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

Archive for November, 2011

Power Over the Enemy

We have just three verses to reflect upon in today’s Gospel (Lk. 10:19-21), but it turns out that this is more than enough for one day!   Jesus is explaining to his disciples why they had so much success in the mission on which He had sent them.  They had returned to him, exhilarated and full of joy, exclaiming: “even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

First of all, He explains why this had happened: “I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you.”  Power is the theme here: the superior power of the Lord over that of the devil.  We know from Genesis and Revelation, and a few places in between, that the serpent is a symbol of the devil.  We see also in the Book of Revelation that demons are likened to scorpions: When the shaft of the bottomless pit was opened and dark clouds of demons emerged, we read that they “were given power like the power of scorpions… their torture was like the torture of a scorpion, when it stings a man” (9:3-5).

The power of the demons is not insignificant, but it is vastly inferior to the power of the Lord.  Jesus shows that He can authorize his disciples to exercise that power in his name.  It is so much greater than demonic power that Jesus says his disciples can tread on the demonic powers as if they were small reptiles or insects.

This is something we ought to keep in mind.  Anyone who is baptized into Christ and the Holy Trinity, and who has responded wholeheartedly to his call to discipleship, has the power to tread on the power of the enemy.  This power comes from the grace of God and is applied through the exercise of our will in faith.  The limitations of our weak human nature need not be an obstacle to overcoming the power of the enemy.  Recall that when St Paul complained to the Lord of a “messenger of satan” who was severely harassing him, the Lord said that his grace was sufficient, and not only that, but divine power was actually perfected through the Apostle’s infirmity, and this ended up being a more resounding defeat of the devil.

So, when we are experiencing temptations or any other malice or cunning attacks of the enemy, if our hearts are with the Lord, we can simply say, “I tread on you in the name of Jesus,” and as the Lord said, the power of the enemy will not be able to hurt us.

Jesus issued a little admonition to his disciples, however, lest they lose their proper focus and give all their attention to the fact that now they had power over the enemy.  He said: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in Heaven.”  Our attention should be focused neither on demons nor on our authority over demons, lest we succumb to pride and end up losing that very authority.  The power to overcome evil is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end.  The end is Heaven, the Kingdom of God.  What Jesus was implying was that the fact that they were his disciples and hence were granted a share in his power and authority, simply means that they are among his elect, and as such they can have confidence in attaining the goal of eternal life in Heaven.

This is what we ought to focus on as well.  Heaven should be everything to us, that is, everything that “Heaven” implies should be everything: God the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Angels and the Saints, and all that God has prepared for those who love Him.  This is our goal, our joy, our hope.  All that the demons throw at us, all the ways they try to stir up our concupiscence or lead us to unbelief or despair—all these are merely snakes and scorpions on our path that we are to tread upon as we advance toward the Kingdom.  We attend to them only long enough to overcome them, and then we turn our attention toward Heaven, for therein should lie our rejoicing.

In our efforts to keep safe from the evil serpents ever lying in wait for us, let us turn toward the Woman whom God designated as the one who would crush the serpent’s head ever since the fall of man.  He explicitly put enmity between the Woman and the serpent, knowing that the devil would never have the least hold upon the Immaculate One, and hence she would be victorious in every encounter or attack.  Our Lady is often depicted in sacred images treading upon the ancient serpent, so she is the prime example of one who has power over the enemy by the grace of God.  The devil could never hurt her, and if we stay united to her he won’t be able to hurt us, either.  She will lead us along the narrow and difficult path to the Kingdom, imploring for us the grace of her Son, which will be sufficient for us even in the worst of attacks.  Let us, then, ask the Blessed Virgin to clear the path of evil vermin, so we can lift up our eyes and hearts to the mysteries of Heaven, and rejoice to find our names written therein.

Thousandth Time, First Time

I read a post here that was interesting enough that I thought I’d more or less reiterate it for you, though maybe I can put in my own two cents as well.  It begins with the thought-provoking quote: “If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time” (G.K. Chesterton).

The basic point is that the constant turning toward God in prayer, day by day, hour by hour, is not an effort to become good at prayer, to become proficient and experienced in the ways of spiritual life. It is much more important than that. As the author puts it: “Surely there are only so many Ave Marias one can mutter?  Surely it’s extremism, to live a life in constant prayer, constant mortification, and constant contemplation of Christ? Surely the Saints get bored of Sainthood? … I hold that the constant prayer of the Saints is not an effort to become good at praying, but a fiery effort to pray for the first time. To speak the words, ‘My God I believe, I adore, I trust and I love thee’ … to utter them as they are; incredible, virgin, foreign… to allow the words to shock us as strange, to permit the well-worn phrases to be things we can scarcely comprehend, to cave in to those names of Christ—Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace—to let them be names that strike us rudely, not mere names we project for a lifetime onto the Savior. To pray constantly is to seek that shining moment of praying as awfully as a child.”

He continues: “Similarly, the Saint gazing at an icon of Christ does not gaze to gaze well, to get used to the Divine Face or to understand it. He gazes to confirm the suspicion that he cannot understand it at all. He gazes for hours to see the face of Christ for one second. He contemplates for years to realize that he has not enough lifetimes to contemplate. The expert would seek an answer. The Saint seeks a mystery. The expert would gaze well. The Saint looks at the face of Christ like an idiot child looks at a bird on his windowsill” (emphasis added).

This, I think, ought to be an encouragement for us, at least for those of us who spend a lot of time in prayer and other dimensions of spiritual life.  We may get tired of saying certain prayers for the 999th time, meditating on certain Scripture passages or gazing upon certain sacred images for the 999th time.  But we have to be aware that if we persevere until the thousandth time, we just may be granted the grace of experiencing it all for the first time, as it were, it all its pristine beauty and truth, and we will marvel that we had never really seen or understood it before.  But if we only look at these mysteries once or twice, we will not even see them for the first time.  They will be like bits of scenery that flash by in a blur as we drive down the highway.  We won’t recognize what they really are; we won’t remember them or learn anything beyond what a superficial glance reveals, for we haven’t returned to them over and over in order to beg the revelation of their true meaning.

I don’t know about you, but for someone who has read the Bible virtually every day for the past 30 years, who spends at least a third of each waking day in explicit prayer and worship, who receives Holy Communion daily and is surrounded with sacred images, and who lives deliberately seeking the Kingdom of Heaven in an environment designed to facilitate this, it is good to know that this constant immersion in holy things is but the prelude to eye-opening discoveries that will expand the heart and soul far beyond anything hitherto experienced.  The belief in the ever-greater reality of God and the things of God keeps me persevering with longing, even when constant exposure to what is holy threatens to become familiar, or when I think I know what a certain Scripture passage really means, or when I think I understand (or worse yet, that I have sufficiently explored) some mystery of the Faith.

Likewise in our Liturgy (the Byzantine Offices are quite verbose), there are so many texts that we pray all the time, so many images that are familiar to us, that after 999 times we might forget the mystery they contain and what we are truly seeking when we pray.  For example, this morning (it’s a Friday as I write), we had this “common” text in the Divine Liturgy: “O Virgin and all-immaculate Mother of Christ our God, a sword pierced your all-holy soul when you saw your Son and God crucified…”  What powerful drama and pain and love and adoration are contained there!  Yet all too often the liturgical texts fly by too quickly for contemplation. But the mysteries need to be taken into prayer in quieter times.  When I contemplate this mystery in the early hours of the morning, my soul is pierced by a sword, too, and I weep, and I perceive this climax point of our redemption as if for the first time, for new dimensions or perspectives are gradually revealed.  But I have to keep returning to this mystery, for I haven’t seen it fully yet, haven’t plumbed the depths of it, haven’t been sufficiently broken and remade by it.  I’m waiting and longing to see it new, because God makes all things new, and He has so much to show us that we will think, after a lifetime of seeking his face, that we haven’t even begun truly to see, to know, to be seized with the power of his grace-bearing revelations, immersed and permeated with his infinite spiritual riches.

So, if you have contemplated the Face of Christ and the Heart of the Blessed Virgin (or the Heart of Christ and the face of the Blessed Virgin), or have sought the Kingdom and read the Bible and prayed familiar prayers for 999 times, do not give up if you have grown weary.  Persevere, for the thousandth time may just be the time that will seem like you are seeing it all for the first time.  “God…rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6), and once you begin to see—really see, really enter into communion with—the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, you will wonder why you ever looked for anything else.

Sanctified Temple

[This is a homily I gave on the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple in 2003.]

“The glory of the Lord filled the Temple.”  We heard that several times in the readings from Vespers last night, which were, of course, meant to be a foreshadowing of what happened in the Mother of God.  So today, as we celebrate her entrance into the Temple, the glory of the Lord is again filling the Temple, and that’s because the glory of the Lord already filled the temple which is the Mother of God herself, as she was sanctified from her very conception by the grace of the Holy Spirit so that she could be a living tabernacle.

We also heard in Psalm 45 this morning—which is also the first line of the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy—that “the Lord, the Most High, has sanctified his tabernacle.”  And this is chosen to help us enter into the mystery of Mary as the Temple of God, as the consecrated Dwelling-place of God—and, as we’ll see, the image or icon of the whole Church and of what we are supposed to be.  What we have to see in this mystery is its application to us: where we fit in, where we are part of the same mystery, so that we can bear fruit in our own lives.

The epistle (Heb. 9:1-7), which is the “common” chosen for the Mother of God, is particularly appropriate today when she’s being celebrated in that whole environment of the Temple of God, because this epistle talks about the Temple and especially about the Holy of Holies.  One of the texts in the Liturgy says that she is “holier than the Holy of Holies” because God dwelled bodily, in human form, in her—something that never happened in the old Temple in Jerusalem—until Jesus Himself walked in (but that was later on).

The images that we use about Our Lady are based on the images used in the Old Testament, some of which are here in the epistle.  She is often called the Ark of the Covenant, because that was the place, the locus, of the Presence of God for his people. In the Ark of the Covenant was the golden vessel containing the manna, so Our Lady is spoken of as this vessel which contains the Bread that came down from Heaven, as Jesus said, to give life to the world, which is Himself: his own Flesh and Blood, which she carried within her.

The rod of Aaron that budded, that was just a stick that all of a sudden burst into flower, a symbol of the virginal conception and birth of Our Lady who, without a miraculous intervention of God would not have borne fruit, would not have given birth to a child, since she was a virgin.  That, too, is an appropriate image of Our Lady.

The tablets of the Covenant: this we have as a very beautiful expression in the Akathist Hymn, where Our Lady is called “the scroll upon which the Word was written by the hand of the Father.”   Now the Word, the eternal Son of God, was “written,” so to speak, by the hand of the Father, in the womb of Our Lady.  This is the symbol of the tablets of the Law which the finger of God Himself carved.

What we’re celebrating in this feast is the mystery of consecration: Mary’s personal consecration to God for the sake of her being the dwelling-place of God, and also our consecration and our being a dwelling-place of God.  A temple—let’s say our own church here or any other church consecrated to God—is something that is set apart for worship.  The whole meaning of the term “consecrated” is “to set something apart for worship, for God.”  So a church or a temple is consecrated, is set apart, for the worship of God—that’s all that it’s used for, that’s all that it’s allowed to be used for.  In this temple we don’t cook supper, we don’t do our laundry, we don’t sleep (although occasionally, during meditation, you might hear somebody snoring!).  It’s not meant to be used for any activity outside of worship and prayer.

Our Lady has been set apart for God, for one thing only: to give birth to the Son of God.  That’s her whole mission in life, it was centered on that.  If she didn’t do that, she would do nothing, she would not fulfill the will of God.  Her life was a consecration, a setting apart, for a particular, unique, extraordinary mission for the salvation of mankind: to be the bearer of the Savior who would come to take away the sins of the world. That is her consecration, and that is what the imagery of being in the Holy of Holies means, that her life is just for God.  The Blessed Virgin has a unique privilege and mission which is given to nobody else: to be the Mother of the Son of God.

But, by extension, the mystery of consecration to God for worship is opened up to everybody, on different levels.  Everyone who is baptized is, by that very fact, consecrated to God—set apart as being God’s people, Christ’s people, especially, because we’re baptized into Christ, and incorporated mystically, sacramentally into the Body of Christ.  For others in the Church who are what are called “consecrated persons”—monks, nuns and priests—that’s another level of consecration and something that we should be more aware of, I think, that we as monks by vow and divine consecration are set apart for worship and prayer: that’s the main thing of our life.  Of course we have to do all the other basic stuff for survival and daily living that everybody else has to do, but we have a special mission and role from God for the sake of the whole Church and the whole world and, if you look at our day and put together the time we spend in liturgical worship, contemplative prayer and scriptural reading and meditation—things that are all focused directly towards God, for no other purpose but to give worship and praise to God, to be explicitly in the presence of God—that takes up six to seven hours of every day for us.  That’s quite significant; that, in itself, shows that this life is a set-apart life.  We belong to God; we are consecrated to God.

St. Paul says that about the whole Church, and so this image of Our Lady as Temple of God is based on Scripture.  It applied to Mary pre-eminently, yet we have to hear this ourselves: “The Temple of God is holy—and you are that Temple.”  So, we are that Temple; we are that dwelling-place of God, a place where God is present, consecrated to Him: for his glory, for worship, for prayer, for living in his presence, manifesting his presence to others.  We need to take that to heart and realize it as the great nobility and beauty of our vocation, because God, in the end, is going to make the whole universe his Temple.

That isn’t manifested at this moment, just as when that little girl named Mary was walking into the Temple with her parents, no one was exclaiming, “Oh!  Glory to God, because He is going to become a man in this girl in ten years and He’s going to come and save the world!”  That was all hidden; it was a mystery that was hidden from sight, and the mystery of our own consecration to God and of God’s dwelling in us is also a mystery that’s mostly hidden.  Most of the people who see us on the street don’t prostrate before us and say, “I see the presence of God in you!”

It would be good if our own holiness and righteous behavior would communicate his presence more readily, though, but the indwelling of God is mainly a hidden mystery that will be manifested fully only in the end, because as St. Paul says, when Christ appears, we too shall appear with Him in glory.   And St. John says that we will see Him as He is, and be like Him.  So this whole mystery is going to be manifested when God, in the very end, makes the universe his Temple for his glory.  Right now it is hidden in a mystical way, but we’re called to make that more and more manifest by our personal contribution, our own personal awareness, our own personal cooperation with the grace of God, who set us apart here for worship and for prayer.

I read something that I found to be a nice expression of consecration to God.  It’s a little prayer from the Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena.  She says:  “O Eternal Trinity, You are a bottomless sea, into which the more I sink, the more I find You.  And the more I find You, the more I still search for You.  Of You, I could never say, ‘Enough.’  The soul which fulfills itself in your depths, longs unceasingly for You, because it is always hungering for You, always desirous of seeing its light in Your Light.  Could You give me anything more than Your own Self?  You are the fire, always burning and never consumed; You are the fire that consumes all selfish love of the soul; You are the Light beyond all light—You, the cloak that covers all nakedness, Food that with its sweetness makes all who are hungry happy.  Clothe me, Eternal Trinity; clothe me with Yourself, that I may live this life in true obedience, and in the light of Faith with which You have inebriated my soul.”

Now those are the words of a person who is consecrated to God, who is a dwelling place for the Holy Trinity, and that is what we aspire to, which we already are essentially but which needs to be developed, cultivated, manifested, in order to bear more fruit.  So let us pray for that as we honor Our Lady as the Sanctified Temple and Dwelling of God, as she was in a unique way, and let us realize in another way that we are a temple of God ourselves.

Today, as we approach the Holy Eucharist, the glory of the Lord is going to fill that temple which is our own soul, so we should receive that glory of the Lord, that grace of the Lord, which sanctifies the tabernacle that is our body and soul.  Thus we can all together rejoice in the Lord and always remember and strive to live those words of the apostle: “The Temple of God is holy—and you are that Temple.”

Heavenly Treasures

Here we are a few days before Thanksgiving Day, and the Gospel presents us with a parable concerning a man celebrating his abundance of food and material blessings (Lk. 12:16-21).  Fits perfectly, right?  Wrong.  This is because the rich man was neither giving thanks to God for his abundance, nor did he have a thought of sharing it with others—his only thought was to expand his storage capacity so he could keep it all for himself and relax in carefree self-indulgence for many years.

In the verse preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus gives its lesson: “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” That single verse could result in the salvation of countless souls, if only all people, especially in the Western world—and in those societies influenced by Western materialism—would heed what Jesus said.  For if people realized that the acquisition of material goods is not the goal of this life, they might seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, trusting Him to provide all they really need, and then they would be storing up treasure in Heaven.

We have quite a contrast between the Gospel and the Epistle today (Eph. 2:4-10), as far as the understanding of true riches goes.  While the prosperous landowner in the Gospel was reveling in his material wealth, St Paul also is speaking of richness and abundance, but of quite a different kind.  God is “rich in mercy,” says the Apostle, and He wants to show the abundant riches of his grace to us.  Here we learn what true wealth is, and hence that to which we should direct all our attention and energy.

St Paul tells us why the eternal riches are so much more important than the temporal ones.  The simple fact is that material possessions are useless to us in providing what we most desperately need.  He says that since we have lived according to our own passions and desires, our souls have been dead in sin.  What can money or possessions do for a soul dead in sin?  And what good are they when this soul has to account for itself before the Judgment Seat of God?  Jesus makes this clear in the Gospel.  He says that God will call the rich man a fool, for his soul will be required of him at a moment he does not expect, and what good will his riches do him then?  We take nothing with us when we die except our relationship to God, and if there isn’t much there, we will discover to our shame and everlasting regret just how radically and culpably poor we have actually been.

I sometimes read or hear about people who have made a lot of money, who have accomplished certain things that seem great in the eyes of the world, who have acquired a level of fame or power that is the envy of many.  But I think, what does it profit them to gain all this and end up losing their souls?  If they aren’t living for God and willingly serving Him, what are they going to say as they pass from this life to the next?  Are they going to tell God that they were rich and famous and that they have a long résumé of accomplishments?  Will He be impressed by that?  Will He not rather ask them why they did not put their faith and hope in Him and obey his commandments and take up their crosses?

St Paul tries to tell us what God has done for us, so we will not make the mistake—or continue in the mistake—of choosing the ephemeral, illusory riches over the eternal and true ones.  Remember, he says, that sin damages and can even permanently destroy your soul.  But turn to God, who is rich in mercy, for He will give life to your soul by means of the abundant riches of his grace, the grace given to us in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us, so that we could have a place in Heaven instead of a place in Hell.

There’s a little play on words in this epistle, where Paul speaks of riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ.  In Greek, “kindness” is chrestos, and “Christ” is Christos.  It is as if to say that Jesus Christ is the Father’s kindness toward us, the One by whom we receive the grace of mercy unto salvation.

The basic problem is that people desire the wrong things and ignore the most precious ones.  One of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Catherine Labouré was as follows: “At first Mary appeared standing on a globe and dressed in white, having a long white veil which fell to her feet… Her fingers were covered with rings whose precious jewels [symbolizing the riches of God’s grace] sparkled brilliantly and showered down innumerable rays of light on the globe beneath her feet… Mary lowered her eyes and looked directly at Catherine. Mary said nothing audibly, but Catherine heard this message… ‘These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The jewels which give no rays symbolize the graces that are not given because they are not asked for.’”  Graces not given because they are not asked for.  This is a great tragedy of our time.  People seek things that are ultimately worthless, and don’t even ask for priceless treasures from Heaven.

God is not being unreasonable by asking us to focus on the riches of grace and mercy instead of material possessions or other worldly advantages.  He knows that we are not pure spirits like angels, that we have bodies that need to be fed and clothed and sheltered.  So immediately after this parable, Jesus begins to talk about his Father as the provider of all material needs for all creation: the birds and the flowers, and all the more so the human beings created in his image.  But the key is always one of priorities.  God doesn’t say, “Force yourselves to do without the necessities of bodily life and focus exclusively on the spiritual life.”  In fact, He says that He is quite aware of our material needs.  But He gives us the priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and then everything else you need will be provided.”

The rich man in the Gospel had it all wrong.  For him it wasn’t merely that spiritual things took second place to material things; for him spiritual things had no place at all!  He didn’t even have a basic sense of human compassion but was rather a miser with his goods and hoarded them all for himself.  This is what aroused the anger of God, who reproached him severely.

That is how it will be, says Jesus, for those who grow rich for themselves instead of being rich in the sight of God.  How then shall we grow rich in the sight of God?  First let’s see what this expression means.  “In the sight of” is a fairly loose translation of the Greek eis, which usually means “into,” but admits a number of other meanings as well.  Some translations say, “rich toward God,” and the word can also mean “in the presence of,” “with reference to,” “in accordance with,” etc.  These various meanings indicate that our “growing rich” is part of a relationship or communion with God, that what we do is done in reference to Him, in his presence, in accordance with his will; it is directed toward Him and his good pleasure.

St Paul hints at one way of growing rich toward God in the last verse of today’s epistle.  He says that we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  So growing rich according to God is, at least in part, about doing good for others.   To “walk in them” means that they are an integral part of our life.  God is rich in mercy, the Apostle said, and since we have received mercy from God, we should extend it to others.  “Freely you have received,” said Jesus, “now freely give.”

There’s a temptation that some people succumb to, or perhaps we should simply call it the embracing of a distortion of the Gospel, namely, the so-called “prosperity gospel.”  According this misunderstanding of Christianity, God wants us to be rich and comfortable in this life.  All we have to do is believe in Jesus and then we can ask for all the material goods we desire and they will be ours.  “All this and Heaven, too!” is a slogan that is sometimes used to express this anti-Gospel.  But the true Gospel flatly denies it.  We’re supposed to trade our material wealth for spiritual wealth, putting into practice the preference we say we have for the things of God. You can’t serve both God and mammon. “Sell what you have and give it to the poor,” said Jesus, “and then you will have treasure in heaven.”  He never said anything like: “Become prosperous and wealthy in this age, and you will be more so in the next!”

St Paul preaches the true Gospel when he tells us to keep our minds and hearts set on things of Heaven and not on things of this present world (see Col. 3:1-2).  But this means much more than merely avoiding luxury and being content with the basics.  It is a whole program of life, a world view that sets the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven as our highest priority and goal, to which we devote the maximum possible time and energy, as we remain faithful to the responsibilities of our state in life.

Therefore there is still more to growing rich before God than doing good works, as indispensable as this is.  We have to seek the Kingdom of God through prayer and through worship, through devout reception of the Sacraments, through directing our minds and hearts heavenward, as consistently and explicitly as possible.  If we fail to do this, we will find that we are easily seduced by the relentless attractions and temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Our thoughts, our conversations, the company we keep, the things we read or watch, will gradually shift downward, will become more and more indistinguishable from those which make up the lives of unbelievers or of those who have sold out to the pursuit of worldly things.  It may be a gradual or even mostly imperceptible process, but it will happen if we relax our vigilance, if we let our fervor cool, if our longing for God and for Heaven is not a fire in our hearts that drives us to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.

What lies immediately ahead for us, in a little over a month, is the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the kindness (chrestos) of God, incarnate from the Blessed Virgin Mary in order to show us the way to Heaven.  This was an incomprehensibly immense sacrifice on his part, which means that it was of utmost importance for Him to do this for us, because of his everlasting love.  If it was so important for Him to come and speak the word of God to us, and to sacrifice Himself so as to take away our sins, it ought to be of supreme importance to us to hear what He has to say and to put it into practice.  We owe Him a debt of gratitude that it will take all eternity to pay, so let us do our utmost in order to be found worthy of the opportunity to do so!  If there were not eternal consequences to the way we live our lives in this world, there would have been no reason for Jesus to suffer all He did for us.  But since He went to such great lengths to save us, we must realize that the stakes are high and that we have a personal responsibility in this perilous adventure called human life.

So, as we look toward celebrating the Hope of our salvation on Christmas, let us make sure that we’re always looking in the right direction, that we’re seeking first the Kingdom of God and thus growing rich with heavenly treasures.

Fit for the Kingdom

The Lord would have us fit for his Kingdom, and therefore He has some uncompromising words for us, so we can know how He would have us follow Him (Lk. 9:57-62).

It seems that many people today, even those who consider themselves believers, don’t think that there’s much we have to do in order to be fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.  I remember someone telling me: “Why should I go to confession?  I never do anything wrong!”  As for me, I could probably say truthfully that in the past 60 seconds or so I haven’t done anything wrong, but I wouldn’t venture to go much beyond that.  Many people have ill-formed consciences about what is right and wrong, but in addition to this they don’t seem to realize that the mind is a great arena of spiritual warfare, and we frequently have thoughts that are not up to the standards of the Kingdom.

Anyway, Jesus offers several areas for us to examine today.  The first is that of detachment from material possessions or pleasures.  When someone asked Him to be his disciple, Jesus responded in a rather poetic fashion that He was homeless, and that his disciples should not expect to be greater than their Master.  Not that all Christians are called to be homeless, but we are supposed to be without attachments to material things, so that if we are called to renounce at least some of them, we will do it without hesitation and without regret.  Having nowhere to lay one’s head is perhaps the extreme of non-possessiveness, but at least the ideal points us in the right direction.  If Jesus and his first disciples could live in poverty, then we can at least be willing to renounce certain comforts or material benefits for his sake.  After all, Christians are not supposed to worry about making themselves fit for life in an affluent society, but rather for life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The next thing we have to be detached from is family ties and concerns, using the example of burying one’s dead relatives.  Jesus’ teachings do not give us permission for neglecting responsibilities that belong to filial piety but are a call to order one’s priorities.  Jesus made this clear in another place when He said that anyone who loves family members more than they love Him is not worthy of Him.  He didn’t say, “don’t love your family members,” or “don’t help them when they need you”; He just made it clear that God always has to be in the first place of our love and devotion.  In some cases, such as the call to the consecrated life, there is a more radical detachment from family ties and obligations, but this is a specific call to give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom.

Finally, in the image of putting one’s hand to the plow and not looking back, Jesus gives us the example of steadfast commitment, without second thoughts, without seeking loopholes, without indulging fond memories of the past or speculations on “what might have been.”  Once Jesus calls us to follow Him and we decide to do so, we have to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, as St Paul says.

One commentary explains the passage this way: “As ploughing requires an eye intent on the furrow to be made, and is marred the instant one turns about, so will they come short of salvation who [engage in] the work of God with a distracted attention, a divided heart… The expression ‘looking back’ has a manifest reference to Lot’s wife… It is not actual return to the world, but a reluctance to break with it.”

So this means not only that we have to be focused intently and consistently on doing God’s will, but also that we don’t let other things claim our interest or attention, especially things that we might find fascinating but that we are commanded to avoid—like Lot’s wife curiously turning around to see the destruction of the evil cities when she was ordered not to.

It all comes down to what is really important to us.  We say we are followers of Jesus Crucified, but do we still try to secure comforts or pleasures for ourselves, do we have to have our food just the way we like it, do we wish we could have certain things or experiences that belonged to a more comfortable time of our lives, do we miss certain things—whether legitimate or illicit—that are not compatible with the life of one who takes up his cross, do we ever resent the sacrifices our vocation demands of us?

We ought to ask ourselves these and similar questions, just to make sure that we are not deceiving ourselves, to make sure that our hand is really to the plow and we are not looking back.  For anyone who has true faith in the Lord knows that there is nothing more important, nothing more worth all of our efforts, devotion, and sacrifice, than being found fit for the Kingdom of God.

Teach Us How to Hold Him (Part 2)

On the third day all things were made new. This time Mary held her Son in awestruck wonder and irrepressible joy.  She knew He had predicted his resurrection—and this was the hope that sustained her—but perhaps it still seemed like cold comfort as she witnessed the unspeakable agony of the One she held in her womb and at her breast, and who grew to manhood before her adoring eyes.  She suffered like no human person ever suffered, because she loved like no other loved.  The Passion of Jesus broke open her heart to give it a unique capacity for suffering, beyond any grief or pain we can imagine. But her heart, thus opened, also received a similar capacity for joy when her Son returned to her, victorious and radiant, and she rushed into his open arms.  And oh, how they held each other in love and in gratitude to God!

Mary, then, has a lot to teach us about how to hold Him.  Perhaps we would prefer that our lives would be a perpetual Christmas.  We like the sweet and hushed mysteries of the Holy Night, with angel-song, the lovely smile of the pure young Mother with her shining Babe, the ambiance of grace and the warmth of love, and a hint of the glory to come.  We can hold Him then, if she invites us, and we will receive the tender Infant and press Him to our hearts, and we will go on with our lives renewed, like the shepherds, praising and glorifying God.  These are all precious and wonderful things, and we ought to enter into them as fully and lovingly as we can.

But will we still be there a short time later, when fearful prophecies are uttered, when dreams are shattered and harsh swords are foretold?  Will we still hold Him, when to do so means throwing in our lot with One who will be despised and rejected, condemned and crucified?  We need to ask Mary to teach us how to hold Him after the aged prophet speaks his piece, how to continue to cherish the One who will ask us to follow Him to the Cross.  The Blessed Mother held her Son Jesus throughout his infancy and childhood, knowing (at least in general terms) what would befall Him, knowing as well that she would suffer with Him.  She did not fear but only loved Him the more.  We too need to remain with Him, as his presence “grows” within us, as we mature and advance in grace and wisdom. For if we are not holding on to Him all during our lives, we will never have the strength to stand with Him at the Cross—and worse still, we are likely to go astray and “draw back and no longer accompany him” (Jn. 6:66).

There is, then, another way to hold Him that Mary cannot teach us, for she knows nothing of it in her own life, but she can warn us about it.  There’s someone else who embraced and kissed Jesus.  His name was Judas, and he did it only as an act of betrayal.  When we come to the manger and the Mother searches our eyes and hearts to see if we are sincere, she may ask us, “Why have you come here?”  Then we will beg her to place the Divine Infant in our arms, if only for a while.  But what happens if we turn away from the Lord as our life runs its twisted, weary course?  We may think we can hide from his eyes, but He will find us in the very time and place we are about to betray Him through sin, and He will say, with pity and pain and wounded love: “Why have you come here?”

What shall we say then?  Will we let the eyes of Jesus burn into our hearts and then fall weeping like the repentant Peter?  Or will we, like Judas, flee from Him and run still farther into the dark and dreadful night, only to discover demons of despair preparing our final exit?

If we are willing to hold Jesus as a sweet little Infant at Christmas, we must also be willing to persevere all the way to the Cross.  We eagerly ask Mary if we can hold her precious bundle, for this is pure joy and doesn’t really cost us anything (except making sure we don’t approach Him in a state of sin).  But when we see Mary at the Cross, holding the lacerated, pierced, dead body of her Son, while her own body is racked with spasms of grief, will we ask her if we can hold Him then—knowing that our sins have brought Him to this bitter and painful end, that they have also pierced her heart with a sword?  Can we dare to read the pain in her eyes and let it pierce our own hearts?  Yet we must, and she offers Jesus to us, urging us to embrace the price of our Redemption, to know what it cost Him, and then to adore and give thanks to Him with all our hearts, all our love.  This experience must mark our lives indelibly, for once we have held Him with love, our lives can never be the same.  If the intensity of our experience fades, and we begin to drift again into mediocrity or apathy, we must beg Our Lady to teach us anew how to hold Him.  She will always be there to draw us back to the Source of love and grace and mercy.

A few days after I started writing this article, I held the Lamb once more at the Divine Liturgy, asking Mary again to teach me how to hold Him in a manner that would please her.  What came to me then is implied in all the above, but a little more nuanced: “Hold Him with tenderness,” she said to my soul.  This adds something special to adoration, to gratitude, even to love.  One can worship perfunctorily, give thanks half-heartedly, and perhaps speak words of love more or less superficially, and maybe even hypocritically.  But I wonder if anyone can speak and act tenderly toward Jesus without it coming from the heart.  In any case, I saw that is was good; I held Him tenderly and He warmed my heart.

So perhaps that is of the essence of the Mother’s mission in our lives, and the goal of our own efforts at spiritual growth and maturity.  We need to learn how to hold Jesus tenderly, both as a Baby in Bethlehem and as a sacrificial Victim on Golgotha.  We can do this if we are not seeking our own comfort or advantage in our relationship with Him, if we are instead simply offering ourselves to Him.  The more we learn of Jesus’ love for us, the more we want to love Him in return; the more we understand what He has done and suffered for us, the more we want to do and suffer for Him.

Let’s face it, there are very many in the world today who are ignorant, indifferent, or even hostile to Christ and what He stands for, who even hate and despise Him and his precious Cross, and thus reject his offer of salvation.  Will we be there to hold Him tenderly as his loving Mother did, to kiss his wounds and resolutely assure Him that we will be faithful, no matter what?  It’s not that He needs our affection, but we owe Him everything we can possibly give, and also—this is very important to Him and should be to us—we can thus win mercy for many who have not received all the graces that we have received.

Even though only the priests hold the Lamb at the holy altar, you don’t have to be a priest to hold Him tenderly.  As often as you receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, you hold Him in your heart.  And, if you are attentive, you will be shown other ways to bear his presence and his love, and to share it with others as you live your daily life.

During this Advent and Christmas season, let us begin by preparing to approach Him in purity of heart—through prayer, fasting, quiet reflection, repentance and confession— honoring the immeasurable sacrifice He made by taking to Himself our humble form and entering this world of darkness as its Light.  Let us receive Him from the arms of his Mother and hold Him tenderly, and thus commit our lives to Him irrevocably.  As we place Him back in her arms, let us pause for a moment, for her eyes are seeking us out.  Let us see in them the silhouette of the Cross against the light of the Resurrection, and let us realize that Christmas is only the beginning.  There are miles to go before we sleep in heavenly peace.

We can do this, however.  We can love because He first loved us; we can hold because He first held us.  The Grace of God and the Heart of the Mother will teach us all things, if we wish to learn—if it means everything for us to be taught how to hold Him, to bear his Mystery within us and at length discover it all fulfilled, to our everlasting delight, in the Paradise of Heaven.

Teach Us How to Hold Him (Part 1)

[This is my article for our Advent-Christmas newsletter this year, but you get to see it first. The Advent fast begins for us every year on November 15.]

It was sometime in mid-September of this year, shortly after the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the holy priesthood of Christ.  There is a moment in the Divine Liturgy at which the priest takes into his hands the Lamb of God, the Bread from Heaven, and elevates Him, saying: “Holy things for the holy!”  Coming as it did shortly after the feast of the Exaltation (lifting up) of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, this lifting up of the Lamb had special significance, for the Holy Eucharist contains, expresses, and communicates sacramentally and mystically the whole mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

At the moment of the elevation of the Lamb, and conscious of the presence of the Blessed Virgin in the sanctuary—and also feeling unworthy even to approach this awe-inspiring Mystery of Christ, let alone take the Lamb in my hands—I received an inspiration from the Holy Spirit.  As I extended my hands to touch the Flesh of God, I begged the heavenly Mother: “Teach me how to hold Him!”  Mary knows better than anyone else how most lovingly and worthily to do this.  She carried Him in her womb for nine months, then in her arms during his infancy and childhood.  That graced moment at the Liturgy opened up for me some fruitful reflections that I’d like to share here with you.

My awareness of Our Lady’s presence at the Holy Sacrifice offered at the altar is not merely a self-generated perception, but rather is based on objective reality.  There is something I learned about this a while back—a beautiful but often unacknowledged element of the celebration of the Eucharist—from the writings of Blessed John Paul II: “In the [Eucharistic] ‘memorial’ of Calvary, all that Christ accomplished by his passion and his death is present. Consequently all that Christ did with regard to his Mother for our sake is also present. To her he gave the beloved disciple and, in him, each of us: ‘Behold, your son!’  To each of us he also says: ‘Behold your mother!’ (cf. Jn. 19:26-27).  Experiencing the memorial of Christ’s death in the Eucharist also means continually receiving this gift. It means accepting—like John—the one who is given to us anew as our Mother. It also means taking on a commitment to be conformed to Christ, putting ourselves at the school of his Mother and allowing her to accompany us. Mary is present, with the Church and as the Mother of the Church, at each of our celebrations of the Eucharist. If the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united, the same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist. This is one reason why, since ancient times, the commemoration of Mary has always been part of the Eucharistic celebrations of the Churches of East and West” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #57, italics in original).

I have been reading (actually re-reading, since it was so rich the first time around) the life of St. Gemma Galgani (+1903), who has quickly and quite unexpectedly become my favorite saint—short of the Queen of Saints, of course!  There’s a lot I could write about her, but that will have to wait for another occasion.  I mention her here because of a vision she experienced that got me thinking about holding Jesus.  Her biographer, the Venerable Germanus, C.P., writes: “On another occasion the Holy Mother appeared with her Di­vine Son as a beautiful child, and with her own hands placed Him in Gemma’s arms. She, trembling, pressed Him to her heart and kissed Him with much love. The Divine Infant did the same, and having instructed her on heavenly matters, ended by giving her His blessing. She gave Him to His Mother, and the vision vanished.”

I can hardly imagine how profound and awesome such an experience must be.  I get nervous enough when some beaming young mother plops her newborn into my arms (thank God this doesn’t happen much around here), but what would I do if the Queen of Heaven placed her Divine Child in my arms?  Probably I would say the same thing I said at the altar: “Teach me how to hold Him!”  It is interesting to note from the above vision of St. Gemma, that even when the Lord chooses to appear as a small Child in his Mother’s arms, He is still the Son of God, the King of Glory and the Eternal Wisdom.  That is why the Divine Child “instructed her on heavenly matters” and “ended by giving her His blessing,” and didn’t just make little baby-sounds like an ordinary infant.

As the time of Advent commences and Christmas approaches, we are naturally drawn to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, and his birth for our salvation.  We will see many images of the Madonna and Child, of the tender love they shared.  We may, if we are so inclined, meditate on the Gospel accounts of the conception and birth of Our Lord, and perhaps wonder what it might have been like if we were there to share in those blessed moments that changed human history and destiny forever.  What if we approached them, trembling, unworthy, yet irresistibly drawn—like the shepherds and the Magi—and what if Mary asked us if we’d like to hold her newborn Son?  If I didn’t faint from love and fear and adoration and joy and awe, I might dare to approach, but I would surely ask her to help me to hold Him worthily and lovingly.

We don’t know for sure if the shepherds or Magi held Him, but we do know that forty days after his birth St. Simeon received the Child from the arms of Mary and held Him in his own, blessing God and uttering prophecies.  What did he experience?  I can imagine that upon seeing St. Joseph and the Mother of God, with the Radiant Child in her arms casting invisible grace all about Him, the old man’s heart beat loudly in his chest, and tears streamed from his eyes.  Perhaps he even heard faint echoes of the angelic hymns that had filled the astounded ears and hearts of the chosen shepherds forty nights before. It was the crowning of his whole life, and so he informed God in prayer that he was now ready to die, having seen the promised Savior, the Light of universal revelation, the Glory of Israel.

As he returned the newborn Savior to Mary’s arms, Simeon laid grave words upon the Mother’s heart, words which probably made her hold Him all the more tightly to her bosom, as if to shield Him from the lance whose fate it was to pierce his precious heart: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against—and a sword will pierce through your own soul also—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  The shadow of that sword would be cast over her whole life, while the Child innocently grew up, unaware (at least initially) of his dreadful destiny. Finally, that prophesied sword—which would become a traditional symbol of the depth of her motherly love and sorrow—would be thrust clean through her pure heart as she witnessed the terrible spear forced into the side of her Son, our Savior.

Then she would hold Him again. Not this time as a darling newborn, whom she had pressed to her heart and fed from her breast.  She would have remembered this, though, and perhaps longed to hear Him crying for her again, so she could rush to comfort Him.  Now there was no longer any sound that escaped from the lips of the slaughtered Lamb—his final cry had been: “It is finished.”  Still she pressed Him to her heart and let his precious blood run all over her robes and down her face and neck like crimson tears, as she kissed those wounds by which we are healed.  No one could begin to comprehend the sorrow and the pain of her sword-pierced heart that not only contained, as it were, the grief of all bereaved mothers of all time, but which drank deeply of the bitter chalice of the very anguish of God as the Incarnate Son—whose body was made out of her body, whose eyes, whose smile, came from her—was savagely crushed for our offenses, sacrificed for our sins.  Now his body was torn, his eyes were closed, his smile but a memory.  But she still held Him, oh, how she held Him!

To be continued…

Of Sparks and Saints

I was not particularly devout as a child, though I did go to church on all the prescribed days and attended a Catholic elementary school.  I never entertained any thought of entering the priesthood—except for one brief moment in which I reasoned, with the pious naïveté of a child, that if one became a priest, and thus would of course live his life doing nothing but holy things, his salvation was surely secure.

But there is one thing that fired my imagination and enkindled a desire for God, and it is something I still remember to this day.  We are celebrating St Josaphat today, and it is about something that happened to him when he was a child. He was praying before a crucifix, and a “spark of fire” leapt from the wounded side of the crucified Christ and entered his heart.  This filled him with great joy and love for the Lord, and this experience influenced him for the rest of his life.

I used to think: wouldn’t it be wonderful if a spark flew from the Heart of Christ Crucified into my heart?  Somehow that experience of St Josaphat became for me an icon of the love of Jesus and of a personal communion with Him.  One could not have predicted it in my youth—indeed, when some of the staff at my elementary school learned years later that I had been ordained a priest, they all said, “Him?  We could believe it about anyone but him!”—but maybe a spark did somehow invisibly enter my heart.  I quite successfully managed to conceal it from everyone, even from myself, but lo and behold, I’ve now been a priest for 20 years and am in my 30th year in the monastery!  When I had entered the monastery in 1982, I considered for a while the name Josaphat for my monastic name, but St Joseph won out in the end, and I think this is good and providential.  But I will always be grateful to St Josaphat for the witness of his life and that spark which sparked my spiritual imagination and implanted in me the seed of a future vocation.

So St Josaphat was playing the role of the good shepherd in my life, as he did as a bishop in his own life, in very turbulent times.  He was instrumental also in the fact that I am an Eastern Catholic, for he was at the forefront of the movement for unity with the Pope of Rome for the separated Eastern brethren.  Just think, if it weren’t for St Josaphat, I would likely still be a separated brother!  But because he was convinced by the testimony of Jesus Himself, who said that all his disciples should be united as one, and that Peter should be the one to feed and tend all his sheep, St Josaphat worked tirelessly to restore the unity of Christians under the God-ordained leadership of the Successor of Peter.

So we read today the Gospel of the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:9-16), in which Jesus says something that the successors of Peter, the rock upon whom He built his Church, could also say, and what faithful servants like St Josaphat have echoed through the centuries: “I lay down my life for the sheep; and I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”

The readings which are read at the Liturgy for saints who were bishops refer not only to Christ as the Good Shepherd but also to him as the great High Priest (Heb. 7:26 – 8:2).  A bishop is supposed to fulfill both these roles: to feed the flock with the word of God and his example of a holy life, and to offer the Sacrifice of Christ as a “minister in the sanctuary and the true tabernacle, which is set up… by the Lord.”

We need to pray much for the Church today, for, despite some notable exceptions, it seems that the majority of bishops (at least in the western world) have lost something of the zeal, the fire, the fervor, the fearless courage, the manifest holiness of many of their predecessors in the Apostolic Succession.  It seems that in effect the Church is viewed more or less as a multi-national corporation, which requires as leaders efficient administrators and diplomatic liaisons with the secular society—rather than as the Mystical Body of Christ, which instead requires as leaders prophets and saints.

Let us then ask St Josaphat to intercede not only for his fellow bishops but for us all, that all the members of the Body will receive that holy spark of Divine Fire from the pierced side of our Crucified Lord and Savior, and then go forth with zeal and wisdom to help save the Good Shepherd’s sheep from the devouring wolves.  The saints prove to us, by the witness of their lives, that this is possible.  It all begins with a little spark…

The 6250, the 104

By now I’m sure you’re aware of my famous mop-up ministry, unless you have just stumbled accidentally (or providentially) upon this blog.  You will have learned, after careful reading, that one of the most urgent reasons for praying for sinners who are about to die in their sins is that an average of 150,000 souls leave this world every day to make an account of their lives before the Judgment Seat of God (sure keeps St Peter and his staff busy!).

I think, though, that big numbers like 150,000 don’t register very easily, at least with little brains like mine, so I thought I’d break it down a bit, to increase the sense of urgency even more!  150,000 souls per day is 6,250 souls per hour, which is approximately 104 souls per minute.  Just think of it: every minute of every day and every night, 24/7, over 100 souls leave this world and are ushered in to the presence of God, who will examine their lives and declare to them their eternal destination. How many of these are prepared to go?  How many have believed in the Lord and loved Him and labored to do his will?

This endless flow of souls may seem overwhelming, and we might think that there is little or nothing that we can do to help—though we should be eager to help, for these are our brothers and sisters, and there will inevitably arrive a moment in which we ourselves will be found among the daily harvest of souls, and we sure would be glad to have someone praying for us at that ultimate moment.  So we can at least pray for the 6250, pray for the 104.

As individuals, we can’t help them all, this is clear.  But if by our prayers and sacrifices we are able to help save any of them who would otherwise have been lost, then this is eternal glory for the Lord and eternal happiness (not to mention eternal gratitude, though I just did) for this soul or these souls whom our prayers have assisted.

People often complain that they do not have time for prayer.  I won’t get into that whole issue now.  But everyone has time for one minute of prayer.  Make yourself a note somewhere that you will easily see it, at home, at work (make several while you’re at it).  Use your one minute of prayer to pray for the 104 people who will die within that minute.  You can do this often during the day, whenever you think of it, even when you don’t have so much as a whole minute: “Lord, have mercy on the 104 souls that are leaving the world this very minute!”

The Lord will hear your prayer.  It is true that every soul has to choose personally to embrace faith and love for Christ, but in extreme cases, this can be done at the last moment of life.  God will provide the grace to help them do it, if He sees that someone in this world cares enough about them to offer urgent prayer to help save them at the last minute.  Remember what Dostoyevsky wrote: “Remember too, every day and whenever you can, to repeat to yourself, ‘Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee today.’  For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God.  And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, and dejected, so no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not.  And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God, though you knew them not, nor they you.  How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that for him too there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him.  And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much more will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you.  And He will forgive him for your sake… (from The Brothers Karamazov).

So come now, you literally do not have a minute to lose.  Pray for the 104.  Wait till you get to Heaven and see them all running to embrace you, because you prayed that God would give them one more chance, and they accepted it!  This is a very simple thing to do.  Just do it from the heart.  You can have a much greater role in the salvation of souls than you might ever have imagined.  Start right now.  Don’t say, “In a minute,” because then it’s too late for that particular 104.  The Lord will bless you richly if you love what He loves, if you care about what He cares about, if you do something for the souls for which He lived and died. Nothing is more important to Jesus than to see his beloved people in Heaven; therefore nothing should be more important to us.  Try it; there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain!

A Gathering of Angels

[November 8, on the Byzantine calendar, is the feast of St Michael and all the Holy Angels.  The following is a homily I gave in 2004.]

We are celebrating what we call the synaxis of all the holy, heavenly, incorporeal powers, which means it’s the feast of the angels. “Synaxis” means a gathering.  This feast day I often get the sense that there really is a gathering here of the holy angels. The church seems fuller somehow on this feast because of the presence of the holy angels who have gathered to celebrate with us the mysteries of God, and we in turn give thanks to them for their presence in our lives.

So I’d like to, first of all, say something as a reminder that the angels are very important in salvation history and our spiritual life, even though they’re kind of trivialized today by new age literature and popular art, greeting cards and the like. In the Bible, angels are mentioned over 300 times, so this is not some fanciful idea, but something that is a constant presence in salvation history to this very day.

What I would like to say about the angels today, I would like to put under the heading of WWW. Now that doesn’t mean World Wide Web, although in a sense there is a kind of worldwide web or network of angelic presence or activity and communication. But the WWW that I want to talk about today is worship, witness, and war.

First of all, we’ll talk about worship, because that is one of the main ministries or activities of the angels.  We see that clearly in Scripture, especially in the Book of Revelation, where we have several scenes, little peeks through the keyhole of the Kingdom of Heaven just to see the heavenly worship and liturgy going on, where the angels are constantly singing the praises of God: the thrice holy hymn, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” We see that in Revelation and also in Isaiah and other places throughout the Scriptures where the angels are shown to surround the throne of God in worship and praise.

Our Liturgy has many mentions of the angels. Just in the Divine Liturgy itself there are several which bring us to that awareness of their ministry of worship. At the Little Entrance when we carry out the Gospel Book, the priest prays that the Lord, who has established the angels and archangels for the service of His glory, will allow the angels to enter with us as we make our entrance. And then it says, “Joining with us in the praise of your goodness.” I’d like to switch it around and say, let them join us to their praise of His goodness, because it’s much better than ours, much more pure and perfect and unceasing.

Then we sing the cherubic hymn. We actually represent the cherubim who worship around the throne of God, singing the thrice-holy hymn, and there’s a prayer before the Trisagion that says the cherubim praise Him and the seraphim glorify Him and all the heavenly powers adore Him. Again, it’s a call to join in that heavenly worship.

The next dimension of angelic life is the ministry of witness. This is where their meaning as angels, literally “messengers,” comes into play, because the angels are called not only to stand before the throne of God, for different angels have different functions. The highest ranks never leave the throne of God, but others get sent out on missions. The angelic witness is to testify to God, to the truth of God, to the glory and reality of God. Angels are sent with messages to us to witness to the truth. We see in the whole of the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, how angels are sent with a word from God—to announce some great mystery of our salvation taking place or to give us some sort of prophetic warning, but they are here to witness to the truth of God and to bring the word of God to us.

The angels, especially our guardian angels, witness to our conscience. They speak the truth of God to us and try to lead us along the path of holiness and to protect us from the seductions and deceptions of the evil spirits. That’s another way that they witness to us as our constant friends and companions and protectors on this narrow and rough path to salvation.

One beautiful thing we notice in the Gospels is that Christ rejoiced that the Father revealed his mystery to mere babes. I’ve seen children, especially newly baptized and chrismated babies, seeing something that really attracts all of their attention. Usually when the kids come for Baptism, they’re naturally fidgety. But I’ve seen it several times, either when they first come out of the water or when they receive their first drop of the Precious Blood at Communion and suddenly they look up, their eyes bug out and they just stare at something for a long time.  I think God is showing them something, blessing them, trying to ease the trauma of coming into this wicked world and to bless and encourage them and to manifest something of His truth and reality.

Our guardian angels are with us from the moment of conception until our death. Hopefully they will escort us into the heavenly kingdom. There was one time when I had a sort of awareness of my guardian angels. I have two. Someone once told me I had more, but I can’t verify that. I remember a number of years ago, I don’t know, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, I was praying in the wee hours of the morning in my cell. I don’t know, it might have been a feast of the angels, I’m not sure exactly when it was, but I became aware of these two holy beings, one on each side of me just standing there silently in their nobility and strength, and each had a hand on my shoulder, this side and the other side. I felt so protected and blessed, and the whole reality of angels became clearer to me at that point.  There are two more reasons I believe I have two, but I’m not going to get too far off the subject here.

So I talk to my angels. They’re involved in my life. Unfortunately I have to employ them as “secretaries” to remind me of all the stuff I keep forgetting. But in any case, they’re there and I know it and that’s a blessing. We should develop and cultivate that relationship with our guardian angels. God has given them to us as a gift, as a help. He knows that this life is hard and that it costs us a lot and that there are all kinds of pitfalls and struggles and temptations. So He gives us someone to help us, to walk the way with us, along with all the other means He’s given us, the sacraments and the rest, but angels are very personal and special gifts to us from God.

Finally, the angels go to war for us, and for the whole world. We get an indication of that in the Gospel today (Lk. 10:16-22) when Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall from the sky like lightning.” Well, the first fall from the sky we get a little narration about in Revelation, when we hear that St. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his legions in heaven and defeated them and cast them out. That was the original rebellion of the angels, who then became fallen angels. But that battle goes on. In the Gospel, the context shows that Jesus wasn’t referring to the primordial fall, because He had just sent the apostles out to cast out demons, and when they came back rejoicing saying, “the demons are subject to us in your name,” Jesus said, well, I believe it, because I saw Satan fall from the sky like lightning while you were out there casting them out.

So that work of the angels goes on. They engage with us and for us in the spiritual warfare. Look at the icon of St. Michael, standing with a sword. You know he doesn’t bear the sword for nothing. He’s a warrior. That’s why it’s really a misrepresentation when you see these pictures in some sentimental western art depicting the angels as these winged, puffy baby heads floating around at the feet of the Blessed Mother. That doesn’t express the reality of the angels. The angels are strong, mighty, noble, holy warriors of God and they’re almost always referred to as the heavenly hosts, which means the heavenly armies. They are sent by God, not only to give messages but to fight, to fight against evil till the end.

There’s going to be another synaxis of angels and human beings at the end of the world. At this one, the angels are going to gather up all the wicked like dried-up weeds and throw them in the eternal fire, but then it says the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. So the angels are here to let us know that this thing we call human life is a high-stakes battle, and not everyone is going to come out of it unscathed, and some are going to lose forever if they don’t obey the commandments of God and live a life in union with the angels, with the same kind of loyalty and strength and absolute fidelity to God. That’s one thing an angel is: a loyal, devoted servant of God. They are one hundred percent for God. They stand by Him, come what may, and do His bidding instantly, and that is where their glory comes from. That is the fulfillment of their mission, the will of God, to be the picked soldiers, the best of the best who stand ready before the throne of God to do His bidding and serve His good pleasure.

So let us give thanks to God for the holy angels—both the great and mighty angels who are in the highest reaches of Heaven, who worship God day and night and who fight that great fight against the evil spirits in this world, and also our own guardian angels who are close to us, who are with us. Let us ask God to be able to hear their counsel in the depths of our hearts, to be more conscious of their presence, to walk with them, to rely on them for their protection, advice, and blessing, because they love us and their one desire is to bring us into the same joy and glory and eternal life that they have, and have always had, in the presence of God.  Let us open our minds and hearts to the presence of the angels here and now; welcome them into our lives that we ourselves will become a part of that worldwide web of angelic presence and activity. And may we one day, having passed through the trials and sufferings and spiritual battles of this life, end up singing with the choir of angels the unending hymn of praise to God, the All-holy Trinity.

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