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

Archive for December, 2011

Get Back to Work!

Today is the leave-taking of the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, and it also happens to be the leave-taking of the year 2011.  But the readings for the Liturgy (Mt. 12:15-21; 1Tim. 6:11-16) were chosen for neither reason, but only because today also happens to be the liturgical entity known as “the Saturday after Christmas.”  I haven’t quite figured out why these readings were chosen, but I’ll give it my best shot.

In the epistle, St Paul tells us that God “dwells in unapproachable light,” that in his incomprehensible Divine Essence, no one has seen or is able to see Him.  So this is perhaps a sort of prologue to the mystery of the Incarnation, to God’s great love and compassion for us sinners, who, even if we weren’t such sinners, are still severely limited as human creatures who cannot see God with the naked eye.  Out of his Unapproachable Light, then, and out of his incomprehensible Divine Essence, the eternal Son of God came from Heaven into this world, setting aside his blinding glory so as to manifest Himself in a form that can be seen, that can be approached. It is in this form that Jesus makes it clear that He wants us to approach Him, for He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary… and you will find rest for your souls.”

This is the kind of thing in which we can quietly repose during the holy Christmas days, as we contemplate the mystery of God-with-us, of the humble and kenotic love of the One who came to save us from our sins.  But in the midst of our blissful contemplation, St Paul, in this same reading, rouses us to get up and fight!  “Fight the good fight of the faith,” he enjoins us; “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.”  This list is similar to that of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He goes on to say: “I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  As we contemplate the first appearing of Christ, we are already directed to be ready for the final appearing.

Evidently we just can’t make it through the Christian life without a fight.  Despite the invitations to contemplation of the wonderful mysteries of God in Christ, we can hardly turn a page of the New Testament without finding some exhortation to fight, to struggle, to deny and discipline ourselves, to endure hardships patiently, to be strong, courageous, vigilant, to choose the way of truth, love, fidelity, and righteousness at all costs.

So, here is the Church’s message to us after celebrating Christmas for a week: get back to work, fight, be steadfast, keep the commandments!  We get the impression from this exhortation that the Church would like to remind us that, despite all the pies and chocolates of Christmas, we are not yet in Paradise, we are still in exile, we’ve still got work to do, and there are still hordes of unclean demons who are firing their weapons at us all the time, with irreverent disregard for the festal interludes of the liturgical year.

Speaking of the liturgical year, perhaps the Gospel is meant to be something of a bridge between Christmas and Theophany, when we celebrate the baptism of the Lord.  A passage of Isaiah is quoted: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.  I will put my Spirit upon him…”  That sounds a lot like what the Father said to Jesus as He rose up from the waters of the Jordan at his baptism.  It is all the more so when we notice that the word for “servant” is not the term usually used in the New Testament (doulos), which ought to be translated “slave,” but is a more moderate term (pais) that can be translated “son” or “child” as well as “servant.”  So, behold the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased, and upon whom his Spirit rests.

The passage ends by saying that in his name the Gentiles will hope.  This indicates—at least for us who are still in the Christmas spirit—the mystery of Jesus’ manifestation to the magi, who represent the gentile world invited to come and worship the newborn Savior.  The shepherds were the representatives of the chosen people, the Jews, which is why they got to see Baby Jesus first.

So, as the liturgical year advances inexorably, let us contemplate the mystery of Him who came out of his Unapproachable Light to manifest Himself in love to Jew and Gentile alike, as their only Savior.  And, since we have received the grace of this manifestation and all that flows from it, especially in the sacramental and mystical life of the Church, let us rouse our strength and courage to fight the good fight of the faith, so that we may be found among those who have faithfully endured to the end and attained salvation through the grace, mercy, and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever!

Love Grows Cold

When speaking of the tribulations we are to expect in the “end times,” one thing that Jesus said is that “the love of most will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).  This grievous state of affairs arises “because wickedness is multiplied.”  We do not know if we are in the end times of this world, yet there are signs that love is growing cold.  There are many, but I’d like to focus on one of the most significant ones here.

Today, on the Byzantine calendar, is the feast of the Holy Innocents (it was yesterday on the Roman calendar), the infants who were murdered because it suited the will of a petty tyrant.  One can perhaps understand why love might grow cold toward, say, an unjust aggressor in war, or some other malicious enemy who is an imminent threat to one’s life or family or property, or perhaps a hard-hearted and evil-minded government that legislates immorality and persecutes the righteous.  But things have degenerated to an intolerable and even inhuman extent when a mother’s love for the child in her womb grows cold, so cold that she is willing to destroy her child—and not only that, but actively promotes the wholesale slaughter of the unborn as if it were a “right” of women, and an indication of their freedom. The government smiles upon the carnage, some people make lots of money off of it, and others rise to power in promoting and supporting it. Love in America, and in many other countries, has truly grown cold.

It has been said that if the most defenseless and innocent of human beings do not even enjoy the right to life, and if the society in which they are conceived is not interested in protecting them, then none of us is safe, none of us can expect to have rights for much longer.  Where do you draw the line?  Elderly, disabled people are gradually losing their right to life as well—in some countries they are already being killed without their consent.  Make sure you maintain good health and marketable skills, or you might be next!

I recently read an article in the December, 2011, issue of Catholic World Report, about the routine killing of unborn babies who are discovered to have some sort of disability.  When prenatal testing reveals some abnormality, the vast majority of doctors urge abortion, and the vast majority of mothers kill their (suddenly) unwanted children.  But not all.  The love of all has not yet grown cold.

A woman named Nancy Mayer-Whittington has written a book entitled, For the Love of Angela, about her carrying to term a daughter with a fatal diagnosis (the girl lived only a few minutes after birth).  I haven’t read it (yet), but it looks like it is something quite worthwhile, and perhaps helpful in rekindling love in some parents’ hearts.  Of course it cost her much in suffering the loss of her beloved daughter, but this is a price that anyone who believes in love, believes in the value of humanity, ought to be willing to pay.  It is sad, but rich, as someone I know used to say.  And this love is repaid in ways that will reach into eternity.

She writes that those few moments after her daughter’s birth (which also provided the opportunity for her baptism) were “the most wonderful and heartbreaking of my life.”  She continues: “Seeing Angela alive, holding her, telling her I loved her, had made everything worthwhile, all the grief, uncertainty, and confusion.  The decision to proceed with the pregnancy had been the correct one.  I now had the face of my infant daughter forever etched in my memory.”  Her doctor had told her that she was the first among all his patients who had discovered their child had a life-threatening condition who decided to give birth to the child.

Another mother who loved, Maria Keller, reacted strongly to her doctor’s insistence that she abort her son who had a fatal condition.  The doctor somehow though she would feel better that way.  “I just exploded,” Maria said she responded. “I told [the doctor], ‘Listen, my baby has this condition, but how is me killing this baby going to make it all better?  How is me killing him going to make me happier?”  The unassailable logic of a mother who loves.

It is perversely ironic that we celebrate today the sacrificed lives of infants whose mothers tried to protect them from those who would destroy them, because the mothers loved them.  Today it is the mothers themselves who refuse to protect and love them, and who choose to destroy them (though in some cases, others forcibly pressure or coerce them to do so against their will).  No need to fear someone coming to your home to kill your children (unless you live in China). You can take matters into your own hands and just drive to Planned Parenthood or some other house of horrors, rid yourself of the inconvenient problem, and feel your heart turn to ice.

Do not, then, wonder about crime and violence and terrorism and STDs and the insanity of our lust- and greed-driven society.  What do you expect?  Love has grown cold.  If mothers kill their own children at the rate of several thousand a day in our country alone, is it logical for anyone to be surprised that atrocities abound and that whole societies are coming apart at the seams?  Don’t be shocked or outraged at the next shooting spree you read about at some school or shopping mall.  We have created the monster.  Love has grown cold.

You don’t have to tell me there’s little statistical link between abortion and other violent crimes.  Evil begets evil; it’s like a poison gas that diffuses everywhere.  You won’t know where it comes from, but it’s there, and it affects all of us—unless we put on the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:10-18) and stand for the truth, stand for human dignity, and refuse to let our hearts turn to ice through  selfish choices, choices that harm or even destroy others.  Innocent others.

Wickedness is multiplied, as the Lord said, and the love of many has grown cold.  His only answer to this was that the one who endures to the end will be saved.  Let us then endure in faith, in prayer, in trust, in practicing and promoting Christian morality, in refusing to accept the status quo of a society whose love has grown cold—so cold that it hates its own children.  The government now wants to impose contraceptive (& abortifacient) insurance coverage as part of a preventive health package, as if pregnancy, as if a beautiful child made in the image of God, is some disease that women have to be protected from.

Support the efforts of those whose hearts still love the innocent, who witness to the truth about human life and love, who endure to the end in resisting evil that has been declared to be a “right.”  Do not let your love grow cold, and God will protect you from the bitter moral and spiritual winter that has descended upon our country and much of the world.  The Lord knows those who are his, and the Holy Innocents bless from Heaven those who stand up for the innocents here on Earth.

The Mystery Continues

The mystery of Christmas continues during these days, and we need to continue our reflections so that it doesn’t pass without bearing much spiritual fruit.  On the day after Christmas we celebrate the “synaxis” of the Mother of God, which means that we gather around her to honor her for her indispensable role in the Incarnation of the Son of God.  Mary is the  one whom the Bible says keeps all these mysteries and treasures them in her heart, and so she is presented as the contemplative par excellence, as well as God’s chosen one for bringing his Son into the world as man.

One of the mysteries I pondered in preparing for Christmas was that of the shepherds and their experience of seeing the angel and the glory of the Lord.  This event shows how the Lord conceals his mysteries from the learned and the clever and reveals them to mere children.  The angel was not sent to Pharisees or Sadducees, who were experts in the law and in worship.  He was sent instead to ignorant peasants who led a life of poverty and hardship, and who were probably not even particularly pious.  It is so beautiful how the Gospel describes the apparition: “The angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”  The angels live perpetually in the glory of the Lord; they see his face and worship Him day and night, singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”  And so if God wills, they can bring the divine glory with them wherever they are sent.

We have no idea what this experience was like, but it filled the dumbfounded shepherds with fear and awe and wonder.  They heard the angelic announcement that a Savior had just been born, the Christ, the Lord.  And then they saw an even greater wonder than the first apparition, for now a whole multitude of angels appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”  What does this tell us?  The angels, unlike us, see God.  And what does one who sees God do?  Well, one who sees God bursts forth in irrepressible praise and worship, singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”  This is a lesson for us.  Even though we don’t see God, we need to learn from those who do.  We who serve the Lord in faith and in hope for eternal life ought to start living that life as much as we can, even though we are still in the land of exile.  So the angels teach us how we ought to relate to God.

The shepherds, all full of the holy confusion of joy and fear, with hearts burning and singing after what they had witnessed, ran to find Him whom the angels had announced, ran to seek the sign they were told would indicate the Christ, the Lord: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  I don’t know how many mangers in the area they investigated before they found one with a baby in it, but they eventually did find Him, with Mary and Joseph present, as St Luke tells us.   Then they related all that happened to them on that uniquely incredible night.

They couldn’t contain themselves.  Probably, being rather rough and lacking in social graces, they didn’t even offer a proper introduction.  I can imagine them falling down before the manger of the Christ and blurting out to Mary and Joseph: “We have seen the glory of the Lord!  An angel came from Heaven and told us to come to you, and that we would find your child in a manger.  Do you know that He is the Messiah, that He is the Lord?  Really, we are not making this up!”

Mary smiled and looked and her Child, and she pondered all this lovingly in her heart.  “So, it is beginning,” she may have thought.   “An angel came to me nine months ago with a similar announcement.  And already he is telling others, and they are coming to worship my Son and proclaim his Lordship!  I must reflect more deeply on these mysteries.  But look, He is crying, He is hungry.  I gave Him human life from the flesh and blood of my womb, and now I will sustain his life with milk from my breast.  I will contemplate these divine wonders as I hold Him close to me.”

We don’t know how much Mary knew of the destiny of her Son.  The Angel told her that his Kingdom would have no end, but he didn’t tell her that when the ruler of the land would say, “Behold your King!” her Son would be wearing a crown of thorns and robe of mockery, which partially covered his lacerated body.  She would learn more in a short time when she would meet Simeon in the Temple.

When I had read the Gospel of the Nativity recently, it happened to be a Friday, and so I wondered, as I was about to pray the Rosary, if I should still meditate on the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lord’s passion and death after having just read about the joyful mystery of his birth.  But I did anyway, and I could see how the two really are inseparable.  I thought of the beautiful Christmas hymn, “What Child is This?” which also reaches right into the Passion in almost the same breath as the Nativity:

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So it is also in our liturgical celebrations that the sorrow follows rather quickly upon the joy.  The very day after Christmas, as we contemplate the Mother of God who contemplated the mystery of her Son and the testimonies of the shepherds who received revelation concerning Him, we read the Gospel of the flight into Egypt.  “Christ is born, glorify Him!” we sing at Christmas, and the next day in the Gospel an angel—perhaps the same angel who brought tidings of great joy to the shepherds—woke up St Joseph in the middle of the night and urgently said to him: “Rise, take the Child and his Mother, and flee to Egypt… Herod is about to search for the Child, to destroy him.”

To destroy Him!  But this, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing!  How could such a thing be permitted to happen?  Couldn’t the Father have sent twelve legions of angels to protect his Son and prevent the soldiers from carrying out their brutal orders?  Well, we would hear in the garden some decades later why the legions had to remain at their posts: it was for the fulfillment of Scripture, the carrying out of the Father’s plan for our salvation.  Part of this plan was that Mary and Joseph would have to live in total dependence on divine Providence, would have to obey immediately and perfectly every divine command, would have to teach the divine Child how to live in poverty and hardship.  Yet all this was not mere discipline, mere exercise to become strong.  It was primarily meant to nurture love, fidelity, and the intimacy of those who know they are chosen by God but rejected by the world.  It was also meant to teach Mary and Joseph that no sacrifice was too great for the fulfillment of their awesome responsibility to the Son of God who was entrusted to them.

But during these Christmas days, even though we know that life’s demands do not take a holiday, we are still invited to ponder these precious mysteries in our hearts.  We live by faith, so we rarely see what certain chosen saints are granted to see, but because they have seen, we have reason to believe.  And the more profoundly we believe, the more the light from Heaven quietly permeates our souls, and in a certain way we do begin to see.  We may not see the blazing glory of the Lord shining all around us, but we do have guardian angels who see, and who invite us to sing with them, “Glory to God in the highest!”  It doesn’t matter if at this moment we don’t see what they see.  We can still sing what they sing!  And they will guide us and show us more, if we invite them into our prayer and ask them to take us into theirs.  We may not hear heavenly choirs singing, but if we pray with our hearts and come on our knees to Him who was born as an infant for our salvation, we just might hear the Mother saying: “Come, worship my Son.  He is your Savior; He is Christ the Lord.  This is the good news of great joy.  Will you receive it? Will you rejoice?  Come to me; let me take you into my arms, for you are my child, too.  I was taught by the Father how to serve Jesus in my life, and now He wants me to teach you.  Won’t you let me?  Won’t you open your heart to the grace He so desires to give you?”

So let us go on with our Christmas celebration, pondering in our hearts the great mysteries that Mary pondered in hers.  We will not be spared sorrows and pain, for even the most specially chosen ones must suffer—indeed, it is often a sign of God’s predilection that we are allowed to share in the Cross of his Son.  But if we want to be a part of the holy family of God, if we accept the maternal invitation to worship “the Babe, the Son of Mary,” to allow ourselves to be formed as true disciples and friends of the Lord, then nothing will separate us from the communion of love with God, with the Blessed Mother, with the Angels who sing heavenly praises and with all that God has prepared for those who love Him.  This love is our anchor, our foundation, our shelter in every storm, and it is made stronger through prayer and the sacraments, through our unfailing “yes” to the will of God.  Through this love we will ponder deeply the divine mysteries; we will see the glory of the Lord.

Christ is Born to Restore the Lost Likeness

Christ is born!  As we celebrate this precious and glorious feast of our newborn Savior, the Incarnate Son of God and the Virgin Mother who gave Him her own flesh and blood so that God could become man, I’d like to begin with a quote from the mystical writings of the Greek-Italian priest, Fr. Theodossios-Marie of the Cross.

“I think,” he writes, “of dear Jesus, who, by inconceivable love, came from the world of uncreated light, from pure Being, from the splendor of being, with neither beginning nor end, came to participate in the world of continual changes and alterations, the world of death.  I think of the Blessed Virgin, chaste and transparent as a clear winter sky, and as a fragrance of purest incense… an unobtrusive door, hidden by many delicate and fragrant flowers, which can be found everywhere and always, that leads directly to the mysterious enclosure… opening onto the real, the eternal Real.  This door, most holy and tender, sweet and strong, is… the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the Mother of God.”

This is a kind of poetic summary of the mystery we celebrate today, the mystery we have been preparing for during the past six weeks, a mystery that God had prepared for countless ages.  This mystery is God the Son, proceeding from his eternal abode of inaccessible Light, humbling Himself to become man, to become an infant in swaddling clothes, through the body of the pure Virgin Mary. She is the way Jesus came to us 2000 years ago, and she is also the way we can return to Him, for He has made her the Mother of Christians and the refuge for all weary pilgrims seeking to return from this land of exile to the heavenly Paradise.

“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us,” St John famously wrote at the beginning of his Gospel.  But why did the Word do this?  Many volumes have been written about this mystery, and I suppose it can be concisely summed up by saying that He did so in order to save our souls and to bring us into eternal and intimate union with the All-holy Trinity.  But concise summaries are never adequate to the infinite mysteries of God.  So for now I will just reflect upon a couple points offered by one of our liturgical texts, as a point of departure for further meditation.

As Advent began, a word came to me that helped guide my prayer and preparation for this feast.  The word was “restore,” or “restoration.”  I was wondering if this meant that God wanted to restore my soul to its baptismal innocence—wondering as well if this was even possible, even though God has said that He will make all things new.

Then, as we reached the midpoint of the season of preparation, we began singing a text which ended thus: “Christ is born to restore the long-lost likeness to God.”  So that must be the restoration I was called to seek: the restoration of the long-lost likeness to God.  According to the Eastern fathers, we are created in the image of God, and this can never be lost, even though it can be heavily obscured and distorted by sin.  They make a distinction between image and likeness, the image being an innate and ineffaceable reality, and the likeness being something dynamic and capable of growth and development.  This spiritual growth in the likeness of God is meant to result in our total transformation by grace, our theosis.

So while the image remains, even if obscurely, the likeness, being subject to change, can be lost, and so our souls also can be lost forever if the Lord sees no trace of his likeness in us when we stand before Him at the end of our lives.  The Church, then, proclaims with joy today that Christ is born to restore the lost likeness, and this gives us hope for eternal life.

In order to convince us that no matter how seriously or for how long we have lost our likeness to God, it can still be restored—the Church provides this liturgical text that takes us all the way back to the original paradise, the Garden of Eden.  The Virgin Mary is presented as the new paradise, the new beginning, the place from which springs the new Tree of Life.  It says: “In a cave a Tree of Life did blossom forth from a Virgin.  Her womb revealed itself to be the mystical paradise wherein grows the Divine Fruit, and eating thereof we shall live and not die as did Adam, for Christ is born to restore the long-lost likeness to God.”

So it is as if we are given a chance to start all over again, to undo the effects of our sins. The rise from our fallenness happens by a similar act to that by which our first parents fell: the act of eating.  Adam and Eve, in the original paradise, cast themselves and the whole of humanity into sin and death by eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

But what does our liturgy say?  The womb of the Blessed Virgin has become a new and mystical paradise, for the Fruit of her womb is the very Son of God Incarnate, who gives us his flesh to eat, in a sacramental way, that He may abide in us and we in Him, and thus be granted eternal life.  So the text says: “eating thereof we shall live and not die as did Adam…”

“From his fullness,” writes St John, “we have all received, grace upon grace.”  And St Paul wrote that where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.  So this is the Good News, the Gospel, the joy of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ our Lord.  “As for me,” proclaims another hymn from our liturgy, “I am returning to the bliss of Paradise, from which I had been banished by disobedience.”  As we celebrate the Birth of our Savior, we return to the Virginal Paradise which grew the new Tree of Life, from which we eat and live forever.  And the more we eat and drink the deifying Flesh and Blood of Christ, the more the lost likeness to God is restored.

Of course, this restoration can only happen if we eat and drink in a worthy manner, as the Scripture says.  If we approach without the necessary preparations for receiving such an awesome divine gift, this flame of Divine Fire directly from the Heart of Christ, we do ourselves harm rather than good.  But, having confessed our sins and resolved to live in obedience to the divine commandments, and according to the mind of the Church, which is entrusted with these most sacred Mysteries, we may approach and receive grace upon grace.

So the grace of Christmas is an invitation to restoration, a return to Paradise, a pledge by God that He can indeed make all things new. It may be, however, that despite the joy and hope to which the Church invites us, we look at ourselves—our long track record of sin and failure, the loss of the likeness of God, our damaged souls that seem unable to perceive anything of the divine and heavenly mysteries—and therefore we may think that we have permanently ruined our lives, or at least spiritually disabled ourselves to the point that we have nothing but dreariness to look forward to until we return to the dust from which we were taken.

But there is something I learned not long ago, from someone who has seen beyond some of the veils that conceal the mysteries of God from the rest of us.  Christmas is par excellence a “family feast,” for the Scriptures and the Liturgy focus on the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  The very mystery of the Incarnation reveals to us the mystery of the Holy Trinity, through which we learn that God by nature is a kind of “family,” a communion of persons in intimate and everlasting love.

And so what I learned was something about how the heavenly Mother of the family regards her children.  Here I gave away the answer already: children.  Our Lady sees us as children, not as the proud, self-important, self-sufficient grownups we think we are, who take ourselves oh, so seriously.   This is another key to our spiritual restoration.  I was thinking of this when praying early in the morning on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  She called St Juan Diego “my dear little son,” though he was in his 50s at the time.  So I realized in my prayer that if my heavenly Mother looks at me as a child, remembering how I was then, in all my baptismal innocence, then it really is possible that my soul can be restored.

It was as if she was saying to me: “I can still see your soul as it was when you were a child, with all its baptismal grace and potential for becoming holy and giving glory to God.  I see what is still possible in you.  It’s not too late to become all that God wants you to be.  Come to me, and I will help you!”  So it seems that Heaven does not look so much at the harm that we have done to our souls as at the potential for good that is still there, which can be increased to bear much spiritual fruit.  God never gives up on us!

Some of the saints have had profound experiences when they first received Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  I remember my mother telling me that I lacked all pious decorum after having received my first Holy Communion, returning to the pew with a big grin on my face!  My friend who sees things that I can’t see said that Our Lady still looks at me that way, as a child whose joy at receiving Jesus in his heart overflowed into a big grin.  And that is how she wants us to come to her, so she can bring us to God in her arms as her little children.  It’s not that she doesn’t see the evil we have done, or that she doesn’t feel pain in her motherly Heart from our callous disregard of God’s holy commandments, or from our brushing her aside as some insignificant figure for whom we have little love or respect.  But she digs through all that to find the wounded soul that longs to be restored, to return to its full splendor the obscured image, the lost likeness of God.

So today, as we try to contemplate the endlessly rich mystery of the Nativity of the Incarnate God for our salvation, let us begin with a couple concrete points.  Christ is like a new Tree of Life, born from the new Paradise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and if we eat of the Fruit of her womb in the Holy Eucharist, we will not die like Adam and Eve, but will find that the lost likeness of God in our souls is being gradually restored.  And let us remember, too, that Heaven looks upon us as children.  There was a time when we were pure and innocent, and this time is known and remembered by Jesus, by Mary, and they see and know that God can reach into our souls, into our histories, and can restore what we might have thought was lost forever.

Christmas is a time of miracles, after all.   Even people who are grumpy and selfish the rest of the year often become generous and charitable and even pleasant around Christmas time.  That is because God is pouring out grace upon grace. He is finding the innocent child hidden in the depths of our souls, and He is calling us to come to Him with a big grin on our face.  Jesus said He wants us to be like children.  It’s the only way to get into Heaven, by the way, so we might as well get some practice now.

We know that life is serious business, and that the Gospel is very demanding, yet there is more than the seriousness, more than the demands.  There’s the fact that we are loved, endlessly loved by God, by Jesus and Mary, by all the citizens of Heaven.  Their arms are open to us. We can please them and discover happiness in our own lives: by loving them back, by trusting and believing in their love and never doubting their presence and goodness and care for us, by accepting the power of divine grace to restore that which we had thought was lost.  Christ is born to restore the lost likeness to God.  Christ suffered and died to restore the lost likeness.  Christ rose from the dead to restore the lost likeness.  Christ even sends us his holy Mother from Heaven to help restore the lost likeness.  So let us rejoice and run to Him like the children He loves.  Christ is born!

Be Surprised!

[I’m only preaching one Christmas homily this year instead of the usual two, so I’ll give you a little warm-up here from a Christmas Eve homily I gave in 2004.]

Surprise!  It’s Christmas. I’m not sure you really are surprised. Are you surprised? You could say, well, we’re really not surprised that it’s Christmas, because we look at a calendar and there it is. We’ve even been preparing for this for weeks, and fasting and praying and all the rest. But there still might be a good reason to be a little surprised, because what God is doing at Christmas is not always what we expect. And certainly what God did at the first Christmas was not what they were expecting.

Now the people in his time and place were in a time of expectation. They were reading the prophets and they were in a time of expectation for the Messiah. They didn’t have a date on the calendar, but they had a sense that something was coming soon. But when the Messiah actually came it was something quite different from what they expected. As a matter of fact, some people, like the Pharisees, were expecting a Messiah—but when He finally stood before their eyes, they rejected him and killed him. So that didn’t work out for them at all.

But even those that were rightly expecting the true Messiah still had a surprise in store for them, because nobody was expecting that God Himself would enter into our world, our space and time, as a man, God made man in Jesus Christ. That’s not only extraordinary but incredible, really, and if it wasn’t prophesied, and if He didn’t work miracles and rise from the dead, we wouldn’t have believed it, either.

But He did come and He did manifest Himself. This is a great opportunity to stand in wonder before him. It’s something that shows how God was precisely in a real place that can even be visited today; in a certain time in our history He came into this world. This is not just a myth or a morality play. This is actual history. The angels said to the shepherds: this day at this time, now, today, this is happening in this place. In the city of David, the Christ, the Lord, is born as a child.

Now the shepherds were surprised, that’s for sure. When they were just sitting out in the fields, they were probably not expecting a whole lot of anything, really. They were on the low rung of society, the poor and uncouth, but God chose them as witnesses of this great miracle. They were not only surprised, they were afraid.  When the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, they were filled with fear, seeing this great and unexpected manifestation.

We read in the liturgy in one of the texts, I think it was at Matins this morning: “Be astounded, O heavens, be struck with awe. Let the foundations of the earth be shaken.” So I have to ask then, are you astounded? Are you awestruck? Are you shaken? And if not, why not?

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “Perhaps it is because we have become too accustomed to the idea of Divine Love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect—that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil, of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God wants always to be with us wherever we may be, in our sin, in our suffering, in our death. We’re no longer alone. God is with us. We are no longer homeless. A bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. Therefore, we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God’s goodness will once again draw near. Jesus comes both in judgment and in grace saying: behold I stand at the door, open wide the gates.”

So this is the call to us. This is the reality. It’s something that we cannot just cover over with a veneer of tinsel and lights. Those things are OK, but that’s just the fringe. That’s not the deep, profound, awe-inspiring mystery of God-with-us, God becoming one of us, God breaking into our time, our world, to share it with us and to redeem us, to lift us up out of our sin and our failures and everything else that leads us on the broad way to perdition.

So what we see in the Gospel, this first Gospel that we read for Christmas, is that God takes the initiative. God gives the gift. He’s the one that decides to enter our world when we’re not even expecting it, or just barely expecting it, or not even knowing what to expect, just sitting there crying in our need. God answers us and comes to be with us, and maybe breaks in unexpectedly.

When people complain about their lot in life or whenever there is some tragedy or something they’re going through, they often say: well, I didn’t ask to be born! But of all people, the Son of God, He did ask to be born! He’s the only one who could, because He existed from all eternity and He wanted to come and save us. See, that’s why Jesus never complained about anything in his life, because He asked to be born! He couldn’t say: I didn’t ask to be born. He wanted to come into this world and to be one of us.

Somebody sent me a cute little picture on the Internet. It was a tabernacle, and the door of the tabernacle was open, and there’s the Child Jesus just sort of peeking out sweetly with these rays of grace pouring out of Him. We usually think of Jesus either as a grown man or as a tiny little baby, because we have the Gospel of his life and the Gospel of his birth. We don’t know much about the time in between. We almost never think about him as a little kid. But part of the mystery of this self-emptying to come to us is that He went through the whole of human life, all the stages, not just the miracle of incarnation in the womb of the Virgin, but He was a baby and a toddler and a little kid and a teenager and all the rest.

I heard a conversation some years ago in our bookstore. A woman was looking at the icon of the Mother and Child and she said: why does Our Lady always look so sad in these icons? And her friend next to her said: because she knew that someday He’d be a teenager! Well, Jesus was a teenager, but not like the common lot of sullen or confused or rebellious kids.

The point is that He went through all of these stages of human life as part of the long process of entering into the mystery of our life and our struggles, our limitations, our sufferings. So nobody can say: You don’t know what it’s like. He could know what it’s like in his eternal omniscience, but He wanted to feel what it was like in human flesh, body and soul, so He came to us out of his everlasting love for us to enter into our lives.

It’s up to us now to watch, to wait, to listen for him as this Holy Night unfolds, to be open to his presence, because God’s breaking into our lives is not always dramatic. Most likely we’re not going to have a vision of angels and the glory of the Lord and hear the heavenly choirs singing, but God is still going to be present. He’s going to come into our lives. He’s going to renew his presence in our lives. So be ready and be willing to be surprised. Let God surprise you. Let him come to you in a way that maybe you hadn’t thought of before.

See, you don’t want to reduce the mystery of God to what you have experienced thus far or what you think is all He can do for you. If you want to put those limits on Him, He may just accept that and say OK, if that’s all you think I can do, then that’s all I’ll do. But we should be wide open to whatever God wants to do with us. Let Him surprise you. Let Him astound you. Let Him strike you with awe at his greatness, his power, his majesty, his goodness, his glory, his love, his gentleness, his tenderness, and his mercy. He is the one who wants to be with us and to save us.

Let our response be the response of the shepherds and the angels. Give him glory. The angels stood there singing: Glory to God in the highest! And after the shepherds saw everything that they saw, they went away glorifying and praising God. That’s our role. Let’s glorify Him. Let’s be grateful to Him for all He’s done for us. I think we perhaps don’t reflect on that enough. You know, Christmases come and go, and we kind of muddle through our lives with all our problems and stuff that we always go through, and we don’t realize the gift that we celebrate on Christmas. The gift of God Himself, the gift of our salvation, of the forgiveness of our sins, the redemption the transformation of the whole world by God taking a material nature from this world, uniting it to Himself elevating us, lifting us up into a level of communion with Him that we could never have achieved on our own. It had to come from God. God had to take the initiative—as we sing in the Psalm—to reach down from Heaven and save us. Well, that’s what He’s done and that’s what we celebrate at Christmas. That’s the beauty and the glory and the wonder of this mystery.

So let us be open to Him, to his presence, to his breaking into our hearts, into our world, into our own personal lives. Be surprised, be grateful, and as we’ll constantly say in our greetings during this time, glorify Him!

Come and Eat, Come and Drink

No, this is not an invitation to the excesses that all too many people indulge in over the Christmas holy days.  In fact, it is quite the opposite, but it is so very much better.

The invitation comes first through the Prophet Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good… Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live…” (55:1-3).

It comes again through St John in the Book of Revelation: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb… The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’… And let him who is thirsty come; let him who desires take the water of life without price (19:9; 22:17).

So here is a divine invitation to the fullness of spiritual life and joy—for the most important thing is “that your soul may live”—using the metaphor of food and drink, yet in one sense this is much more than a metaphor, as we shall see.  A theme that runs through these passages is that everything to which God invites us is free.  In each of the readings what is offered is “without price.”  Now this can mean that we don’t have to pay for it, and also that it is so valuable as to be “priceless.” I think both are intended.  Come, says the Lord, precious things are prepared, and they are yours for the asking.

What’s the catch? you might ask.  Well, there is one, sort of, but if you really enter the mystery it disappears altogether.  The only catch is that if you come to receive freely what God is offering, you have to give up everything else!  But don’t run away yet.  If you do this right, you will want to give up everything else; you will flee from everything else!  First, you have to see and appreciate the value of what God offers and of what the “world” offers (including the offerings of flesh and devil).  That is why this is a key passage: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  This is perhaps the heart of the matter.  We squander our resources on that which is not bread (i.e., that which does not sustain and enhance our lives), and we work in vain to achieve ultimately unsatisfying things.

Why do you waste your time and energy to obtain a mouthful of gravel when you could have the richest and most satisfying food and drink instead?  That is what the passing pleasures and possessions of this life are like compared to the delights of Paradise—and even compared to the profound joys and blessings of communion with God in this present life.  But you have to acquire a taste for it.  Your spiritual palate has to be somewhat refined to recognize the gift, to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 33/34:9).  Once you taste the goodness of the Lord, you see other things from this new and blessed perspective and—here is where repentance comes in—you then become appalled that you had nearly ruined your life (or at least wasted a whole lot of time in vain or harmful pursuits) because you didn’t realize the precious free gift that God was holding out to you all the while.  Now you love it so much that it is hardly even a sacrifice to give up everything else.  The Kingdom of Heaven—with all that this implies—is the Treasure hidden in a field, the Pearl of great price (see Mt. 13:44-45).

The Lord is indeed good, beyond compare, beyond all telling, and those who have decided to forsake the junk food of this world’s seductions and come to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb will tell you that they wouldn’t trade what the Lord offers for anything.  For the Bread He gives is his Flesh, for the life of the world, and the Wine He gives is his Precious Blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  The Holy Eucharist is truly the Bread and Wine that strengthen and make glad the human heart (see Ps. 103/104:15).  The Chalice of Salvation is the sweet and holy foretaste of the eternally joyful Wedding Feast, the fulfillment of every desire, the reason we were created by a loving God in the first place.

Christmas is almost here.  It is good to have family celebrations and festive food and drink.  But don’t stop there.   And don’t merely give the nod to little Jesus as the “Reason for the Season.”  Deep in your heart, listen for his invitation; give time to prayer and quiet reflection.  Come, what He offers is so much more than anything you could prepare or enjoy on your own.  Even if you don’t have to literally give up everything to spend Christmas with Him, be willing to give it up in your heart, set it aside, reduce its priority.  For what Jesus offers is priceless and it’s free.  Just don’t let anything else cling to you.  The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”  All is ready, all is freely offered.  Paradise awaits.

Seed of Fire

We’re just a week away from Christmas now, and the Church is already anticipating the feast with the Gospel (Mt. 1:1-25), the second part of which will be read again at Matins on Christmas morning.  The genealogy of Christ is read now in order to give us a sort of overview of salvation history, as well as to remind us that Jesus Christ is true man as well as true God, that He did not simply appear full-grown in the semblance of a man, but actually took his place within the history of a particular people.  Thus He could claim all these persons in the genealogy as his ancestors according to the flesh.  Even though He had no human father, Jesus was conceived in the womb of the pure Virgin Mary and came forth from her when the appointed time had come.

The selection from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews is placed within the context of the panegyric to the Old Testament heroes of faith, some of whom are Jesus’ ancestors according to the flesh.  Aside from the basic theme of faith, through which they overcame all obstacles and were found to be pleasing to God, there is another thread that runs through this account.  They were all looking for something, they were pilgrims on a quest, moving toward a goal, one which they never quite reached in their earthly sojourn.  This is because the Christ had not yet come into the world, but the author of this epistle says they were not content with what this world had to offer, considering themselves exiles and wanderers, for they were longing for their heavenly homeland.  I’ll have more to say about this later.

When we look at the Gospel, the names that stand out most—and those to which the evangelist calls special attention—are Abraham and David.  That situates Jesus in the line of patriarchs and kings.  But what is more important than simply being of their stock is that Jesus fulfills what they stand for.  Abraham is the man, the father of the chosen people—and, as St Paul says, the father of all believers—the one to whom the promises were given, promises that were to be fulfilled in his descendant, Jesus Christ. David was the man according to God’s heart, whose descendant, again Jesus Christ, would reign in the eternal kingdom that would be established along with the new covenant in his own blood.  So the promises of God to set aside for Himself a people specially his own, and to establish an everlasting kingdom, were fulfilled in his only-begotten Son, made man precisely to fulfill these promises through the offering of the supreme sacrifice.

This is all quite grand and glorious, but God did not choose a grand and glorious entrance for his Son into this world.  In fact, very few even knew about it at all, and one of those who did find out about it actually tried to kill Him!  Jesus’ Kingdom, as He would later say, is not of this world, and so it does not have the trappings of a worldly kingdom.  Rather, it is one which He would invite his followers to embrace in faith, in spirit and in truth, for it would be fulfilled only in the life of the world to come, though it would be anticipated in the Church He would establish.

So the genealogy ends with a humble carpenter named Joseph, and his little-known bride-to-be, Mary.  One thing we can learn from the miracle of the virginal conception so briefly described here, is that God reserves the working out of his will to his own inscrutable wisdom, which means He does not feel obliged to consult us first.  Therefore He allowed his faithful servant Joseph—a righteous man, as the Gospel describes him—to bear the cross of the shattering of his dreams for a happy life with his beloved Mary when he discovered her pregnancy out of wedlock.  Another thing we learn (and this should be a consolation to us) is that God will not, due to our unawareness of his divine plan, allow us to ruin the plan through no fault of our own.  Thus when we see Joseph about to separate himself from Mary, God sent an angel to initiate St Joseph into the divine mystery.

Joseph may not have fully understood the unprecedented event that was happening within his betrothed, but being a righteous man, he knew enough to obey when a command comes from Heaven.  So he did, and the Gospel concludes with the birth of the incarnate Son, whom Joseph named Jesus, as he was instructed.

St Matthew reminds us that the birth of the Lord was a fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah, who famously predicted that a Virgin would bear a son and call him Emmanuel.  Now since Matthew was writing his Gospel mainly for Jews who had become believers in Christ, unlike the evangelists who wrote mainly for Gentile converts, he rarely takes the trouble to translate Hebrew words, as the others, especially St John, often do.  In fact, I think this is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where he does it.  So he must have done it simply for emphasis, to call attention to the mystery.  He just told us that Joseph named the Child “Jesus,” yet this fulfilled the prophecy of a child named Emmanuel.  It’s hard to come right out and say to people—whose religion is strictly monotheistic and who never heard of a Holy Trinity—that this Child is literally “God with us.”  But I think that is why he emphasized it here.  It is as if to say, “Look, a Virgin has conceived and bore a Son, and this Son, says the prophet, is Emmanuel.  That’s not his proper name, so it must mean instead that that is who He is!  Read the rest of my Gospel, see the miracles, see the Resurrection from the dead.  Is not Jesus, who is the Christ, also in his very being, God with us?”

St Matthew, who was very interested in showing how Jesus fulfilled the predictions of the prophets, is here giving the answer to all the Old Testament heroes we heard about in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Emmanuel is what they were searching for; the heavenly homeland is the Kingdom of God, to which Jesus Christ gives us access through his death and resurrection.

So maybe we ought to ask ourselves: what are we looking for?  Are we eagerly and at all costs seeking our heavenly homeland, or have we made our peace with this world, this land of exile?  We spend six weeks every year preparing for Christmas.  What are we preparing for?  Have we forgotten?  Have we ceased, really, to prepare for anything at all?

This year marks the 30th Christmas I will celebrate here in the monastery.  So I’ve been doing this a long time.  I’ve been offering the same liturgical prayers and doing the same kind of fasting and other Advent preparations.  We can perhaps become a bit jaded and end up merely going through the motions, pronouncing sacred words that seem to have lost their meaning, that somehow remain on the periphery of our consciousness without plunging deeply into our hearts and making all things new.

So I’ll tell you what I’m preparing for, searching for, this year.  During our retreat, one of the Gospel passages I read was the parable of the sower.  What I want to do this Christmas is to receive the word of God like I have never received it before.  I want to put myself in the heart and soul of the Blessed Virgin, the one who received the eternal Word of God within her own body, for us and for our salvation.  She gathered into her own heart all the sufferings, all the longings, all the fading hopes of her people Israel, whose eyes, said the psalmist, ached from looking up to their God for mercy.  And when the fullness of time had come, a Seed of Fire fell from Heaven into the Virgin’s womb.  He buried Himself in her fertile flesh, and drew from it his humanity, and He came forth from her immaculate body as Word made Flesh and God with us.

The seed of the sower, as Jesus explains in the parable, is the word of God.  What happens in us is not precisely the same thing that happened in the Virgin Mary.  But Christ is still looking for fertile ground; He still wants to live in us, to bear fruit in us. He wants to break open our hearts, shatter our despondency and despair, and tell us that the appointed time has come, that now is the acceptable time and the day of salvation.

So this Christmas I want to receive the word of God as a Seed of Fire from Heaven, plunging into the depths of my soul.  St James says that the implanted word can save our souls, and that is why the Word descended from Heaven into the Virginal Womb.  He came to cast fire on the earth, He said, and so He cast his own words as seeds of fire into the hearts of anyone who would receive them.

The Son of God could not remain in Heaven while his people languished in their sin and misery.  It wasn’t enough for Him merely to speak from Heaven.  The Spirit spoke through the prophets, but the word remained unfulfilled, the people’s hearts remained unmoved.  And so the Word had to become a seed of life; implanting Himself in Mary’s womb, the Word became Flesh, and then the Flesh became Bread for the life of the world.  God is going to plant Seeds of Fire into our hearts this very day as we approach the Eucharistic chalice.  The Son of God is going to plant Himself within us, because He wants us to bear fruit unto eternal life.

So if our eyes ache from looking for mercy from our God, let us join the pilgrims of all ages who are looking for Emmanuel, who can’t live without “God with us,” who aren’t interested in making compromises with this world, because we know we belong to another one.

We say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” all the time during these days, but what do we mean?  Do we mean anything at all?  It has to be a cry of our hearts, not merely words from a prayer book.  We have to beg Him to descend from Heaven again, not into a little cave in Israel, but into the cold, dark cave of our hearts.  We have to present ourselves to Him as children of Abraham, children of the promise, who have perhaps lost our way, or our courage.  But we are not like those who were waiting for a Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ, 2000 years ago.  He already came into our history, into our flesh, and we know his name, Jesus, the One who saves us from our sins; and we know who He is, Emmanuel, God with us.

All that remains is that here, now, we invite Him to claim us for his own, that here, now, we finally cut our ties to all that separates us from Him, that here, now, we cry out: Come, Lord Jesus, come from Heaven and give me a heart of fire like your own, like your holy Mother’s, like those of all the pilgrim souls for whom God is the only truth, the only life, the only light, the only guiding star in the black night of a world that has largely given up hope.

That is what I look for this Christmas; that is what I pray for; that is what I’m trying to open myself up to.  Let us ask Mary and Joseph and the holy Angels to join us in prayer, to show us our unique place in the plan of God, to encourage us to embrace the richness of our holy Catholic heritage which opens to us the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And finally, let us ask only one thing this Christmas: to receive the word of God like we’ve never received it before.

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