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

Archive for December, 2005

The Hardening

I learned something recently. Actually, it has been a long process of growing awareness, but it has suddenly become clearer. I think it’s something that I didn’t really want to believe, but if I’m to be honest, I have to acknowledge the evidence.

In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul declares: “a hardening has come upon a part of Israel…” (11:25), and he says this is a mystery we need to understand. Now I don’t wish to talk about Israel here, because I think that the hardening has come upon the whole world—not every individual, of course, but upon many. The hardening is that of the heart, in biblical terms, which results in a refusal to recognize the truth, even when it is clearly and unmistakably set before them. It is a willful rejection of that for which there is plentiful and often irrefutable evidence—just because they have some other reason for believing a lie.

In my naiveté, I had always thought that those who rejected the truth did so because of ignorance, of not having all the facts or evidence, or of some other impediment or incapacity that was not (entirely) their fault. The presumption was that if an ordinary, rational human being were presented with clear evidence or cogent arguments, especially if the evidence or the logic were manifestly unassailable, he would naturally accept the truth that was shown him. But this is not so when dealing with a hardened heart.

St Paul said this of the pagans who refused to believe in Christ: “they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart…” (Ephesians 4:18). Thus their ignorance is culpable. Hardness of heart alienates one from God, and hence from truth and love.

Here’s an example that helped tip the scales for me. “Emile Zola went to Lourdes for the purpose of condemning the whole enterprise. But unexpectedly he witnessed a striking miracle before his very eyes. An eighteen-year-old girl was suddenly cured of three apparently incurable diseases: advanced lupus, pulmonary tuberculosis, and large ulcerations on her leg. Zola himself described the girl’s face as being eaten away by the lupus: ‘The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.’ She went into the bath and ‘emerged completely cured.’ Zola was present. And the cure was permanent, because sixteen years later she remained in perfect health. But there was no change in Zola’s mind” (Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty, emphasis added). Someone who can witness such a dramatic and undeniable miracle and walk away unmoved, unconvinced, can only be said to have hardened his heart.

One cannot reason with people like that; one cannot show them compelling evidence and expect them to accept it; one cannot assume that they will call white white and black black, but in fact may do just the opposite. Those who have hardened their hearts seem to be increasing in number, and they hold influential positions in the media, the government, and even in the Church—and especially in lucrative enterprises like the abortion industry. You really have to have a hard heart to be able to cut little babies into pieces every day, and then take home a nice paycheck without looking back. And there are many who are complicit in this evil, who don’t actually do the dirty work.

A hardening has come upon many who attack the Church, whether from without or within. It is clear what the Church teaches; read the Catechism and papal documents. But many try to reject, deny, distort or otherwise make them into something that fits their own preference or agenda, and then denigrate those who uphold her teachings! Why? If they don’t like what the Catholic Church teaches, there are plenty of others who accommodate their brand of error quite willingly; they can join them! But no, a hardened heart has reasons that reason would shudder to know.

I think we have to accept that there are many with whom we will get nowhere by reasoning, clear argumentation and documentation, or any other form of normal, rational dialogue. They will not see or hear the truth because somewhere deep within they have already decided to reject it at all costs. What they stand to gain—economically, politically, socially—is more important to them than what is true, good, and beautiful. For them the only thing we can do is pray and sacrifice, so that the Holy Spirit will somehow reach them from within, overturning their chosen obstacles to truth and righteousness, shining a clear and divine light within them.

Then perhaps a “softening” will occur, and hearts and minds will open to the truth, will abandon arrogance, greed, self-aggrandizement and the “malignant narcissism” that is at the core of many of today’s hardened hearts. Don’t expect to soften a hardened heart with words. Go to the Lord instead with words of supplication, pleas for mercy—and then from his heart rivers of living water will flow, to wear away all hardness and to bring new life. This may take a long time, for a hardened heart is the most difficult thing to heal, more so than ravaging diseases of the body. The girl at Lourdes was instantly healed of those, but Emile Zola walked away still bearing his hard heart. Let us trust that with God all things are possible, and begin praying in earnest.

Immeasurable Riches of Grace

We continue reflecting upon the abundance of blessings, praise and glory in which St Paul exults in Ephesians. What is needed to go deeper (and what Paul asks of God for us) is “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” (1:17-18).

With enlightened heart-eyes, we see something that is rather unpleasant but which becomes a reason for profound gratitude: we “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked” (2:1-2). The gratitude isn’t for being dead in sins, for “following the course of this world” and the evil spirit who is its prince, who urged us to “live in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind…like the rest of mankind” (v. 3). It is for what happened next: God the Father “made us alive with Christ…and raised us up with Him…” This is because God is “rich in mercy” and so “out of the great love with which He loved us,” He saved us by his grace. Why did He do this? So that “He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4-7).

You might say that this is simply a standard piece of basic biblical theology, and on one level that is correct. But look at what it means for us. Being rather dull in spiritual perception, we don’t realize how horrible a thing it is to be spiritually “dead in sins,” and what the consequences are for all eternity. We perhaps aren’t aware that to be “saved” isn’t just to have made a profession of faith or to have joined a church, but it is to be spared a fate worse than death—because death is not the end but only the beginning of the horrors. St Paul says: that’s how mankind lives, dead in sins, following every impulse suggested by unrestrained desire and the goading of the evil one. But you, he says, you who have put your faith in Christ, have been raised from the dead before the general resurrection! You have been enlightened so as to perceive another way to live, the only way that leads to eternal happiness.

God wants us to see that, for He loves us with a great love and is rich in mercy—immeasurably rich in grace in Christ Jesus. He rescued us, after having searched for us in the lairs of dragons (as St Ephrem says). Lest we think this is over-dramatized and that we can enter eternal happiness by maintaining a convenient and bland human decency, St Paul cries out: “By grace you have been saved…and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (v. 9). Our immeasurable poverty cries out for God’s immeasurable riches. This is why Paul began this letter with the praise of God’s glory and goodness to us. He knows that we’re all goners if God doesn’t pour out his rich mercy upon us. But God has done so, and is doing so, and will continue to do so until the moment we stand before his judgment seat.

We need the eyes of our hearts enlightened so we can realize clearly the frightening state of being “dead in sins” and the glorious gift of being made “alive in Christ.” Salvation is meaningless if all we need to be is “nice.” We must know from what and for what we have been saved, and thus our gratitude will be endless—and our efforts to live in accordance with God’s gift will be untiring.

So what will it be? “Dead in trespasses, children of wrath, sons of disobedience”—or “alive in Christ, saved by grace, created for good works by the God of love, mercy, and immeasurable riches”? Let us receive—and hold on to, for dear life!—the gift of God in Christ Jesus.

Praise of Glory

One of my favorite chapters in the Pauline epistles is the first chapter of Ephesians. It is very rich in consolations flowing from the Holy Spirit and St Paul’s own faith-charged exuberance in the glorious bounty of God’s priceless gifts.

One phrase he likes to repeat is “the praise of his glory.” Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity was a big fan of Paul’s, and she believed that God had given her this as her own new name. She sometimes called herself “Praise of Glory,” for that was what her life was essentially about.

Paul speaks of the praise of God’s glory in two basic ways. First, it is the natural, spontaneous, and only really appropriate response to God’s lavish goodness to us. Paul’s long list of blessings ends with the seal of the Holy Spirit, “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it—to the praise of his glory” (v. 14). Our inheritance—“every spiritual blessing,” our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, the grace and love of God—is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, so what can we do but praise his glory, praise his mercy, praise his everlasting love? This “praise of glory” has basically the same meaning as the “praise of his glorious grace” in verse 6.

This leads us to the other use of the expression. It is not adequate to God’s wondrous generosity for us merely to praise Him once or twice, or from time to time. Like Blessed Elizabeth, we have to be a praise of glory. Therefore Paul declares that we “have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (v. 12). That is not only the goal but the present activity of our lives, our appointed task and honor.

God has always wanted his beloved people to live for the praise of his glory. We get a hint of this from the prophet Isaiah. God describes his chosen people thus: “every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (43:7). He goes on to say that they are “the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise” (43:21).

God has made us for his glory, which means that He will be glorified in us and we in Him. We can’t really add anything to the infinite, eternal, utterly transcendent and holy glory that is God’s by nature, but we glorify Him by freely saying “yes,” “amen,” to all He is and does. In that sense we spread his influence in the world, we give Him something unique, which no one else can give, because we ourselves are unique and irreplaceable according to his loving and creative will. God in turn will invite us into the mystery of his own glory, and when we are wholly enraptured in his boundless magnificence and breathtaking beauty, we will desire nothing else but to sing our worship to Him forever.

Now is the time to begin. If we don’t praise his glory in this world, we won’t be eligible to do so in the next. Prayerfully read the Scriptures, which begin to open us up to spiritual depths we have not yet even begun to fathom. Then the Holy Spirit will take it from there. If we can avoid being enamored of the trinkets and baubles of this world, our souls will acquire a taste for true glory. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him…” (vv. 3-4).

The Light Has Come

As I mentioned in the explanation of the Nativity icon, the light of God from on high enters the darkness of the world; Christ is born in a cave in Bethlehem. I’ve written about light and darkness before, but it seems appropriate to return to that theme during these holy days.

St John said of the incarnation and manifestation of Christ: “the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9). But this “light” is not some vague or impersonal force or energy that merely creates positive feelings. New-agers talk a lot about the “light,” but what they mean falls far short of the dynamic, personal presence of the Eternal Word of God made flesh. Jesus called himself the “Light of the world,” and this light is not primarily a feel-good experience but a powerful proclamation of truth and life.

St John puts it in terms of judgment: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds are done in God” (3:19-21).

When Jesus was born, says St Matthew, the magi saw the light (first in the form of a star, which led them to the Light in person). They were good men, if not yet fully enlightened, so when they did at last find the True Light, they rejoiced and worshiped Him. If we are open to truth, the Spirit of God will lead us to it, and we will recognize it and rejoice. But Herod was one of those whose deeds were evil, so he feared and hated the Light. He would not come near it, but wanted to extinguish it, lest his power be threatened or his evil exposed.

A text that is often repeated during our Christmas services goes like this: “Your nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world. Through it those who had worshiped stars learned through a star to worship You, O Sun of Righteousness, and to recognize in You the One who rises and who comes from on high. O Lord, glory to You!” The coming of the Son of God in the flesh enlightened pagans and poor shepherds, and all persons of good will who had a place in their hearts for truth and love.

But the darkness is often stubborn. It wasn’t only Herod who wanted to kill Christ—to put out that searching, convicting light of truth—but many others in positions of power and influence plotted against Him, and finally they succeeded in killing Him. But they didn’t put out the Light, for the Sun of Righteousness rose again, and all the world will have to come to the Light and be shown for what they are. If we find that we are afraid to come to Him, it is time to see if there is something within us that cannot bear the light, that does not wish to be exposed. All wounds must be honestly presented to the Healer, so that they will not fester and cause greater damage. Nothing could be worse—especially at the final judgment—than to feel compelled to flee from the Light.

Therefore now is the time to embrace the Light, to welcome Christ more fully into our hearts, making room for Him in all that makes up our lives, so that we are guided by his wisdom, encouraged by his love, healed by his mercy, and strengthened by his grace. The Light has come. Let us go to Him, that it may be clearly seen that our deeds are done in God.

Christ is Born!

“To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given…and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Heaven has opened and God has appeared on earth to take away the sins of the world and to lead us back to Paradise! The glory of the Lord shimmered across the night sky as angels announced the glad tidings—we must go see this wonder that has been proclaimed. Wise men sought Him to adore Him. A wicked king sought Him to kill Him, but no one stands in the way of God once his unalterable decree has been uttered! Let us gaze upon the mystery of the Word made flesh.

The icon of this feast has much to tell us, though for most modern people its symbolic “code” needs to be deciphered. One of the reasons (though perhaps not the main one) icons were created for the Church is so that people who could not read would still be able to understand the mysteries of the faith through iconographic presentations. Icons proclaim the Gospel in color and form.

The Light shining down from the top of the image is a symbol of the Divinity. Often the Divine Light is depicted by a three-layered “mandorla,” a circle or oval of glory, in which Christ in his glory is usually manifested. The light enters the dark cave, black being the symbol of death and of the moral/intellectual darkness of the world in its ignorance or rejection of God. His Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

The first unusual thing that one might notice is that the Mother of God is facing away from her newborn child. You’d expect her to be holding and kissing and gazing upon Him, as was certainly true as historical fact, and as our liturgical texts often say. But there’s a dogmatic teaching in this iconographic symbol. It was often said in the Old Testament that man cannot see God and live. The message of Mary’s looking away: this Child is God. Thus the true and full divinity of Christ is proclaimed.

Down in the right corner of the icon we see midwives washing the Child after his birth (it’s not uncommon to have the same figures appear more than once in an icon—after all, it’s telling a story). This rather prosaic and earthy moment in the Child’s young life communicates another sacred and essential truth: He is not only true God but true Man as well. He didn’t miraculously descend from heaven with only the outward appearance of a man. He did it the hard way—conception, gestation, birth, for He was really a human Child, and He spared Himself nothing of what belongs to genuine humanity.

In the left corner we have another dogma of the Faith presented, in a quite novel fashion. St Joseph is sitting down, looking rather perplexed, while a bent old man is talking to him. The bent one is the devil, and the monologue went something like this: “Come on, Joe, get with it! She’s your wife, right? Well, she just had a baby, but did you have anything to do with it? So much for your faithful woman! You’ve been had!” The fact that St Joseph had to wonder about all this (and couldn’t go around saying, “Doesn’t He look just like me?”) proclaims this truth: the virgin birth.

The angels, shepherds and magi are present to fill in the story, but the main teaching of the icon of the Nativity is the true humanity and divinity of Christ, and the virginal conception and birth. As we venerate the icon, we say “yes” to what God has done for us through his Son. Jesus is the only Savior. Let us look with love upon Him who looks with love upon us. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

O Holy Night

The world (or at least that part of the world that is still alive, that still can feel and hope) waits breathlessly under a starry sky, watching, listening, yearning to be born anew—yearning for Christ to be born anew in all broken hearts, all suffering bodies, all thirsting souls.

He alone is the answer to the questions we perhaps have not even been able yet to formulate, that lie struggling within us, inchoate, haunting, but urgent nonetheless. We must know, but we’re not sure what we must know, or where to turn. Usually our questions begin with “why?” but the real issue is too deep, too complex to be put as a simple query. So we walk with a nameless dis-ease, a confused longing, a frightening suspicion that something is really wrong here, but with a total absence of the far-sighted wisdom that brings confidence and peace.

Into all this comes the Child. He’s the One who set the stars in their places and thought up the DNA molecule and made immortal souls. Sometimes it’s hard for Him, though, to answer our inarticulate questions directly, because we ourselves don’t really know what we’re asking, and we probably couldn’t begin to understand the answer anyway. So He decided to simply come and be with us. He would leave us with a few words to ponder and to live, but what He really came to do was to absorb into Himself all our confusion and darkness and wrongheaded lashing-out, bearing its immense pressure and emerging, diamond-like, from the crushing weight. Having done that, He goes about making little jewels out of the rest of us, though not sparing us a similar crucible. The prophet said He’d make the rough way smooth, but neglected to indicate how far that process would cross our thresholds of pain.

So we’re probably not going to receive the clear, logical, satisfying answers we’d like to receive. We’re going to be placed in a Child’s hands, squeezed, even crushed, until all our self-inflicted miseries are wrung free, and the Child’s eyes shall widen with delight as we come forth all-shining from his hands—his little, pierced hands.

That’s why tonight is called the Holy Night. It’s the Advent of the Answer. He has come from a far country, across an infinite bridge that could only be constructed of his own flesh. That’s the only way by which we can return to Paradise—yes, that is at the root of our nameless unrest: we desire profoundly to return from exile, but we do not even know our own home, let alone the way. Jesus is the Way to God, for He is the Way from God to us. When Mary said yes, humanity rose from the dead. Our cold flesh received the Divine Fire; we were given ears to hear the Voice that Lazarus heard on the fourth day of his incredible sojourn.

The Lord is not merely the cosmic Problem Solver; He simply is. For Him to be means the universe is charged with love and we are destined for everlasting joy. If we can begin to grasp that, we will discover the most simple, yet most inscrutable truth: for God to be God is for us to know peace, even in the midst of the perplexities and sufferings of the human condition. Emmanuel, God is with us; come, let us adore Him.

I don’t suppose this is your standard Christmas meditation. Today, it just couldn’t be.

Prepare the Mystery

In order to help you prepare for the imminent feast of the glorious Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, I’d like to share with you some texts from the Byzantine liturgical services celebrated in the few days before Christmas. There is much in these poetic and theologically rich texts to help us open our minds and hearts to the mystery of Emmanuel—God with us in the Person of the Son of God made man for our salvation.

“He who is carried by the cherubim has taken human nature in the abode of the immaculate womb. He has come to earth to be born of the tribe of Judah. The holy cave has been adorned like a splendid palace for the King of all; the manger, like a ruby throne. The Virgin will place the Child therein for the renewal of his boundless creation.

“Having conceived in a manner beyond understanding, the Virgin places You into the manger of the dumb animals, O Eternal Word of God, because You come to pardon the ignorance that I acquired through the envy of the serpent. You come to be wrapped in swaddling clothes in order to break the chains and fetters of my sins. O Only-blessed One and Lover of Mankind, I most joyfully glorify, extol, and adore You and your coming in the flesh; for through You I have been set free.

“O Virgin who knows no man, where do you come from? How can you cradle the Creator in your arms? How did you accomplish virgin-birth? Most pure Lady, we see in you great wonders, awesome mysteries fulfilled on earth. We shall prepare a worthy cave for you. We shall ask the heavens for a star. We shall ask the Magi from the east to come and behold your newborn Babe in a manger: the Savior of all.

“The holy Vial containing the sweet-smelling Perfume goes to the cave at Bethlehem to pour it forth in a gentle stream on those who sing: ‘Blessed are You, O God of our fathers!’

“A strange mystery, wondrous, which causes amazement: the Lord of Glory has come down upon earth. He has appeared in a cave, bearing our nature, in order to raise up Adam, and to free from her pains the ancient mother of all the living!

“Make ready, O Bethlehem; reopen yourself to all, O Paradise! For in a cave a Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin. Her womb reveals itself to be the mystical paradise wherein grows the Divine Fruit, and eating thereof we shall live and not die as did Adam, for Christ is born to restore the long-lost likeness to God.

“Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear it heralded! With the angels and the shepherds glorify Him who chose to be seen as a newborn Babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

“Draw near, angelic powers; prepare the manger, O people of Bethlehem! The Word is coming into the world; the Wisdom of God is approaching! O Church, receive the signs of love! O people, speak with joy of the Mother of God! Blessed is your coming, O our God, glory to You!

“Heaven, give heed, and earth, lend your ear! The Son of the Father, the Word Himself, is coming! He shall be born of an undefiled maiden. Because she consented and gave birth without pain* through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, make ready, Bethlehem, and you, Eden, open your gates, for He-Who-Is shall become what He had not been. The Maker of creation shall become the Dispenser of great mercy to the world.

“The Virgin has conceived the Word who exists from before all time. The righteous Joseph sings to her and cries out: ‘I see you as the Temple of the Lord, bearing Him who comes to save all mankind. In his love He will make of all the faithful who sing to your name living, holy temples for our God.’”

Happy meditations! Christ is coming soon to make of your heart a new Bethlehem for his sweet repose.

* There is a tradition in the East (I don’t know if it’s the same in the West) that Mary gave birth to Christ without pain—for pain in childbirth was part of the curse laid on Eve after she had sinned, but Mary as the sinless New Eve was able to give birth painlessly. But the tradition goes on to say that the pains she was spared at childbirth she experienced at the foot of the Cross—as she said “yes” once again to giving her Son to us as our Savior.

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