depth of blasphemy or obscenity to which he will not stoop, that he will not seek to hurl at us or inject into us. Let us not deceive ourselves: when we sin we are aligning ourselves with the whole of Hell and all its foul and poisonous citizens, and we are preparing our own place there.  We tend to sin because we don’t hate it; we don’t recognize it for what it is; we rationalize it away and make excuses, and so we never get free of it.

Recently a friend sent me the testimony of a South American woman, a young medical professional, who had a startling near-death experience.  It is a sobering account.  It began with what we often hear about in such experiences—the traveling toward a peaceful Light, meeting one’s deceased relatives, etc—but it did not end in some vague sense of well-being.  Rather, she experienced the just judgment of the Lord.  She had “died” in a state of mortal sin and tried to flee the demons who came for her, but her flight only led her into the corridors of the abyss. The Lord, however, in his great mercy let her come back to earth so she could testify to what she had seen (I’ll write more about what I learned from all this in the future).  What I want to recount here is her experience of the consequences of sin and how utterly hateful the demons are to those who end up in their power.

Here is a pertinent excerpt from her testimony (the full version is long and covers much more than this part of her experience): “I [had] distanced myself from the Church and I began to speak badly, with cusswords, etc. [There are many other much more grievous sins she details in her testimony.] I no longer had any fear of sin, and I began to ruin my relationship with God. I began to say to everyone that the demons do not exist, that they are the inventions of the priests, that they are the manipulations on the part of the Church, and finally I arrived to the point of saying to my colleagues at the University that God does not exist, that we were products of evolution, etc., succeeding in influencing many people.

“Let us return now to the operating room [in which she “died”]: when I saw myself in that situation, what terrible fright!  I finally saw that the demons existed, and how, and they came to seek precisely me!  They came to present to me the bill, one could say, since I had accepted their offers of sin. And these offers are not free! One pays! My sins had their consequences…

“In that moment, then, I began to see come out of the wall of the operating room, so many persons, apparently common, normal, but with a look full of hate, diabolic, frightening, who made my soul tremble: I immediately perceived that we were dealing with demons. I had in myself a special awareness: I understood in fact that to each one of these I owed something, that sin is not gratuitous, and that the principal lie of the devil is to say that he does not exist: this is his best strategy in order to work as he pleases with us. I realized that yes, he exists, and that he came to surround me, to seek me.  Just imagine the fright, the terror!

“My scientific and intellectual mind now did not help me at all. I went around in the room, I was trying to get back into my body, but this flesh of mine did not receive me, and the scare was terrible! I ended up fleeing as fast as I could, I passed through, I do not know how, the wall of the operating room, hoping to be able to hide myself in the aisles of the hospital, but when I passed the wall… Down! I made a jump into emptiness… I headed toward several tunnels which went down toward the bottom. At the beginning there was still a little light, like beehives in which there were so many people: young ones, old ones, men, women, who were crying, and with frightening screams they were grinding their teeth… And I, ever more terrified, continued to descend, seeking to get out of there, while the light was going away, diminishing… I carried on roaming in those tunnels in a frightening darkness, until I arrived to an obscurity that cannot be compared to anything else… Down there, that same darkness generates pain, horror, shame, and stinks terribly. It is a living darkness, yes, it is alive: there the mind is dead or inert.

“At the end of my descent, running along all these tunnels, I arrived to a level place. I was frantic, with a will of iron to get out of there: the same will that I had to ascend in life, but now it did not help me at all, because there I was and there I remained. At a certain point I saw the ground open up, like a great mouth, enormous. It was alive! Alive! I felt my body empty, empty in a startling way, and under me an incredible frightening abyss, horrible; that which chilled me the most was that, from there down, you did not feel even a little love of God, not even a little drop of hope. That chasm had something that sucked me into it. I cried out like a mad woman, terrorized, feeling the horror of not being able to avoid that descent, because I realized that I was irretrievably sliding inside… I knew that, if I might enter, I would not at all have remained there, but I would have continued to descend, without ever being able to come back up. It was this, the spiritual death for my soul.

“The spiritual death of the soul: I was irretrievably lost forever… all the horrifying unclean beings that dwell there immediately attacked me. Those horrible beings were like larva, like bloodsuckers that were trying to block off the light. Imagine the horror in seeing myself covered by such creatures… I was crying out, I was crying out like a mad woman! Those things were burning. Brothers, they are living darkness, it is a hate that burns, which devours us, which makes us naked. There are not words to describe that horror…”

OK, you get the message.  One thing I found enlightening, and which corresponds to what we know of the demons and may experience from them in this life, is her description of Hell and the demons on this point: she didn’t speak of fire in Hell, but of the hatred of the demons that was so intense it burned like fire!  People don’t realize that when they sin, they are serving someone who hates them with an unimaginably bitter and malicious hatred, and that they will endure that torment for all eternity if they do not repent.  She also mentioned how our sin puts us “in debt” to the demons.  We owe them something for whatever pleasure or advantage that we gained in this life from committing sin instead of obeying God’s righteous and saving commandments.  The demons will come to collect their due, and there will be no place for us to run and hide.  You see from the testimony that she tried to run, but the only place to go was down and deeper into Hell.

Such revelations are not a “scare tactic” to force us into submission to God’s will.  They are simply a lifting of the veil between this world and the next, a forewarning of what we can expect if we persist in deliberately and heedlessly offending the all-holy God, who loves us and desires to make us happy forever—but He won’t be able to if we stubbornly choose sin over righteousness.  I trust that you who read this are not habitually in a state of mortal sin, but I also assume that you probably know someone who is.  Pray and sacrifice for those who are heading for eternal ruin.  Give unceasing thanks to God for your own deliverance; this thanksgiving will only increase when you realize just what He has saved you from.

Finally, as the email I received indicates: maintain zero tolerance of sin in your life, in your home.  Hate and flee from sin as from the most pestilent of plagues.  As Our Lady of Fatima said to Blessed Jacinta shortly before the child-saint died after much suffering and sacrifice for sinners: “The sins of the world are very great … If men only knew what eternity is, they would do everything in their power to change their lives.”  Now is the time to change our lives and help others to do so.  The age to come is the time to reap what we have sown in this life.  The Light at the end of our journey does not signify universal salvation but rather our being brought before ultimate Truth and Love.  Only if we have lived in truth and love in this life will we be welcomed into everlasting happiness in the next.

Contemplative Mysteries of the Rosary

We already have 20 mysteries of the Rosary upon which we can meditate as we pray, so why am I offering some more?  I guess just because they were given to me recently in prayer, and I thought they might be helpful to your prayer, too.  Of course, I have no authority to create new mysteries, but it seems to me that we ought to have a certain amount of freedom in our prayer and meditation. What follows are taken partly from the Gospels (as are the other mysteries) and partly from other books of Scripture.  I have sometimes in the past simply meditated on my Scripture reading of the day instead of the traditional mysteries, which I think is fine.  If our hearts and minds are with Jesus and Mary as we pray and reflect on the word of God, can we go wrong?

A few weeks ago I was praying the Rosary as I usually do in the wee hours of the morning, and the following ideas just sort of flowed into me.  These are mysteries that I hope will appeal to those of a contemplative temperament, since they are designed to approach the particular subject of meditation through the eyes and heart of the contemplative soul connected with them. I have prayed these myself and have found them helpful, and maybe you will, too.  So, here goes.

The first contemplative mystery is the humanity, that is, the incarnation of the Son, from which all his mysteries flow.  We contemplate this through the eyes and heart of Mary, who, as we know from St Luke’s Gospel, pondered and treasured all these incredible events in her heart.  This mystery is a kind of condensation of all the joyful mysteries, but with the intention of seeing and feeling everything as Our Lady did.  Everything that happened from the conception of Christ to his finding in the temple is seen through her, and perhaps even his passion could be added, for she was an eye-witness and a heart-witness of his suffering and death.  It must have been an incredible thing for Mary not only to try to grasp the incomprehensible mystery that God Himself was going to enter her womb and become her child, but to live it out day by day.  How she must have felt the intensity of divine love in and around her during the blessed months of her pregnancy!  The Father had placed his Son entirely into the arms of Mary, into her motherly bosom and loving care and protection.  What must she have thought as she nursed God, played with Him, taught Him how to read, etc?  For the time of his infancy and childhood, though He was her Creator and Lord, He was entirely dependent upon her, and from the time of his birth, she showed Him what it meant to be human.  She gave Him his human heart, adored by millions today, yet He first learned human love from his Mother.  This is just a point of departure for further reflections.

The second mystery is Jesus’ all-night prayer to his Father, and, of course, we contemplate this mystery through the eyes and heart of Jesus Himself.  “In these days he went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Lk. 6:12).  And again: “In the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mk. 1:35; see Lk. 5:15-16).  What must it have been like for the Son of God to pray to his Father as man?  He had been in eternal and intimate communion with the Father, yet now He was severely limited by a human body and soul.  He had to think human thoughts, speak human words, feel human emotion and fatigue.  He was one with God by nature, yet his humanity made him feel the distinction of persons much more sharply than in the immediate intimacy within the Holy Trinity.  So He had to re-enter, so to speak, the divine communion as man, and evidently He had to set aside particular and lengthy periods of prayer in order to do so.  If the Son of God needed time to enter more explicitly into communion with the Father, how much more do we mere creatures (and sinful ones at that) need to spend much time in prayer?

The third mystery is the teaching of the Word of God, and we contemplate this through the eyes and heart of Mary of Bethany.  She was the one who sat at his feet and listened to his words, and this is precisely the position of the contemplative in relation to the Lord.  (She is sometimes, and inaccurately, I think, identified with Mary Magdalene, since the biblical evidence is against this, but the two Marys certainly had the same loving approach to Jesus.)  Jesus said that she had chosen the better part (or, more accurately, the “good portion”), and ever since then the Church has regarded the contemplative life as an objectively higher form of life than any other.  There certainly may be individual “Marthas” who are much more holy than certain individual “Marys,” but the contemplative life as such is a more perfect way—though each of us attains our sanctity by being faithful to the way of life to which God calls us.  What must Mary have thought and felt as she gazed upon the Word Incarnate and listened to the voice of eternal wisdom opening to her the mysteries of God as well as of her own heart and soul?  Perhaps the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus was similar: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32).  Hans Urs von Balthasar says that contemplation basically consists of listening to the word of God in receptive silence, and then applying it in one’s life so as to bear fruit for God.  In a sense, every time we come to prayer or the meditation on Scripture with a listening heart, we are living this third mystery.

For the fourth mystery we depart the Gospels for the Epistles.  This mystery is the whole plan of redemption, the mystery hidden from all ages and centered on the person of Christ, and we contemplate this through the eyes and heart of the Apostle Paul.  We do this especially with the aid of the first chapter of Ephesians and the first chapter of Colossians.  Unlike the contemplation of the Mother of God and of Mary of Bethany, whose personal contact with Jesus was the heart of their experience and the source of their intimacy and tenderness and communion with Him, we have in St Paul a more panoramic, theological vision, which complements the intensely personal contemplation of those who saw the face of Jesus and looked into his eyes and felt his touch.  We see Christ as the image of the invisible God, the eternally-existing Son through whom and for whom all things were created, and who reconciled all things to Himself through the Cross.  We see Him as the beloved Son, in whom we have been chosen by the Father and redeemed, and through whom all divine blessings come to us, guaranteed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  This lavish outpouring of grace has resulted in our appointed destiny to praise his glory forever.  This results in confident hope here below, and a spirit of unceasing thanksgiving.  This theological vision ought to underlie our more subjective experiences of the presence of God in our lives.

The fifth contemplative mystery can only be—Heaven!  This is what we live for, our goal and destiny and eternal blessedness, and so our thoughts and desires should always be focused there.  We contemplate this through the eyes and heart of St John through the Book of Revelation.  We find the heavenly visions mainly in chapters 4-5, parts of chapters 7, 12, and 14, and the glorious finale in chapters 21-22.  Here we see where all our other contemplation directs us.  The mysteries of the life of Christ and of Our Lady all find their fulfillment here.  This is why we were created and redeemed, to share our Master’s joy and to be filled with endless life and wonder and every good thing that Infinite Love can devise.  In this mystery we find the angels and saints worshiping at the throne of God, singing in ecstatic praise and thanksgiving. We see the star-crowned Queen, clothed in Light and exalted above all creation, for she is the one who brought the Divine Savior into the world.  We see the ultimate victory of all those washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and of the banishment of all that is foul, evil, and hateful.  The Kingdom is full of light and color and beauty and all manner of refreshing blessings, and all is love and joy and irrepressible life.  To contemplate the mysteries of Jesus and Mary is to contemplate Heaven, for Heaven begins even now as we are drawn into the exchange of love between their Two Hearts.

These are just a few thoughts to get you started.  There is much more to reflect upon.  So perhaps it might be worth meditating on the contemplative mysteries from time to time as you pray the Rosary.  If they bring you closer to God, they are fulfilling the reason why there are mysteries to meditate on in the first place.  Always give priority to the ones established by the Church, but feel free to open the Scriptures anytime to enrich your prayer and contemplation!

Let Thy Delight be Done

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reading the mystic Juliana (aka Julian) of Norwich lately, to my spiritual profit. She has never been officially canonized a saint, perhaps because there are a few dubious passages in her writings, which are open to misinterpretation, or simply because so little is known about her.  In any case, her Revelations of Divine Love, sometimes simply called the Showings, is a Christian classic and well worth reading.

Even though a fairly large portion of this work contains revelations on the Passion of Jesus, it is quite joyful throughout.  The whole tenor of the book is one of joy and gratitude for God’s gracious mercy and love, and for all He has prepared for “those who will be saved.”  Being a medieval English mystic, some of her expressions are rather quaint, but all the more fresh for not being used much in our common parlance today.  She often speaks of “our courteous Lord,” over whom we ought to “marvel reverently.”  She sometimes speaks of the Mother of God as “our blissful Lady, Saint Mary.”  She even credits the Lord for being grateful to us for our fidelity to Him!

One thing she says that has helped me pray “Thy will be done,” is to understand God’s will not merely as an immutable decree that more often than not costs us a great deal to obey.  For Juliana, the will of God is that which He delights to do, for He cannot will anything that is not good, and He takes delight in whatever is good.  So now when I pray for God’s will to be done, I often simply ask Him to do whatever delights Him!

Here is a little more explanation from Juliana: “God teaches us to pray, and to trust intensely that we shall receive what we ask for, for he looks at us with love and wills to make us the partner of his good deed.  For this reason he stirs us to make the prayer that it delights him to grant… God shows as much pleasure and delight as if he were beholden to us for every good deed we do; yet it is he who does it, because we ask him intensely to do everything that delights him.  It is as if he said, ‘What could you do to please me more than to ask me, intensely, wisely and deliberately, to do the thing I will to do?’  And thus the soul is brought into agreement with God by prayer… We should pray in such a way that our will is turned toward the will of our Lord, rejoicing.”

I must confess that I am not always rejoicing when I accept the Lord’s will in any given situation, but perhaps now I have more reason to rejoice.  To put things in terms of God’s delight instead of merely his will can help us see that He does in fact will only what is good for us and for our eternal happiness.  Of course, when some severe trial is permitted by God, it doesn’t mean He delights in the suffering it causes us, but He delights in our humble, trusting acceptance of the Cross, in our love for Him that enables our patient endurance of the trial, in our unfailing hope for his grace and mercy through it all.  And He will delight to reward abundantly and beyond measure our steadfast faithfulness!  Though we might fail to be all that He wills in the midst of adversity, we can still be sure, says Juliana, that his grace will abound even then, for his mercy to the repentant endures forever, and He is the one who delights to make all things new.

She writes: “Grace transforms our failings full of dread into abundant, endless comfort; grace transforms our failings full of shame into a noble, glorious rising; grace transforms our dying full of sorrow into holy, blissful life.  For I saw with complete certainty that just as our contrariness here on earth brings us pain, shame and sorrow, so grace brings us surpassing comfort, glory and bliss in heaven, to the extent that when we come up and receive the sweet reward which grace has wrought for us, then we shall thank and bless our Lord, endlessly rejoicing that we ever suffered woe. And that shall be a property of blessed love that we shall know in God, which we might never have known, without first experiencing woe.”

That is why to say, “Thy will be done,” even when it means enduring hardship for the Lord’s sake and for the good of others, really means “Thy delight be done”!  Juliana concludes: “For it is his delight to reign blissfully in our understanding, to sit restfully in our soul, and dwell in our soul endlessly, drawing us completely into him.  In this work he wills that we be his helpers, giving him all our attention, learning his teachings, keeping his laws, desiring that all be done which he does, and trusting him in truth.”

It’s all rather delightful, is it not?

Newness of Life

“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  The expression “newness of life” has always been attractive to me.  It seems full of freshness and hope, like spring flowers and budding trees.  It is quite appropriate, at least for us in the northern hemisphere, that Easter occurs in the spring.  Our resurrection from the dead will be the ultimate newness of life for us, but it has already begun in the mystery of baptism.  The signature quote of this blog is about former things passing away and God making all things new.  Christ will definitively manifest this divine marvel when He returns in glory, but the sacrament of baptism already makes former things pass and transforms the soul into a “new creation” in the Holy Trinity. We thus become children of the Father who are members of the Body of Christ and who are renewed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit day by day until we are welcomed to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, where Christ pops the cork on the heavenly wine of eternal joy, as He promised, “when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mt. 26:29).

We’ve only recently concluded our celebration of the Lord’s baptism in the feast of Theophany, and I noticed that the liturgical texts are full of expressions of the newness of life that Christ came to bring, as He sanctified the waters of the Jordan and, through his own baptism, opened the way for our deliverance from the powers of darkness into the bright and blessed life of the saved.  I’d like to share a few of them with you here, since they express the great joy we ought to have over what Christ has done for us.

“O Word without beginning, You have buried man with You in the stream: he was corrupted by error, but You make him new again…”  “A new birth He grants to the dwellers upon earth, fashioning them afresh…”  “By the cleansing of the Spirit have we been washed from the poison of the dark and unclean enemy, and we have set out upon a new path free from error that leads to gladness of heart past all attainment, which only they attain whom God has reconciled with Himself…”  “Let the whole earthly creation clothe itself in white, for this day it is raised up from its fall from heaven.  The Word who preserves all things has cleansed it in the flowing waters: washed and resplendent, it has escaped from its former sins…” “Salvation comes through washing, and through water comes the Spirit: by descending into the water we ascend to God.  Wonderful are your works, O Lord; glory be to You!”

Perhaps those of us who have labored long and failed often have a hard time believing that all things can be made new.  But we have to keep recalling the gift that was granted to us in baptism (and to remember that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable”; Rom. 11:29).  Confession and Holy Communion renew us in the grace of our election as children of God, and they help us to “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13).

We’re having an early spring here at Mt Tabor.  The temperatures are in the 60s, but no one has the heart to tell the buds and the bees that it may yet freeze.   New life irresistibly bursts forth, and it will weather the weather, come what may.  Once we have been baptized we have been forever consecrated to God, and He will recognize us as his own, even when we return after having departed into the far country of our foolish renunciations of the Father’s loving providence.  While we still live and breathe in this world, there is never a time when newness of life is not possible.  Let us embrace it now, and go ever deeper into the rich life of those initiated into the Mysteries of God, for divine grace is an ever-flowing fountain of joyful life that refreshes us at every step of the way back to our heavenly home.  “The Lord will protect your journeying and your homecoming, henceforth and forever” (Ps. 120/121).

Thankfulness and the Things of Heaven

You’ll surely remember that I preached on this Gospel (Lk. 17:12-19) just a few Sundays ago, during Advent.  So why, you might understandably ask, does it appear again so soon on the liturgical calendar?  It seems that there is more time between Theophany and Lent this year than the liturgists know what to do with.

I envision this vexing situation in the following way.  For centuries, the greatest minds in the Byzantine Churches pondered the conundrum of what to do when Easter is early one year and late the next.  No one could come up with a solution.  Finally, a great council was held to resolve the issue once and for all, and after long thought and deliberation, one of the fathers stood up and exclaimed: “My brethren, I have the solution!  When Easter is early one year and late the next, all we have to do is repeat the same Gospels over and over to use up the extra time!”  A hush momentarily came over the assembled hierarchs, but soon they burst into cheers, acclaiming the great wisdom of this solution, which took so many centuries to arrive at.  And so it is today.  When we run out of Sundays after Pentecost, we just start repeating Gospels over and over until the time for Lenten preparation arrives.

Be that as it may, since I so recently preached on this Gospel, I will focus more on the Epistle today (Col. 3:4-11), which is also a repetition from recent weeks, but it turned up on a Sunday I wasn’t preaching, and so it is fresh as far as I’m concerned.

Even in this case, however, I have to expand it somewhat to be able to explain the message of the Apostle Paul.  In this third chapter of the Letter to the Colossians, he is setting out to do three things (actually four, but the fourth belongs to specific categories of people, and I want to focus on those that pertain to Christians in general).  The epistle reading gives us only one of the three elements—and that the “negative” one—which leaves us with an incomplete picture.  The three elements are the vision or goal or foundational reality of Christianity, the negative means toward it, and the positive means toward it.

First, let us see what the general thrust of our faith is, before we try to figure out the means of attaining its final end.  St Paul talks about dying and rising with Christ, and how this should sharpen our perspective on the One Thing Necessary.  “If you have been raised with Christ,” he says, “seek the things that are above [that is, in Heaven], where Christ is.”  In case we didn’t get it, he immediately repeats it: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Why should we do this?  He answers: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

OK, let’s understand the simple Christian logic of this.  We have died and risen mystically and sacramentally with Christ through faith and baptism, and thus our lives are spiritually (which means hidden from the eyes of the world) united to Christ in the mystery of God the Holy Trinity.  So it naturally follows that we ought to set our hearts and minds on Heaven, and the things of Heaven, for that is where Christ is, He with whom we are united by his grace.  This is a simple and obvious truth, but it is not always easy to put into practice, since we live in a chaotic and mostly secular world and are burdened with concupiscence on top of it all.

So now we move to the negative means for securing us in the things of Heaven: cut out all the bad stuff that proves to be an obstacle to maintaining this perspective and achieving its rewards.  The Apostle puts it in the strongest terms: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.”  Here, by “earthly” he means sinful, that which is of the world in the sense of being not of God.  He gives some examples of earthly things that have to be done away with: sexual immorality, evil desires, anger, malice, slander, lying, etc.  On account of these, he warns, the wrath of God is coming.

So what has to be done is to put off the old and put on the new.  Since this new year is only a couple weeks old, perhaps we have not yet trashed our new year’s resolutions and we’re still hopeful about putting off the old habits and acquiring the new.  This “new” way of being, says the Apostle, has to do with restoring the image of God within us.  In that sense it is not new but a renewal.  As I quoted from the Poor Clare abbess two weeks ago, to be re-newed or re-formed is not to be given a totally new form, but it is to recover the original one, the image of God in which we were created, but which we have disfigured or obscured by our sins.  So to put off the old and put on the new is really clearing out the trash so that the original image can shine in its pristine purity, clarity, and beauty.

The characteristics of this original image are then listed by the Apostle in the third section, the positive means for keeping ourselves focused on and headed toward the things of Heaven, where Christ is in glory.  These means are not practiced as a way of gaining God’s favor or love, but, as St Paul says, we practice these because we are aware that we are already chosen and loved by God, and these are the only appropriate responses to the divine goodness.  Among these elements are compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, and love. These are to be practiced in a spirit of peace and especially of gratitude.

He really focuses on giving thanks, mentioning it three times in three verses: “And be thankful… sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness… do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

This, then, can bring us back to the Gospel reading, in which nine out of ten healed lepers did not return to their Healer to give thanks to Him.  Evidently, even though their bodies were renewed by the healing of their leprosy, they hadn’t yet cleared away all obstacles to letting the image of God shine anew within them.  Perhaps, having received back their health, they set their minds on earthly things instead of heavenly ones, and did not make God the first priority in their lives.

St Paul says in the epistle to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”  If we look at Jesus’ parable of the sower, we see that it is the word of the Lord that is planted in us and is meant to dwell in us richly, that is, to find good soil and then flourish and bear much fruit.  But Jesus said that focusing on the pleasures and cares of this life will “choke the word,” and thus it will not bear fruit.  So, in a similar way, St Paul is telling us that setting our hearts on things of this world instead of things of Heaven will choke the word—thus the word of Christ will not be able to dwell in us richly.

We see three main elements in the story of the ten lepers, and these elements also figure into St Paul’s vision of what the renewed life in God’s image is all about: faith, mercy, and gratitude.  The lepers must have had faith in Jesus to begin with, or they would never have cried out to Him for mercy and healing. Yet only one followed through with gratitude.  Jesus’ blessing fell only on this one, and he said to him: “Your faith has made you well,” which can also be translated, “Your faith has saved you.”  Jesus came to this world both to heal and to save.  He once said to the 14th-century mystic Juliana of Norwich, “I shall make well all that is not well, and you will see it.”  In the Gospels we do see Jesus making well all that is not well, and He continues to do so from Heaven, in the measure of our faith and trust—and our gratitude as well.  For no new gifts shall be given if we are not grateful for the ones already given.

Speaking of Juliana of Norwich, I’d like to conclude in a moment with a little reflection of hers on giving thanks, especially as it relates to prayer.  We all know the value of faith and love and the sacraments in helping us set our hearts on the things of Heaven, but it may well be that a spirit of gratitude to God goes a very long way in preserving us in that heavenly focus, for as soon as we lose our sense of gratitude, we start focusing on ourselves and our own petty miseries and hence we withdraw from living in communion with Christ.  So we need to embrace the Apostle’s teaching: to make every effort to cultivate that vision of Heaven and our union with Christ and all the things of Heaven: Our Lady, the saints and the angels, and everything God has prepared for those who love Him.  This effort includes cutting out the earthly, sinful stuff that obscures his image in us, and cooperating with the grace of the inner renewal by the practice of all the virtues that belong to the children of God.  And finally to be thankful, which is also the message of Jesus in today’s Gospel.

So Juliana of Norwich writes, in her graceful, joyful style: “Thanking also belongs to prayer.  Thanking is a new, inward knowing, with great reverence and loving awe.  It is a turning of our self with all our might to the working that our good Lord stirs us to, rejoicing and thanking him inwardly.  Sometimes, because of its abundance, it breaks out audibly and says, ‘Good Lord, many thanks!  Blessed may you be!’  Sometimes, when the heart feels nothing because it is dry or else because of the temptation of our enemy, it is driven by reason and by grace to cry to our Lord, audibly going over his blessed passion and his great goodness.  Then the virtue of our Lord’s word turns to the soul, quickens the heart, by his grace starts it working properly, and makes it pray most blissfully.  To rejoice truly in our Lord is a most blissful, lovely thanking in his sight.”

Yes, This Blog Used to be Called Word Incarnate

It seems to me that with the changes here at the monastery it might be time to do something new, and hopefully something bright and beautiful.  I’m still not quite sure what the future (even the near future) will bring, but I plan to stay here at Mt Tabor, living a quieter, more prayerful and focused sort of life, without (please God) the energy-draining anxieties that were often my daily bread as abbot of the monastery.  I’m sure there will be sufficient struggles and sufferings to keep my life authentic, but perhaps things will be taken to a new level, one at which I hope to have fuller access to the divine mysteries of grace to which God ever calls me.

I had considered renaming this blog “New Wineskins,” something that Jesus said is necessary to receive the “new wine” that He came to give (Mt. 9:14-17).  But I discovered that there are at least two other blogs with that name.  I think maybe I like the title I’ve chosen even better (I’ve not changed the web address, which still has the old name, so people can easily find this).  That passage from the Book of Revelation about former things passing away and God making all things new is one of my favorites, and it seems to apply to the present moment of my life as well as to the Christian life as a whole.

But there’s something I need to make clear about all this newness: new wine, all things new, new look to the blog, new situation in my life, etc.  “New” doesn’t mean “novel.”  The Church has suffered through about five decades of novel interpretations of the Scriptures, the Tradition, theology, spirituality, morality, and the documents of Vatican II.  Much of this has been destructive and not life-giving or renewing in the best sense of the word.  When Jesus spoke of new wine, He meant true wine, the real thing, not a counterfeit but rather the genuine realization and fulfillment of God’s plan.  It was something that was straight from God, prepared by what went before but transcending it in his own Person and Mystery.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), so his revelation is “ever ancient, ever new.”  It is his unchanging truth, applied concretely to the needs of every time and place through the wisdom of the Church, which makes all things new in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So newness for the sake of novelty or in the name of some vague idea of “change” is dubious at best and completely bogus and harmful at worst.  But when God makes all things new, He makes them all true.  He unveils the reality of things, his own design and will for what He has made, especially for those whom He has made in his image.  If we follow God faithfully, we will find a certain steadfast continuity with all He has done and revealed, yet there will be moments or seasons of renewal, perhaps of a certain change of emphasis or focus.  We will always be walking the narrow and hard way to the Kingdom of Heaven, but God will still grant us blue skies and starry nights and fresh air and restful waters—as He sees we need them.

Every time we repent of sin and receive the grace of absolution, God is making us new inside.  Every time we receive the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, our souls are being renewed.  We may be pleased to find that suddenly our prayer becomes rich and deep, or joyful and grateful, or full of light and peace.  He is making all things new.  Even in the dry or sorrowful or anguished times, the Spirit of God is at work in us, for He never rests until all the dross is purged and we finally reflect the image of God to perfection.

So, since this new year is still quite new, maybe this “makeover” of my blog is timely and welcome.  I don’t have a particular schedule for how often I will be posting.   I was withdrawing somewhat from regular posting a short time ago, but the new situation here might free up some creative energy so I can write more.  But I’m not going to try to fit a pre-conceived pattern of posting.  If I have something to say, I’ll say it; if I don’t, I won’t.  But I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to post at least two reflections (which will include my homilies as usual) per week.  If some other dramatic thing happens, you’ll be the first to know!

I’m going to leave this post up until Sunday so that people have a chance to discover what is going on here and don’t think that some mischievous cyber-genie has redirected their computers away from Word Incarnate.

I trust that by the grace of God and with the prayers and companionship of my heavenly Mother, I will be able to proceed in peace along whatever ways they may wish to open up to me.  Perhaps then you will be the beneficiary of what I hope will be my own deeper prayer and some worthwhile reflections on the Scriptures and spiritual life.  Let us open our hearts to Him who makes all things new!

The Appearing of our Blessed Hope

The feast we celebrate today is, in a sense, the fulfillment of the mystery of the Nativity of Christ, and hence is considered to be part of the Christmas liturgical cycle.  “Theophany” means “manifestation of God,” so Christmas itself was a theophany.  But then it was the Son of God being manifested as a child.  Here He is manifested as an adult about to begin his public ministry of preaching and healing, yet there is an additional manifestation.  At the Jordan River the Holy Trinity was manifested for the first time: through the baptism of Jesus, the voice of the Father from Heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove upon the beloved Son.

I would like to look at the mystery of the Beloved Son, for He is at the heart of what we celebrate today, and of what it means for us.  It is because of Jesus that we know the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is because of Him that we are adopted as beloved children of God.  He it is who descended into the Jordan to sanctify the water and thus to give water as such the potential to communicate the grace of the Holy Spirit in the indispensable sacrament of Baptism.

First let us note that it is necessary for us to receive the grace of baptism if we wish to be children of God and heirs of eternal life.  We are not children of God by default; it takes more than mere existence, more than being born in the flesh to make us members of God’s family.  For Jesus said that we have to be born “of water and the Spirit” if we wish to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Jn. 3:5).  Scripture is clear that we are not automatically children of God, but that a child of God is something we become.  St John says that those who believe in Christ are given power to become children of God (Jn. 1:12).  St Paul says that by nature we are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), so we need the grace of the Spirit of God to enter into the divine adoption as his children (see Rom. 8:14-17).  Jesus even said that certain of his detractors had the devil as their father instead of God (Jn. 8:42-44).  So to become a child of God is a gift of God and not an automatic right.

If we, through baptism and through faith, become sons and daughters of God, let us look again at the Beloved Son who was baptized in the Jordan for our salvation.  When our God-loving bishop Richard was here a few weeks ago, he made an insightful point in his homily at the Liturgy.  He made the connection between Jesus’ identity as the Beloved Son and his mission as the sacrificial, Cross-bearing Savior.  He said that in accepting to be beloved children of God, we are implicitly accepting to bear the Cross as did the only-begotten Son.  Being loved by God and bearing the Cross are two sides of the same coin, two inseparable dimensions of our saving relationship with God.

Let us briefly look at a few aspects of the life of Christ, so that we understand this mystery a little better.  What happened immediately after Heaven opened at Jesus’ baptism and the voice of the Father proclaimed Him the Beloved Son?  He was sent into the desert by the Holy Spirit to do battle with the devil, and that in a physically weakened state due to a prolonged fast.  So what then does his life look like?  “You are My beloved Son; now go and fast and fight the devil.  You are My beloved Son; now preach the Gospel and deal with the opposition and hatred and treachery of those who reject You.  You are My beloved Son; now give yourself over to condemnation, torture and death in order to win salvation for the very ones who condemn, torture, and kill You.”  This is the life of the beloved Son, and if we are children of God, we will share in it, at least to some extent.

This should not surprise us.  It is made clear in the Epistle to the Hebrews that this is the way God works.  “God is treating you as sons,” the author declares.  “The Lord disciplines him whom who loves, and he chastises [literally, “scourges”] every son whom he receives” (12:6:7).  Jesus Himself says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten” (Rev. 3:19).  So we have to understand and accept the inseparable connection between being loved by God and sharing the mystery of the Cross.  And we ought to be glad that the Father thinks so highly of us as to associate us with the saving work of his beloved Son, to make us members of his Mystical Body, so that He can see his Son’s image in us.

At the same time, the mystery cannot be reduced to “You are my beloved children, so now suffer.”  It is not suffering as such that God is interested in but rather the transformation of our lives.  Because we are burdened with concupiscence, our wholehearted response to God’s grace will necessarily entail some suffering, especially in the form of self-denial, as we grow more fully into the image of God’s beloved.  And we know that the only way to the Resurrection is through the Cross.

St Paul, in today’s brief but densely rich passage from the Epistle to Titus (2:11-14; 3:4-7), helps us understand the process of “becoming what we are,” actually living in full correspondence to the grace of our baptism into the All-holy Trinity.  He says that this grace unto salvation is meant to train us to renounce worldly passions and to live in a sober and righteous manner in this world.  And what are we doing in this world?  Aside from all the daily details of putting God’s will into practice, the bottom line is, according to the Apostle, that we are “awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  This term for “appearing,” which is where we get our word “epiphany,” turns up three times in this short reading, which is probably why it was chosen for this feast, though there is also mention of baptism, which makes it the ideal reading.

So while we are on earth we await the ultimate epiphany of the Lord.  We celebrate his earthly epiphanies at Christmas and Theophany, and in all the other mysteries of the Gospel in which his power, wisdom, and glory are manifested.  But our eyes and hearts are still fixed on Heaven, for the One we celebrate now in faith and sacrament is the One who will someday be manifested for all eyes to see. His Kingdom will be definitively established, and He will welcome into it all those who have lived in this world awaiting in hope the appearance of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Apostle goes on to say that Jesus gave Himself—that is, the beloved Son fulfilled his mission of embracing the Cross—to redeem us from sin and to “purify for himself a people of his own…”  A people of his own.  This is a theme common in the Old Testament, which refers to the Israelites, later known as the Jews.  This also brings us back to the truth that children of God are made, not born.  If God has to claim a people as his own, set apart his own special possession, that means that this “people of his own” is distinct from people in general.  This has nothing to do, however, with predestination (at least in the Calvinistic sense), because everyone without exception is invited into this special people of God.  It is up to us whether or not we accept his invitation and then live according to its terms.  Again quoting St John: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

So even though we are celebrating great, transcendent divine mysteries today—the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the sanctification of all creation through the immersion in water of the incarnate Son of God—we are, in regards to ourselves, celebrating our adoption as beloved children of God.  We are celebrating, in the words of the Apostle, the “washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” Since the word of God calls baptism the “washing of rebirth,” it is clear that one cannot be “born again” without the sacrament of baptism.  Faith alone is insufficient, though necessary.  We have to be literally immersed (which is what “baptism” means) in the grace of God through an actual washing with water—water that communicates this grace through the words commanded by Christ and the ritual celebrated in his Church.

As we emerge from these life-giving waters, the “Grace-bearing Spirit” (as we call Him in our Liturgy), descends upon us as He did upon the beloved Son.  And the Father is well-pleased with his newly-enlightened sons and daughters, who now have become part of that “people of his own”— those who were once no people but who are now God’s people; those who once had not received mercy but who now have received mercy (see 1Peter 2:10).

Through baptism, says St Paul, we have become “heirs in hope of eternal life,” and that is the most privileged status that anyone ought to desire in this life.  That is what all these great mysteries are about; that is their goal.  God didn’t reveal Himself just to dazzle us with his glory; He didn’t speak through the prophets and his only Son just to impress us with his wisdom.  Everything God has done in this world is for us and for our salvation.  Even the linking of cross-bearing with our identity as beloved children of God is to purify and prepare us to be welcomed into his heavenly Kingdom.

This is part of what Jesus called “fulfilling all righteousness” when He urged John to baptize Him.  We ought to remember this at times in which we may be perplexed about the working of God in our lives.  John was confused about what was happening; it didn’t seem right to him; he thought that somehow things should have been the other way around.  But Jesus said: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Note that He involves John in this divine work: “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  He says the same thing to you and to me, for He involves us in his ongoing mission of salvation in this world.  Let us hear those words of Jesus when we are confronted with the will of God but do not understand it, or feel unworthy to be invited into great and profound mysteries: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

With Jesus, as beloved children of God through baptism and faith, we will, through the discipline of obedience and even of suffering, fulfill all righteousness.  Then, even if we can’t easily or often perceive it, Heaven will open and the Holy Spirit will descend upon us and anoint us, and the Father will speak his comforting words of love and blessing, embracing us as his own.  And this will be a theophany in the order of grace, it will sustain and encourage us, as we wait in blessed hope for the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Evidence of Reform

It seems appropriate that at the beginning of this new year the Gospel for today (Mk. 1:1-8) starts thus: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  So we begin the new year and we begin the Gospel of Mark.  But we are not beginning a liturgical cycle of Mark; this Gospel has been chosen for this Sunday before Theophany to prepare us for the mystery of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

St John the Forerunner and his life and ministry form something like bookends around the feast of the Nativity of Christ.  His theme, “prepare the way of the Lord” characterized our Advent preparations and, historically, his birth was a preparation for the birth of Christ, a sign that the promised Messiah was about to enter the world.  And now, just two days after the leave-taking of the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, we advance to the Jordan River, where John is actively preparing the way of the Lord by announcing Him who is to come, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and who will baptize the repentant in his Holy Spirit.  Having feasted for a week or so, we are already being called anew to repentance!

John, who had lived a solitary life in the desert for many years, suddenly showed up at the Jordan River, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  He dressed in the manner of Elijah, with a hairy tunic and a leather belt.  A true ascetic, his meager diet consisted mainly of locusts and wild honey.  As a brief excursus here, let us note that John, as a righteous Israelite, ate only kosher insects.  I’m sure you have been wondering for years just which bugs you are permitted to eat, so rejoice, today I’m going to tell you.  According to the prescriptions of the Book of Leviticus (11:22), you may eat locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers.  But I’m afraid you are forbidden to eat any other type of insect.  Of course, if you wish, you may choose not to eat insects at all, but at least now you know what your options are.

Let us now attend to more important aspects of the Baptizer’s ministry.  In some of the Gospel accounts, St John offers a pointed exhortation to those who would come for the baptism of repentance: “Bear fruit that befits repentance,” or, in another translation, “Give some evidence that you mean to reform.”  This is necessary, because repentance is not a matter of words or of feelings, but of action, of changing one’s perspective and especially one’s behavior.

I read a very insightful book during our Advent retreat, by Mother Mary Francis, PCC, the foundress of a Poor Clare monastery.  It is a series of talks she gave to her sisters in the monastery (entitled, Come Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting).  I’ll share something of what she said on the Forerunner’s exhortation.  (In this first passage, I will substitute the word “monk” for “sister”, so that it will apply more directly to present company.)  She says:

“In the liturgy of this Sunday, the Church is saying, ‘You have to do something.’  And she is saying, ‘I want to see something.’ … We have in the Gospel… the narrative of St John the Baptist… He [says] to us, ‘Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.’  For if we are really doing this, there will be evidence.  We cannot be working in all earnestness, with God’s grace, to overcome our faults, our blatant faults and our hidden faults, without evidence being given.  The community will see it.  We will see it if a monk is working very hard not to be involved with himself but to be involved with the things of God and with the community, with the things of the Church.  The evidence will be there.  If a monk is concerned about working with what he knows in himself are tendencies in himself to a lack of generosity, to selfishness, the evidence will be there; we will see it.  If a monk is deepening his prayer life, the evidence will be there.”

So then, as we hear the call of the Forerunner to repent and to give evidence of our repentance, we see that this is a very practical matter.  If our repentance is genuine, there will be concrete evidence of it; it will be noticeable to others.  We don’t change our lives and do good in order to be noticed, however, for that would be pharisaical, but rather in order to give glory to God, as Jesus indicated when He said: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

Mother Mary Francis has something else to say about giving evidence that we mean to reform our lives.  She says: “To reform literally means, not to make a new form, but to go back to the original form… we often need to be reshaped and reformed… we are formed again, not in a different way, but back to that dream…that God has of each one of us, that dream-form in the mind and the heart of God of what he intends each of us to be.  This is what we mean by reform… It is easy to say, ‘I believe in God.’  But to say ‘I believe that God is in control’ can be very hard—to really give him the evidence of the heart, of the soul bowed down before him, sometimes in confusion at what he seems to be doing (and not doing) and sometimes in real anguish—and [still] to believe.  This is the evidence he is asking of us…

“[Our anxieties] are debilitating, they are degenerative of our forward action, and yet it can be very hard to let go of [them].  We ask: ‘But how is it going to turn out?  It is getting more confused all the time…”  Hope is such a strong thing, because it is hope in the face of almost everything not presenting human reason for hope.  Where shall God ask for evidence of this hope if not among his contemplatives? Dom Gabriel [Sortais], speaking about faith and hope and love in prayer, said that when a contemplative is crushed with anxieties and still hopes, this man is praying… It can seem sometimes that one can hardly formulate a prayer, but one hopes on.  This man, he said, this monk, is praying.”

So the fiery preaching of the Forerunner, which may superficially seem somewhat harsh, is actually quite rich and profound.  His call to repentance is a call to unshakable faith, hope, and love, a call to a genuine, authentic life of fidelity to the word of God, for which actual evidence is necessarily required.  But this is good; it is a reality check.  If we don’t wish to prove that our repentance is genuine by giving evidence of it in our behavior, then this says that we do not wish to be disciples of Christ, that we do not take his Gospel seriously, that we think God will be fooled by our empty words of prayer that have no works to back them up.

Lent begins quite late this year, so at this point we’re not actually at the threshold of its preparatory period, as we often are when this Sunday comes around.  But we’re only a few days away from the Feast of Theophany, and our hearts must be cleansed for this as well, if we are to celebrate it worthily and receive its grace.  The very reason St John was preaching repentance and administering his baptism was that the Christ was about to be manifest in their midst, and he was preparing the way of the Lord, preparing the people to recognize and receive the Son of God who would soon be baptized Himself, as Heaven opened and the awesome Divine Trinity was manifested.

St Paul has a few words to say about the manifestation of the Lord in the Epistle (2Tim. 4:5-8). He says that a crown of righteousness awaits all those who have loved the epiphany of Christ.  It’s not clear if he is speaking of Jesus’ manifestation in the flesh on earth or of his ultimate manifestation on the Last Day, so we can accept it to mean both.  Those who celebrate with love and with repentant hearts the mysteries of Christ’s life on earth will naturally also be among those who look with love and eager longing toward his coming at the end of time to bring all his elect into his heavenly Kingdom.

The Apostle has some counsels for us in the meantime: “always be steady, endure suffering… fulfill your ministry,” that is, the demands of your vocation.  To be steadfast and willing to endure suffering reminds us of the passage I quoted about the man who hopes in the midst of anxieties.  To fulfill the demands of our vocation reminds us that we need to give evidence that we intend to reform, to bear fruit that befits repentance.

Finally, St Paul utters his classic statement that I think we all hope will be on our own lips as we prepare to pass from this life to the next, powerful words that summarize the life of the true disciple of Christ: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  If we cannot say this at the end of our lives, then we have failed to be what God has called us to be.  I’m sure St John the Baptizer could have said these words as the heavy steps of the executioner echoed through the corridors of the prison where he made his final oblation to God.  This is how all the lives of the saints concluded, in one way or another.

Let us not then be afraid to fight the good fight, for the Lord fights with us.  Let us not be afraid to persevere through all trials and labors, that we might finish the race with the help of God’s grace.  And let us strive diligently to keep the faith intact, not only in what we believe but in how we live.  Perhaps the elements of the Apostle’s exhortation correspond to the elements of his final testimony.  “Always be steady” corresponds to “I have fought the good fight,” “endure suffering” corresponds to “I have finished the race,” and “fulfill your ministry” corresponds to “I have kept the faith.”  This is all that matters: that we come to the end of our lives having served the Lord with all our strength, loved Him with all our heart, and endured everything for the sake of his glory and the salvation of souls.

So, having celebrated the profound mystery of the nativity in the flesh of the Son of God, let us look now toward his manifestation in the River Jordan.  Let us give evidence that we are ready to be re-formed, that is, restored to that which God has dreamed us to be, that which He had in mind when He created us and called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Then we too will receive the crown of righteousness prepared for all those who value nothing more highly than to be united with the Lord, in this age and in the age to come.

Marking Time, Pondering Mysteries

Christ is born!  Here it is, the beginning of another year of Our Lord, 2011.  Many people thought the Lord would return at the beginning of the year 2000, but here we are, 11 years later, and the world still turns, and we get a little bit older yet a little closer to the Kingdom of Heaven as well.

The turn of each new year tends to get us to look both to the past year and to the coming one.  During 2010, perhaps some things happened that we didn’t expect to happen, and perhaps some things that we expected to happen didn’t.  It will be something like that with this new year.  It is in certain ways predictable and in other ways unpredictable.  But it is in God’s hands, and that’s all that should really matter to us.

This year will be a year of milestones for me.  It will see the 25th anniversary of my monastic profession of solemn vows, and later it will also see the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ, should I live all the way to September.  It will likely see new things as well, as the Lord wills.

I wonder sometimes why we mark time, why it seems to be so ingrained in the human psyche to note milestones and special times and seasons, and even to make a big deal of them.  A 25th anniversary, for example, is just one more than a 24th and one less than a 26th, and in itself is just another day.  Perhaps I should mark the day by receiving 25 lashes for all my sins and failures over the past quarter-century.  A while back a pastor whom I barely know wrote to me, saying that his parish was celebrating an anniversary (I forget how many years), and he asked me to send a congratulatory letter to be published for the event.  I obliged him, of course, but I couldn’t help think it was strange that someone would say, in effect: “It’s our anniversary, so congratulate us.”  I tend to wish that no one knew any of my significant dates, because I’m not really interested in congratulations.  All I want is to be saved from the fires of Hell and be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven!  Nothing else is of any real importance.

Yet here I am, preaching about marking the time of the new year, and noticing some particular dates.  When we look at the Scriptures, though, we do see that certain dates and times are significant. For example, today we are celebrating the feast of the Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He was circumcised eight days after his birth, not seven and not nine (this is why we celebrate this feast on January first and not on December 31st or January 2nd).  Why eight days?  I don’t know; I haven’t studied the question.  It just seems from the Scriptures that it is so simply because God decreed it so, and that should be enough for us.

Let us, then, at least for now, leave the discussion of dates and times and look at the mystery of the Gospel that we have proclaimed (Lk. 2:20-21, 40-52).  This reading connects the circumcision of Jesus to his birth by beginning with the last verse of the Christmas Gospel, which has the shepherds returning to their flocks after their astounding experiences, praising and glorifying God.  Then we hear of Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day, and the main thing that is emphasized in the Gospel is that the newborn King received the name Jesus, for the circumcision of a child was the time at which he was formally given his name.

What a momentous event this was, though it probably didn’t seem so to the priest who wielded the knife and who had performed this ritual countless times.  Jesus, Y’shua, after all, was not an uncommon name.  It is the same as Joshua, the great figure of the Old Testament after whom many Jewish children were named.  But for us, the name Jesus has such significance, such evocative power at the mere pronunciation of it, for it is “the only name under heaven… by which we must be saved,” as St Peter exclaimed shortly after the first Pentecost (Acts 4:12).  I don’t suppose Christians can even imagine what life would be like if the name of Jesus were not at the heart of it, not giving life its meaning and character and hope and joy.

All this began with those simple words of the Gospel, “he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  Scripture doesn’t read like a novel, with all kinds of detailed descriptions, but what it does say in few words is enough, as St John remarks, to fill the world with books attempting to adequately express the mystery.

The Gospel for this feast opens up another mystery as well, as it advances us to a point 12 years after the circumcision of Christ to his finding in the temple.  This is the only account in the whole of Scripture that mentions anything that happened to Jesus between his infancy and adulthood.

Here’s another significant date: 12 years old.  This event didn’t happen when Jesus was 11 or when he was 13. Twelve is not only a sacred number in Jewish tradition, it is also the time of the coming of age of a boy, a time when he becomes responsible for keeping the law of the Lord.  So we shouldn’t be surprised to find Him discussing matters of the law with the elders in the temple.

When Mary and Joseph finally found Him there, they weren’t reflecting on sacred numbers or significant mysteries of God.  They were desperately searching for their lost Son, and with that parental love that sometimes comes out as a gentle reproach, they asked Him why He didn’t tell them He was staying on in Jerusalem while the rest of the relatives returned home.  Jesus then began opening divine mysteries to them: “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” (Literally, “in my Father’s things,” which is why it is sometimes translated “about my Father’s business.”)

If Jesus had come of age and was now responsible for keeping the commandments of God, then this coming of age also meant that He would acknowledge the primacy of obedience to his heavenly Father over that of the saintly guardian who functioned as his earthly father.  So, this was a lesson that Mary and Joseph had to learn.  This moment was a kind of a guidepost, a milestone, a symbol which needed reflection, yet it didn’t immediately alter the nature of his daily life, for the Gospel says that Jesus returned home with his parents and was obedient to them, all the while growing in grace and wisdom.  And, as St Luke is fond of reminding us, Mary kept all these things in her heart, cherishing and reflecting upon the great mysteries of God in which she played such an important and intimate part.

In meditating upon this Gospel, I found myself in two places simultaneously: Mary’s Heart and the Father’s house.  If you’re in Mary’s Heart, you are automatically in the Father’s house, for Mary is always where Jesus is, and Jesus is always in the Father’s house.  As I reflecting upon the Gospel I asked Our Lady if I could always be one of those things she keeps in her Heart.  Thus I will be sure to be found in the Father’s house.  The “Father’s house” seems to me to be a kind of all-encompassing reality: the Father’s providence, the Father’s will, the Father’s commandments, the Father’s love, the Father’s grace and mercy—if we are living in these, we are living in the Father’s house.  With Jesus our place is in the Father’s house, and also with Jesus we journey with Mary and Joseph, and we let them guide us.  We allow the Mother of Jesus to keep us in her heart, as she kept all the divine mysteries there, as she kept her love for Jesus there.  For we are all her children, and since she is a sheltering and nurturing presence in our lives, we know that our place in the Father’s house is secure.

Let us return to the mystery of circumcision, this time with St Paul’s spiritual interpretation in the Epistle to the Colossians (2:8-12).  One of the key words of this epistle is “fullness,” and it occurs twice in this short passage: “In [Christ] the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him.”  So, if the image of the Father’s house is an all-encompassing reality, so the person of Christ, who must always be in his Father’s house, expresses this reality in his own person.  In Him the fullness of God is embodied, and because of this, we have fullness of life in Him.

What, then, is our access, to this fullness?  The Apostle first speaks of a spiritual circumcision, which is fulfilled and realized in the sacramental rite of baptism.  He made a point to say that the fullness of God dwells in Christ bodily, and then says that through a circumcision not made with hands, we cut off “the body of flesh,” meaning all carnal and worldly desires and practices.  Immediately he says that through baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Christ, and this is the power (which he calls “the working of God”) that not only enables us to put off the body of flesh, but also delivers us from sin and sets us on a course for the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, as the rite of circumcision was essential for the Jews to belong to the people of the old covenant, baptism is essential for us if we wish to be numbered among the people of the new covenant.  The rite of baptism into the Holy Trinity accomplishes in a spiritual manner what the ancient rite of circumcision signified, yet it goes far beyond that, for we truly become children of God.  We have a place in the Father’s house, we have the fullness of life in Christ in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily.  And, since we are now part of the family of God, we are kept safe in the Heart of the Mother of God on our perilous journey back to our heavenly homeland.

So, as this new year begins (which really is a day of beginnings: 1-1-11), let us rejoice that we belong to the new covenant, and that we are children of the God who makes all things new by his grace. It may be a day like any day on the calendar, but our celebration of the mysteries of Christ makes it an extraordinary day, a day of grace, a day of salvation.  Let us ponder all these things in our hearts.

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