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

Archive for August, 2007

Tending the Vineyard

We have in this Sunday’s Gospel another parable of the Kingdom of God (Mt 21:33-43). This is somewhat different than many others, for it is not primarily eschatological, that is, it is not only about the fulfillment of the Kingdom at the end of time. This one actually looks backward, for the most part, into salvation history, and only hints about the future. So let’s look first at its historical context and meaning, and then at how it speaks to us today of the Kingdom of God.

vineyard.jpgThis parable is basically an allegory. The vineyard is Israel, which association is taken from Old Testament imagery (Is. 5; Ps 79/80, etc), and the tenants are God’s chosen people. God expected his people to fulfill the terms of the covenant He had made with them, that is, He expected them to bear fruit and make an offering of worship and thanksgiving to Him. So God sent his servants, the prophets, to remind the people of their obligations toward God, but the people did to them what the wicked tenants did to the owner’s servants in the parable: they beat and stoned and killed them. The Lord in his mercy sent still more prophets, who were treated the same way.

Finally, the owner of the vineyard sent his son. This might seem foolish, given the fact that everyone else he sent was beaten or killed. But the son represented his father, the owner, the boss, who had the authority to remove the tenants from their position, so he thought, “they will respect my son.” They didn’t respect him, however, and plotted to kill him so as to receive his inheritance. For a long time I did not understand their reasoning. How could they possibly think that if they killed the owner’s son, the owner would make them the heirs of his fortune? According to the laws of the time, this is not so far-fetched. If a man died without any relatives as heirs, his property became unoccupied land that went to the first claimant; the tenants had the first opportunity to claim by occupation. Yet to do that they would have had to kill the owner, too, before he had opportunity to do away with them!

In the allegory, the beloved son is, of course, Jesus Christ, who came after the prophets, the Father’s last resort in calling his people to repentance and fidelity to Him. They killed Him, thinking (in terms of the parable) that the messianic inheritance would be theirs without having to bother with obedience to the Messiah. But it didn’t work that way. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard brought the wicked tenants to a bad end and gave the vineyard to others, who would give Him the good fruit He sought. The message is clear: Jesus ends by saying, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” He cites a passage from Psalm 117/118: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

This brings us to the delicate issue of the relationship of Christians and Jews. The saying of Jesus manifestly asserts that what was given and promised to the chosen people, and reiterated by the prophets and finally the Son of God, would be given to others because of the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah. Only a small minority did accept Jesus; the vast majority did not. Yet the development over the centuries of a severe and sometimes even fanatical anti-semitism is not justifiable and is surely displeasing to God. Some of our own prayer services are still sadly marked by this and should be purged of all such hatred and denigration (though it is nearly impossible to get Eastern ecclesiastical authorities to do anything when it comes to liturgical reform).

Their rejection of the Messiah is incontestable, however, and the passage about the rejected cornerstone turns up in several places in the New Testament, a key text for explaining what had happened. In the Acts of the Apostles it is used as a direct accusation against the Jewish authorities: “Jesus Christ… is the stone rejected by you builders, but which has become the cornerstone” (4:10-11). In St Peter’s first letter he uses the passage against unbelievers in general: “for those who do not believe, ‘the very stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” (2:7).

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein, was a Jew who converted to Catholicism but who never renounced her Jewish identity and heritage. Most Jews who become Christians don’t think of themselves as leaving Judaism for Christianity, but as being fulfilled by Christianity. Christ Himself said He did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. The apostles and the first generation of Christians did not consider themselves as converts to a new religion; they considered themselves Jews who had found and embraced the Messiah.

Anyway, Edith Stein, in commenting on the Stations of the Cross, produced an allegory of her own. In reflecting on the three falls of Christ while carrying his Cross, she said that these correspond to three major tragedies in the history of mankind, the triple fall of humanity. The first fall represented the original sin of Adam and Eve, the second fall represented the rejection of the Messiah by the chosen people, and the third fall represented the falling away of those who bear the name of Christian, that is, the sin, disobedience, and even apostasy of those who are supposed to be the new and worthy tenants of the vineyard.

So we are in no position of superiority to condemn the Jews for their rejection of Christ. Every time we sin we reject Christ as well, and our judgment will be more severe than theirs, because we are supposed to know better.

We should then look at this parable in terms of our own lives and relationship to God. God has made us the new tenants of his vineyard, the Church, yet because we still regard the Old Testament as the word of God, the Church is not in a radical discontinuity with Israel, but rather represents her fulfillment in the mystery of Christ—her Savior, Messiah, and Bridegroom. St Paul calls the Church “the Israel of God,” for Israel is still beloved of God, whether fulfilled in the Church or still sadly waiting for the Messiah who has already come.

The Gospel says that the owner of the vineyard sent his messengers during the “season of fruit” to collect his share. For Christians, it is always the “season of fruit,” because we are called to bear fruit at all times. The fathers interpret Jesus’ cursing the barren fig tree as a judgment on Israel, which failed to bear fruit when the beloved Son came to collect it, even though He came out of season. This is a call for us to be vigilant, for it is the Master, not the servants, who will decide when it is time for harvest, and we are often warned in the Gospel that He will come at a time we least expect.

The Lord sends us many messengers in the meantime: the saints, the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the many and varied graces which call to our hearts like prophetic voices: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Shall we stone or kill the prophets, that is, ignore or reject the invitations of God to repent, to pray and do penance, to forgive and to act charitably, to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow his beloved Son? When St Peter quoted the passage about the rejected cornerstone, he followed it with a related one: “a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall,” and he explains, “they stumble because they disobey the word.”

So let us resolve today to obey the word of God, in every way that it comes to us, and to be ready to offer the spiritual fruit of prayer, sacrifice, and good works, in season and out—for since the Messiah has come it is always the season of fruit; we are always called to be diligent and watchful. The vineyard can be taken away from us as well. St Paul warned the Gentile Christians not to be haughty or complacent, for if the Jews, God’s favorites, were cut off from the vine for their unbelief, then all the more will the latecomer Gentiles be cut off if they become lazy or unfaithful. St Paul fully expected the Jews to come back to Christ before the end—and I’m sure if they do they will be the most fervent of disciples, putting many complacent Christians to shame.

God repeatedly sends his beloved Son to us, in a most precious way in the Holy Eucharist. Let us welcome Him and begin to bear fruit for his glory and for the salvation of his chosen people—of both the Old and New Testaments.

The Struggle with God

An old and experienced monk of Mt Athos was once interviewed by a Western journalist. The monk was asked if he had ever fought with the devil. He replied that for many years he had struggled with the devil, jacob-and-the-angel.jpgbut he had finally passed beyond that stage. “Now,” he said, “I struggle with God.”

There is a profound truth to this, one that I can hardly hope to express adequately in a blog post, but since that has never stopped me before, I’ll try to say a few words about it.

The mystery of God is far beyond our ability to comprehend, and we do ourselves and the world a disservice by trying to reduce Him to a few manageable concepts, or still worse, to relegate Him to some inconsequential corner of our existence, making a mental note to get around to that business when we have a little extra time.

The truth is that God is All, and is inescapable, even though people may try to deny or flee Him. The monk of Mt Athos had discovered this in his own experience, and I am just beginning to see it myself—but such insights are hard-won and usually cost much in the way of soul-searching, prayer, and suffering. In our struggles with the meaning of life and all that we experience, both good and bad, we have to find God at the heart of it all.

Despite all my conflicts and struggles with evil and the powers of darkness over the years, I have come to realize that the devil is really only a minor player in the great cosmic drama that is human life and destiny. He is merely an instrument, a foil, a means by which our true mettle is tested. God is the ultimate architect of everything, and if the devil can sometimes serve the divine purpose, he is granted permission to wreak havoc in the world. I think that perhaps some of the Old Testament writers, before they inherited (or regardless of the inheritance of) an understanding of demonology from the Babylonians and Persians, may have been more right-on than I had previously thought. “Good things and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth, come from the Lord” (Sir. 11:14); “For he afflicts and he shows mercy, he leads down to Hades and brings up again, and there is no one who can escape his hand” (Tob. 13:2). It is telling that at the end of the Book of Job it says that after his trials his relatives came to console him “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11). Even though the devil was the immediate cause of his sufferings, they are said to have come from the Lord, for He is responsible for permitting them. And He is also the sole cause of the ultimate reward.

We never hear the psalmist accusing the devil of anything. Either he is complaining to the Lord about human malice, or simply attributing his woes to the “anger of God” or his own sin. Now this is not to try to paint a negative picture of God. The point is that ultimately there is only God, and we have to come to terms with that, one way or another. We cannot deny the evils, sufferings and sorrows of the world, nor can we simply say that the devil has done all that. We have to go deeper.

One of the lines in my daily morning offering reads: “Whatever tidings I may receive during this day, teach me to accept them tranquilly in the firm belief that your holy will governs all.” Sometimes I have to say that repeatedly, to let it sink in: “Your holy will governs all.” This is why the devil is practically out of the equation. Basically it is us and God. If (what we deem) unfortunate things happen they are either because God has willed them or because we have followed the devil or our own passions—but in all cases, God has at least permitted them, for the sake of some foreseen good.

The devil doesn’t take God by surprise, pull a fast one on Him, sneak around the back door. The devil doesn’t work some disaster in the world, enslave some soul, ruin some holy work, only to have God say, “Oh no! I wasn’t expecting that! Now what do I do?” No, God sets precise limits to the devil’s activity. The devil can only work by God’s permission. If the devil could do anything without God’s permission, then God would cease to be God and would have relinquished his Lordship of the universe. Sometimes we might think (and it seems there is some evidence of this) that if we do something that frustrates the devil’s plans he will retaliate against us, perhaps in some extraordinary way, so we fear doing anything beyond the minimum. But an exorcist once said that this is not true—the devil is already doing everything he is permitted to do. His malice is such that if he could do more against us, he would be doing it already. Perhaps, then, when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “deliver us from evil,” what that amounts to is, “revoke your permission!”

We have to realize as well—before criticizing God for giving the devil too much permission to work evil—that the devil isn’t the only one getting God’s permission. God also permits us to use our free will for good or evil, and hence the majority of evil in this world is not directly demonic in origin but is rather the result of the misuse of human freedom, for selfish or malicious purposes. Once we have established certain patterns or habits of sin, the devil may simply leave us alone, knowing that we’ll go on sinning on automatic pilot, as it were.

Our argument is ultimately with God, who gave us freedom, who gives the tempter permissions, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, and who governs the universe differently than we would. As I’ve said several times on this blog, God’s argument is essentially that which He made to Job, which boils down to his infinite wisdom and righteousness and our severe shortage of both. Yet this, while undeniable, does not always satisfy (even if it ought to). So He shows us the Cross of his Son. God gave the world and the devil carte blanche to unleash all their mad rage and destructive violence on Jesus. We don’t complain much about having all our otherwise unforgivable sins taken away by his having to experience that agony, but when pain and tragedy touch us we cry foul. God can permit the worst of violence against his own Son in order to secure our place in Paradise—that’s fine with us. But we say He is unjust if he permits suffering or disaster to enter our own lives.

So we go on struggling with God. Sometimes the issues are great and global, sometimes smaller, more personal and intimate. We don’t understand the ebb and flow of the life of grace, the experience of Presence and the experience of Absence, the things God allows which seem to hinder our well-intentioned advance toward Him. We wonder why we grope in darkness when Jesus said that no follower of his would be in darkness; we wonder why we know so little of his truth when it is his stated will that we know his truth. We don’t know why the Church makes us pray, in the words of Scripture, for a “quiet and tranquil life” when we know darn well that such is impossible in this world. (I am reminded of a line from The Imitation of Christ: “Why do you look for rest here, since this is not your resting place?”) Everywhere we look in the world we see unimaginable suffering of body and soul, and we feel it, being linked by grace and compassion with our brothers and sisters—natural disasters, wars, terrorism, sexual perversion, corruption in government and business, malice and injustice of every kind—and we open the Bible and read: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!”

Yes, we have many questions, we have many struggles, we fail despite our best efforts in some areas, and we reap the consequences of our lack of effort in other areas. So we turn to God. To whom else shall we go? Our striving is with Him alone. St Paul says our war is with evil powers, but the only effective way to fight them is by turning away from them and toward God. We have a different battle, a more profound one. We don’t struggle against God (though it may occasionally seem that way), we struggle through Him, with Him, and especially in Him. We grapple with the mysterious angel that kept Jacob wrestling all night. We are wounded in the struggle but we do not let him go until he blesses us.

God is everywhere present and filling all things, even our tortured thoughts, restless emotions, and broken hearts. That doesn’t mean He agrees with everything that is within us, but it must become clear to us that nothing happens outside of Him, his will, his permission, his ultimate plan. We can use his permission for our perdition, if we choose, for the only way to be “not of God” is to freely reject Him. It is better to decide to trust Him, to surrender to Him, even to throw ourselves into the abyss of unseeing faith without a compass—having exhausted every attempt to figure things out for ourselves, having worn ourselves out from hurling ourselves at his impregnable glory, having wept ourselves breathless and prostrate to the background music of nails piercing flesh and wood.

There is only God. There is only humanity. We are meant for each other. We are united in Jesus Christ. We can hardly hope to fathom his Mystery in this life, but we can reach out a feeble and trembling hand. I daresay we’ll never stop struggling with Him, but as our eyes begin to dim and our strength flows out of us like a river seeking the infinite ocean, let us gather up our questions, doubts, and fears, and lay them gently aside. An inner light will begin to glow, and we will hear a voice—strangely, our own—coming from our strife-torn hearts that have just begun to love, saying, “Yes. Amen.”

The Food that Perishes

Now I’m not talking here about something in the back of the fridge that you forgot to check for the past two weeks. Neither was Jesus, for his words always have a profound meaning and wide application.

In his famous “Bread of Life” discourse (Jn 6:25-58), Jesus said: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (v 27). There is a contrast here between any earthly food (for all food eventually perishes), and the heavenly bread of the Eucharist, which He would give: “the bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (v 51). This heavenly bread does not perish, for it is the Body of Christ Himself, who is the eternal Son of the living God. There’s a parallel here with Jesus’ discourse on living water with the Samaritan woman: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). Earthly food perishes, earthly water satisfies only temporarily. The Bread from Heaven and the Living Water “endure to eternal life.”

I think, however, that Jesus was not only speaking about the ephemeral nature of ordinary food and drink and the lasting nature of heavenly gifts. Everything in this world is going to pass away; nothing lasts forever except the Kingdom of Heaven (well, Hell does, too, but let’s focus on the bright side for now). We will last forever as well, since our souls are immortal and our bodies will eventually be resurrected. The challenge for us is to live in such a way that we know what lasts and what doesn’t, and to make the former our priority.

I’ve recently embarked upon a long overdue re-reading of The Imitation of Christ. There you get the clear sense imitation-of-christ.jpgthat “the world with all its seductions is passing away, but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1Jn 2:17). Many forgotten or ignored truths of the spiritual life are presented in this classic book—many that some people would like deliberately to forget or ignore today. The shortness of life and the length of eternity, the foolishness of pride and the blessings of humility, the punishments for heedlessness and the rewards for virtue and fidelity to Christ, the value of spiritual enlightenment and the vanity of carnal pleasures and worldly pursuits—in short, the fundamentals of spiritual life and the way to inner peace. Thomas à Kempis was one who did not labor for perishable things but rather looked to that which endures—like St Paul, who counsels us to look not to the seen, which is transient, but to the unseen, which is eternal (2Cor 4:18).

In a literal sense, we do have to labor for food that perishes, for we have to earn our daily bread and whatever we truly need for bodily survival. But in Jesus’ saying, “labor” has a wider meaning: don’t focus on, don’t become obsessed with, don’t give all your time and energy to what perishes, even if you need it for this present life. This life is passing away, and if all you did was feed, clothe, and amuse yourself, then your life has been wasted. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The Bread from Heaven, the Living Water, the divine words that will not pass away, and our relationship with God—which is the only thing we will take with us when we die—must be where our most focused and sustained attention abide, the goal of our best efforts.

Perhaps it is time to return to the basics, the tried and true path to spiritual growth, to peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, to “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Let what is perishable perish; let what endures endure. And seek the wisdom to choose what leads to the imperishable Kingdom.

Fire in the Blood (Part 2)

There is more. The Holy Spirit is indispensable for our life in the Kingdom of Heaven. In a sense the Spirit spirit-dove-2.jpgis identified with that Kingdom. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within us. St Seraphim of Sarov stated quite categorically: “By the Kingdom of God the Lord meant the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Also, there are some manuscripts of the Gospels, known to the fathers who commented on them, in which the Lord’s Prayer reads not “Thy kingdom come,” but “Let Thy Spirit come.”

The sacramental presence of Christ that is renewed within us at each Holy Communion enables us to live even now as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a twofold dimension of the Spirit/Kingdom reality that is expressed in the prayers of the Liturgy. In the two prayers that implore God for the fruits of divine Communion we ask for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven and for the inheritance of the same Kingdom.

So the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven is, like that of “eternal life” in the Gospel of John, one that is “already and not yet,” a mystery that is presently realized but still to come in its full and visible manifestation. Thus the Kingdom is fulfilled as the Heavenly Spirit brings Christ to dwell in us. Where Christ dwells He is present in the fullness of his truth and love and saving work. His presence now is trans-historical and hence contains the past, present, and future as one unending “moment” of divine existence and presence. That is why we can “remember,” in the offering of the Holy Gifts, “the second and glorious coming,” along with the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, etc. So the Kingdom can be fulfilled in us now because Christ is in us now.

This does not mean that we should expect to arrive instantly at moral and spiritual perfection, or at the complete and harmonious integration of body, soul, and spirit, as we approach the sacred chalice. But it means that all we need for this is present within us now; the reservoir is full. Our life’s work is to draw from the fountain of eternal life within us that never runs dry (see John 4: 14).

Still, there is the “not yet” dimension to the Kingdom. That is why we continue to pray that we may inherit it, and why we pray in the Our Father for the Kingdom to come. The Kingdom of Heaven is present in us mystically. (I don’t like when people say things like, “not just mystically [or spiritually], but really.” Mystically is really; spiritually is really!) God’s kingdom is simply not yet manifest in its eschatological glory and universal extension, and in our permanent establishment therein. This is what we are praying for when ask to inherit it. As Fr Raymond Gawronski writes, “The Church’s contemplation is an eschatological look-out for eternity” (Word and Silence). So, even as the Holy Spirit brings the life and grace of the Kingdom to our souls with every Holy Communion, we are always turned toward the east, the place of the rising the sun, of the return of the Light, the place from which the Son of Man will come as lightning flashing from east to west (see Matthew 24:27), so that every eye will see Him as the gates of Heaven swing open to welcome the elect.

Having seen the true Light and received the Heavenly Spirit, we also rejoice in having “found the true faith.” Does this mean that we have “joined the right church”? Well, yes and no. The sacramental Mystery of the Eucharist is “the heart of Thy Church,” and it is true that the Holy Eucharist is not available in every church. Hence one must belong where the Eucharist is present if one wants to have that life Jesus promised to those who eat and drink his flesh and blood (John 6:54). Yet “true faith” is much more than church membership or correct doctrine. The Pharisees had the correct doctrine, all the traditions, and the God-given authority to teach and lead the people of God. But did they have true faith? Jesus evidently did not think so. They received his most stinging reproaches. True faith must be understood as true life.

John Eldredge writes in The Journey of Desire: “Christianity is often presented as essentially the transfer of a body of knowledge… Right belief is seen as the means to life… content is what matters. But notice this—the Pharisees knew more about the Bible than most of us ever will, and it hardened their hearts.” He goes on to quote T.S. Eliot, who wrote that we have “Knowledge of words, but ignorance of the Word.”

Continuing to make this point, Eldredge writes: “And this, we are told, is the good news. Know the right thing; do the right thing. This is life? … We don’t need more facts, and we certainly don’t need more things to do. We need Life, and we’ve been looking for it ever since we lost Paradise. Jesus appeals to our desire because he came to speak to it. When we abandon desire, we no longer hear or understand what he is saying. But we have returned to…preaching the law… We are told to kill desire and call it sanctification… As a result, [Dallas] Willard says, ‘The souls of human beings are left to shrivel and die on the plains of life because they are not introduced into the environment for which they were made.’”

Finding the true faith means finding the One who said, “I am the Truth; I am the Life.” We can have our names listed in the registry of the “true” Church, and still end up hearing from Christ what He said to certain others who boasted of their association with Him: “I do not know you” (see Matthew 7: 22-23; 25: 11-12).

We say we have found the true faith after receiving the Eucharist because now Christ abides in us and we in him (John 6: 56). The true faith is not merely a list of things to believe and do, and not merely the act of our intellectual assent to them. Having the true faith means being in love with God and living life in a grateful response to the unrestrained self-bestowal of the One who loved us first. All the rest of the details follow from this essential and irreplaceable reality. If you have all the details and not the personal, living relationship, you have nothing—not true faith, not true life.

The call to approach with faith the Holy Mysteries, which the deacon (or priest) utters just before Communion, should be for us a wake-up call. “If only you knew the gift of God,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman. This is what He is saying to us as well. We are invited to “feast on the riches of God’s house, and drink from the stream of his delight” (Psalm 35/36:9). Are we sufficiently aware that we have divine life within us, that the very Blood of Christ is flowing through our veins?

As this realization dawns upon us, we spontaneously begin to worship the Holy Trinity for having saved us, loved us, granted blessings and gifts to us, and for everything else that belongs to God’s loving watchfulness over our lives.

Jesus said that He came to earth to cast fire upon it (Lk 12:49). Well, He did it, all right. It’s in his Blood; it’s in his Body. Let it ignite your soul. See the Light, receive the Spirit, discover what it means to have true faith—and worship the undivided Trinity for having saved you.

Fire in the Blood (Part 1)

“Thy hand holds up the world and the universe rests in thy love. Thy life-giving body is at the heart of thy Church; Thy sacred blood protects the Bride.” (Cyrillonas, Supplication to God)

Those of you familiar with the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom know that the following hymn is sung immediately after Holy Communion: “We have seen the true Light; we have received the Heavenly Spirit; the-chalice-stained-glass.jpgwe have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity for having saved us.” It may seem odd that this exultant hymn of wonder and gratitude doesn’t mention anything about the divine Body and Blood. Only light, Spirit, and faith—and worship as a response to salvation. This should give us cause to reflect on the inner dynamism of the Holy Eucharist and perhaps enable us to explore a little further the meaning of this Mystery.

“Enlightenment” is the goal of the practice of most far-eastern religions. For that very reason, unfortunately, the term may be suspect in some Christian circles. In any case, we tend to use other terms to describe what we seek in our Christian spiritual life. But if you look at the texts of the Byzantine Divine Office and Liturgy, you will discover that we pray for enlightenment very much indeed! Even the sacramental initiation into the life of God and the Church is traditionally called “enlightenment” or “illumination.”

For Christians, enlightenment goes beyond wisdom, beyond insight, beyond inner peace and outer compassion, and beyond the experience of “cosmic consciousness.” That is because—and this is a great hallmark of Christianity—enlightenment essentially means communion with the unique Light that is the tri-personal God of Christian revelation. Christ is specifically called “the true Light that enlightens everyone,” and He referred to Himself as “the Light of the world” (John 1:9; 8:12). Thus every experience of spiritual insight and growth, every advance toward a transfigured perception of the world, of ourselves and of God, must be related to the personal presence of the Light within us.

So we naturally exclaim when Jesus comes to us in the Holy Eucharist: “We have seen the true Light!” The Body and Blood of Christ are means to a personal divine communion; they are not just super-holy “things” that automatically sanctify us by contact. St Paul makes this clear when he says that you can actually become sick and die from receiving the divine Body and Blood—if you do so “in an unworthy manner…without discerning the body,” i.e., without realizing the greatness of the gift, without “examining yourself,” being heedless of the unique and intimate relationship that is being established and nurtured through this extraordinary encounter (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

Our communion with Christ in the Holy Eucharist is fire and light, spirit and life. There’s a certain awakening that has to precede the full experience of enlightenment. If we are spiritually sleepwalking throughout our lives, we can be daily communicants but still not see the Light. It’s not automatic. You cannot say, “I’ve received Communion 5000 times in my life. Surely, if this is Christ Himself, I should be sanctified by now.” Well, you should be—it is possible even with one Holy Communion—but if you aren’t, it’s because you are not awake, you don’t believe, you are lacking in desire and love, you are failing to respond to the divine invitation to change your life and your way of thinking, you are not giving your all to fulfill the Two Great Commandments (if you don’t know them by now, see Mark 12:29-31).

Don’t feel alone, however. To some extent we are all in the same boat: a mixture of good and bad, of nobility and baseness, of strength and weakness, of success and failure. But we still have no excuse to remain in the spiritual torpor of the sleepwalkers. “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). Christ Himself is the Light, and we should approach the Holy Mysteries with spiritual eyes open, so we can truthfully exclaim that we have seen the true Light. Those who are being sanctified by Holy Communion are the ones who know their weakness and want to do something about it; who long for a better, holier life, and are willing to do whatever it takes to enter into it; who will not cease seeking, yearning, struggling, and praying until they and the whole universe rest in God’s love.

Emerson once wrote: “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.” We may also say that there is no soul so wretched or sin-soaked that the Light of Christ cannot transform it into something beautiful—or rather, reveal the beauty of his image therein that has been obscured by sin and negligence. Cassian said that in a dark room you don’t see the dust, and even in a dim light things might look OK. But when the room is fully illuminated you can see clearly that the place is not ready for the “white glove.” So the Light requires our co-operation: it not only transforms, it directs us to what we have to do, revealing our need for interior “housecleaning.” The choice is ours. We can either leave the light off and tell ourselves everything is all right, or we can accept the necessary reality check and begin to live creatively and productively in the light.

We not only see the true Light in Holy Communion, we receive the Heavenly Spirit. I thought it was the Body and Blood of Christ; why do we say we have received the Spirit? According to the prayers of the Liturgy, “communion in the Holy Spirit” is one of the chief fruits of the Eucharist. We also pray in the Liturgy that as we offer the Mystical Sacrifice, God will “send down upon us in return his divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

It is only through the Holy Spirit that Christ is present to us, sacramentally or in any other way, and it is by the Spirit that the gifts of bread and wine are transformed—and that we are transformed in receiving them. The Spirit is the Life-force in the Body, the Fire in the Blood. It is the Holy Spirit’s overflowing, boundless Energy that vivifies, purifies, enlightens, and “deifies” all that the Spirit touches. I had this image once (crude, I know) of our faith and love as a little flame burning in our hearts, and the Spirit-charged Blood of Christ like gasoline poured over it as we receive the Mysteries. I once learned by experience in burning a large pile of damp brushwood that gasoline doesn’t just ignite, it explodes! And so our communion with that divinely blazing Body and flaming Blood should be no routine ritual, no mundane or unmemorable experience. It should be an “explosion,” an inrush of Life—and an outpouring of gratitude from us to the One who is sharing the secrets of his heavenly joy and blessing, who is granting us access to the Heart of God.

To be continued…

Agree with God

I mentioned a couple posts back that I’ve been reading the Book of Job. It certainly needs the full revelation of Christ to complete it, but it does deal with some perennial questions of human life—and the ultimate, one-size-fits-all answer that God is God and we are not. Job tends to give voice, however, to our natural inclination to question or argue with God when things don’t go the way we think they should, when we experience injustice or “innocent” suffering. There are real injustices in the world, of course. Yet we ought to keep in mind that for the most part—if we are not living in a society or situation that is intrinsically or deliberately unjust—we deserve whatever we get. We are not innocent. Thomas a Kempis puts it this way: “we shall always have something to suffer, and the reason is that we have lost our innocence” (Imitation of Christ, I, 13). And there’s a line in Job that we would do well to remember: “Know, then, that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:6).

Most of our troubles come from the fact that we tend to resist God’s will—not as a matter of policy, but at such times when his will seems to clash with ours (and this may in fact be a regular occurrence). This inner resistance creates turmoil and anxiety, a sort of dis-ease or unsettled conscience. “If only you knew,” exclaimed Jesus, “the things that make for peace!” (Lk 19:42). We don’t really know the things that make for peace, and we probably discover more often than not that having our own way is not accompanied by peace. Somehow we don’t get it, for we do the same things over and over, with the same result, the same gnawing unhappiness and dissatisfaction. I suppose we could then start blaming or arguing with God, but there’s a better solution.

I found a passage in Job that I think I’m going to take for my motto: “Agree with God and be at peace.” no_jesus.jpgSimple, true, effective. Here’s the expanded version: “Agree with God and be at peace; thereby good will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth, and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty and humble yourself… and if the Almighty is your gold and your precious silver, then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him and he will hear you” (Job 22:21-27).

We probably all accept in theory that in God’s will is our peace. But maybe we secretly think that if only God’s will were the same as ours, then we’d have peace. But, as Jesus reminded us, on our own we simply won’t know the things that make for peace. We have to turn to the Source of peace and agree with Him! The fruit of this, says the Scripture, is that good will come to us. Perhaps not the apparent good we were seeking, but good as God sees good, good that will benefit our souls and lead us closer to Him and to our salvation. This good may not translate into our personal pleasure or material advantage—but it will be good.

In order to agree with God we’re going to need to humble ourselves, because arrogance and filial submission cannot be found in the same person (at least within the same relationship). Job eventually learned his lesson. He thought he had bested God with his airtight arguments, but God reduced him to “dust and ashes” simply by inviting Job to take a good look around and see whose wisdom it was that designed and maintains the universe. So, having humbled ourselves so as to abandon our adversarial relationship with God, we are to receive instruction from Him and to cherish and meditate on his words. The more we grow in wisdom, the easier it will be to agree with eternal Wisdom.

This humbling of oneself and making oneself willing to learn should not be done grudgingly or out of a weary or resigned sense of duty. No, the Almighty must be our “gold and precious silver,” i.e., that which is most valuable and desirable in our lives. Then, lift up your face to God and pray to Him, and He will hear you! This reminds me of a line from Psalm 36(37): “If you find your delight in the Lord, he will give you the desires of your heart.” See, if your delight really is in the Lord, then the desires of your heart will likely be in accordance with his will.

We can produce all kinds of arguments, and even evidence of a sort, concerning the rotten hand we’ve been dealt or even the intractable problems of the world. We can blame God or demand an answer or decide that we won’t cooperate until we get some satisfaction (I recently read about a spiritual leader who stood silently for a long time in his congregation without offering any prayers; finally he said to God, “If You are not going to answer my prayers, I’m not going to say them anymore!”). Somehow I think the man did not walk away in peace.

We have to learn the things that make for peace. Agree with God and be at peace. Recognize that his will is the path to true and eternal peace, even if doing his will leads to the Cross, to the place of the renunciation of selfish desires and even to the acceptance of suffering—for the good of our souls and even the good of others’. Good things will come to us if we agree with God, humble ourselves, accept the instruction of his word, and regard Him as that which is most valuable in our lives. We will not only find peace, but we will lift up our faces and our hearts in joy to the Lord, and He will hear our prayers.

The Exaltation of the Mother

St. Paul mightily proclaims in the epistle for this feast (Phil. 2:5-11): “Jesus Christ is Lord!” We say today: “And Mary is his mother!” There is a text in the Office of Matins which was worded powerfully as it dormition-1.jpgcalled Mary the “Mother of the Master of the Universe.” That’s incredible: you can’t really get higher than the Master of the Universe; yet, the Master of the Universe has a mother! And today we’re celebrating her exaltation into the kingdom of her beloved Son, the Master of the Universe.

The Gospel for today (Lk. 10:38-42) makes no reference to this mystery. On most Marian feasts we have the common gospel about Martha and Mary, because in the Gospel itself there just isn’t a direct account of some of these mysteries; the mystery is expressed by way of parallels and analogies. We will look just a little bit at that, for there is a parallel, both with the gospel and the epistle today, that fits with the mystery of the Mother of God.

Mary of Bethany, of whom we heard, is supposed to be a parallel with Mary of Nazareth. Jesus commended her today in the gospel, for having chosen the better part—literally, “the good portion.” She is the one who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to his word while her poor sister was slaving away in the kitchen, trying to get some dinner on the table. We might think that “choosing the better part”—here, choosing the part of Mary and sitting at the feet of Jesus to listen—is also choosing the easy part! But if we look at the life of Mary, the Mother of God, we see that choosing the better part is not choosing the easy part. It may have started off that way: she was the child of the longing and prayer of Sts. Joachim and Anne, and she came as such a blessing and gift from God. I’m sure they lavished on her everything they possibly could, poor though they were. She was taken to the Temple and was consecrated to the Lord when she was just a little kid, and so everything started off as though she had the easy part. Even at the Annunciation, the angel rather tactfully refrained from saying all the bad and painful stuff that was going to come with her vocation as the Mother of God. He just said, “Oh, your Son! He’s going to be just great!”

But she read between the lines a little, I think. She was probably scratching her head and saying to herself, “Well, if I get pregnant now by God, without a husband, that’s going to be stones for me—to death!” The intimation of coming sufferings was already there. Simeon, in the Temple, made it really clear for her afterwards. He too gushed over her and her Son, but then said, “A sword is going to pierce your soul.” That’s the beginning, where he told her, “OK, your mission as the Mother of God, choosing the better part, to serve God with your whole heart and soul, is going to cost you something: the sword.”

Later on, at the Temple, Jesus—as teenagers will do, took off and didn’t tell his parents where He was going—went to the Temple, and they searched for Him in sorrow. When they found Him, He gave them that enigmatic response: “Didn’t you know that I had to be here, in my Father’s house, about my Father’s business?” Again, she felt a little twinge there; a little bit of “OK, this is not going to be easy—raising this Son of God!”

Then, even in his earthly ministry, when she realized that she had to let Him go to do God’s will, He wasn’t hanging around the house any more just plying his trade. He was off traveling, and whenever she could try to see Him, once in a while, she tries to get through the crowd and they say, “Your mother is trying to see You!” And He says, “Who is my mother?” and as we heard in the gospel today: “Those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Those are the blessed ones. He even said, “Those are my mother and my brothers and sisters!” Again, another little pang there: following Jesus and doing God’s will is not the easy part, even though it is the better part.

Then, finally, instead of sitting at his feet and listening to his words, we find her at the foot of the Cross—and that was where her agony coincided with his, and where the whole weight of the mystery of her divine motherhood and the price that she would have to pay for that came to its full expression, in the great sorrow and suffering of her standing and seeing her Son dying on the Cross.

But then, afterwards, after the Resurrection, as the Church was just coming to be, she was found with the disciples in the Upper Room, receiving with them the grace of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and living the rest of her life—most likely, since we don’t have accounts of any missionary activity of hers—as the contemplative heart and soul of the early Church: the intercessor. She was probably looked upon with great respect, among the disciples and the new Christians, who were all preaching the Resurrection of Christ—and here is his mother, in their midst. So her life ended in her going back to “sitting at the feet of Jesus,” but this way, now, in a more mystical sense; maybe, sitting at the feet of the Holy Spirit, so to speak, ending her life in the same position as Mary of Bethany: listening to the word of God, and keeping it until the end. God brought her to the fulfillment of just what it means to be choosing the better part, by taking her up into the Kingdom of her Son.

Here is where we find the other parallel: the one with the epistle today, where Jesus is spoken of by St. Paul as the one who had humbled Himself, who had become obedient to the Father’s will, obedient even unto suffering and death. What did the Father do? For this, the Father highly exalted Him, and gave Him the name above all names. Mary is a parallel to this, too—not that she was in the form of God and all the rest, but in how she did what Jesus did, in her own way, in her own life, according to her own vocation; how she, also, humbled herself; how she effaced herself, surrendered herself to God’s will; was obedient in all things, even unto suffering, even unto letting her Son go to the Cross, and standing there and bearing it all with Him, insofar as she could. And so what happens? The Son, whom the Father exalted before, comes and exalts his mother. When it’s time for her to die, He comes and says, “You, like me, were also humble; you were obedient; you accepted the hardships of your vocation, even unto suffering; and you gave up your life, you gave your soul back to the One who gave it to you. So now I come to you and lift you up; as my Father exalted Me, so I exalt you!”—we can perhaps hear Him saying that to his mother. That’s the pattern that we also should follow.

On this feast there is so much theology of the mystery of the Mother of God in this celebration, but I decided I’m not going to talk to you about it. There is a great mystery there: the mystery of the glorified body, assumed into heaven; the mystery of Mary as the first-fruits of redeemed and resurrected humanity, and as the icon, the personal embodiment, of that pure and undefiled Bride of Christ which she anticipates in herself, in the Kingdom to come. Sometimes the theological profundity of something like this either escapes us, or it holds our attention just long enough for us to give our nod of approval during the Liturgy, and then we go back to our petty, selfish, mediocre little lives—totally unaffected by it. If you’re lucky, it stays in your head, and doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.

We’re not going to really know the Mother of God just by knowing the theology of her life, although that helps, and can help very much. But for many people, to know her is a very different experience, and in order to know the Mother of God, we don’t have to just read the catechism: that’s only the very beginning. What we have to do is to welcome her into our lives; we have to give her a place in our lives. Only then we will come to know her, then everything else will come to make more sense, because it will be something that comes from inside. It will be something that resonates with the truth that is expressed in theology: “Oh, yes, that makes perfect sense to me, because I know her, and everything fits together now.”

So we have to open ourselves to her, and realize: whether we are aware of it or not, she is there—she is with us! She is walking with us; she is praying for us; she is protecting us; she is blessing us. She is with us just as a mother is, and we have to somehow come to that realization—that for your whole life she has been there, with you and for you, as a mother, as somebody who loves you and whom God has given to you to be a companion, a friend, a guide, a protectress, an intercessor, for your life. And when we give her that place in our life, things begin to change.

I remember a couple years ago when we celebrated the Office of the Paraclisis at Matins, as part of the pre-feast; it’s an Office that’s dedicated to the Mother of God. There was something very special about that Office—it was very peaceful, and very pleasant, and there was a spirit about it that was unusual. I am usually like Martha: anxious, stressed out about many things, and I’m always running around doing stuff and not having the time or the presence of mind to sit at the feet of Jesus, but during that Office something was happening: something sweet and different. I was thinking, “What is going on here?” Then I said, “I know! The Mother of God must be here!” It’s something one can’t put into words: a feeling, an experience through which, all of a sudden, something’s different, something’s better, and you know what? She’s there! This is the gift of God to us—and we should receive it and allow ourselves to be blessed by that and to come to her as children—not gurgling infants or bratty five-year-olds, but as simple people who love her and have no junk or stuff to get in the way of a simple, loving, childlike relationship. And I think she wants us to be like that with her. It’s not enough to just offer her perfunctory obeisances and make your dutiful bows and sing the prescribed hymns—so there, that means you’re devoted to the Mother of God. Well, those things can be a vehicle of devotion, but if there’s no inner devotion, those things are just an empty shell. There has to be something that moves you in your heart to her, to run to her. She wants that from us, too: she doesn’t need all this incense and stuff. That’s nice, but it doesn’t connect us to her personally. Whattheotokosofvladimir.jpg mother would want her little child to just honor her from across the room? She wants the child to come and run into her arms, and she doesn’t care if the kid slobbers all over her, because it’s her child, and she loves him or her, and so we should do the same! Not slobber all over her, but go to her like children, just run to her and wrap our little arms around her neck like Jesus in the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir: be close to her.

Even though the icons are rather stiff and stylized in their presentation, they are still a means for us to connect to her. What do we do to the icon? We kiss it! A kiss is something that’s very precious: it’s meaningful, it’s personal. And so, since we don’t see the Mother of God face-to-face, and have to live by faith, the image that the Church offers to us is something that says, “Here: this is your mother—kiss her.” We should do that. It should be something that comes not just from the rubrics, but from our heart, that we should just come to her like that.

Once you have that relationship, all the other stuff doesn’t really matter. There is so much “stuff” in all the polemics, all these people that don’t accept the Mother of God, and they’re always saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” and all the rest—who needs all that? We don’t need to get into all those arguments. But if you do want to have one little argument that covers them all, here it is. If they say something like, “Where in the Bible does it say…,” first you have to ask them, “Is the Bible the pillar of truth?” And they will say, “Of course!” And you ask, “Where in the Bible does the Bible say that the Bible is the pillar of truth?” “Well, nowhere.” “What does the Bible say? The pillar of truth is: the Church!” (1Timothy 3:15).

So, the Bible has just given us permission to venerate the Mother of God! Because the Bible tells us that the Church is the pillar of truth, and when the Church—especially speaking as Church, as the Body, the Bride, of Christ, with the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and defining something solemnly, that this is the revelation of God—well then, the pillar of divine truth has spoken! And we can, gladly and joyfully, believe and accept and live in that mystery.

We don’t have to give in to polemics or controversies, and all the stuff that unfortunately in so many places surrounds the Mother of God. Let’s just love her! Let’s just open our hearts to her. Let’s be like children before her. There’s a kind of paradox in Christianity that we’re called to be children, without being immature; we’re called to be sweet, without being sappy and sentimental; and we’re called also to endure suffering and hardship for the sake of the Gospel, without becoming bitter, angry, and resentful for what life is doing to us.

So, let us celebrate this feast, this mystery, with joy, and with thanksgiving, that God has given us such a mother. And let us choose the good part, the best part, which is sitting at the feet of Jesus—and know that the good part is not often the easy part. Sometimes it may be, because God is generous with his grace and his gifts, but we have to realize that sitting at the feet of Jesus is not only sitting there and listening to him speak about the Heavenly Banquet and all of the other sweet, beautiful things of the Gospel—his easy yoke and light burden. It’s also sitting at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, when He’s saying, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” That’s another place we have to be at the feet of Jesus. But it’s all part of the same mystery. Mary was with Him in Bethlehem, and in the peace and joy of the home of Nazareth, and she was also with Him at the Cross. Where she is, she’s going to carry us with her, and when we entrust ourselves to her, we’re going to know the joy of Bethlehem, and the joy of Nazareth, and we’re going to know the agony of the Cross, but in the end we will know the glory of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of Heaven—the ultimate “good portion” that no one will ever take away from us.


One of the more difficult, and yet one of the more helpful, passages of Scripture concerning our understanding of the trials of life is this one from Hebrews: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him. For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he receives” (12:5-6). Continue reading in this chapter and you will find more teaching on the necessity and benefits of God’s paternal discipline.

passion_scourge.jpgDoes God really “scourge” his children as a matter of discipline? I did a little checking on the Greek terms and discovered that, yes, indeed He does. The word for “scourge” is not the same as the term used in the description of Jesus’ scourging at the pillar, which word refers to the instrument used for scourging. But it has the same meaning, for the word used in Hebrews is the same word used by Jesus when predicting that He would be scourged, and when predicting that the apostles would be scourged by their enemies for their witness to the Gospel. It is also the same word used to describe Paul’s scourging in Acts. To be thus scourged is a terribly painful experience, and perhaps a confusing one when it comes from the hand of someone who loves you, but the author of Hebrews assures us: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11).

Perhaps we’d rather use the term “chastise,” as do some translations, to take the teeth out of “scourge.” But the Greek will be of no help here. It ends up meaning the same thing. In the Gospel of Luke, when Pilate tries to offer a compromise with the chief priests by just flogging Jesus instead of crucifying Him, he says: “I shall chastise him and release him.” “Chastise” here means “scourge.” So let’s just accept it and see how we can bear that peaceful fruit of righteousness. As for me, I’d rather be received by God with scourges than be rejected by Him intact. “For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.” The fact is, we will probably not learn our lessons any other way. Original sin has made us resistant to correction, and so a gentle invitation to “come up higher” will likely fall on deaf ears.

We may not like the idea that “scourging” is a part of the discipline of Christian life. But our preferences are irrelevant if we are serious about knowing and living the truth. It actually is something of a consolation to know that the sufferings of this life are not meaningless, random, cruel, or without any redeeming value. I’d rather be scourged by God than by the devil or by nameless cosmic forces, for at least if God is behind it all I know that love is behind it all, and that makes all the difference in the world, even though pain is still painful—and even though I may be tempted to think He’s overdoing it a bit.

I’ve been reading the Book of Job lately, and the question of suffering is at the forefront—along with related questions of innocence and guilt, justice and injustice, and the whole issue of God’s wisdom, freedom, and providence. Job was being “scourged” by God, though he didn’t know what was going on. It is the wicked, not the righteous, who are supposed to be punished, so he commenced an extended complaint against God—of which he repented in the end when faced with God’s unfathomable and unassailable wisdom and power.

Perhaps we don’t understand God’s designs either, or what He is up to when He allows us to suffer—or actively disciplines us for our good. We may cry out with the psalmist: “Remove your scourge from me, because I am weak from the blows of your hand!” (38/39:11). But the greater wisdom is found in the attitude of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah: “I was not rebellious… I gave my back to those who beat me” (50:5-6). Much of our understanding of this mystery hinges upon the level of trust we have in God, how involved He is in our lives, and the extent of his control of events. We have to learn that the scourge we feel comes ultimately from the hand of God, and if we accept that, we will bear the fruit of divine discipline. (Now it should be clear that we ought to resist, and not accept, manifest evil, but the vast majority of our sufferings are not direct attacks of evil; rather, they are simply all the various hardships and disappointments of life. Yet whatever God permits He does so for his own good reasons—which means for our ultimate benefit.)

The Coptic monk Matthew the Poor, in The Communion of Love, gives a striking example of the divine hand behind the sufferings of Christ. “The eyes of Christ never failed to recognize the hand presenting Him with the cup of suffering. Christ never paid attention to the evil hands bearing the hammer and the nail. Nor did He mind the gruff and spiteful faces of the chief priests shouting, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him.’ Even less so did He regard Pilate as a ruler who could pronounce the sentence of death by crucifixion… His eyes were fixed only on the hand of the Father, which is the sole bearer of hammer and nail. His ears attentively listened to the voice of none but the Father while He pronounced the sentence of scourging and crucifixion. Christ clearly stated to Pilate, ‘You would have no power over Me unless it had been given you from above’ (Jn. 19:11)… The sentence of suffering and death on the cross had been first and last mixed in the cup with love by the Father, who had loved Him before the foundation of the world… It was not as bitter as it seemed to be, nor was it mixed with the hatred of the spiteful or the intrigue of hypocrites… Rather, it was a select portion that the hand of the Father Himself presented, bearing within it the essence of love, resurrection, and life.”

He goes on to apply this to our own lives and sufferings. “Christ came to elevate [our own individual sufferings] to a general course, a divine law, a great redemptive cross, a covenant between God and man… This covenant exists in the presence of the most compassionate hand in the whole world, the hand of God, behind each and every stroke dealt to our earthly tabernacle. It is here that his hand is stretched out to play its role of pure love. The pierced hand of Christ, on which our name was inscribed beforehand, has guaranteed our salvation, and is making out of our daily suffering and pains, which seem to be at random, and out of the persecution of our oppressors and the ingratitude of those who deal with us every day, a most exquisite cross bearing for us the seed of Life Eternal with the sweet savor of Christ—a cross in the likeness of His cross of glory!”

Perhaps we can now at least begin to understand that the hand that wields the scourge we feel in our own sufferings is the same hand that was behind the crucifixion of the Beloved Son—and both have been done out of love and for our salvation. Yet even if we understand this we are faced with a supreme challenge: to kiss the hand that scourges us, to accept without rancor the pain of discipline and correction—in short, to allow the scourge, the hammer and the nail, to be transforming instruments of life and resurrection.

We may never fully understand the will of God; we may not be able rationally to connect pain and sorrow and hardship with his loving providence and tender care; we may walk through life with numerous unanswered questions. Yet we must walk in faith, in trust. Somehow we must perceive the plan—or at least that there is one—behind it all. We must see the face of God and not merely those of our enemies, feel the saving discipline of our Father and not merely the scourge on our backs.

“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” continues Hebrews, “and strive for…the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Christianity is not a feel-good religion, yet it is a joyful one; it is not an easy religion, yet it is a rewarding one. We are called to accept the scourges of God so that we can enter the glory of God. “Christ suffered for you, leaving an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Peter 2:21). Let us recognize and accept the divine discipline and bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

It’s All About Forgiveness

The mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven is something beyond our comprehension. But Jesus has tried to explain it to us in human words and concepts, to give us some idea of how to understand it, how to prepare ourselves if we wish to enter it. He has compared it to a mustard seed, to yeast which makes the dough rise, to a hidden treasure and a precious pearl. In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 18:23-35) He focuses on a different aspect of the Kingdom, one that emphases an essential element of the Christian Gospel: forgiveness, and by extension, judgment on those who refuse to forgive. We do well to pay close attention to this parable if we wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

St John reminds us that Jesus knows human nature well, knows what is in the heart of man (Jn 2:24-25). Therefore He has no illusions about human attitudes and behavior, and this parable bears it out. Jesus knows that we are eager to have our own sins and failures forgiven, and that at the same time we are not at all eager to forgive those who have sinned against us. We practice a continual double standard. We want mercy for ourselves but a strict accounting for others. We want our huge faults overlooked, but we scrutinize the minor faults of others. We minimize our own sins and maximize those of others. In short, we maintain the plank in our own eye while we can’t endure the speck in our brother’s eye. But Jesus will not let us get away with that. He says if we act like that we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Forgiveness is dear to Him; He suffered and died to forgive our sins and he expects the servants to be like the Master.

We may try to resist the word of the Lord by insisting that our sins are in fact less serious than others’. I am not a murderer or an adulterer or a child abuser, we might say. But as usual, we judge superficially and by appearances or ojustice_scales.jpgur own reasoning or observation, which don’t go very far at all. God alone sees and judges the heart. He may see that a murderer has not received the abundance of grace that we have, has not been instructed in the faith, has not had all the opportunities and means of salvation that we have had. And so we may discover on judgment day that in the eyes of God our sins were worse than the murderer’s, for God can see what no one else can; He can weigh the evidence and judge the guilt as we cannot. And here we hold ourselves superior to those we judge sinners, while they end up saved and we end up lost. It’s just as Jesus said to the “righteous” Pharisees: “prostitutes and publicans will enter the Kingdom before you will.”

This doesn’t mean that we should assume that all apparent evildoers will be saved and all apparently good people will not. But it does mean that we are to withhold judgment and be generous in forgiving. Let us not minimize our own sins. God has already forgiven us more than we will be required to forgive others. We cannot pay the debt we owe. We can only live in gratitude for the Lord’s mercy. But Jesus is telling us today that the way we are to express this gratitude is not by mere words or feelings, but rather by forgiving those who have hurt or offended us.

The point of this whole parable is expressed in these words: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” The first thing to note is that all people are “fellow servants” in the eyes of God. All the inequalities of this life will be erased before the judgment seat of God. Those who have legitimate authority in this world have the right and duty to exercise it, but they will be judged accordingly. Those whose duty it is to submit to authority (properly exercised) will be blessed if they do but will be judged unfavorably if they resist or resent it. God sees the heart and is impartial in judgment. Since we do not see the heart, the Lord requires us to give the benefit of the doubt and forgive. If any judgment is due, He will be the one to administer it. If we try to take matters into our own hands, like the ungrateful servant in the Gospel, we will find ourselves at the wrong end of God’s wrath.

Many people like to soften the sharp edges of the Gospel, making God the Father seem like a kindly old grandpa who just pats us on the head, whether we are good or bad. But Jesus shows us another side of the Father in this parable. When the Master discovered that his wicked servant did not forgive after he had been forgiven, he delivered him over to the torturers. Then Jesus says: “My Father will do the same thing to each of you, unless you forgive your brother from the heart.” No benign grandpa here, but a righteous Avenger of wrongdoing.

I have recently read the biography of someone who exemplifies the Gospel teaching on forgiveness to an extraordinary degree. She is Mother Antonia Brenner, who has lived in a Mexican prison for the past 30 years, ministering to the inmates while sharing the hardships of their lives. In the violent and harsh environment in which she lives, she has much to forgive. The drug trade is very active in Mexico, and the drug lords are like mafia chiefs, and there are often murders of competing drug traffickers, and murders for revenge of some insult or slight. Mother Antonia is known to love all people indiscriminately, the criminals as well as innocent victims.

Her first counsel to all those who have had loved ones murdered or who have themselves been injured or unjustly treated is to forgive. She understands what they are going through and she says: “I know that forgiving is hard, but not forgiving is harder.” The desire for revenge is a burden that crushes, because it becomes an obsession. The perverse pleasure of holding a grudge is equally self-destructive. Mother Antonia says: “Unforgiveness will age me, it will make me sick, and it will make me ugly. Nothing can bring me so low that I’m going to not forgive somebody and destroy myself. Because that’s what unforgiveness does. It’s a boomerang that comes back.” She says to those who were victims of injustice that those who did the injustice (assuming they were convicted) would be paying for their crimes for the rest of their lives—but if we refuse to forgive we will also pay for the rest of our lives, bearing the self-destroying burden of anger, hate, or resentment.

She has been severely tested in her resolve. She has had dear friends murdered, but she would immediately go to visit their murderers, offer them coffee and blankets if they were cold, and try to minister to them, telling them that God loves them and wants them to repent and be saved.

How can she do this? Primarily, of course, it is the grace of God at work in her. But there’s one thing that she said which I think is the basis for her will and efforts to forgive. After a particularly painful and trying experience in which she offered compassion to those who had just massacred a number of women and children, she said: “I know that once I choose who I love and who I don’t, I am no longer God’s servant.” Let us listen to that again and reflect on it: “once I choose who I love and who I don’t, I am no longer God’s servant.” Is not this discrimination at the basis of our own unwillingness to forgive? We choose whom we love and whom we don’t, and so we cease to be God’s servants. We become instead servants of our own desires, emotions, and preferences. We love those who love us, who affirm or honor us, who do good things to us, who make us feel good. But Jesus says in another place that there is no merit before God in that, because even sinners do as much. If we really are servants of God, we will not be selective about whom we love and hence we will not withhold forgiveness from anyone. This goes against the grain of human nature and perhaps against the grain of our own long-standing habits, but Jesus never said it was going to be easy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, He said it was going to be very difficult, and that we must endure to the end in fidelity to his word if we are going to be saved.

So let us resolve to live according to the Gospel of Jesus. Let us not choose to love some and not others, to forgive some and not others. If we insist on choosing those whom we love, however, then let this be our criterion: We will choose to love only those whom God loves. That is the only acceptable choice.

Jesus told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is going to be like a Master settling accounts with his servants. We know we cannot pay our debts, so we beg with confidence for mercy. But let us have no illusions—we will be forgiven to the extent that we forgive others, and if we refuse to forgive, we will have to make the acquaintance of the infernal torturers. Let us be aware that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth whatever it costs to be found worthy to enter it. We will then learn to love; we will choose to forgive.

No Condemnation (Part 2)

We still have to understand more clearly just what “life in Christ Jesus” entails. Faith and baptism and the new perspective that these create in us are the beginning. Living the life in Christ is the “yielding” to God, also mentioned in the previous post.

St Paul makes it clear in Romans 8 that this yielding to God consists of choosing the Spirit over the flesh. (As I’ve explained before, “flesh” does not refer primarily to sexual “sins of the flesh,” but to anything that proceeds from a heart that rejects, ignores, minimizes, or rebels against the will of God.) He basically says that there are two kinds of people in the world: “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit” (v. 5). He makes the alternatives quite clear, and easy to know which one ought to be chosen: “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (v. 6). Who would not prefer life and peace to death?

But if we are still under that old law of sin—or so ignorant of the grace of God we have received that we think and act as if we were under that law—we are blinded to the truth and do not even know what is good for us. The lies of the devil, coupled with the experience of our own failures, can mount a plausible deception and leave us believing that we were not set free after all. But hold on to the word of God! Remember: Dead to sin, alive for God in Christ! By the grace of God, you are much more than the sum total of your personal weaknesses. When you start acting like you believe that, you will overcome these very weaknesses. But it will take a conscious and consistent “connection” with God through prayer and the sacraments to make this real in your own experience. You must also persevere in meditation upon the word of the Lord in the Holy Scriptures: “Continue in my word…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).

To be set free from the law of sin and death, however, is not to be relieved of all struggle. But it is to have unshakable confidence that the ancient curse “shall have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). There should be no discouragement or despair in the face of those “Romans 7 struggles” because the solution has already been given, the stronger “counter-law” is in place. Our defeat is not inevitable; on the contrary, our victory is assured

St Paul indicates that we will be required to suffer before entering the glory “beyond all comparison” (8:18). If the Messiah had to suffer so as to enter his glory (see Luke 24:26), are we, his servants, cross-light1.jpgsupposed to think that we are greater than our Master, and able to walk a different path than He did? We can allow our suffering to seem useless or meaningless, and we can become embittered by it—or we can let it be redemptive, instructive, and transforming. Choose the law under which you will live. Grace is waiting; you can have freedom or slavery, hope or despair.

Spirit and flesh may wage war on the battlefield of our own souls, but let us hear the word of the Lord through his servant Moses: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today… The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Exodus 14:13-14). The Lord does fight for us, overturning every arrogant uprising of the law of sin and death. Even when we discover its lingering traces in our not-quite-purified hearts, we can confidently sing Paul’s victory cheer: “Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

After all that, do you still need reassurance? Well, here it is. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and…fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17). We may at times have to fight like soldiers, but the bottom line is that we are beloved and protected children of an almighty and all-loving Father. Pledge your complete allegiance to God, and begin to live as one rescued from the grave.

Remember, then, what it takes: faith in Jesus Christ, baptism into his death and resurrection (and the whole sacramental life that flows from this), a new world-view and way of regarding yourself because of Christ, the yielding of yourself to God by rejecting works of the flesh and bearing fruits of the Spirit, the willingness to struggle—peacefully, confidently—to maintain your God-given freedom from the harsh oppression of the law of sin. Finally, remember the magnificent conclusion to chapter eight of Romans (vv. 38-39): nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Child of God, there you have it. Life and peace. No condemnation.

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