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

Archive for June, 2012

Word Became Flesh, Flesh Became Bread

I had written some notes for this post a long time ago, in a rather scattershot fashion, though I vaguely remember having received some great insight to which these notes refer and marvelously fit.  Not retaining the whole picture in my head any longer, I’ll just put out some of these thoughts for you to reflect upon, since they do point to some deep mysteries of our faith.

My first note reads thus: “Word became flesh, flesh became Bread, Bread becomes Word of life in Eucharist.” So the mystery of the Incarnation and our sacramental life, which leads to salvation, comes full circle.  The Eternal Word became flesh and dwelled among us, so man could see the face of God and hear his voice, and so the Sacrifice could be offered to take away our sins.  Having ascended to the Father, Jesus still honored the plea of the disciples at Emmaus: “Stay with us.”  The Word did this by making his flesh Bread for us, to sustain us, to continue dwelling with us in the flesh, though “in another form” (Mk. 16:12), since his risen body is of a different character than his earthly one was.  By receiving his flesh made Bread, we receive the Word of life: “Behold, I am with you always.” This Word, this Flesh, this Bread, is given for the life of the world.  This is the order, the logic of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and our life in Christ until He comes again.

My next note is a sour one: “Devil tries to destroy natural order of things: make stone into bread.”  Here we go back to Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Jesus came to turn his flesh into bread to satisfy our spiritual hunger and to create a way for us to abide in Him and He in us.  The devil says, no, don’t do that; if you are the Son of God, turn stone into bread, and satisfy yourself.  But Jesus rejected this as contrary to God’s will, God’s order and plan for creation and redemption.  Jesus said we live not by ordinary bread but by the word of God, and later He would say that his food is to do the will of the One who sent Him.  We are to live not solely by ordinary bread but by the Bread that is the Flesh of the Word, the Word who eternally comes forth from the Father.

The devil tries to destroy the natural order of things in human morality as well.  Look what he has been up to, and what temptations the majority of our society has fallen for: abortion, artificial contraception, euthanasia, manipulation/destruction of embryonic humans, homosexual activity, etc.  All of this is a perversion or disruption or destruction of God’s plan and order for human happiness and dignity.  But not only that: those who practice those things are not merely “out of order”; their eternal salvation is in serious jeopardy.  The devil is always giving us stones when we ask for bread, unlike our heavenly Father (see Mt. 7:9-11).  The devil tried to get Jesus to turn stones into bread, for he knew that Jesus could—but simply having the power doesn’t make it right.  We now have the power and technology to manipulate the natural order—but that simple fact does not itself make it right.

My final note was this: “Mary formed Word made flesh, flesh made bread in her womb, Bread from Heaven came through Mary, Bread from Mary, she is Heaven, too.  She is at the source of incarnation, Eucharist.”  So this Flesh of the Word did not spontaneously materialize fully formed as man.  The Word became flesh in Mary’s immaculate womb.  As a good Mother, Mary was, as it were, preparing Bread for her children.  She was preparing the Flesh of God, and Jesus said this Flesh would be Bread that He would feed us with to give us life: abiding divine life in our souls, and then eternal life in Heaven. Jesus is Bread from Heaven, coming from the Eternal Father.  Jesus is Flesh from Mary, Bread from Mary, incarnate from the Blessed Mother.  She is sometimes called the Gate of Heaven, and this is one more reason.  The Bread from Heaven came through her to enter this world and give us life.  In cooperation with the Holy Spirit, Mary continues to watch over us and care for us.  Through the ministry of Mother Church we are fed with the word of God in the Scriptures and the flesh of God in the Holy Eucharist.  Thus we have life, and have it abundantly.

So those are a few things you can reflect upon this week.  See the beautiful work and plan of God, and be aware of how the devil tries to pervert and destroy it.  Don’t sell yourself short; don’t accept stones masquerading as bread.  There is one way to Heaven and that is God’s way.  Don’t accept the lies being broadcast everywhere that urge us to take matters into our own hands, manipulating love, sex, and life itself for our own convenience or pleasure or economic interests.  Rather, live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, live by the Word made flesh, the flesh made Bread, which is Christ with us always, Christ within us, our hope of glory.

Post o’ the Week

The times, they are a-changin’.  As I enter more fully into my new vocation, I’m finding it harder to find the time to compose blog posts. I’ll soon be doing more active ministry than I used to, and there are several other things that will be taking up more time. I guess we all have to discover at some point that we are not our own. Prayer will still be a priority, thank God, and I am able to give it sufficient time—all I have to do is get up at 2:30 every morning!

I’ve pretty much exhausted my archive of old articles and homilies, anyway, which I have been posting to buy myself some time (though I hope they have also been of some benefit to you).  So, after publishing 1313 posts (a significant number, perhaps?) on the blog over the past seven years, I’ve decided to scale down my output to a weekly post, probably every Monday. If it turns out that I get a lot of inspiration and time to write, I will add more posts. I can’t quit writing altogether or I’ll eventually experience severe complications from “forced creative energy retention” (a syndrome I just made up).

So don’t despair; you’ll be hearing from me on a regular basis, just not quite as often.  I still have notes for a few posts I haven’t managed to write yet, and perhaps some of the talks I’ll be giving around here will get some extra mileage in some form on the blog.  In any case, let us all strive to do the Lord’s will as it is presented to us in the requirements of our state in life.  Someday maybe I’ll get my little hermitage on the coast, and I’ll be able to pray and write to my heart’s content.  For now, “the King’s business is pressing” (1Sam. 21:8).

Choose Your Gate (Part 2)

A question that troubles many is this: are there really only a few who will find the narrow gate that leads to life?  Jesus said about the wide gate that many are already entering it, but that few will even find the gate of life.  Whatever Jesus intends us to understand precisely by “few,” we must conclude that “few” still means fewer than “many.”

Yet I think we can say that “few” is not an absolute term as far as numbers go, since the saved can still be numerically many even if, relative to those who go the wide and easy way, they are in the minority.  For Jesus also says that “many will come from east and west and sit at table…in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).  [It is also possible that some of those who don’t find the gate to Heaven during their lifetime will find it through a deathbed conversion, or by being fortunate enough to have been placed on the mop-up list by someone who cares enough for them to do so.  Let us hope...]

It’s easy to “go with the flow” of contemporary ideas, beliefs, and practices that contradict or minimize the message of the Gospel—and it’s hard to stand one’s ground, or courageously to move against the prevailing winds of this age.  That puts you in the margins, makes you feel perhaps uncomfortably out of touch with the direction of American social, political, moral, and even religious life in the 21st century.  It’s hard!  There are relatively few who stand for the truth of the word of God.  But these are the ones who are finding the narrow gate to life.

In the parallel passage in Luke, some people asked Jesus the direct question: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  He didn’t give a direct answer, but He still said that many would not: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).  Now the issue takes a new turn.  It is not only the crass hedonists and unbelievers—who couldn’t care less about the narrow gate—that are unable to enter, it’s even some of those who seek to enter!  Why is that?

The answer is given in a somewhat obscure form in the verses following Jesus’ answer to the question in Luke.  It more concise and precise in Matthew 7:21-23.  Here Jesus says that not all those who say to Him, “Lord, Lord!” will be saved, but only those who do the will of the heavenly Father.  This is the bottom line.  This is the content and meaning of walking the hard way and entering the narrow gate. There are no magic formulas or secret passwords for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. There is only doing the will of the Father.

We can’t even presume that doing certain things that are good in themselves means we are doing God’s will for us.  For in the following passage concerning the Day of Judgment (“on that day”), Jesus says: “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers!’”

What are we to make of this?  If prophets, exorcists, and miracle workers can be kept out of the Kingdom, who can be saved?  I think we have to assume that those who were cast away from Christ’s presence must have seriously failed Him in some other way, even though they did certain great things in his name.

There are at least two possibilities here.  Prophecy, exorcism, and miracle-working (if they are genuine) are quite extraordinary gifts, and can be rather sensational ones at that.  Not many are called to exercise these gifts (though if this is clearly the will of the Father, you should do it).  But it may be that some people like the attention, the drama, and the personal adulation that can accompany extraordinary works.  If one is doing the right things for the wrong reasons, especially if the soul is thereby poisoned by pride, then one is in fact walking the wide, easy way.

Also, if one is obsessed with the extraordinary, he runs the risk of neglecting the ordinary.  When Jesus speaks to the crowds, He doesn’t command them to work miracles, only to believe, to love, to forgive, to hear his word and keep it.  If one is focused on doing sensational things but failing to love and to forgive, again, he is not worthy of the Kingdom, for he is not doing the Father’s will.

I hope you aren’t discouraged because of the difficulty of the way that leads to life. This should only heighten our awareness of how precious is the Kingdom of Heaven: the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, as Jesus said in his parables.  It should also motivate us to avoid anything that would turn us toward the wide gate and easy way.  Avoid it like the plague!

To drive the point home, Jesus gave us a few images—to be taken seriously, but not literally—about plucking out eyes or hacking off hands if they cause us to sin.  What is literally true is his conclusion: “it would be better to lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).  That is, no sacrifice is too great to make when your eternal salvation is at stake.

Nothing is worth losing Heaven forever: no luxurious lifestyle, no forbidden pleasure, no political or personal agenda, no emotional leverage; not the satisfaction of revenge or of smug self-determination; not power, wealth, sexual “freedom,” or even universal admiration—nothing.  All these pass; all that remains in the end is our relationship to God. Measure your anxious attempts to secure shreds of fleeting happiness against the boundless expanse of eternal peace and fulfillment, the joy and beauty at which your finest dreams can only hint.  Judge for yourself.

We needn’t spend any more time speculating on the “few” and the “many” and, frankly, if we want to be among the saved, we just don’t have time for it!  The will of the Father is not yet fully accomplished, so we’ve got work to do.  We know that God desires the salvation of all, so no one is automatically excluded from the Kingdom.

We need to have compassion and to pray for those who are manifestly on the wrong path.  Both they and we need to be aware that grace is offered to all with open, loving hands. Let us also keep in mind that the mystery of Divine Mercy is beyond our understanding—and we will only know the fullness of God’s plan of salvation in the pure light of its ultimate revelation.

The Lord knows, however, what we too often do with our precious, terrible gift of freedom: how we can exclude ourselves from his eternal embrace because of the choices we make.  But there is no predetermined number of the saved.  Everyone has a fair shot at the prize.  Grace plus our free choice to do God’s will equals entrance into Heaven.  You want it?  Go for it!  Run so as to win, says the Apostle Paul.

So, are you ready now to enter the narrow gate?  I warn you, it will be hard.  I encourage you, it will be rewarding.  And you will never, ever regret it.  The gate opens to everlasting joy.

Choose Your Gate (Part 1)

[Here’s an article I wrote about six years ago.  I was glad to find it in a folder in my computer, since I seem to be lacking time lately to come up with new stuff.  Maybe things will have to change somewhat as my new vocation develops.  Stay tuned...]

Do you like to quote Scripture passages such as, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall lack,” or “You will receive whatever you ask for in prayer”?  Many Christians do, but there are other passages that most people definitely do not like to quote and would just as soon dismiss or explain away.

Like this one: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

What are we entering by means of these gates?  Ultimately we enter Heaven or Hell.  The Lord urges us to choose the narrow gate and not the wide one.  The words of Jesus begin with this life and point to eternity, to that which awaits us after crossing the threshold of death. We choose a path, a way of life, that has as its end either salvation or damnation.

All must pass through one gate or the other.  Evidently we don’t have the option not to enter by either gate.  Long before we die, we have to make a choice about the way we’re going to live.  For some, the choice can be by default: if we don’t actually choose the narrow way, we will find ourselves on the wide one.  Not to choose is, in effect, a way of choosing.  And each path inexorably leads to a final destination.

It is clear that Jesus isn’t merely recommending that we embrace certain values or engage in certain behaviors for the sake of a good life on this earth.  We see in the parallel passage in Luke that the context is explicitly that of salvation (Luke 13:23-30).  This whole Lucan passage is eschatological in tone, and the parallel to this extended discourse is picked up a few verses later in Matthew (7:21-23).  We will examine this more closely below [i.e., in part 2].

For now let us note that one gate leads to “destruction” and one to “life.”  Such terms in the New Testament usually have an ultimate connotation: eternal destruction or eternal life.  Jesus’ words about life and death usually refer to the Kingdom that is coming, and are not limited to temporal earthly existence.

We might wonder why the way to destruction is so wide and easy, and the way to eternal life so narrow and hard.  There are many today who, by their rejection or dishonest reinterpretation of the Scriptures or Christian Tradition, try to make it look like the way to life is much wider and easier than Jesus says it is.  Such attempts, however, always end in error and failure, for one misrepresents the words of Christ only at one’s own peril.

It is a fact of life in our “fallen” world that it is often easier to commit sin than to practice virtue, or at least that self-indulgence is more attractive than self-denial.  We are seduced by the spirit of self-gratification because we secretly want to be, so we chafe and bristle at the thought of obedience and self-discipline, and we may think that the very concept of “commandments” belongs only to a past, unenlightened mentality.  Our inherited concupiscence goes the way of least resistance, but the authentic life of love and service to others is demanding.  So if something feels good we do it, but if it requires some sacrifice we avoid it.  It’s easy to take the easy way, and hard to take the hard way.

But we don’t seem to be sufficiently aware of what is at stake.  Jesus is talking about life and destruction, Heaven and Hell.  If we choose the wide gate and easy way, the selfish, pleasure-loving, Gospel-rejecting way, we destroy ourselves—beginning now, but lasting for all eternity.  If we choose the narrow gate and hard way, to which Jesus exhorts us, we embrace true life, now and forever.

We simply have to accept certain facts of life, and this is one of them: because of our inveterate weaknesses and disordered desires, it is hard to be faithful in all things to the will of God.  Yet this way is the most rewarding way, even if it doesn’t always seem the most pleasurable. (According to the ancient philosophers, it is pleasurable for a virtuous person to practice virtue.  So if virtue is difficult for us, we’re not yet virtuous!)

The paradox is that if we learn from Christ—who speaks of narrow gates and hard ways—and follow Him, we find not narrowness or intolerable hardness, but an easy yoke and a light burden (see Matthew 11:28-30).  Lose your life for Christ and you will save it, or rather, He will give it back to you, wholly transformed and shining.

But the choice of gates is not a once-for-all affair.  We have to make choices every day that keep us on the right path.  We can’t rest in the fact that yesterday we made a good choice.  Today brings its own challenges and decisions.  It is a whole lifetime of choices—all together forming a brightly-colored tapestry emblazoned with the words “Yes, Lord!”—that secures our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Some would say that “walking the straight and narrow” makes Christians themselves rather narrow—that is, narrow-minded and inhibited—and they see this as an undesirable state of affairs.  On the contrary, in order to squeeze through the narrow gate we need to be sharp and in top shape, having shed the flab of fuzzy thinking and self-indulgence that makes us fit only for waddling through the wide gate.

What seems mind-narrowing to some are only the necessary parameters of belief and behavior within which one can effectively do the will of God, and hence find the fullness of life.  It is only the difficult (yet invigorating) narrow path that ascends to the clear, pure heights of unfettered understanding. There we are able to perceive the entire breathtaking panorama of God’s goodness and wisdom, horizons inaccessible to those on the wide and easy path.  The wide path is, as it were, lined with mirrors, so those who travel it see nothing but themselves and their own desires.  And that path of faithless narcissism goes in descending spirals to you-know-where.

To be continued…

The Heart of the Mother

[The following reflection, which I present here on the occasion of the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is excerpted from “Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” from the Rosary Center of the Dominican Fathers of Portland, Oregon.]

“‘Consecration to the Mother of God,’ says Pope Pius XII, ‘is a total gift of self, for the whole of life and for all eternity; and a gift which is not a mere formality or sentimentality, but effectual, comprising the full intensity of the Christian life—Marian life.’  This consecration, the Pope explained, ‘tends essentially to union with Jesus, under the guidance of Mary.’

“…Since she is our Mother, she knows our needs better than we; and since she is Queen of Heaven, she has immediate access to the infinite treasury of graces in the Kingdom of her Divine Son. Mary is not only the Mother of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father; she is also Mother of all the Father’s adopted children.  As their Mother, she has been given the role of molding them into the likeness of Jesus.

“Every work of grace, every increase of grace, is a work of the Holy Spirit; but as in the Incarnation of the Divine Word God used human instruments, so does He in the sanctification of each individual soul.  As He chose Mary as the instrument through whom He would come to us, so He chose Mary as the instrument through whom we should go to Him.  And both the mystery of God coming to us through Mary, and our being led to God through Mary, is a work of the Holy Spirit.  So when we speak of Mary’s unique role in our sanctification, she is but the instrument the Holy Spirit uses in sharing with us the divine life of grace.  It is in this sense that Mary fashions us into the likeness of Christ.

“However, that this transformation—through Mary’s help—be accomplished in a notable degree, there must be an awareness of her role in our sanctification, a confidence in her maternal concern and in her power under God, a surrender of oneself into her hands, and a fervent, frequent and confident seeking of her aid.  This usually comes through some form of consecration to the Mother of God.

“At Fatima Our Lady asked for consecration to her Immaculate Heart… It involves a striving to fulfill her requests for prayer and sacrifices for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for offenses against the Divine Majesty.  In a word, it involves a striving to fulfill all that she asked for at Fatima, and trying to bring others to heed her requests.

“Living that consecration means becoming an apostle of Mary, striving to imitate her virtues, and to place in her hands the flowers of little sacrifices of reparation for the salvation of souls, so that we might strengthen her hand against the attacks of the Evil One, and hasten the day of the triumph of her Immaculate Heart.  To everyone who makes that consecration and sincerely tries to live it, the words of Our Lady to the child Lucia at Fatima would also apply: ‘I will never leave you; my Immaculate Heart will be your refuge, and the way that will lead you to God’ …

“Our Blessed Mother’s great concern is the salvation of the souls of her children, many of whom are being lost.  She looks for generous souls among her children, who are willing to let her lead them close behind her Son, sharing more fully in His redemptive mission, filling up what is wanting in other members of the Body of Christ.  Little by little they are transformed to see as Christ sees, and to desire what He desires.  God wants to draw us closer to Himself, sharing more fully His Divine life; but we must understand what the fulfillment of this requires.

“Consecration to Mary, then, requires a childlike simplicity and confidence, letting her lead one by the hand, trusting—regardless of what lies ahead—that she knows better than we what contributes most to God’s glory, our sanctification and the salvation of souls…

“In the course of his work at Fatima, Fr. [Thomas] McGlynn had several long interviews with Sr. Lucia, the last living witness of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917.  Sr. Lucia knew that Father McGlynn was going to write a book on Fatima as soon as he completed his work on the statue.  ‘In your writing,’ Sr. Lucia said to Father, ‘please stress the spiritual meaning of things, in order to raise minds which today have become so materialistic to regions of the supernatural; so that they may understand the true meaning and purpose of the coming of Our Lady to earth, which is to bring souls to Heaven, to draw them to God.’

“…As Msgr. William McGrath has pointed out: ‘When all is said and done, our primary responsibility is not the conversion of Russia or the prevention of world wars, but the salvation of that little world within ourselves over which, with God’s help, we must exercise control, and for which we shall one day have to render an account to God in judgment.  What will it profit us, even if Russia is converted and an era of peace be granted to humanity, if we have failed in the great task for which we were created, the salvation of our own immortal souls?’

“Fr. McGlynn pointed out in his book Vision of Fatima, that Fatima is, first of all, a dreadful warning to the world to stop sinning.  The enormity of mankind’s rebellion against God, and God’s infinite aversion to sin, form the foundation of the Fatima message.  It is a warning that the time of God’s justice will come to pass, if men do not take advantage of this time of His mercy, this special opportunity of making reparation through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“Our Lady showed the three children a vision of hell. That vision was not for their instruction and warning, but for ours.  The Blessed Virgin had assured them that they were going to be saved.  Yet, as Fr. McGlynn pointed out, ‘All the bleeding, dying and despair of a thousand wars cannot equal the disaster of a single soul being damned.  We miss the spiritual meaning of things if we think Our Lady came to Fatima to tell us how to keep out of a third world war, or how to convert Russia, or how to achieve tranquility in our earthly existence.  She came to tell us how to keep out of hell.’

“Lest there should be any misconception about the place of devotion to Mary in Catholic piety, we honor in a special way the Immaculate Heart of the Mother of Jesus, i.e., the person of Mary in her eminent sanctity and glorification by God, because it is the wish of her Son—as Our Lady revealed in her second apparition at Fatima.  Jesus knows well that true devotion to His Mother leads souls to Him.  As Pope Paul VI wrote in his encyclical celebrating the centenary of the apparitions at Lourdes: ‘Everything in Mary leads us toward her Son, our only Savior, by whose foreseen merits she was preserved immaculate and full of grace; everything in Mary lifts up our hearts to the praise of the Holy Trinity.’

“The Church sees Mary, then, not as the goal, but as the guide, who always leads souls who honor her with true devotion—to her Son, especially to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament…”

Godliness is More Powerful than Anything

A friend of mine directed me to a passage from the Book of Wisdom some time ago, saying that she felt the Lord wanted me to receive it.  It expresses a theme often found in the “wisdom books” of the Bible, like Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach (sometimes called Ecclesiasticus).

The passage is this: “Wisdom rescued from troubles those who served her… she guided [the righteous man] on straight paths; she showed him the kingdom of God, and gave him knowledge of angels [literally, “of the holies”] and prospered him in his labors, and increased the fruit of his toil… She protected him from his enemies and kept him safe from those who lay in wait for him; in his arduous contest she gave him the victory, so that he might learn that godliness is more powerful than anything” (10:9-12).

The identity of the mysterious Old Testament figure “Wisdom” (Greek Sophia; the Books of Wisdom and Sirach are written in Greek) is a bit too complicated to explain in detail here.  But tradition has in some respects identified Wisdom with the Holy Spirit and in others with Mary, the Mother of God, who is sometimes called the “Seat of Wisdom.”  As I mentioned a few posts back, Mary and the Holy Spirit have been intimately united ever since her immaculate conception.  The most concise summary we can make here is that the texts that seem to speak of Wisdom as divine would refer to the Holy Spirit, and those that speak of Wisdom as a created being or that refer to God in the third person, as the text above, would be prefigurations of Our Lady.

In the book of Wisdom, “Sophia” is described as Creator (7:22, 8:6) and Savior (9:18), as omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient (7:23-24, 9:11).  These attributes clearly belong only to a Divine Being, the Holy Spirit, and not to a creature, however exalted.  Scripture also says that Sophia can do all things, renews all things, orders all things, and effects all things (Wisdom 7:27 – 8:5), and that she is “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…She is a reflection of eternal light…” (Wisdom 7:25).  “Reflection” is somewhat ambiguous and can be interpreted in ways that could mean either the Divine Spirit or a holy person created by God.  Mary is often likened to the moon, which brightly shines but is not the source of its own light; it reflects the light of the sun, as Mary is not the source of her own glory but rather reflects the Light of her Son.

In other texts, Wisdom says, “the Lord created me…” (Prv. 8:22), so this cannot refer to the Holy Spirit.  Liturgical texts often make use of the Wisdom Books for feasts of Our Lady, where we read passages like, “he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prv. 8:35).

Anyway, all that is not the main point here; I want to take a look at godliness (Greek eusebeia).  Eusebeia (from eu sebomai) means not just godliness in the sense of righteousness or piety, but worship, adoration, and reverence (thus to be pious is most properly to worship well).  And Scripture says that godliness is more powerful than anything. This is the lesson, the wisdom, that Our Lady will teach us from Heaven—for “the Lord of all loves her; she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works” (Wis. 8:3-4)—if we will only listen to her and receive her guidance.  She rescues from troubles those who serve her… she guides us on straight paths; she shows us the kingdom of God, and teaches us about holy things. She protects us from our enemies and keeps us safe from those who lay in wait for us; in our arduous contests she helps us gain the victory.  Why does she do all this?  “So that [we] might learn that godliness is more powerful than anything.”

The power of true worship and prayer is largely ignored today, even by those who consider themselves believers.  Nowadays, it seems that there are few people who really understand or accept (or remember the centuries-long tradition) that prayer is actually essential to life, and for some is even a way of life, not merely some sort of spiritual capital for ensuring the success of more important projects.  True adoration of the Lord—especially the Holy Eucharist—is not something He requires because He likes people to worship Him.  God knows that for us to adore Him is to connect with the ultimate Truth, with infinite Love, Goodness, and Beauty.  This is what will make us supremely and eternally happy, so this is what He wants for us.  A rich fruit of the value of eusebeia is the spiritual power it unleashes into the world to enlighten, cleanse, and heal it.  For godliness is more powerful than anything.

So let us remember to invoke our heavenly Mother, the Seat of Wisdom—being filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit—and let us allow her to guide us in the ways of godliness.  “For she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage… Therefore I determined to take her to live with me, knowing that she would give me good counsel and encouragement in cares and grief… for companionship with her has no bitterness… and in friendship with her there is pure delight… and in the experience of her company, understanding… I perceived I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me—and it was a mark of insight to know whose gift she was—so I appealed to the Lord and besought him, and with my whole heart I said… ‘Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may be with me and toil, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you…’” (Wis. 8-9).

Those who wield military, economic, ideological or political power may be having their day at the moment, but true worshippers of God and children of Mary will in the end prove them all to be impotent failures.  For godliness is more powerful than anything.

The Church and the World (Part 2)

Another point is more subtle, but worth examining.  It has to do with the inversion of the primary mission of the Church to lead people to the love of God and neighbor—and hence to salvation, through Word and Sacrament—and the secondary and related mission to fight evil wherever it is found.  Schmemann comments: “The pathos of our era is the fight with evil, with a total absence of any idea and vision of the good for which one fights.  So the fight becomes an end in itself, [but] a fight as end in itself unavoidably becomes evil.  The world is full of fighters with evil.  What a diabolical caricature.  Non-believers—like Turgenev, Chekhov—still knew ‘good,’ its light and power, whereas now, even believers, maybe especially believers, know only evil.  They do not understand that the terrorists of all kinds about whom we read every day in the paper are the product of such a belief: the declaration of a fight is the goal and the content of their life.  They completely lack any convincing experience of goodness. [Indeed, one group has threatened, referring to suicide bombing: “We swear to God to send you people who adore death as much as you adore life.”]  Terrorists, from that point of view, are consistent.  If everything is evil, one has to destroy it!… In what kind of world will [boys and girls] live?… some enthusiastic nuns will teach them to ‘fight evil’ and will point out an enemy whom one must hate.  Who will share with them the knowledge of goodness, will let them hear the sounds of heaven?  Such sounds are without words, but alive.  They are the only ones that give depth…”

Of course, he doesn’t mean there aren’t evildoers or vicious enemies of truth and of the Church as such, or that we shouldn’t fight evil—though I’m sure he would say we must fight it first in ourselves—but that it is the primary mission of the Church to direct our eyes and hearts heavenward, to see the glory of God shining on the face of Christ, to learn to love even our enemies, though without condoning or joining them in their errors or evildoing.  It’s something of a tightrope walk: if one doesn’t stand for the truth, he falls into unhealthy or even wicked compromises with the world, and if he does, he risks becoming a self-righteous crusader who glories in nothing more than the demolition of all opponents.  Or perhaps it is not a tightrope but simply the “narrow way” that Christ says we must walk if we are to be saved.  It is the Church that is supposed to be guiding us to the fullness of both truth and love, to overcoming evil and embracing good, to discovering “the presence in the world of a saved world.”  By the grace of God mediated through the Church, “the world itself becomes life in Him, meeting with Him, contact with Him.  The world does not become God, but life with God, joyful and full.  This is God’s salvation of the world.”

At the heart of our experience of salvation in this world—that is, of our experience of the Kingdom of God in anticipation of its full and eternal manifestation—is the Holy Eucharist, the Mystery of the death and resurrection of the Son of God, the primary and essential element of the grace and power of the Kingdom. It transforms our life into a “life of faith in the Son of God,” for it is now “no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Thus life in this passing world is profoundly permeated with the life of the eternal world to come. Schmemann explains: “To understand St Paul when he says, ‘The image of this world is passing away,’ to make it real, we need in this world the experience of the other world, its beauty, depth, treasure, the experience of the Kingdom of God and its Sacrament—the Eucharist.  The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being.  The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation—to be love, truth, faith and mission—all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ.  The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community—love for Christ, love in Christ—as a mission to turn each and all to Christ.  The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world.  Otherwise the Church would become an idol.  The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’—already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity.  Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full.”

Reflect especially on his statement: “The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist.”  It is profound.  The Church exists to manifest and communicate the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in all his mysteries, his words, his saving activity on every level of life.  All this is centered in his mystical sacrifice and the gift of Himself to each of us, personally, intimately.  The Eucharist is in a sense analogous to (if I may speak like this) that unimaginably concentrated point of matter that scientists say burst forth at the moment of creation and endlessly expanded to become the entire universe.  Christ is the Center from which all life, all love, all joy and eternal fulfillment flow.  And He is made present by simple priests at every altar, so that He may permeate all souls, all creation, filling us with his all-sanctifying Life and Light, that we may “shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father” (Matthew 13:43).

Even in this brief reflection I think you can see something of the need to understand the true relationship between the Church and the world.  It is not the Church’s task to “evolve” with the world, to adopt its mentality, its jargon, the vicissitudes of changing times and mores. This will only result in her dissolution, or her transmogrification into the tame and ineffectual “religious establishment” she was never meant to be. Rather she is to manifest the glorious and immutable Kingdom of God in every time and place and culture, with an invitation to receive the life and joy of Christ Himself, who came to bring it to us in abundance.  He is the true Light shining in this world, scattering the darkness of evil and error, and illuminating everything else, revealing the world in its true dimensions as the creation of a loving God.  The Church as manifestation of the Kingdom ought to be the hope of the world, that which gives it meaning, that which transforms its sufferings and sorrows into sacrifices acceptable to the Lord, who crucified Himself to the world and thus redeemed it.  Jesus Christ, through his Holy Spirit, is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and the Church is his body, the fullness of Him who fills all.

Much prayer is needed, much repentance and humility, especially among those who have stood idly by—or even orchestrated—the decline of the Church, who have obscured her meaning and vitiated her strength and purity by numerous compromises with the world—that “world” which is “not of the Father”—so that the redeemed world, illuminated from on high by divine grace through the Church, has been made practically inaccessible, or has been too closely identified with the world whose form is passing away (1Cor. 7:31).  The agenda of this world is not the agenda of the Church.  For “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).  The mission of the Church is not to follow the world, or to become one of its elements or agencies, but rather to fill it with the grace of its redemption, manifest the glory of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, transform it into the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2Peter 3:13).

Jesus said that Hell will not prevail against his Church, but He didn’t say Hell would not infiltrate her.  It is time for a housecleaning, a re-enlightening, a recovery of the meaning and mission of the Bride of Christ, so that her children can serve the Lord with gladness, in Spirit and in Truth.  “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1Peter 4:17).  Souls are at stake.  The Lord has commissioned his Church to give life to the world.  Let us pray that He will strengthen what remains and fulfill his promise in his beloved Church—“coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.  He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them’” (Revelation 21:2-3).  Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

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