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

Archive for November, 2007

Heaven’s Open Door

I find it quite fascinating that St John begins the account of his heavenly visions by saying: “I looked, and lo, in doorway-to-heaven.jpgheaven an open door!” He immediately heard a voice that said: “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place…” (Rev. 4:1). So it is possible to be granted access to the mysteries of Heaven. Yet such visions are not experienced by everyone, indeed by very few. But is that because God simply does not choose to grant them, or is it because we have rendered ourselves incapable of perceiving what He would in fact like to show us?

I read something recently by Hans Urs von Balthasar. I don’t read much by him, since I can only understand about 11% of what he writes, but I think I got the following, and it may give us a hint as to why Heaven’s door usually seems closed to us. “It is very easy to ask Christians perplexing questions, because from the outside Christ’s mysteries appear to be mere paradoxes, and it is very difficult to solve them at this level. (The attempt often leads to a false apologetics.) The chief concern here, rather, should be to awaken in the questioner an elementary sense for mystery and awe … from here one can ascend to the love of God” (The Grain of Wheat). He is speaking about the inadequacy (and even distortion) of giving too-facile answers to essentially unanswerable questions about Christianity from outsiders. But I submit that even insiders wrongly ask such questions and hence become frustrated, because they are seeking the same kind of rational, logical answers that the others seek.

While the Christian mysteries are not irrational, they transcend reason, yet at the same time offer rational grounds for belief. But in order not to get hung up by the inability to resolve the paradoxes easily in logical fashion, von Balthasar suggests we begin by developing a sense of mystery and awe. One of the fathers said something to the effect that rational concepts are limiting and can even become idols, but that only a sense of wonder can really grasp profound truths.

I’ve thought to myself at times that I could probably never be an apologist (endless arguments), an ecumenist (endless compromises), and perhaps even a catechist (having to reduce the Faith to doctrinal propositions). It seems to me that it’s just not adequate to deal with divine mysteries on the level of rational discourse, though of course there are times when this is necessary and good. I think all I can really be is a pray-er and a preacher—trying to peer into Heaven’s open door and then sharing something of what is given to me. This was St Paul’s commission, given through the holy man Ananias: “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15). Christians are called to be witnesses of what they have seen and heard.

Now I hasten to add that this does not mean that subjective experience is the norm for the true faith, for the history of “visionaries” is riddled with error and fraud. Any light that is granted in prayer must be checked against what has already been definitively revealed, and must not be in contradiction to it or go off on any sort of weird tangent from it. But it still remains true that the entrance into incomprehensible divine mysteries is not going to be accomplished through mere apologetics or ecumenism, nor by trying to figure things out according to human logic or even by reciting dogmatic propositions, though these may be unassailably true.

Let’s get back to mystery and awe. I think that I sometimes hit a snag here myself, since I tend to interrogate God as if He must somehow to be expected to answer in the terms and concepts and limited vision of my own questions. God certainly has the answer to everything, but his answers may not always be reducible to the terms of our questions. Try to explain to a beetle certain facts about its environment or even some of the mysteries of beetledom. You may know precisely how to explain these things clearly, but its poor beetle-brain just can’t grasp the concepts. So it crawls away, unable even to realize that it is missing something important. As Jesus told his disciples, there’s much that He could tell us, but we are, at least for the time being, unable to get it. So we walk away, thinking that the fault is on his part (I wonder if beetles blame us for anything), even though it is we in our ignorance who cannot grasp what He is saying to us and doing for us. Thus God seems to be silent, inaccessible or (on our bad days) even unwilling to help us in our obvious need. But it is not only our creaturely limitations that prevent us from perceiving more of God’s revelations; it is our sin that truly blinds and befuddles us.

Our approach to God, then, cannot merely be based on what is intelligible to us, nor can we expect to penetrate the divine mysteries by using categories and concepts wholly inadequate to them—nor can we expect to see the pure light of heavenly mysteries if our hearts are not yet purified of sin. There is a lot more that God can effectively reveal to us than we can effectively reveal to beetles, but there will always be a huge gap between what we can understand and what is far beyond our best efforts at comprehension or articulation.

The only way, then, to cleanse our vision of what hinders and distorts it, and the best way to get a glimpse of what is beyond Heaven’s door, is (following repentance) simply to fall down in worship, in reverence and awe. Enough has been revealed to us so that we know that God is worthy of adoration. The refrain “Worthy are You…” occurs repeatedly in the Book of Revelation, as we see angels and saints ceaselessly worshipping God. The great vision of heavenly glory described in chapters 4-5 ends with the ultimate expression of the approach to God in mystery and awe: “Every creature in heaven and on earth… fell down and worshipped.” That’s the ultimate reality; that’s where everything is heading. If we don’t want to miss the bus to eternal glory, we had better abandon all our reservations about giving ourselves wholly to God.

From here, wrote von Balthasar, one can ascend to the love of God. Our worship of the awe-inspiring mystery of God in faith will open not only Heaven’s door to us, but also will open the door of our hearts to God. For God is not simply an utterly incomprehensible Mystery, He is our Creator and Father who loves us and desires us to love Him in return. It is both the sense of mystery and awe, and the love in our hearts, that will overcome the paradoxes, take us beyond the unanswerable questions, and enable us to rest in Him who loved us first. Let us not think that we’ll ever find satisfactory answers solely on the level of human reason, but let us also realize that the acceptance in faith of God’s ever-greater Reality, and our wholehearted worship of Him in wonder and awe and love, will take us to places we’ve not yet even begun to seek, and will answer questions we’ve not yet had the sense to ask.

To Him Who Loves Us

Toward the beginning of the Book of Revelation we find a doxology: “To him who loves us and has freed us from patmos2.jpgour sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1:5-6). Assuming that the author of this book is the same John who wrote the Gospel and Epistles bearing his name, we have a lot to thank him for. He’s the one who tells us that God and Jesus love us. But don’t all the evangelists tell us that? Nope. Among the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t tell us that. Surprised? So was I. But I checked it with a concordance. Outside of the one instance in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus looks at the rich young man with love, we are not told that God or Jesus loves us. Of course, it is undeniably implied and exemplified in many ways (and St Paul comes right out and says it in his letters), but in the Gospels we hear explicitly about God’s love only from St John.

So it’s a fairly rare thing to find Jesus described as the one who loves us. But it’s probably the most important thing we need to hear in the Scriptures. God’s love is something quite mysterious, and is only analogous to human love, since it so far transcends it. It is also inseparable from his justice and righteous judgment, so it is not a blind, sentimental kind of thing. Yet in the above doxology, we hear only the “good stuff”: He loves us and shed his blood to free us from sin; He made us priestly worshippers with a place in his Kingdom. As we read on in this Book we may become somewhat deflated when we read, “those whom I love, I reprove and chasten” (3:19), or the several times He says things like “I have this against you” or, in effect, “Repent, or else!” (chs. 2-3, passim).

Even though He can be severe in order to wake us from our sinful slumber, He will always be the One who loves us, and we should take consolation in that. Think of the person you love or have loved most in your life. Think of what it feels like in your heart to love that person (or those persons). Then realize that God loves you like that, only much more. If you love someone with all your heart, you can’t imagine what “much more” would be like, but again, take consolation in the fact that there is much more love coming from the Heart of God. Thanks be to St John that he alone tells us that “God is love” and, writing of Jesus, says, as a way of identifying Him, “To him who loves us…”

I don’t really know where I’m going with this; nowhere special, I guess, but it was this and one other passage from the first chapter of Revelation that struck me in my last reading of it. The other passage is this: “Fear not; I am the first and the last and the living one; I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (vv. 17-18). We are constantly told in the Bible not to fear, but that is probably one of the most frequently disobeyed commandments. It is, however, reassuring to hear it repeatedly.

“I died” connects to “Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” Jesus’ death is the ultimate manifestation of his love for us. But there is more. He not just a Tragic Hero who gave his earthly life for us—He lives forever to share his heavenly life with us! “I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” He also says He holds the keys of Death and Hades, which means He is the Lord—no one lives or dies without his permission. And it is because of his death and resurrection that our own departed loved one can say (and are probably trying to say to us): “I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” They died, as everyone does, according to the just decree pronounced against sin, but they live forevermore because of the mercy of Him who loves us and who frees us from sin—and hence its eternal consequences—by his blood.

We ought to have constant recourse to Him who loves us, and not fear if He has to reprove or chastise those whom He loves. It’s all for the sake of living forevermore once we die. The Lord will do whatever it takes to save our souls, for He created us to live forever with Him in his divine joy and glory. So let us sing doxologies to Him who loves us and shed his blood to take away our sins. And behold, though we die, we shall be alive forevermore.

I Was Here

Michael D. O’Brien has recently published another of his enormous novels (Island of the World), which I’ve just island-of-the-world.jpgbegun to read. I have read several of them, for I think he has some deep insights into the human condition, into love and faith, cross and redemption. He is able at times to give eloquent voice to that which may lie restlessly inarticulate within us, and which finally finds a resonance, an expression, in the pages of his books. I’d like to share a brief passage from the prologue of his latest book.

“…love is the soul of the world, though its body bleeds, and we must learn to bleed with it. Love is also the seed and milk and the fruit of the world, though we can partake of it in greed or reverence. We are born, we eat, and learn, and die. We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.”

I thought of my friend Laura who died a few months ago. She was here, and now she is no longer here. What declares that she was here? Surely her family and friends would testify that she left “a tracery of messages” in their lives, which will not be forgotten. But in a few decades all these people will not be here either. In my last post I advertised her book, which I hope will be an enduring message of faith and courage in approaching that inevitable moment after which we too shall no longer be here. I published that book at her request and for the sake of her message. But after reading the above quote I see there can be another, subtler reason: it can be my way of telling the world, “she was here.” Then there are her icons, which adorn several churches and homes. They testify that she was here; on the back of them is inscribed, “by the hand of Laura,” with the date of their completion. This is something of her song, her poem left behind. She was here.

What about us? What will declare that we were here? What is our song, our poem, our word, and what gentle brand-marks will we have we burned into others’ hearts? We need not leave some sort of material legacy. That profound yet obscure longing to assert, “I was here” in God’s creation, indicates that life must have a meaning, a meaning that reaches from “here” into the mystery of God’s eternity. We are to search for that meaning, find it in God, and thus live a meaningful life.

This has nothing to do with those who selfishly or arrogantly endeavor to leave monuments to themselves, who try to make an enduring name for themselves by acquiring wealth and power and the accompanying notoriety. In O’Brien’s book, he mentions the tomb of the emperor Diocletian (one of the fiercest persecutors of the early Christians), which he built with slave labor, and which slaves he massacred when the job was finished. So, a monstrous murderer has his monument. Sure, he was here, but the “song” he left behind is nothing more than the howls of Hell.

To rightly wish to say, “I was here,” is to desire to find and fulfill one’s place in God’s design. St Paul says that each of us has a place, a function, in the Body of Christ—some exalted, some humble, but all important. Our present culture is of no help to us here. It urges us either to selfishly make a name for ourselves through lust for possessions or fame or power—or it reduces us to mindless conformity to the norms of the superficial “good life” that our affluent society promises but does not quite deliver. The colorless uniformity of modern high-tech life does little to stimulate the unique contribution to humanity for which God created us.

But again, our contribution need not be one that will make us known to the world. In fact, some of the most profound “marks” left upon the world are invisible to the naked eye. The hidden sufferings of the saints, the selfless and unobtrusive goodness of those who live to serve others, the Holy Sacrifice offered with reverence and deep adoration—these and many such loving acts form the “tracery of messages” written by the Spirit in the soul of the world. They declare that such people were here.

Ultimately, it is only what God sees and knows, and not the world, that defines who we are and what we have done to leave a mark on the history of humanity, to become registered in the Book of Life. No life need be utterly obscure, forgotten it its lonely solitude. Ever since God breathed the breath of life into us, we have had a mission. We are known by Him and are expected to add a little piece of cut stone to the mosaic of the face of Christ—our indispensable place. This stone is finally given back to us with our new name, known only to Him and to us (Rev. 2:17). It tells us that we are here and that He knows it. It tells us our life has had a meaning ever since God formed us in our mother’s womb.

But our mission demands everything from us. We must learn to “bleed with the body of the world” by loving even to the point of suffering. This will be the declaration that we have made a difference in the world. If we bring into others’ lives joy, truth, love, hope, comfort, wisdom and blessing, even at great personal cost, this is our uttered word, our song, our poem—and it will endure forever. If we abide in Christ and He in us, then we have made our mark in the world. If we hear his word and keep it, then all of Heaven will know that we were here—for we shall be there.

Prepare for the Kingdom

Laura Grossman’s book (posthumously published) is now available. It is entitled, Prepare for the Kingdom: A kingdom-cover-2.jpgJournal of Hope in the Face of Death. She asked me to publish this, which is a collection of her reflections upon her approaching death while she was suffering with terminal cancer. I have added fairly extensive commentary of my own, along with some personal reminiscences. I think it will be a valuable resource for anyone who is either aware that death is imminent or who has loved ones who may be approaching death. To order, click on the “Abbot’s Joseph’s Books” link in the Blogroll column. It will also soon be available at Amazon, but at this writing it is not.

Here is the book description from the back cover:

“You are going to die. And I am going to die. This is an indisputable and inescapable fact of the human condition. While our eventual (and perhaps imminent) death is inevitable, there are some things not yet decided. Where will your soul go when it departs your body at the hour of death? How will you approach and prepare for death so that your soul will find everlasting peace and blessing? How will you assist a dying loved one?

“In Prepare for the Kingdom, Laura Grossman shines a light for us on that obscure path which all must walk, yet from which no one returns. After being diagnosed with cancer, she had three years to prepare her soul to meet her Creator and Lord. For ten months of the last year of her life, she wrote down her thoughts and reflections, her hopes and fears, concerning her approaching death. God had led her through the difficult yet indispensable process of repentance, of turning gradually but wholly toward Him, while He strengthened her with faith, hope, and love along the way. This unique book is her journal, with some added commentary, of her courageous walk toward the final frontier of life, supported by divine grace and the prayers of her loved ones. Since you must one day make this journey—perhaps sooner than you think—you may wish to gain the insight and wisdom of one who has gone before you, who has written of her hope for the Life that is beyond death. Preparing yourself to die in God’s grace is the most important thing you will ever do.”

I hope and pray that this book will reach the hearts of many and open their eyes to the need to reconcile with God and be prepared to meet Him when they are called to leave this passing life. Too many people seem unconcerned with eternal truths and the necessity of doing the will of God in this life so that we can find everlasting happiness in the next. This book is a kind of wake-up call, as well as an opportunity to follow the final journey of one who writes from the experience of meeting the advent of death with courage and faith. You will get to know her by entering into the mystery of her suffering and her hope, and perhaps you will finish this book having gained a new friend in Heaven, who will pray for you when it is time for you to make that same journey.

We pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come.” Well, it is coming. Let us prepare…

What Does it Mean to Give Thanks?

It’s a rather curious custom that on Thanksgiving Day the majority of Americans celebrate it by overeating and over-drinking. It is curious that people give thanks—presumably to God, though many probably leave Him out of the celebration—by doing things that are displeasing to the Lord. Most people don’t think of the gross and intolerable inequity between the hungry of this world and those who have more than enough of everything, whose greatest sufferings are the discomforts of obesity.

Here at the monastery we are taking a little break from our Advent fast for Thanksgiving, but even in our fasting, we don’t really know what hunger is. Here is an excerpt on hunger from Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs of the gulags: “Hunger rules every hungry human being, unless he has himself consciously decided to die. Hunger, which forces an honest person to reach out and steal (‘When the belly rumbles, conscience flees’). Hunger, which compels the most unselfish person to look with envy into someone else’s bowl, and to try to painfully estimate what weight of ration his neighbor is receiving. Hunger, which darkens the brain and refuses to allow it to be distracted by anything else at all, or to think about anything else at all, or to speak about anything else at all except food, food, and food. Hunger, from which it is impossible to escape even in dreams—dreams are about food, and insomnia is over food…” He goes on to speak about how some desperately hungry men, “jealously watching their competitors out of the corners of their eyes, stand duty at the kitchen porch waiting for them to bring out the slops in the dishwater. How they throw themselves on it, and fight with one another, seeking a fish-head, a bone, vegetable parings. And how one [of them] dies, killed in that scrimmage. And how immediately afterward they wash off this waste and boil it and eat it” (The Gulag Archipelago, III, 7).

Perhaps only a small fraction of the world’s population are in such brutal captivity, but the vast majority of the afghan_children_poor.jpgworld’s population suffers from a degree of hunger that we will never know in our own lives. How can we be content with that? How can we load up on rich food while most of the world is desperate for a bowl of rice? It is true that we cannot personally or individually solve the crisis of world hunger. But we can do something. We can give more than we think we can afford to those who work directly with the destitute, feeding and clothing and sheltering them. We can voluntarily reduce our consumption and deny ourselves that which we don’t really need. We can pray, do penance, for the conversion of the wealthy and powerful who can really change things in the world if they wanted to. St Paul says in the epistle (1Tim. 6:6-11, 17-19) that the rich are to be “rich in good deeds, liberal and generous,” for experience shows that the rich are usually much stingier than the poor, hoarding their wealth and increasing it. “Who will have all this wealth when you are suddenly taken from this world?” says the Lord in the Gospel (Lk 12:13-31). And not just taken, but ushered in to the tribunal of Christ, who will say, “I was hungry and you gave Me no food.”

Let us return to this curious Thanksgiving holiday. It is a day set aside to give thanks to God for his blessings. People have a strange way of doing that: over-indulging in food and drink, sprawling before the TV to watch parades and football games, and in general making it more of a pagan feast than a Christian one. Webster’s dictionary provides an insight here. In its definition of “thank,” we find the following: “used in such phrases as ‘thank God, thank goodness’ … to express gratitude or more often only [one’s] pleasure or satisfaction in something” (emphasis added).

So perhaps people aren’t really thanking God or anyone else on Thanksgiving. They are merely expressing their pleasure or satisfaction in their food, drink, material abundance, and recreation. I once saw a rather rude cartoon in which someone was asked to give thanks to God at a meal. He replied: Why should I thank God? I’m the one that worked to earn the money to pay for the food, and I’m the one who went out and bought it. To God I say: thanks for nothing!

Those who spend Thanksgiving Day merely expressing their pleasure or satisfaction in something would seem to have a similar attitude. But what about those who do give thanks to God on Thanksgiving? Often, after a few pious words, their celebration is indistinguishable from their pagan counterparts. Yet what if someone decided to give thanks on this day, not by eating and drinking a lot, but by serving the poor in a soup kitchen? Some people do just that. What if someone decided to give thanks by visiting the sick or elderly shut-ins? Some people do that too. What if someone gave thanks by reconciling with an estranged friend or relative? Some people do that. What if someone gave thanks to God directly by coming to worship Him in church and participate in the ultimate act of thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist? Some people also do that. What if still others gave thanks by quietly and patiently accepting the cross of loneliness, illness, or some heavy responsibility? Some do this too, but all of these truly grateful people constitute a small minority of the people of our wealthy and self-absorbed nation.

If we have food and clothing, says St Paul, we shall be content with that. And Jesus says not to run after even these things, since the Father knows we need them, and He will be glad to supply them if we seek first his Kingdom, get our priorities straight. We have to learn how to give thanks even when there isn’t an abundance of material goods, because Thanksgiving isn’t meant to be only about that. It has unfortunately come to mean that, in a society that worships more at the altar of Mammon than at the altar of the true God, but we are supposed to be giving thanks for more important things first. “Though the fig tree blossom not, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food… yet I will rejoice in the Lord, in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).

Do we thank God for the gift of faith, without which we cannot be saved? Do we thank Him for protecting us from countless evils and dangers, for giving us angels to guard us, and saints and our heavenly Mother to intercede for us? Do we thank Him for the Scriptures and the Sacraments, by which we come to know and love Him more, and to become more deeply united with Him? For the monks and priests, do we thank Him for the high calling and special graces of our monastic consecration and/or priestly ordination? Do we thank Him for sparing us the lot of many who have turned against Him, for there but for the grace of God go you and I?

And how do we thank Him? Just a simple, “Thank you, Lord,” followed by “please pass the turkey”? Or do we thank Him with the way we live our lives, with the time and effort we take to do our very best in our prayer and work and relating with others, in order to please God? Do we thank Him by willingly and patiently accepting and offering penances and the various hardships or demands that belong to our commitment? Thanksgiving isn’t merely a matter of words or feelings, it is a way a life. Our life isn’t long enough for us to adequately respond to all the graces God has given us, but we should at least try to avoid all those negative attitudes or behaviors that mark us as ungrateful and selfish people, who get upset at some slight or snub or unpleasant experience, while those who really are suffering in the world give thanks to God for the smallest blessing. When I read about how those who live in places that are constantly ravaged by natural disasters which leave them in perpetual destitution—when someone donates some food or clothing to them, they give thanks to God and continue to persevere in trust, while we, with too much of everything, complain over the smallest things.

So let us learn to give thanks with our whole life, making it clear by the way we speak and act that we are a faithful and grateful people. Let us be content with what God provides and seek first his Kingdom, as at least the beginning of a worthy response to his goodness to us. We won’t be able to solve the world’s problems, but let us, when the Lord returns, be found doing our utmost to minister to the hungry and needy Christ, wherever we may find Him. And let us approach the spiritual banquet of the Holy Eucharist, and offer our lives to Him who offered his life for us. So many people “give thanks” by indulging their appetites. Let us give thanks by wholeheartedly worshiping and serving the Lord our God.

The Great Entrance of the Mother of God

Today we celebrate the feast that is known in the Byzantine tradition as the Entrance of the Mother of God into entrance-of-mp-oy.jpgthe Temple. Many saints of the Old Testament, and a few of the New, have entered the Temple in Jerusalem, but we don’t have feast days for any of their entrances into the Temple. What is it about Our Lady’s entrance that makes it special enough to merit a solemn feast day?

I think we have first to understand what “entrance” means in her case. It’s not simply a matter of stepping over the threshold into the building. Thousands of people, both good and bad, have done that in past centuries, with no special effect or fruit of it, outside of what God might have done in a hidden manner in their souls. But Mary’s entrance has a deeper meaning. Let us look at the word “entrance” not so much as a simple moving from one physical place into another, but rather in the sense that one would, for example, enter a monastery.

When someone says, “I’m going to enter a monastery,” he doesn’t mean: “I’m going to pass through the gates, attend a few services and then leave.” He means: “I have discerned a divine calling and so the monastery will henceforth be my home, the place where I make my lifelong commitment to the Lord. I am becoming a member of the monastic community.”

Tradition has it that the child Mary did stay in the Temple for an extended period of time, though she did not make it her permanent home. But for her to enter the Temple still carries with it a similar meaning to one who is entering a monastery. This was a response to a divine calling, her unique election as the one who would be the indispensable instrument of God in the incarnation of his Son. At the age of three, she would not have understood this, but her parents were moved by the Holy Spirit to consecrate her to God from the very beginning, and so God took over. This entrance was a declaration, a hidden manifestation—how’s that for a paradox?—of a divine mystery. It is hidden because no one really knew at that time what was happening on the mystical plane as that little girl was ushered into God’s holy place. But for us who have the hindsight of faith and tradition, we see a girl manifestly entering the Temple—a girl who was chosen from all eternity to be the Mother of God. Her presence in the Temple declares this truth.

So this was the beginning of a commitment, a life of service to God. From this moment on she can truly be considered the Handmaid of the Lord, something she grew to understand more deeply until she was finally ready to offer her unhesitating “yes” to the Father when the moment came for the Son of God to become the Son of Man. Perhaps when the Angel was with her she reflected briefly on her past: her study of the word of God, her humble service, her prayer and worship, and yes, maybe even that day of her entrance into the Temple, which was perhaps the first time she had begun to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the things of God. In any case, conscious of her total commitment to God, her membership in his chosen people, and her faith in Him whom her heart loved, she was able to completely surrender to his will.

But at the moment of the Annunciation, she most likely did not know all that his will would demand of her. She did know she was taking a serious risk in allowing God to impregnate her without the aid of a husband. She knew very well that she could be stoned to death, being suspected of adultery. But she couldn’t have known what she would suffer as she would stand by the Cross of this Son whom she was now welcoming into the world with such tenderness and love.

So there’s something else that we can say about the entrance of Mary into the Temple. It was kind of a “Great Entrance,” as we have in the Divine Liturgy when the prepared gifts are brought to the altar to be consecrated. The bread and wine are placed on the altar, and the deacon says to the priest: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” These are the words that Mary would hear from the Angel. Perhaps as Mary entered the Temple and was received by the priest to be consecrated to God, the Angels were already singing prophecies in Heaven: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the Child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

It is not Mary, however, but Christ who would actually be sacrificed on the altar of the Cross. He is both the High Priest and the Sacrificial Victim of our redemption. But Mary’s entrance into the Temple is like her bringing the gifts to the altar. She herself is consecrated as a sacred vessel for the Holy Mysteries, and she would provide the bread and wine, that is, the flesh and blood of Christ, by giving birth to Him, and this flesh and blood would be the Sacrifice that would save the world.

A priest cannot celebrate the Holy Eucharist without bread and wine. The Son of God could not die for our sins without the Incarnation, without a human body and blood to offer in sacrifice. So Our Lady’s “Great Entrance” into the Temple is the moment in the long Liturgy of Salvation History that points directly toward the Incarnation, which in turn points to the offering, the sacrifice. Before Mary was present in the world, the mystery of the Incarnation was still something remote, something that could only be hinted at in prophecy. But once she is here, it is clear that the plans of God will soon be concretely realized, that the time of fulfillment is at hand—it is only a matter of a few years before our Redeemer would Himself appear in the flesh, visible to the eyes of all.

We should consider all this as we celebrate the feast. The provisional revelations of the past were about to give way to the definitive and eternal revelations. The Temple in Jerusalem would soon be destroyed (and to this day it has not been rebuilt), but God had prepared a holy and living Temple for the Incarnation of his Son—Mary, the Maiden of Nazareth, the Handmaid of the Lord, full of grace from her conception but publicly consecrated to God from the age of three, from the time of her entrance into the Temple. In turn, the body of her Son would become the indestructible and eternal Temple. When Jesus spoke of raising up the Temple in three days, St John comments that He was speaking of the temple of his body. So even though He sacrificed his body on the Cross, since the time of the resurrection He is forever in immortal glory, and He calls us to join Him—in the mystery of his sacrifice as well as that of his resurrection, for one cannot expect the glory of the resurrection without first enduring the pain of the cross.

At every Divine Liturgy we perform the Great Entrance: the gifts are brought to the altar to be offered to God, to be transformed into the sacrificed Body and Blood of Jesus. Let us also enter the Holy of Holies, at least in spirit, and let us offer ourselves as gifts prepared for sacrifice, ready to be united to the Lord in the mystery of his death and resurrection. We eat his sacrificed body and drink his shed blood, so let us not shrink from the cost of discipleship, the cross that the lovers of Jesus must carry.

Let us ask the Mother of God to enter with us, to strengthen and encourage us as we make our offering to the Lord, as we strive to live out the consecration we have already made and should renew in some way at every Holy Eucharist. The Holy Spirit will come upon us and the power of the Most High will overshadow us, as we come with Our Lady to the altar of God, the God of our joy. And we too shall become, as St Paul reminds us, temples of the living God.

The Tormented Atheist

Atheism is becoming popular these days, if media exposure and book sales are any indication. There have always been those who have denied the existence of God, but nowadays it is actually becoming fashionable. Or rather, atheism’s high-profile promoters are giving what seems to be a legitimate excuse for disbelief to those who don’t really want to bother with God but would like a better defense than sheer laziness or self-indulgence.

It’s a rather complex issue, however. There are sincere, thoughtful atheists, and there are arrogant, bitter and disingenuous ones. The main difference between the two is that the former arrive at their conclusions honestly and philosophically (even though they are in error) and the latter promote their agendas with chips on their shoulders and with ill-concealed contempt for believers. That is because the latter are not really presenting an irenic and honest argument for the non-existence of God; they are instead coming out with a wildly-swinging attack on religion, which is quite a different thing.

God allows the possibility of denying Him, for He wants us to come to Him in faith and freedom, not by force of overwhelming and irrefutable evidence, which would make us grudging believers at best. So He leaves some room for doubt, which sincere seekers can overcome, and which the insincere do not wish to overcome. Pascal wrote: “If [God] had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightning and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him… but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him… There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition” (Pensées).

sartre.jpgNot all atheists (and perhaps very few of them) are actually at peace with their unbelief. For many it is a torment, and they wish there was a God, only they can’t seem to find enough evidence to embrace Him. The famous atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once exclaimed: “God does not exist—the bastard!” The anger behind this comes more from disappointment and sadness than from arrogance or contempt for believers. He apparently wanted God to exist, wanted there to be more indisputable evidence, but couldn’t bring himself to believe. (I read some time ago that Sartre did come to a sort of rudimentary faith in God shortly before he died, to the shocked dismay of his colleagues). So there is often a struggle going on in the souls of atheists, which can become a fruitful one if there is the slightest opening to grace. One author even goes so far as to say: “Misery has the virtue of stripping the individual of the comforts and security which insulate him from God’s grace. Atheists, through their unhappiness, may paradoxically be nearer spiritual reality than smugly contented believers” (Dr Robert Moynihan, “When God is Absent”).

Many sincere believers, though they may struggle mightily at times with the incomprehensible mysteries of God, still usually have sufficient faith, so that God’s very existence is not the major issue they contend with. However, it cannot but be that way with atheists. Their very self-definition is a challenge to the existence of God, and the more intelligent and sincere among them seem not to be quite at rest with this perpetual denial. Perhaps they realize somewhere deep down that the burden of proof actually rests with them. A famous atheist philosopher, Anthony Flew, recently revised his denial of God. While he hasn’t come to a living faith in the God whom we know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he has at least come to accept the existence of God as someone like Aristotle would understand Him. The accumulation of evidence in the universe is making it harder for thinking people to honestly deny the existence of God, even if not understood quite as Christians understand Him.

I think there is hope for many who say they do not believe in God. We may see, for a time, an apparent increase in those who profess atheism. As I said above, a lot of people are just looking for an excuse not to meet the demands of faith, and if some best-selling author provides a specious one, they’ll accept it simply because they are predisposed to it. They’d rather do other things than serve God anyway, so if some pseudo-authority gives them permission, they’re not likely to spend much time researching or critiquing his conclusions. But this will not last. Evil often provides an initial relief from the strain of righteousness, but it soon becomes enslaving and destructive, and it brings misery and despair instead of peace and hope. Unfortunately, many will have to learn their lessons the hard way, but God is patient and He will bring things around eventually. It’s a long a painful way back, though, once someone has strayed far from the grace of God.

So then, to echo Dr Moynihan, the tormented atheist is perhaps more engaged with the mystery of God than is the nominal, complacent, or lukewarm Christian. The very presence of a struggle in one’s soul is a sign of life. Let us pray that the Lord gives atheists no peace until their eyes are finally opened, and that He lights a fire under those Christians who ought to be giving a better example and winning grace for others! Every eye will see Him one day, and the sooner these eyes are opened, the better.

Rich in the Sight of God

The Gospel for this Sunday (Lk 12:16-21) is appropriate for the beginning of Advent (starts November 15 in the Byzantine tradition, 40 days before Christmas), for it is about detachment from material goods and pleasures for the sake of living for God. During these holy days, we strive to give our undivided attention to the Lord as we await his renewed manifestation in our midst on Christmas. But we can’t give Him our full attention if we are concerned primarily with our own needs and desires, our own pleasures, or if we do our own will instead of making ourselves available to serve God by serving our brothers and sisters in Christ.

rich-man.jpgThe general theme of this Gospel is given by Jesus in the preceding verse: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the man who had so much wealth that he decided to increase his storage capacity rather than share it with the poor. Jesus always takes the side of the poor, for the powers-that-be in this world are always against them. And He takes aim at the rich, for they either exploit the poor or simply ignore them altogether.

Now we rarely find in the Scriptures God insulting anyone (though even in this case it is but a statement of fact), but his wrath against the selfish is so great that He lets loose here on the rich and greedy man who is planning a future of ease and comfort: “You fool!” God says; “Tonight your soul is required of you.” So what is the point of hoarding all that wealth? We never know when we might suddenly die and have to account for our lives. And even if some mortal illness indicates our imminent death, most people still are not ready. I recently read that the last words of one of the medieval popes were: “Wait! Wait!” Even he didn’t feel he was ready; even he wanted a little more time to repent. But God is warning us that we might not get that extra time, that we have to live now in such a way that even if tonight our souls are required of us, we will be prepared to stand before his judgment seat.

The rich man was not, as Jesus said we’re supposed to be, “rich in the sight of God.” He stored up his treasure on earth instead of in Heaven, though Jesus counsels the opposite in the Sermon on the Mount. To lay up treasure for oneself on earth is to misunderstand or ignore the truth of the transient nature of earthly life, and the eternal nature of life after death. If we seek our own advantage or comfort here on earth, making sure we have the things we like to eat or wear or surround ourselves with, we act as if this is our permanent home and that we do not care to live for the life to come. It’s one thing to say we live for Heaven, and quite another to prove it by the way we organize our lives.

There is a story about a certain Polish rabbi who was renowned for his wisdom, and so he attracted many people who were searching for God. A wealthy man of the world came to visit him out of curiosity, having heard much about him. When the rabbi invited him in, the man was surprised to find that such a great and famous rabbi lived in one room with practically no furniture, only an austere bed and desk, and few books. “Rabbi,” the man asked, “where is your furniture?” He responded with, “Where is yours?” “Mine?” the man asked, taken aback; “But I’m only a visitor here!” The wise rabbi answered, “So am I.”

We are all only visitors here on earth, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to live in a spirit of free detachment and generosity toward others. Our citizenship is in Heaven, and we need to live accordingly during our exile on earth.

There are a couple of other points this Gospel brings to our attention. One has to do with what is commonly called the “spirit of the world.” The rich man in the Gospel was certainly full of that, since all his efforts and his hopes for happiness were focused on the acquisition of material goods and pleasures. But the spirit of the world is not limited to greed for possessions. It can be much subtler than that, and so even some religious people who denounce the spirit of the world are in fact full of it themselves. The spirit of the world, while often manifested in greed and lust and atheistic materialism, can be reduced to one major sin: selfishness. And this manifestation of the spirit of the world can destroy the souls even of those who have physically separated themselves from the more egregious manifestations of the spirit of the world.

We have said around here sometimes: “You can take the monk out of the world, but it’s hard to take the world out of the monk.” That is because if selfishness remains, so does the spirit of the world. It’s no use looking down on the world with all its evils if we carry the source of them in our own hearts. It is only when a person no longer thinks of his own needs but lives to serve others that that spirit of the world has left him. It is only when we renounce ourselves and take up our crosses, when we forgive others and even do penance for them, when we give them the benefit of the doubt and do not harbor grudges, suspicions, and criticisms, that we can become free of the spirit of the world. So let us not think that we are safe from God’s censure simply because we have not amassed warehouses full of possessions. He looks first to see what we are storing up in our hearts.

Another point the Gospel highlights is personal accountability for our actions. It is not a neutral or indifferent thing, what the rich man’s attitude is toward his goods or what he does with them. There’s a connection here with the theme of the parable of the talents. If someone is given much, he is expected to produce much, and to use the fruits of his labors to benefit others and to glorify God.

In today’s degenerate society, excuse-making has taken the place of accountability. There’s always someone else to blame for our own failures, there’s always some reason we are not responsible for our own actions, there’s always some excuse why we failed to obey God’s commandments. This resistance to accountability is another reason why many people in recent decades have ceased going to confession. They can’t bring themselves to an honest accountability; they can’t admit they’ve done something wrong. So they make excuses, they don’t call “sin” what God calls sin, and they somehow think they can sneak past that all-seeing Eye without the benefit of repentance and absolution. But it is a very serious error and delusion to think that we are not accountable for our actions, that sin does not carry consequences. The rich man who was hoarding his goods and living comfortably was quite content. There’s no indication he felt any sense of accountability for his selfishness, and he obviously had no fear of God, so God called him a fool.

I recently began another reading of the Letter to the Romans, and I noticed what we are called to, right in the first few verses of the first chapter. We are not called to the foolish selfishness that merits condemnation. But we are, first of all, “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” This is the foundation of our whole spiritual life and our hope for Heaven. To be called to belong to Jesus Christ is to be, in St Paul’s words, “set apart for the Gospel of God.” This being “set apart” is one of the meanings of the word “holy” or “consecrated.” That is why Paul goes on to say that we are also “called to be saints.” To be a saint, that is, to be one who is set apart for the sake of the Gospel, is also to be set apart from the spirit of the world, set apart from self-centeredness, greed for possessions, lust for pleasures, and the general organizing of life around our own perceived needs or desires. To belong to Jesus Christ is not only to enjoy the blessings of his grace and mercy, but also to be accountable to Him, for He has a specific plan for each of us. He gives us the necessary grace to carry out his will, so if we don’t, we have no excuse before Him. Those to whom more is given, of them more will be required.

So, as we begin this time of sharper focus on the mystery of the presence of Christ in our lives as we look toward the celebration of his holy nativity in the flesh, let us make sure that we are living in such a way that if this very night our souls are required of us, we won’t be compelled to cry out, “Wait! Wait!” Let us lay up treasure in Heaven through faith and virtue, through prayer, confession, and Holy Communion, so that when our souls are required of us, we will simply and confidently say, “Now, Master, you may let your servant depart in peace.”

God Gave Them Up

I noticed something rather striking in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans. After extolling the Gospel as the power of God for salvation to all who have faith, St Paul begins to describe the wrath of God against the wicked, those who refuse to accept the Gospel and who act in evil ways. There’s a recurring refrain in these descriptions: “God gave them up…”

The Apostle gives the basic reason first: God can be known through what He has made, but people do not honor Him or give thanks to Him. Rather, “by their wickedness they suppress the truth.”

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…” This “dishonoring of their bodies” comes from “exchanging the truth about God for a lie” and thus “worshiping and serving the creature instead of the Creator.” This is the first stage of spiritual and moral degradation. This was the beginning of the fall of Adam and Eve as well. God hamedusa.jpgd told them the truth, but they exchanged it for the lie that the serpent told them, so by that very fact they ceased worshiping the true God. But things get worse.

“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions”: women having sexual relations with women and men having sexual relations with men. Once the truth of God is exchanged for a lie, the degradation gets worse and the evil more perverse. The farther one goes from the truth of God, the closer one comes to Hell.

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.” The Apostle presents a long list of “all manner of wickedness” that follows upon suppressing the truth and refusing to honor God and indulging in sexual excesses. He concludes this lamentable litany with: “Though they know God’s decree that those to do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.”

Evidently things have not changed much in the past 2000 years as far as the tendency of fallen humans toward idolatry, lust, and “all manner of wickedness.” God reveals his truth to us, through the Scriptures, the Church, and the Saints, but we see today, perhaps more than ever, that people wish to exchange the truth for a lie and to follow their own desires in rebellion against God. We see it in politics, social agendas, the general trend of disregard for traditional morality, and even in some of the churches. Has God given them up, so that they become “futile in their thinking” and “their senseless minds become darkened”?

That is not God’s will, but if people freely choose lies over truth, selfishness over sacrifice, lust over chastity, etc, then they will “receive in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” This is something that is built into reality. It is not a punishment administered externally by a vengeful God. If we are created to act in a certain way—a way which will produce the fruit of righteousness unto eternal happiness—but we act in a contrary way, it just won’t “work,” everything breaks down, and chaos and destruction result. It’s the nature of things in this world, like it or not. Even with simple material devices, warranties are invalid if the products are not used according to their intended purpose. For humans, sin is not our intended purpose, so God’s guarantee of salvation (for the righteous) becomes invalid for unrepentant sinners.

But to say “God gave them up…” is not the same thing as saying “God gave up on them.” God will never cease calling us to the truth, never cease offering us his grace and mercy, never cease providing all the means necessary for salvation. This world is God’s world—despite what people have done to it—and He wants to save it. No one is predestined to Hell, and God desires the salvation of all. It is up to us not to exchange his truth for a lie, for then He will have to give us up to our own disordered desires, which spell destruction, even before the final judgment.

Let us take the word of God seriously and not fall for the myriad lies repeated endlessly by the media and by various lobbyists, authors, and politicians—repeated so often that we begin to believe them simply because everyone seems to be saying the same thing. We listen to the word of God, not the propaganda of a debased culture. Only then will our hope be secure for the life of everlasting joy that God has prepared for those who love Him.

Preparing for Holy Communion

I wonder if somechalice-set.jpgtimes we don’t reflect sufficiently upon the holiness of the Eucharist and thus do not prepare properly to receive the Lord. We need to both repent of our sins and to become aware of the greatness of the Gift. The following is a series of short prayers from the Eastern Church which are meant as a preparation for Holy Communion. You’ll see that every now and then we also ask Our Lady to help prepare us. Perhaps you will find something here that you can use to help dispose yourself to receive more reverently and fruitfully this grace flowing from Christ’s all-holy and perfect sacrifice. We approach the Holy Mysteries of the Son of the living God. May we always do so in a manner pleasing to Him and beneficial for our souls!

O compassionate Lord, may Your holy Body and Your precious Blood become the Bread of everlasting life to me, and the healing of manifold diseases.

Defiled as I am, O Christ, by unbecoming deeds, I am not worthy of the communion of Your most pure Body and divine Blood. Nevertheless, make me worthy thereof.

O you most blessed Bride of God, the good soil which grew the untilled Wheat that saves the world, grant that partaking thereof I may be saved.

O Christ, Master, give me those tearful drops which cleanse my heart’s impurity, that with a pure conscience, I may approach with faith and reverence the communion of Your divine Gifts.

O Lover of Mankind, may Your most pure Body and divine Blood be for the remission of my sins, for the communion of the Holy Spirit, for life everlasting, and for estrangement from passions and afflictions.

O you most holy table of the Bread of Life, which for mercy’s sake came from above and gives new life to the world—grant that I may now, unworthy as I am, taste thereof in faith and live thereby.

O most merciful One, when You took flesh for our sake, You were willing to be slain as a lamb for the sins of men. Wherefore I beseech You, cleanse me also from my sins.

O Lord, heal the wounds of my soul and sanctify me wholly, and grant, O Master, that I, a wretched man, may partake of Your divine and Mystical Supper.

O Lady, propitiate in my behalf Him who was born of you, and preserve me, your supplicating servant, pure and undefiled, so that by receiving the spiritual Pearl I may be sanctified.

As You, O Christ, foretold, so let it be unto Your unprofitable servant, and abide in me, as You promised. For lo! I eat Your divine Body and drink Your precious Blood.

O God and Word of God, may the live coal of Your Body be to the enlightenment of my darkness, and Your Blood to the cleansing of my defiled soul.

O Mary, Mother of God, honorable tabernacle of Sweet Fragrance—make me, by your prayers, a chosen vessel, that I may receive the sanctification of your Son.

O Savior, sanctify my mind, my soul, my heart, and my body, and prepare me, O Lord, to approach uncondemned Your awe-inspiring Mysteries.

Grant that I may be rid of my passions, increase in Your grace, and be confirmed in my life by the communion of Your holy Mysteries, O Christ.

O God, O holy Word of God, wholly sanctify me now approaching Your divine Mysteries, through the supplications of Your holy Mother.

Turn not away from me, a wretched man, O Christ, Master, as I now receive Your awe-inspiring Mysteries, Your pure Body and Your precious Blood. Let not my partaking thereof be to my judgment, but to everlasting and immortal life.

O Christ, Fountain of blessings, may the communion of Your immortal Mysteries now be to me light and life, freedom from passions, and for my progress and increase in divine virtues, that I may glorify You who alone are good.

Grant that now approaching Your immortal and divine Mysteries in trembling, longing, and piety, I may be delivered, O Lover of Mankind, from passions and enemies, and from every affliction, distress, and sorrow, and grant that I may sing to You: Blessed are You, O Lord God of our Fathers.

O you God-favored one, who above comprehension bore the Savior Christ, I, your impure servant, desiring now to approach the most pure Mysteries, pray you, who are pure: cleanse me from all defilement of flesh and spirit.

O Christ God my Savior, grant that I Your despairing servant may become now a partaker of Your heavenly, awesome, and holy Mysteries, and of Your divine and Mystical Supper.

Seeking refuge in Your loving-kindness, O good Savior, I cry unto You with faith: abide in me, and let me also, as You promised, abide in You. For lo! trusting in Your mercy, I eat Your Body and drink Your Blood.

I tremble in taking this Fire, lest I should be consumed as wax and grass. O awesome Mystery! O the loving-kindness of God! How is it that I, an earthly creature, partake of the divine Body and Blood, and am made incorruptible?

O taste and see that the Lord is good, who for our sake was made like unto us of old, and once for all offered up Himself as an offering to His Father, and is now forever slain and risen, sanctifying the communicants.

O Master, let me be sanctified in body and soul; let me be enlightened and saved; and let me become Your dwelling through the communion of Your holy Mysteries, having You, O most merciful Benefactor, living in me, with the Father and the Spirit.

May Your Body and Your precious Blood, O Savior, be as fire and light to me, consuming the substance of sin and burning the tares of my passions, and wholly enlightening me, that I may fall down, worshiping Your Divinity.

O Lord who were born of the Virgin, turn away from my transgressions and purify my heart, making it a temple for Your most pure Body and precious Blood, and cast me not away from Your presence, O You who have mercy without measure.

(Adapted from Divine Prayers and Services of the Catholic Orthodox Church of Christ, Rev S. Nassar)

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