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

Archive for April, 2011

Given from Heaven

Christ is risen!  We approach the end of our Bright Week celebrations and we go on with our more or less continuous reading of the Gospel of John. One of the most important verses in today’s Gospel (3:22-33)—at least to me, since I used it as the Scripture quote on my ordination cards—is this: “No one can receive anything unless it is given from Heaven.”  As far as the priesthood goes, this text aligns well with what is said in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that no one takes this office upon himself, but only when called by God (see 5:4), that is, one can’t receive it unless it is given from Heaven.

This also applies to just about everything in our spiritual life and relation to God.  That is the meaning of grace, a freely bestowed gift of God’s favor and benevolence.  God doesn’t owe us anything, so we are not in a position to demand anything, so unless it is freely given from Heaven, we won’t receive anything!  I’m reminded of the story of St Bernadette, at least in the way it was dramatized in a popular film on the subject.  One of the older sisters in the convent was envious of the young seer, who was blessed with so many heavenly favors.  So she accosted her once, saying something to this effect: “I have spent my life serving God, my eyes are red from all-night vigils, and I pray and fast, but what have I received in return? Nothing!  And to you, you worthless little peasant, the Mother of God herself has appeared! Why would she come to you?”  The brittle old nun was evidently trying to buy favors from God, while she was sorely lacking charity and humility as well as spiritual understanding.  She probably hadn’t read the Gospel of John, for there she would have seen that no one can receive anything unless it is given from Heaven.

There is, however, something else in today’s Gospel that might at least help us become more likely candidates for receiving gifts from Heaven.  It’s another famous saying of the Forerunner: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”  If we are full of ourselves, if we think our righteous lives deserve recognition from God, if we think our prayers and sacrifices require God to do for us what we would like Him to, then there is precious little room in our hearts to receive anything from Heaven. Perhaps God would like to bestow spiritual gifts upon us, but when He examines our souls He discovers that there’s no place to put them!  We’re already full, already clogged up with our own self-importance and our demands and our pharisaical testimonies of what we have done for God!

So it is time for us to decrease, remove the inner clutter, do some spiritual spring-cleaning.  It’s time to remember that, like the old nun’s assessment of St Bernadette, we really are worthless little peasants.  Yet even such as we can love God and give our best in his service, even we can quietly offer up the sufferings and humiliations of this life, gradually decreasing and making room in our souls for gifts from Heaven—when and in what manner God chooses to grant them.  And even if He doesn’t, we go on loving and serving Him, for He is the Lord and has forgiven our sins and has promised unimaginable and everlasting blessings to those who love and obey Him.

The Forerunner speaks of Christ in this Gospel as the Bridegroom, an image the Lord uses for Himself in both the old and new testaments.  St John said that his joy was complete in simply standing and waiting for Him, listening so as to hear his voice.  As I reflected in prayer upon this Gospel, I had before me an icon of Christ the Bridegroom.  But behold, here it is Easter time and the icon of the Bridegroom is an icon of the Passion, depicting the Lord in a state of pain and humiliation, wearing the crown of thorns and the robe of mockery!

The Resurrection can never be separated from the Passion.  As soon as we say, “Christ is risen!” a question is immediately implied.  Risen from what?  Risen from the dead, of course, from a painful, humiliating death by which the divine Bridegroom became the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.  So it is that the Passion of Christ will ever be the crimson lining of his radiant robes of glory.  After his resurrection, Jesus retained the marks of his wounds, for they were in fact precious to Him, an eternal memory of how much He loved us.

So let us be, like the Forerunner, friends of the Bridegroom, who stand and serve, listening for his voice, decreasing so that his presence can increase, in our own lives and in the whole world.  We can receive nothing if it is not given from Heaven, but the more we make room for divine grace in our hearts, the more likely it is that Heaven will be pleased to overflow into us, filling us with the grace of the Risen Lord.  Standing and serving the heavenly Bridegroom, in the inseparable mysteries of his suffering and his glory, we will discover that our joy has been made complete.  Christ is risen!

Easter, 2003

[To keep the paschal spirit going this week, I’m offering today one of my older Easter homilies, which I think I never “recycled” here before.  May it be a blessing!]

Christ is risen!  This morning, I am going to give you a prophecy.  It’s not my prophecy, though; this is a prophecy of Isaiah—I think he’s much better at it than I am.  Isaiah says:

The Lord of Hosts will provide a rich feast for all peoples.  He will destroy the veil that covers all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations.  He will destroy death forever.  The Lord God will wipe away all tears from all faces.  On that day it will be said, “Behold, our God!  This is the Lord for whom we looked!  Let us rejoice and be glad that He has saved us!”

I want to take a look at a couple of points here, starting with the end:  “Behold our God!  This is the Lord for whom we looked!”  This is the One who has come to save us.  When we look at the icon of the Resurrection, we behold the God who has come to save us. We behold the One that we have looked for, the One that all humanity for all ages consciously or unconsciously has looked for: the Savior, the one who would save us from death.

Death, as Scripture says, is the last enemy: no one has ever figured out how to overcome death, how to prevent death, no matter how many anti-aging herbs you might take, or no matter what the mind-boggling advances in bio-nano-technology are coming up with, no one is going to solve the riddle of death.  Only Christ can do that.  And it’s really amazing that Isaiah had this insight in 700 B.C. or thereabouts when he says God will destroy death, forever!   What could that have meant to the ones who first heard that prophecy?  Probably they just went away, scratching their heads.  But this was really the word of God, and it was going to be fulfilled in Christ, who has changed not only the meaning but the consequences of death forever.

We still have to cross that threshold; we still have to lay our body in the tomb, but what happens after that?  We don’t have to go down into that realm of the dead and just live in the darkness and some sort of shadowy quasi-existence.  But we pass that threshold into the new and everlasting life that Christ has come to give us by his resurrection, because He went down into death.  God, in the flesh, went down into the realm of death, and came back out again, giving us new life and hope, and a victory over that last enemy, which is death.

It’s interesting, the way in which that prophecy is worded, because he speaks of death as a veil that covers all peoples and all nations.  And this is true; it is like a pall over the whole world, this death.   But Christ takes it away, as this prophecy says; He destroys, He takes away, that veil of death that covers all people, that has covered all people for all time.  He has cut through the veil, and we see that when He died on the Cross, the veil of the Temple was ripped in two, symbolically indicating our newfound access to the heavenly sanctuary.  That veil of death which kept us away from God and kept all of humanity shrouded in that outer darkness—well, Christ’s death and resurrection has torn the veil, taken it away, made access to Paradise, to the heavenly sanctuary, possible for all those who would believe in Him, all those who would follow Him in that way.

There’s another veil that I discovered recently in the writings of Romano Guardini.  I found it very interesting because he was talking about the presence of Christ—the universal presence of Christ everywhere, throughout the whole cosmos, throughout all of nature and everywhere.  But we cannot usually see it.  And you know why he said that?  He said we don’t see it because the veil of custom keeps us from recognizing Christ.  I think that is intriguing and profound.

You know, if we are brought up not to be able to look for God everywhere, not to develop a sense of awareness of the presence of God, then we become accustomed to not perceiving his presence.  We become accustomed to living as if He wasn’t present, and so we don’t look for Him.  We don’t expect to find Him, because we’ve become accustomed not to.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We have to also rip open the veil of custom.  And there are many other things that apply that way, not only to individuals, but to nations, to communities—unfortunately to churches, too—that are covered by this veil of custom which keeps them from actually recognizing the presence of God in their midst.

This was the problem with the Pharisees—the only ones that Jesus had a “short fuse” with—because they had let this veil of custom, of their particular interpretation of the Law, cover their eyes so thoroughly, that they could not recognize God in the flesh, speaking and teaching and working miracles right before their eyes!  It’s incredible how blind they were because of this veil. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, everyone’s rejoicing, but the Pharisees are saying, “That’s really the last straw! We’ve got to get rid of this guy; what’s He going to do next?” Instead of saying: “This man can raise the dead! Is He not from God?”

So that veil, which they had woven themselves, “the web that was woven over the nations,” they wove it over their own perception: they could not see. We have to look at our lives and see where and how is that veil of custom, the veil of habit, the veil of routine, covering us and making us unable to see the presence of Christ everywhere around us?

If we lift the veil, He’s there.  And the revelations are there.  But we have to be willing to break out of our customary ways of doing things, seeing things, and regarding things, understanding things—and realize that there’s something more: there’s the presence of Christ.  The power of the Resurrection has been infused, so to speak, into all creation. All creation has been energized by the Resurrection of Christ and his Face is looking at us everywhere! If only we can stop to look, to listen, to pray, to ponder, to stand in awe and wonder at the greatness and glory of God that is shining everywhere around us.  It’s there!  But we have to look for it. We have to “lift the veil.”

Christ has lifted the veil of death; we have to lift the veil of custom.  There’s something else that has to be lifted, too—and this is heavier than a veil.  It’s a stone. You know, when the myrrh-bearing women were going to the tomb of Christ, they had one question on their minds, one concern.  They couldn’t care less about the soldiers who might take them into prison and do the same thing to them that they did to Christ.  All they were concerned about was, “Who is going to roll that stone away from the tomb?”  But what happened when they got there?  They found the stone was already rolled away.

Now there’s an application for us as well, because we often are burdened with some sort of “stone” over the entrance to our souls, to our hearts. And it may be some problem that keeps us in a state of unhappiness, or depression, or despair, or some sort of hopelessness about anything ever changing.  I read something from a bishop recently who said (this was in a context that’s different, but it can be applied to anything): if you deny that Christ can help you, with this problem or with that problem or whatever you’re going through, then you are effectively denying that He rose from the dead.

So, there’s a stone that has to be rolled away.  But the thing is, if these veils are out of the way, we will notice—and Christ wants us to notice (for this is part of the message of the Resurrection)—that the stone is already rolled away!  We don’t realize that because Christ, the Roller-Away-of-Stones, is living within us in the power of his Resurrection, that anything that weighs us down like a stone in our life is already moved away by his power.  But we have to first recognize that, and accept it, and live out of that awareness.

We need to remember that, because Christ calls us to a new and better life.  We’re too used to having things be in a certain way that we just sort of accept as, “Well, there’s nothing that I can do about it, so I might as well live in this unpleasant mess that I’ve made of my life.”  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There was someone here recently who had some pretty serious problems: real spiritual oppression, but also some emotional problems as well.  We prayed with her very intensively, and at a certain moment she had a very dramatic breakthrough where things opened up for her, and she felt the love of God, and many things began to change for her.  But what happened was, not long after that, she renounced, in effect, that wonderful breakthrough.  She was not only saying, “Well, that didn’t really happen,” she was also saying, “That shouldn’t have happened, it’s wrong somehow.”  She had lived so long under this oppression, it was all she knew, and it was something familiar, even though it was unpleasant, so she just went back to it, because she couldn’t break through and accept and start to change and live a new life that was handed to her by God’s grace. That showed me how easy it is for us to cling to the darkness, just because it’s a familiar place.

Christ challenges us to go to an unfamiliar place: to a place of light, to a place where He’s going to challenge us.  And we need some courage and faith and trust to make that leap.   Like it said in that document we read about Christ releasing the dead from Hades: it says they leapt out of Hades!  Well, we have to “leap out” too, leap in faith to overcome these obstacles, to let go of the darkness that we cling to, consciously or unconsciously; the familiar darkness that we’ve come to accept as our mode of living.

Christ is here, risen from the dead, to tell us today: “It doesn’t have to be that way.  You can live a new life because I live a new life, and I live in you, and I’m going to make you new—if you let Me, if you follow Me, if you have the courage to turn your back, to walk away from the grave: because the stone is already rolled away.”

So let us then accept this and praise God and give thanks because He has taken away that veil of death that has covered all peoples and all nations, and opened the way to the heavenly sanctuary.  Let us also, with his grace, remove that veil of custom, so that we can have a clearer perception of his presence, and of the whole truth that He wants to reveal to us through the persons and situations of our life.  And then, when our perception is refined, we will be able to see that the stones that we thought could never be rolled away are already gone, for Christ is risen!

Resurrection, Life, Light, and Glory!

Christ is risen!  This is the cry that echoes throughout all the churches of East and West on this glorious day.  It is the reason that Christianity exists in this world, for as St Paul says, if Christ is not risen then our preaching is in vain and your faith is useless and you are still in your sins.  But the unchanging testimony of the Church—which goes right back to that first Easter Sunday and the discovery of the empty tomb, to the appearances of the Lord of Glory to his disciples—is that Jesus is indeed risen!  Therefore death is conquered and forgiveness of sin is offered to us, for Christ has opened the way for us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven forever.

Easter is considered the greatest of all feast days, not only because rising from the dead is the greatest of divine wonders, but because this mystery expresses the fullness of God’s revelation of Christ in our redemption unto eternal life.  That is perhaps why on this feast we don’t simply read one of the accounts of the Resurrection.  We read the profound Prologue of the Gospel of St John, because it gives us a panoramic view of the whole of the mystery of God, from the eternal generation of the Son within the Holy Trinity, to his incarnation in the flesh, to the fullness of eternal life in his grace and truth and glory.  It is as if to say that the Resurrection of Christ is at the very heart of all that God wanted to say to us and to do for us, all that He wants us to participate in for our eternal happiness and perfect fulfillment.

As soon as St John tells us who the Word of God is, he says, “in him was life.”  Jesus Himself made this even more explicit when He was talking to Martha before raising Lazarus from the dead.  She thought He was talking more or less abstractly about the general resurrection in some distant future.  But Jesus had to correct her by saying: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  This means much more than saying He has the power to raise the dead.  That power was something He even gave to his disciples during his earthly ministry.  But to say that He is the Resurrection and the Life tells us that this belongs to his very being and identity.  It is more even than the assertion that He has been raised from the dead into glory.  The very power and meaning of Resurrection is part of his inner constitution; because of it He could give the Holy Spirit to his disciples by merely breathing on them after He returned from the grave.  He isn’t the Resurrection because He rose from the dead; He rose from the dead because He is the Resurrection!

In an analogous way, when Our Lady identified herself to St Bernadette at Lourdes, she did not say, “I was immaculately conceived,” but rather, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  This inscrutable mystery was not simply something that happened to her; it is something that constitutes her very being and identity.  If Mary were not the Immaculate Conception, she would not be at all, for this what God willed for her and how He created her.  This was her identity, and it was essential for her mission.  Mary had to be utterly immaculate in order to bring God into the world as man.  She was thus bonded to the All-holy Trinity in a way no other human being could ever be, because she was chosen from all eternity to give manhood to God, to be the personal instrument of the divine Incarnation, which made possible our salvation.

So when we deal with God, we deal with profound and eternal mysteries, not merely significant historical events.  Jesus didn’t simply die and come back to life as one of countless events in human history.  Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God made man, who is Resurrection and Life, communicated to our fallen nature—through his incarnation, death, and resurrection—the very possibility of living forever and sharing in the life of God.  It is only because He is Resurrection and Life that He can give this grace and glory to us.  The sheer fact of our existence as human beings does not entitle us to eternal life.  The Gospel says that to those who believe in Jesus is given the power to become children of God.  Our mortal and contingent nature has to be infused with divine life and the power of resurrection if we are to live forever.  This is precisely what Jesus did for us, and we receive it through baptism and faith and the whole sacramental and spiritual life of his Church.  So this is what we, members of the Church and therefore children of God, joyfully celebrate today.

When St John says that in Him was life, he goes on to say that the life was the light of mankind.  So Christ is not only that mysterious, hidden power of resurrection that abides in the depths of our souls, He is also the Light of grace and truth that guides along the path to salvation and eternal life.  St John emphasizes the fact that Jesus is the true light that enlightens us.  He had to say that because there are false lights in this world, and, as St Paul says, even the devil can disguise himself as an angel of light.

There’s a lot of talk in new-age circles about the “light,” but that is a false light, one that is used by evil spirits to deceive gullible and undiscerning souls.  So let’s be clear about this: Jesus Christ is the only True Light there is in this world.  He alone is the Resurrection, as well as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  St John makes it clear in the Gospel when he distinguishes between those who knew Him not and received Him not, and those who did receive Him and believe in Him.  Only the latter were granted the grace to become children of God and thus to enter the mystery of resurrection and eternal life.  This is also why the Church takes such great care to declare what is true and what is false, what is of God and what is not, what is genuine life in Jesus Christ and what is not.  When we live in the Church and according to her teachings, we know we have the Life that is the True Light which enlightens all.  The only other alternative is to embrace the darkness, which so many unfortunately do, although often unwittingly.

As for us, we have much cause for rejoicing, not only because we have the true light, but because the grace and inner dynamism of resurrection, which is of the very nature and person of Christ, is communicated to us anew today as we celebrate the manifestation of his glorious life in our midst today.

The Gospel says that we have beheld his glory.  Certainly the author of the Gospel did so with his own eyes, but we do so with the eyes of faith and love.  Even if we don’t see his glory, we can still perceive it, through the proclamation of the Gospel and our meditation upon it, through our contemplative prayer and through communion in the precious Body and Blood of our risen Lord Jesus.  St John invites us in his Gospel to perceive the glory of the Lord even in the depths of his agony on the Cross, for in his theological vision this constitutes the beginning of Jesus’ glorification.

Yet the emphasis today is on that dynamic power of resurrection and eternal life.  Even though the Byzantine Liturgy celebrates deeply and extensively the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death, it doesn’t invite us to dwell very long on Jesus as being dead.  Once He dies, and we lament for a while with his sorrowful Mother, our attention is immediately directed to the soul of Christ descending to Hades to proclaim his victory over death and to release all the just from all ages who were waiting for their divine Liberator and Redeemer.  That is because we know Jesus to be the Resurrection and the Life, and it is his divine, eternal, irrepressible, super-abundant, unconquerable life that we celebrate today, and we rejoice exceedingly because Jesus gives this same life to us!  “Because I live,” He declared to his apostles, “you will live also”(Jn. 14:19).  Because Jesus lives, because He has risen from the dead, manifesting Himself as the Resurrection and the Life, we will live also, and we will live forever.

So we celebrate the Resurrection, not as one mystery among the many great mysteries of the life of Christ, but in a sense as the sum of them all, as their crowning and their goal, as that which gives meaning and direction to everything that the Lord has ever said or done. The grace of this feast not only enables us to stand in awe and wonder at the power and love and goodness of the Lord, but it seizes us—if we allow it—and situates us in the Heart of God, lifting the veil on the meaning of our life and destiny. Through our worthy celebration of this feast, the Lord communicates to us not only the power to live as children of God, but also, as St Paul so eloquently said: “…the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance of the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which He accomplished in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and made Him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places…” (Eph. 1:17-20).

We heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-9), that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection over the course of 40 days, speaking to them of the Kingdom of God.  Today is the beginning of that special 40-day period of the extraordinary presence of Christ in our midst, who desires that we perceive his glory as He manifests it to each of us uniquely.  Let us open our hearts to hear Him speaking of the Kingdom of God and inviting us to a deeper share in his divine life, which overflows in grace and truth, in mercy and everlasting love.  And, like the radiant, joyful angels at the empty tomb, let us always have these words in our hearts and on our lips: Christ is risen!

This Man has Done Nothing Wrong

[I published this about three years ago, and I noticed it has been making the rounds lately, so I looked at it to see what I had written.  Perhaps it will be an appropriate Good Friday reflection, though I still think you shouldn't have turned your computer on today!]

In reading the Passion account of the Gospel of St Luke recently, I reflected a bit upon the words of the Good Thief, known to tradition as St Dismas. There are a couple points in that passage we’d all do well to keep in mind.

The first thing Dismas did was to rebuke the arrogant blasphemy of the Bad Thief. This evildoer had no use for the Messiah while He preached and healed and called all to repentance. He just thought he’d try to capitalize on whatever power He might still have had to get him out of this desperate jam—only to continue with his former way of life. “Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself and us!” But Dismas knew it wasn’t that easy, nor was the power of the Christ to be regarded or used so cheaply and ultimately so fruitlessly. He evidently was using his own dying hours to reflect upon his life—which he had wasted through evildoing—and he decided that he would finally come clean. The thief became an honest man who acknowledged his wrongdoing and sought forgiveness, so that if nothing else he could at least end his wretched life with a clear conscience.

So he tried to get his partner in crime to become his partner in repentance. “Do you not fear God?” We ought to ask ourselves the same question. I know that in recent decades the “fear of God” has fallen into disfavor, partly because of former exaggerations or caricatures, and partly because of a modern arrogance that flees accountability for sin and creates new caricatures in the opposite extreme of the rejected notion of the Intimidating God. But Scripture rightly says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, in that it starts us off on the right track: we have to know that God is God and we are not, that his word is truth, and that He has every right to judge his creatures whom He has endowed with intellect and free will.

Let’s look a bit more closely at the reason Dismas was so aghast at the blasphemy of the other criminal. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” He may have wondered how the bad thief could speak so roughly to an innocent man who was receiving the same punishment as the guilty. The question might have been put this way: “Are you completely devoid of any sense of justice, of all remorse, of all reverence? The Messiah of God is being executed like a criminal, and you, the real criminal—while unrepentant—are trying to press Him into your service as if He were no more than one of your own corrupt underlings!”

Dismas then manifests the fruit of his own examination of conscience: “we are punished justly, as the due reward of our deeds.” There’s something here we may need to consider. It has taken me quite a long time, but over the past few years I have finally come to the conclusion that whatever painful, unpleasant, or otherwise bad things happen to me I fully deserve them. Though initially I may resist or complain about unexpected misfortunes of whatever sort, I usually end up (when I calm down) realizing that, yes, I do in fact deserve whatever happens to me. Most people seem all too easily to minimize sin, its gravity and its consequences. Rather than become indignant that some mishap or disappointment or even tragedy should happen to me, it’s better to give thanks to God that He doesn’t give us what our sins really deserve, but that even in our trials and sufferings He is going very easy on us. “Could be worse,” I often say, and not only tongue-in-cheek, but as a real matter of fact. Dismas rightly came to that realization. In the agony of crucifixion, he looked back at his life and concluded: I deserve this; it is the due reward of my deeds.

Then he said to the other thief, underscoring his point: “but this man has done nothing wrong.” Isn’t it all too often the case in our own lives that we (surely unconsciously or unwittingly) play the role of the bad thief instead of the good one? When some misfortune or illness or disaster befalls us—and we don’t receive immediate relief—is not our prayer, in effect, something like this: “Aren’t you the Lord? Then come and help me!” We get a little impatient with Him while we hang on the cross and He doesn’t immediately take us down.

But there are two things we forget. First, we suddenly get amnesia concerning our sins. We forget that we deserve to suffer because of our disobedience to the divine commandments and our long record of selfish and uncharitable behavior. Do we ever say, in times of trial or suffering, “I deserve this, for I am a sinner”? You see, then, that we are more often like the bad thief than the good one. Second, we forget that “this Man has done nothing wrong.” It is almost as if we are putting God on trial, as the bad thief was. We criticize Him for not rushing to rescue us from every jam, even when it’s our own fault that we got into it. Hey, look, Jesus is not the sinner, you are—but do you not fear God, seeing that you are under the same sentence, that is, that He has chosen out of love to endure the punishment for your sin, the punishment that you refuse to admit you deserve? I think we don’t sufficiently reflect upon this. The Lord has chosen to suffer the punishment that we deserve, out of sheer, gratuitous compassion and love. This is divine grace; this is divine mercy. We have no right to tell Him to relieve us of our woes, though He is God and has the power to do so. It just might be, as a matter of fact, that He does wish to heal or deliver us, but we have to get things in order, so as to be living in the truth: we deserve whatever bad thing befalls us, for it is only the “due reward of our deeds”; we cannot in any way lay the blame, either for the thing happening to us or for our not being delivered from it, on the Lord, for “this Man has done nothing wrong,” and therefore it is not for sinners to insist He do what they ask.

Wait, though. There is one more indispensable point, and here is the whole essence and pathos of the story, as well as our connection to the loving Heart of Jesus and hence our salvation. Only when we honestly embrace justice (we deserve our punishment) and fear of the Lord (He doesn’t deserve our criticism, nor does He owe us anything), are we in a position to seek mercy: “Jesus, remember me when You come into your Kingdom.” Under these conditions the Lord will infallibly grant forgiveness and salvation. Indeed, He immediately promised Paradise to the repentant, trusting thief. When He was being crucified, the Lord could have read Dismas’ heart, and all the poor man would have had to say was, “Jesus, remember me.” But the Gospel was written for us and for our salvation, so we needed to see that fear of God and acceptance of just punishment have to precede the plea for mercy, if that plea is really to be genuine, truly from the heart—and not just a calculated pitch for temporal favors.

I think of those words and never fail to be moved by them. I told my friend Laura, when she lay dying and unable to formulate prayers any more, just to say this: “Jesus, remember me.” There is such power in those words—the power of tenderness, of vulnerability that nevertheless trusts. And it is enough. He could read her heart. He can read yours, too.

The Lord wants to save us, and despite the heavy demands of taking up our crosses and following Him faithfully, He makes it as easy as He can, while not compromising truth. All He asks is that we approach him as the Good Thief did and not as the bad. He asks that we recognize that we deserve to suffer for our sins, and that He, as the Son of God, has the right to judge us in strict justice. He asks that we recognize that He is not the one to blame for the evils and sufferings of the world, for this Man has done nothing wrong. Then He asks that we recognize how much He loves us and does not wish to treat us as our sins deserve (see Ps 102/103), how He wants to see repentant hearts turned toward Him in hope and trust, saying: Jesus, remember me. That is, He wants us to be with Him in Paradise.

To the End

[I won’t be preaching as much as usual this year, so there won't be as many Holy Week reflections.  But if you want something additional to read, you may wish to consider a fine article by Peter Kreeft on God’s answer to human suffering.  May grace and mercy be yours these holy days.]

I have mentioned in the past what St John has said about Jesus as the Passion account opens in his Gospel at chapter 13, with the washing of the feet.  It is a very solemn introduction: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  The phrase “to the end” (eis telos) is rich in meaning and hence a single translation is inadequate.  It can mean that he loved them to the end of his life, or to the fullest extent possible (which would here mean unto death, see Jn. 15:13), or as the fullness or completion of what He came to do.

There are other forms of the same word used in different places in the New Testament that enrich its meaning still further.  Pope Benedict points out two more of these in his new book.  Different forms of the word are used at the beginning of the Passion narrative, which I quoted above, and at the end, when Jesus says, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).  So loving his disciples to the end was accomplished finally on the Cross, when He brought his own personal role in the redemption of mankind to its conclusion.  It is finished, completed, brought not only to its conclusion but to its full expression.  To die on the Cross is to love to the end, to give Himself without reserve for the salvation of sinners.

There is more.  A form of the same word is also used in the Epistle to the Hebrews (5:9), where it says that, having learned obedience through what He suffered, Jesus was “made perfect” and thus became the source of eternal salvation for us.  To be made perfect is to love to the end, to complete the work the Father sent Him to do.  But there is still more.  The Pope notes that in the Greek Old Testament, whenever this word is used it is in the context of the consecration of a priest.  So the perfect sacrifice of Jesus’ perfect and utterly complete love for us is understood in the Bible to be a priestly sacrifice, which raises and extends his personal love for his disciples to a universal level, to that of the Mediator between God and man.

The sacrifice that Jesus offered as the full expression of his total love for us encompasses more than his crucifixion.  The context of the above passage from Hebrews seems to point to Gethsemane as well, where Jesus offered prayers and supplications, cries and tears.  What was happening there?  We read of the intense struggle Jesus entered into as He contemplated the enormous weight of the sin of the world that He was called to bear in his own body and soul.  Saints and theologians have grappled for centuries with the mystery of Jesus’ “not my will but yours be done,” for it touches upon our understanding of who Jesus was, as both God and man.

Pope Benedict offers this explanation, based on the writings of St Maximus the Confessor.  It is a bit deep, but therefore worth deep reflection.  “Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos [i.e., the Word, the divine nature and person]; it remains complete.  And the will is part of human nature… Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each.  In other words: in Jesus the ‘natural will’ of human nature is present, but there is only one ‘personal will,’ which draws the ‘natural will’ into itself.  And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will.  In becoming attuned to the divine will, it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation. Maximus says in this regard that the human will, by virtue of creation, tends toward synergy (working together) with the divine will, but that through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will.  He regards consenting to God’s will, not as his opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

“The drama of the Mount of Olives lies in the fact that Jesus draws man’s natural will away from opposition and back toward synergy, and in so doing he restores man’s true greatness.  In Jesus’ natural human will, the sum total of human nature’s resistance to God is, as it were, present within Jesus himself. The obstinacy of us all, the whole of our opposition to God is present, and in his struggle, Jesus elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self.”

So we see that our redemption is beginning to be worked in Gethsemane and is only “finished” on the Cross.  And we also see that what was happening in that blessed garden was not simply Jesus’ personal struggle in the face of the unspeakable suffering He was about to endure.  In a similar way to that by which He “nailed” our sins to the Cross in his own person, He bore our rebellious wills in Himself and brought the whole of man’s resistance to and rejection of God into his own self, experiencing as “my will” the entire alienation and opposition of fallen human nature to God.  But He decisively overcame that with the resounding declaration, “Not my will but Yours be done,” and thus opened the way, as the Pope said, for the healing and reconciliation and elevation of our broken nature, making possible a definitive choice for working with God instead of working against Him, overcoming the delusion that doing God’s will is the sacrifice of our freedom.

We see something similar on the Cross.  Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”  This was not simply an expression of his own ineffable anguish and agony, nor was it only a recitation of a psalm that ended in triumph and praise.  Jesus bore in Himself every suffering, every sin of mankind, in the face of his Father’s righteous judgment, even the depths of human despair (so we can never say that Christ does not know what we go through).  As He overcame our fallen nature’s rebellious will by first experiencing it—“take this cup from me”—but then saying “not my will but Yours be done,” He also overcame the damning weight of human despair—“why have You forsaken me?”—with his dying words of utter trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

I think we will never understand fully the vast extent and profound depths of what Jesus really did for us in the mystery of our redemption.  But we ought never to give it a superficial interpretation or reduce it to pious clichés.  We must always seek to go deeper, for there are always greater depths, and this will continually enrich our life in Him and secure us in our loving fidelity to his will.  Let us, during this Holy Week and always, strive to discover the ever-deeper truth of what it means that our Lord Jesus Christ has loved us “to the end.”

Did I Not Tell You…?

“Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”  With these words of the Lord, which are both invitation and challenge, we begin the celebration of the mysteries of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.  Yesterday we ended the 40 days of preparation, and this weekend is a kind of festal interlude before we enter explicitly into the Passion of Jesus, but Lazarus Saturday (Jn. 11:1-45) and Palm Sunday still belong to the events of the climax of Jesus’ life and mission on earth.

It is St John’s explicit intention to manifest the glory of Jesus in his Gospel, and we come to a moment of great significance today.  The raising of Lazarus is the last and greatest of Jesus’ signs (or miracles) in John’s Gospel, and it is also the most dramatic.  We are drawn into this most poignant and powerful mystery: Jesus calls forth a dead man from the grave as He Himself prepares to sacrifice his own life for our salvation.  The raising of Lazarus seems to draw its spiritual and emotional energy from everything that precedes it as well as what will follow it.  It is a moment of decision, one that separates those who are with Jesus from those who are against Him.  It is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate power over life and death, which He will manifest in his own resurrection.

Right from the beginning, Jesus speaks of the glory of God that will be manifest when He goes to Bethany.  Once Jesus heard that his dear friend Lazarus was sick, He did not hurry to him in order to heal him (which is evidently the reason Martha and Mary notified Jesus).  Instead, He commented that this illness would turn out to be for the glory of God, and for the glory of the Son of God.

This event is a potent combination of human emotion and divine power.  Nowhere is the human heart more grieved and broken than at the loss of a loved one to the mysterious and terrible reality of death.  So we find Martha and Mary weeping, and their friends grieving with them.  Even Christ, the Son of God, wept before the tomb of his friend.  The Greek word for “troubled,” which is used to describe Jesus’ emotional state, is literally “angered.”  This could perhaps mean that Jesus felt the full weight of the evil that had weighed upon the world since the fall of man, the power of death which is the fundamental punishment for sin, and the misery it has wrought in the hearts of his beloved people for so long, and now for his dear friends. Therefore it is as if Jesus were saying: “Enough!”  So He squared off with death and faced it down. He rescued his friend from the jaws of all-devouring death, saying: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.  Lazarus, come forth!”

Then the soul of Lazarus, hidden within the impenetrable shroud of the netherworld, heard the voice of the Son of God and returned to animate his own dead body, rising up and walking, still bound in his grave-wrappings, to the entrance of the tomb.  “Unbind him,” said the Lord, “and let him go free.”

Jesus did this, as his prayer to his Father indicates, as a final opportunity to demonstrate to the people that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, sent by the Father to save the world.  This is perhaps why St John refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs.”  They are meant to be testimonies to the truth more than awesome displays of power.  The raising of Lazarus was a sign to the people that Jesus was the Son of God who came to reveal the Father and to lead sinners to repentance and thus to eternal life.  It was an invitation to faith, to discipleship.  And it was a dramatic one, for it would be the last one before Jesus would go to his own death.  Many who witnessed this sign did in fact put their faith in Jesus, but some did not, and instead reported Him to the authorities, who then planned to put Him to death.

Jesus comes to us today, not so much to work astounding miracles, but to secure our faith in Him, and hence to elicit our love for Him.  Jesus had two questions for Martha in the Gospel.  The first was after He proclaimed Himself to be the Resurrection in person and his assertion that those who accepted Him as such would live forever.  He asked her: “Do you believe this?”  Then, at the gravesite, when she balked at his command to remove the stone, He cried out: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”  Martha answered the first question adequately, even if not quite directly.  She did state her faith that Jesus was the Son of God, and that the Father would do for Him whatever He asked.  At the second question, her somewhat faltering faith was rescued by obedience, for she acquiesced to his will.

What about us?  We have hopefully already answered “yes” to Jesus’ question about believing in Him and accepting Him for who He says He is.  Yet this confession of faith will not take us as far as He wants us to go.  We have to hear and answer another question, one that is asked at the end of the Gospel of John: “Do you love Me?”  Seeing signs is not always sufficient for securing a commitment to Jesus, but if our hearts are bound to Him in love, we will follow Him wherever He goes, even to the Cross.

As Jesus prepares to mystically re-live his Passion in the midst of his faithful people, He is looking for those who will answer his question to his satisfaction.  For such are relatively few.  Only a minority of the people of this world say they believe in Him, perhaps 25-30%.  Of these, a smaller percentage believe in Him according to the fullness of the faith He bequeathed to his Church. And among Catholics, the percentage is much smaller of those who actually practice their faith, who are wholly devoted to Christ and live for his glory.  So how much of the world can He count on to stand by Him who suffered and died to take away its sin?  Five percent?  One percent?  Jesus is calling you and me to be among the one percent.  He asked St Peter not only: “Do you love Me?” but also “Do you love Me more than these do?”  We have to love Him more than the lukewarm, more than the average believers, whose hearts are half with the world and its pleasures and half with Jesus.  He has to rely on us to make up for the rest, insofar as that is possible.  That is what reparation is all about, and reparation is a spontaneous fruit of love.  When we love the Lord, it is not only because his goodness and compassion attract us, but simply because He is worthy of it.  And when we see how others in this world do not love Him, and even blaspheme and hate Him, we spontaneously wish to love Him more, as it were in place of those who love Him not.

The truth of this, not only as a human subjective response, but as an objective reality that requires our attention, was brought out clearly in the messages that came out of Fatima.  The angel taught the children prayers of reparation for those who do not love the Lord and who commit Eucharistic sacrileges.  And Our Lady told Sr. Lucia that there were many souls whom the Lord’s justice would condemn for sins and blasphemies against his beloved Mother, and so she came asking for reparation, saying, “Sacrifice yourself for this intention and pray.”

So when we gather to celebrate mysteries of our faith, it is not only to recount the great deeds of the past and what was done for our salvation.  It is an ongoing invitation to greater faith and love, to more complete sacrifice and generosity in giving our lives to the Lord.  If we believe, we will see the glory of God, and if we love, we will be taken up into that glory. Let us not look to ourselves to see if we have the strength.  We must look to the Lord, for He can take away the stone, that is, whatever external obstacle confronts us, and He will call us forth, out of our self-centered preoccupations, and He will unbind us, setting us free from whatever interior hindrance still keeps us from freely running to Him.

Jesus is inviting us now to accompany Him to his Passion.  Do we love Him more than the rest of the world does?  Can we drink the cup He offers us?  Is our faith strong enough to enable us to cling to Him confidently even when the powers of hell and death are hurled against us and threaten our very souls?  Our answers to these questions will not only determine the fruitfulness of our Holy Week and Easter, but will also set the course for our future and our destiny.

Wisely, Sweetly, Faithfully

A while back I wrote a few posts based on the writings of the 14th-century mystic, Juliana of Norwich.  I had collected a few more of her sayings, which I’d like to post here with just a minimum of commentary.  I find her style to be refreshing, and simultaneously warm and courtly.

The passage from which the title of this blog is taken reads: “In whatever way He teaches us, He wills that we perceive Him wisely, receive Him sweetly, and keep ourselves in Him faithfully.” It’s kind of a concise program of spiritual life, or at least a pithy motto.  To perceive the Lord wisely, I think, means to interpret his words in the Holy Spirit and in light of the tradition of the Church.  For if we don’t learn the whole truth in the first place, we’ll not be able to stay on the narrow path to the Kingdom.  To receive Him sweetly seems to refer to both prayer and the sacramental life, and also to any way that the Lord offers his grace to us.  It is always offered sweetly, so it ought to be received in the same way, even if what is offered is not always what we might consider sweet (I just read a simple explanation of why God allows us to suffer: it makes us resemble his Son, and his Son is the One the Father wants to see in us).  To keep ourselves in Him faithfully is to persevere in the first two points.  Faithfulness is indispensable to maintaining our state of grace and loving relationship to the Lord.  To fall away from fidelity is to fall away from the truth and from the gifts of grace.

OK, so that wasn’t exactly minimal commentary.  Most of the rest of the passages I’ll just let stand on their own, and you can reflect on them.

“The highest bliss there is, is to have God in the clarity of light and life, seeing Him in truth, feeling Him sweetly, having Him absolutely perfectly and absolutely peacefully in the fullness of joy.”

“We should gladly, wisely, and easily bear our pains, for that is greatly pleasing to Him and of endless profit to us.  The reason why they cause us such bitter labor is our ignorance of love.”

“For just as God, by his courtesy, forgets our sin when we repent of it, so He wills that we forget our sin as far as our unskillful depression and our doubt-filled dreads are concerned.”

“Reverent fear is the fair courtesy that is in heaven before the face of God.”  I like this one because it very simply and easily deals with that difficult concept: fear of God.  It is simply “fair courtesy,” something that is naturally, fittingly, and unquestionably due to the awesome, transcendent, blazing-glorious divinity of the Thrice-Holy God.  They practice it even in Heaven.  And you know what?  They love it!  It suits them just fine, because it is an expression of truth, and because they also know that they can jump up on the Father’s lap whenever they wish.  I hope to have a few more things to say about the fear of God in the future.

“The soul that sees the kindness of our Lord Jesus hates no hell but sin, as I see it.  Therefore it is God’s will that we recognize sin, pray diligently, deliberately do bitter labor, and humbly seek teaching, that we may not fall blindly into it, and if we fall, that we may rise readily, for it is the greatest pain the soul can have to turn from God by sin at any time.”  These are the words of a true lover of God.  She’s not forcing herself to refrain from sin because punishments await.  Sin itself is the greatest punishment because it creates distance between ourselves and God, and if we love Him, we will find that state of affairs intolerable and will rectify it immediately.

“If our enemy wins anything from us by our falling… he loses very much more in our rising by charity and meekness.  This glorious rising is to him such great sorrow and pain because of the hatred he has for our soul, that he burns continuously with envy.  In addition, the sorrow he would bring on us shall be turned on himself.”

“We should meekly and patiently bear and suffer the penance that God himself gives us with the spirit of his blessed passion… For He says… ‘I do not will that you be imprudently depressed or sorrowful…  I will that you wisely recognize your penance, which you are in continually, and that you meekly accept it… Then you will truly see that all your living is profitable penance.’”

“As truly as we shall be in the bliss of God without end, praising Him and thanking Him, so truly have we been in the foresight of God, loved and known in his endless purpose from eternity… Therefore, when the judgment is given and we are all brought up above, then shall we clearly see, in God, the secrets that are now hidden to us.  Then none of us shall be stirred to say about anything, ‘Lord, if it had been thus and so, it would have been completely well…’ But we shall all say with one voice, ‘Lord, blessed may You be!  Because it is this way, it is well.  And now we see in truth that everything is done as you ordained it before anything was made.’”  How many times do we lament the “if onlys” of our lives!  If only this or that happened (or didn’t happen), if only circumstances were different.  Well, Juliana tells us they are as they ought to be—or at least as they are divinely permitted to be—for God is arranging all for our good, and one day we will see it.

Just follow all the above counsels, reflect on what they indicate, and then you’ll see that all manner of things shall be well!

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