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

Archive for April, 2012

Death Row

I read a book not long ago, which I recommend to you.  It is entitled: Now I Walk on Death Row: A Wall Street Finance Lawyer Stumbles into the Arms of a Loving God, by Dale Recinella.  The book is summarized in the long title:  A wealthy lawyer has a profound conversion experience and ends up as a Catholic lay minister to inmates on death row in Florida prisons.

While you’ll read something about the inhuman conditions and treatment of the inmates (most animals in this country are treated better), and something about the death-penalty “industry” (which keeps a number of officials and attorneys rich), what I’d like mainly to share here is something about the way God opened the author’s eyes to the truth of the Gospel, and how Mr Recinella embraced it to an extent rarely seen in our day.

His big question around the time of his conversion, when he started reading the Gospels, was: “Did Jesus mean what He said?”  He discovered various responses from people he asked, both Catholic and Protestant.  But even among those who did believe that Jesus meant what He said, he found very few who actually put the Lord’s words into practice in concrete ways that affected their lifestyles.  Once he accepted in faith that Jesus did mean what He said, however, his whole life changed.  He learned what Jesus meant when He said we cannot serve two masters, God and money (and he had a lot of money, but eventually gave it all up for the sake of his calling).  He was not willing to compromise like so many others, who said they believed in the Gospel but in reality did not take it very seriously and put their own comfort and pleasure first.

He also had a near-death experience before he had fully sold all to follow Jesus, for his conversion was gradual. He had ingested some sort of flesh-eating bacteria when eating a raw oyster, and before long all his major organs shut down and the doctor told him he would not make it through the night.  During the night, while dying, he entered the presence of the Lord, who said, “Dale, what have you done with My gifts?”  And the Lord looked sad. Dale tried to defend himself, but he realized that everything he said had something to do with making money.  Then he said that he “felt the shame of the selfishness and narcissism of my life.”  He begged Jesus for another chance at life, and that he would do things differently.  Jesus then vanished and so did Dale’s illness, and he woke up healed and began to serve the poor and eventually heard the call to prison ministry.

During the time that he was learning the Gospel but still living and working in the society of the rich, he tried to help a dirty homeless man (covered with sores, like Lazarus), whom he saw when on a break from a meeting with wealthy high-class attorneys.  One place he took him was a church, and the man, who was sick and filthy and starving, wept and said, “Lord, please don’t let me die like this!”  Mr Recinella finally was able to find some help for the unfortunate man. Later, when he went back to the fancy restaurant where all his rich colleagues were drinking and laughing, he had an illumination as to the phony, superficial, sinful, and godless lives these proud and rich people were living, and he prayed: “Lord, please don’t let me die like this!”  It would not be long before he was giving practically all of his time to serving the poor and the prisoners.

Those are just a couple snippets.  The whole story is engaging and edifying, yet down to earth and sometimes humorous.  It wasn’t easy for him to give up his wealth and prestige (since he had found his sense of self-worth in them), but the work of divine grace is clearly manifest in his gradual enlightenment and the uncompromising courage of his convictions once he decided that Jesus really did mean what He said in the Gospels.  His wife and children were supportive, and this was a great help to him as well, for they made decisions as a family, so it wasn’t just his own radical and idiosyncratic mission (they didn’t think he was crazy, as did most everyone else, even Christian acquaintances).

I think you’ll find a number of good insights in this book, and you may also be challenged concerning your own answer to the question: “Did Jesus really mean what He said?”—and what practical applications may need to follow.  You’ll see some of the best and the worst of the human condition, and you just might become a better person for taking the time to see what kind of fruit one person can bear who decides that following the Lord is the essential element that makes us fully human—and hence best able to show the face of Christ to those who most need to see it.

Incarnation and Resurrection

[To continue your celebration of the Resurrection of Christ these paschal days, I'm offering here an excerpt on the connection between Incarnation and Resurrection from my book, How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place.]

Even though no one noticed it at the time, the incarnation of the Son of God worked a radical, thoroughgoing, and permanent transformation of the universe and human existence.  This transformation was not immediately complete, for it is still going on and will only be fully perfected at the ultimate manifestation of the glory of the Lord when He returns to judge the living and the dead.  But what was set in motion when God became man in Jesus Christ was nothing less than a new creation, a “let there be” that was far more marvelous than the original creation ex nihilo.  For it united creation to Creator in a way that was hitherto inconceivable; it bridged that unbridgeable abyss.

The Incarnation is not simply God’s answer to man’s sin and need for redemption.  The Eastern Fathers say (and rightly, I believe) that it was always God’s intention to unite mankind to Himself through the Incarnation, whether man sinned or not.  In The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément writes: “The purpose of the Incarnation is to establish full communion between God and humanity so that in Christ humanity may find adoption and immortality, often called ‘deification’ by the Fathers… The Incarnation needs to be put back into the whole scheme of creation.  Human waywardness has certainly transformed it into a tragic ‘redemption,’ but the Incarnation remains above all the fulfillment of God’s original plan, the great synthesis, in Christ, of the human, the divine, and the cosmic.”

We know that the Incarnation effected the union of God and man in Jesus Christ.  But perhaps we don’t reflect sufficiently that the Incarnation had a profound impact upon all of creation.  The human nature (body and soul) that the Word assumed is a created nature.  Jesus’ body was made of the same material that our bodies are made of.  So the Incarnation is not only the inseparable union of God and man, but also of Creator and creation.  It is this aspect of the Incarnation that constitutes the radically different relation to created things that God acquired in the New Testament, which was never manifest in the Old.  God has become immanent in creation through Christ, while remaining divinely transcendent.

To say that God is immanent in creation because of the Incarnation of the Son is not to say that henceforth every blade of grass has become divinized.  If that were so, we would have to live in mortal fear of snapping a single twig or stepping on an ant.  But it does mean that creation was given a potential that it never had before.  For example, before Christ, in sacrificial meals or other religious rites (even John’s baptism), there was no inherent power in the food or the water to effect any spiritual transformation.  They were symbolic indicators of a transcendent reality, but that reality was not within them, could not be communicated by them—as this reality is communicated through the material elements used in the sacraments of the New Covenant.  Yet I think we can still assert that, since the Incarnation, a blade of grass means more to us, for the created veils of God’s presence are now less opaque than they used to be, and they have more to say about Him who loved us so much as to become one with us.

We sing daily in the Office of Matins that “the Lord is God and has appeared to us…”  His “appearing” to us refers not to mystical visions but to the Incarnation.  God is revealed in Jesus Christ, who was manifested in the flesh, to share the human condition so as to redeem it, to become one with the created world so as to save it—all of this in view of the eternal plan to sanctify the visible world and harmonize it with the invisible world, “as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).  Our perceptions of the presence of God in the material world are possible because of the Incarnation, and they are encouraged by the Holy Spirit because this is the will and plan of God.

All of the above has happened because of the Incarnation, yet very little of it was recognized by those who originally encountered the Incarnate God. The humanity of Christ was in general a rather opaque veil over his divinity, a notable exception being the Transfiguration, when it became quite translucent indeed!  Jesus did work miracles in the flesh, and this ought to have been evidence of his divinity shining through his humanity, but even the witnesses of his miracles did not immediately (if at all) ascribe divinity to Him.  In order that people would believe in all that the Incarnation had secretly accomplished, they needed a further manifestation: the Resurrection.

Christ, having risen from the dead—his humanity still real but freed from its former limitations—appeared to many, though not to all indiscriminately.  His post-resurrection appearances were a new way of Heaven breaking through to Earth, for now He was no longer in the state of his former kenosis, accepting the form of a slave in obedience even unto death (see Phil. 2:5-11).  He was entering this world as one living eternal life, as one living the life of resurrected glory, which is reserved for the end of the world.  Bursting forth from the tomb, the end of the world entered the world in the person of the risen Christ!  The world could no longer hold or limit Him. He shows by his post-resurrection appearances that his kingdom is not of this world—“Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (Jn. 20:17)—yet by his resurrection He has come to give life to this world: “it is I myself; touch me and see…” (Lk. 24:39).  Jesus came from the Father and returned to the Father, and He has made it possible for us to join Him with the Father for all eternity.

After Jesus’ ascension, the grace of his resurrection began its secret work in the cosmos. The potential given to all creation through the Incarnation is “activated” and sustained by the power of the Resurrection.  This is mainly for two reasons.  First, the Resurrection “reversed” the direction of creation toward death and has injected hope and the power of unending life into a universe doomed to ultimate dissolution because of man, who had embraced sin unto death and corruption (see Rom. 8:19-23).  The Resurrection assures us of the fulfillment of the promise of a “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2Peter 3:13).  What is “new” is the ability of Christ’s resurrection to maintain the transfigured heavens and earth eternally—for sin, with its consequence of death and decay, will be forever nullified by the life-giving death and resurrection of Christ.

The second reason is that the Resurrection paved the way for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, through whom God is “everywhere present and filling all things.”  It is the Spirit who infuses created matter with grace-giving power; it is the Spirit through whom God is present to us in every way that He can be present in this world.  Through the Holy Spirit the power of Christ’s resurrection is active in us (Rom. 8:11) and throughout the world, leading the whole cosmos to its ultimate transfiguration.  Nothing will be unaffected by the power of Christ’s resurrection, for all of creation was drawn closer to God by the mystery of the Incarnation.

Through his resurrection the Lord gives his own life to us—forever.  Because He lives, we will live, as He Himself said before his glorification (John 14:19).  The power of his resurrection effects not only a universal cosmic transfiguration, but a very personal infusion of glorious and immortal life into the soul and body of each person who has believed in Him and hoped for eternal salvation.  We will live with his life, the life of God, in the Kingdom of Heaven…

Because God has created the world and loved it, sending his only-begotten Son, uniting Creator to creation, infusing it with the deathless dynamism of the Resurrection through the power of the Spirit, we can find Him in and around us, and we can enter into our Master’s joy…

Jeremiah 31

I mentioned in the last post that there are a lot of divine threats of destruction the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, due to the people’s idolatry and intransigent disobedience.  But when I made it to chapter 31, I discovered a reason why we had to hear all those threats and the accompanying calls to repentance: we need to know how bad we are before we can understand how good God is.  I touched on this in the last post on Divine Mercy, but there are some interesting passages in this chapter that I’d like to look at now.

We learn the reason why God hangs in there with us, enduring our sins, patiently waiting for our repentance, keeping his part of the covenant: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (v.3).  God stays faithful to us, even while we are still unfaithful, because He loves us with an everlasting love.  This love will never change or diminish, nor will his faithfulness.  Despite this divine fidelity, it is still possible for us to exclude ourselves from the benefits of his steadfast love if we obstinately persist in our sins, but if any souls are lost, it is not because God gave up on them.

The prophecies in this chapter are about the return of the exiles from Babylon to their home, and so they are full of joy and promises of abundant fruitfulness.  “There is hope for your future, says the Lord” (v. 17), and this sums up all the encouraging words.

The people finally realized how bad they were and how good God is.  After reading much of the previous chapters of the book, one might have some difficulty in believing that the intimate relationship they used to have with God could ever be fully restored, or that God could refrain from giving them what they deserved.  Yet we see that repentance has great rewards: “I have heard Ephraim bemoaning: ‘You have chastened me and I was chastened… bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God.  For after I had turned away I repented… I was ashamed and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth’”.  God responds like the father of the prodigal son: “Is Ephraim my dear son?  Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord” (vv. 18-20).

So we learn something about God here.  We learn why He has to threaten us when we do evil, when we thus place our immortal souls in grave danger.  We also learn that even while this righteous anger of his persists, it does not mean He has ceased to love and care for us—it is quite the opposite.  His Heart yearns for us; He regards us as his darling children and promises to show us mercy.

Finally comes the famous prophecy of the New Covenant (vv. 31-34). Unlike the first one that they broke, written on tablets of stone, the new one will be written on hearts.  This is the one that Christ would eventually seal with his Precious Blood, for the new and intimate knowledge of God it brings will be accompanied by the forgiveness of sins. “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more,” the prophecy concludes. “This is my blood of the new covenant,” said Jesus at the Last Supper, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:27-28).  The prophecy is now fulfilled, and this fulfillment is perpetuated in the Church “until He comes” at the end of time (see 1Cor. 11:26).

In this time of the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, let us try to discover the yearning of God’s Heart for us, his everlasting love that compels Him, as it were, to remain faithful to us—who ought to be his “darling children” but who more often than not are rebellious brats.  God is faithful and awaits our repentance like the prodigal’s father.  He wants to tell us that there is hope for our future, a return from the exile of sinfulness to a life of holiness, from the exile of this world to our heavenly homeland.  His words are true and full of the promise of eternal happiness.  Let us learn our lessons now, accept to be chastened and to start doing things the Lord’s way—thus we “shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord” (v. 12).

Receiving Divine Mercy

Our Lord told St Faustina that He wanted to institute a feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter, and Blessed John Paul II willingly obliged.  In a sense, this feast is a kind of commentary on all the events of the Paschal Mystery we have been celebrating since Holy Week.  The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are all about divine mercy, since all of this was accomplished to take away our sins and to pave the way to Paradise for the repentant and (hence) the grateful.

These two elements, repentance and gratitude, are essential not only for receiving divine mercy, but also for bearing its fruits.  The main laments we hear from Jesus and Mary in their various approved apparitions over the centuries are precisely that people refuse to repent and are ungrateful for all that God has done for them.

I was reading the Prophet Jeremiah during Holy Week, more or less selectively, since a large portion of it consists of divine threats of just punishment for God’s unfaithful and stubbornly sinful people, and a steady diet of that is a bit heavy.  We do have to hear this message, however, even though much more is necessary to complete the divine revelation.  A concise summary of the Lord’s justice and mercy, both of which are based on truth and love, can perhaps be found in these two verses: “…I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord… Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God” (Jer. 3:12-13).

In order for us to experience divine mercy precisely as mercy, we have to acknowledge our guilt.  This ought to be obvious, but it seems that many aren’t interested in doing so.  A strange thing has evidently happened over the past 50 years or so.  There has been an increasing emphasis on God’s mercy, and a decreasing emphasis on sin.  No one wants to talk about the just punishments of God, for He is loving and merciful, and no one wants to talk about sin, because we are “basically good,” the concept of sin is outdated, and Hell is just a medieval scare tactic, etc.  But if we have little to no sin, we have no need for mercy, so what is the point of insisting both on God’s mercy and our lack of sin?

Perhaps a lot of people need to read Jeremiah, just for a reality check.  Of all the prophets, he is  most like a Christ-figure.  He didn’t just pronounce doom on the intractable sinners—he wept for them, he suffered for them, he was in anguish over their refusal to repent, for he knew what chastisements were coming.  He loved his people and didn’t want to see them punished or destroyed.  It is like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem for its faithlessness, as He foresaw its destruction in a few decades.

Both Jeremiah and Jesus suffered anguish over the sins of the people.  Too bad no one from our enlightened age was able to go back in time and assure them that it’s pointless to harp on that disagreeable topic of sin, for God is so nice that He wouldn’t harm a fly.

But see, God in all his righteous indignation over repeated grievous offenses, is much better than nice—He is merciful!  To be merciful is to recognize the offense as such, to call sin sin, and then to forgive it.  To overlook sin or minimize it out of existence is to be nice; to know the real horror and offense of it and still to forgive it is to be merciful.  There’s still another problem with being nice: you stop living in the truth.  God can never do this.  He can’t minimize the seriousness of sin, because this “niceness” ends up being a lie, and God cannot lie.  He knows very well what sin does to a soul, and how it could be its eternal ruin.  What the Father allowed to happen to his beloved Son was not nice at all!  But it was necessary to express both his truth and his love, to offer divine mercy to the world so that its sins could be taken away and eternal life given instead.

In St Faustina’s diary of all her extraordinary experiences and communications with Jesus, both the radical, soul-damning evil of sin, and the ineffable, infinite sin-erasing power of divine mercy are clearly emphasized.  You have to know both of these to be living in the truth.  You have to have a profound awareness of both, in order to know how good God is, what He has saved us from, and what He has prepared for those who love Him.  Mercy isn’t granted without repentance, so when the Lord assures his people through Jeremiah that He is merciful, He immediately adds, as a condition for their receiving divine mercy: “Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God.” When we do this, we will hear Him say something else He said through Jeremiah: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (31:34).

Once we both repent and receive mercy, we overflow with gratitude, for we have no way to repay Our Lord for what He did and suffered for us.  In a the words of a devotion to the Wounds of Jesus, we pray: “You labored to overtake me on the way to ruin, and bled amid the thorns and brambles of my sins… You bore the punishment for my wanderings and the guilty pleasures I have granted to my unbridled passions… You have spared me the scourges and eternal damnation which my sins have merited… You lavished your grace upon me with such love, in spite of all my most perverse obstinacy…”  What can we offer Him in return for all this, for suffering immeasurably to take away our sins?  We can only live henceforth in profound and continuous gratitude, making every effort to avoid sin and to live in faith and love.  To minimize sin is to devalue Jesus’ sufferings, and I sure  wouldn’t want to have that on my conscience when I’m ushered in before his Judgment Seat!  No wonder that Jesus and Mary lament over the blasphemies and ingratitude of the people He suffered to save.

So let us celebrate the feast of Divine Mercy with both repentance and gratitude, and with ongoing trust in the loving mercy of Our Lord.  Let us never minimize sin, for we thus minimize mercy, and we’ll find ourselves without it if we think we don’t need it!  But let us live in the truth.  The patriarchs knew it, the prophets knew it, the apostles knew it, all the saints knew it, because God revealed it!  Let us not think we know better than the wisest and holiest people in history, better than God Himself.  Let us humble ourselves, acknowledge our guilt, receive divine mercy, and then be happy and at peace—both now and forever!

Peace Be with You

According to St Luke and St John, after Jesus rose from the dead, the first thing Jesus said when He appeared to the assembled apostles was: “Peace be with you.”  What did He mean by this?  Was He just trying to say, “Do not be afraid, everything is all right now”? Perhaps, since immediately before this greeting (in John’s Gospel), it is noted that the disciples were hiding behind closed doors, “for fear of the Jews,” but this does not nearly express the full meaning of his words.

I recently read the resurrection accounts from the Gospel of John, and in prayer I asked the Lord to help me understand just what his “peace” is, and also that, whatever it is, He infuse it directly into my heart and soul, henceforth and forever!

The Gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus didn’t speak Greek to his disciples.  So He would have greeted them with the Aramaic Shalama (equivalent to the more well-known Hebrew Shalom).  The term can be used as a mere greeting, but it became a greeting only because it is a wish for an abundance of blessings.  In Jesus’ case, it was not merely a wish, even for blessings, because He has the power to communicate what He says.  He doesn’t wish peace, He gives it.

Shalom is a rich term which means more than peace as absence of war or inner turmoil.  According to Strong’s Concordance, the Hebrew word Shalom means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord. Shalom comes from a root verb meaning to be complete, perfect and full.  So it is a kind of fullness of life, both materially and spiritually, in relations with God and man, that is expressed here.

This peace is the shalom of God, which St Paul says “passes all understanding” and “will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).  Therefore it is a supernatural peace, a spiritual completeness, an abundance of grace, an interior rest (as when Jesus says, “Come to Me… I will give you rest… you will find rest for your souls”; Mt. 11:28-29).  That is why Jesus, in his “farewell discourse,” said to his disciples: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you…” (Jn. 14:27).  His peace is much more profound, healing, strengthening, and lasting than anything the world can offer.

According to St John, when Jesus first appeared to his gathered disciples, He said, “Peace be with you,” and He showed them his hands and feet, still bearing the wounds of his sacrifice.  Recognizing that it was truly their Lord and Master risen from the dead, the disciples rejoiced.  So with this “Peace be with you,” Jesus communicated to them the shalom of God, and the fruit of it was joy.

Right after that, St John tells us: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.’”  What is the meaning of this second shalom?  It does in fact seem to have a different character than the first, since it is linked to the Holy Spirit in the context of apostolic mission and priestly ministry.  Once the disciples found “rest for their souls” in the presence of the Risen Lord, He communicated to them a new dimension of the shalom of God.

The whole passage reads: “Jesus said to them again: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn. 20:21-23).  The word “apostle” means “one who is sent,” so the peace that Jesus now communicates to them will sustain them in their apostolic labors.  For their particular ministry, one that belongs only to those specifically called and ordained, Jesus grants them a sort of private Pentecost, a charism of the Holy Spirit not given to the larger group of disciples, both men and women, on the day of the public Pentecost.  Jesus here gives the apostles the grace and authority in the Holy Spirit to forgive or retain sins. This is part of what it means to be sent by Jesus as Jesus was sent by the Father into this world. Sent by the Father, the Son of Man had authority on earth to forgive sins (see Mt. 9:6). Sent by Jesus, the Apostles received the same authority. This ministry has been an integral element of the sacramental life and ministry of the Church from that day until the present.

Let open our hearts to the shalom of God, given to us by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our souls will find rest and completeness and joy.  We will enter into the rich abundance of divine grace and will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  We will learn trust and patience, we will have courage and endurance, for all the fullness of God will be made available to us (Eph. 3:19).  For some it will also mean being sent, being ordained to the priestly and sacramental ministry, or sent on other missions in the name of the Lord.  For all it will mean a deeper life in Christ, and a greater freedom from the many things that seem to rob us of peace in our troubled times and perhaps in our own anxiety-ridden souls.  Even if we are “hiding in fear” as were the first apostles, Jesus will come to us, passing through the locked doors of our hearts, saying, “Peace be with you.”  Let us welcome Him, trusting that He, as the Risen Lord, can and will make all things new, and let us rejoice!

The Paschal Mystery and the Judgment of the World

Having celebrated the great mysteries of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, let us reflect a bit on what happened 2000 years ago and what is still happening today. In the Byzantine tradition, the Gospel of John is read during the Liturgies of the post-Easter period.  This year I decided to get an early start, so in my personal reading, I read this Gospel during Lent.  It’s message is timely for both.

One passage that is fitting for both Lent and Easter is this: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12:31-32).  This seems to connect the judgment of the world and of its ruler (i.e., the devil) with the Cross alone (for even though “lifted up from the earth” can also indicate the Ascension, the evangelist makes it clear in the next verse that it refers primarily to the Crucifixion). But the judgment of the ruler of this world is also explicitly connected to the coming of the Holy Spirit, a post-Resurrection event (see 16:8-11).

Even though individual souls will be judged at the end of their lives and at the end of the world, a judgment in more general terms is expressed here, one that expresses the Lord’s desire that all be saved.  This judgment is described in terms of a double movement: away from the Lord and toward the Lord.  The devil is cast out, and human beings are drawn toward Christ.  This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus were meant to accomplish.  This mystery is already “in place”—for Christ proclaimed moments before he died, “It is finished”—but its final and manifest realization is yet to come.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are God’s definitive comments on the world He created.  Life has no ultimate meaning without them, and no one can escape the confrontation with this redemptive act that judges the world.  Either we join those who are being drawn toward Christ—crucified, risen, and ascended to the right hand of the Father—or we join those who are going in the other direction, cast out along with the ruler of the world of sin.

Therefore there is a further distinction made in the passage cited above about the Holy Spirit.  First (in 12:31-32) it seems like only the devil is cast out and all people are saved, but we see that a third group is mentioned in 16:8-11—the unbelievers.  To fail to believe in Christ and to keep his commandments (for this is the expected application of both faith and love) is to end up being judged along with the ruler of this world and receiving the same sentence.

OK, so that is what happened when Christ died and then rose from the dead—lifted up both on the Cross and into the glory of Heaven.  The devil was cast out and mankind was invited to salvation, a salvation which became possible only through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But what happens now?  The same thing, though in a different manner.  Every time the Paschal Mystery is celebrated, that is, made present sacramentally in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the same power is exercised, the same grace given, the same fruits offered to us for our sanctification and salvation.  Whenever the Sacrifice of Christ is offered on our altars, the devil is cast out and Christ draws all to Himself.  We have that opportunity, weekly, or even daily, to join that Christ-ward flow of souls whom He draws to Himself through the power of his sacrifice, which is the primary expression of the power of his everlasting love.

We can also share in his power to “repel the assaults of our enemies” (as we pray in Compline), the demons, who, though disarmed and defeated at the Cross and the empty tomb, are still permitted to roam about the world and harass us, because God wishes us to prove our fidelity to Him under adverse conditions.  Jesus proved his love for us amid sacrifice and suffering, and He desires that we prove our love in a similar manner.  (Scripture says that Christ suffered, giving us an example to follow; see 1Peter 2:21.)  The devil knows his time is short, so with great fury and wrath and cunning, he is trying to reassert himself as ruler of this world.  But the Lord alone will have the last word on who rules the world.

So let us thank the Lord for the inexpressible gift of his divine sacrifice, without which none of us could be saved, and let us continually thank Him that we can daily receive the fruits of his sacrifice in the Eucharistic Mysteries.  The Lord has already drawn clear lines between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, the ruler of this world and the faithful disciples.  It is finished: Christ wins and the devil loses.  But each individual destiny has yet to be finally decided.  We still have to choose; we still have to persevere in faith and hope and love, in obedience to the will of the Father and the Gospel of Christ.  Let the Lord draw you to Himself, then, and share the power of his death and resurrection.  Now is the judgment of the world and its ruler, but we are safe if we cling to the Crucified and Risen One.

Sing with All the Sons of Glory!

Christ is risen!  Let us say it again, with St John Chrysostom in his famous paschal homily: “Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns… For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen!”

This year’s Easter is the first one in quite a few years that I’m not preaching (though I’ll be concelebrating in one of the local “South City” parishes), so I don’t have an Easter homily for you—though I hope to post a few paschal reflections soon.

All I’d like to do for now is post a hymn that I not only find appropriate, but which never fails to move me, not only for the poetic beauty of the lyrics (worth taking your time to read and reflect), but also for the glorious hope that it inspires.  You’ve probably heard it before, but today is a day to sing it with special joy—as we give glory to the Risen Lord Jesus, and also rejoice in all the bright and beautiful things He has prepared for those who love Him, and who are counting on being raised with Him!

Sing with all the sons of glory, sing the resurrection song!
Death and sorrow, earth’s dark story, to the former days belong.
All around the clouds are breaking, soon the storms of time shall cease;
In God’s likeness, man awaking, knows the everlasting peace.

O what glory, far exceeding all that eye has yet perceived!
Holiest hearts, for ages pleading, never that full joy conceived.
God has promised, Christ prepares it, there on high our welcome waits.
Every humble spirit shares it; Christ has passed th’eternal gates.

Life eternal! heaven rejoices; Jesus lives, who once was dead.
Join, O man, the deathless voices; child of God, lift up thy head!
Patriarchs from the distant ages, saints all longing for their heaven,
Prophets, psalmists, seers, and sages, all await the glory given.

Life eternal! O what wonders crowd on faith; what joy unknown,
When, amidst earth’s closing thunders, saints shall stand before the throne!
O to enter that bright portal, see that glowing firmament;
Know, with Thee, O God immortal, “Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent.”

Good Day, Good Night

This is a poem I wrote some years ago as my friend Laura was dying.  It might be appropriate on this Good Friday to realize how our own deaths are taken up into the death of Christ, that He died to take away our sins, so that when we die we can “part the veil of the eternal Temple, and enter.”

A long day, all too short;
the fading sun
completes its homeward arc
and sinks into the sea.
Night comes,
when no one can work.

Sunrise unremembered;
the events of the day
a jumble of joys and sorrows.
At day’s end, the will,
that mighty, stubborn flame,
flickers softly, subdued.

Eyes closing,
at last beginning to see.
Darkness approaching,
cold encroaching,
yet whence the faint chorus
of alleluias?

Hands falling open,
nothing left to hold.
Nothing left to give?
Relinquish, return
the dust you are.
Prepare the Great Exchange.

Your regrets, if-onlys,
sins and shame,
drowned now in the Blood,
constrained now—somehow—
to serve the Mercy.
Take the lowest place, come up higher.

It is your hour
to commend your spirit—
to the Great Void?
Or to Abba?
The void has no hands,
but Abba does.  There!

Give birth, O dying body,
to your immortal child.
Exhale, part the veil
of the eternal Temple, and enter.
Consummatum est.
Yes. Amen.

Eternal Life through the Holy Eucharist

In order to prepare you a little better for the celebration of Holy Thursday, in which we re-enter the mystery of Our Lord giving us the incomparable and inexpressibly wonderful Gift of Himself in the Holy Eucharist—which is his abiding presence in us unto eternal life—I’d like to take another look at certain passages from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which I profitably re-read a little while ago.

There’s something I thought of during this reading of the Gospel that I hadn’t thought of before, when I read verse 40: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”  What I’ll say here was not likely intended for the very first readers of the Gospel, but it was surely envisioned by the Lord when He said it, for He knew what He intended for his Church when it would become fully established in the world.  He told us that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him is meant to have eternal life.  This must refer to something more than to the relatively few who saw Jesus in the flesh during the short time He publicly manifested Himself in the narrow confines of the land of Israel.  If one must see Him that way to have eternal life, almost everyone who ever lived or will live is doomed.

So how then do we see Him?  There are many indirect ways: through the holy icons, the beauty of his creation, through humans created in his image, etc.  But the context of this discourse is indisputably Eucharistic.  So I think that Jesus is telling us about a way that all people can see and believe in Him, if they wish: the Blessed Sacrament of his divine Body and Blood.  Now that I’m in a Roman Catholic monastery, I’m able to experience the grace of Eucharistic Adoration in a way that enables me to see and believe.  Of course, the human face of Jesus is still veiled by the sacramental sign, but it is in fact Jesus we are seeing when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. Thus we can fulfill his commandments to see and believe—for his presence is visible in the Blessed Sacrament—and also to believe without seeing (Jn. 20:29), since we don’t see his bodily form but accept the revelation in faith. I’ve been long fascinated with pictures of St (Padre) Pio celebrating the Holy Mass and looking with such fervent intensity at the Consecrated Host, wondering just what the Lord was letting him see—or if his faith was so strong that he didn’t need to see in order to be rapt in loving adoration. In any case, let us, who have the great benefit of the divine gift of the Holy Eucharist, do the will of the Father by seeing and believing in Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, that we might have eternal life—beginning now with Jesus’ abiding presence in us through Holy Communion—and the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.

There’s another passage at which I’ve taken a new look, and which I find quite astounding (after reading the other astounding passages like: “The bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world… This is the bread which came down from heaven… he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life… for my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed…”).  It is this: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats of me will live because of me” (v. 57).

Jesus lives because of the Father.  The Son of God has his eternal origin in the Father and has life in Himself because of the Father, and hence the Son can give life to whom He will (see Jn 5:21, 26).  Jesus is making a direct connection in 6:57 between his living because of the Father and our living because of Jesus—precisely in the context of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, which can only happen in Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist.  Because we receive Him thus, we live because of Him as He lives because of the Father.  Jesus gives the same life to us that He has from the Father. This is not only a clear testimony to Jesus’ divinity, it also highlights the importance of receiving the Holy Eucharist.  Additionally, we see that receiving Jesus in Holy Communion effects a mutual abiding that is akin to that of Jesus and his Father: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him… I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn 6:56; 14:11).

So let us receive Jesus worthily so that we will live from Him as He lives from the Father, Christ in us and we in Christ. And let us see and believe in Him in the Blessed Sacrament, the Bread from Heaven, that we may have eternal life and be raised up on the Last Day.

When we celebrate the Holy Mass or Divine Liturgy of Holy Thursday, let us hear with love and profound gratitude those words that echo throughout the ages for the salvation of mankind: “Take, eat, this is my body… Drink of this, for this is my blood, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is the Gift of eternal life for those who see and believe, who eat and drink his precious Body and Blood, and who thus live from Jesus as He lives from the Father.

Connecting with Love to the Passion

[This is a homily I gave in 2005, shortly before making the momentous decision to launch a blog!]

There’s a paradox in this Gospel for Palm Sunday (Jn 12:1-18).  Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, and Mary anoints Jesus for burial.  We have one coming to life after having been dead and another one getting ready to die after being alive.  The whole life of Jesus and the whole Christian faith are full of paradoxes, so we shouldn’t be surprised at that.  As a matter of fact, the Eastern Liturgy delights in that. The mystery of God is not something that can simply be told like a newspaper story.  There are always deep layers of meaning in it, as well as these paradoxical mysteries.  This mystery of life and death is something that we’re going to enter into during Holy Week in a big way.

One thing I noticed in the Gospel text, which I think I never really paid any attention to before when I read this Gospel, is that it says, after Mary anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”  Now that can just be a prosaic statement of fact.  Well, yes, there was fragrant oil poured all over the place and hence the place was full of fragrance.  But there’s something else here that goes deeper.

The house was full of another fragrance.  The house was full of the Divine Energy of Jesus Christ.  I’m sure that the atmosphere was just electrified, spiritually and emotionally charged.  I mean, here was this man who was just raised from the dead.  You know, we’re so awash in miracles by reading the Gospels that we get desensitized to what really happened and what it was like.

We heard the whole story of Lazarus yesterday, but today’s Gospel is introduced in a kind of matter-of-fact way that, well, they were having a dinner, and Lazarus was there.  Lazarus was there?  A couple of days earlier, Lazarus was in the grave!  I mean, that’s incredible!  Imagine that you have a friend or a relative, whom you stayed with during his final agony and sickness, witnessed his death, mourned him, went to his funeral, went to the cemetery, and watched him lowered down into the grave, and that’s it.  Then, a few days later, there he is, sitting with you, eating supper—just laughing and talking and eating and drinking!  It’s amazing!

There’s just such a sense, in meditating on this environment, this situation, of what it must have been like in their hearts, and Mary being so moved by what Jesus had done for her brother that in this spontaneous outpouring of love and adoration, she breaks this jar of precious oil and pours it all over Him and wipes his feet with her hair.  You can sense that the room was filled with the fragrance and power of Divine Love, of this prophecy that He made of his passion that was going to happen in just a few days.

We’re not just reading a story; we’re entering into a mystery.  We’re entering into the mystery of God made flesh who sacrificed his life to forgive our sins and to make it possible for us to live eternally.  Let us keep that in mind and let us realize too that this temple is filled with the fragrance of incense, but it also needs to be filled with that fragrance of the presence of God, the power and love of God poured out for us, and our love should be poured out for Him like fragrant oil.

Now, going from the sublime to the iniquitous, Judas was there too.  But Judas totally missed the point.  He was blinded by his own agenda.  He may have smelled the fragrance of the oil, but he didn’t breathe the fragrance of Divine Love and of the spiritual power of that moment, of that whole environment when everyone else was living in love and adoration, and Jesus was contemplating his sacrifice.  Judas was out of the loop.  He was in some other world and he didn’t get it.  All he was concerned about at that moment was that he’d just lost a bunch of money that he could have kept for himself, like he used to do with the poor box.

Well, we know what his end was, and it’s very unfortunate.  It’s a very complex situation perhaps, but the point that is made very clear by the evangelist is that he was not of the chosen.  He was not of that circle of love that the evangelist mentioned before; he was on the outside, the blind, selfish one who couldn’t enter into that circle of love.

Now the Church wisely connects in her Liturgy the raising of Lazarus with Palm Sunday.  The Eastern Church generally takes the Johannine view of things anyway, so this connection between Lazarus and Palm Sunday is very close.  The Scripture itself tells us what the connection is.  It says the reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard that he had done this sign.  It was because Jesus raised Lazarus that there was a Palm Sunday celebration in Jerusalem to meet Him.  Plus there is the more theological reason about the prefiguration of  Jesus’ own resurrection, and ours.  But here we see that because He worked this miracle, which in John’s Gospel is really the climax of his whole life of manifesting these signs of his glory and of his divinity, this was the biggest one, the most dramatic and public one—the climax of his ministry and the beginning of his passion.  Because once that happened, the rulers said, “OK, that’s it, we can’t take this anymore.  We’ve got to get rid of this guy, because what is He going to do next?  The whole world is following Him already!”

Now it says in the liturgical text that Jesus called Lazarus by name and he arose from the dead.  First of all, that’s an incredible thing, to be dead and be in the netherworld and suddenly you hear the voice of Christ saying, “come forth,” and you come out of the dead and re-inhabit your body and walk out of the grave.  That’s worth lots of meditation in itself.  But what I want to focus on here now is that calling by name.

We are not an anonymous crowd in Jerusalem shouting “hosanna” as Jesus just walks by and sees—like I see without my glasses right now—a blur of faces out there.  Jesus knows each one of us and He calls us by name.  He wants to do something for us.  That’s what He’s about.  He lives to help us, save us, to lead us to Heaven.

So He comes into Jerusalem to call us by name, to pick us out of the crowd and say, I know you and I want you to follow Me.  I’m going into Jerusalem.  I’m going to my passion and death.  Are you willing to follow me, because I’m going to take you also into my resurrection and back to Paradise.   He’s calling us.  He knows us.  Don’t think that God doesn’t know you, that He overlooked you somehow or that you’re just kind of on the fringes of his consciousness or something.  He knows you personally and calls you by name.  Everything He does and is doing is for us.

Now it says in the Scripture here that after He entered Jerusalem, his disciples didn’t understand all of this.  But when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered what had been written of Him.  So they didn’t see, they didn’t make the connections with what He had said, even though He made several predictions about what was going to happen to Him and tried to explain to them the prophecies.  They didn’t get it until Jesus was glorified, that is, until He died and rose again and sent the Spirit.  Then they remembered.  And we need to remember, too.

In the film, The Passion of the Christ, there was a connection that was made for us about the entrance into Jerusalem.  A little flashback shows Jesus on the donkey entering into Jerusalem, with people waving palms and singing hosanna, and immediately we go back to the reality of his carrying the Cross.  So He goes into the city with palms and hosannas, and He goes out of the city carrying the Cross with insults and spitting.  We have to make the connection and see where we fit in there.

The disciples did not understand.  They had a pretty good excuse because they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet.  Well, do we understand after two thousand years of Church tradition and millions of books and treatises on all the theology and spirituality of the Christian religion?  Do we understand yet who Jesus is and what the events of his life mean for us?  We need to read and meditate on the Scriptures and go deeply into our prayer so that we know who this Jesus of Nazareth is, and so we will not be blind like Judas, missing the point of everything that He’s done for us, everything that is happening in our midst.  This is a moment of grace, of the presence of God in us.  Let’s not miss the moment because we’re distracted with something, or because we have our own little problems that we’re all wrapped up in, or because we’re just too thickheaded to even want to pay attention.

We have to break through all that.  We have to listen.  We have to seek, long for Him.  Pray, desire to be drawn into this mystery, to be given understanding so that we can participate fully in the great mystery of God’s love for us, manifested to us in his passion and death and resurrection.

We’re called in our liturgical celebration to remember what Jesus has done for us, and by remembering make it present to us and inside us.  We have to remember any time that we’ve ever had any experience of God’s presence and love in our lives.  Remember any insights into the mysteries that you’ve ever had.  Now is the time to remember, to cherish, to celebrate, to carry it with you during this Holy Week.  This present moment may not be a moment when you feel particularly spiritually exalted or whatever, but we’ve had those moments in the past.  We’ve had moments when we recognized the presence of God, when his Spirit has moved us.  Latch on to them, remember them, bring them into your conscious awareness during this Holy Week and know that the best, the deepest that you’ve ever experienced of God’s love is just the beginning of what He wants to show you, and that He’s willing to show you more, beginning now, if you’re willing and if you’re open and if you want to respond and to praise Him.

So let us be filled with the fragrance of these divine mysteries, with his sacrificial love, and let us receive Jesus now, welcome Him in the Holy Eucharist.  Receive Him into your heart and go into that mystery of his divine love for us and respond with all your heart, singing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

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