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

[This is a homily I gave on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women in 2005.  I edited it down from 3200 words to about 1900 so your eyes won’t burn out from being stuck to the screen so long.  I sure was long-winded in those days!]

Christ is Risen!

myrrh-bearing-womenWe’re continuing today our celebration of the resurrection of Christ, celebrating today in a special way the holy myrrh-bearers.  Now these women came out to anoint Jesus who had died and was buried.  The Gospel says they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. They didn’t realize, however, that the Son of God had risen and He wasn’t even in the tomb.  But they were seeking Jesus.  I remember reading not long ago in the letter to the Hebrews where it gives the bottom line of what we have to do for salvation: “To please God you must have faith.”  It says that means you have to believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.

I had seen several things from Scripture here and there about seeking God, but it really doesn’t talk much about finding God.  You know we’re told to seek Him, but we don’t have to find Him.  Before you think that’s too weird, let me explain.

We have to seek God with the hope of really meeting Him, but it’s God who finds us.  We don’t find God.  And if we don’t happen to find God in all our seeking, we shouldn’t be discouraged either, because it’s not our job to find God.  Our job is to seek God, and God’s job is to reveal Himself to us, to manifest Himself to us.  This is what happened in the Gospel.

The women went to seek Jesus, and when they got to the tomb they found this angel who said, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth.”  Correct.  Well, He is not here.  They didn’t find Him.  So now what?  The angel explained what happened, and whether or not they really got it I don’t know, because they were still petrified with fear and ran away.  This Gospel that we read today [Mark 16:1-8] as an abrupt ending.  But, if you attach Matthew’s Gospel onto this one, it picks up where that left off.  Here it leaves off with them running away.  In Matthew’s Gospel, as they’re running away, Jesus appears to them and they do find Him, or rather He finds them.  They went looking for Him, didn’t find Him, got scared, took off, and He appeared to them, manifested Himself to them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then they recognized Him and worshipped Him and heard his word to go and tell the others, and the rest is salvation history.

One thing we have to realize is that our part is to seek God with all our hearts, but God’s part is to manifest Himself to us.  The Lord says that in the Gospel of John.  He says, “If you believe in me and you keep my word, I will manifest myself to you and my Father and I will come to you and make our home with you.”  That’s what He wants to do.  But it doesn’t mean that we’re let off the hook by saying, well, it’s his job to manifest Himself.  The seeking of Him is a very serious work, and it’s something that demands a lot of effort and sacrifice on our part.

One of the things we see in the myrrh-bearing women, when they went to do this labor of love for Jesus—it’s only love that can propel you to do the impossible—is that what they were hoping to do was impossible.  They were going to this tomb that had a huge stone stuck in front of it, and a detachment of soldiers stuck in front of that, to make sure that nobody would move the stone even if they could.

The women are coming to this tomb saying, who’s going to roll the stone away for us?  Well, if anybody tried to roll the stone away they’d get a lance through the chest and that would have been it.  So they were trying to do something that was really impossible but, they could not not do it, because they loved Jesus so much and nothing was going to stop them from at least going there and putting up a good fight.  You know how the old babas are good at getting their way.  If they brought their umbrellas or rolling pins they could at least try to smack the guards over the head.

In any case, they were ready to get to Jesus to perform this labor of love.  We have to realize too, that in our seeking of Jesus, there are going to be obstacles.  And maybe there are going to be situations that make it look like it’s impossible to find Jesus, to meet Him, to enter into communion with Him, and even to live in the way that He asks us to live.  But we have to focus not on the impossible, not on the obstacle, the stone that’s in the way, but to focus on the One whom we seek, and just go out of love, trusting that, as they say, love will find a way.  Love for Jesus will find a way to do his will in this world.

We have to realize that Jesus may not be where we’re looking.  Don’t be complacent about what you think or where you know you’re going to find Jesus, because these women had good reason to be absolutely sure that Jesus was right where they thought He was.  He was dead after all, and they laid Him in a tomb and placed a stone over it.  So that’s where He was, and they were absolutely sure that’s where He was.  Guess what, He wasn’t there!

God is sovereign, He is the Lord.  He is not bound by our ideas and conceptions and fantasies and even hopes and dreams.  He is the Lord, and He will manifest Himself as He sees fit.  As I said in the beginning, our job is to seek Him but not to have any preconceived plan of just how to seek Him or just where we’re going to find Him. We have to be pilgrims.  We’re always on the move.  We have to always be open, always be ready for God to do something new.  Ready for God to speak the word to us and for us to get up and do it, whatever it is, even if it doesn’t fit our preconceived notion of how our life ought to be.  God is going to manifest himself to us in his way.  We may seek Jesus in our own way and find out He is not here.  Let’s be open to see where He really is.

I just read a book recently about seeking God in the wrong places.  This was a testimony of a woman who was born Catholic but who went off into this New Age and occult stuff.  She was really deep into it and was a master practitioner of various New Age things, and she would even do séances and such, trying to call up the dead.  At a certain moment—and this is how her conversion happened—she was performing this séance with all these people and they put their hands on the table and all these things started flying around the room and the demons were posing as dead relatives who manifest themselves.  Well, suddenly she was unable to put her hands on the table.  They seemed to be bound to her side.  She our-lady-of-fatimacouldn’t move, and she didn’t know what was happening, but she heard this beautiful voice say, “I am the Queen of Peace.”  She thought, wow, what is that?  Then she realized it was the Blessed Mother who was calling her out of there.  And the first thing that she said was—because she knew something of God was happening—“I will never do this again.”  So she didn’t, although it took her a while to pull away from all of the other stuff that she was involved in, but that was the turning point of her conversion.

A lot of these people, unless they just crass mercenaries or actual satanists, are just deluded, deceived people who are trying to find God or some sense of the spiritual world, but are doing it in the wrong way—so what she was doing was looking for God in the wrong place.  Therefore Our Lady had to say to her, like the angel at the tomb, He is not here!  You have to look for him where He is.  So Mary came and brought this woman out of the darkness of the tomb.  In binding her arms she was freeing her soul.  Really, the woman was seeking the living among the dead.  This séance business is necromancy.  Mary could have said also with the angel, why seek the living among the dead?  This is something that we have to remember in our spiritual life, to seek Jesus with an honest and open heart, and trust that He is going to manifest Himself to us, and to follow the leads that we receive.

You know, we can’t pre-plan our whole life, our spiritual life.  It doesn’t work that way.  We’re in a relationship with someone, with God, and relationships are dynamic and they change and they grow and they adapt to new circumstances.  We can’t think of God as merely a person like us.  But we can’t treat Him as if He were less than that.  He’s more than that.  We have to be open, listening, seeking Him with love, and that’s the testimony of the myrrh-bearing women.

Mary Magdalene especially is mentioned here.  She is one who is like an icon of love in the Scriptures and through the whole Church tradition.  She’s a forgiven sinner who loved much, as Jesus said in Luke, and who loved Him with her whole heart and followed Him to the Cross, and went to do the impossible at the sealed tomb—and became, as we say, an apostle to the apostles, received that message to go and tell the others that Jesus is risen.

The Lord rewards those who seek Him, as it says in Hebrews, one way or another.  He may not just appear to us and allow us to embrace his feet and worship Him as the women did, but He will reward those who seek Him sincerely, consistently, faithfully, lovingly, being willing to bear the cross, realizing that we are seeking the crucified as well as the risen Lord.

So let us follow the example of the myrrh-bearing women, and we will then hear that same message of the angel: “You seek Jesus…”  Wouldn’t it be a great thing for someone to acknowledge that, for Heaven to acknowledge that.  “Oh yes, we know you, you’re one that seeks Jesus.”  That in itself, what a great honor it must have been just to hear those words from the heavenly angel!  You seek Jesus, this is the good news.  So let us hear the good news, and go out to others as the women did, saying: Christ is risen!

20,000

20000We interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming for this earth-shaking announcement: today, April 11, 2013, marks the 20,000th day since the birth of Fr Joseph, your favorite blogger!

20, 000 (count ‘em!).  I never thought I would make it this far, and I feel every one of them!  I seem to be “full of days,” to use a biblical exprst gemmaession for old age, though I’m afraid I may have miles to go before I sleep.  But I take some consolation in this: today is also the feast day of my dear St Gemma, another sign of the mysterious Providence governing my life, in a special way in the past three years or so.

Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are fuller of days than I am, though every day there are more people in this world younger than I (the number of people older than I am seems always to decrease).  20,000 is a good round number, though it’s only good for a day.  There’s a lot behind me and God knows how much ahead of me.

There doesn’t seem to be any point in pointing out this bit of chronological trivia, except to call attention to myself.  So now you can pray for my repentance and salvation, and it will all work out for the best!

No Conditions

[A homily for the Sunday of St Thomas, from way back in 2002.]

Christ is risen!

How do you know?  Did you ever see Him?  Did you touch Him?  How do you know Christ is risen?

This was the dilemma of St. Thomas that we heard in the Gospel, and I think it’s fortunate for us that Thomas went through this little crisis of faith, because it helps us in our own struggles.

On the positive side, Thomas represents something that is very deep within each one of us, and that is the desire to see God:  the desire to come into some sort of personal, tangible contact with God—in this case, especially with Christ, who was risen from the dead, or who Thomas was told was risen from the dead.  But that desire is an important thing, and that’s something that God has put into all of us, into all of our hearts and souls.  For some people it’s buried very deeply—some say they don’t want to see God, they don’t want to meet God; and other people, they go about, searching for God in many different ways.  But all of us somehow have this deep desire, somewhere inside us, to see God, to enter into communion with something greater than ourselves, with the great Mystery of the universe.

Thomas manifested this desire.  He wasn’t there when Christ first showed up, and so his desire was like a pain in his heart.  In a sense, what he said was “sour grapes,” because he wanted to see Christ so badly.  The others said, “We saw Him!” and he said, in effect:  “No, you didn’t!” because he felt so bad that he didn’t.

Anyway, Thomas started out first with this desire to see God, which is good.  The problem was that he then went on to say, “But I will not believe unless I put my finger into his nail wounds, and put my hand into his side.”   So, there’s where the problem is: the need for some sort of empirical verification of our faith.  He had to “test it out scientifically,” so to speak.   He had to touch; he had to probe; he was not going to believe otherwise.   And he was also—and this was another problem in his situation—he was also not going to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses.  That was another thing that stood in the way of his faith.

So he’s “one for three” in this thing:  he had the deep desire to see God; that’s a good thing.  But then he insisted that he would not believe until he could prove it by his own investigation and experimentation; and, finally, he would not accept the testimony of witnesses.

When the moment came, and Thomas was with them and Christ appeared again, He immediately, of course, knew what was going on, and my Lord and my Godaddressed Himself directly to Thomas and said, “OK, here I am!  You want to touch my wounds?  Here I am.”   Now, at this point, Thomas abandoned his need for “scientific investigation” and personal probing of the mystery, because Christ’s appearance already did away with the need for that.   It seems to me it would’ve been an insult to Christ if He appeared to Thomas in His glorified body and said, “Here I am!” and Thomas said, “Well, I still want to touch; I still want to check it out!”  He didn’t; his response was not going up and investigating Him—much religious art notwithstanding—but rather it was: “My Lord and my God!”

Probably his jaw dropped and then he came up with that expression of faith in the divinity of Christ, unlike anything else that’s anywhere in the Scriptures.   No place in the Scriptures do we find such clear expression of Christ’s divinity—except in John’s prologue, where he was writing as a kind of theological reflection—nowhere do we have a story of any personal encounter with Christ, no one anywhere except here says to Jesus, “You are my God!” without qualifications, without any room for ambiguity.  So Thomas went from that place of doubt, of demanding proof, of refusing to accept the testimony of witnesses, to the point of telling the whole world that Christ is God. He certainly redeemed himself in that, for that testimony has been extremely important for the whole Christian faith down through the ages.

At that moment, Christ gave us a beatitude—but first, he gently reproached Thomas, saying “You believe because you saw.”   Well, OK; practically anybody can believe what they see.  “But,” He said, “blessed are those who have not seen, but who still believe.”  That is also a very important passage in Scripture, which is very necessary for the whole life of the Church, since then up until now, and until the end of time, because they were the only ones—the apostles, and the other disciples of that time—who were privileged to have this eye-witness relationship with Christ,  the kind of relationship which St. John talks about in his first letter where he says, “What we have seen, what we have touched, what we have personally experienced.” That’s something that was reserved to a select few.  But the grace was not reserved to a select few; the blessedness was not reserved to a select few; that is for everybody.

This word is important, and has been written down and preserved for us because all ages of Christianity have to hear that word:  “Blessed are you, if you believe, not having seen”—not having performed your scientific investigations, and touching, and probing; not getting tangible, empirical proof of the things you wish to believe in.   We find ourselves in that blessedness if we believe, and outside it if we don’t.

So we should look at those same three points that characterize Thomas’ situation, and see where we stand in our own lives. First of all, that desire for God:  that’s a good desire, the desire to see God, the desire to be in communion with Him, to be in contact with Him, to know Him, personally and powerfully.  That is a good desire to have, and that is something that we should cultivate because that’s what keeps us going.  If we lose our desire to see God and to experience God, then we’re going to stop showing up for services, we’re going to stop doing anything about the whole spiritual enterprise.  The whole journey of spiritual life is just going to be shot if we do not have the desire to see God and to enter into communion with God.  So we need that desire.

But we cannot go to that point and put conditions on our desire to see God, and say, “Well I’m not going to believe, until these conditions are met,” whatever they might be.   We might not be saying, “I want to touch his wounds,” but oftentimes we may have other conditions, and say, “Well I’m not going to believe unless God does this or that for me,” or “…answers this prayer,” or whatever.   So, we shouldn’t put conditions on our faith.   Christ did not say, “Blessed are you who believe when you get what you ask for.”  He said, “Blessed are you who believe when you don’t see”—when you’re in the dark and still believe.  So we have to have the faith that’s sufficient to take us through the darkness, even when the conditions that we’d like to put on God before we would believe are not met.  We abandon that, we say, “I’m not going to put any conditions on God; I’m just going to believe anyway!”  And why am I going to believe?  Well, one of the reasons is the next point: because we have the testimony of witnesses.

The whole of Christianity is based on the testimony of witnesses.  That’s how the Church started; that’s how the Church spread; that’s how the Scriptures were written; that’s the foundation of Christianity!   Christianity is not a religion of private revelation—“I believe because God appeared to me and spoke to me.”  And then you believe because God appeared to you and spoke to you, so you believe.  That’s not how Christianity works; Christianity is based on the testimony of the original witnesses of God, and what they said, and what they did, and what they wrote down, and what they handed down to succeeding generations.

St. Paul even gives us the same thing.  He says, “I pass on to you what I myself received from others: that Christ died and was buried and rose from the dead,” and the rest, in First Corinthians.  So he’s doing that himself.  But he was a kind of extraordinary witness, because Christ did appear to him.  He was in the first generation and a lot of extraordinary things were happening then, because Christianity had to get a “jump-start,” it had to get moving.  If it hadn’t been for St. Paul, who knows how small a portion of the world would have ever been evangelized?  Paul evangelized most of the known world at the time, and really got Christianity off to a great start.  And then, from his testimony and the testimony of the other apostles, it spread and was preserved by the Church in writing and oral tradition, and has come to us today.  So that’s the “bottom line” we base our faith on, is the testimony of these witnesses.

Now, this faith can be enhanced and supported and confirmed by personal experiences of God.  God does not withhold that either, because God has been present to practically everyone who’s sought Him, throughout the ages.  I mean, some ways are more extraordinary than others, but if you talk to almost anybody who’s really living a spiritual life, they will tell you, “Yes, I know the presence of God; I have experience of God.  He has been in my life and there are evidences of it.” The faith is based primarily on the witnesses but is supported, confirmed, strengthened, and grows through personal experience of God.

Let us, then, put all these together in our lives: the desire for God, the putting no conditions on believing in God, and then accepting the testimony of witnesses who have given us the Christian faith.   And that will make us able to receive God.  As the fathers often say, we don’t see God mostly because we don’t have a pure heart.  We aren’t purified, our spiritual senses do not have the capacity to see God, to experience God, so that even if He stood right before us and said, “Here I am,” we wouldn’t even see Him!  We wouldn’t recognize Him because we’re too dull of spirit; we’re too loaded down with our passions and selfishness and all the other stuff that puts blinders on us, that makes it impossible to see God.

So it’s not a matter of us coming to God and putting a condition on it, saying, “I won’t believe unless you do this.”  God is the One who says, “Well, you’re not going to see anything unless you do this!   You’re not going to see Me unless you change your life, unless you get rid of the obstacles that make it impossible for you to see Me, to receive Me, to experience Me.”   God is the One who puts conditions—not us.  So we have to come to God and say, “Your will be done.  Do unto me whatever You need to clear out the junk, to take the scales off my eyes, so that I can see and feel and experience and know You, like your disciples knew you.”

Let us come to God that way, and let us believe without seeing, and experience the blessedness that is given to those who believe without seeing, and then, little by little, as we go through our lives in faith, we will come to know God.  We will know for certain the presence of God, we will know when He is near, we will live from his life, and we will spontaneously say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

[This is a homily I gave on Easter 2004.  This year I’m preaching to a select crowd of about three here at COSJ, and I won’t be writing it down.]

Christ is risen!  I was thinking that after we sing, “Christ is Risen” so many times, maybe that’s all there is to say.  I don’t even need to give the homily now, because “Christ is Risen” says it all—it is the answer to all of our deepest needs and longings and hopes. I remember reading, some years ago, an article in a magazine that said that when the devil attacks you or tempts you or harasses you there’s only one thing that you have to do.  Say this: “Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Christ is risen!”  And then he’s got to go!  Because that is the defeat of the devil.  All he’s got to do is be reminded of that, and reminded that we believe in that and embrace that, and he’s got to be out of there, because he cannot stand it.  That’s the thing that has destroyed him and robbed him of his power.  The devil is the Prince of Death; the devil feeds on death.  Death, as St. Paul says, is the last enemy, and in the Letter to the Hebrews it says that Christ came to undo the works of the devil—the devil who kept everyone in bondage to fear of death their whole life long.  Well, Christ is risen, and death is overthrown and is transformed, and the devil has to get out of the way.

So today we’re celebrating this great mystery, this power of the Resurrection that is something new in the whole universe: when He rose from the dead, something new happened that had never happened before, which has transformed the universe and the future of the whole universe forever, because what happened in Christ is not just someone dying and coming back to life; it’s not just an organism functioning, then ceasing to function, and then starting to function again.  It’s a completely new life, a life that is taken up into a new level of being.  The humanity of Christ was taken up into the glory of the Father to be eternally glorified in the same glory that He shared with the Father for all eternity as God, as the Son of God.  But now this new power is at work in the universe; his power to elevate humanity up into the level of divine life and divine glory.  This is the gift and the power of the Resurrection.  What underlies this great, divine power to change everything and to transform everything into a shining image of God?  Well, of course it is love: it’s the divine love which makes all things new.  The love that Scripture says is stronger than death; God’s love alone is stronger than death.  We struggle here on earth with our mortality, and we do love, but of ourselves we can’t love in the same way that God loves, in this effective way that overcomes death.

live forever

I was reading in one book, which said that when we say “I love you,” to someone, on a very fundamental level we’re saying, “I want you to live forever.”  But the thing is that in our human condition we cannot make that happen.  We cannot make our loved ones live forever.  It’s a wish, a desire, but it’s one that we cannot accomplish of our own power.  We want to say, “I love you, I want you to live forever,” yet our loved ones die.  But it’s different with God.  See, God can say, “I want you to live forever, because I love you,” and He makes it happen: we see that first in the life of Christ, in the death and resurrection of Christ, as we sing the psalm, “You will not let your Beloved know decay.”  So, the Father says to Christ, “I love You, and therefore You are going to live forever,” and so in his humanity, as I said, He raises Him up into that glory, as Jesus prayed before He died:  “Take Me back into that glory that I knew with You before the world began.”  That is, “take Me back, as man.

So now Christ has that same power to love us unto life: his love for us is stronger than death, and He can tell us that same thing—that He loves us, and wants us to live forever.  This is something that He’s already begun to do in the first-fruits of redeemed and resurrected humanity, the Mother of God.  Jesus said to her, in effect (I don’t know if He used these same words, but it’s the same thing)—when He raised her up body and soul into Heaven, He was saying to her, “I love you, and I want you to live forever!  Now, rise from the dead!”  And she did!  This is the love that is stronger than death, the love that we celebrate in the Resurrection of Christ that transforms the whole universe.

Now there’s another side to the coin here, of love being stronger than death, because if love is going to be stronger than death, it first has to be stronger than life.  Now, what does that mean?  This is something that we can actually share in ourselves.  For love to be stronger than life, it has to be willing to die.

Jesus’ love was first stronger than life because He was willing to sacrifice his life for those whom He loved—He was willing to give it up.  He gave us that message in the Gospel:  “Whoever would save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  That’s something that Jesus has shown us first, and gives us the example.  Do not love life more than God, and do not hold on to this passing life in such a way that would make you lose the life that’s true life in God.

Let’s see also the testimony of the martyrs; it’s the same thing.  We read that in the Book of Revelation where it says, “Love for life did not deter them from death”; so they were willing to make that sacrifice of their life.  Their love for God was stronger than their desire to live this earthly life, so they were willing to make this sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice of giving up their life.

Jesus did this for us.  First of all, his love was stronger than life: He was willing to give up, to lay down, his life for his beloved.  But then, being the divine Son of God, and having the power to lay down his life and take it up again, He proved that his love is stronger than death, and He rose from the dead, and entered into that new, divine, glorified life that He promises to all of those who believe in Him and who love Him.  And we’re the ones who can benefit from that promise and that power of his love that gives us life, and gives us life eternal.

Now, one of the ways, and one of the most beautiful ways that this power of Christ’s presence—his love stronger than death, his divine life—is with us, is in the Holy Eucharist. This is the presence in our midst of Christ, slain and risen, and when we receive the Holy Eucharist, we take into ourselves the love that is stronger than death, the love that promises eternal life, because He said, “He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood abides in Me, and I in him….”   And what else?  “…and I will raise him up on the Last Day!”  Why?  Because the love that He puts in us through the Holy Eucharist is stronger than death and is going to make us rise from the dead on the Last Day, when He comes for us, his beloved.

eucharist_jesus_resurrected

There’s something that I read recently which I found to be a very beautiful insight into the mystery of the Eucharist and the Resurrection.  This is from a book by François Varillon.  He says, “When Marc Oraison was a surgeon in Bordeaux, every day he would see people die, people cease to exist.  He decided to become a priest so that he could celebrate the Eucharist in the midst of a universe bound to death and so that, through the Eucharist, he would make the Resurrection present at the very heart of this universe in which everything is mortal.  The Resurrection is the life beyond all deaths; it is the breach without which we would be forever enclosed in the circle of universal mortality.”

So this is what we’re doing here when we celebrate the Eucharist, and especially today, on the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection: we are making the Resurrection present at the very heart of this universe in which everything is mortal. But Jesus says: not everything is going to be mortal, because I am going to raise you—as we heard from Saturday’s Matins reading of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones—“I am going to raise you, my people; I’m going to raise you from your graves.  Don’t say, ‘We’re lying here dead and our bones are dried up, and God has abandoned us.’  I am going to put my Spirit in you, and I’m going to raise you from your graves.”  This is read as a prophecy of the general resurrection at the Last Day.

Let us resolve to love God more than life, more than we love life itself, so that we are willing to make whatever sacrifice we need to be faithful to God—even the ultimate sacrifice—so that our love will be stronger than life, and then, when we finally pass from this life, we will hear that voice of Christ, as in chapter five of John He says: “An hour is coming when the dead in their graves are going to hear the voice of the Son of God.”  What is He going to be saying?  What are you going to hear, when you’re lying in your grave at the Last Day?  You’re going to hear Christ say, “I love you!  I want you to live forever! My love is stronger than death.  Now rise, and live forever!”

[I gave this homily on the feast in 2009.  It is slightly edited because of the time of the liturgical year in which this feast is being celebrated.]

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year, since it gives us the opportunity to celebrate an incomprehensible and marvelous mystery that is at the heart of our salvation: the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Savior. Yet there’s also a kind of bittersweet dimension to it, since it almost always occurs during Lent or Holy Week.  So the liturgical structure does not reflect quite the same exuberance as do other major feasts, for we celebrate the Liturgy in conjunction with Vespers, and there are even some Lenten texts prescribed in some of the services of the day.  Perhaps this adds to the poignancy of Mary’s “let it be done to me,” because her surrender to the will of God falls under the shadow of the Cross.

Let us try to understand something of the mystery of this feast, and what the Church is trying to communicate to us by means of it.  First of all, we see in the Gospel text (Lk 1:24-38) that the evangelist takes pains to insist that Mary was a virgin, and therefore that Christ was conceived in her directly from God, without any human mediation.  Ordinarily, when female characters are introduced in stories, even biblical ones, the delicate issue of virginity is not the very first one mentioned.  But in today’s Gospel it is.  We learn about that even before we learn her name!  “The angel Gabriel was sent by God… to a virgin.” And when we do learn her name, her virginity is mentioned again: “the virgin’s name was Mary.”  Once the Annunciation_detail_1angel explains what God is planning to do in her, she herself states that she is a virgin—and perhaps implies that she had intended to remain one.  If she had fully intended to have a normal marriage, she wouldn’t have thought twice about the angel’s words, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”  If she was about to get married, of course she would very likely conceive and bear children as countless other women have done.  But she asked the angel how this was supposed to happen, since she did not know man.  This would have been a nonsensical question if she had fully expected to know man on her wedding night!

But whatever Mary’s plans for her own life may have been up to that point, what most concerns the evangelist, and us, is what the angel next said: “The annunciation-maryHoly Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”  This is the astounding news of the Incarnation of God.  There have been great annunciations in the Old Testament concerning the births of prophets or kings.  These all prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah, but Jesus is greater still than the common understanding of the Messiah, for even if people could expect that the Messiah’s conception would have happened by some intervention of God, like that of the conception of Isaac or John the Baptizer, no one ever thought that a husband would have been totally excluded from the equation!  The Incarnation is more than a providential intervention in human affairs.  God Himself was about to enter into human life and history in a wholly unprecedented, undreamed-of manner.  He wasn’t merely going to pour his blessings upon the favored child, be it king or prophet.  He Himself would become that Child and thereby save his people from their sins.

This is what the Gospel has established by repeatedly making it clear that she was a virgin and that she was in fact to be impregnated solely by the power of God.  There have been heroes and saviors of the people of God down through the ages, but they all had their human failings, and they all died, never to be heard from again.  Their wisdom and their deeds were remembered, but their power to deliver the people of God from their afflictions died with them.  With the arrival of the Angel Gabriel, the fullness of time had come, but another merely human hero would not be adequate to the task at hand, which was not a temporal liberation, but a radical, permanent overthrowing of the power of sin and death—something only God could accomplish.  And so God came, through the human body and the personal consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Epistle for this feast (Heb. 2:11-18) tells us something about why the Son of God became man.  He partook of human nature, it says, “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”  So Jesus was born as a man so that He could die—because as the eternal Word of God, Pure Spirit, He could not die—and in dying he would rob death and the devil of their power and free all those held in their grip.  For ever since Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, mankind has lived in the shadow of death—and death, for uncounted millennia, had been considered as the end of all things for the one who died.  Death was the bitter curse, the last enemy, the ultimate devourer of all the experience and meaning of life.

But this state of affairs was not acceptable to the Lover of Mankind.  Even though death was a just punishment for sin, God wished to redeem his creatures made in his image.  He could have simply said, “All is forgiven,” but that would not have been a sufficiently profound expression of his everlasting love.  He could have said, “I hereby abolish death,” and it would have been done, but He would have remained on his throne and the unbridgeable chasm between God and man would still have remained.  God wouldn’t be satisfied until He personally crossed that chasm and made a way for us to cross over to Him.  So rather than destroying the power of death with only a command, He actually experienced the agony of suffering and death, personally absorbing all its ancient terrors and its insatiable lust for the destruction of all that lives.  According to the Epistle, this was a priestly service by which He made expiation for our sins.  For, as St Paul says, death came into the world through sin.  So if Christ was to deliver us from the power of death, He would have to make expiation for our sins.  He did both by his death on the Cross and his Resurrection.

Now we have a way back to God; now we can cross the bridge that leads to Heaven.  It would have been utterly impossible to do with without the Incarnation, which made possible the sacrificial death of Christ.  These two mysteries are expressed a little later in Hebrews, when the author writes: “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us… through his flesh…” (10:19-20).  The incarnate Son of God is Himself, in the reality of the human nature He assumed, the “new and living way”—new, because the way back to God didn’t exist before the Incarnation, and living, because after his Resurrection, Jesus shall die no more but lives forever to save those who put their faith and trust in Him.

All of this wonderful work of God on our behalf—without which death would have devoured us forever—began when a teenage Jewish girl said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”  So we return to the mystery of the Annunciation and why it is so important—and also why the Immaculate Virgin Mary is venerated so highly by the Church.  She was the means by which our salvation came to pass, or shall we say, she provided that which was necessary for our Savior to save us, his human nature.

It is impossible to separate the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Cross, and so it is perhaps fitting that this feast does usually occur during Lent.  The third Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of the Holy Cross, and very soon we will be entering the profound mystery of the Passion of Christ.  Between these two shines a pure and gentle light from the Heart of the Mother, an opening to the joy that is the ultimate plan of God and that secretly underlies even the agony of the Cross, for we know how the story ends, or rather, that the story never ends—for death shall be swallowed up by Life in the Resurrection of Christ.  Then the angel’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “Of his Kingdom there will be no end.”  We affirm our faith in this every time we pray the Nicene Creed.

For now, we live in faith and in hope.  The joy of the Age to Come has not yet been manifested, only promised.  We have miles to go before we sleep, that is, before this earthly journey comes to an end and we enter into eternal rest from the labors and sufferings of this life.  In the time that still remains we must align our hearts and thoughts with those of Our Lady, who said yes to the will of God in all things.  It was not only at the Annunciation that her consent was required to fulfill the will of God.  Her whole life had to be a surrender, a selfless embrace of the mystery of God in her life, in both joy and sorrow.  Her yes was perhaps hardest to pronounce as she stood at the foot of the Cross.  It’s one thing to say yes when hearing that you are miraculously going to be the Mother of the Messiah, who will reign forever, and quite another to see this Messiah condemned, tortured and executed with common criminals.

There are liturgical texts in which Mary recalls the mystery of the Annunciation as she stands before the Cross, wondering what had become of the angel’s prophecies of joy and glory, now that her whole world, her love, her hope, was pierced by nails and torn by scourges.  But she wouldn’t leave Him, wouldn’t despair, and thus she said yes to God to the bitter end, and so was rewarded with the revelation of his Resurrection, with the Gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and with eternal joy in Heaven.  She is the Queen Mother glorified at the side of the King, her Son, as the mothers of the sons of David, the kings of Israel, were honored in their time (see, for example, 1Kgs. 2:19).  But this Queen Mother and her Son are unlike any that went before them and any that came since.  For she alone had conceived in her womb and bore a divine Son, whom she called Jesus.  The Holy Spirit had come upon her and the Power of the Most High overshadowed her.  The Child that was born was called the Son of God.  He was great, for He was the Son of the Most High; and He reigns forever, for his Kingdom will have no end.

[This is a homily I gave in 2006 on the third Sunday of Lent, known in the Byzantine tradition as the “Sunday of the Holy Cross.”]

crucifixion2The Church places before us today the mystery of the Cross at the middle of Lent.  In case we’re getting weary, the Cross is a sign that we’re approaching the fulfillment of these holy days, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, so that we may be encouraged.  We can come and bring all of our struggles and failures and sins and lay them before the Cross, and receive forgiveness and healing and strength to go on.  But in case we’re slacking off, we receive the message that it’s high time we take up our cross and follow Jesus.  The liturgy constantly brings to mind the mystery of the Cross because it is the essence of Christianity.  There’s no Christianity without the Cross.

Some like to call themselves “Easter people.”  That’s kind of a modern way of saying they reject the Cross.  There are “Catholic” theologians today—surprisingly, even to me who read about this stuff—who explicitly say that say that the Cross is not about the expiation for our sins.  That’s an idea that we have to put to rest, they say.  Well if it isn’t about expiation for sin, then we have to put our salvation to rest as well.  In any case, we can’t be Easter people if we aren’t first Good Friday people.  It seems that in practice, Easter people like to celebrate instead of doing penance, laugh instead of weep, to say “God loves me as I am,” instead of repenting and confessing their sins, and use the Cross as a religious decoration rather than carrying it behind the Lord.

I saw on the internet a group of people who call themselves Catholic—there are actually several sects in this country, but I don’t even elevate them to the status of schismatic—who are made up of ex-priests and people like that, but have very little resemblance to the Catholic Church.  Well, I saw a picture of this group, they form their own church and they make sure they say they’re inclusive about marital status and gender issues and these are no obstacles to ordination in their church.  And so, this picture was of them performing an ordination of a woman.  They were all standing around a table with their arms out, dressed in suits and dresses, and there was a cross on the wall, of course without a corpus.  That would have been in poor taste.  But I was thinking to myself: in this blasphemous rite that they were performing, what did the cross mean to them, the big cross on the wall?  Did they know that they were blaspheming the mystery of the Cross at that very moment, making a mockery of Jesus’ sacrifice?  They think it’s cute to ordain lesbians to their phony priesthood, but they will have to stand under the judgment of that same Cross when they die.

So let us return to the point here, of the Cross being at the heart of Christianity.  The depth of our Christianity, of our relationship to Christ, is the depth of our acceptance of and embracing the Cross.  We get glimpses of the resurrection through the sacraments, through the beauty of nature and through the love of God and the people that we experience.  But this life is not Heaven.  It is still the via dolorosa. We live our lives in the shadow of the Cross, even while the resurrection dawns on the far horizon.

A friend of mine once told me that she felt that she was a kind of inferior Christian because her friends were having all kinds of interesting charismatic experiences, being slain the Spirit and all that kind of stuff, and she didn’t have those experiences.  So I had to remind her that those things are not the essence of Christianity.  They’re just like icing on the cake.  But the danger is that for some of these people, there’s no cake under the icing!  They go from one emotional experience to another without achieving any depth in their spiritual life, in their relationship to God.  If you equate your relationship to God with fun experiences, then you’re going to miss out on the reality of that relationship, the depth and the mystery and the power of it.

But Christianity is not about emotional experiences.  It’s about Christ and about Him crucified and risen.  It’s about allowing Jesus into the wreckage of our lives and giving Him full permission to cleanse and transform and heal them and to make all things new.  It’s about being faithful to Him in good times and bad, about being willing to be corrected for our faults, being willing to take up our cross and suffer whatever it takes to overcome sin and to live for righteousness.  It’s about saying yes to Him who gave up his life for us.  It’s about seeking Him with our whole heart, about preferring nothing to his holy will.  It’s about losing our lives so that they may be saved for life in the heavenly kingdom.  It’s about standing up for the truth that He has revealed, even in the face of ridicule and opposition.  It’s about loving, forgiving, sacrificing ourselves for Jesus’ sake and for the salvation of souls.  That, in part, is what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.

To embrace the Cross doesn’t mean we’re expected to find it easy.  Even the saints in their most candid moments admit that to suffer generously is beyond our ability without a special grace.  It wasn’t easy for Jesus either, and He had to suffer what no man could suffer.  He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as we perhaps do at times, but we must also say the other things that He said from the Cross, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they do.” “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

I have to share with you something about a way how not to bear the cross.  I’ll give myself as a prime example.  A couple of days ago was one of those days which are fairly frequent, where everything just seems to go wrong, one thing after another, and I had gone down to make a photocopy of this icon for Laura, who’s writing an icon.  Actually it was a rather nice day, at least in the morning, and of course as soon as I walked out the door and got half way down the road, it immediately started pouring.  I wasn’t dressed for that, but I did have a jacket on.  So I stuffed the icon under the coat and ran through the rain to try to get this thing done.  I got down there and it turned out that I couldn’t make a copy anyway because the photocopier didn’t go light enough to make a decent copy of it.  So that was useless.  I ran back up the hill and got soaked a second time going up there.  But I wanted to try to protect the icon so it wouldn’t get ruined from the water.  So what happened was, I got back in my cell and set the icon down, but I didn’t realize how much water a hood can absorb.  So as I checked the icon, I laid it down to see if it was OK or had anyfurious water on it; I bent down and all this water poured off my hood all over the icon!  I just got so bugged with that I tore off my hood and threw it on the floor to get rid of that ridiculous thing.  Well, I forgot that I was wearing my cross over my hood and so I ended up throwing my cross on the floor, too.  It was like the Lord was telling me: OK, you’re not just throwing off an annoyance, you’re throwing off the Cross.

So that was a little bit of a lesson.  I also remembered that my scripture reading from the morning was the famous text from First Thessalonians where Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.”  So I had to go in my examination of conscience at night and say, “Lord, I didn’t rejoice always, I didn’t pray constantly, I didn’t give thanks in all circumstances.”  And so, that was my day.

But we have to realize that life is full of stuff like that.  Full to the brim of trials and irritating, frustrating things.  We just have to accept that.  Whether it’s something as small as having your alarm clock jar you out of a deep sleep in the early morning, or much worse things.  Failures of vehicles and computers and appliances, health problems and family problems and money problems and work problems and all manner of disappointments and setbacks and injuries or whatever.  It’s constantly going to happen.  There’s no escape from any of that.  That’s the nature of life in this fallen world.

But we have a choice.  We can decide either to rage and complain and finally end up in despair—or we can accept it.  We can see the Cross in it.  We can embrace it and make an offering of it.  We can turn it into something positive, something beneficial for ourselves, for our own spiritual growth and for the good of others.  Make it a prayer.  Make it an intercession.  Make it an offering of some sort of suffering or setback to God.  Unite it to the Cross, because that’s the only way that any of this stuff is going to be redeemed, is going to be given any meaning or value in our life: we have to consciously place it under the Cross, unite it to the Cross.  We’re usually pretty good at understanding all that in theory, but in practice we still rail against it.  But we have to get our theory and our practice together.  We have to get what we learn in prayer and Scripture reading and worship and put all that into daily life, into the problems of daily life, because they’re always going to be there.  So we have to have a way to manage that, to be able to live in peace and even in joy, at least in hope of better things to come.  But the Cross is the way for us and the Lord gives it for that.

There’s a kind of ambivalence about the Cross, because we flee the Cross in a sense.  We associate the Cross with sufferings and trials and all unpleasant things of life, but at the same time it’s our salvation and something we long for and need, our only way to Paradise.  So that mystery, that paradox of the Cross, we have to embrace.  Not liking the pain of suffering, yet embracing the mystery which transforms that suffering into life everlasting and into sanctification and holiness and prayer for the good of the whole world.  The Cross is the way to paradise, the way out of the misery of this world—contrary to what other people think, that the cross is the misery of the world.  It’s just the opposite.  We have to unite the misery to the Cross, lift it up, transform it.  Jesus will make all things new.

Christ crucified is God’s answer to our questions about life and love and sin and salvation and sorrow and death and God and man.  The Father has spoken his final word in the life and death and resurrection of his Son. So hear the word of the Lord and embrace the Cross, your only hope of salvation.  When we stand before God in judgment, our destiny is sealed.  There’s no second chance at that time.  Our lives will either be an eternal success or an eternal failure.  There’s nothing in between after the Day of Judgment.  God holds out to us the way of salvation and calls out to us through the parched mouth of his dying Son, “I thirst!” I thirst for your salvation.  Come to Me.  Come to Me while there is yet time.  Do not be afraid of the Cross.  It is your only hope, the only key to the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Enough then of complaining.  Enough running from suffering.  Stand in the full dignity of the image in which you were created.  Stand as mature men and women of God and follow your Savior along the narrow and rough path to the kingdom of glory.

The Letter to the Hebrews today calls us to approach the throne of grace with confidence, to receive mercy and grace and help in time of need.  The Cross is the throne of grace and the King of the Jews was nailed to it so that grace could flow in endless streams from his hands and feet and from that Divine Heart torn open to reveal the source of everlasting love.

Today is not just another day of Lent.  It is a day of judgment, a day of salvation, a day of decision.  Are we going to be Christians or are we not?  Are we going to take up our cross and follow Jesus or are we not?  Are we going to give our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the Gospel or are we not?  Jesus will give you strength for the journey.  He will give you Bread from Heaven and the New Wine of the Kingdom: real food, real drink, as He said.  Christ abiding in us and we in Him.  And He will raise us up on the last day.

[Here’s one from 2006, a good Lenten theme.]

hearing God“I will hear what the Lord God has to say,” wrote the Psalmist. Hearing the voice of the Lord seems to be one of the main concerns and desires of those who seek Him in earnest. I think we would all love to hear what the Lord God has to say to us (unless we have a particularly guilty conscience, but even then…), yet if your experience is like most, trying to discover precisely what the Lord is saying can end up as a frustrating, confusing, or generally discouraging endeavor, simply because of the lack of clarity and certainty.

Well, don’t get your hopes up too high; I’m not going to provide some foolproof answer or secret for discerning the voice of the Lord. But I will share a couple points that may at least help you clear out some obstacles that may hinder your search.

John Tauler, OP (+1361) has something to say about hearing the voice of the Lord. He says we don’t hear it because we have made ourselves deaf. Listen: “It is very important to understand what makes men deaf. From the time that the first man opened his ears to the voice of the Enemy, he became deaf, and all of us after him, so that we cannot hear or understand the sweet voice of the Eternal Word. Yet we know that the Eternal Word is still so unutterably near to us inwardly, in the very principle of our being, that not our humanity itself, our own nature, our own thoughts, nor anything that can be named or said or understood, is so near or planted so deep within us as the Eternal Word. It is ever speaking in us; but we do not hear it because of the deep deafness that has come upon us… What is this deeply hurtful whispering of the Enemy? It is every disordered image or suggestion that starts up in your mind, whether belonging to your creaturely desires and wishes, or this world and everything that belongs to it; whether it be wealth, reputation, even friends or relations, or your own nature, or whatever lays hold of your imagination. Through all these things he has his access to your soul…” (Second Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity).

This is worth sustained reflection. As soon as we open our ears to evil, we become deaf to God. This doesn’t mean only externally listening to something bad; it means “listening,” that is, paying attention, to all that enters our consciousness that is not of God, all that we allow to inhabit our thoughts and emotions and desires. All these things create an interior clamor, a sub-conscious cacophony that drowns out anything the Spirit of God might wish to say. For the Lord does not wish to compete with other voices; his is not merely one among many. He is the Word from all eternity, through whom all things were made. He does not need to out-shout the deceitful hawkers of happiness that so many flock to hear. He simply is, and his very being is Word and Truth. We must explicitly seek Him, casting out all the noisy inner idols and anything that disturbs the serenity of truth and love. Close yourself to the seductive and insistent voice of the enemy, and you will be ready to open yourself to the voice of the Word.

Marko Rupnik, SJ, offers another helpful point: “Discernment is prayer, the constant asceticism of renouncing my own will and thoughts… Such an attitude is possible only if one is enraptured in a wave of love, because to accomplish this a radical humility is necessary. Humility…best guarantees the process of discernment. However, as we well know, humility is like freedom: it is only found in love and is a constant dimension of love, and outside of love it does not exist, in the same way that love without humility is no longer love… The exercise of discernment leads us to this foundational experience of God’s love, which can them become a constant, prayerful attitude of discernment, of acquiring the humility that is above all docility, that is, the attitude of ‘letting speak’” (Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God).

So, in order to “let God speak,” and to be able to hear, we must not only clear out the evil or cluttersome thoughts and intrusions, we have to have a disposition of humble love. God is not going to speak to someone who is angrily shouting at Him, or who is telling Him how He should run the world, or who is whining about trifles. God speaks to those who say, “Speak, Lord, your servant listens,” or “Let it be done to me according to your word.” He speaks to those who, like Mary of Bethany, sit at his feet and listen to his word, who listen because they love, and because they know He has the words of eternal life. He speaks to those who come without self-interest, without curiosity to know the future or the answers to life’s inscrutable mysteries, but who come saying only, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

Let this be enough for starters. I may have more to say in the future, but for now I still have to listen for what the Lord God may be saying about how to listen to what He is saying! Even the two points above can help us go a long way toward developing a listening heart. But are we willing to sacrifice our familiar inner idols in order to hear the living God? Are we willing to close our inner lives to every voice that is not of God? Every time we entertain the voice of the enemy, we become a little more deaf to God, yet we blame Him for not speaking more clearly.

If we are trying to tune in a radio station and are just a little off, there will be other stations interfering, or there will be static, and we will not hear our station clearly. Tune in to God, precisely—tune out interfering voices. Then begin to enjoy the music of Heaven!

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