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

Archive for September, 2011

The Lord is King Now

[This was actually my homily for last Saturday, but I was having such fun with the posts last week, that I moved this to today.]

We have a very interesting pairing of readings for the Liturgy today (1Cor. 4:17 – 5:5 and Lk. 4:31-36).  In the Gospel, Jesus delivers a man from satan; in the Epistle, St Paul delivers a man to satan!

In reality, the contrast is not as great as it seems at first glance.  What St Paul was doing to the incestuous sinner was not literally cursing him for the sake of demonic possession.  He was simply excommunicating him from the Church.  But this act by its very nature excludes the man from the sacraments and the divine protection that belongs to those who have taken refuge in the Church, and thus it places him unprotected in the world which is under the dominion of the devil, as St John tells us elsewhere (1Jn. 5:19).  The idea is to let him see what it is like to be cut loose from his only hope of salvation and spiritual integrity, so as to encourage his repentance and his hastening back to the protective fold of the Good Shepherd.  Even today when someone is excommunicated from the Church, it is meant not merely as a punitive measure, but as a way to get obstinate sinners to realize the gravity of what they have done—and the eternal consequences of being cut off from the grace which the Church is entrusted to communicate—and so to bring them as quickly as possible to this haven of salvation.

Let us now go to somewhat more familiar ground: Jesus casting out devils during his public ministry.  There is a connection made in the Gospel between Jesus’ authority to teach and his authority or power over the evil spirits.  We’re given a little hint as to what is to come, when St Luke describes Jesus’ teaching by saying, “his word was with authority.”  This word of instruction would soon become a word of command. The connection is made stronger when, after the crowd witnessed the exorcism, their exclamation is a rather unusual one: “What is this word?”  We might expect to hear that after his teaching, but not necessarily after a miracle.  But again, the connection is made: “With authority and power he commands the unclean spirits and they come out.”

So, Jesus teaches with authority and commands demons with power.  Word and power are one in Him who is Himself the All-powerful Word of God.  Jesus’ words are never mere words; they are words of power, words of authority, words of truth and love.  As Isaiah said, his word accomplishes what it says, and as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, his word is living and active, sharp as a sword, and the whole universe is upheld by his word of power.

In both Mark and Luke, this casting out of an unclean spirit is the first miracle Jesus worked.  Some commentators have noted the significance of this.  The primary focus of the teaching of Christ as found in the first three Gospels is that of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus came both to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom as well as to begin its establishment in this world through his Church.  After the fall of man and before the coming of Christ, the devil had more or less effectively usurped the rule of the world.  Jesus even called him the prince or ruler of this world (Jn 14:30).  It is noteworthy that in that same passage Jesus also says: “he has no power over me.”

So the beginning of Jesus’ public manifestation of his divine authority was fittingly a directing of his word of power against that “strong one” who in fact had no power over Jesus.  This exorcism at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry was, as it were, putting Hell on notice that its overthrow was at hand.  The true King and Ruler of this world had appeared in the flesh, and all the arrogant demons had to flee shrieking from his divine presence.

I’m reminded of the text in Psalm 95(96): “Tell the heathen: ‘The Lord is King now… He comes to rule the earth…”  So one could say: Tell the powers of darkness: The Lord Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords has come, and so your dominion is finished, for his Kingdom will have no end.

Even though it seems that in certain times, places, and ways, the dark powers still are exerting undue influence upon human souls, we have to affirm that Jesus still is Lord, and his complete and unmistakable victory is coming.  The demons only have the power that we freely give them by our sin or unbelief.  They feed on our sin and become stronger as we choose our own will and pleasure over that of the Lord.  To the extent we do the will of God and cling to Him tenaciously, we are invincible and the devil cannot harm us.  It is only when we waver, give in to temptation, believe the devil’s lies, take the bait of his deceitful and treacherous lures, that his power increases.

Let us then resolve to join Jesus in the establishing of his Kingdom and to drive out the foul and unclean pretender to the throne.  The devil doesn’t stand a chance, for the word of Christ, as both instruction and command, is a word of authority and power.

Out of Darkness, Out of Self

Now that we have finished the celebration of the Holy Cross, we come to a sort of new beginning in the cycle of the Sunday Gospels.  We begin the cycle of St Luke, and today we begin with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as He calls his first disciples to follow Him (Lk. 5:1-11).

The theme of Christ calling his disciples recurs often during the liturgical year.  Today’s epistle (2Cor. 4:6-15) may help to shed some light on this theme, as it directs us not only to the God who calls people to serve Him, but who calls the very creation into being.

St Paul describes Him as “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’”  He goes on to say that the One who called the universe into being by his creative Word is the same One who shines in our hearts to reveal his glory through his Son Jesus Christ.

It is not a small thing to understand God as He who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.”  And it means much more than that primordial act of creation whereby God brought order into chaos and designed the universe in all its fascinating complexity and beauty.  It is an even greater miracle for God to call human souls out of the darkness of unbelief and sin into the light of his grace and truth.  The material universe is subject to dissolution and destruction, but human souls are immortal and are created in God’s image, so we are more precious to Him than all the stars and galaxies and wonders of the universe.

I recently read an interesting conversion story, in which God used a manner of calling that we wouldn’t normally expect.  Usually God calls us by revealing his presence in some way, but in this case He called a certain woman by letting her feel his absence.  Thus she realized that the absence of God is Hell, and so the presence of God is Heaven, and she accepted the grace to change her life in accordance with what she learned in that experience.  God enlightened her by showing her what the darkness is like.  I will now share with you her own account of it.  (You can read the whole story here.  It’s long, but worth reading.)

She begins by telling the story of how she fell away from Christian faith and morality, mainly through the lies of radical feminists.  She accepted the lies and began living an immoral life, even though deep down she knew there was something rotten at the core of it.  She says:

“Nothing changed.  I just kept finding better excuses for what I kept doing.  Sure, my conscience was getting louder and louder… but I still refused to change my life.

“Then one night, everything changed. That night, in the middle of the night, I had a powerful experience that still remains a vivid memory.  I am sure that it was a warning from God.  He must have taken pity on my tortured conscience and seen some potential in a soul wounded by so much sin, indifference, and lies.  I remember experiencing, for a dark moment that seemed like an hour, true agony and despair.  In that moment, I felt what it was to be unloved by God.  I felt a separation between me and God that was irreversible. Forget fire and brimstone, this is what Hell was like. I felt like I was a hole, surrounded by nothing.  Something was missing from within me and something was missing around me… something central and irreplaceable… something I needed. I felt like I was trapped in some void.  I don’t remember if my eyes were open or closed for this moment, but I remember seeing nothing but blackness.  There was no color.  There was no light. I saw nothing.  I heard nothing.  I felt nothing.  I felt detached from the world, detached from my boyfriend sleeping beside me.  I felt detached from everything, and yet, I felt an intense longing for what I was missing.  This yearning would have destroyed me had it lasted longer.  I knew instantly that God was that central element missing from that moment.”

So God called her out of darkness by showing her that life without Him, life in disobedience to his commandments and in rejection of his love, would lead to utter, eternal darkness, the black hole of separation from God, who is the Source of all life, love, blessing, goodness, beauty, fulfillment, and joy.  Well, she heard that call, all right, and she immediately repented and changed her life.

God calls each of us uniquely, for we are unique individuals with different capacities and experiences and temperaments.  He knows what will reach us, what will stir our hearts, what will open our minds to his truth.  For St Peter in today’s Gospel it was the miracle of the enormous catch of fish after a long night of catching nothing that revealed to him God to him in the person of Jesus, before whom he then confessed his sinfulness.  Immediately after that, he became his disciple, along with two others who also witnessed the miracle.

One thing I find amazing about this account is that after the miracle, Peter, James, and John, left everything and followed Jesus.  We shouldn’t pass over this sentence lightly, for it is rich in meaning.  We can use an modern analogy for what happened in the Gospel account.  Suppose you were in the habit of buying lottery tickets, hoping to win the jackpot someday.  You never did win it, and just now you bought a whole batch of tickets, and all of them turned out to be losers.  Then someone comes to you and says, “Here, buy this one.”  And you say, “But I’ve been buying them for years, and just now I bought a bunch of losing tickets once again, but at your word I will buy this one you suggest.”  This ticket turns out to be the big winner, and you collect ten million dollars.  But here’s the amazing thing.  As soon as you get the money, you give every bit of it away and then attach yourself to the man who told you to buy the ticket, happy to live in poverty if only you can be with Him all the time.

This is something like what it means to be called by Jesus.  He reveals something marvelous to us, maybe works a miracle or grants us some extraordinary gift.  But the gift just leads us to the Giver.  If Peter had merely thanked Jesus for the miraculous catch, and then went home counting his profits, he never would have become a saint, and Jesus would have had to find someone else to feed his sheep and be the rock of his Church.  But the gift only served to enlighten Peter enough to follow the Giver.

I was once talking to someone who was considering religious life, and one of the concerns expressed was that God had given certain gifts, and would they be able to be used in the context of religious life?  But that is the wrong question.  Suppose the only reason God gave the gifts was to reveal Himself as the Giver of gifts?  Suppose they were just a means of drawing that person to Himself?  Sometimes we have to set aside certain talents or skills in order to serve God in the way He wants us to.  Sometimes we just have to leave everything and follow Him.

This means more than simply leaving our material possessions, as in the case of the rich young man.  There are more difficult things to leave behind when we decide to follow God’s call.  Jesus’ words, “Go out into the deep and let down your nets” can be a metaphor for this.  To go out into the deep is to take a leap of faith, to let go of merely human securities, to take the risk of what entering the mysteries of God might cost you. Similarly, to let down your nets can mean to let down your defenses, your ego supports, your rationalizations and self-deceptions—everything that keeps you from freely following Jesus.

There something in the human psyche, damaged as it is by original sin and further deranged by personal sins, that is akin to what is known as the self-preservation instinct.  That refers mainly to bodily survival, but what I’m talking about is more a psychological or even spiritual phenomenon.  We have to ask ourselves why we become defensive if someone criticizes us, why we try to justify or make excuses for ourselves, why we brood—even for years—over real or perceived hurts from others, why we indulge in self-pity if we think others are not treating us the way we want to be treated.  But all of this is self-absorption and has nothing to do with following Jesus. In fact, these things are a large part of the “everything” we have to leave behind if we are to become disciples of Christ.  We must launch out into the deep and let down our nets if we want to follow the Lord.  We have to realize that to serve Jesus requires a radical dying to self—there is no place for crybabies in the Kingdom of God!

Look at the greatest disciples of Christ: Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul; Jesus told Peter that he would be led where he did not wish to go; Jesus told Paul how much he would have to suffer for his name’s sake, and He told all of us that the path to the Kingdom of Heaven is narrow and hard, and that the only way to get there is by self-denial and bearing our crosses.

So we need to acquire, by God’s grace, a certain greatness of soul, a willingness to transcend all pettiness and selfish concern.  We need to see the great panorama of God’s plan and where our individual vocations fit into it.  When God calls us, He expects something from us: a response, a sacrifice, a leaving all behind because we recognize, in St Paul’s words, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).

If we don’t “get it,” the Lord might have to show us what He showed the woman I mentioned earlier: that without Him all is darkness, emptiness, unfulfilled longing, the dreadful, despairing agony of separation from our only hope of lasting love and happiness.

I might want to say, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me; I’m doing all right.  I’m not an evildoer; I go to church and I say my prayers.”  But this is not enough to become a saint, and it may not even be enough to be saved.  Every time I choose my own will over God’s will, I take one step closer to that black hole of eternal isolation and misery.  Every time I choose the way of self-protection, self-preservation, self-justification, self-defense—you see the key word in all these: “self”—I cease to follow Jesus, I go back to my boat and start fishing for things that make me feel good or that nurse my bruised ego.

But God is the One who says: “Let light shine out of darkness!”  He’s the one who calls us out of the darkness of self-absorption into the marvelous light of sacrificial love and service.  He is the one who calls us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, to leave all our unwieldy baggage behind and to begin the pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven.

So let us be willing to leave everything, go out into the deep, let down our nets, hear the call of God and run to Him, not counting the cost.  As the Apostle says, we carry the death of Jesus within us so that his life may be manifested in us.  Thus grace will abound, to the glory of God.  And oh, how we will give thanks when we are delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought into the Kingdom of his beloved Son!  Let us then press on, that we may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has laid hold of us.

Pleasing God

Is it hard to please God?  Sometimes it seems like it might be, for his commandments and counsels can be quite demanding, and we know that we have to render an account of our lives before his Judgment Seat.  Yet if He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as the Bible often describes Him, maybe it isn’t all that hard.

We can get a few general ideas from Scripture on this point, starting with the negative approach.  “Without faith it is impossible to please him,” says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:6), so, positively, with faith we can please Him.  St Paul says that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8), so, positively, those who live by the Spirit can.

Spiritual sacrifices, such as doing good and sharing what we have with others, are pleasing to God (Heb. 13:16).  It pleases God when we speak the truth of the Gospel, whether or not it happens to please those who hear it (1Thess. 2:4).

But I don’t want to simply harvest biblical texts to make a point.  There’s a story I’d like to share, by my new friend Kathy Kalina at the blog Lending Strength Bearing Witness, which illustrates a basic truth about pleasing God, even though that wasn’t the main subject of her post.  I’ll just quote the second part of it here; the first part was about her son’s choice to enter the military, which she originally was not too happy with.

“Then, we had 9/11.

“Every one of us above the age of reason can remember where we were and how we felt that day. You could almost hear hearts breaking as we all grieved for the victims and everyone who loved them. Then my husband called. ‘They’ve grounded all the planes,’ he said.  ‘The U.S. air space now belongs to the U.S. Air Force.’  That’s when it got personal.

“I made up a brand new Momma Commandment on the spot, and began calling my son three times a day, every day.  If he didn’t answer, I left a message. ‘You may not, I repeat, you may not leave this country without calling your momma.’

“He called on September 17th. ‘They’re sending some guys from my unit over there, but they didn’t call my name.’ Before I could start the hallelujah chorus, he said, ‘They called up my friend. You know, the one who got married last week-end. His wife just flew in today. So, I volunteered to take his place.’

“Speechless, I just stood there holding the phone, doing my best to hold onto my lunch. He went on. ‘When I was walking up there to volunteer, I had this picture in my mind of my whole family, sitting around the table last Easter. And I told myself, “That’s who I’m doing this for. I’m doing this for the people I love, to protect them.”’

“I thought, ‘When you lived at home, you wouldn’t empty the dishwasher for the people you love!  Couldn’t you just come home, empty the dishwasher and we’ll call it good?’

“But I didn’t say a word.  I couldn’t breathe.

“The waves of emotion were reminiscent of that September day when we first met.  But this time it was soul-bending fear crashing against pride, admiration and respect. Then it hit me. I finally understood why God would give us the awesome, dangerous gift of free will. He knows all about being a parent.

“You bring a child into the world, and train him up in the way he should go. He falls down, and sometimes he lets you pick him up and sometimes he doesn’t. He follows your rules and makes you proud. He makes bad decisions, and there’s nothing in the world you can do about it. Watching your child make mistakes is the most painful thing; an occupational hazard of parenthood.

“But when your child freely chooses a generous, noble, courageous path …Well, there is nothing sweeter than that.”

After reading this, I came to the conclusion: That’s how you please God!  You freely do the generous, noble, and courageous thing in whatever circumstance you find yourself.  God does expect us to keep his commandments, but it is not particularly pleasing to Him if we do so out of fear, or grudgingly, or because we will feel guilty if we don’t.  We ought to be sufficiently trained by his commandments and counsels, and integrate them so thoroughly into our world-view and our interior lives, that we are able freely and spontaneously to do what is noble and good, without having to be coerced, cajoled, or commanded.  This means that we are in fact living by faith, walking in the Spirit, willing to offer sacrifices unto God.

So, it’s not that hard to please God, or at least to know what pleases Him.  Just freely do the charitable, self-sacrificing thing, the good, noble, courageous, loving, merciful thing.  The only hard part is overcoming our selfishness, which is opposed to all of the above.  The ancient philosophers say that virtue is pleasant to the virtuous, so we may have some work to do before we spontaneously and consistently do the God-pleasing thing.  But at least we know what to do, and we have the Church to guide us through the gray areas, so we can be sure that our love and compassion are the real thing, and not mere emotion or politically correct expediency.

So if it pleases God, He will give us the grace to do what pleases Him—and we know it does, for it has pleased the Father to give his Kingdom to those who choose what is good over what is self-satisfying, who set aside worldly priorities and even self-preservation in order to do his will and live for Him (see Lk. 12:29-24; 9:23-25).

“For whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2Cor. 5:9).

Branded

As a young Passionist Brother, St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, in his great devotion and love for the Mother of God, and in his youthful, irrepressible zeal for her honor, once asked his superiors if he could have the name of Mary literally branded into his chest over his heart.  Exercising the virtue of prudence, his superiors declined to honor his request.  Yet there is something rather noble and sweet in his desire, and it is worthy of reflection.

A brand is a mark of ownership.  As I thought about this mystery, I realized that my own soul already bears a triple “brand” of the All-holy Trinity.  In terms of sacramental theology, these “brands” are called “characters,” indelibly and eternally marking the immortal soul with God’s own imprint.  There are three sacraments which brand the soul with this divine, sacramental character, and by the infinite mercy of God, I have received them all.  The first is Baptism, which in itself is a Trinitarian character: the power of the Holy Spirit is invoked over the baptismal water, and immersion therein makes us adopted children of the Father, while incorporating us in the mystical Body of Christ through union with his death and resurrection, as we are cleansed from all sin.  For purposes of this reflection, though, I will refer to baptism mainly as my adoption as a son of God the Father.

The second character is that of Chrismation (or Confirmation), by which we receive the “Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” as St Paul says: we “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our [heavenly] inheritance, until we acquire possession of it…” (Eph. 1:13-14).

The third indelible character is that of Holy Orders, the insertion into the divine and eternal priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ, being ontologically and personally configured to Him in the mystery of his sacrifice and his ministry.  So through this triple “branding” of my soul, I am forever marked as an adopted son of the Father, a priest in the Heart of the Son, sealed and gifted by the Holy Spirit.

Having already received these essential “marks of ownership” of the Holy Trinity, I still feel, like St. Gabriel, that my heart should belong additionally to the Blessed Virgin, through whose prayers and motherly love and protection I have been led into a richer spiritual life than I could have imagined possible.  Her beauty and sweetness and the irresistible love of her Immaculate Heart have drawn me to embrace her presence in my life as something not only most welcome, but even indispensable for entering as fully as possible into the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I can’t even begin to adequately explain how my life has been enriched by the blessing of her presence and her love.

I have written before that life in God is a family affair, fundamentally because God Himself, as Trinity of Persons, exists as a “family,” a trinitarian Communion of Love in the one divine Essence or Nature.  So the history of salvation and of the Church of Christ have manifested repeatedly that God works through persons, Angels and Saints, both to manifest and accomplish his will, and to lead us back to Him so that we may all live forever in his heavenly Paradise.  The Lord Jesus told us to accept Mary as our Mother when He was dying on the Cross, and so she now has the responsibility to help her children make it safely to Heaven.  So, since little children “belong” to their mothers, our heavenly Mother can mark our hearts as her own—if we freely desire and ask her to do so.  Thus our belonging to the family of God is complete, once we have been baptized into the Holy Trinity and sealed with the Holy Spirit.   Our personal belonging to Our Lady does not imprint the sacramental character; it is simply a personal act of love and devotion, which I can attest by my own experience is richly fruitful and a source of much joy and blessing and spiritual support.  To belong to Christ and to belong to his beloved Mother are complementary dimensions of our spiritual life.

We read in Isaiah: “This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and surname himself by the name of Israel” (44:5).  As for the writing on the hand, a note in one of my bibles says: “an allusion to the Babylonian custom of tattooing the owner’s name on the hand of his slave.”  So one could be the Lord’s and still belong to the family of Jacob and Israel (indeed, at that time the two were inseparable), just as you can be the Lord’s and still be a child of Mary.  If you are a brother or sister of Christ, then you are by that very fact a child of Mary, and you should rejoice to belong to both God and the Blessed Mother.

So, already triply branded with God’s essential marks of ownership, I hope and pray that my heart will also be branded with the holy name of Mary, my Queen and Mother, to whom I have entrusted my spiritual life as she leads me—carefully, gently, firmly, lovingly—on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. (I do share something of St. Gabriel’s devotion and love for Our Lady, but I think I’ll pass on the physical brand in the flesh and receive a spiritual one in my heart!)  Thus when I finally come before the judgment seat of Christ at the end of my life, He will see my soul marked as his and my heart marked as his Mother’s (though everything that is hers is first his), and He will establish me forever in the midst of the family of God in Heaven.

It Pays to Be Nice to Me

While it’s always good to be nice to other people, it’s especially beneficial to be nice to me.  Now why would I say such a conceited sort of thing?  Aside from my being conceited, there’s a much better reason.  It is because sometimes people who are nice to me are granted the gift of eternal life!

You may have guessed that this has something to do with getting on the mop-up list.  I’d like to mention just a few examples of how such a pleasant state of affairs for otherwise hell-bound souls can come to pass (not that I know for sure they are hell-bound, but these days it’s unfortunately rather likely).

A couple of recent entries to the list were brought about in connection with a wedding I attended about a month ago (monks never do stuff like that; this was highly exceptional, so don’t ask me to attend the weddings of your relatives or friends, because I’m not going to!).  On the way there, while still in the next town south of us, I decided to stop for gas.  There were two possible exits to take, and I was going to take the farther one when a voice from Heaven urgently whispered, “Take the first exit, you idiot!”  (Heaven sometimes has to speak to me that way.)  So I did.  While I was there, since I had a three-hour drive ahead of me, I thought I’d use the restroom.  Well, of course, somebody already had the key, so I had to wait.  I went around the back where the outhouse was, and I was confronted with a group of leathery bikers.  I spied one of them, an especially big and burly one, entering the restroom, holding the coveted key (attached to a big stick, so it doesn’t get lost—at least I assumed that’s what that big stick was.)

“Oh, great,” I thought, “he’s the guy I have to get the key from!”  (Was it really Heaven that told me to get off here, or did I get the signals mixed up?  And did I just hear a chuckle from On High?  Maybe it was one of the bikers.) The moment of truth came.  He lumbered toward me, and I sheepishly approached to most politely beg the key from him.  Before I could make my humble request, the Burly Biker looked me in the eye. Oh, no!  He’s going to tear me limb from limb and curse the God who made me!  But then he burst into a big grin as he handed me the key-stick and said, “Is this what they call passing the baton, Father?”   What a relief!  But the point of this whole story is that after that close encounter I decided to put him on the mop-up list, because he was nice to me.  Now I pray for him daily and offer the Divine Liturgy monthly, so there will be grace awaiting him when he finally meets his Maker.  Who knows?  Maybe I’m the only one in the world praying for him!  Maybe the grace from these prayers and Liturgies will be what it takes to tip the scales, as it were, in his favor. I never did get his name.  He is immortalized on the list as “biker at Chevron station.”  God knows his name.  (Maybe someday I’ll tell you about the time I gave a blessing to a Hell’s Angel named “Dragon”.)

Another beneficiary of being nice to me was at the wedding reception later that day.  I was standing there, surrounded by the hubbub of all those happy (and slightly tipsy) people, feeling like a fish out of water, or a monk out of monastery (though I was grateful to make the acquaintance of a priest from India, and I sort of stuck to him most of the time).  Well, one of the hors d’oeuvre waitresses came pleasantly by with something I could eat (meaning, no meat; pretty rare at these bashes).  Next time I saw her she had some chicken-something, so I asked if she had any more of those cheese-n-spinach things.  She said she didn’t think so, but she’d check.  A little while later she came back, all smiles, with a fresh hot tray of them.  As I took one, she said, “take two, in case they run out.”  So I did, gratefully.  I doubt she was a Catholic, perhaps not even Christian, since I was standing there in full monastic habit and pectoral cross, and she addressed me as “sir.”  (Even the hard-nosed biker called me “Father”!)

Anyway, at dinner I was sitting next to the Indian priest again.  He was very talkative and inquisitive, so when the same waitress came to our table, he struck up a conversation with her (I’m too shy for such extroverted social activities; besides, she was supposed to be working).  He asked her name.  I’m not too shy to eavesdrop, though, so I learned it: Natalie.  Good.  OK, then, Natalie, since you were nice to me, you get to be on the list, and even if at this moment you couldn’t care less about where you’ll spend eternity, the grace for final repentance is now yours when you need it.  All you have to do is say “yes” at the last moment.  See how easy?

One more brief mention, because this grace can spread way beyond individuals who are nice to me.  Since I spend a lot of time in solitude, there aren’t so many people that have the opportunity to be nice to me—though I accept prayers and cyber-niceties as well.  But all the families and friends of those who are nice to me can also get saved by association.  One friend, who is always nice to me, has a number of siblings who are in various stages of falling away from the Faith.  So they get to go on the list as well, for my friend’s sake!  I’ve also included a non-Christian chiropractor, who helped me for about a year free of charge, and another doctor (and his family), who also donated his services.  They are Catholics, but in recent years have fallen into New Age sort of practices and have stopped going to church.  All these and so many more now have a greater chance to enter the Kingdom, so grace will abound for many who will give thanks to God forever!

All this is to say that I’m interested in winning as many souls as possible for the Lord, and since it’s not my mission to gather them from the city streets, I do it by prayer and sacrifice and the liturgical offering of Jesus’ Sacrifice to win grace for them, so that they will repent and say yes to Him, even if only at the last moment.  OK, I’ll admit it, there are people on the list who are not nice to me, or to my friends, but they probably need the grace even more.  But the point of the above stories is that if there wasn’t some sort of pleasant interaction (especially if the opposite was expected) that favorably disposed me toward those people, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to put them on the list.  They would just have been anonymous faces in the crowd.

So, you who are reading this, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that if only you had the opportunity you’d be as nice to me as you possibly could.  So send me the names of any relatives or friends (especially if they are dying or terminally ill; what are you waiting for?) or anyone you know who seems at this time not to be a likely candidate for eternal life—first names are sufficient, if you prefer.  I’m not going to do an internet search to get the skinny on these ne’er-do-wells. Just get ‘em on the list!  If you contribute to the salvation of others’ souls, just think of how nice God is going to be to you!

You Will Know that I AM

We continue to reflect on the mystery of the Holy Cross, today being the liturgical entity known as the “Saturday after the Cross.”  So we look at the mystery from yet another angle in today’s Gospel (Jn. 8:21-30).

Today Jesus speaks of his identity, which was unknown to those who were not in his intimate circle of disciples and friends.  So those whom He was addressing, who were outside this circle, had many questions, and they were somewhat obstinate and antagonistic toward Jesus.  He first put things into perspective by making a sharp distinction between Himself and them: “You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world.”  There is only one hope, then, for their salvation, and this too Jesus spells out: “You will die in your sins—unless you believe that I AM.”  This I AM, of course, is the divine name revealed to Moses from the Burning Bush, and Jesus applies it to Himself.

His audience must have been thoroughly confused by then, so they finally blurted out: “Who are you?”  Jesus’ answer is enigmatic, as they often are, and even more so in this case, since there is not clear agreement on how to translate it.  The usual translation is “what I have told you from the beginning,” but his answer can also be translated: “The Beginning, as I have told you.”  If Jesus identifies Himself as “The Beginning,” this is another reference to divinity, as we hear in the Prologue of this Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It also reminds us of how He revealed Himself to St John in the Book of the Apocalypse: the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.

All of this would have been lost on his immediate hearers, however, so He gives them a sign, as it were.  He said: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM, and that I do nothing of my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me.”  “Lifting up” is, as you know, a euphemism for crucifixion.

Most of those who eventually saw Him crucified, however, did not make the connection.  Mary, his Mother, of course, knew who He was, and by that time probably St John did as well.  They were standing beneath the Cross as witnesses to his identity as the Son of God and to his mission as Savior of the world.  Most of the others who were there reviled and mocked Him, so they did not receive the revelation due to their hardness of heart.

Since the Gospel was written after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, I’m sure that the evangelist meant for us to hear these words of Jesus, and to believe and understand who He is.

It wasn’t easy for first-century Jews to recognize their God in a condemned, crucified man.  It is easier for us, who have the benefit of 2000 years of tradition, of the testimony of the Scriptures and the experience of the saints.  Once we have this faith, we can reason it out fairly simply: Jesus is the Son of God; God is love; love is most profoundly expressed through sacrifice; the ultimate sacrifice is laying down one’s life for the beloved; therefore in the mystery of the Cross we see the full extent of divine love poured out for us in the total sacrifice of Christ.

You will know that I AM, said Jesus, when we see Him on the Cross. This knowledge comes through both faith and contemplation.  God says to us through the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (45/46).  So we must be still before the image of Christ crucified, and in silent contemplation recognize his divinity, not only as an article of faith, but as the heart of our personal relationship with Him.

There’s a little prayer exercise I once saw, a way of using that psalm verse to go to the depths of our own hearts to find God there.  It goes like this:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I AM.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.
 

When our prayer takes us to that still point where we just “be” in the presence of the Lord, then we can unite our contingent “I am” to God’s absolute “I AM.”  We realize that we are not self-sufficient, that we live from Another and are sustained in existence by Him.   Life is a gift; redemption is a gift; eternity in Paradise is a gift.  It is all a gift of God’s everlasting love.

So when we contemplate Christ on the Cross, the complete manifestation of God’s love for us, let us reflect profoundly and gratefully upon who Jesus is and what He has done for us.  Thus we will no longer be “of this world” but will find the meaning and destiny of our lives in the Kingdom of Heaven.

His Testimony is True

[This is a homily I gave for the feast of the Holy Cross in 2004.]

I was ordained a priest thirteen years ago [20 this year] on this feast day, and I remember very well listening to this Gospel [the Passion narrative from St John] during my ordination Liturgy—especially the very end of it.  It struck me like a lightning bolt from Heaven.  After the long narration of the suffering and death of Christ, the culmination of his whole life and work and ministry, this solemn declaration comes: “This is the testimony of an eye-witness, and his testimony is true.”  That was like a summary of my whole life: of my spiritual life, my faith.  The reason I was standing there in the first place in this church, is because that testimony is true!  That’s why you’re all here today: because the testimony is true.  What we’re here to celebrate today, in this mystery of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, is the truth of God’s love for us, who gave his only-begotten Son to suffer and die for us to take away our sins.  Our whole spiritual life, our whole reason of being, flows from this divine love and this divine sacrifice of Christ for our salvation.

The liturgical texts for this feast are very joyful and glorious; the whole tenor and focus of it is the glory of the Cross, the victory and triumph of the Cross, the gladness that it brings everywhere.  Yet when we read the Gospel, we see Jesus humiliated, beaten, scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed to the Cross, hanging there for the ridicule of the nations, and pierced with a lance.  We ought to remember these words of Jesus as well: “Where I am, there shall my servant be.”  So, to celebrate the mystery of the Cross is not just to have a holiday, a day of fun; it’s also a day to realize what our calling is in this world, and what it means to follow a crucified Lord.

The Cross is inescapable in our life.  We cannot get away from it.  There will always be suffering and hardship in our lives.  All we have to do is look at our Prayer Wall (we started out with a little Prayer Board, and now we have a Prayer Wall) of intentions that come in constantly.  From all of these, and from all the people I talk to, there’s this unceasing, relentless litany of suffering, sorrow, pain, tragedy and misery that everyone is afflicted with.  There’s no way out: that is the nature of life in this world.  The Cross is the form of life in this world.  Everywhere we turn, we’re going to find it, and if we shut our eyes to it, we’re going to bump into it.  It’s there.  It’s a fact.  It’s the ultimate wake-up call: the Cross of Christ.   First of all, we have to accept that because of the sin of our first parents and our own sins, life is going to be riddled with suffering, disappointment and trials.

But thanks be to God, that’s not the last word.  We start by accepting that as a fact, but then we have to look more deeply into the mystery.  Even those who don’t accept the Cross are still going to suffer.  We have the advantage of knowing that through the Cross, and through Jesus who suffered on the Cross, the inevitable sufferings of this life can have meaning.  They can be transformed by his grace into something that is powerful, and even into something in which we can find joy. St. Paul certainly did—somehow.  (I’d like to know his secret; he kept saying, “I rejoice in my sufferings!”)  He was one who knew the mystery of the Cross—the mystery which, in his letter that we just read [1Cor. 1:18-24], is foolishness to the world, madness to those who are headed toward destruction, but for those who are being saved it is the power of God.  It’s the ultimate reality and truth.  So we have that advantage over many people who do not believe.

If there are some people who are living in ease, prosperity, and a carefree existence, sooner or later the Cross is going to come in and shatter that illusion, precisely because it is an illusion; we’re not in Paradise.  We’re still far from home, and we’ve got a long way to go before we can enter into the life that God intended for us in the beginning: the life of joy and peace in his Presence.  Meanwhile, the Cross stands before us as that “moment of truth,” that moment of decision.  We go through life, faced with the reality of our sufferings and limitations, and of the sufferings of others whom we love, and for many it brings up lots of questions, doubts and struggles.  We’re forced to look at this stuff.  We have to deal with theological questions about what all this means; we have to deal with existential questions of what it means in my life and how I’m going to deal with it.  The bottom line is still the call to believe in Jesus, and in what He has done for us and what He has said to us.

I heard the call this morning at Matins, when we were doing the elevation of the Cross; it’s a beautiful and very powerful experience.  So many things were going through my head, but at the moment when we were prostrating before the Cross, everything cleared away and there was this question: “Do you believe—or not?”  Thank God, I said “Yes.”

We have to come to that point, often enough in our lives.  When that basic profession of faith, which defines who we are, gets obscured and clouded over by all the questions, problems and confusion of life, we have to return to that point, and God in his mercy will take us to that point and say, “OK, move everything else aside: Do you believe, or do you not?  Here, the Cross is held up before your face—do you accept it, or not?”   That is his call to us, and that will be the source of our joy, when we do accept it.

We see in the world today many who, as St. Paul says, think that the Cross is foolishness and thus there’s no place for the Cross.  There’s no place for the Cross in secular humanism; there’s no place for the Cross in our current political discourse; there’s no place for the Cross in the social sciences, for the most part; there’s no place for the Cross in “new age” spirituality.  There are many people who thus fall into that category of “those who are perishing,” according to St. Paul; they think the Cross is madness.

That’s why, in the first of the liturgical texts for this feast, in Vespers, it says:  “The Cross is exalted, the Cross is lifted up today as an appeal to the whole creation.”  That’s an unusual presentation.  It’s like, “Here’s your last chance, world!  This is it!  Do you believe, or not?  Do you accept it, or not?”  Jesus is there as defenseless and as vulnerable, so to speak, as possible: nailed to the Cross, with his arms open, saying, “Come to Me!  Will you come to Me?  This is my appeal!  This is my invitation!  This is your only hope for salvation!”

You see, people don’t have any place for the Cross in their lives because they don’t have any place for sin—actually, they have plenty of place for it, but I mean that they don’t have any place for the understanding of it, and for belief in what it means and what it does to you, and for where we will end up without the Cross.  As difficult as it is for us to reflect on what Jesus suffered and to deal with the sufferings in our own lives, the Cross is our only hope, and that is the only way for us to overcome the heavy weight of sin and of the burdens of life.  Without the Cross, we end up carrying our load of sins to the grave, and we get thrown into the Lake of Fire with the testimony of our selfish rebellion hanging over us for all eternity: that’s all that remains to us, without the Cross.

The Cross is our redemption, our salvation, our liberation from the wages of sin and from eternal death; in the very act of embracing the Cross, we embrace the Resurrection as well.  That’s why St. Paul says, “This is the gift of God in Christ Jesus.”   So we have to start altering our view of things, because it’s just too easy to say, “That’s the cross!  Anything that falls on us, that’s the cross!”  We’re always trying to flee the Cross, always trying to flee from suffering, always trying to make our lives easier.  “Let’s avoid anything that would put us out, that would ask some sacrifice of us, or that would make us uncomfortable.”  It’s just human nature to constantly flee from pain and to seek comfort.  But the whole testimony of the Scriptures and of the whole history of the saints shows us that that doesn’t work; we have to stop running away from the Cross.  We have to run towards the Cross, and embrace the Cross as the only thing that gives meaning to our life and that will be our liberation from death and from everything that we deserve.  We forget that we suffer because we deserve it—at least in general terms.  It’s not that everything that we suffer can be traced to a particular sin of ours, but because there is sin at all in the world, there is suffering in the world.  If there had never been any sin, there would never have been any suffering.

If we look at our lives honestly, we can probably say, “Whatever I get, I deserve; whatever happens to me, I deserve. Thank God I’m not getting what I truly deserve!”  So let’s start by realizing that God doesn’t owe us a fun, carefree life.  He’s done something that we could never do for ourselves: He has promised us eternal life, so we don’t have to pay the eternal price for our sins.  We can’t.  Even an eternity in a lake of fire and burning sulfur is not enough to atone for our sins, if it were not for Christ’s bearing them all on the Cross for our salvation.

Let us, then, enter into this celebration with thanksgiving and with a renewed faith in the whole mystery of God, with love for Him who suffered and died for us, and with a resolve to face life in all of its sufferings and hardships, with a mature and strong faith and unshakable trust that He who is taking us through the crucible of pain and suffering is doing it for a reason: to purify, to instruct, to lead us to maturity, so that when we finally stand before Him at the Last Day, the Cross is not going to be something that we flee from—it’s going to be something in which we glory.  When we stand before God, and know that the mystery of the Cross and the sufferings of Jesus have taken away our sins and have become the key to the gate of Paradise, we will give thanks for the Cross, and we will see what a precious treasure it is for us.

So, let us rejoice, with the willingness to walk the way in which Jesus has called us and walked before us.  Let us give thanks to God that we have all the means of grace and the witness of the saints, and the Gospel of Christ: the wonderful testimony of an eye-witness—whose testimony is true.

Holy Glory and Saving Love

Before I start talking about the Gospel (Jn. 3:13-17), I’d like to read you a passage from a prayer of the Divine Liturgy, offered by the priest immediately before the consecration of the bread and wine: “…Holy are You—truly, all-holy—and magnificent is your glory.  You so loved your world as to give your only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life…”  After that it goes on to narrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist.   So in quoting the Liturgy, I’m actually quoting today’s Gospel as well, and we ought to reflect on this connection.

But let’s first try to understand something about God from this prayer of the Divine Liturgy.  The first thing we say about God is that He is holy.  This prayer follows immediately upon the “Holy, holy, holy,” which the angels sing unceasingly before the throne of God, and so the Eucharistic prayer begins by referring to the angels in the previous one: “With these blessed Powers, O Master who love mankind, we too cry out and say: “Holy are you…”

Most of what are usually called the attributes of God have something to do with the way He relates to us: God is merciful, generous, patient, slow to anger, faithful, etc.  But the Eucharistic prayer begins with an essential attribute that describes who and what God is even without specific reference to us: holy.  Even though God is holy whether we exist or not, the term is probably still mostly incomprehensible to us if we don’t see it in contrast to us.  God’s holiness is something that designates Him as wholly other than we are, since it belongs to his nature as Uncreated Being.  His holiness is his utterly pure spiritual perfection, completely unattainable by any created being.  If any human being can be called holy—and the pure Virgin Mother of God and the Saints and Angels are rightly called holy—it is only through a gracious participation in God’s own holiness, not something that belongs to either human or angelic nature.

The primary manifestation of God’s holiness in Heaven is what is called his glory, the external brilliant radiance of his interior inaccessible all-holy Essence.  The Eucharistic prayer brings these two elements together: “Holy are You—truly, all-holy—and magnificent is your glory.”  So the starting point for the understanding of both the Gospel and the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the holiness of God.

The next element mentioned in both the Gospel and the Eucharistic prayer is something else essential to who God is: love.  St John even goes so far as to say, “God is love” (1Jn. 4:8, 16).  It is because God is Trinity that God is love, for it is of the eternal nature of God to be a Trinity of Persons who give and receive love as the fundamental expression of who they are and how they exist.  Therefore as soon as God created something outside of Himself, He loved it, for God cannot exist without loving.

So the Gospel proclaims that God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son to save the world, which had fallen into sin and hence was headed for eternal damnation.  God did not wish to see the world which He created out of love, and especially the human beings He created in his own image, to fall away from his original intention of bringing all into the realm of his own glory and joy for all eternity.

Therefore God the Father sent his beloved Son, incarnate of the Blessed Virgin, who was uniquely chosen and graced for this ineffable mission of giving manhood to God.  This incarnate Son was to be the Savior of the world, or at least of all those who would believe in Him and do his will unto salvation.

We see so far that the all-holy God, who is love, sent his Son into this world because He loved the world and wanted to save it.  But how would He save the world?   We already know the answer to that—by sacrificing Himself on the Cross for our sins—but why did it come to that?  Couldn’t He have just revealed the full Truth of the mystery of God and drawn us out of our sin by the sheer attractive power of the love and beauty contained in that revelation?  After all, in another Gospel, Jesus is hailed as the “Light of Revelation” that would be the salvation of the nations (Lk. 2:32).

We have to go a few verses beyond today’s short Gospel reading to find the answer.  St John says that the Light came into the world.  But evidently this was not enough for our salvation, since he goes on to say that “men loved darkness rather than the light.”  Because of this they even hated the Light and fled from it, for they wanted to continue in their evil deeds, but they did not want them to be exposed by the Light.  So, simply as the divine Light of Revelation, Jesus’ coming into the world was not enough to save sinners.  This is indicated even in the passage where He is called the Light of Revelation, for there it goes on to say that He will be both the rise and the downfall of many.  But He came to save the whole world.

This is why Jesus had not only to reveal his Father and the whole mystery of God’s truth and love, but also to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the salvation of the world, to try to reach even those who were fleeing from the Light because of their stubborn entrenchment in their sin.

So the Gospel says that the Son of Man must be lifted up, that is, crucified, sacrificed as the new and definitive paschal Lamb, whose Precious Blood would save his people from their sins.  This is what it means that God gave his only Son for our salvation.  It first means that He gave Him to us as man, as the incarnate Light of Revelation, but it specifically means in this passage that He gave his Son over to death for our sakes—so that, embracing the mystery of his death and resurrection, we would become his faithful followers and thus be led out of the darkness of sin and death into the marvelous light of the blessed realm of his eternal life and joy.

Jesus spoke of the necessity of his sacrifice after his resurrection as well, to the disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer and so enter his glory?” (Lk 24:26).  Here we come back to his glory.  He came forth from the eternal, holy glory of his divinity and veiled it with human flesh, allowing this flesh to be tortured to death as He offered his life in sacrifice to atone for our sins.  Then He returned, as He had prayed to his Father, to the glory He had with Him before the world began (see Jn 17:5).

So now that we see something of the immeasurable love God has for us, we return to the Eucharistic prayer and see how this love, expressed in the Sacrifice of Jesus, is continually manifested and communicated to us in the Holy Mysteries offered and received at every altar in his holy Church.

We first acclaim the holiness of God, in union with the angels who unceasingly sing the thrice-holy hymn of praise and adoration.  Then we stand in awe before the glory of God, which flows from his essential holiness.  Then we praise Him for his everlasting love manifested in the gift of his Son, both as Incarnation and as Sacrifice.  Finally, we briefly retell the story of his self-offering which began at the Mystical Supper on that first Holy Thursday, when He sacramentally offered his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, which offering would be completed the following day in its full, bloody, physical reality.  Today, as we do what He did in memory of Him, and invoke the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, his Sacrifice is made present anew: for the life of the world and the sanctification of our souls.

The great mystery of our salvation is all one piece, one marvelous, interconnected series of revelations and events, all proceeding from the everlasting love of the holy God, continuously offered to us for our salvation—if only we would embrace the Light of Revelation, believe in the efficacy of Jesus’ Sacrifice, and receive the fruits of it from his holy altar, so that, as Jesus Himself said, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we shall have his own life in us and be raised up by Him on the last day, that we might share in his holiness and his glory forever.

All of that is contained in that brief “signature” passage from the Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  The Church offers this Gospel for our reflection and celebration as we prepare to celebrate the great feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  This “Sunday before the Cross” is just a kind of warm-up for the full celebration, but already it offers much to help us embrace the meaning and beauty of this fundamental mystery of our salvation.

When we hear this great testimony of God’s love for us, and the lengths to which He went to save us from our sins, we ought to consider what our response should be.  Some people say that they believe in Jesus and accept that He died for their sins, but their lives don’t seem to be lived as one continuous act of gratitude for that astounding, unmerited gift that He has given.  That’s why sometimes preachers have to talk about things like Hell, so that people will realize just what we are saved from, and how we would have certainly gone there if it weren’t for the divine, sacrificial love of Christ, and how we still can go there if we don’t sufficiently respond to this gift with the offering of our own lives, in gratitude, in service, and yes, even in sacrifice.  Remember the message of the Gospel of two weeks ago, where the servant of the King was forgiven all his sins, but in the end he was still handed over to the torturers because He did not live according to the grace and mercy he had received.

As for us, let us stand in awe of the holiness and glory of God, and of the everlasting love out of which He sent his Son to save us.  We couldn’t have saved ourselves; if He didn’t so love the world we would have had no hope.  But Jesus not only accepted the Cross and its unspeakable agonies out of love for us, He continues to grant us all the means of sanctification, especially the sacraments, to help keep us on the hard but invigorating path to the Kingdom.

So let us give thanks, or rather, let us live thanks, making of our whole life a sacrifice of praise and gratitude for the Lord.  Eternity never ends, because it will take us that long to render sufficient thanks to God for all He has done to save us.  God so loved the world; God so loves you and me; God desires with great desire to see us all joyful in his heavenly Kingdom.  The Lord will not cease doing everything He can to make sure we follow Him there; let us not cease doing everything we can to respond unselfishly and wholeheartedly to this merciful, holy, glorious, saving love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Worthy of Him

We’re beginning today a series of five Gospel readings concerning the Holy Cross: two Saturdays, two Sundays, and the feast itself of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  It’s obvious, then, that the Church places great emphasis upon this central mystery of our life and salvation.

Today’s Gospel (Mt 10:37 – 11:1) approaches the mystery from the perspective of whether or not we shall prove ourselves worthy of the Lord, who sacrificed his life to take away our sins and to make it possible for us to enter Paradise when we die.  Basically, He is requiring certain sacrifices of us as a response to his.  If we love our family members, He says, more than we love Him, we are not worthy of Him.  I recently had an opportunity to remind someone of this text, for her daughter is about to enter religious life, and so there is much to be sacrificed in the family togetherness.  But they are a good Catholic family and they all accept the “cost of discipleship,” though it still is something of a cross to bear.

Therefore Jesus goes on to say in the Gospel: “whoever does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”  So we see that this is not an option for anyone who wants to be saved, for if we are found unworthy of Christ, and thus unworthy of his Kingdom, we will not be allowed to enter therein.  The unworthiness referred to here is not the basic unworthiness that all creatures share in the face of God’s awesome holiness.  It is the unworthiness that is a result of our refusal to respond to God’s grace, our refusal to do the Father’s will.  For God’s grace makes us worthy of Him, if we receive it gratefully and respond wholeheartedly.

When seeking how best to present this mystery of bearing our crosses and following Jesus, I decided to consult my old friend Pope Benedict XVI, and this is what he told me: “To suffer… for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. Yet… are we capable of this?  Is the other important enough to warrant my becoming, on his account, a person who suffers? Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile? Is the promise of love so great that it justifies the gift of myself? … In truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare… I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity…

“There used to be a form of devotion… quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs’, thereby giving them a meaning… we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great ‘com-passion’ so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love” (from the Encyclical Spe Salvi).

So to bear our crosses is to be willing to suffer for the sake of others, in order to bring more love into this world, preferring the demands of discipleship to our own comfort or security, learning how to make an offering of all the little hardships each day brings, in order to win grace for others as well as ourselves.

One final point can be made from the epistle (1Cor. 2:6-9).  St Paul says that if those who crucified the Lord realized what God has prepared for those who love Him, they never would have done it.  This is why the Lord prayed from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  We ought to ask ourselves if we would still commit the sins we commit if we knew what God has prepared for those who love Him.  Let us take this to prayer and ask God to open our eyes and our hearts, so that we will not only have more courage to overcome sin, but also that we will take the next step and have the courage to bear our crosses for the sake of others, so that we all can have a lively hope to be found worthy of Christ and his Kingdom, and to enter into the eternal enjoyment of all that He has prepared for those who love Him.

He Does Whatever He Wills

[This is a homily I gave for the feast of Our Lady's Nativity in 2006.]

St Augustine spoke of the mystery of God as something “ever ancient, ever new,” and I think that this can be applied in its own way to the mystery of the Mother of God.  For God, “ever ancient” means eternal, though it cannot mean that personally for Our Lady, except perhaps in the plan of God for our salvation—for St Paul says that we were chosen by God “before the foundation of the world.”  But the Mother of God, if not eternal, is over 2000 years old—though she doesn’t look a day over 20—and that is quite ancient indeed!

The ancient part is the historical event that we celebrate today—the holy nativity of Mary.  At a certain time and in a certain place, long ago and far away, a little girl was born, the daughter of an old and infertile couple who had prayed long for the gift of a child, whom they promised to give over to the Lord’s service if He would hear their prayer.  Little did they know just what God had in mind for their precious bundle of joy!

She is described with several biblical images in the liturgy: she is the eastern gate of the temple through which the High Priest alone enters; she is the scroll on which the eternal Word of God is written; she is the tree of life bearing the immortal fruit that is our Savior and Lord.  All of this, which is the result of reflection upon her role in the mystery of the Incarnation, would have been wholly incomprehensible to her parents because, even though they were expecting the Messiah, they had no idea that this Messiah would actually be the Most High God assuming human nature in the womb of their little girl.

As historical event, this is ancient history.  But this mystery is also “ever new,” and as such it enters and influences our lives today, and every day.  That means, in the context of this particular mystery, that Mary of Nazareth, who was God’s chosen instrument to give to the world the Son of God in the flesh, is still God’s instrument for bring the grace of the Son of God to all who implore her intercession and assistance.  God doesn’t merely use people to accomplish certain tasks, after which He discards or ignores them as useless, but, as St Paul wrote, God’s gifts and call are irrevocable.  So if He chose Our Lady for a unique and utterly marvelous mission at a particular period of time, it would be just like Him to continue to work through her for all time and even for all eternity.

A few days ago at Matins we prayed this prayer to her: “…scatter the countless dark mists oppressing my soul, that I may see the rays of the Sun which rose from you, and that in your light, I may welcome the never-fading Light.”  Because in ancient times the flesh of Jesus was revealed through the flesh of Mary, today she reveals Him to us in spirit, through her prayers, through her maternal and mystical presence in our lives, and we see the Light of Christ in her face, we receive the grace of Christ through her heart of love.  Not that there is any metaphysical necessity for Christ to manifest or communicate his grace through his Mother, for God is sovereign and free, and as we read in the psalms, He does whatever He wills.  If He blesses us through Our Lady, it is simply because that is his will, his delight, and so people shouldn’t rack their brains trying to prove—or deny—that this ought to be so, but simply rejoice that it is!

Human beings can comprehend so little of the infinite mysteries of God, but somehow people think they can judge divine mysteries by their own reason, experience, research, or even theology.  But we always have to return to God’s word that says: “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Is. 55:8).  One of our liturgical texts for this feast reads: “The barren and sterile Anne did not appear so before God, for she was predestined from the ages to become the mother of the pure Virgin who would give birth to the Creator in the form of a servant.”  She knew she was sterile; she had the evidence.  She knew that sterile women cannot bear children; that is a fact.  But from God’s perspective all that was irrelevant, because He was about to change it miraculously so that his plan could be fulfilled.  His thoughts and ways are not ours, so we shouldn’t try to project ours onto Him.

This situation of St Anne before God ought to tell us something about trust.  That which appears a certain way to us—even supported by reason or evidence—may not appear so before God, who just may be about to inaugurate a superior plan that leaps lightly over all our insurmountable obstacles. Remember the psalm I already mentioned, which we often use on feastday Vespers: “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He wills.”  And, as Abraham’s mysterious Visitors said, upon prophesying the birth of Isaac: “Is anything too hard [or, too wonderful] for the Lord to do?” (Gen. 18:14).  After God overcame the obstacles for Joachim and Anne, and when at length the miracle-baby Mary had reaching child-bearing age, another reminder concerning a much more astounding miracle was given by the Archangel Gabriel to the awestruck Virgin when he said: “Nothing shall be impossible with God.”  So if nothing is beyond the power of God, and if, as the song goes, Love is Lord of heaven and earth, well, how can we keep from singing, how can we not trust Him who works all things for the good for those who love Him and live according to his word?

St Paul said at the beginning of the Epistle: “Your attitude must be that of Christ”—the attitude of humility, love and selflessness, of sacrificial obedience even unto death. This characterizes Our Lady perfectly and should also characterize all disciples of Christ.  The Mother of God is holy not only because she bore Christ in her womb, but because she loved Him with all her heart.  We ought to reflect seriously on whether or not our attitude is that of Christ, especially in situations in which our patience or other virtues may be tested.  Ask yourself, not only on these feast days when we hear this reading, but every day, and often during the day: “Is my attitude right now that of Christ?  And if not, what am I going to do to correct it?”  It’s not enough to honor Our Lady, we have to walk with her, live in her spirit of love and obedience to God’s will.

Finally, let us return to reflect on God’s ever ancient, ever new mysteries: the eternal plan of God to send us his Son as our Savior, realized in time over 2000 years ago, beginning with the birth of the Birth-giver, whose presence and intercession are with us today, as a gift from the inexhaustible treasury of grace of Him who was born of her—all this will continue to unfold until the end of time and will be celebrated with boundless joy in the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven.  This is why we celebrate today the Theotokos, the “Birth-giver of God,” that is, of God the Son who assumed human nature from her and was born in Bethlehem, whom St Joseph named Jesus at the command of the Angel, for He would save us from our sins.  And so, with the obedience of faith, all manner of things shall be well.

Let us continue to rejoice as we approach the Holy Mysteries, the Blessed Eucharist which is the most precious fruit of the Incarnation, and let us, as a birthday gift to Our Lady, and by the grace of Holy Communion, offer our lives more fully than ever to her Son our Lord, that we may share profoundly in her complete surrender to his will—as they say in the Roman rite offertory: “for our good and the good of all His Church.”  For we are here not merely for ourselves, but for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

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