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

Archive for January, 2012

Come, Hear, Do—and Dig

You’re probably familiar with Jesus’ parable about hearing his words and putting them into practice: that the one who does so is like someone who builds his house on rock, and then the floods and storms cannot shake it, while with one who doesn’t is like one who builds his house on sand, which house is then destroyed when the floods come.  There are two versions of this, one in Matthew and one in Luke, which have slight but significant differences.  I guess I was most familiar with the one in Matthew.  As I opened the Gospel to read from St Luke, I asked Our Lady, my teacher in things divine, to show me things I hadn’t seen before, and as usual, she did!

The first difference between Matthew and Luke is that in Matthew’s version, Jesus speaks of those who hear his words and do them.  But Luke recounts that Jesus said: “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like…” (Lk. 6:47). This coming to Jesus makes the difference, I think, in whether or not one does what one hears in the word of God.  I have written in past months about hearing similar words from Jesus and Mary: “Come to me…”  In one form or another, this invitation has been repeatedly offered, and I’m doing my best both to understand it fully and to respond wholeheartedly.  It seems to me that it is possible to hear the words of Jesus without really coming to Him.  Anyone can pick up the Bible out of curiosity, or as a sort of dutiful but half-hearted routine, or out of academic interest, or even with the intention of criticizing or trying to disprove it.  Thus they can “hear” his words, but if they don’t come to Him in a personal way, with faith, with a desire to understand, with an open heart, it is unlikely that they will end up doing what the Lord says.

So when we open the Gospels to hear the words of Jesus, we ought to do it in such a way that we are really coming to Him, personally, eagerly, opening our hearts and minds to divine truth, with willingness to put into practice what we shall hear.  And this willingness must be sincere, and our efforts diligent; otherwise we are no better than hypocrites.  In the preceding verse, Jesus asks that question that probably makes a lot of us cringe: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?”

The next difference between Matthew’s version and Luke’s is that when Jesus talks about building the foundation of one’s building (i.e., of one’s life) on rock, we see that in Luke Jesus first says that the man “dug deep” and then laid the foundation upon the rock.  This is also significant, I think.  It says something about hearing the word of God and about spiritual life in general.  Being the word of God, Scripture is not fully understood with a superficial reading.  The Fathers of the Church in their commentaries, and the Magisterium (teaching office) of the Church in her presentation of the mysteries of our faith, have dug deep into the word of God to discover the great richness and layers of meaning, which yield much fruit for our understanding and our Christian life. So we have authoritative interpretations of the Scriptures, which are much more reliable than the personal interpretations of any individual.  If the Lord wanted every individual to decide for himself what the Bible means, and hence what Christian doctrine is (and we see the lamentable results of those who think they can do this—thousands of different denominations, which came into being over disagreements as to the meaning of Scripture), then He never would have established his Church to be the guiding light for those seeking the whole truth of divine revelation.

We also have to “dig deep” in the events of our daily lives, to avoid superficiality and pettiness, to discover the presence of God in other people, in nature, and in every way God wishes to reveal Himself.  His presence, his truth, his gentle invitations are not obvious to everyone, so the storms and floodwaters of our often tumultuous lives can destroy those who have not dug deep and laid a foundation on the Rock of Christ, as well as on Peter the Rock, on which Christ promised to build the one Church that would not be destroyed by the powers of Hell (see Mt. 16:18-19).  This Church has existed for nearly 2000 years and has weathered many severe storms (not the least of which are raging even today), but she has been founded on Rock and will stand until the end of time, faithful to her divine Founder, despite attacks from without and infidelities from within.

Finally, we have to dig deep within our own hearts, to see what is there.  Just before this passage, Jesus said: “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”  That is why He also said: “Each tree is known by its own fruit.”

So when we wish to hear the word of the Lord, let us not just absent-mindedly pick up the Bible and open it.  We should make an explicit act of coming personally to Jesus, in faith and in love, with a  sincere willingness to do what we are going to “hear” when we read.  And let us dig deep, making sure our foundation is laid on rock, on Christ, on his Church, so that we understand the full depths of meaning that the Holy Spirit has embedded in his revelation.  Finally, let us make sure our hearts are as pure as possible, through repentance and confession, through pure intention and desire to hear the word of God and keep it, through prayer and a consistent sacramental life.  Then the “building” of our lives will be secure, and despite the storms and wind and rain that lash against it, it will not be shaken but will stand firm, founded on Rock.

Retreat in the Rockies

I’d like to share a bit of what I experienced on the retreat I preached from January 8-14 at a place in the Colorado Rockies near Estes Park, which is about a two-hour drive (depending on weather) from Denver.

There were 64 seminarians there (a bit less than I was originally told, but quite a substantial group nonetheless), and, most gratefully (which I wasn’t originally told), several other priests who came along for most or all of the retreat to help out with confessions and individual spiritual direction.

I arrived in Denver to a light snow on January 7, and I spent the first night in the seminary.  The picture here is of the seminary “chapel,” which is about three or four times the size of our monastery church!  A very grand and beautiful place, and as usual, I gravitated to the tabernacle and the statue of Our Lady, begging for help to accomplish this daunting mission.

I was still quite nervous about it all, since this was the first time I preached a retreat to such a large group—and seminarians, no less, who are educated and already somewhat formed in their spiritual lives—for a full week.  I had been wondering for a while if I hadn’t made a huge mistake in agreeing to take on this formidable task!  My job was to give twelve talks (about 45 minutes each), seven homilies (as the Spirit led), and to be available for three separate blocks of time each day for confessions and spiritual direction.  So there wasn’t much free time, and if I wanted to pray I had to get up early in the morning (not too difficult, since it was hard to sleep at 9000 feet with extremely dry air and the attendant nosebleeds—nothing serious, though).  I could also stay up a little later at night, since they had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for three hours each night.

Usually they have their retreats in the archdiocesan retreat center, but since that had burned down a couple months previously, it was agreed that another place would be more suitable.  So we ended up in a kind of mountain resort called the YMCA of the Rockies, somewhat rustic but quite well-appointed, and no one was lacking for anything.  In fact, they kept the place a lot warmer than I do here at the monastery!  It is a huge complex, about 1000 acres, with many large lodges and several dining halls.  The long frigid walk I mentioned in an earlier post (as I was composing my last will and testament) was just what everyone had to do to get from their lodge to the dining halls.

The views were beautiful and the weather was tolerable most of the time.   It actually snowed only once during the week (January is the driest time of the winter there), but it was often quite windy and cold.  I guess the most difficult time I had with the weather was one evening on the way to supper when it was 12 degrees and the wind was a blustery 40-50 miles per hour, forcing clouds of granular snow into my face.  My monastic habit functioned as a sort of sail, so I feared being transported like Elijah to some mountain crag where no one would ever find me.

But more often than not, the sun was shining and the heavens and the earth were telling the glory of God.  Being used to mild California weather, I brought enough clothes to  bundle up until I resembled the Michelin man, but in fact I didn’t even need all I brought.  I kept my hands in my pockets except when taking pictures; I forgot how fast fingers freeze up when exposed to real winter weather!  This picture shows the moon setting over the mountains one fine morning on my way to breakfast.  My cheap little camera can’t figure out how to deal with the brightness of the moon, so it makes it look like a blob of light, but that thing in the picture really is the moon!

I suppose there’s not a whole lot I can share about the talks and homilies.   It’s one of those “you had to be there” kind of things.  But I was quite gratified to see that all the talks were quite well attended (it wasn’t until the retreat was about half over that someone told me that that the talks were optional for the seminarians), and that they were evidently interested (a couple random yawns, but no snoring), and later on the feedback was quite positive.  So I thank the Lord for his grace and the Blessed Mother for her prayers.  I made it a point to try to integrate her into the talks as much as I could, and many of the seminarians were grateful for this

The Holy Spirit seemed to be quite present in this group, especially during the Masses.  They sang robustly and well, sometimes in Latin Gregorian chant.  It has been my experience in the past that when I concelebrate at a Roman-rite Mass (which I rarely have occasion to do), I feel a bit awkward, not knowing all the rubrics and sort of faking my way through, with the result that I can’t focus sufficiently to enter fully in the mystery of the presence of Christ in his Sacrifice and Communion.  But it was different here.  I was moved, sometimes to tears, at every Mass!  This was a very beautiful blessing of this retreat.

I also mentioned the mop-up list in one of my homilies, and they really took to this.  I must have received about 500 new names for the list before I packed my bags to leave.  More souls for the Kingdom!

The adventures weren’t over just because the retreat ended, however.  After everyone left the mountain resort on Saturday afternoon, I went with Fr Raymond (who got me into this thing in the first place) to visit a hermitess still higher in the mountains.  We didn’t have chains on the car, so we had to walk the last icy, steep half-mile or so to her hermitage.  When we neared the top, a neighbor (which means he lived somewhere within a few miles) drove by in a strange vehicle with no doors or windows or roof, but it had good tires, so he took us the rest of the way—as I thanked God for every step He spared me.  The man promised to drive us back down when we were ready to leave, if Lucille would just call his cell phone.  She was a delightful older woman, deeply spiritual and full of the joy and peace of the Lord.  We had a most pleasant visit, and then we celebrated Mass in her little chapel.  By then it was dark and we had to leave, for we still had the drive to Denver ahead of us.  You might have guessed by now that she couldn’t find his number, so we had to walk down that steep, half-mile, snow-and-ice covered hill in the dark!  She gave us a little flashlight, though, and this (+ angels) saved us from certain death.

So the following day I was on a plane back to California, intact, and frankly gratified that everything had gone so well and that the Lord had blessed me every step of the way.  To celebrate my return to lower altitudes, milder weather, and a somewhat less rigorous schedule, I got a nasty headcold and cough that I’m still trying get rid of as you read this.

But it was a successful mission—though not one I’m ready to repeat anytime soon!—and it looks like it really was the Lord’s will that I said “yes” to the invitation to preach this retreat.  May it bear fruit in the lives of these dozens of priests-to-be, so that they will be better equipped to live their faith and win souls for the glory of God!

Training for the Life to Come

Well, it’s that time of year once again.  It seems to come around all too quickly, but here we are looking toward Lent again.  Today we begin the series of preparatory Sundays for Lent.  It’s time to gradually wean ourselves from the festive spirit of Christmas and Theophany and to start getting ourselves psychologically and spiritually prepared for the penitential rigors of the Great Fast.

We are exhorted to this preparation first of all in the Epistle (1Tim. 4:9-15).  This selection begins, not uncharacteristically for our liturgical calendar, with a passage that cannot be understood without looking at passages not included in this selection.  It starts out by telling us that the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.  The problem is, it doesn’t tell us what saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance!  For this we have to go back a couple verses, and there we get the answer: “Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”  There, that is the saying that is sure and worthy of full acceptance.

Now we can see that this passage is quite appropriate for the beginning of our preparation for Lent.  The season of Lent is a time for training ourselves in godliness, for this is beneficial to our souls, both in this present life and especially in view of the life to come.  The word for “training” in the original Greek is gymnasía, from which we get our English “gymnasium.”  So Lent is going to be a real workout, a series of spiritual exercises in which we are expected to train ourselves in godliness, for the fruitful celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Christ as well as for our spiritual growth unto sanctification and salvation.

The Apostle, in speaking of the promise that godliness holds for eternal life, goes on to say: “To this end, we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God…”  The same word comes up here that I explained in one of Jesus’ sayings a few weeks ago.  The word for “strive” is agonizomai, which means to struggle violently or to fight like a gladiator.  So we toil and struggle and fight to obtain that which is worthy of every sacrifice: the sanctification and salvation of our immortal souls.  Lent is the arena, the training ground for this struggle, and the Church calls us to enter it willingly, eagerly, with serious intent and steadfast endurance.  Nobody says it is going to be easy, just as rigorous athletic training is not easy, but we trust that with our consistent effort and the help of God’s grace the fruits will be good and we will make significant progress in our spiritual life and maturity.

St Paul gives us something to aim for as well.  He says: “Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if during the whole course of Lent we could be exemplary in our speech and our conduct, in love and faith and purity!  Well, this is what training in godliness is for.  The word here for love is the specifically Christian term agápi, which is the self-sacrificing love that Jesus manifested all during his life, and especially in the giving up of his life as a ransom for our sins.  There’s nothing sentimental about this kind of love.  It’s the kind of love one has to acquire through spiritual training, through struggle to overcome selfishness and pettiness and to put the Gospel into practice.  Read and meditate upon First Corinthians 13 to see what this kind of love is like.  It is worth the effort and the struggle, for as St Paul says, it is valuable in every way, both for this life and the life to come.

Now let us turn to the Gospel (Lk. 19:1-10) to discover another dimension of our spiritual preparation or godliness-training for Lent.  If we’re going to make all these sacrifices and endure all this demanding training, we ought first to see what or who it is all for.  Self-mastery and the perfecting of one’s spiritual capabilities are not ends in themselves.  They only help to get us properly disposed for the real goal: the personal and profound communion with Our Lord Jesus Christ.  So the Gospel is about seeing who Jesus is, welcoming Him, and pledging to be faithful to Him and to his will for us.

This was what Zacchaeus was trying to do, though at first he was perhaps merely curious.  The Gospel tells us that he wanted to see who Jesus was.  We aren’t told why he wanted to see who Jesus was, but it seems to me that perhaps the seed of his conversion had already been somehow planted in him.  Zacchaeus was a wealthy man, probably a rather callous and unscrupulous one as well, since he didn’t seem to have any qualms of conscience about making himself rich at the expense of his fellow Jews, who unanimously regarded him as a sinner.  So one wonders what interest he might have had in a rabbi, who likely was preaching against the very things that Zacchaeus embraced as his way of life.

But maybe he had heard that this particular rabbi named Jesus was different.  Not that Jesus’ teaching was lax on the commandments.  But perhaps Jesus didn’t simply denounce law-breaking as did the Pharisees, who considered the common lot of sinners to be far inferior to themselves.  Jesus seemed to have this special quality which simply drew people to Himself in admiration and even love, so it wasn’t hard for them to give up their sins, because after coming to know Him, they would do anything just to please Him, just to be counted among his disciples.  Are there really such people in this world?  Zacchaeus may have wondered this, and he may have wondered if there might after all be a more peaceful and rewarding way to live.  So he decided that he would have to see who this Jesus was.

Zacchaeus had to undergo a little athletic exercise to attain his goal.  The Gospel tells us he was short, and he couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd, so he had to perform two exercises: first to run ahead of the others, and then to climb a tree.  For a short and most likely well-fed man, this was not easy.  But he had set himself a goal and he would achieve it, whatever the cost.  He was not yet willing, however, to declare his interest in Jesus publicly, so he hoped he could observe Him from the tree without himself being observed.  But in the providence of God, this was not to be.

Jesus immediately saw him when He came to the only sycamore tree with a short, fat tax-collector in it, and Jesus told him to hurry down as He invited Himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that very day.  Zacchaeus had come to see who Jesus was, but Jesus had come to see who Zacchaeus was, and when he saw a heart that was ripe for repentance, He extended the divine invitation. Zacchaeus then threw all self-conscious caution to the wind and tumbled down out of his tree, welcoming Jesus with rejoicing.  At that moment, however, he was reminded once again why he didn’t like the Pharisees’ style of religion, for he was once again branded a sinner, and now his new friend Jesus also had to bear the reproach of associating with one.

So Zacchaeus summoned his courage and made full use of the grace of repentance and conversion he had just received: he publicly declared not only that he would make fourfold restitution to those whom he defrauded, but would give half of whatever was left (which was probably not much) to the poor, effectively joining their ranks.

The Gospel doesn’t tell us what was the response of the self-righteous to this unexpected change of heart and change of behavior, probably because neither Zacchaeus nor Jesus was interested in what they had to say, and I guess St Luke is telling us that we shouldn’t be interested, either.  What should interest us—and what most delightfully interested Zacchaeus—is what Jesus had to say: “Today salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

Maybe, as we turn our spiritual attention toward Lent, there are a couple things we can learn from the repentant tax-collector and what Jesus did for him.  First of all, we ought to take a look inside ourselves and ask if we are truly happy with our lives as they are, and if not, why not?  Let us not point the finger at anything or anyone outside ourselves, for peace and joy and spiritual health are matters of the heart and soul, and not of our environment or circumstances.  Is there something lacking within us?  Or is there something in us that ought to be lacking, like some attachment or bad habit we may have acquired?  If this is so, then we need to set out to see Jesus; we need to hear what He has to say; we need to come to Him and let the attractive power of his love free us from whatever is hindering our happiness and our peace.

As we seek to discover more deeply who Jesus is, He will come toward us, seeking to see who we are!  He will look into our hearts and see if they are ripe for repentance and conversion, and if they are He will invite Himself into our hearts, into our lives, ever more deeply and completely.  He wants to stay with us, not just today, but forever.

Hopefully, we will then receive Him rejoicing.  But like Zacchaeus, our joy shouldn’t be superficial but it should rather be an expression of a real interior change, a metanoia, one that manifests itself in doing things differently now that one has had a profound encounter with Christ.  So the dishonest man became an honest one; the greedy man became a generous one.  When we examine our consciences and repent of our sins, we ought to make some sort of declaration to the Lord about how we are going to change, now that He has mercifully invited us to come to Him so He can bring salvation to us.  This is what Lenten resolutions are about: pledges and declarations that our repentance is genuine, that it will bear fruit in real, concrete changes in our attitudes and behaviors.  Then the Lord Himself will declare that salvation has come to us, that He has sought and saved us who were lost.

The Gospel today is just a few verses, and we hear it all in a matter of a couple minutes, but the spiritual realities it signifies are not all instantly or easily achieved.  That is why we have to refer back to the Epistle and realize that the work of our conversion and salvation is not finished, but we are still in training.  There are still serious struggles that lie ahead of us, and we will be called to fight like gladiators against the world, the flesh, and the devil.  We are in training for godliness, which has great value for our souls, in this age and in the age to come.

So as we look toward Lent, and thus look toward a time of difficult spiritual training, let us also realize that we are looking toward Jesus, who is looking toward us, coming down our path to invite us to conversion and salvation.   He will call us out of hiding in order to draw us to genuine repentance and the resolution to live it out on a daily basis.  He wants to come and stay at our house, today, and He will begin by coming into our hearts in the Holy Eucharist.  Let us receive Him with rejoicing, and then accept both the demands and the rewards of spiritual training, as we prepare for both Easter and Eternal Life.  “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.”

Thank the Master

Being an unprofitable and useless servant (Gospel: Lk. 17:3-10), I can’t expect any thanks for preaching this homily, which is only what I’ve been commanded to do, after all, but I do it anyway—for if I’m not to get thanks for doing my duty, I shudder to think of what I will get for not doing my duty!

I think that any Christian who seeks praise or thanks for doing what he is obliged to do has things all backwards.  We want the Master to thank the servant for serving, yet it is we who should be thanking the Master!  We ought to thank Him even for the privilege of serving Him, and for the opportunity and wherewithal for doing so.  The world is full of people who have not been chosen to serve Him as we have, or who have themselves chosen to serve other masters, which will be to their ruin—for if you don’t serve Christ for the time of this relatively short life on earth, you will end up serving the devil for all eternity in Hell.  Indeed, we ought to thank the Master for permitting us to be his servants!

But there is more to it than that.  Unlike some earthly master who simply demands service from his servants, our heavenly Master is so benevolent that He grants all kinds of gifts to his servants, and even forgives all the sins and failures of his unprofitable retinue.  So let’s not get things backwards. We ought to realize that we owe thanks to our Master, and that no thanks are owed to us.  We should also thank Him that He doesn’t give us what we actually deserve: the just wages for our inadequate works!  Most people insist upon their rights, but you almost never hear them insist upon their responsibilities and obligations.  It’s all about me, me, me: Look at me, pay attention to me, thank and praise me, take care of me, don’t offend or criticize me, arrange all things to the advantage of—me! But this is only a recipe for unhappiness and frustration.  No one who looks out for himself first is happy.  Only those who selflessly serve others are happy, especially if they are consciously doing this as a service to the Lord.

Maybe St Paul had this in mind when he uttered his famous saying, which we hear in the Epistle (1Thess. 5:14-23): “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus— for you!”  In the verse immediately preceding this, he sets the context, or perhaps the condition, which is that of service: “Always seek to do good to one another and to all.”

If we are always seeking to do good to others, we are not seeking anything for ourselves.  I’ve no time for me, me, me, when all my efforts are directed toward you, you, you, and thus ultimately toward God, God, God.  To make sure that we don’t allow any loopholes for selfishness, the Apostle uses terms that don’t allow any loopholes!  Rejoice always, pray constantly (literally, “without ceasing”), give thanks in all circumstances (literally, “in everything”), and a couple verses later: “abstain from every form of evil.” And why should we make the great and consistent effort to do all this?  It is because this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus!   That’s like a servant asking: Why should I do these tasks?  The answer is, of course, because your Master has told you to do them!  He didn’t ask your opinion as to whether or not you preferred to do them, or if you had any suggestions to modify them to make them more acceptable to yourself, or if you thought it was practical or even a good idea to do them.  He’s the Master, you’re the servant, now get to work!

But let us remember who our Master is.  He is the Divine Lord and King who humbled Himself to enter our lowly human condition, to teach us the truth about God and eternal life, to suffer and die to take away our sins and to welcome us into Paradise forever.  He loves us with an everlasting love.  So we ought to be longing to serve Him, begging to receive a command from Him, trying to outdo all others in the perfection of our service and obedience.

He knows that by ourselves we are useless, unprofitable, and unworthy, so He grants us his grace and all kinds of heavenly help from Our Lady and the Saints and Angels, so that we can in fact do what He asks us to do.  Jesus says that only those who do the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so this should be where all our desires and efforts are focused.  And in case we’re not sure of what God’s will is we just heard it today: “Always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances… hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.”  Give glory to the Lord, who has shown us useless servants how to get to Heaven!

Divine Energizing

[This is a homily I gave on the feast of Theophany in 2003.  In the Byzantine tradition, this feast is always celebrated on January 6.  The mystery is the manifestation of God (which is what "Theophany" means) as Trinity on the occasion of Jesus' baptism.]

When we celebrate a feast, the readings that we are given by the Church are supposed to do two things.  The Gospel is supposed to tell us what happened.  And the Epistle is supposed to show us how “what happened” applies to us and what effect it has in our lives.  That’s how we’re going to look at this mystery today. First, we’ll look at the Gospel (Mt. 3:13-17) to see what happened.

We pick up where we left off yesterday [in the vigil Liturgy], with John the Baptizer about waist-deep in the Jordan River, and the long stream of sinful humanity coming to him to be baptized.  Now John probably knew some of these people, and knew the types of people that were coming—probably mostly crusty old fishermen and merchants and farmers and prostitutes and publicans.  And so he’s going along, one after another: this guy; this farmer; this fisherman; this tax-collector; this Son of God… Wait a minute!  Son of God?  What is He doing in this line of sinners, coming for baptism?

Now he may not have really known the full extent of what it means that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father, but he knew that He was the Christ, the Messiah, and all of a sudden he sees Him standing there, in front of him, and he doesn’t know what to do!  It’s easy enough to dunk hookers in the water, but what do you do when the Messiah is standing before you?

So John pulls Him over and says, “Look.  You should baptize me!”  But Christ said, “I want you to baptize Me anyway, because this fulfills the righteousness of God.”   And that righteousness of God is expressed in the Incarnate Christ identifying with sinful humanity. Christ did not share in our sins, but He came to bear our sins: in his own self, in his own body, on the Cross.  But He came, not to say, “Here I am, the King, and I want everyone to worship Me.”   He came very humbly, and didn’t even distinguish Himself from anybody else who was standing in line for baptism, in order to express his solidarity with us, the sinful people He came to save.  He came for baptism as a way of identifying with us.  So John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, just like everybody else he was baptizing.

Then something very amazing happened.  And, depending on which Gospel you read, this is something that Jesus experienced, or John experienced, or probably both of them experienced (since we have different accounts: that Jesus saw this Himself, and that John was a witness to it, too).  Otherwise, if it was only Jesus’ private, inner, Trinitarian experience, we could hardly call this feast “Theophany”—it wouldn’t be a “manifestation of God” if it was manifest to no one who could tell us anything about it!  But it was manifest, at least to John. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descended upon Him, and the voice of the Father said, “This is my beloved Son.” Now at that moment, I’m sure that a lot of things became real clear for John.  That was an experience of immense profundity.  He probably just saw how heaven and earth were, all of a sudden, one in the great embrace of God; and he saw the deeper mystery of who this Messiah was whom he just baptized, and who had asked to be treated like one of the sinners.

As it says in the Gospel according to St. John, God had actually predicted this.  I’m sure He didn’t give him all the details, but John said: “The One who sent me baptizing told me, ‘When you see the Spirit descend on someone, that’s the Son of God, that’s the chosen One.’”  Then he says, “I have seen, and so I know, and now I testify.”  It was manifested to John, and John now testifies.

We see, then, what happened there at the Jordan.  Now we want to look at the Epistle to see what that means for us.  We can stand in awe at the experience that John and Christ had at that moment, and give thanks, but then there has to be some bridge into our own life.

What we see in the Epistle (Titus 2:11-14 & 3:4-7) are several points that apply to us here, very concisely and directly.  This is in a Trinitarian format, which corresponds to the Gospel. “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God appeared…”  OK, there’s the Father.  “…He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit…” OK, there’s another One, the Spirit.  “…which He poured on us richly through Jesus Christ, our Savior…”  There’s the whole Trinity.  “…so that we might be justified by his grace, and become heirs by hope in eternal life.”

That’s the whole business in a nutshell.  That is what was happening; that is the essence, the grace, which is communicated through the mystery of what we read in the Gospel about the baptism of Jesus. It starts out with the loving-kindness of God, who manifested our salvation.  He did so because of his great mercy.  He did not look at all these sinners coming to be baptized, and say, “It’s because of your righteous deeds that you’re going to be saved.”  I mean, God is a God of truth, so He couldn’t say that.  There were no righteous deeds down there that He could’ve collected, to justify humans being saved.  So, it’s because of his mercy that He opened the heavens, and said:  “Behold My Son.  He’s the One who is going to save you by grace.”

So He saved us by his mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.  Now, it’s kind of strange to say, “We are saved by washing.”   Certainly our hygiene is improved by washing, but are we really saved by washing?  Now how could it be that water is going to save us?

Well, I think that we can illuminate this mystery a little bit by an experience of our own Brother Symeon.  The other day, when he was working with our water system, he stuck his hand into the water in one of the tanks and got a shock!  Due to a short in the pump or something, the water in the tank had become electrified.  That was something of a—maybe not a theophany, but some sort of epiphany to Brother Symeon, to have that electric current running through him, coming out of the water.

Well, what happens when Jesus goes into the water?  He “electrifies” it, so to speak.  Actually, energizes it.  He brings the Divine Energy of the Holy Spirit into the water.  Jesus Christ is the Live Wire of God, sent and plunged into the waters of this world to sanctify them and to make them capable, through the energy of the Holy Spirit, to actually renew us, to save us, to re-create us, to make us “reborn” sons and daughters of God.

And when the name of Jesus is invoked, and the power of the Holy Spirit is invoked over water—when that is done in the right context, and by those ordained to do so, then the water is given that energy.  It is divinely energized, “electrified” water that can effect the miracle of salvation, of initiating people into the Kingdom of God.  That’s what happens when we bless baptismal water: it receives that power of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that baptism is the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), and “regeneration” means being born again, so let’s make it clear that the Bible says you are born again by the sacrament of baptism! [see also John 3:3-5]

This is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ,” through our whole sacramental life.  It’s this outpouring of grace through Jesus Christ, and because of the incarnation, and because of his baptism in the Jordan, and all the mysteries of his life, especially his death and resurrection, that we can live this new life, and that we can become righteous by his grace.

Remember, just a couple of verses before: “Not by our own righteousness”—because we have none, but we can become righteous by grace, poured out on us, through Jesus Christ, so that “we become heirs, in hope, of eternal life.”  That’s the bottom line; that’s what it’s all about.  He said that all this leads to the destiny that God has willed for us: that we have eternal life.

So, let us—as we reflect on this mystery of what happened with John in the Jordan, with Christ in the manifestation of the Holy Trinity, and of what happens in our own life through our baptism, our faith, through God’s mercy, through the contact with the energized water—realize that when we drink this water (we’re going to have the Great Blessing of the Waters after the Liturgy), this is really something special.

This is something symbolized by the three-branched candle as we plunge it into the water, that Trinitarian Divine Energy is being communicated to that water.  And when we drink that water, and bless things and people with that water, something really happens.  There’s a mystery that we take into ourselves, and we should allow ourselves to be transformed by it, to be electrified, so to speak, by this grace-bearing water.

So, as we go on in our lives, we will grow in this Trinitarian communion, especially through the sacraments and through prayer.  In these coming days especially, in our contemplation of this mystery, let us go into the depths of our hearts in our meditation and prayer.  If we go deep in faith and in love and in openness, we will see, within us, in our own hearts, the heavens open, so to speak, and the Father will bless us, and pronounce that benediction on us that we are his beloved sons and daughters. And the Spirit will be manifested, will descend upon us, will anoint us, and so we can go forth in the name of Jesus Christ and live in joy, because we have become heirs in hope of eternal life.

Two Fires

The liturgical year advances us quite rapidly from the cave in Bethlehem to the banks of the River Jordan.  At this Vigil Liturgy we’re beginning to open up the divine mystery of the Theophany, which will burst forth in its full splendor tomorrow with the Divine Liturgy and the Great Blessing of the Water.  For now we are invited into this mystery by St John the Forerunner.

We actually have two different major themes to celebrate at this Vigil Liturgy, which are indicated by the readings (1Cor. 9:19-27; Lk. 3:1-18).  One is the humility of Christ, and the other is fiery preaching of St John.

The Epistle is evidently chosen (though the first time I heard it read for this feast I couldn’t figure out why it was chosen) to give an insight into the mind of Christ, even though St Paul was talking about himself.  But the Apostle elsewhere said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” so I think that’s how the Church wants us to see this.  It’s basically about becoming all things to all men for the sake of their salvation.

“Though I am free from all men,” the Apostle writes, “I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.”  Jesus said He came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  He is also described by Paul as taking the form of a slave through the kenosis of his Incarnation.  “To those under the law,” Paul continues, “I became as one under the law.”  Jesus did this as well, from the very beginning of his human life.  He accepted the prescribed rituals of the law, like circumcision and presentation in the temple, and he observed the law during his life, to the extent that it did not conflict with his Father’s will.  Thus He attracted disciples from among the Jews.

The most striking example of the humility of the Son of God we find at the Jordan River: He became like a sinner to save sinners!  He didn’t actually sin, of course, but He got in line with the rest of them to receive the baptism of repentance at the hands of the Forerunner.  Jesus humbled Himself by entering into solidarity with those whom He came to save.  How would the poor and the broken and the sinners and the failures have had courage to come to Him if He had arrived on the scene like a king in a chariot, with power and glory?  But as St Paul continues in the Epistle: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save [at least] some.  I do it all for the sake of the Gospel…”

So this is the first element to reflect upon as we enter into the mystery of this feast: Christ’s entry into the Jordan was, among other things, a sign of his kenosis, the setting aside of his divine glory for the sake of humbly indentifying with those whom He came to save.  He would do whatever it would take to draw all to Himself, and through Himself to the Father.  No sacrifice was too great for Him, even if it meant that other people would (at least initially) regard Him as a common sinner like all the rest.

Now let us turn to St John the Baptizer.  I’ve always been fascinated by the way St Luke introduces his ministry.  It is done quite dramatically, setting the stage by giving its precise moment in history, with the alignment of the various rulers and authorities, both religious and secular, local and universal.  At this moment in the reign of Tiberius and all the other figures, “the word of God came to John the son of Zachariah in the desert.”

What was it like for him to receive the word of God?  It had to be something quite profound, for it set the course for the rest of his life.  John was probably in the desert for a long time, perhaps as long as 15-20 years.  St Luke doesn’t tell us when he entered the desert, but some traditions have it that his parents died when he was still quite young.  Luke leaves it ambiguous.  After the birth of John, he simply says, “the child grew and became strong, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (1:80).  Was John a hermit, or did he perhaps join the Essenes, a community of Jewish ascetics with an apocalyptic bent?  We’ll probably never know for sure this side of Heaven, but whatever he was doing in the desert, it was there that the word of God came to him.

It must have been like fire from Heaven, for he immediately left his former way of life and went to the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance.  We don’t know the precise content of the word that he received, though we can at least guess that he was told that the Messiah was about to manifest Himself, and that the people had to repent in order to be prepared to receive Him.

Perhaps God also told John that there were a lot of incorrigible sinners among the inhabitants of Judea, for the first words out of the Forerunner’s mouth were: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

OK, now he had their attention.  Now he could begin his preaching, telling them what they had to do.  Repent was one thing; but repentance, if it only means confessing one’s sins as one is dunked in the Jordan, is not enough.  For the Baptizer goes on: “Bear fruits that befit repentance,” that is, give some evidence that you really do regret your sins; start living a life which no longer includes those sins. Just to put some teeth into his preaching, in case the people were not yet fully persuaded that they really had to change their lives, he added: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

After this, a rather curious thing happens.  The fiery preacher moderates his tone somewhat.  The multitudes were pleading with him: “When then shall we do?”  Perhaps they were trembling in terror at this point, imagining what it must be like to be engulfed in eternal hellfire, so St John simply gave them some solid advice on how to be just and charitable in their various states of life: be generous to the poor, don’t cheat or steal, don’t accuse anyone falsely, and don’t complain about your paycheck.  It is almost as if he were saying: If you had been keeping the commandments in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to threaten you with damnation.  So why don’t you just start doing what you know you are supposed to be doing anyway?

Yet this is only part of the message.  It was the task of the Old Testament prophets to call God’s straying people back to his covenant with them, back to fidelity and obedience to his commandments.  But St John stands on the threshold of the New Testament.  He makes it clear that God’s commandments which govern human morality never change; they have no expiration date.  But once he lets them know that they must still keep doing good, he introduces a new element: the Mighty One who is coming.

Here is where John presents himself not only as baptizer and preacher, but also as the forerunner of the Son of God.  “I baptize you with water,” he said.  But the One who would come shortly after him, One whose sandals John professed being unworthy to untie—He is the fulfillment of the prophecies; He is the one who will establish the New Covenant.  And so the fiery preacher also introduces a new kind of fire.  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  This could perhaps be a way of saying: “He will baptize you with the Fire of the Holy Spirit.”  This indeed happened in a visible and tangible way on the day of Pentecost.

Even though something radically new was being introduced into the lives of the chosen people, John seems to indicate the continuity with the past by reintroducing the more unpleasant kind of fire.  For he says that the Messiah is coming for judgment, and those who don’t bear the fruit that befits repentance, who are like chaff instead of wheat, will be burned with unquenchable fire.

So I guess the Forerunner is inviting us to choose which fire we’d like to be immersed in: the purifying, enlightening, heavenly Fire of the Holy Spirit, or the punishing, tormenting fire of Hell.  We, then, might wish to come to St John as did the Jews of old, saying: “What then shall we do?  We want the good fire, not the bad fire!”  And he might say similar things to us: “Well, what is your state in life, and what are its duties?  If you are spouses and parents, you know what your obligations are. Fulfill them. If you are under religious vows, you know what they require. Be faithful; don’t break them.  Know the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, and do what they tell you. Pray, fast, do good, serve, forgive, humble yourselves in imitation of Him who came to the Jordan and lined up with uncouth sinners.”

St John prepares us well for living in the New Covenant, even though he never lived to see it established on earth.  The Gospel shows us two things that will never change: believe in Jesus, and put your faith into practice by doing good. Both of these are essential if we want to avoid the unquenchable fire that the preacher threatened with such incisive eloquence.

Finally, the Baptizer is one who prepares the way of the Lord.  That was an Advent theme, but after Christmas we’re still hearing it.  That is because we are always called to prepare the way of the Lord, not only in one or another liturgical season.  Our whole life has to be a preparation for meeting the Lord in the ultimate encounter wherein our destiny will be set forever.  The Lord is coming, with two kinds of fire.  If we, as St Paul says, do all for the sake of the Gospel, and if we, as St John says, continually bear fruit that befits repentance, we will be forever immersed—not in that horrible, stinking, burning hellfire, but in the Sweet-fire of the Holy Spirit in the Kingdom of Light and Love and everlasting joy.  So let us take the plunge, as the Baptizer invites.  And let us run so as to win, as the Apostle writes.  For Christ has become all things to all, so as to save us!

Sing a New Song

Well, here we are at the beginning of 2012.  Every time a new year arrives, I marvel that I am still here, because for some reason I have the impression as each new year arrives that it will be my last.  It seems that quite a few people are expecting the world to end this year, though I suppose there are some people somewhere that are expecting the world to end every year.  Though we do not know the day or the hour, I think it is not likely that the world will end in 2012. Judging by the evidence of the past 4.5 billion years of the earth’s existence, the odds are against it (note too that every prediction of the imminent end of the world, without exception, has thus far proven quite obviously false).  Yet the world will end this year for approximately 55 million people, who will leave this world by dying before we ring in the next new year. (You can help save at least a few of them by clicking here.) So if we cannot cry out “the end is near!” for all without exception, we can do so for quite a few, many of whom are probably not expecting this at all.

What is all this supposed to mean?  Don’t ask me; I haven’t yet figured out why my heart is still beating and how I managed to get out of bed this morning.  But it does seem to indicate the precariousness of this life and hence the necessity of not being heedless of the life to come and the account we will have to make to God when there are no more new years left to us in this present world.

What, then, shall we do with the time that remains?  We see often in the Bible the exhortation, “Sing a new song unto the Lord!”  I think maybe we should do that this year.  I’m guessing that God is probably growing just a tad weary of the “same old song and dance” that we present year after year.  Maybe we should do something different this year.

What are some of the ways in which we can sing a new song to the Lord in 2012?  Well, you have to look at your own experience and examine your own conscience, but some general suggestions apply to most of us.  Are you, for example, holding a grudge against someone?  Do something new—get over it, forgive and move on; you’ll have more peace and God will be pleased with the melody of this new song.  Do you tend to overeat or overdrink or overspend or over-anything?  OK, stop all that.  Sing a new song.  Practice some self-discipline, get some outside help if you need it, and use whatever you save to help the poor, who can’t afford to over-indulge in anything.

How about the under-stuff?  Do you under-pray, under-fast, under-bless, under-thank, under-serve, etc?  Time to sing a new song; time to get your priorities in order and put the Kingdom of God and his righteousness first.  These things aren’t just “helpful hints”; they are essential for the health of your soul and hence for your preparation for eternal life.  Hey, who says you’re not going to be one of the 55 million who will “cash in and check out” sometime this year?  Don’t kid yourself; it’s later than you think.

Look at other stuff, too: the way you relate to family, friends, co-workers, etc, what you do for your own enjoyment versus what you sacrifice for the sake of others, what corners you cut for convenience’ sake.  There’s a lot of housecleaning to do, if you turn on the lights and look around.  Lots of new songs to learn!

I’m going to keep this post short.  After all, you might not be feeling too well after the weekend’s excesses.  All the more reason to realize that the same old song and dance just don’t work for the long haul.  Think about the new song you’d like to sing unto the Lord, or better yet, ask Him what new song He would like to hear from you.  Whether or not 2012 is going to be the last year for you or for us all, by God’s grace and our determined efforts to please Him, it can indeed be a very good year.

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