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

Archive for May, 2006

Reflections on My Reflections on St Bernard’s Reflections

I thought I might try to clarify or further reflect on a few things I wrote yesterday. While we can always expect to receive edifying insights from the writings of the saints, we (thankfully) don’t have to expect warmed-over hackneyed piety. In his sermon I quoted yesterday, St Bernard makes the unvarnished statement that the rest of us recognize as true but are afraid to come right out and say: “We have the impression that we come out of prayer like we entered into it; no one answers us with even one word, gives us anything at all; we have the impression that we have labored in vain.” But of course he doesn’t just leave us hanging there with our disappointed hopes. He offers a profound insight.

Now, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are criticized (sometimes justly) for interpreting issues or answering questions with their (sometimes ingenious) concatenations of wholly unrelated biblical passages. But I like St Bernard’s answer here: “What does the Lord say in the gospel? ‘Stop judging by appearances and make a just judgment’ (Jn 7 :24). What is a just judgment other than a judgment of faith? For ‘the just man shall live by faith’ (Gal 3:11). So follow the judgment of faith rather than your experience, for faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.” A just judgment of the issue of apparently unanswered prayer is a judgment of faith, for if you are just you live by faith. If you live by faith, that means you assess and interpret the events and experiences of your life according to the content and dynamics of Christian faith, and not merely by what you see, hear, feel, etc. So if you live by faith, you trust that God hears your prayer and will answer in the way that is best for your spiritual progress and salvation. This “judgment of faith” is more reliable than your subjective experience, says St Bernard, and we ought to have discovered by now that indeed “faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.” For we don’t often know how to interpret our own experience, bound up as it often is with emotional excess, perceptual defect, and the coloration of our own desires and expectations.

This “judgment of faith” can apply to the other issues I brought up yesterday, which are matters of experience—not experiencing the joy, the peace, the inner transformation and renewal that the Gospel promises. Therefore experience, or the lack thereof, cannot be the ultimate measure of our life in Christ, but rather, living by faith must be the bottom line. That’s why the last of the 10 suggestions is probably the most important: Persevere Anyway (I think I’m going to make that my motto). For if the just one is to live by faith, such a one must learn how to persevere through the vicissitudes of various experiences and through the uncharted waters of “unknowing.” And we may have to simply humble ourselves in the awareness that we still have a long way to go before we are even capable of immersion in the mysteries of God. The Elder Macarius of Optina said: “Do not look for any remarkable gift of prayer in your heart. You are not worthy of it. Rather, let the empty, cold dryness of your prayer be food for your humility…” You won’t find that passage quoted in any modern spiritual self-help book!

Finally, as to what I quoted from the Pope. His gentle teaching about Christ adapting Himself to our weakness should not be interpreted as Christ condoning or tolerating our sin, permitting us to remain in it and promising forgiveness in the end. No, Christ hates sin and does not tolerate any sort of evil at all. But He adapts Himself to our weakness by accepting our inadequate (though sincere) response to his love and his call to holiness. He meets us at our low level, but this is for the sake of raising us up to his. He accepts our meager offerings—if that’s all we’re able to offer at this moment—while He tries to teach us the meaning of a complete and unreserved self-gift. He doesn’t hold us to a standard impossible for us to meet—while at the same time giving us the grace to continually meet higher standards than before. He will not stop at anything short of our perfection, for nothing defiled can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as the Good Book says.

So continue to pray, continue to struggle, continue to seek the face of Him who calls you—in short, continue to live by faith. Make the judgment of faith upon the events of your life, and not merely that of experience. Then someday you’ll have the opportunity to talk things over with St Bernard in that place where you don’t even need faith anymore—only love.

But I DON’T…

Have you ever had the following kind of experience? Let’s say you read from Ezekiel 36 and hear the Lord say: “you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…” Then you pause and reflect for a moment and exclaim: “But I’m not clean from uncleanness, I don’t have a new heart, I don’t have a new spirit! I’m exactly as I always was, despite my urgent and sincere prayers!” Or what if you read from John 14 and hear Jesus say: “he who believes in me will do the works that I do, and greater works than these he will do… Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it…” After a bit more reflection you shout: “But I don’t do the works He did, let alone greater ones! And I don’t receive whatever I ask in his name!” Or suppose you just read here and there throughout the Scriptures and finally begin to scream: “But I don’t have peace with God, I’m not filled with all the fullness of God, I’m not strong, I have not overcome the evil one, I’m not the salt of the earth, I’m not the light of the world, the truth has not set me free, I don’t ‘rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy,’ I don’t have wisdom—I’m constantly failing, messing things up, and I’m full of doubt and confusion despite my best efforts and prayers!”

Well, don’t expect me to solve your problems—I’ve got enough of my own! But there are a few things to look at here. Most of the promises in Scripture are conditional in some way. You’ll notice that most are also in the future tense, so perhaps their time simply has not yet come. Some things require faith, some require love as conditions for the manifestation of what God has promised. We are perhaps coming up short in these areas, and though God would like to give us what He promised, He sees we haven’t yet the capacity to receive or even to recognize his gifts. It could be that we haven’t matured to the level at which we could bear fruit from what we ask for, or that we are simply asking for the wrong things, or the right things at the wrong time, or the right things for the wrong reasons. God has to keep track of all these variables, and we ought to give Him credit for being rather good at it, so we’re going to have to do one or more of the following: 1) stop bellyaching; 2) repent; 3) grow up; 4) be patient; 5) redouble our efforts; 6) trust; 7) trust some more; 8) be content with slow progress; 9) get help; 10) persevere anyway.

I just read something from St Bernard of Clairvaux that will perhaps be of some assistance in the matter: “Every time I speak about prayer, it seems to me that I hear in your heart certain human reflections that I have often heard, even in my own heart. Since we never stop praying, how come we so rarely seem to experience the fruit of prayer? We have the impression that we come out of prayer like we entered into it; no one answers us with even one word, gives us anything at all; we have the impression that we have labored in vain. But what does the Lord say in the gospel? ‘Stop judging by appearances and make a just judgment’ (Jn 7 :24). What is a just judgment other than a judgment of faith? For ‘the just man shall live by faith’ (Gal 3:11). So follow the judgment of faith rather than your experience, for faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.

“And what is the truth of faith other than that the Son of God himself promised: ‘If you are ready to believe that you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, it shall be done for you’ (Mk 11:24). Thus, may no one among you, Brothers, consider prayer to be a small thing. For I assure you, the one to whom it is addressed does not consider it a small thing; even before it has left our mouth, he has had it written down in his book. Without the slightest doubt, we can be sure that God will either give us what we are asking him or he will give us something that he knows to be better. For ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26), but God has compassion on our ignorance and he receives our prayer with kindness… So ‘take delight in the Lord, and he will grant you your heart’s requests’”(Ps 37:4). [Sermons for Lent, no. 5, 5]

Perhaps we should just accept that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” and then put our trust in the providence of God, who knows how to grant what He ought, and who knows what is best for our spiritual growth and salvation. So let us take heart. At a recent audience in Rome, the Pope assured us that Jesus “adapts Himself to our weakness,” knowing that we aren’t what we should be, that we don’t know how to pray as we ought, and that we haven’t yet born much fruit from his grace. Benedict XVI said: “From the ingenuous enthusiasm of the initial adherence, passing through the painful experience of denial and the tears of conversion, Peter came to entrust himself to Jesus, who adapted Himself to his poor capacity to love. And He also shows us the way, despite all our weakness. We know that Jesus adapts Himself to our weakness. We follow Him, with our poor capacity to love, and we know that Jesus is good and he accepts us.”

Courage, then. Look not at your defeats but at Christ’s victory, not at your inner chaos, but at Him who makes all things new. If you pray but one prayer earnestly and from the heart—“Thy will be done!”—you can be sure it will be answered.

Home at Last

We bring our reflections on the Book of Revelation to a close today. The end of the Book is but the beginning of eternal life. It is the end of all persecutions and sufferings, of all dragons and beasts, of all evil and death. It is the beginning of the joyous life of the redeemed faithful, of the saints and martyrs who persevered through trials and pain and temptation, who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and have emerged victorious and glorious forever, amen!

In the final apocalyptic battle, the unholy trinity of dragon, beast, and false prophet are hurled into the lake of fire, to be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Then comes the last judgment of all mankind. Note this: it is said repeatedly here that the dead are judged “by what they had done.” It is clear then that “faith alone” is insufficient for salvation. If you don’t do the will of God and put his word into practice, you must join the unholy trinity in their eternal fiery torment.

So, once the demons and all evildoers are disposed of, Heaven is opened to the chosen and faithful ones of God. St John saw the new Jerusalem coming down from Heaven, radiant with the glory of God. Next comes one of my favorite Scripture passages: “And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself with be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who sat upon the throne said: ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ And he said to me: ‘It is done!’”(21:3-6). One day we will hear those words; one day all suffering and tears will be a distant memory; one day all things will be made new; one day we will dwell uninterruptedly with God and we will know only love and joy. I think it will take me the better part of eternity to let out one enormous sigh of relief, should I be fortunate enough to be found among the elect on that day.

For now, we have to make sure we are not among the polluted, faithless cowards, or the murderous, fornicating, lying idolaters (21:8), who never make it to the place of light and peace. We have to take up our crosses and follow the Lamb wherever He goes, even into the jaws of suffering and death, for the glorious heavenly Jerusalem awaits us on the other side.

The conclusion of the Book is a description of the heavenly City, all gold and jewels, all light and beauty, the river of life, the tree of life, the glory of God and of the Lamb. Nothing is worth missing out on this for all eternity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t envision Heaven as gold and jewels or trees and rivers. You don’t have to. This is a symbolic vision. When you get there you will swear the whole thing was designed just for you, for it will be so marvelous that it won’t even occur to you that there might be even one detail that could be improved. God has prepared so much for those who love Him, who are willing to endure to the end for his sake, for the sake of truth and righteousness and all that is holy and good. The righteous will indeed suffer, and holy things will be trampled by the ungodly, but there is a day of reckoning on the way, and there is a New Jerusalem waiting to be revealed to those who stand with the Lord, come what may. This Book ought to encourage us to turn our faces heavenward and await with joyful hope the Alpha and the Omega, who will make all things new.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’… Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:17, 20).


The dragon and the beasts have their day, but eventually it comes to an end, and all who have aligned themselves with them will share their lot. Chapter 18 of Revelation is a long dirge over fall of Babylon (pagan Rome), which grew rich through greed and lust, and which lies in burning ruins in this apocalyptic scenario. (I suppose all scenarios in the book called Apocalypse are by definition apocalyptic.)

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons…for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness… her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities… she glorified herself and played the wanton…so shall her plagues come in a single day, pestilence and mourning and famine, and she shall be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

There’s a repeating refrain here: “Alas, alas, great city… in one hour has your judgment come… Alas, alas, great city… in one hour all your wealth has been laid waste.” This ought to be for us both consolation and warning. The consolation is that evil will not triumph forever, that the righteous and the poor will not be persecuted and crushed forever, that God’s justice and judgment will ultimately prevail. And the execution of his justice will be swift and complete: “in one hour has your judgment come.” The warning applies to us to the extent we have allied ourselves with Babylon, with the powers of darkness, ill-gotten wealth, or any sort of inordinate pleasure or power, especially when it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Everything will go: “in one hour all your wealth has been laid waste.” Whatever we try to cling to, hoard, or use for self-aggrandizement in any form will be wrested from our grasp and destroyed by the judgment of God.

All this mourning and lamentation of wicked world leaders and greedy mega-corporations is contrasted with the rejoicing of the saints and martyrs and all those who were faithful to the Gospel and did not follow the ways (“receive the mark”) of the beast, but who stood with Christ at great personal cost and suffering. As the citadel of evil burns, we hear: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, O saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” Even though there is still a final battle to be waged on earth to definitively dunk the dragon in the lake of fire, heaven is already celebrating: “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication… Alleluia! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory…”

This is meant to encourage the beleaguered faithful as they wonder if justice will ever come, if truth and goodness will ever prevail. Well, God answers with a resounding Yes! It is not given us to know the seasons and times of that which the Father has fixed by his own authority, but He gives us glimpses of the ultimate victory and asks us to trust, with patient endurance and hope. The Lord will always have the last word, and those who stick with Him to the end will have the last laugh, as it were, or rather the everlasting joy. For mighty is the Lord God who brings all before his awesome tribunal.

Little Hannah, one of the anawim, the humble faithful ones of the Lord, burst out in prophetic song when the Lord at last came to her aid: “Speak boastfully no longer, nor let arrogance issue from your mouths. For the Lord is an all-knowing God, a God who judges deeds. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry hunger no more… The Lord will guard the footsteps of his saints, but the wicked shall perish in the darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; He will thunder against them from heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth…” (1Samuel 2:3-10).

Even if Babylon has not yet fallen; even if the dragon is still at large; even if the kings and the merchants are still gloating over their power and profits—know that the Lord is God, that his day is coming, and that in a single hour all the wickedness of the world will be overthrown. Therefore know whose side to be on, and with whom to persevere unto the end.

Dragons in Dungeons

I said I wasn’t going to try to interpret the monsters of Revelation, and I still won’t go into any detail on that, but their very presence in the Book does say something about the world in which we live and God’s plan for our deliverance, so I ought to say something.

The dragon, that is, the devil, makes his first appearance in chapter 12, though this isn’t the first demonic presence we encounter. One of the early plagues (in chapter 9) was that of clouds of scorpion-like locusts released from the bottomless pit. This dungeon was ruled by the fallen angel Apollyon, the destroyer. But the dragon appeared, as we might expect, with the appearance of the Woman, whom he has hated ever since he was cursed in Eden. This Woman has several levels of meaning: the chosen of Israel, the Church, and the Mother of God, for in this vision she gives birth to Christ, whom the dragon tries (but fails) to devour.

OK, so the dragon lost against Christ; now he goes after the holy angels, but St Michael and his heavenly hosts defeat the dragon and his infernal minions and cast them down—to Earth, of all places! Why couldn’t the devil have been cast down to Pluto or Neptune? Then life on earth would have been a lot easier! Well, we got stuck with all Heaven’s castoffs. Having been defeated by Christ and the holy angels, the dragon then goes after the Woman, but he is frustrated in his attempt to destroy her. Therefore “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring” (12:17), which means you and me, and all those who try to be faithful to the Lord. This is the battle in which we find ourselves until the final judgment.

The dragon then enlists the aid of the beast and the false prophet (another beast with the voice of a dragon), thus assembling a kind of unholy trinity with which to fight the True God and the saints. You can read the story to get all the action, but one more thing the unholy trinity does is release from their mouths “three foul spirits like frogs” (16:13), which description is an insult to frogs, but the very presence of these demonic spirits is an affront to all that is good.

We’ll see later in greater detail how the Lord wins the victory over all these raging monsters, but one curious detail ought to be noted here. In the heat of the battle an angel seizes the dragon, chains him up and tosses him into a deep dungeon for a thousand years, yet “after that he must be loosed for a while” (20:3). Here we come to a point where attempts at interpretation fail, but frankly, I don’t have any better ones. Nobody really knows what the thousand years means, in which the devil is sealed in the dungeon and the saints reign with Christ—after which time the devil is to be released to “deceive the nations.” Some say that the reign of Christ and the saints is the time of the Church, from his Resurrection till his return, but if the last 2000 years is the time when the devil is locked up, Heaven help us when he is released! It seems to me that the dragon has been deceiving the nations all along, so my guess would be that the thousand-year reign hasn’t even begun yet. I think it’s quite obvious that the dragon in his rage is still making war on the children of the Woman.

Perhaps those for whom this Book was originally intended had the interpretive keys for all the obscure symbols and allusions, but we do not. One thing that is clear, however, is that anyone who wants to follow Christ cannot claim neutrality in this cosmic clash, cannot hope to remain in placid security while the dragon and his other reptilian riff-raff are still at large. Several times in this Book we find calls for endurance amid persecutions, fidelity amid seductions, purity of faith and worship amid rampant idolatry and blasphemy.

We don’t need to figure out the details of the future scenarios, but we do need to be aware that we have to take sides, we have to choose for the Lamb of God, the King of kings, whose victory over dragons and beasts is assured by the witness of a bloody Cross and an empty tomb. Let us pray that the definitive chaining up of the dragon will happen soon, for the nations are thoroughly deceived. Let us long to hear that “loud voice in heaven, saying: ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down…they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…’” (12:10-11).

Arise, O God, Above the Heavens!

As the priest returns to the sanctuary after distributing Holy Communion, he incenses the Holy Mysteries and says, quoting the psalms: “Arise, O God, above the heavens, and may your glory shine on earth!” I think this is a fitting passage on which to reflect for this feast of the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven.

First, the opening phrase: Arise, O God, above the heavens. This is actually what we are celebrating today. Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, He rose above the heavens, that is, He ascended to his place at the right hand of the Father. This is the crowning of his passion and resurrection, the fulfillment of his glorification—his reward, so to speak, for accomplishing the Father’s will as a man on earth. His mission was not complete until He ascended to the Father, presenting the wounds of his sacrifice, which He will lovingly bear for all eternity as a testimony of his love. We know that the ascension was an essential aspect of his saving work, because Jesus could not renew his relationship with his disciples until it was accomplished. For He said to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “Do not touch Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” Yet this mystical ascension was accomplished shortly thereafter, for that same evening He said to his disciples: “Touch Me and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” This first ascension is what we might term his theological ascension, which was a mystery—like his resurrection that no one saw happening—invisible to the eye but part of his saving work.

His visible ascension, 40 days later, marked the termination of his post-resurrection appearances, and was a powerful sign to the apostles. But, as we selfish humans tend to want to know—what does this have to do with us; what’s in it for us that Jesus rode a cloud back to Heaven? Several things, actually. First, this is a confirmation of everything that happened before. The disciples never witnessed the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth; they only met Jesus as a grown man. To see Him going back to Heaven in such a dramatic and miraculous way, confirms that He did indeed come from Heaven. One of the main points that Jesus tried to impress on his disciples (and all who would believe), according to John’s Gospel, is that the Father sent Him—He came from the Father, and was returning to Him. There’s a kind of symbolism to Christ’s going “up”: it shows that He is divine; He dwells where God dwells; He is Lord, not only of earth, but of heaven as well.

Another confirmation came from the angels who appeared at this glorious event and shook the disciples out of their open-mouthed ecstasy. “This One whom you saw ascend to Heaven,” they said, “will return the same way,” that is, visibly, gloriously. The Second Coming is not going to be some sort of spiritualized faith-experience, as some would like to reinterpret it. Jesus is going to come in glory and, as the Book of Revelation says, every eye will see Him.

There is more in it for us still. In the Old Testament, the high priest would enter the holy of holies with the blood of sacrificed animals as an offering for the atonement of the sins of the people. But now, Jesus, the High Priest of the New Covenant, as we read in Hebrews, enters the holy of holies in Heaven—the real one, not an earthly copy—offering his own shed blood for the forgiveness of our sins. He ever lives to intercede for us before the face of the Father, presenting to Him, until the consummation of the world and the end of time, his own perfect atoning sacrifice, which the Father receives and accepts as the new and everlasting covenant between God and man—the sacrificed body and blood of the Son of God made flesh.

This is one reason we pray verses concerning the ascension right after Holy Communion: at every Divine Liturgy we access, so to speak, or enter into the mystery of that Sacrifice of Christ which stands perpetually before the face of the Father. He died and rose but once, yet the fruits of this sacrifice are meant to be granted to the faithful of all nations and all times, until Jesus returns on the clouds, like the angels said. Meanwhile, we partake of this sacrifice as nourishment for the journey unto everlasting life, for, as the angel told Elijah: eat and drink, or else the journey will be too much for you—we will not have the strength to make the long pilgrimage through this earthly life unto heaven, if the Lord Himself is not our sustenance and nourishment. And He generously provides for us from his own inexhaustible Altar of Sacrifice, that He may abide in us and we in Him.

We have already begun to treat the second part of our opening psalm verse: “and let your glory shine on earth.” The presence of Christ in the sacramental Mysteries extends his heavenly glory to the earth, though in this present time before his second and glorious coming, his radiance is perceived by faith and not by sight. But how is it that Jesus, having ascended to the Father, descends again, as it were, to earth? He already told us this: When I go, I will send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to you. And just before He ascended, He told the disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit that Christ is present to us on earth before his second coming. It is by the Spirit that the presence of Christ, who rose above the heavens, can still shine on earth. We don’t know when Jesus will return, though the Scriptures tell us always to be awake and vigilant—precisely because we don’t know the day or the hour. It has pleased the Father not to reveal it to us, so it is vain, and contrary to the word of God, for people to try to predict the date, as so many throughout the ages have falsely done. Jesus made it very clear in the Acts of the Apostles: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

What is for us to know is that, in the words of Jesus, the Spirit is “the Promise of the Father.” All that the Father has willed for our salvation in Christ will be communicated to us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that the Spirit would glorify Him by declaring to us what is of Christ and of the Father. Thus the Spirit has inspired the Holy Scriptures in which we read the story of our salvation, and the Holy Tradition of the Church in which we live and experience the presence of Christ in all his mysteries.

So, as we await the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and the eventual return of Christ at the end of the ages, and as we celebrate today the glorification of the Lord, let us exclaim in our worship: Arise, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory shine on earth!

Righteous and True

“Great and wonderful are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Righteous and true are your ways, O King of the ages… Righteous are you in these your judgments… Yea, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” (Rev. 15:3; 16:5-7). We might wonder what all this high praise is about. Actually, it is about a series of foul and devastating plagues unleashed on mankind, described as the “wrath of God.” Now we might really wonder…

In the Book of Revelation, divine justice is seen as something in which we ought to rejoice, since it means the end of the persecutions of God’s faithful ones. As the plagues are about to descend on the world, it seems to be quite a glorious thing: “Out of the temple came seven angels…robed in pure bright linen, and their breasts girded with golden sashes. And one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls—full of the wrath of God.” So, upon the earth come painful diseases, and rivers change into blood; the sun scorches men, there are earthquakes and storms of hail the size of basketballs. Rejoice!

The point of all this—for us, anyway—is that whatever God does is good, righteous, true, and just. Whether He is blessing us with peace and prosperity, or raining down blood, fire, or hundred-pound hailstones, his judgments are righteous and true. It may take a little time and effort to get used to this. But if we don’t, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of anger and frustration, and if we really decide to rebel against chastisements and purifications, we may end up like the blasphemers who had thrown in their lot with the Beast and the False Prophet.

The plagues had a two-fold purpose: to punish evildoers, but at the same time to call them to repentance. For the “wrath of God” is not like human rage—God doesn’t lose control of his emotions, get all red in the face, and then impulsively do things He’ll regret later. No, God’s wrath is simply a righteous, just, and wise response to human wickedness when it has not heeded the repeated call to repentance. God wanted repentance to be the outcome of the plagues, but instead, people “cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory” (16:9). We get a little more detail after some earlier plagues: they “did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols… nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts” (9:20-21).

So what must we do? Praise Him for his righteous judgments, of course, and use the opportunities for repentance that are offered by various calamities. Better to endure a few plagues now than the Lake of Fire forever. We really have no idea of the meaning of all the events of our lives, especially the painful ones, so we have to trust Him “who has power over the plagues.” Whatever He sends or allows, He does so for reasons righteous and true. It is a hard but indispensable lesson to learn: we have to give Him glory even as the hailstones fall. The vast majority of spiritual writings these days seem intent on creating a portrait of God that is to our liking, that is soothing and consoling to our emotions, and that is not in any way threatening or demanding—in short, “God, as we’d like Him to be.” But the Scriptures reveal to us God as He is, or at least to the extent He has chosen to reveal Himself, and that is the image we ought to keep before us. God is a Lover, a Forgiver, an Embracer, a Savior, a Judge, an Avenger, a Punisher of evil and a Rewarder of good; He blesses his people with peace and He makes fire fall from heaven. There is much more that can be said, but the point is that we have to take God as He is, and not deny his right to judge with justice or even to inflict salutary punishment. For this very judgment of God, as we see in the Book, invites the praise and glory of the saints and angels, who know that everything God does is worthy of praise and honor.

Let us practice now, in the midst of our minor (even if many) trials, so that when the big plagues come we’ll be ready to bless and not to curse. “Great and wonderful are your deeds… righteous and true are your ways!” It will all be proven so in the end, anyway. Now is the time to affirm it in faith and trust, so we will at length be found worthy to join the heavenly choirs in praising the all-wonderful—even if mostly incomprehensible—righteous and true God!

Sovereign Lord, How Long…?

One of the visions St John had was of the souls of the martyrs in Heaven, “under the altar” (presumably because they had offered their lives as a sacrifice to Christ). Here is what they were saying: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). After this, “they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”

Now I’m wondering if the martyrs said this for their own sake, or for the sake of John and all who would read his words. It seems to me that the souls of the martyrs, once safely in Heaven, would have no desire for blood-vengeance. After all, the proto-martyr St Stephen, even while on earth and not yet confirmed in heavenly glory, asked God to forgive those who were stoning him to death—in imitation of Christ, who forgave his crucifiers. So I would think that the martyrs in Heaven also would pray for the forgiveness and conversion of their executioners. But their words were meant to be an encouragement for the beleaguered and suffering witnesses of Christ who, as the psalmist often did, feel compelled to ask the big question: “O Lord, how long…?” His response is that they are to be patient, for the full number of those destined for martyrdom is not yet complete, that is, the plan of God for the consummation of all things is still in process.

Personally, I’m not interested in vengeance, but I confess that I ask the question for other reasons. Sovereign Lord, how long will evildoers prosper, how long will they oppress the poor, how long will violence and hatred destroy families and nations, how long will accidents and illnesses separate loved ones, how long will the demons deceive and seduce the unsuspecting masses, how long must we carry about the burdens of our own and others’ weaknesses and defects, how long must we continue in failure, sorrow, pain, and discouragement, how long must every little thing go wrong until life seems like and unending stream of wearying trials and frustrations, how long until we can finally be gathered unto You in everlasting peace?

As I said, the psalmist has often asked the question, and here is one of the answers he came up with: “Why are you cast down, my soul, and why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise Him still, my Savior and my God” (Ps 42). The response given to the souls of the martyrs and to the psalmist is basically the same: Be patient, there is reason for hope. The Lord is still Lord and all things are in his hands; his plan is not yet fulfilled, but it will be. He is still your Savior and your God.

That doesn’t precisely answer the question, “how long?”, but the Lord has a habit of answering questions in his terms and not ours. Perhaps in a sense the answer lies with us, and not only in God’s inscrutable will. Perhaps it is not so much we who are waiting for Him as it is He who is waiting for us: waiting for us to give up our sins and selfish concerns, waiting for us to offer our lives completely to him as sacrifices for the fulfillment of his plans, waiting for us to have sufficient trust and love so as to be “windows” in the world for the communication of his grace, waiting for us to stop asking so many questions so we can put all our energies into faith and good works and unwavering witness to Jesus! We have our unique and indispensable contributions to make, but we tend either to want to stand on the sidelines and watch, or we are simply too preoccupied with ourselves to bother about the salvation of others or about God’s great designs for the world.

So the Sovereign Lord asks us: “How long…?”

Holy, Holy, Holy

“Lo, in heaven an open door!” (Rev. 4:1). Would that we could all see through this door, if only for a while. After St John received the messages for the churches, he was granted a vision of the glory of God and the heavenly worship. To me, this section (chs. 4-5) and the closing two chapters are really the essence of the book, for they are, as the first words of this chapter indicate, and open door to Heaven. Chapters 2-3 let us know the spiritual and moral requirements for walking through that door, and chapters 6-20 indicate what we’ll have to endure before the end, but here let us gaze for a moment through that open door.

If you’re hoping for a precise description of Heaven, you’ll not find it here, for everything is written in symbolic language. Does God the Father really look like jasper and carnelian (hey, these are only green and red chalcedony—not even precious stones!), and is there an emerald rainbow around his throne? The point is, everything is shining and sparkling and colorful and beautiful—when the door of Heaven opens for you, you can describe it in your own way!

There are 24 elders around the throne of God, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel plus the 12 apostles. Then there are those four “living ones” who seem to be seraphs, since they have six wings. But they are “full of eyes” and have faces like animals or birds. This is similar to what Ezekiel saw in his vision. The many eyes symbolize knowledge and vigilance. But the most important thing is not what they look like, but what they do: “Day and night, they never cease to sing: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” When they do this, all the “living ones” and angels and saints and elders fall down and worship God.

The awesome holiness of God is a major theme in this Book, but the awareness and respect for it is often missing in our daily lives, our prayer, and even our worship. Sure, people say “holy, holy, holy” during the Mass, but they way it is celebrated in the post-Vatican II liturgical wasteland often falls far short of the glory that must be given to God, and it does not create the atmosphere of deep reverence and awe in which one would naturally be inclined to fall prostrate in adoration. The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, while it still can be celebrated poorly, at least is designed to foster reverence and a sense of the transcendent, holy God. This awareness needs to be recovered in all Christian worship.

“Holiness” is difficult to describe well, and I won’t attempt it here, except for one aspect that is repeated in these chapters of Revelation: worthiness. God’s holiness means He is worthy of adoration and everlasting praise. “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (4:11). Then the Lamb enters the vision, and He alone is found worthy to open the scroll of the mystery of God and of salvation history. (Don’t take this vision literally, either: He has seven horns and seven eyes—these symbolize fullness [the perfect number 7] of power and knowledge.) “Worthy are You, to take the scroll and open its seals…” And finally, “myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands” of angels sang out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:9-12). We express our awareness of God’s holiness by exalting his worthiness to receive our worship.

Finally, in the climax of this vision through the open door of Heaven, the whole cosmos enters into ecstatic worship of God. “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying: ‘To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living ones said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (5:13-14). Not your average Sunday at church, but it should be! The point is, everything is inexorably moving toward this cosmic climax; this is the goal of all visible and invisible creation. How devastating it would be if we were to realize—all too late—that through our sins we had cut ourselves off from this endless, joyous, triumphal celebration! We’ll see later in the book that indeed all those who did not give glory to God on earth, who did not exalt the worthiness of the Lamb, will be plunged the everlasting sulfurous torment of the dragon and his foul minions—wholly and forever excluded from the boundless rejoicing on the other side of Heaven’s door.

So give glory to God, fall down before the throne with incense and prayer, and join the myriads of heavenly powers in their unceasing cry: Holy, holy, holy! Do not settle for less, and to not be seduced into the idolatry of whatever does not give glory to God and to the Lamb. This passing life is moving toward its climax. Make sure you are found worthy to walk through the door to Heaven!

The Eyes of the Blind Shall See

This Sunday the Byzantine Liturgy celebrates the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 of the Gospel of John. We see in the Gospel that, while the blind man was instantly cured of his physical blindness by the word of the Lord and by washing in the pool of Siloam, his spiritual enlightenment went through several stages. He first recognized Jesus as a healer, then a prophet, then the Son of God, whom he worshiped. There are several levels of blindness that we too have to overcome before we are fully enlightened. I can see at least four, and those are what we’ll look at today. I will call them the enlightenments of faith, morals, self-awareness, and spiritual or mystical awareness. Enlightenment as to faith and morals is somewhat akin to the blind man’s washing in the pool and receiving his sight. When we are baptized, we receive, among other things, the theological virtue of faith. It may be in seed form, but that seed is indispensable if there is to be an eventual flowering of faith and bearing fruit in a life pleasing to God. The capacity to believe in God and to develop a sound moral sense are part of our initial enlightenment. These ought to be cultivated by our parents, teachers, etc. It is possible, however, that we can be corrupted after this initial enlightenment; our faith can weaken if it is not instructed and fed; our consciences can be dulled by our lazy and spineless acceptance of the ways of the world. But I will assume that you who are reading this have sufficient faith and moral sense to enable you to live according to the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.

A much more difficult enlightenment to attain is that of self-awareness. By that I mean seeing ourselves as we really are, without the blinders of pride and self-deception, and hence knowing how to rightly relate to God and to other people. Most people, in practice, estimate themselves rather too highly and judge others rather too critically. I once asked a group of people, as an exercise in self-awareness and self-improvement, to make a list of their own faults and of possible ways of correcting them. There was quite a spectrum of results. On one end were those who made an honest and conscientious self-assessment. In the middle were those who did list their faults, but grudgingly and with some resentment. At the other end was one who also made a list of faults—but they were the faults of others, not his own! This is really the worst kind of blindness, for it is not a mere inability to see, but a refusal even to look; not just a defect but a harmful choice—a refusal to look honestly at one’s own faults, responding instead with indignation and pointing out others’ faults, to deflect the light of truth away from one’s own darkness.

When Alex Jones, the Pentecostal minister who recently converted to Catholicism, had his first great personal encounter with God, he felt filled and surrounded with an indescribable presence and peace and certainty of the existence and loving-goodness of God. But immediately he became clearly and painfully aware of his own sins and his need for conversion and repentance. In the searching presence of God, all self-deception and dulled self-awareness must disappear. Only the truth remains. So let us realize that if we don’t have a humbling awareness of our sinfulness, and if we instead resent correction or begin to blame others, we are not in the presence of God, not in the Light; we are still blind people groping around in the darkness. To make matters worse, there are those who, while in darkness, pride themselves on their clear-sightedness.

These are like the Pharisees in the Gospel. When they heard Jesus speak about coming for judgment, to make the blind see and the seeing blind, they said: You’re not calling us blind, are you? His response is one we need to reflect on carefully: “If you were blind, would be no sin in that; but ‘we see,’ you say, and so your sin remains.” There is no sin in being physically blind, or even in ignorance, if one is willing to be instructed and to learn. But hardness of heart settles in the one whose pride and refusal to either learn from others or honestly look at himself keeps him in a state of spiritual blindness, which only a miracle can heal.

The last type of enlightenment I’ll mention here is that spiritual-mystical awareness that opens us up to the mysteries of God in and around us. We cannot produce this on our own; it is a gift, but we are required to labor in prayer and asceticism in order to create the necessary dispositions for receiving it. Only the pure of heart can see God and be brought into his intimacy. The church where we worship, for example, is full of angels and saints and of the presence of God Himself, who receives the prostrate adoration of the heavenly hosts, as they sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” St John Chrysostom says that the sanctuary is crammed with angels adoring as we offer the mystical sacrifice. He says one would have to be made of stone to feel like he is still on earth and not in heaven during those sacred moments. Now there was a man who had attained a high level of enlightenment. Yet here is a lesson for us all: he still had his blind spots; for example, he was a rather virulent anti-semite.

So even as we advance in spiritual life, even as our awareness of the presence of God grows, we need to pray that God will reveal to us our blind spots (since we’re lagging behind—He’s already revealed our blind spots to everyone who knows us!), so that we will grow in that enlightened self-awareness which enables us to overcome sin and bad habits, and which prepares us for a deeper mystical awareness of the things of God. And let us especially not fear or refuse to look at what has to be changed in ourselves—for the only blind person that can not be healed is the one who will not be healed, who will not wash in Siloam, will not do as the Lord commands, will not cry out: “Lord, I want to see!”

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